I testified at two committees of the New Hampshire legislature on bills to change or repeal our new "divisive concepts" law -- Senate Judiciary and House Education. I said essentially the same things at both hearings. Here it is, video and my written statement (they are the same).
Mr. Chairman and Honored Representatives: Thank you for your service and for this opportunity to address you. I am Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. I live and work in Nashua, and I am the father of three children who are students and grads of our Nashua public schools. I myself have been a high school teacher of American history and literature, and I currently serve on our state’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. I come to speak to you in strong support of HB 1576.
This country saved the life of my family and my wife’s family, from the tyranny of the czar and the genocide of Hitler. I am a proud American and a religious person who says a blessing over freedom whenever I vote – and on voting days and occasions like today, I wear those commitments together on my body, above my head. I feel that my own group’s history obligates me in gratitude to be a civic leader in this country, and I carry responsibilities as a member of both a religious minority and the white majority.
Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to create from scratch a course for juniors about America in place of the usual AP history and literature out of that sense of obligation. I was working at a private Jewish high school, and together with a colleague, we set out to give our students interdisciplinary tools to look at American history and culture, and to look at themselves as critical citizens -- connected critics, to use the terminology of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Perhaps this was natural for us as Jews, a group of whom so many have lived the “American Dream” and a group so often the targets of violence and discrimination even in this country. But what we did in that school was to prototype a concept with application far beyond our specific group and private school setting.
I am proud that the alums of that course have become those connected and critical citizens – doing work in everything from our national defense and intelligence, to representing the underrepresented before our Supreme Court. Facing all of our story as a nation, in an honest and questioning spirit, only fueled their engagement and their intense dedication to our country, their resilience to keep working on problems especially in times of crisis from 9/11 through now.
How will we motivate our public school students to locate themselves as creators of a more perfect union? How is it possible to draw lessons about the dynamics between one’s ideals and group pressure, if you don’t learn about three-fifths compromise and sit in shame and embarrassment, as well as understanding of political strategy? How is it possible for our students to learn about the inner challenges of actual leadership, what it’s like to sit where you sit where we hope they will one day -- unless they can probe Thomas Jefferson in both his idealism and his cowardice? Why bother reading Thoreau if we don’t allow students to take seriously his indictments of the nation and even of his own friends? How can we study Twain without asking whether he was lampooning the racism of his time or swept up in it?
Sometimes as teachers we have to make sure that a perspective that was or is in our history, that is so opposite of what a patriot teachr like me would ever want to entertain or say out loud, is made vivid and alive in class so students know what’s at stake – slaveholder, or Stalinist -- so it can be addressed in the safe and trusting container of our classrooms.
If the creators of divisive concepts laws such at the existing one are concerned about America lapsing into an unpatriotic socialism – well it is the hallmark of socialist dictatorships to write laws that hide their implications behind innocent sounding words, in order to sow doubt about whether you or someone else is breaking the law, and to create a situation where an official or another citizen can take legal action against you or just threaten to do so. Which is exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and elsewhere with such laws.
Members of my Jewish community have lived under such laws in our lifetimes in other lands, and that’s why they came here. I have had conversations with people running for school board or attending meetings – they are at my kid’s school, in my American neighborhood -- and there is never any actual incident of a teacher declaring that someone is “inherently racist” or that America is. There is only “I have heard of a few times”; “no, I can’t tell you the name of a school” and “I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” That is what the current law is, and it sure doesn’t sound like the American Constitution to me.
If that is not how you intended the current law, then consider my remarks to be teacher comments on an essay whose thesis was confusing and needs a rewrite. If you are serious about education for a proud and patriotic American citizenship, not just for diversity but for a difficult unity -- and I hope that you are, then show you are serious, by getting engaged with the fine work of our social studies leaders and our civic education thinkers. Pump more substantive standards into our system and invest in the resources and training for our educators around critical citizenship and a true patriotism. And in the meantime, get these words out of our current laws and pass HB 1576. Thank you for your time and I am happy to respond to any questions.
Posted at 09:19 AM in #integratingamerica, 9/11, Antisemitism, Books, Community Relations, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, Freedom, History, Holocaust, Hope, Immigration, Inclusion, Interfaith Dialogue, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Study, Taking Sides, Teacher-Student Relationship, Tikkun Olam, Tzedek, USA, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
That's me right after a conversation of about half an hour last night with a few members of the Proud Boys, who have become an unfortunate fixture around meetings of Nashua's Board of Education. Knowing they would be there I could not stay home. This is my family's school, and my community, and people I know who are being harassed by them.
A few thoughts:
I was prepared, if the controversy about "critical race theory" was brought up in the Board of Ed meeting, to make a speech based on what I think democratic education is about. I have a pretty good speech, if I say so myself -- it's not the usual stuff, I think it's original, and I'll publish that at some point or maybe use it at the next Board of Ed meeting. I left the meeting inside pretty quickly because I'm not ready to be inside with a group that way. So I don't know what happened after I left, and I have to catch up.
Why did I bother with this? I wasn't going to change anyone's mind. But more and more, I think that when a group like the Proud Boys projects themselves, the important thing is to meet them not just as protestors, but as "I am the reality here." I can feel a change here in town; I could feel it in my body. My heart was not in any way pounding, as it usually is in these situations. That's because of this coalition that is coming together here in Nashua with confidence and dare I say love. It's the early days and it's not a uniform coalition who agree on everything when it comes to justice. Usually, the handful of times I've talked to activists like the Proud Boys I leave feeling frustrated and like I didn't come close to doing my part well. This time I knew I had the better of the argument, and they were far more tired of talking to me than vice versa.
Why did I bother? This makes me stronger and sharper. It tells me that the time I have spent slowly getting to know more people from religious and cultural groups outside my own is in fact making a difference. There are answers to some of the divisive questions today that are not just compromises or safety valves. I am proud to be in the mix, which is all that I am, and I would be proud to bring any of you who are local along with me.
I just finished the first version of a new page on my site, which I'm calling simply "USA". It has sources and mostly my own reflections about American politics, racial justice, anti-Semitism, and political leadership. I will be updating it with the best links I want people to know about, and anything good I generate as well.
It feels healing particularly today to look back on things I have written, said, and done out of my faith in this country and its politics. Rather than focus only on today's troubles, I am trying to be drawn toward MLK Day.
This was my opening invocation for the annual Southern NH Outreach for Black Unity Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast on January 21, 2019.
I am so honored to be invited to join you for some opening words today. My name is Jon Spira-Savett, and I serve as rabbi for the Jewish community in our area through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. I’m a member of the executive board of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council and one of its recent past presidents, and it’s because of that network that I have met many of you.
Rev. King is one of my own most important religious teachers. I call him Rev. King because though he was Dr. King, a scholar and theologian, he was a pastor and a preacher and a teacher, for his own communities and for my community, the Jewish community of America.
Rev. King’s voice in our nation, and his many visits to synagogues and rabbinic conventions, inspired and mobilized people in the Jewish community, from college students to older rabbis. He inspired many in the Jewish community to march with him in Alabama, to travel down to Mississippi in that Freedom Summer, to work the pressure points in Congress for civil rights. There is even a story of a rabbi or two running into a Midwestern Senator at the airport in 1964, just by chance, quote-unquote, having been tipped off about where to find a man trying to hide out and to remind him there was no hiding from a vote for justice.
And the last interview of Rev. King’s life took place at the national convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, just ten days before he was taken from all of us. There Rev. King spoke a verse from the prophet Amos that you have heard from him many times: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
and righteousness like a mighty
Rev. King had preached those words in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and he had written them to send to religious leaders from his cell in Birmingham Jail, and he would preach these words of Amos again the night before he was killed, in Memphis. In front of the rabbis Rev. King didn’t preach them, he said them soberly, as quiet as he had ever said them, as he was in a tough time – let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
What was it about these particular words from Amos? I could read you fifty other equally beautiful verses about the virtue of justice, the glory of righteousness. But these words.
First of all, Rev. King was saying that justice is a power as natural as gravity, which just pulls the water down from the mountains into any place that is not already raised high. Justice is built in; it’s the hardware of our system. Just as gravity can take something small, and the longer it moves down, the more force it gathers, the harder it is to stop – so too justice can take any single person, any group no matter how small, and make them unstoppable.
In the verses before this one, Amos was talking about the so-called power of oppressors, all the work they have to do to twist justice, to feast on bribes, to take what they have not earned, to look away from the poor and drive them out of their community. The hard work it takes to look so pious and religious, when you are complicit in so much injustice.
Amos is saying: That so-called power -- that’s what’s unnatural. That kind of power is a wearying power, a power that spends itself and takes us constantly away from the Divine and from one another.
So why does that power seem so real? Because the verse from Amos really says that justice swells like waters -- like a rolling wave at the edge of the sea, like the piling up of the waters at the bottom of a waterfall – and behind that surge is an emptiness, an undertow, until the next wave. A depression where the so-called power of the so-called powerful can slip in.
So when Rev. King spoke about justice rolling down like waters, he meant that we have to get down from up high where we see things so clearly but we are smaller than we could be, and we have to roll together and make ourselves more powerful. We have to plunge down together so we can surge together, and we have to keep grouping up and keep on coming, to leave no time after one wave of justice until another, no lull that makes it easier for the other so-called power to just slide in there. When I said yes that I would presume to stand in front of you and say some words, it is because I wanted to tell you that I am tired of being a small wave and seeing small waves, and I want to be with you and roll and surge together. Let justice roll down like waters.
And as for the mighty stream, there is only other place in the Hebrew Bible where that particular phrase occurs and it will knock you out. It’s in a remarkable law in the book of Deuteronomy that happened to be the text at my Bar Mitzvah, so I’ve never forgotten it.
Deuteronomy talks about the case of a dead body found in a field between towns, and no one knows who is responsible. The elders of each of the surrounding towns are required to measure from the body to the edge of their town. Whichever town is closest, the elders of that town have to take a pure young calf, one that has never pulled a yoke, and bring it to a mighty stream that has never been worked or tilled – a stream that is mighty only during the rainy season, when it gushes with water from the heavens that overflows onto terraces and fields, and the rest of the time is just the memory of a mighty stream, or the hope for one to come.
And there the elders wash their hands and sacrifice the calf, and they lead a call and response. The later rabbis of my tradition say the gist of what they say, back and forth to each other, is this: We, the leaders of the town closest to here, we swear that this man did not pass through our town without anyone noticing. We swear that in our town it’s not possible that no one offered him a place to stay, or a meal to eat, or protection when he was ready to leave and go out into the dangerous world. For if we had failed in any of those ways, then it would be as if we had killed him ourselves, and his blood would be on our hands.
This particular mighty stream was hiding in the background every time Rev. King preached from Amos. It’s the stream where the elders of the city go down together to ask: Have we been responsible for every person, every single person – or have we washed our hands and just pretended that our righteousness is flowing like a mighty stream?
Have we been responsible for every person we don’t know personally, but we know she is here, he is here, yet still isolated from the rest of us, and we let that be all right?
Have we been responsible for education in every school, have we been responsible for dignified housing in every neighborhood, have we made it clear that no one can be bullied or harassed by another kid or by someone in authority because of how they look or how they speak, or where they were born, or who and how they love?
Have we been responsible not just to run after problems righteously, but to build the community that can sustain and love every person who passes our way?
Maybe we are the elders who ought to go down to the river, to the mighty stream that runs just a few hundred feet from here, maybe every year right around Martin Luther King Day, and see who else is there and ask these questions.
I believe Rev. King would say to us that the very same stream, the same place, can be a place of sorrow, or it can be flowing mightily with righteousness. All it takes is for us to be those leaders who gather there, who between us blend the wisdom of elders who have seen it all, the sweep of history and the big picture, with the freshness that comes from seeing people one at a time in dark corners. The mighty stream is a place for leaders who come for rituals that rivet us, and words that drive us, with measuring sticks of analysis and loving eyes. The mighty stream is a place for all of us, and not just on this one day a year.
Let justice roll down, like waters
and righteousness, like a mighty
These are words to hear preached in hope; and these are words to say soberly in difficult times. There is a hydropower in justice, and it is time for us to generate it together, to harness our power together.
Holy One of love and mystery, known to us by many names, or by no name at all – we pray that we will be blessed by the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us how to be sisters and brothers, to be colleagues and teachers for each other in justice and righteousness, to be the leaders we need with each other and for each other. Amen.
You’ve probably heard over and over that Chanukkah is a “minor” holy day. Something we make a big deal about especially in modern America – something especially for Jewish children in a Christmas-saturated environment.
It’s true, Chanukkah is no Passover. But in fact, it’s not a new thing, this question about how significant Chanukkah really is. In fact, the Jewish religious authorities in the time of the Talmud were anti-Chanukkah. At a time when Jews were under the thumb of Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian emperors, the rabbis were none too keen on celebrating an uprising against imperial power. They managed to wrestle Chanukkah down to just a couple of paragraphs in the sprawling Talmud and left pretty much a single story about divine light, the cruse of oil in the Temple that lasted eight days.
In fact, Chanukkah has always been about the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the majority culture, its values and its forces. That’s in fact what the original events were all about. So it’s worth taking an adult look at the Chanukkah story.
The events of Chanukkah took place in the period of about 180-160 B.C.E. This was about 150 years after the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon, who brought the Land of Israel into the cultural and political world of Hellenism.
In many ways, Hellenism was the American culture of its time. There was a language, Greek, that spread to become a common language through much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Hellenism was a dominant world culture. Its positive elements included philosophy, art, and international trade. All of these linked people together across a large proportion of the world, and brought prosperity and material advancement. The negative side of Hellenism included a worship of the physical body and a focus on beauty and strength above other values. Pagan values that at their worst crushed human values.
The Jews in the Land of Israel, as well as those in exile all around the Mediterranean Sea, were deeply influenced by Hellenism. Each regional Jewish community faced the question of how much to adapt to Hellenism, whether to assimilate completely in part, or whether to remain separate. Some Jews were ready to give up Judaism entirely as archaic and irrelevant. Most tried to integrate the new culture and ideas, and many leaders tried to enrich Judaism with the best of Hellenism.
It wasn’t a one-way street. Because the Hellenists valued learning and culture in general, some non-Jews learned about Judaism and decided that it was a kind of pure philosophy, a truth without all the trappings of pagan gods and rituals. About a century after Alexander the Great, who himself had been a student of Aristotle, the Torah was translated into Greek. According to a legend written around the same time as the story of Chanukkah, a Hellenistic emperor in fact commissioned a Greek version of the Torah. He thought his library would not be complete without it. He invited scholars from Jerusalem to be his guest in Egypt, threw them a kosher banquet, and treated them like respected Greek philosophers!
Meanwhile at the Temple in Jerusalem, there was corruption among the kohanim, the priestly leadership of the Jews. The Temple was not only a religious center, but a power and financial center as well because of the gifts and offerings that people would bring. Ambitious people among the priests were vying for authority over the Temple. Some tried to curry favor with different imperial officials, by offering political support or outright bribes.
Just like today, the Land of Israel was situated geographically at a military and economic crossroads. Just before the events of the Chanukkah story, the land changed hands. When Alexander died, his empire had been split in half, ruled from capitals in Egypt and in Syria. Initially the Egypt-based rulers controlled Judea, and they were on the whole tolerant of the Jews. But then the Seleucids, the “Syrian-Greeks” we know from the Chanukkah story, took over. Even then, the situation of the Jews did not change right away.
A new and crazy emperor, Antiochus IV, came to power in Syria. He believed that he was himself a god. He ordered the takeover of the Temple in Jerusalem and banned key Jewish practices. Some of the historical sources say that he took advantage of the weakness of both Jewish society and the officials beneath him. Others say that the Jewish assimilationists actively invited his intervention and his decrees.
The group we know as the Maccabees came to lead the revolt against Antiochus. They were themselves kohanim, but separate from the corrupt priests of Jerusalem. Their family name was Chashmonai (“Hasmoneans”); their patriarch was Matityahu (Mattathias) and his sons included Yehudah (Judah).
They believed in Jewish distinctiveness, but they also believed in some modern adaptation to Hellenism. So for instance, during their three-year revolt that begin in 165 B.C.E., they made certain decisions that were not so traditionally Jewish. They decided fighting on Shabbat was permitted in order to save lives. Their battle plan had some of the same features that the modern Israel Defense Forces would use in 1948 and 1967.
When they finally drove out Antiochus' forces, the Maccabees led both a traditional religious revival and a new approach to Jewish culture and power. They instituted a new annual festival, Chanukkah, but based it on the Sukkot festival that had gone unmarked in the Temple in the prior years. (That's initially why Chanukkah is eight days; the story of the oil came hundreds of years later.) They installed themselves as kings, even though they were not descendants of King David. Their leaders were known by both Hebrew and Greek names.
For me, celebrating Chanukkah reminds me that these issues of politics, value priorities, war, corruption based on money, and majority-minority relations are not new things. The candles remind me that light has to be shed on these matters, all the time.
The candles, against the darkness, are a symbol of the dedication and integrity it takes to keep our eyes open and to find and hold our moral center of gravity. The candles also remind me that Judaism could have been extinguished, could have burned out against all the political, military, economic, and cultural forces of that time. But it was not –Judaism bounced back, renewed and even began to reinvent itself.
In recent years, I’ve come to understand that the real miracle is that someone thought to store away a cruse of oil in the first place. Not in a literal sense. Someone knew there could be a time when the light of Judaism entirely, or our individual lights, would seem like they are running out. Someone knew we would encounter times individually when we feel that the tank is just completely empty, and we would need a reminder that we are still here, and that there is more light to find.
Our ancestors didn't run away from the challenges of identity and moral compass that they faced. By standing up, and passing down their story, they hid away a spark that we can find and then expand. Into the dedication we need, to do what's right and to define our place as Jews in the wide world.
So Chanukkah is not just a children’s story. It resonates for us in America today for all the same reasons it has resonated since the days of the Maccabees. Maybe it’s not Passover, but Chanukkah is hardly minor.
Chag Urim Same'ach – A Joyous Festival of Lights!
Post 1 today after George Floyd's killing. This one isn't the main point. More to come.
I was thinking about the president’s posing with a Bible last night after his speech, as I said my brief morning prayers while wearing tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes with little scrolls from the Torah inside them, attached to leather straps that wrap around your nondominant arm and around your head in a literal implementation of Deuteronomy 6:8. Trying to get the words into your arm and into your head, by spiritual osmosis. When you take off the tefillin, they leave an imprint on your arm for a while, like when you sleep on the wrinkle of a sheet and then look in the mirror (also your hair, I’m not putting that in a photo).
I don’t keep my tefillin on for very long each morning, not nearly as long as those who say a full service. And this was one of the hardest practices for me to take on for a variety of reasons. I wear the tefillin that belonged once to my great-grandfather and that I got refurbished in the Old City of Jerusalem. I have my tefillin on long enough for me to say the Shma (passage from Deuteronomy 6) about the oneness of the divine, love of God through heart and soul and action, and seeing Torah as new every day, the language I should use to speak, and the lens for “sitting in my house and going on my ways.” Then I say a brief part of a prayer that evokes the Exodus, the part that recalls the divine as one who lifts the lowly and humbles the arrogant and redeems those who call out, and that quotes the song of the first moments of redemption and freedom from Exodus 15.
And even so, with the imprint of all this on my body, it is hard during the rest of the day to be and to appear like someone who was wrapped in the Bible. It’s required in my tradition every day, with the exception of Shabbat and festivals when we hope the very air is so Torah-filled that we don’t need the extra help. It doesn't really "work" just once in a while.
So how dare anyone make a show of holding the Bible at arm’s length, standing on the *outside* of a house of worship he has demanded that people be allowed to enter inside as a national priority. Show me that something has made an imprint on your arm, at the very least. Then I will believe it has anything to do with your actions. Then I will believe you are, in your words, "pay[ing] my respects to a very, very special place."
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
This was my column in the December 2019 bulletin for Temple Beth Abraham:
I love Chanukkah. I love the row of chanukkiot, the special menorahs, set up by the window for each member of the family. Just the simplicity of light and then a bit more light every day, with a bit of color, and before you know it the difference between one candle for each and eight. Hope, lights kindling more lights, a simple melody for blessings with voices of different ages.
What I have really come to love about Chanukkah is that the story itself is actually about having a holiday when other people are having another holiday. That’s not a new thing, an American thing, even a Judaism-and-Christianity thing. It’s way back at the beginning. Chanukkah, like Purim (stay tuned in a few months), is the festival about us.
The simplest Chanukkah story is about King Antiochus outlawing Judaism and defiling the Temple in Jerusalem, until a band of Jewish priest-warriors said no, fought a battle for four years, drove out the king’s forces and purified the Temple. A story of religious freedom instead of tyranny, and self-determination in our land, and miracle.
Around that story is another story, and it’s longer. It starts in the 300s B.C.E., with Alexander the Great. He led a military campaign through the Middle East and established an enormous empire from Europe to Persia to Africa, including the Land of Israel. His conquests also brought a culture, the Greek-infused Hellenism that changed the language people spoke as well as art, architecture, athletics and ideas.
Jews, both in and out of Judea, wrestled with what it meant to live in a Hellenistic world. In the century or so after Alexander the Great, the Jews in Egypt translated the Torah into Greek, a version that is known as the Septuagint. They didn’t speak or know very much Hebrew and needed a Torah in their own language.
One of my favorite ancient Jewish stories is a legend about the writing of the Septuagint. The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates is a Jewish text that invents a different origin for the Greek version of the Torah. The Letter of Aristeas says that the Hellenistic emperor in Alexandria, Egypt, heard that there was a book he was missing for his great library of all the world’s wisdom: the Torah.
In order to complete his library, he would need it translated into Greek. So he sent for a group of seventy scholars to come down for Jerusalem, and he threw them a kosher banquet. This story, written by a Jew in Greek, even presents the scholars as though they were excellent Greek philosophers!
By the time of Antiochus and the Maccabees, a lot of Jews were wondering whether they needed Hebrew, or even Judaism (much of it's opening chapters are different than our version, another story). There was social pressure to become like other people. Even the Jerusalem priests took on Greek names, like we generally have English ones. There was a fierce debate within the Jews of the time about how much to integrate with others, and how much Hellenism to integrate into Judaism.
So while Antiochus was a madman and a tyrant, his rise was also the catalyst for getting all of this into the open. In fact, one of the oldest historical books we have about Chanukkah spends most of its time talking about these debates among Jews, about our relations with others and about how much Greek culture to bring into Jerusalem.
Even the date of the start of Chanukkah is connected to these themes. We celebrate beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. The 25th of the final month of the solar year was, in the surrounding cultures, a pagan holiday already. Both Jews and later Christians took that festival of light period from others, and made it a symbol of our own lights. In the very act of claiming that day as our own, we remember that Jews of the time battling for their own culture.
The Hellenistic world that was Alexander the Great’s legacy is an analogy for our world, particularly for the Jewish community in America. So it’s absolutely right that we end up presenting ourselves to others, to the majority, at this time of year – explaining things, being ambassadors, talking about what connects us through the winter festivals and what is unique about us.
So embrace that. Be Chanukkah. Get ready when people ask you about Chanukkah and Judaism. Be ready with more than “Chanukkah isn’t our Christmas” -- your favorite thing about being Jewish, your favorite mitzvah or custom or story or idea. Your story of why and how you are Jewish in this modern-day version of a Hellenistic world.
Then you’ll be the candle that lights another candle. You can be a candle of pride that shines, and a candle that lights more understanding among other people who look at us, as we glow uniquely at this time of year.
Chag Urim Samayach – A Joyous Festival of Lights,