Culture and Change

You may have caught the news story on NPR this week of the female inmates of an Indiana prison who had been taking a class on public policy. Vanessa Thompson, 17 years incarcerated, was watching a news story about the over 10,000 abandoned and neglected homes in Indianapolis. She brought a proposal to her public policy class:

“It’s a double restoration — not just of the house but of the person…. “What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need, more than anything? Ownership. Of our minds, of our bodies, and of our physical homes.”[1]

The idea she and her classmates developed is that the inmates would rehabilitate the houses, and when they finally left prison, would be given one of the homes they had restored to live in. The women of the class networked with organizations and individuals that could help them, set up a Go-Fund-Me page, established an Executive Board with a Director by using technology for communication. In early April this year, via video, they put their proposal before the State Legislator. In unanimous approval the Assembly approved their “Constructing the Future” proposal.

Getting the idea off the ground, meant the women had to learn and understand a cultural context different to their lives and living conditions so to advocate for themselves.

Our father Abraham, in the Torah portion tomorrow, is placed into a position where he needs to learn the cultural context of what is happening around him to succeed. God decides to reveal to Abraham God’s reasoning for eradicating the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorah. [2]

“Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing? … For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him what is right and just, so that the Eternal may fulfill for Abraham all that has been promised to him.”[3]

Abraham becomes aware of what was about to occur and why. With a sense of injustice Abraham tested the waters of arguing with God. No-one prior to Abraham had entered into a dispute with the Eternal. Will you save the cities for 50 innocents, 40, 30, 20… 10? Abraham also did not know the boundaries of what he was undertaking in untested waters. Would he be sidelined, would he succeed?

Figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its ethos.

Earlier this week I was on a conference call with Rabbi Andrea Weiss who teaches at Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion. Concerned about the tone of rhetoric in the last election, she approached 100 theologians to write a set of letters for the first 100 days of the new Administration speaking to American values. You can read all the letters online at

The 100th letter was written by Dr. Elsie Stern, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She wrote on the 100th day of this new government:

… Some contemporary Jews use the Omer to focus our attention, one day at a time, on the attributes that we share with God—attributes that enable us, as individuals and communities, to live up to our highest potential and to move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.

In essence, this has been the aim of the 100 letters we have sent you over these past 100 days. We have called you to enact in your leadership the crucial American values that are our greatest strength as a nation. The American Values Religious Voices letter writers provide a snapshot of the America that you have pledged to serve. We are men and women, from red states and blue states. We identify as African-American, Asian, Latinx, Native American, and White. We are Buddhists, Christians of varied denominations, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Some of our families have been in this country since before it was “America”; others are immigrants ourselves.

Yet, despite this diversity, our letters call attention to the same values: justice, compassion, protection of the vulnerable, hospitality, equal rights, and respect for all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or status. Our writers have prayed that you will govern with wisdom and humility, putting the common good above individual concerns. In our diversity, we agree that these are the American values that must guide us as a nation.[4]

In their writing, the 100 theologians suggest that there is a consensus among a majority of Americans as to the values that make America great. An aspirational cultural context. For can any cultural context be fully known?

There are times when the cultural norm is clearly unclear. A few chapters after the Sodom and Gemorrah incident, within this parasha, Abraham finds himself in Gerar. He tells the King of Gerar that his wife Sarah is his sister, and the King kidnaps our matriarch, to have relations with her. It is revealed to the King in a dream, that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s wife and calamity will befall if he harms her.[5]  As moderns, this narrative is confusing. Why would Abraham lie? Why would he put Sarah in danger? Or himself and his entourage, should his lie be discovered?

However, if we research the history of political liaisons in the ancient near east, and learn that a wife who was also a sister is revered and given status, or wives were sometimes offered as political gifts, we might have a sense that there is more to this incident than meets the eye of us moderns who read Bible. What is really going on is unclear. The narrative reflects a variety of cultural patterns and the developing new Hebrew ideals. Poor Abraham, trying his best to survive in a changing and developing system!

There are times when the cultural norms are quickly and radically changing. My day off this week was on a mission to visit and speak with some of our elected officials – Democrat and Republican – in Washington DC with a group gathered together by The Associated. The impetus of this mission was to thank our elected officials for the work they are doing on security for the Jewish community here in Baltimore, their work to combat anti-semitism and their advocacy for Israel.

A take away from our conversations was an awareness that here is constant change in the culture of Washington, the culture of the parties, contributing to the challenge of concensus across the aisle.

Reality is that shift happens constantly in culture, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes as undercurrent, sometimes as a tidal waves. Culture is complex and multiple cultures can clash or interact or undermine each other. Even when you think you understand…you learn you do not understand…

The women who were incarcerated in Indianapolis who developed the “Constructing the Future” program, and who learned the political rules to achieve their programmatic goal, are concerned about the execution of their proposal. Post the legislatures unanimous resolution to adopt the program, Correction Commission Robert Carter wrote to the students congratulating them for their “out of the box” idea, but that he could not guarantee he would implement it as they proposed. The women are concerned that this will become a program for the state’s male inmates, and not for them as the vocational programs offered to women in the prisons, are gender divided. The culture of politics butts up against the culture of patriarchy.

Even when one learns the system and operates within it, shift can happen, resistance can occur, other cultural pieces can clash. Just as it is true that figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change, it is also true that we can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand that culture is a changing target and not monolithic but complex.

There is a story that when Harry Truman was speaking at a Grange convention in Kansas City, Mrs. Truman and a friend were in the audience. Truman in his speech said, “I grew up on a farm and one thing I know is that farming means manure, manure, manure, and more manure.”

At this, Mrs. Truman’s friend whispered to her, “Bess, why on earth don’t you get Harry to say fertilizer?”

“Good Lord, Helen,” replied Mrs. Truman, “You have no idea how many years it has been that it took me to coach him to say manure.”

Ah, change is slow. Change is complex.

But we forge ahead, piece by piece, towards our aspirational values in a context that is ever-developing. Sometimes achieving advancement, sometimes retrograding only to advance again. Figuring out the permeable boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking evolutionary progress. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its transient character. It is a challenging ongoing mitzvah, as individuals and communities, so that we can live up to our highest potential and move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.





[2] Genesis 8

[3] Genesis 18:17-19


[5] Genesis 20

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