Isaac and Abraham: Reimagining Synagogue Activism When Values We All Hold Dear Are Imperiled

Parshat Chaye Sarah
November 26, 2016—25 Cheshvan 5777

            In 1965, in rural Louisiana, a man named Lee Sherman got a job at a chemical plant named Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which manufactures paints, chemicals and coatings. Over the course of 15 years working there, Lee Sherman would become only too painfully aware, based on his own personal experience, of the damage done to people and the environment caused by toxic chemicals.  He had two different jobs which made him an expert in this field.

            He worked with pipes which carried toxic chemicals.  One day there was an environmental accident, and a poisoned chemical shot through the pipes and drenched him, incinerating his clothing instantly, burning large parts of his body, and leaving him with lifelong medical challenges, like being unable to bend his knees.

            He was also given a second job which was to be top secret. It was to be done after dusk, when no one could see him.  He was to dump chemical waste into a body of water called the Bayou.  The fumes were so thick that, one day, a bird flying over the water when he discharged the waste fell instantly from the skies into the water.

            After 15 years, Lee Sherman was fired from his job for what his supervisors called absenteeism. Namely, he had to take time off to see doctors to deal with his injuries.

            Roll the film forward.  The waters of Louisiana are notoriously contaminated.  In the late 80s, the level of contamination got so bad that the state government in Louisiana issued regulations limiting the fishing industry. This caused great controversy, as fishing is a big industry in Louisiana.  At a public hearing, Pittsburgh Plate Glass’s lawyers said they had no idea where any contamination came from, if there were contamination at all.  The public meeting was jam-packed with angry fishermen who felt that their livelihood was imperiled by these government regulations.  But then something dramatic happened to change the meeting.

            Lee Sherman, long ago fired by the chemical company, came in holding a large cardboard sign that read, in big, bold, block capital letters:  “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU.”

            In the years since he dumped the toxic waste, Lee Sherman felt bad about it, wanted to do teshuvah for it, and he became something of an environmental activist.

            Here is where it gets really interesting. Lee Sherman has no love for chemical companies. He regrets his own role in toxic dumping. He cares for the environment.  But as much as he hates contaminating the environment, there is one thing he hates even more: the Environmental Protection Agency.  He hates the EPA so much that Lee Sherman volunteers for a Tea Party candidate named John Fleming whose signature idea is to eviscerate the EPA. 

            A sociologist at Berkeley named Arlie Russell Hochschild calls Lee Sherman’s move here the Great Paradox.  Louisiana would benefit from federal resources and expertise, cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier citizens, but many in the rural parts of the state so despise the federal government that they would reject federal resources and expertise to their own detriment.   And the question is, why?

            From 2011 to 2016,  Hochschild spent five years talking to the citizens of rural Louisiana to hear their story, to listen to their concerns.  These rural citizens are overwhelmingly Tea Party supporters who voted for Donald Trump.  How do they see the world?

            She shares what she learned in a book that just came out called Strangers in Their Own Land.  If you want to understand the election, if you want to understand the red-blue divide, if you want to understand the difference between Newton and rural Louisiana, if you want to understand our nation, this book is required reading.

            Hochschild’s answer to the Great Paradox is what she calls the Deep Story.  The Deep Story is how these rural Tea Party voters see the world.  These are Hochschild’s words, based on their stories.  It goes like this:

You are patiently standing in a long line for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years.  You are male. There are people of color behind you, and in principle you wish them well.  But you’ve waited long, worked hard, and the line is barely moving.

Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!  You’re following the rules. They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back.  How can they just do that? …Some are black.  Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities…welfare payments and free lunches…Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end?  Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with…

And President Obama:  how did he rise so high?  The biracial son of a low-income single mother becomes president of the most powerful country in the world; you didn’t see that coming.  And if he’s there, what kind of a slouch does  his rise make you feel like, you who are supposed to be so much more privileged…How did he get into an expensive place like Columbia University?  How did Michelle Obama get enough money to go to Princeton?  And then Harvard Law School, with a father who was a city water plant employee?  You’ve never seen anything like it…The federal government must have given them money.

            Hochschild shares this Deep Story with these citizens of Louisiana, and they say, yes, that is our life.  There are makers and takers. The makers are the hard-working white people they know.  The takers are the blacks, the Muslims, the Mexicans, the women, the minorities.  And the federal government takes from the makers and gives to the takers, encouraging them to cut in line.  That is why they hate the federal government.  That is why they want no part of the EPA.

That is why they feel like they are Strangers in Their Own Land.  Line cutters have squeezed them out of their own country.

            Hochschild attends Trump rallies in Louisiana, which she describes as an experience of communal religious ecstasy.   Trump got their Deep Story.  He got their feeling of being marginalized, disrespected, squeezed out.  He channeled their outrage at line-cutters.  Trump rallies were filled with “elation, ”  her term, because thousands of white Americans who had felt like strangers in their own land were going to take their country back, and they felt a “high,” her word again, in being together in such numbers, and in hearing the promises of their appointed messenger, our president elect.

            I found particularly helpful Hochschild’s distinction between facts and emotions.  She attaches charts and graphs and appendixes to show that in fact the white citizens of Louisiana were not squeezed out by Mexicans, Muslims, women, or blacks.  Rather, they were victims of automation, technology, and globalization.  Think about the guy who used to collect tolls at the Mass Pike who no longer has a job at the toll booth because of automation.  But those facts pale in comparison to the resonance of the emotional truth that they were waiting patiently in line, while the federal government encouraged line-cutters—even if this did not in fact happen.

            Now what does all of this have to do with us?  The people in our congregation who voted for Donald Trump do not buy into the Deep Story of the rural south.  This book does not describe our shul, but it does describe a big part of our nation, especially the part that we never see and don’t usually think about.  If we learned anything from this election, it is that we need to see the people we don’t usually see.

            This is no ordinary time for our nation, in at least two ways.  First, the election was of unprecedented bitterness and ugliness, and while the election is over, and we do have a new president, our president, Donald J. Trump, we also have a divided nation.  How shall we deal with the fact of our divided nation?  At the rally at the State House this week, one speaker observed that usually after an election the losing side is sad.  After this election the losing side is scared.

            The losing side is scared because there has been an undeniable uptick in incidents of hatred.  At the rally our Attorney General, Maura Healey, shared that in the week since a hot line had been opened to report incidents of hate, about 400 people called in. 

            How shall we respond?

            Our Torah reading gives us two very different models.

            We could be like Abraham, who is all about getting out of his comfort zone, and engaging with the pain and the mess of the real world.   He engages with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines.  He wages a war against kings to rescue his nephew Lot.  He concludes a treaty with the priest of Jerusalem.  Last week God tells Abraham his mission, and ours, is laasot tzedakah u’mishpat, to do justice and righteousness.  Abraham promptly obliges by arguing with God to save the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.  If we are going to be like Abraham, rural Louisiana is our problem too.  That is very complicated.

            After the election, there were two possible narratives. Trump won because of economic stagnation. Or Trump won because of racism.  It turns out these narratives are commingled.  The citizens in rural Louisiana in Hochschild’s book are economically frustrated, and legitimately so.  For them, the American dream has been dead, and that is an urgent problem that we had not seen that we need to see and respond to.

            And it is also true that racism is an ineluctable part of how the citizens Hochschild interviewed see the world. They see a natural hierarchy, a natural economic and social order. Whites on top. Blacks on the bottom.  If blacks are ahead of whites, that is line-cutting in their view.  And to call that what it is, that is racism.

            If we are an Abraham synagogue, Louisiana in all of its complexity is our problem.  That is painful, and difficult, and no ready solution is at hand.  We’re just a shul in Newton.  So do we have to go there? Can we not go there?

            Hashem in his mercy gives us another alternative. This morning’s reading gives us Isaac.  Isaac lives within his own daled amot, his own community, his own comfort zone.  He never leaves Israel. He never goes to Egypt. He never engages with kings and potentates.  Rather he is lasuach basadeh.  The phrase is ambiguous.  It could mean that he was praying in the field.  Or walking.  Or schmoozing with friends. Or planting shrubs.  All of these actions are decidedly local and non-political.  If we follow Isaac’s path, we stick to prayer, or community building, and let others do the politics.

            I happen to love the Isaac model.  I am an Isaac rabbi.  For the most part we are and have been an Isaac synagogue.  Yes, there have always been people at Temple Emanuel energized by social action, but so much of what we do around here is Isaac, not Abraham.  Tomorrow night’s concert is Isaac.  Shabbat Alive is Isaac.  All of our services every day of the year, we pray, we are lasuach basadeh, is Isaac.  My Shabbat morning Talmud class is Isaac.  Going to Israel to study at Hartman, having Hartman scholars like Rachel Korazim last week and Micah Goodman next week, are all Isaac.

            For twenty years, I have loved Isaac.  But now Isaac is not enough.  I believe that in this moment we need to add an Abraham voice.  We need to become an Abraham synagogue too. I need to become an Abraham rabbi too, which is significantly outside of my comfort zone. This week, for the first time in my 20 years as a rabbi, I went to a rally.

            Now there has been an understandable reluctance at Temple Emanuel to talk about rallies. To talk about current events that could be described as political.  Shuls are about bringing people together.  But nothing drives people apart like the political issues of the day.

            Every day my inbox is a miracle.  I get angry emails from people on the left who say Temple Emanuel is so Republican. It is so far right. It is the Republican synagogue. And angry emails from people on the right who say that our shul is so leftie, so liberal, so anti-Trump that they don’t feel comfortable here.  They voted for Trump, and they don’t feel at home in their own shul.

            But what is at stake here, what is at stake now, is not politics or partisanship. Not Hillary or Trump. Not red state or blue state. Not 70 30.   If it were, I would not be bringing it to our shul. 

            What is at stake here are values we all hold dear.

            This past week, there was the story of the Jew, can you believe in 2016, in Massachusetts, I am talking about the Jew?  There was the Jew who was a visiting professor at Harvard.  He received hate mail which referenced the Holocaust board game, the point of which is to get all the Jewish markers off the board.  The kill all the Jews Holocaust board game. This week. Five miles from here.  That’s not a 70 30 thing. That’s not a partisan thing.  That is all of our problem.

            It’s all of our problem when Jews are harassed because we are Jews.

            It’s all of our problem when blacks are harassed because they are blacks.

            It’s all of our problem when Muslims are harassed because they are Muslims.

            It’s all of our problem when a Sikh wearing a turban is attacked because the harasser thinks he is a Muslim.

            This is not a partisan issue.  This is a Genesis issue.  This is about human dignity.  This is about the Torah’s first and most important teaching. That we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

            This core Jewish value is under attack now, and we need to respond by becoming an Abraham shul.

            What does it look like, to become an Abraham shul?

            The truth is, I have no idea.  This is all new to me.  There is no playbook for this.  But we will figure it out together.  I keep thinking about Heschel’s teaching about the difference between descriptive and indicative.  Descriptive tells you what to do. It gives you a seven point plan. We don’t have a seven point plan.  Indicative points the way.

            We do have indicative.  At the rally, Darnell Williams, the head of the Urban League in Boston, said that at times like this, decent people need to show up, to stand up, to speak up.

            When it was a scary time for Abraham, with the innocent at Sodom and Gomorrah about to be destroyed, he showed up, he stood up, he spoke up.

            When it was a scary time for blacks in the sixties, they did not have civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel showed up, stood up, spoke up. They prayed with their legs.

            It is scary time for us now. What will we do?

            The values we all hold dear are precious. They are fragile. They are at risk. And they are in our hands.  Shabbat shalom.