Monthly Archives: June 2016

Saving Love

I woke up early last Sunday to pack for an overnight trip to rural Connecticut where I would be officiating at an old friend’s wedding. As I threw my stuff in a bag, I thought, “How lucky am I to be convening this ceremony for David? Still friends after 46 years?!”  I reviewed some of the many stories of shared experiences – lots of laughter, benign hijinks, close calls, and gratitude: for friendship, for loyalty, for resilience in the face of time’s relentless push to the exits.
I drove off smiling, remembering the good old days. I approached the 128 toll on the Pike, my heart filled with nostalgia, and casually turned on the radio to NPR to get the first news of the morning. Which is when I first heard about Orlando.
The incongruity of heading off for a simcha, a joyful celebration, while this story of hate and blood and death unfolded, felt utterly overwhelming. How do I keep smiling as the death toll continues to rise? How do I choose what to say now? May I make the jokes I’d had in mind? Can I tell sweet stories about the bride and the groom in the face of the carnage? I know our tradition forbids us to do anything that would sadden the bride and the groom; but how do I honestly acknowledge reality?
Before the bride and groom were at the chuppah, I said the
following to the gathered guests and family members. “Like me, you may be feeling a kind of emotional whiplash; thrilled to be outside on a beautiful day to witness two adults daring to try marriage again – and bereft that so many innocent people were murdered early this morning in a twisted act of hatred and pure malice. How do we go on? Why do we go on?
“It behooves us to thank the bride and groom for their invitation that places us here together this afternoon. Were it not for them, it’s likely that our day today would’ve been spent indoors, in sorrow, watching TV reports repeat over and over and over the same stories told from the same angles.  The bride and the groom remind us at just the right time that there is love in the world. They remind us that complete hopelessness is forbidden, that despair leads to dissolution. Their love ennobles us all.”
I don’t know if that made it ok for the guests to celebrate in the midst of the darkness. It soothed me, though. By pointing out the terrible paradox, by acknowledging the awful juxtaposition of such good and such evil, I somehow granted myself a cosmic pass to say “l’Hayyim!”, and mean it.
But I’m tired. I’m running out of words that cannot approach the depth of loss in Orlando – or Newtown and Charleston and Aurora and on and on… What word is after horrific? What word is after heartbreaking? I’ve run out of words to describe my outrage over a gun lobby that holds sway over feckless politicians. I’ve run out of words for the frustration I feel in my gut when even the president of the United States is powerless to stop the madness. I’m tired of vigils that start and end in tears and leave us with little more than wax on our hands. I am sick of the bloodshed. Sick of the anemic response to the slaughter. Sick of the regularity of these killing fields.
And yet…
My favorite Hasidic master, Nachman of Bratslav, warned his followers against despair. Pirkei Avot enjoins us to avoid cynicism. Jews are not allowed to give up. Elie Wiesel said,  “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, we can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers.”
In a quote that’s been all over the Internet, Tennessee Williams wrote, “The world is violent and mercurial – it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love – love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
God help me – help us all – to keep living with, and saving, love.
Shabbat Shalom,

A Letter to Judge Persky

I don’t know Aaron Persky, the now infamous judge from Santa Clara CA, who gave Brock Turner, a 20-year-old Stanford student, a 6-month jail sentence for raping a 23-year-old woman. I have never met Judge Persky. Palo Alto public defender Gary Goodman, says that ” Judge Persky is a kind, gentle soul — very well considered and bright.” He graduated from Stanford. He once coached men’s lacrosse. He’s spent much of his career prosecuting sex crimes. And he’s touted himself as a defender of battered women. He served as an executive committee member of the Support Network for Battered Women, and he received a state award for civil rights leadership. Judge Persky ran unopposed this week for another  6-year term in the Superior Court.

Given these essential facts, and given Judge Persky’s seemingly clear, respected acumen, how can a man make such a colossal blunder? There is no question about what happened. One day in January 2015, at around 1 a.m., two male Stanford graduate students from Sweden who were riding bicycles spotted Turner, then a 19-year-old freshman, on top of a woman behind a Dumpster outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity house on campus. The graduate students could see that the woman wasn’t moving. When they got off their bikes to intervene, Turner tried to run away. They stopped him and called the police. The victim, a college graduate who was 22, was “completely unresponsive,” according to the authorities. She was taken to the hospital, where she woke up about three hours later.

Earlier in the evening, she’d gone to a party at the fraternity with her sister, a Stanford student. Turner was also there, and they each had several drinks. The victim’s blood-alcohol level was about three times the legal limit when it was tested. At some point during the party, she blacked out, and in the hour or so before she was assaulted, she made incoherent calls to her boyfriend and her sister (who’d left the party), which she couldn’t remember afterward. She also couldn’t remember what happened between her and Turner. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and he told the police that though he was drunk, he could “remember everything,” according to the police report, and that he’d “consciously decided to engage in the sexual activity with the victim,” digitally penetrating her and then thrusting against her with his pants on. He also said she “seemed to enjoy” it.

Turner’s father wrote to Judge Persky, asking for leniency:  “[My son’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. The fact that he now has to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life forever alters where he can live, visit, work, and how he will be able to interact with people and organizations. What I know as his father is that incarceration is not the appropriate punishment for Brock.”

I suppose some fathers would beg a judge not to incarcerate their guilty sons, that they’ve learned their lessons, that they will behave differently forever after. But the very fact that Mr. Turner claims groping and penetrating an unconscious woman is nothing more than “20 minutes of action” is appalling. Perhaps it gives us more insight than we care to have into Turner family ethics.

A California jury found the former student, 20-year-old Brock Allen Turner, guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in state prison. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, a champion swimmer who once aspired to compete in the Olympics — a point repeatedly brought up during the trial.

I don’t have much to say to Brock Turner or his dad. Another privileged white man has squeaked by the judicial system, avoiding serious time. Father and son have dehumanized the victim, blaming alcohol as the actual culprit. They played the system, which, let’s face it, always has gone easier on white men of privilege.

To Judge Persky, I would say thus: Your honor, as the father of 3 daughters and 2 sons, and grandfather of 2, as a Jew, I find your sentencing to be ethically indefensible. Your cavalier attitude about the pain and suffering the victim has endured as opposed to your deep concern for the “steep price” Turner has paid for his actions is utterly ludicrous. Our tradition mandates that we first and foremost attend to the needs of the victim. It further teaches judges that:  You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality. (Deut 16:19) And yet you have done just that.

You looked at Brock Turner as a fellow Stanford student, an archetype of the California kids from your own student days: blonde, athletic, and rich. And you came to his rescue. You could much more easily relate to him than to the passed out unconscious girl behind the dumpster.

Judge Persky, you insulted the only victim in this case, the unnamed female who was raped and assaulted. In your haste to mitigate the “severe impact,” incarceration would have on the rapist, you looked away from your prime directive: justice.

I tried to discover whether or not you have daughters, Judge Persky. I couldn’t find out, even though I’m a good Google researcher. I wanted to know because I can’t imagine a father of a daughter would find it so easy to minimize the violence done to the victim in this case. So let me say that fathers worry about their daughters every day. We worry that they will be safe, that no idiot man will catcall, or humiliate them. We pray that they will know their limits when out on the town. We pray that if they’ve had too much to drink that some slimy drunk won’t grab them and take advantage of their state. I’m the father of 3 grown women, 3 responsible, bright and fun women. And I will worry about them every day of my life. I will worry less about my sons because I know that this kind of crime is not in their makeup. But I will reassert that like the 2 Swedes who rescued the victim and subdued the rapist until police came, as mensches who witness such behavior they are obligated to do something.

When a judge like you rules to shield a man of privilege who thinks being drunk gives him carte blanche to rape, handle, finger, grope or kiss women because we live in a culture of booze and drugs and sex, then I worry more. You don’t give permission. But you don’t slam the gavel down and throw Turner behind bars for a few years anyway. Your bio claims you worked with women who were victims of domestic abuse. How does your knowledge base from that world not lead you to do justly?

Judge Persky, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do here. Can you apologize for a miscarriage of justice? Can you call a mistrial? You were just ushered into another term on the Superior Court. Would it not be a time to step down, to acknowledge that you made a terrible error?

What you do is your call; yours and the voters of Santa Clara. As a rabbi, as a father and grandfather, as a naïve believer in the possibility of justice in this nation, Judge Persky, it is time for your atonement. Anything less besmirches the damaged life of this victim and the millions of women who have suffered the indifference and open ridicule of the American justice system on every level.

Reasons for Hoping

Today was the last Friday Shabbat experience for this year’s TBA Early Learning Center students. I looked at them sitting in the sanctuary seats that sometimes swallow up the smallest kids if they scoot back too far. In a few years, they will easily master that adult space. But for now, it’s awfully cute.
These children and many before them have achieved a certain level of Yiddishkeit. They know prayers and stories and Hebrew words. They can tell you about holidays. They can describe Jewish foods they’ve prepared together.
The sanctuary is not foreboding space. It is not terra incognita. The sanctuary welcomes them in immediately. It is their space as much as it is their parents’.
We are no longer using the tools of fear to overwhelm our children into behaving a certain way. We are removing so many of the stale and stiff obstacles that have served as barriers to finding a sense of intimacy in sacred temple space. The children are invited into the sanctuary.
As a child, I was taught to fear rabbis. In fact, if I have this memory correctly recalled, I was taught to fear all men in authority. I purposely use the term ‘fear’ and not respect. Because respect implies a sharing of the soul, the true recognition of a relationship fueled by empathy and mutuality.
If as a child you were inculcated with a certain level of fear, how did it work for you? Did it make you a better person? More sensitive? More successful?
The Judaism of our children is enriched, super-charged. And it flows with a deep abiding love of all people. There is no room to foster fear. It’s all about building bridges, not walls.
I looked at our crop of kids this morning, and I saw such enormous potential. It’s a mad world; this is certain. But today I saw reasons to keep hoping. I saw Jewish souls filled with love and confidence. What blessings!
Shabbat Shalom