Purim and Amalek: Bible as Propaganda

We are approaching Purim, a holiday we associate with laughter, with turning authority on its head, with upending power, with the mirth that comes from contrasting the ridiculous with the sublime.

But the text we read in celebration, the Book of Esther, is not without its darker aspects. One is its reliance on the Amalek narrative.

Haman, after all, is the descendant of King Agag, himself descendant of the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites as they fled Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16). During Purim, we blot out Haman’s memory (often by rubbing out his name), symbolically enacting the commandment in Deuteronomy 25:19: “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget.” On Shabbat Zachor, just before Purim, we read this passage in synagogue.

Deuteronomy appears to command the Israelites to destroy an entire people, to commit genocide, in fact.

Or not?

Rabbinic tradition has repeatedly addressed this question, often with surprising results.

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael insists that Jews themselves should not be engaging in a battle against Amalek. Quoting Exodus 17:14-16, in which YHVH himself says he will blot out Amalek, the Mekhilta states: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit upon the throne of His kingdom and His reign will prevail, at that time ‘the Lord will have war with Amalek.’” The responsibility for genocide is conveniently left to God.

A midrash in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana suggests that Amalek’s attack was punishment for unethical behavior on the part of the Israelites. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance. In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.

In Tractate Yoma (22b), the rabbis imagine Saul directly questioning YHVH’s command to blot out Amalek:

Saul countered and said: Now, if on account of one life that is taken, in a case where a slain person’s body is found and the murderer is unknown, the Torah said to bring a heifer whose neck is broken to a barren valley, in the atonement ritual described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9, all the more so must I have pity and not take all these Amalekite lives. And he further reasoned: If the men have sinned, in what way have the animals sinned? Why, then, should the Amalekites’ livestock be destroyed? And if the adults have sinned, in what way have the children sinned?

Saul argues with God just as Abraham argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–33). He loses, as we might expect. “A Divine Voice then came forth and said to him: ‘Do not be overly righteous’” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). Still, protest is articulated.

As it should be: we may not accept any command blindly if we hope to live an ethical life.

In the past many decades, the Amalek narrative has become a propaganda tool in the hands of Jewish leaders: Joseph Soloveitchik equated the Arab world with Amalek. Meir Kahane repeatedly used the Amalek trope to construct an endless battle between Jews and the evil Other, whom he defined as gentiles and Arabs. In 1980, Rabbi Israel Hess published an article entitled “Genocide: A Commandment of the Torah” in which he asserted that the Palestinians deserved the fate of Amalek. The battle ahead, he claimed, would ensure “racial purity.”

Israeli extremists have regularly repeated and amplified such statements.

In our time, Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly invoked Amalek. And what are we now witnessing? The destruction of Gaza and the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. One in six Palestinian children under the age of two is at risk of dying of starvation.

Could we ask with Saul: Hamas has committed an unimaginable horror. And… how do Palestinian children, women, elderly – civilians, in fact – deserve to be killed en masse as a consequence? Why are holy sites and heritage sites demolished? Animal life destroyed? How is it that families are made to subsist on one meal a day and children left to starve? How do children with burns all over their bodies deserve a world in which they have nothing more than two aspirins for their pain? How have doctors deserved conditions in which they must decide who shall live and who shall die because medical resources have been decimated?

In Esther 9:13, Esther asks for a second day to attack the Persians; 75,000 are slaughtered as a result. When members of my community read this verse, they are appalled. Every year we struggle with this awful depiction of wholesale, overwhelming slaughter.

This Shabbat Zachor and this Purim, can we ask as many in our tradition have: May biblical texts ever be used to justify the decimation of a people?

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T’rumah and the Making of Beautiful Things

Last week, we read one of my favorite passages in Torah –  T’rumah. I fell in love with this parsha over fifteen years ago. I remember that my enthusiasm and delight surprised most of my then congregants, who complained when we met for Torah study that the text was repetitive and boring.

“It’s magical,” I insisted. “It is filled with color and scents. Everything, everything is made by human beings who long to engage in a delightful excess of thanks, of creative energy. It’s inspiring!”

The tabernacle, I would point out, is made of every single kind of art. Who created a lampstand fashioned in metal and adorned in nature – petals winding about its seven branches and cups fashioned in the form of almond blossoms? Who stitched draperies made of fine twisted linen, in the richest and deepest shades of purple and blue and wine-red? Who hammered out the gold clasps used to hold cloth together? The work of our ancestors’ hands is described here, and it is amazing.

Once my son, Erik, told me that my little business on Etsy, Not My Brother’s Kippah, was one of the most powerful parts of my rabbinic calling.

The most magical havdalah tallit I ever made…using a vintage sari!

Certainly, almost as soon as I entered rabbinical school, I started making kippot, and then tallitot. My first efforts were all gifts. They were meant to redress a problem: in those days, my fellow female students mostly purchased either a flimsy wire kippah or wrapped their heads in a scarf.

The most magical Star of David I ever found…

Since then, though, I’ve made a number of tallitot for transgender teenagers who otherwise felt confined in a market that catered entirely to a binary reading of human needs – products that were clearly marked for “boys” or “girls.” Gender is no longer defining who visits my site or purchases my work.

Among all those kippot, tallitot, tallit bags, and the like that I have made, I have loved most the sense of magic in the making. There is always a dance going on, a dance of light, of color, of touch, of symbol in every stitch. When I reuse fabrics or scraps of the same, or otherwise rely on recycled materials, I know that my making can respond to the needs of a planet suffering from the horrific waste and pollution the fashion industry engenders. If I am going to create, I want to think about how to do that sustainably.

Magical Tree of Life Kippah

No one ever told me that selling things I made could actually offer spiritual benefits – for me or for my clients. Recently, I had a client who had recently lost her mother; when we settled on a sunset orange sari as the base for her tallit, she told me: “that was my mother’s favorite color.”

Those who made the tabernacle knew that the making of beautiful things is a tikkun.  They knew that their endeavors were magical, and thus spiritual. They made things from the earth, reflecting the earth, and for the express purpose of connecting the earth with its divine source.

I will never read T’rumah without thanking them.

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Acknowledging History’s Harm: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Jewish Renewal

How is history remade?

Jewish Renewal’s 2006 ban against Mordechai Gafni is a salient example. This ban is frequently mentioned as proof of Jewish Renewal’s credentials when it comes to dealing with sexual predators.

But history is messy. As a historian, I have not found any recorded evidence to support any claims of “pathfinding” Jewish Renewal responses to the many women who had, for twenty years, anonymously informed a range of Jewish leaders about the abuse they endured at Gafni’s hands. The record suggests otherwise: Reb Zalman and other Jewish Renewal leaders resisted taking action against Gafni.

For decades, Gafni moved from one position to another amid a swirl of rumors and allegations. Nevertheless, Jewish Renewal leaders embraced Gafni and they defended him.

In 2004, Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week interviewed three women, who were aged 13, 16, and 22 when Gafni assaulted them (for a searing account from one of those women, who went public years later, click here). Rosenblatt consulted Zalman; after all, Gafni had just found a home in Jewish Renewal and was considered a rising star by many in the movement.

Rosenblatt wrote: “Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the acknowledged leader of the Renewal movement, said he is aware of the allegations against Rabbi Gafni but supports him. ‘If you want to find fly specks in the pepper, you can always find them,’ Reb Schachter-Shalomi said. ‘But I’ve watched him teach. He is learned, exciting and charismatic. A good teacher is one who gets people excited.’”

It would take two more years before Reb Zalman issued a herem against Gafni. Though Jewish Renewal leaders had long known about the rumors and allegations, the ban was only filed after three women filed an official complaint with Israeli police accusing Gafni of rape, harassment, and indecent assault in May of 2006.

Why?

Charismatic leaders are often protected (enabled) by their followers. Reverence and deference can prevent followers from acknowledging harmful behaviors. It can silence those who try to speak out.

Charismatic leaders often become pristine characters in the minds of their devotees. Jewish Renewal leaders rely on the phrase “Reb Zalman said…” either to support an idea or to quash it.

Charismatic leadership remains prioritized in Jewish Renewal. Sadly, the lack of oversight and accountability for such leaders has also been a feature of its institutions.

Given this legacy, it is unsurprising that sexual harassment and other abuses of power continue to be normalized and excused. Uninformed leaders have preferred, like so many before them, to enable and protect predatorial behavior. Perpetrators have been protected. Even when appeals committees have noted gross failures on the part of past Ethics Committees, failures that included not only frightening ignorance about the matters under concern, but conflicts of interest and even bias in favor of the accused, there has been no accountability for such failures, much less any teshuva of any kind. Complainants have been brushed aside.

Recently, I learned from a former student of the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP) that when she was sent her application packet in 2016, it included a 2003 article by Rami Shapiro entitled “The Three-Fold Torah.” Shapiro highlighted the “revolutionaries” of the Jewish Renewal movement, among them, Mordechai Gafni.

That AOP’s administration did not think to consider what message was being sent to prospective students is deeply disturbing. Is Gafni’s history as a sexual predator – or Jewish Renewal’s late response to that history – irrelevant?

Someone will surely claim this was an “oversight.” We should ask, however, whether such an “oversight” is rather a symptom part of the longstanding tendency to downplay or brush aside evidence of bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse in Jewish Renewal settings.

As a former AOP student, then a faculty member, then a Vaad member, and then AOP’s first Dean of Faculty, I can say this much: sexual harassment and bullying were not exceptional behaviors but (and not infrequently), tolerated ones. Student complaints were generally met with “Oh, that’s just….. (fill in a name).” Boundary breaking, bullying, and sexually abusive behavior was a quirk of character and didn’t need to be taken seriously.

Recently, a group of Jewish Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors issued a Call to Action regarding sexual harassment and bullying in our institutions. We have been glad to find that we are being taken very seriously indeed by leaders in Ohalah and, now, in ALEPH. We believe that there may be hope for addressing institutions which have, in the past, featured little to no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight for its leaders, its teachers, and even those it ordains.

There are many steps in this process. One is to address unfortunate legacies of enabling perpetrators and silencing victims.

Efforts to erase or rewrite history are symptomatic of a larger problem: the unwillingness to fully acknowledge past harm. No trust can be built without such honest and frank acknowledgment.

What we do now is a test of our intentions, our integrity, and our ethics.

We must own our history, not rewrite it.

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In Sarah’s Honor: Singing our Stories

Singing has had a strangely magical effect on me since I was a small child. Something visceral occurs.

For decades I didn’t speak to anyone about this. I believed that I was imagining the whole thing. Or, at least what happened when I sang.

But I repeatedly found myself helplessly giving in to That Thing That Happens every time I started singing. My surrender was especially marked when I was leading services. I could be cranky, exhausted, or even unwilling; as soon as the service began, I would succumb in the first tender notes of the first prayer.

During High Holy Days, the magical nature of that strange Thing That Happens turns into a kind of sorcery. It would have frightened me all these years if it wasn’t – every time – so beautiful.

Many years ago, I just reached the haftarah for Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hannah, who longs so desperately for a child. Before I began, I asked my congregants to name an ancestress. Predictably, I heard names like Miriam, Sarah, and Leah. My husband, Ralf, who is an expert in throwing intellectual and spiritual curveballs, suggested Lot’s wife.

I sang in Hebrew and then sang spontaneous English translations. At some point I no longer remember, I began singing the stories of all the foremothers my congregants had mentioned. All the trope melodies landed in the right places. Miriam’s joy and power, Leah’s sadness – I composed as I sang, but the text seemed given to me, rather than invented by me.

When I came to Lot’s wife, I sang of her looking back at children she had lost and the neighbors she would never see again.  I sang of how she became an inhuman thing – for looking, for longing. She lost everything — including herself.

This will read just as weirdly as it sounds: from the small windows at the very top of the sanctuary, I became aware of soft voices – all seemingly female. “Tell my story,” one said. “Tell my story,” said another. The voices were gentle enough, but they were insistent, clamoring. Countless Jewish women of some ages past were suddenly asking me to tell their stories. And they wouldn’t stop asking  –  even as I continued singing, inventing, telling the stories I knew from Tanakh.

At some point, I said (thought?) helplessly: “I can’t tell all your stories – I would never have the time to do that.” I paused. “But I will try. I will do my best in the years I have.”

And the voices were still.

Recently, I have realized that my whole life – all my academic research, all of my teaching, any activism I’ve engaged in – has been devoted to telling the stories of those whose voices have been lost or suppressed. The outcome saddens me. I have achieved so little. I have longed for so much.

Am I, in the end, a descendant of the unnamed Lot’s wife? Will I, too, turn into some form that even while it crumbles, can only leave behind near fruitless efforts to combat the toxic uses of power that continue to rain down upon the vulnerable?

But of course, that sort of sadness is a useless exercise. There is a deeper learning here. Whatever that Thing That Happens is, it is for the good and to the good and about the good. I plan to be grateful for that.

And to all those pleading voices, I say: Yes. I am still here, and I will tell your stories.

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The Rebbe(s): On Titles, Power, and Ethics

For many years, I taught at the ALEPH Ordination Program, where I had, many years earlier, earned a rabbinic ordination. I did not go by “Rabbi” or “Reb.” My students sometimes used those titles, but not at my request.

I was then and remain now reactive to the idea so often promulgated in Renewal circles: that students need a “rebbe.”

Almost all of the students I taught were in their second careers. They were teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, political activists and so, so much more. They brought experience, wisdom, knowledge, and joy to the classroom. They were my emerging colleagues.

I did not walk into Jewish Renewal to find myself a “rebbe.” I was instantly wary of the term and of the peculiar glorification of the role. Those then so attached to the term had often been students Reb Zalman. They called him their “rebbe.”

They loved and honored their teacher and, it seemed, many owed him their Jewish lives. Many needed spiritual healing, and from what I could see, they felt he gave them that healing, that wholeness.

I cannot comment on their experience; only my own. What I met was a cadre of human beings who wanted to be rebbes.

A good number (not all) were charismatic individuals; powerful and passionate speakers, charming and witty service leaders. A talented bunch, for the most part.

And just as often capable of using their skills to attain admiration, affirmation, and adoration. I repeatedly saw leaders manipulate their followers in pursuit of those things. Some appeared to get regularly and emotionally drunk on the good feelings their students and congregants gave them about themselves.

Jewish Renewal does more than make a home for such leaders; it seeks them. The charismatic, the gifted, the powerful “rebbes” of Jewish Renewal are valued, admired. But the price their congregants or students pay for their leaders’ needs for affirmation, adoration, and “success” is not minor.

When unhealthy power imbalances govern spiritual relationships, emotional and psychological manipulation, coercion, and sexual harassment can follow. I have seen “spiritual intimacy” at work. I have seen it lead to the abandonment of healthy boundaries in favor of emotional dependency and even, sadly, abuse.

When I taught for one year in Taiwan, my students also had a name for me. They did not call me “Dr. Thiede” or “Professor Thiede.” They called me “Teacher.”

Over the past four decades, this was the only title I loved to hear. To teach is to guide, to hold, to nourish, to lift up. To teach is to learn; students are our colleagues in that endeavor.

We claim a “rebbe” is a teacher. But those we call “rebbe” have been enthusiastically invested with power that no teacher with a modicum of self-awareness would claim.

If Jewish Renewal could reconsider what it values in its spiritual leaders – if we valued ethics more than a lovely voice, a clever stage presence, a charming and spontaneous performance of liturgy – what titles would we choose? Any?

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Art by Adamah: Jewish Inheritance, Jewish Future

I asked Clay Adamah Mil, Jewish artist, how they felt their own artwork fit into the lineage and history of Jewish art.*

I received a work of art, one that referenced multiple Jewish artists of the last two millennia. The piece presents the viewer with a midrash on, at the very least, a minyan of creative, brilliant, Jewish minds. It also offers us a Jew of our own time in all their particularity.

Carrying the Flames by Clay Adamah Mil

Clay’s figure floats in the center of the work, sleeping in a sky filled with triangular stars of many colors. Marc Chagall’s “Over Vitebsk” (1913) comes immediately to mind. In Chagall’s painting an elderly beggar hovers in the sky, a heavy sack slung over his shoulder, a cane in his hand. When that painting was completed, Vitebsk was home to a Jewish community that constituted over half the city’s inhabitants.

It is hard to feel the gut punch of loss when looking at Chagall’s work; that world was destroyed in the Shoah.

Here, Clay’s sleeping figure is peaceful, safe. They dream while surrounded by allusions and reference to the Jewish art of centuries – art made new and original (all over again). It is a kind of tikkun, this commentary.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s (1897) work, “Pashal Eve” has contributed the delicate chandelier that Clay Adamah Mil holds over the earth below. In Oppenheim’s painting, the original hangs over a seder table and those gathered around it. It is muted and hard to make out, even though the human faces at the table are so brightly lit.

In Clay’s work, the chandelier lights the dark sky, casting light on the beach that undulates gently to the sea. For Oppenheim, the chandelier illuminates people gathered together; for Clay, the chandelier illuminates the earth – an earth without humans walking, resting, or working in its folds and shadows.

Instead, their resting figure floats above the feathery grass. Only a stone hamsa lying on the beach seems to betray a human presence. But perhaps not.

This too – an earth drawn both at peace and safe from harm, is a tikkun. The human presence above protects, holds, cares for its quiet beauty. No flight from danger or painful labor is evoked; there is no heavy burden on the back of the human figure in this work.

Designs from the works of David Bomberg, El Lissitzky, and Sonia Delaunay, abstract or intricate; bright and fine, are part of the work’s backgrounds, frames, and tender references.

Artists whose names we do not know appear in this work, too. There are those who created zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues. A gracious commentary on the traditional Jewish art of paper cutting appears; on one side of the picture we see a papercut as it would look facing forward; on the other side, the paper cut is drawn reversed. The design is evocative: the papercut border features the seven species twining along the frame.

Here is a Jew whose art is an extension, an expansion, a new beginning.

It is Jewish renewal at its very best, and it is the kind of thing that offers hope to those who hope to see what renewal looks like when it is deep, expert, and, above all, honest.

A nineteenth-century haggadah by Charlotte von Rothschild shows up in this work. Leviticus 19:34 appears, too, reminding us of the central commandment to remember that we were strangers and therefore, must love those who are strangers among us.

There are all the regions of the world that were home to Clay’s ancestors.

Who is Clay Adamah Mil?

A Jewish artist in a rich and beautiful line of Jewish artists. A human being whose ancestors lived on many parts of the planet. A human being whose life story inhabits the corners of this work as well as its center.

For those of us who seek the beauty of our inheritance, Clay’s work is both tikkun and hope.

It gives us ourselves, our inheritance, and our future.**

*I ask readers to please pay attention to pronouns.

** To see more of Clay’s work, go here and/or here.

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Kaddish for My Imagined Life

“I think it will be sometime this summer,” I said. “By that time, I might have mourned long enough, processed long enough.” I paused. “We say kaddish for eleven months for those we lost. Maybe I am saying a kind of kaddish for the life I’ve lost…?”

I was mourning the life I’d imagined, the future I had celebrated.  I lost the innocence I had in such dreaming nine months ago; I cannot recover it.

Last summer, my husband, Ralf and I left for the Blue Ridge Mountains to celebrate our fortieth anniversary.

We spent a week exploring the gardens atop the ridge, the gardens below it. We clambered up one path after another to stand at the feet of waterfalls. We walked through dark forests.  Ralf took pictures of mushrooms, insects, and summer flowers. We sat and looked out at the mountains every night from our cabin.

We talked, again and again, about how lucky we were. Aging, together. In love, still, and best friends, still.

As the sun set, we would dream our future, swinging gently to and fro. Our son and daughter-in-love settled and happy. Grandchildren someday. Resting, writing. Gardening, crafting.

We ignore the Damocles sword above our heads so that we can live mindlessly – as we must – until it wavers, drops lightly to prick at us, or falls altogether.

Almost exactly four weeks after those nightly mountain talks, Ralf was in the hospital. Diagnosis: wasting disease, malnutrition, heart failure. The surgeon was blunt; Ralf had days to live without emergency open heart surgery.

Nine months later, Ralf’s heart is doing well. We are mindful that his new atrial valve has a life span that is shorter than he hopes to live. There will be more surgery in his future.

He is also facing another medical concern, one that requires various procedures and tests which elicit predictable scenarios, old associations. Me, in the waiting room. Him, laid out again on some table of some sort or another, some machinery, some surgical implements. Both of us: the Damocles sword glinting above in some dark recess of the mind.

We keep the worst-case scenarios at bay (but still, they crouch, however irrationally, in the corners).

Mourner’s Kaddish is a glorious, gorgeous thank you song. As we grieve – even bitterly – we pronounce our gratitude. In the end, mourning is always an affirmation of life, of love.

The kaddish I must write? A thank you for all that I have and all that I have had. It is an extraordinary, gracious plenty. Gratitude for my heightened consciousness of the fragility of all life. This, too, is a kind of gift.

It is true: if I start dreaming now, my body reminds me with a tender warning: the future will unfold in ways I cannot predict.

But this, too, is something to be thankful for. I must be quiet. I must move more slowly in a world I consciously permit to unfold before me. It never was as possible for me to control it as I would have liked, anyway.

And there is this knowledge, too, and it is just as fine.

I have not yet been shorn of my capacity to dream.

This post is dedicated to Rabbinic Pastor Nancy Shapiro who suggested I write my kaddish for innocent dreaming.

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No Spring in My Pesach Step: On Diversity, Rage, Exhaustion, and Hope

Of all the adjectives I use to describe the way I move through the world, “tired” is not one I normally apply. Especially not now, not during Pesach.

Pesach is a time to celebrate the energy of a renewed natural world, a spring that has, both mysteriously and inevitably, come again. It is a time for imagining (or performing!) a dance of liberation on behalf of all sentient beings living on the planet that supports, even now, their existence.

And yet.

Yesterday, I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on professorial fears. Teachers nationwide are worried and frightened about missteps they cannot know they are making (and aren’t sure they’ve made). Take the sociologist who taught a seminal text by W.E.B. Du Bois in her field – a text that used the word “Negro.” That teacher was reported to her administrators. She, like all of us, is watching the walls close in on her classroom.[1]

I am a professor of Judaic Studies at a southern and public university. A new front in the culture wars of our time has opened up before our eyes; our Republican-controlled legislature recently demanded a list of all the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) trainings we run, information about whether said training was voluntary or mandatory, and the names of those who have attended such trainings.

My spouse and I attended a training focused on gender last December. We are on our legislators’ “little list.”[2]

At the same time that I am grieving about all of the above I grieve about what happens down below. My own reactivity is part of the mix.

The University of North Carolina Charlotte, where I work, features an administration (and a faculty body) that is predominantly white, male, and Christian. Depending on the day, I am reactive to any one of these categories.

Let’s choose a day. Last Thursday was first-day Pesach.

It was no surprise that a major meeting of an important administrative body was scheduled on first-day Pesach. Ignoring Jewish holidays has been so chronic on the part of UNCC’s administrators over my time there that it is practically their practice.

The administrators were told that they had scheduled a meeting to pass an important resolution on professorial free speech (yes, the ironies here are interesting) on a day when Jewish faculty might well be observing an important holiday. They neither named nor acknowledged what had happened. No email went out, no apology was proffered. Instead, said administrators waited until the meeting. Then, they made the meeting moot where voting on the actual resolution was concerned. Instead, they asked the faculty that could attend for permission to conduct the vote electronically.

Yes: the non-Jewish faculty delegates were asked to vote on whether to make it possible for Jewish faculty delegates to vote.

The next day, everyone in the College of Arts and Sciences received our regularly issued newsletter. It began with a colorful banner wishing everyone a “happy Easter.”

Did I mention reactivity? Did I mention feeling tired?

UNCC’s administrators are aware that there are some faculty who represent minorities. Maybe some administrators even want the diversity they claim to support. Maybe some are downright glad to have us at UNCC.

I am not convinced that they feel the need to make us feel glad we work here.

And yet.

Do I want to be one of the cacophony of voices pointing out the missteps they haven’t known they were making even when these seem very real to me? Do I want to complain yet again about the extraordinary dominance of Christian premises governing so much of the operation of a presumably secular institution?

I am tired. I am afraid. I don’t know which battles to pick because everyone everywhere around me is fighting all the time.

This Pesach, the liberation I need is one from rage and anger — even as I know that there is so much to be justifiably enraged about.

I want to know what hope looks like.


[1] I must note that conservative websites have, for years, encouraged students to report on their teachers (see Campus Reform and Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist).

[2] See these lyrics for reference.

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Get Thyself a Student: Thoughts on Teaching — and Hope

Our son, Erik Thiede, looked uncharacteristically baffled. “I can’t take it in,” he said. “I’m just that random guy, wolfing salad down in the cafeteria… working out at the gym.”

Erik had just accepted a position as a professor of chemistry at Cornell University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He was standing in a liminal space, one we regularly encounter in Tanakh. Someone is suddenly called to a position they aren’t prepared for, that they didn’t see coming, that they hadn’t imagined. Or, perhaps, like Joseph, they’ve dreamed their future for years and still are taken unawares when it arrives.

Last week, as I was reading T’tzaveh, I imagined Aaron thinking “I’m just a random guy…”  I imagined the oddity of authority, the fear of the power that is literally in-vested in the clothing YHVH invents and decrees for Aaron, now to become Israel’s High Priest.

“I was just taking a good, long walk around the camp…!”

There is so much said in Tanakh, in rabbinic texts, in Chassidic stories about the spaces between being, seemingly, a “random” individual and taking a some position of authority.

In Exodus 28:12, YHVH commands Aaron to wear “stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry.”   In a tender reading of this verse, Hayyim of Czernowitz (1760-1816) wrote that Aaron was to carry Israel’s names on his shoulders “like a father carrying a young child on his shoulders to keep the child safe” (B’er Mayyim Hayyim).

For years Erik and I have talked about what makes a wise and caring teacher, what is needed to mentor others safely and well. We spoke about student fears, insecurities, and anxieties. Where else are you judged every single week of your life by teachers who don’t always know your name, let alone something of your heart, your soul, or your life experience?

I think of Aaron – his mistakes and his grace. His ability to walk through a field of death, tending to his people. His silence when his sons Nadav and Avihu die – and perhaps only because they were too excited, too hopeful, too interested in serving YHVH to know just how dangerous that service could be?

Aaron’s work was fraught with danger.

Truly: so is the work of teacher. We live in a world in which our students are increasingly challenged. They suffer from emotional and mental distress at much higher levels, according to our data. They are financially strapped. States across the country are attacking efforts to make college education more inclusive and friendly for people of color. Rampant legal assaults on LGBTQ+ individuals are likewise making their way through various legislatures. Teachers have roles to play, jobs to do, to help keep our students safe.

Even through his doctoral and postdoctoral work, Erik mentored younger scholars. He loves teaching, mentoring. His group lab page, which he launched just in the past days, says it all. Under “Lab Values,” he wrote:

We are curious. Science is about learning, not knowing. We are always looking for new ways of thinking, and are comfortable showing that we don’t understand everything. We are open. Science is a team sport. To help out teammates, we take pains to share our science freely amongst the scientific community and with the world. We are caring. Doing good science requires delving deep into the unknown: an experience both exciting, and terrifying. On our journey, we celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other through setbacks. We are inclusive. We actively strive to make science a place where everyone thrives, no matter their background and identity. We resist oppression of any kind, including but not limited to sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and xenophobia. Although we may not complete this work within our lifetimes, we refuse to desist from it.”

Today, Erik is traveling back to Ithaca to meet and greet incoming graduate students. This morning, I reminded him of that famous mandate in Pirkei Avot: “get thyself a teacher” (1:6). I joked that we needed a version from imot:

“Shulamit Sapir said: ‘And get thyself students, to keep thee humble, considerate, understanding, and kind. And to remind thyself how damn scary this whole thing is.’”

We are all just that person wolfing down the salad, working out in the gym. Hopefully, we are also doing our level best to do a kindness to and for this broken world.

Doing so makes us anything but random individuals. YHVH has in-vested in us.

We, then, must invest in the world.

This drash is dedicated to Erik Henning Thiede, whose heart is as open as his mind.

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Live Like an Egyptian… Reflections on Bo and B’shallakh

In Parsha Bo, we learn that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”went up with the Israelites to worship YHVH (Ex. 12:38). Nice, right?  We can rejoice in our diversity (there from the get-go!) and take all sorts of self-congratulatory pleasure in pointing to Tanakh to confirm it.

What follows in Parsha B’shallakh? A celebratory, militaristic text. YHVH repeatedly declares his intention to win glory in the battle against Egypt (Ex. 14:4, 17, 18). He* can prove, now, that he is the biggest and most powerful deity by taking down the biggest, baddest nation around, one with a ruler who imagines himself a god. The Egyptians will die horribly – either sinking like lead in the water (Ex. 15:5, 10) or, after a divinely-induced tsunami, left dead on the seashore (Ex. 14:30). The triumphal notes sounded here are part and parcel of midrashic treatments, too, which claim that neither the sea nor the land wanted to take Egyptian bodies.

The Egyptians can be accepted only so long as they adopt the Israelite project, it would seem.

I’ve been the Egyptian, victim of attempts to defeat and erase me with the better god. If I expressed any interest in a Christian friend’s theologies and practices, I was assumed to be an unhappy Jew. Conversion attempts ensued. As a rabbi invited to speak to a local church, I had to be prepared for comments and questions which either a) told me I was simply wrong to be Jewish or b) reminded me that my job at the church was to provide some magical historic reenactment of the Way Jesus Lived. I could be accepted if I supported, somehow, the Christian project.

And so… I’d be asked: do Jews believe that Jesus was crucified? (If I did, I wouldn’t be Jewish, right?) I was asked if I had read the New Testament in order to be certain I had made the right choice. (Ditto.) If I taught a song in Hebrew, the minister might intone later: “Now we have learned a song such as Jesus might have sung.” (In this case, the song was Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, which was composed in the 20th century.) Then there were the seders I was asked to lead in order to teach Christians how Jesus celebrated Passover.

And… reading militaristic, self-congratulatory texts of Torah is tough if I take a moment to be the Egyptian to be beaten and erased. I don’t want to be reminded that texts that are foundational to my Jewishness can be painful, even ugly, reeking with something like the self-righteousness and ignorance that have hurt me when I experienced them as a Jew.

Recently, I spent two hours teaching nineteen graceful individuals at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Concord, NC. I’ve been teaching there for at least a decade or so, and usually several times each year.

My long-standing relationship with All Saints took years to create. At the time my little congregation was founded, the then minister at All Saints and I had a painful conversation when he told me that Jewish friends of his were coming to the church to teach Christians about the seder. He was speaking about several Jews for Jesus who were known to harangue Jews for purposes of conversion to Christianity.

But just a couple of years later, the next minister, The Rev. Nancy Cox, invited me to have lunch with her. And during that lunch I felt safe enough to say yes to coming to her church.

Year in and year out I have gone to All Saints** and repeatedly deconstructed biblical texts for a Christian audience. I have talked about humor – even burlesque – at work in texts Christian parishioners grew up taking very seriously. I have turned Levitical texts used to harm LGBTQ+ folk on their heads (I hope). I have introduced the deity of Tanakh as he often can be found in the Hebrew text: neither omnipotent nor omniscient but very certainly male and, often, bumbling, grumbling, and fumbling.

I recently discovered that the classes and lectures I offer every year fall under a particular rubric at the church. It’s called “Christian formation.”

When I heard this, I laughed out loud. The local rabbi forming Christians?

And then, suddenly, I was so utterly delighted and happy to imagine such a thing. I had the most wonderfully naïve and loving moment of pure joy. What if we knew for certain that every interaction would be free of any expectation or demand? What if anything other than growing our Selves in the light of what we could learn together were our goal?

No winning glory at anOther’s expense. No self-congratulation about our own readings, our own interpretations. No othering.

What kind of (healthy) mixed multitude could humanity become?

*I am deliberately choosing the third-person masculine form; that’s the deity we encounter her.

**This blog post is actually a love letter to All Saints and the folks therein. I owe them more than I could actually explain for their patience, their welcome, and their trust in me.

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