Sunday, October 22, 2006



I just saw Barack Obama speak yesterday at Temple University at the campaign rally for Casey, Rendell, and everyone else in Pennsylvania (on Shabbat, no less).

I began to believe.

I was impressed. It’s not his charisma. It’s not his good looks. It’s not his ethnic diversity. It’s that the man’s got some serious communication skills. He knows how to communicate with people. It’s his three years of working as a community organizer for Gamaliel in south-side Chicago. He knows how to communicate a vision. He knows how to share his public story in a way in which people can relate – in a way that people can understand. He knows how to listen to people. After listening to him talk, you learn something about him -- how he works and how he operates – how he’s come to the decisions that he’s made. Whether or not you ultimately agree or disagree with every political position that he takes, you leave respecting his judgement and his character. I want the opportunity to help elect this man into the white house.

As a rabbinical student, studying about community organizing, and the power that it has to transform congregational life, I’ve been especially drawn to Barack Obama. This makes sense, now that I’ve found out that he was a community organizer, in the Congregation Based Community Organizing model:
For three years Barack Obama was the director of Developing Communities Project, an institutionally based community organization on Chicago's far south side. He has also been a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, an organizing institute working throughout the Midwest.
From his writings on community organizing theory, it’s clear that he understands the need for building broad-based movements, consistent with Crashing the Gate and Howard Dean’s 50-State Strategy:
In theory, community organizing provides a way to merge various strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership — and not one or two charismatic leaders — can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.

This means bringing together churches, block clubs, parent groups and any other institutions in a given community to pay dues, hire organizers, conduct research, develop leadership, hold rallies and education campaigns, and begin drawing up plans on a whole range of issues — jobs, education, crime, etc. Once such a vehicle is formed, it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations more responsive to community needs. Equally important, it enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities of acting collaboratively — the prerequisites of any successful self-help initiative.
He frames his speeches in the classic language of Ed Chambers and Saul Alinsky – setting up the dichotomy between the "world as it is" and the "world as it could be". He gives us permission to hope, to dream, to imagine that if we join together as partners, the mess that our government is now, the mess that our country has become, is not set in stone. We have the power, and indeed the obligation to change things, to set the ship aright.

His strategy is to first connect himself to others, addressing points of commonalities, and then only afterwards explaining the nuanced differences. Thereby, he leads the audience along with him on their journey to the next destination. For example, paraphrasing from his speech on Saturday:
"You know, I believe in capitalism, but you know, sometimes, the owners want to keep a little bit too much of the money … so that’s why we needed to have a minimum wage."
Obama is not afraid of who he is and who he was – he seems to be very comfortable in his own skin.
Obama does something no one else in politics does: He plumbs his own anxiety and doubt, and ties his life story to political problems that few elected officials dare to discuss so personally, including the disparities of race and class, drug abuse, poverty, and, of course, faith
He’s a human being, an imperfect person who has grown and developed. His adolescence involved periods of flirting with black power, alcohol, and drugs --- trying to come to terms with his own identity as the son of a Kenyan exchange student father and white mother from Kansas, who were divorced when he was young, growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

He struggled with the connections of faith and social justice – and the appropriate role of religion in public life:
As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, Obama had put together demonstrations and registered voters alongside Christian leaders who honored the civil-rights tradition of social change. His faith-grounded fellow activists, he explained, "saw that I knew their Book, that I shared their values, that I sang their songs." But, he said, they also "sensed that part of me that remained detached and removed, that I was an observer in their midst." He continued, "In time, I came to realize that something was missing for me as well, that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone."
He eventually, though, found his own path to faith, about which he effectively communicates to others, in a way in which others can relate:
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts. You need to come to church precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it; you need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away -- because you are human and need an ally in your difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

The path I traveled has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans -- evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at a turning point in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives them.
Exchanges like these, show that he is the candidate that has the power to connect with voters from across the spectrum:
So let me end with another interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of President Bush's foreign policy.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website that suggested that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." He went on to write:

"I sense that you have a strong sense of justice … and I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason … Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. … You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others … I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

I checked my website and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

Rereading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms -- those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own -- a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.

It is a prayer I still say for America today -- a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It's a prayer worth praying and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come. Thank you.

Monday, October 09, 2006


failure is a good thing...

from npr, "this i believe," this morning, by jon carroll. it reminded me that the typical hall-of-fame baseball player fails two out of every three times at bat over his career - 67% of the time. if only we remembered that, whenever we start judging ourselves too harshly.
Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.

Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.

Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.

I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.

I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm not even sure can be done.

My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act -- but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.

My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


there's a whale on my tail! does forced repentance really count?

without further ado, here's my my take on the book of Jonah, from yesterday, written before any of our current political scandals came to light:
Why don’t I like Jonah? Every time I read the story, I have a negative gut reaction to his character. He shirks his responsibilities, he hides from God, he endangers the lives of those poor sailors, who were just trying to irk out a living on the high seas – the poor guy just doesn’t have that many redeeming qualities. And when Jonah eventually “changes his ways” and does the right thing, it’s only done at the end of the proverbial loaded gun - which in this case was a big hungry fish.

But, is my criticism of Jonah legitimate? Am I being adequately fair and balanced in my considerations?

Now, in both Jewish law, and in American law, if I forced you to sign a contract with a loaded gun pointed at your head, and you later proved it to the court that you had been under duress, the contract would be nullified. I’m not sure though, if Teshuvah works the same way.

Is it fair for me, to criticize Jonah, for only eventually deciding to do the right thing, because he legitimately feared, that an even bigger fish -- with a less-than-hospitable stomach environment -- might be coming after him next?

When Jonah eventually does decide to go to Ninevah -- and preach the doom and gloom that God had commanded -- he was grumpy, cranky and irritable. Without a doubt, he would have much rather been at home, asleep in his bed, talking on his cell phone, IMing with his friends, watching a South Park rerun on TV, but yet, he did eventually come, and perform his prophetic duty.

If, like Jonah, you do Teshuvah - if you make atonement and change your ways – if you eventually say that you’re sorry - because you have to - because you have no choice - because someone is pointing a gun at your head - because the implications of your not doing Teshuvah, and taking this kind of radical first step, are far worse, and far more horrific than if you didn’t - does your Teshuvah still count?

Is change under duress any less pure, and less worthy, than change done without ulterior motive?

In fact, I’m not even so sure that there even exists such a thing as pure Teshuvah - such as someone who repents just because they feel like repenting. I’m not sure if those people really exist.

Take a look at the Bible. Biblical theology, especially Deuteronomy, relies very heavily on both the carrot and the stick. If you follow God’s commandments – great - blessings, rain, produce – all together good times. If you don’t – you’ve got some problems - boils, inflammation, drought, fire, brimstone – the angry wrath of vengeful deity – definitely not things that you’d want to take lightly.

Surprisingly lacking in the Bible are phrases like, “follow my commandments, because, it’s the right thing to do.” Maybe that’s because we know, based on our own human experience, that a message like that wouldn’t sell very well.

Rabbi Hillel famously said …. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself what am I?” Our challenge remains to balance acting on behalf of our own self interests, versus acting in self sacrifice on behalf of others. Neither one exists in a vacuum; each needs the other.

Self interest is not necessarily the same thing as selfishness. Ed Chambers wrote that “… Self interest is the natural concern of a creature for its survival and well being. It’s the fundamental priority underlying the choices that we make. It’s based on nature’s mandate that we secure the basic needs and necessities of life, and develops further to include more complex desires and requirements. Healthy self interest is one of the marks of integrity or wholeness in a person. It is the source of the initiative, creativity and drive of human beings who are fully alive.”

Now, I still don’t know whether Jonah was selfish or not. But his behavior does become more understandable when looked at from his own particular point of view. He was scared, his prophetic reputation was at risk, God had sent him into the heart of Assyria, one of Israel’s mortal enemies. He may not have understood why his God would be caring about them?

Ultimately, as I struggle with Jonah each year, I contemplate whether what we do, is more important than why we do it.

Our intentionality, our kavanah, is definitely important - doing the right thing for the right reasons gets us an A+. But, if we end up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, or for our own reasons, maybe Judaism gives us a C-, not as good as an A, but we still get to pass the class. And sometimes in life, that can be the most important thing.