The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Thursday, October 6, 2016

New year, new blog

From 2010-2016 I blogged here, but I've shifted to my own personal website, which includes a blog.

Click here to be directed to it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's on us: racial tension and policing

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parashat Chukat
July 15, 2016

In this week's parshah, we find the Israelites in the desert doing what they do best — complaining. This time, they don't have water. So they bring their grievance to Moses. “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die! We wish we'd never left Egypt!”

One can maybe forgive, or at least understand, Moses’s overreaction. He's fed up. So in anger he strikes the rock to make the water flow. The problem was, God had told him just to take his staff and assemble the people at the rock — not to hit it. Moses uses excessive force, and God sanctions him harshly — no Promised Land for him. It seems unfair, for such a misstep. But then again, do we not hold leaders to a higher standard?

This episode jumped off the page for me this week, though it's going to take me a moment to explain why. Our country is reeling from violence by and against police, by racial tensions boiling over, by the deliberate and vicious murder of 5 Dallas police officers — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens — who were doing their jobs by keeping watch at what started as a peaceful protest against police bias and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. 

Being a Facebook junkie, I have been inundated with media, both social and mainstream, about what lessons we should learn or who is to blame or why this group or that group is racist or hateful or reverse racist (whatever that means). One message pierced through the noise and hit me hard. I heard it in the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown. 

Now before I share that message, Chief Brown’s background matters. He is a black man, and the steady and visionary leader of a police department that has been working hard to get it right. With him at the helm over the past six years, his department has reduced the murder rate dramatically. They have also seen a 30 percent drop in assaults on officers and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police, as well as a reduction in excessive force complaints by 80 percent. And then there’s his personal story. Six years ago, only weeks after he started in this role, his mentally ill son killed a civilian and a responding police officer before being fatally shot by police. To hear Chief Brown extend his condolences to the bereaved families while also mourning his own son — it is too heartbreaking to comprehend.

Chief Brown's message after the Dallas shooting was so important that Pres. Obama made it a focus of his own speech at the memorial for the five slain officers. Here is what Chief Brown said:
Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let's give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let's give it to the cops to solve that as well.
Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.
We ask the police to do too many jobs, and then we’re surprised when things go wrong. In addition to public safety, for which they put their lives on the line every day, we ask them to be social workers, mental health professionals, drug treatment specialists, social safety nets for homelessness and poverty. 

Why? Because we have failed to live up to our responsibilities as citizens. We have failed to create communities that take care of— to put it in biblical terms — the widow and the orphan. We have failed to invest in infrastructure, mental health, drug treatment; we have failed to make the promise of a good education available to every child, and the promise of a good job to everyone willing to work for it. What kind of society criminalizes addiction, homelessness, depression — instead of treating and caring for them?

We laugh effortlessly at the Israelites, who looked at their problems and longed for those good old days back in Egypt. Egypt! The place of slavery! Look closer and we are laughing at ourselves. How many of us pontificate about the good old days when parents disciplined their kids and people respected cops, before ISIS was a threat? You know, the good old days when racial segregation was legal and Jews were barred from clubs, businesses, industries; when the Shoah killed 6 million Jews and WWII killed tens of millions of people… The “good old days”? Are we serious? 

The Israelites look at the challenges they face in the desert as free people, and they whine—freedom, they're starting to learn, means responsibility. They could have said: Hey, there's a water shortage, let's work together to fix it so no one goes thirsty. But what do they do? They air their grievance and demand that their leader just fix it already! There is a shockingly fine line between enslavement and entitlement.

Is that what we've become? People who prefer the chains of Egypt to the challenge of the wilderness? Experts in outrage instead of initiative? Complaint instead of compromise?

Look what we pushed Moses to do. He's tired. He's overworked. He's sick of these stiff-necked people. All he sees when he looks out on the assembly is a bunch of complainers. Not many willing to chip in and say, I own these problems too. It's no wonder he loses his cool in a moment of frustration, anxiety, and probably even fear of the thirsty mob's wrath. He lashes out and slams the rock. Yes, he should have known better; yes, as a public servant he should rise above it all; and yes, consequences are merited when someone with power and authority makes a costly mistake. 

But that shattered rock? That's not just on Moses. That's on the Israelite complainers, too. 

That's on us.

What we can do instead is stop whining, and start working. Step out of our political echo chambers and say to those across the divide: We've got real problems here, and we all have a stake in this. You have some of the answers, and we have some of the answers, and we need each other. We are not enemies but partners.

In this valley, we are working on a project to bring together churches, synagogues, and non-profits devoted to education, health care, and community wellbeing. The vision is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic citizen coalition that will have a powerful voice in public life in our towns and valley region. The hope is to fulfill the Iron Rule of community organizing: Do not do for someone else what they can do for themselves. We want to create a community that works for everyone, because everyone works together to make it better. To those of you who consider Aspen a second home, I know there is an element of escapism in your time here, and a message like mine tonight can be a buzzkill for this adult summer camp. But I urge you to find a way, either here or in your hometown, to invest your time and resources in advancing your community. I know that most of you already do. Please don't forget that Aspen is not just your playground. It is a real place where people live, work, struggle, fail, and succeed, every day.

I hope, if nothing else, that you will pause every now and then and think of the complaining Israelites. When you find yourself tempted to say, “If only black people would…" Or, “If only the police would…" Or, “If only the President and Congress would…" — just wait. I learned recently that “WAIT” is an acronym for "Why Am I Talking?" Ask yourself: Am I trafficking in outrage? Am I whining about how it’s someone else's problem? Am I pretending like I don't bear any responsibility? 

Don't get me wrong. We need to have uncomfortable conversations about #BlackLivesMatter and racial bias in the criminal justice system, about supporting the police and pushing for systemic reform, about broken families and broken communities. But it doesn't work if you enter the conversation as a whiner, a complainer, with an it's-not-my-problem, finger-pointing, blame-laying pretense of deniability. 

Last century, during another generation’s civil rights struggle, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Moses was guilty of using excessive force, and he suffered the consequences. But we are all responsible for creating the conditions that enabled that act of violence, that shattering of the rock. Today, we are all responsible for picking up the pieces and fixing it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Out of Context: Misunderstanding the Bible" (Lifelong Learning course)

Aspen Jewish Congregation
Lifelong Learning Course

Out of Context:
Misunderstanding the Bible
with Rabbi David Segal

The Bible is the number one book that Americans like to pretend to have read. Pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli recently concluded, “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

In this course, we'll make a dent in that illiteracy by tackling some common misconceptions about the Bible. Since the Bible is foundational to our culture, it's important to know what it actually says. We'll focus on translation errors and also wrestle with some thorny interpretive problems. Our primary texts will be excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, and our textbook will be Joel Hoffman's book (see Readings, below) and selections from other secondary texts.

Seven Tuesdays, 12:00-1:45 pm
Feb 9, 16, 23; March 1, 8, 15, 22

(Across from Aspen Airport)
Room #TBA

$118 includes materials except Hoffman's book
 (please acquire that on your own; see Readings, below)

  • Introduction
    • Overview of translation issues
    • Hebrew Bible vs. Christian Old Testament: What & Why?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 1-3; Brettler, Ch. 2-3.
  • One Love, Part 1
    • The V'ahavta and the Greatest Commandment: Love God with...what?
    • From Oneness to Love: Rethinking the Shema
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 4; Brettler, Ch. 10; Wyschogrod, handout.
  • One Love, Part 2: Song of Songs 
    • Sister, Bride? Good Book, Bad Translations
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 6; Brettler, Ch. 25.
  • Shepherds and Kings
    • What Kind of Leader is God?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 5; Brettler, Ch. 12-13.
  • The Ten Commandments Explained
    • Feelings or Actions Matter?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 7; Brettler, Ch. 8.
  • Rereading Isaiah, Part 1: The Suffering Servant
    • Deutero-Isaiah's prophetic agenda
    • READ: Brettler, Ch. 20.
  • Rereading Isaiah, Part 2: A Child Born to a Virgin
    • Isaiah's prophecy of the ordinary
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 8; Brettler, Ch. 15, 17.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Other Side is Not Dumb": Can We Talk?

How about some coffee and a face-to-face chat?

We mostly live in digital echo-chambers of our own (unwitting) creation. Our Facebook feed and cable news choices filter stories and opinions that confirm our beliefs. I hear on a regular basis that Republicans and Democrats who are social friends can't talk to each other about politics. For meaningful debate and thought-provoking challenge, you have to make extra effort. It's countercultural to want to understand and learn from opponents. How sad for our democracy if that trend continues.

As Sean Blanda wrote recently, in an article entitled The Other Side is Not Dumb, the entirety of which I highly recommend,
When someone communicates that they are not “on our side” our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.
This is not a “political correctness” issue. It’s a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, and not the complicated individual human beings that they actually are.
I was reminded of this truth when I got a range of reactions to my recent column about Donald Trump's campaign. Everything from "If Trump wins, I'm moving to New Zealand" to "You're being too hard on Trump" to "Rabbi, stick to talking about Judaism." It's so tempting to fire off defensive responses by email, or join the internet comment fray. And yet, what does it accomplish?

Moreover, when I write a column – like when I give a sermon – I'm looking to start a conversation. That doesn't mean I lack a point of view. But it also doesn't mean I expect everyone to agree. Quite the contrary: one of the best compliments to a sermon or column is for someone to disagree and want to engage. I welcome that! And I'm happy to say, I've had that from several respondents.

Both President Obama in his last State of the Union and Gov. Nikki Haley in her response called us to speak from our highest ideals and listen to each other as we work to fix America together. Unfortunately, we tend to reject the possibility that people with different views than ours might be right – and we also tend to reject even the chance that they might have well-considered, thoughtful opinions that differ from ours.

In that spirit: Can we talk?

Either about my Trump column, or the presidential race, or any issue you want to bring to the table. I'll set up shop at the following times and locations listed below. I invite you to join me to argue, to question, to challenge – and also to listen and learn. I think it's what our community and our country desperately need.

With blessing,
Rabbi David Segal

  • Monday January 25, 11am-1:30pm, Bonfire Coffee, 433 Main St, Carbondale
  • Tuesday January 26, 11am-1:30pm, Victoria's Espresso, 510 E. Durant, Aspen
  • Thursday January 28, 11am-1:30pm, Saxy's Cafe, 104 Midland Ave, Basalt
  • Or by appointment, contact / 970-925-8245 x.1