Archive | August 2013

Bigotry – Yours and Mine

And it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, (Deut. 29:19 KJV)
This verse is read on the coming Shabbat and in many congregations it is also read on the morning of Yom Kippur. It has a context, but I am going to consider it on its own in a different context.
There is a very human tendency to exempt ourselves from dealing with ugly thoughts. We all say things in the privacy of the monologue that is our thinking that we would never say aloud, but sometimes these things do slip out. One such category is bigoted thinking.
Bigotry is judging another person on the basis of something that does not really define a person. That includes race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even something as incidental as what a person is wearing. I’ve met very few people who admit to being bigots. If I call someone on it, the response is often to defend the prejudice as being truthful. Others will just say, “I’m no racist” or homophobe or anti-Semite.

Despite the extent to which I disobey the advice of Dale Carnegie never to correct someone if you want them to like you, I cannot help myself. It is very hard for me to hear what I see as hate speech or read words of hate and remain silent. I have sometimes offended people, including family and friends doing this. So why do I breach social etiquette this way?
The verse cited above says it very well. The “curse” is bigotry. Blessing oneself despite the curse is the excuses we make to ourselves for bigoted thoughts and speech. “The imagination of my heart” is the way I justify myself to myself for what I should know is wrong. I hasten to add that I fight bigoted thoughts in myself. We all have them. It makes life easier to put people into categories than to encounter each person we meet as a unique individual. Like most of my sermons this essay is about my own struggle to be a better person. It is also meant to get readers or hearers to move away from that comfortable Shalom/well-being spot and enter the uncomfortable arena of self-doubt.

Why is this matter so important to me? It comes from a lifetime of experience.  The earliest memory I have of bigotry is going to a government office in Florida, probably the DMV, with my mother when I was six or seven years old. I was sitting in a chair, while my mother was doing whatever she went there to do and I was facing the toilets and water fountains. There were four toilets and two water fountains. I asked about that. I do not remember my mother’s exact words but I know that she did not approve of segregation and probably answered my question in a way that showed that disapproval.
My “Wonder years” were spent in the village of Skokie outside of Chicago. Several of our friends and neighbors were Holocaust survivors. Some of my friends, children of survivors, talked about the Holocaust. My rabbi, who spoke with a German accent, had grown up and been ordained in Nazi Germany. From him I learned about the Thousand Year Reich and the genocide it attempted. Meanwhile at school I faced repeated epithets like “dirty Jew.” That led to a lot of recess fights. My 5th grade teacher was an explicit anti-Semite (she would be fired pretty quickly today if she were to say some of the things I remember). There were swastikas painted on our synagogue. When I was in 8th grade a non-Jewish friend called me to tell me about a Nazi club in someone’s basement. Apparently I was already a go-to guy on such matters.
I could tell many stories about encounters with anti-Semitism and racism during my childhood. I can also tell many stories about learning to see people as they are rather than according to the color of their skin or the accent they had or where they came from. My high school had no majority group. We called it “a little UN,” because of the diversity of the student body. My friends there included African-Americans, Mexicans, Asians, rich people, poor people, immigrants, and “hillbillies.” . I loved that aspect of our school.
It did not surprise anyone who knew me that I got involved with social justice issues at a very young age. I experienced inter-faith and inter-racial programs and protested block-busting and other racist phenomena while still in high school. I met a number of people who were straight-up bigots. I learned from them too. I felt a kinship with oppressed people. I tried to understand the racists and anti-Semites I knew.

I think this came largely from my Jewish identity and experiences. The story of our liberation at Passover Seders inspired me. The Biblical prophets awoke in me a desire to work against the evils of this world. I especially admire Nathan who spoke truth to King David. When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched next to Dr. King at Selma (I was about 25,000 people behind them) he said, “I felt as if my legs were praying.” That pretty much says it.

Maybe bigoted expressions irritate a psychic wound in me. Maybe I see myself as needing to help people. Maybe…

The truth is I do not fully understand why I feel compelled to oppose bigotry at every occasion. It could be that I am overly sensitive. I know I have sometimes hurt people when calling them on these things and it really is not in my nature to want to hurt people. The truth is I would rather be wrong and apologize for it than to be right but silent.

We cannot know what goes on in someone else’s head. We can only know what goes on in our own minds. To truly do T’shuvah (repentence) we must go where no one else can go and try to make ourselves better both inside and out.

The Biblical chapter I quoted from at the start ends with this verse. The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29 KJV). It is not enough to do and say what others can see and hear according to the highest standard. That is hard. What is much harder is to make ourselves better in the privacy of our minds where only God can see and hear.


This post includes a quote from my frenemy Tony, which is part of a much longer post on capitalism, and my response.  I think the texts speak for themselves, but I will be interested in your comments.


7. Regarding the morality of profits and so called greed. It appears there is a huge amount of hypocrisy here. Somehow business profits are evil but going after a bigger salary or bargaining for the best price or price shopping or trying to sell something for the best price is somehow not being greedy. Those of you professors who wrote a book. Did you do that for free for the good of your fellow man or did you expect some return or your time and effort? Is not publish or perish to keep your job not greed? If not how is it different? What if you ran your own business? You risked all your savings and good credit and your family’s well being to start the business, worked several years at 80+ hours a week, as I found to be typical in my survey, to turn it into a profitable venture that can support your family. Does anyone really have the right to look down on you as greedy and demand the fruits of your labor on the basis that they don’t have any fruits because they didn’t bother to go through blood swat and tears that you did?? Is that what is meant by social justice? That is what a lot of you are implying. There is this disdain for the entrepreneur i.e you didn’t build that. Yet everything we were sitting on and looking at in the library ultimately came as the fruit of entrepreneurship. That so few have any appreciation of this is what I find astounding. I suppose it is a reflection of our coming demise. As said at the church state meeting, we do indeed lose our freedom when we forget our history. At what point do any of these activities really warrant the greed label?  Why is only a business profit considered greed? At what % profit margin does greed come in?  Supermarkets and Walmart operate at about 2%, is that greed? Health insurance companies operate at 2-3% is that already greed? Oil companies at 8%?   Drug companies 20% (used to anyway), some chip manufacturers at times have gotten to 50%. Do those who wail against greed even know what a profit margin means? Does not appear so.  Those who scream about the greed, what would you put in its place? Are you really so naive to believe that non profits are non profits? 


Tony asks how we (probably meaning me) would define greed.  He asked in terms of profit margins, which is the wrong measure because different scales of business require different profit margins.  That comes down to how low can you go in price to be competitive and still earn sufficient profit?  That’s a basic issue in micro-economics and a basic issue for anyone running a business.  A giant like Wal-Mart needs a far lower margin than a mom and pop store, which is why the small store has to charge more than the mega-store.  
Some do not like to bring ethics and morality into this discussion and issue, but I see that as essential.
Consider the last of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet.  Biblical commentators are disturbed by this rule.  How can you tell someone not to covet, since wanting more is built into human nature?  (The same question applies to the law “Thou shalt love…”  How can you command love?)  There is a lot of discussion about this in order to make it applicable to human behavior let alone law.
The issue is not that we might be envious of what someone else has.  Most people will feel such envy at times.  The only ones who do not are those who are by nature or nurture content.  The Talmud asks, “Who is wealthy?”  The answer given is, “One who is content with what one has.”  My observation is that I have known very wealthy people who are never satisfied with what they have and I have met economically challenged people who are content.  I have also known wealthy people who feel distress because of their wealth.  (Some of you might remember Simon and Garfunkle’s song “Richard Corey.”  I’ll paste the lyrics below my signature.)
What distinguishes normal selfish impulses from greed is this.  If one is willing to harm other people or steal from other people to get what they want, that is greed.  It does not matter whether the object of desire is the candy bar in someone else’s lunch box or an entire corporation or nation.  It is the willingness to act on these feelings that is prohibited in the Ten Commandments and, some say is the moral basis for the rest of them.  What causes people to worship something less than God; dishonor parents, violate the Sabbath, murder, steal, commit adultery, lie or swear false oaths is covetousness.
I believe that a marketplace without ethics and a system of regulations to enforce ethical behavior is an evil thing.  I think that transcends the liberal-conservative spectrum, which means I believe that those who want an unregulated market are advocating for a dog-eat-dog society without morals.  As it says in the Talmud, “Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, for without it, people would eat each other alive.”
So endeth today’s sermon.
“Richard Cory”

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

Recent Activities

It’s been a couple of months since I posted here, but today I will post twice.

I’ve been busy with good things. As probably all of my readers know, North Carolina has become a political horror show and a national joke. For the first time since 1870 Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. In 1870 the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln ad they won then because of Reconstruction. Democrats ruled the state while they were the conservative party in the South and within the Democratic Party nationally. A diverse population with a large manufacturing economic sector and therefore a lot of liberal voters.

What has happened now is probably a bump in the road but it is a very big one. Arthur Pope, a billionaire who ought to be considered the third Koch brother, financed almost two dozen state legislator campaigns and the governor’s campaign. The new governor put him in charge of the state budget and the legislature churned out 1700 pieces of legislation in the space of three months. Almost all of this was regressive and harmful. It includes an unfair tax system, restriction of voter rights, and major cuts to education (which they somehow say is beneficial for education). The state’s chapter of NAACP began a series of rallies called Moral Mondays in the state capital every week while the legislature met. My health would not allow me to make that trip, but there was plenty to do right here in Western North Carolina (WNC).

I have spoken twice to a group of local social change organizations on nonviolence. I attended the local Moral Monday (the rallies are going from city to city in the state on Mondays) which drew a crowd of 10,000 (and that is the police estimate).

I also lectured twice at a local church and led Shabbat services at a curch and synagogue librarians conference in Lake Junaluska. Most time and energy consuming of all was a panel program I was asked to organize by an interfaith group I am active in. The panel was on church-state issues and was intended as informational rather than advocacy. There was a speaker on the issues from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and four responding panelists: a Protrestant minister, a conservative lawyer, a rabbi, and a liberal local politician. I served as moderator. It took a lot of effort to put the program together and publicize it (I had help). There were at least 150 people attending and they represented a full spectrum of opinion.

All of this was very exciting but I am glad to have a period of time with little to prepare for. Although I will be presenting at a Curmudgeon’s program about a month from now on the subject of poverty.

I will create another post for today based on a discussion of this month’s Curmudgeon’s meeting which was on economic issues.