There have been far too many moments this week when it’s all been too much. I’ve had to look away from my various news sources in disgust and disbelief. I’ve even needed to tune out from my public radio station – in the middle of a broadcast! – and jump into my music to preserve my mental health.
My sense of the ethical well-being of the world has really taken a hit. Throughout the Olympics, Beijing held up a façade of welcome and serenity. Yet they simultaneously warned that anyone, athlete or commentator, who criticized China and its brutal oppression of the Uyghurs, among other human rights crimes, could be detained by the authorities. And China got away with it.
Texas governor, Greg Abbott, directed state agencies this week to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the use of gender-affirming care for transgender children, a move that follows an opinion from the state attorney general that such treatments are a form of “child abuse.” And from Florida, not surprisingly, in the same week comes the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The bill, as it exists now, stipulates that schools “may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
How is it even vaguely conceivable that such hateful and ignorant attitudes exist? And how is it possible that such drivel becomes law? What kind of nation is this, where children can be legally bullied, targeted, and marginalized?
The Reform movement is reeling after this week’s release of the Debevoise and Plimpton LLD investigation of sexual misconduct at URJ summer camps over the past several years. It was a tremendously disturbing and disheartening report to read. What a sad commentary on how men could get away with so much, even while people knew they were up to no good.
Finally, in this week’s catalog of revulsion and disbelief is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reading news accounts about Putin and his motivation to smash Ukraine is so profoundly disturbing. It’s the impunity of it all, the way Putin lies with a straight face, does what he wants, and then lies again. And all the while, the world looks on, impotent in the face of such determined aggression.
It would certainly not take much time to come up with more ethical outrage. In the face of it all, how are we to go on? What do we do or say in the face of evil and tyranny, in Ukraine and our own nation? In the world of philosophy, there’s a whole unique field of study that ponders those questions. Theodicy seeks to somehow reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil in the same Universe. Not too surprisingly, there are no good answers.
My sense of all this is that the battle between the forces of good and evil, the impulse to build bridges vs. the impulse to build walls, is ongoing. There is no satisfying answer to why people resort to malevolence vs. altruism. All we can do is examine our own hearts and do what we can to build a shelter of peace in our own home and community.
At the very least, we have to continue to speak out, to fight the numbing lapse of indifference that attacks when we’re flooded by headlines and stories that blow our minds. It’s all about being an upstander – whatever that means. And this, I think, is a profoundly important reason to be a part of our community. It helps to know that we are not individuals, alone, feeling overwhelmed by the course of events. We together stand for the freedom of others, for the protection of vulnerable souls against evil and hateful people. We are upstanders from a community of conscience and hope.
Will our outrage matter to Vladimir Putin? Does the governor of Texas care about how we stand in opposition to his twisted directives? Nope. But we’re not permitted to remain silent. We must speak from our place of conscience and Jewish tradition. Showing solidarity is not a political act; it’s a mitzvah, a religious obligation.
So I do look away from time to time. But exhausted though my soul may be, I reenter the fray. It’s that damned Hillel quote every time. If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? It’s hard to be a Jew.