During these Holy Days we have examined the power of words as part of our spiritual journey. Tonight I want to examine that the way we use words and hear words connects to our politics and to our values. I want to consider that words can mean so much more than their definition; also, that it is necessary to critically examine the unspoken messages behind the words that are fed to us.
There’s a word “Shibboleth” which you can find in any English dictionary In its various definitions “shibboleth” refers to words that mean more than they appear on their surface. Now the weird thing is that “Shibboleth” comes from a Hebrew word, shibolet, that has nothing to do words at all. It simply means “an ear of corn.”
The reason we find this word in English is a story in the Hebrew Bible from the nastiest, most violent book of the Tanach, the Book of Judges. It makes The Godfather look like Bambi. Yeah, I confess, I love this book. The stories in Judges take place before there is any king of Israel and the people are not united. In one story there is a war between two groups of Israelites – the people of Gilead versus the people of Ephraim. And it’s a war located near the Jordan River which is under the control of the Gileadites. As the Ephramites start losing the battle, many of them are running away, trying to flee across the Jordan. But as each soldier reaches the river bank they get stopped by Gileadite sentries. Now you really couldn’t tell an Ephramite for a Gileadite by just looking. The only difference is that they pronounced Hebrew a little differently. So the sentry would ask a soldier to say the word for an ear of corn. If they said “Shibolet” like a good Gileadite, they could pass, but if they said “Sibolet” then they were Ephramites and they’d be immediately killed. 42,000 Ephramites die that day from mispronunciation. I told you it was a violent book.
Well the story gave rise to this word we use in English. In one meaning “Shibboleth” is a word word that identifies the speaker as a member of a particular sect or ideology. If – without irony – I use the word “Groovy” then you would know that I am an unreformed hippy of 1967 even if I’m not wearing my macramé and beads. In another sense of “shibboleth” I may use a word to mean one thing but you mean something different by it, and so what we mean by the word says a lot about the speaker. And if I use it differently from you, then you may believe that there is something fishy about me.
Shibboleths of Contested Concepts
For example, I think of the term “pro-Israel” which I see in my emails from both AIPAC and J Street. For AIPAC “pro-Israel” seems to mean full support for the policies of the Israeli government. For J Street, it seems to mean support for the peace and security for the Israeli peoples which often requires opposition to Israeli government policy and supporting the needs of the Palestinian people. For AIPAC, to be “pro-Israel” means not focusing on the occupation and the settlements and not criticizing Israel about this. For J Street “pro-Israel” requires criticism. Meanwhile Jewish Voice for Peace avoids the label entirely because, as I read their emails, being pro-Israel or anti-Israel is not the issue for them, but rather being pro-peace and pro-justice.
A term like “pro-Israel” is what linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff calls an “essentially contested concept.” On its surface, there seems to be agreement about what the concept is supposed to mean. But because the term is vague, it leaves a lot of blanks to be filled in – and in entirely different ways depending upon your worldview.
And in the last decades, antisemitism has become a contested concept which allows a lot of blanks to be filled in. A lot of us have been called antisemitic because we have opposed Israeli policy. This is very convenient because if I am antisemitic, you don’t have to listen to me at all.
As rabbi in Kehilla, I find myself caught between lots of contested terms like “Jewish state,” “Zionism,” and for that matter “God.” When people ask whether or not I believe in God, I feel like responding: “Tell me what you mean by that and I’ll tell whether I believe it.” And I have the same reaction when someone either on the left or right asks: “Are you or are you not a Zionist?”
So, does it make me a Zionist when I support a two-state solution with a Palestinian state and an Israeli state too? Does it make me an anti-Zionist in that I don’t believe that there is some inherent right of the Jewish people to have sovereignty over the Biblical land of Israel? Does it make me a Zionist that I believe that because antisemitism emerged and grew in Europe it made Zionism inevitable, and with it, Jewish emigration to Palestine? Does it make me an anti-Zionist to understand why the Arabs of Palestine would have resisted immigrants who were intent on creating a Jewish state? Does it make me a Zionist that like the 19th century Jewish thinker Ahad HaAm, I believe that a homeland or a Jewish center in the Holy Land was a good idea? Does it make me an anti-Zionist because I think that a Jewish homeland does not have to be a Jewish state? Does it make me an anti-Zionist to oppose the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians? Does it make me an anti-Zionist to understand how 1948 is a Nakba to the Palestinians? Does it make me a Zionist to understand why for Jews, in the wake of the holocaust, 1948 was a moment of transcendent liberation? Does it make me a Zionist to sing about the restoration of Zion in our Jewish prayers? And does it make me an anti-Zionist that I interpret these prayers as a yearning for a universal peace and justice and not a yearning for the control over real estate?
Labeling as Idolatry and Control
The demand to label yourself reminds me of the insecurity of Moses at the Burning Bush where he demands that God label God’s-self. “Give me your actual name,” he asks. But this is a moment of idolatry because Moses is trying to reduce the divine totality to a word, to a name, a concept that he can control. And God avoids the answer Moses seeks: “I am becoming,” God says, “whatever I become.”
Word-labels are a way to characterize us, manipulate how we are to be perceived, and they enable us to be dismissed without dealing with our total reality. French philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that reducing something to a label was an act of subjugation, of taking power over the other. Labels enable us to dismiss the other as unworthy of consideration. For example, “I believe that you are ‘anti-Israel,” therefore is nothing that you can say that I need to listen to.” Or from the other side: “I see that your coalition includes people who call themselves ‘Zionists,’ so we cannot trust you to be a true supporter of the Palestinian people.”
Words to Manipulate our “Commonsense”
But beyond the labels that are used to disregard us, I am more concerned about the words that are used in ways to manipulate us to act against our own best interests.
This is an issue that progressives raised in the 1920’s and 30’s when large sections of the working class voted for Hitler and Mussolini. It is an issue that has emerged again in the United States especially as we watched high voting margins for Nixon and Reagan. I despair over the same issue as I watch an increasing number of Israelis supporting Netanyahu.
The Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci who was imprisoned by Mussolini, said that many of his fellow Marxists failed to understand that the upper classes maintain control of society more often by ideology than by military subjugation. Gramsci proposed that because the fascists controlled the newspapers and radio, they had a monopoly over what people read and heard. They could describe the world exactly as they wanted everyone else to see it, and by doing this they could establish a national “commonsense” which served the fascists.
Using linguistics and cognitive sciences, George Lakoff examines the work in our own society to establish a dominant “commonsense” which favors the most privileged. They use the mass media and choose words that seem neutral on their face, but are actually using metaphors that subtly frame the lenses through which people see society and the world. For example if it is in the corporate self-interest to prevent the government from regulating businesses and assuring product safety, they would not launch a campaign that said “Hey everybody, lets make corporations richer by making our products less safe!” Instead they create terminology that seems neutral like “tax burden” and “tax relief.” The metaphor of “burden” and “relief” conveys a message that when we fund the government to act in a socially responsible way, that it is a big burden which requires relief. The media then uses “tax relief” and “tax burden” as if these were neutral, and they become part of our collective commonsense unless we consciously do something to resist these subliminal messages. And if we try to use the same terminology from the progressive side we are shooting ourselves in the foot. So if we say, “The tax burden should be on the rich, and tax relief for the middle class,” we are still reinforcing the burden/relief metaphor which focuses our attention away from the corporate desire to escape regulation.
Very much in concert with this control of metaphor is what Ian Lopez writes about in his book, Dog Whistle Politics, subtitled, How Coded Racial Appeals have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class. He looks at how politicians have appealed to people’s racist fears without using openly racist terminology. Nixon ran on “Law and Order” by which he really meant police power over the protests of people of color. He spoke of the “silent majority” which really meant white people against all the others. And this was in order to get white working people, middle class people, to absorb a different metaphor, operate under a different commonsense and then vote for people who would protect the interests of powerful corporations.
The metaphors they utilize portray the poor as undeserving of assistance. Black people are subtly defined as expendable. Immigrants are made to be seen as threats. And it is very easy, in one’s own isolation to be swayed by such messages. bell hooks, the black philosopher and critic of ideology reminds us: “No one, no matter how intelligent and skillful at critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain if we are watching hours and hours of television.”
And so resistance requires us to frame our own metaphors and write our own words that reflect not the values of hierarchy and isolated powerlessness, but words that reflect values of human dignity, interdependence and empowerment. That is why “Black Lives Matter” is so necessary. To say “All Lives Matter” is dog whistle politics backwards – as if God forbid we should actually call racism what it is – and this slogan does nothing to subvert the message that black lives do not matter as much as white lives. And that’s why “Si se puede” was so empowering in the face of corporations that saw their agricultural workers as expendable. That is why speaking about the privilege of the 1% was so necessary in the face of an ideology that says that wealth is produced by the rich and not by the productive power of the entire people.
Resistance and Transgression
We need to use words that contravene the commonsense that is being fed to us. Words that bell hooks would call “transgressive.” Now it is a little weird for me as a rabbi to advocate for transgression on Yom Kippur. But bell hooks does not mean to transgress against our fellow human beings, she means to challenge and to violate the assumptions of the status quo that empower the few and marginalize others, and which especially disempower people of color.
In my mind, one of those transgressive words is “Palestine.” Frankly, it still makes me uncomfortable. But it flies in the face of an ideology that claims that the only people worthy of statehood between the Jordan and the sea are Israeli Jews. There are those who claim that there is no Palestine. So I think we must affirm that there is a Palestinian civilization there and it always will be. And likewise, there is an Israeli civilization and it too will always be there. The question is how that dual reality is to be accommodated. Only the future can tell, but for now, when I do travel there, I am going to Israel/Palestine.
Communities of Resistance
On what basis do we resist and reframe the metaphors we are constantly being fed? George Lakoff says that we have to know and to enunciate what our values are. bell hooks teaches that we must engage our critical consciousness but this is not something we can do in isolation. She affirms that in order to “decolonize” our ways of knowing, people need to reinforce our values by being part of a community of resistance, And that’s what I believe Kehilla is.
And this isn’t so new. During the centuries that Jews were treated as second class or worse and scorned as unworthy, the kehilla, the segregated Jewish community, served as an island of resistance against the slurs of the larger society and affirmed in religious terms that Jewish lives did matter. Without that resistance, Jewish life, especially in Europe, may have died out centuries ago. The churches of people of color serve a similar role today, which is, I believe, why the attack in Charleston was specifically directed at Mother Emanuel, a Black activist church.
A church, synagogue, masjid or temple is not the same as a political action group. We are not a focused on one single cause. We are mobilized on a daily, weekly and annual basis whether there is a hot issue or not. And being a member of a synagogue can actually complement your involvement in your social action group. And here we work to actually be the change that we seek.
Shared Values and Diversity
And yet, we are not a monolithic community. Nevertheless, there is a sharing of values. We saw this in the responses to the survey disseminated by our Middle East Peace Committee. We do not agree on a one-state or two-state solution regarding Israel Palestine. We do not agree on the best strategy to resist or oppose the occupation. And yet whether you support BDS or don’t, we were in agreement that the occupation must come to an end. A clear consensus emerged about our values. Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve peace and justice and human and civil rights. The occupation was seen as inconsistent or contrary with these values. And regardless of any differences, we are united in that we will not exclude anyone who advocates any non-violent strategy to further peace and justice in Israel Palestine. And I say that we should not refuse to cosponsor events with any group seeking a non-violent approach as long as it is not motivated by anti-Jewish animus – by which I do not mean being critical of Israel.
I feel, and our Middle East Peace Committee agrees, that we need to now enunciate a statement of our values. Not a policy statement, but what values motivate us even if each of us emerges with different tactics or strategies or demands. There will be a workshop this afternoon for anyone who wants to grapple with a very early iteration of such a statement. Copies of the draft are available in the lobby.
Conscious awareness of our values, and a communal reinforcement and annual reexamination of those values are necessary if we are to be an effectively transgressive community.
Earlier this evening we began with Judaism’s most transgressive prayer, the Kol Nidre. The rabbis hated it. On its surface it seems to say: “God, please disregard the words that we use to make our vows and commitments to You.” Talk about transgressive! It seemed so counter-intuitive that a central prayer would say this, that for hundreds of years commentators have written a variety of interpretations for what it means to them. Which means, that I get to do it too. For tonight I see the prayer as a plea not to God, but to ourselves that every year we need to consciously release ourselves from the metaphors and frames that we automatically and unconsciously absorb so that we may, every year, be open to find and to act together upon the values by which we need to live.
In a similar vein, bell hooks reflects about what education should be. She says:
“In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.”
Jeff Klepper wrote a prayer that he intended to be sung before the Sh’ma which asks God to open our eyes and teach us how to live. For me, it means that we need to activate the collective divine that is within ourselves as a loving community so that we can open our eyes to see through the obfuscations that keep us from being who we are and doing what is ours to do. It is we who gather ourselves in peace to come to know the oneness of all.
Please turn to p. 31
OPEN UP OUR EYES by Jeff Klepper
Open up our eyes, teach us how to live,
fill our hearts with joy and all the love you have to give.
Gather us in peace as you lead us to Your Name,
and we will know that You are One.