Paths of Silence

pathI have grown to expect silence when I visit Ellie.

But during one visit at hospice house, just after I went through her favorites – Shalom Aleychem, B’shem Hashem, Adon Olam, she looked at me intently and asked, with perfect diction: “Have you fixed my dress?”

“Yes, Ellie,” I replied. “I did. It looks fantastic. I think you will be very pleased when you see it.”

A prayer or two later, she spoke again.

“It’s almost time for lunch!”

It was about 10 a.m.

“What are you having?” I asked.

“Salmon salad,” she said firmly.

I smiled. But that was all she said that day.

Ellie is dying. Her way has been long and arduous. About a year ago, a brain tumor forced her into a wheelchair. Her speech became ever more irregular. It clearly exhausted her to say more than three or four words at a time. She would sit, with all her library books around her, living in a world dominated by her own silence.

At the beginning she tried to apologize. “I know…” Pause. “… what I want to say,” she would say. Long pause. “I just can’t…” Then, she would stop. Finishing the sentence was too much effort.

“Find the words,” I would whisper in my mind, completing the thought.

For months I told her that it was my job to read her eyes. They could do the talking for her.

A few months ago, she moved from the wheelchair to a hospital bed. I took her on walks with me. I’d narrate our stroll, ask her to do everything with me in her head. Sometimes I imagined every little thing we saw, every place we visited just as it unfolded in my own imagination.

Now and again, I asked her if there was anyone she knew with us. Once, she named her husband, Irving. I officiated Irving’s funeral in 2012.

I’d tell her when I could feel the presence of God – in the air, the sunlight, the green of trees. I’d tell her all the things I was sure of: How God loved her, how I loved her.

I saw Ellie last Friday. I don’t know if it is the tumor, but there is, now, a terrible, bulging lump on her forehead.

She mouthed a “yes” when I asked her if she wanted me to sing Shabbat prayers for her. So I sang. Suddenly, she burst out with a complete, utterly convincing sentence. “I hate having to turn my head,” she said.

So I got out of the chair, stood at the foot of the bed, held my guitar like a cello, and played “It’s a Wonderful World.” Ellie likes that song.

But I am wracked with doubt. Is this what she needs or wants? Do I speak of fear or blessing? Do I invoke God’s compassion and tenderness?

I can no longer read Ellie’s eyes. She looks at me most of the time, but not always. Sometimes she looks at paper she is crumpling in her hands. Sometimes, she stares across the room.

I drive home in my own silence, grieving.

Elie Wiesel – From Witness to Lobbyist

Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

When I knew her, university classes did not include semester-long studies of the Holocaust. Holocaust centers and museums were yet to become natural aspects to the way Americans memorialized twentieth-century history.

Hedy lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany. She escaped via the Kindertransport. She spoke often of the last moments with her parents – watching as their figures grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station.

They did not survive.

Hedy went back to Germany after World War II ended – to translate documents and records needed to prosecute the architects of medical experiments (read: crimes) at Dachau. Eventually, she moved to America.

During the mid 1980’s, she visited my classes on the Holocaust at the University of Missouri-Columbia, bringing small remnants of her past with her. I remember that she had a tin cup that relatives used while interned in a Vichy concentration camp.  The cup was used for all liquids, she explained. Eventually my students understood that the cup was used as a toilet as well as a drinking vessel.

She described each tormented aspect of her young life — being forced out of school, the breaking and plundering and torching of Jewish stores and synagogues during Kristallnacht, her father’s internment at Dachau, her parents’ justified fears for her survival, the finality of their murder.

A picture of Hedy Epstein was in The Charlotte Observer just days ago. She was one of hundreds of children of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors to sign an enraged condemnation of the ad Elie Wiesel took out in the New York Times on August 1.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and a towering presence, a prolific author and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, began his ad by referring to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative that rejected child sacrifice, he wrote, should be understood as the start of monotheism and western civilization.

This claim alone is deeply disturbing. It reflects a terrible and astonishing ignorance of the history of the Ancient Near East and Israel that I find hard to associate with Wiesel.

There is much, much worse here than clichés about the origins of civilization. Wiesel compares the deliberate annihilation of one million children by Nazi Germany to the use of children as human shields in the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. But genocide is not the same thing as the long-standing and historical capacity of human beings to make civilians — especially children — pay the terrible costs of war.

I am not minimizing the latter. But equating all things violent with the Holocaust is a horror of our times. Wiesel should know better than to engage in the appropriation of the Holocaust to fight a political battle.

Further, one simply has to wonder how Wiesel manages to exonerate Israel from any guilt whatsoever in the death of Palestinian children. He writes that it is “the terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”

Wait, what? Nothing Israel has ever done has contributed to the debased conditions so many Palestinian children endure? Does Israel bear no responsibility whatsoever for the lack of access to anything from food to water to medical care that has been part and parcel of life for so many Palestinian children? Nothing about the wall or checkpoints influences the lives of Palestinian children and the choices they can make about their future?

Is nothing about the way Prime Minister Netanyahu parlayed the death of three Israeli teens to gain support to, as the Israeli military calls it, “mow the grass” relevant to the choices Palestinian children have?

Wiesel paints the conflict as a “battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Is every aspect of the terrible destruction we have witnessed the product of “civilization” at war with “barbarism”? How could Elie Wiesel produce this simple-minded sound bite?

Barbarism is not simply the product of uncivilized descendants of the ancient world. Ordained rabbis in Israel have openly called for the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people.

I think of Hedy, describing that scene at the station, watching her parents faces as the train pulled away.

The sources of barbaric, brutal, evil behaviors and evil outcomes are many and varied. No one will be served by denying that Jews, too, are capable of them.

Gather Its Spoil

Gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the LORD your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt (Deuteronomy 13:17).

Palestinians walk across the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes in the Shejaiya residential district.

Destroyed buildings and homes in the Palestinian Shejaiya residential district.

I am no longer so comfortable with my own claims.

A little over two years ago, in May of 2012, I posted a piece I called “Walk This Way.” In it, I celebrated the intelligence of a rabbinic tradition that used, I claimed, the halakhic process to extract the best possible interpretation from our texts. I wrote about difficult texts – the ones decreeing the death of a rebellious son (Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and the passage condemning an idolatrous city, one we read in this past week’s Parsha Re’eih (Deuteronomy 13:13-19).

I freely admit that I still admire how the rabbis manage to use the text against itself in both cases. In the end, they make sure that there is no possibility of stoning a rebellious son. They insist that there never was an idolatrous city.

My conclusion?

Let’s face it: There are verses in Torah that would be heartless and incomprehensible and impossible to accept otherwise; we cannot, and will not conceive of putting to death a misbehaving child, and for all we know, those who wrote such verses found themselves subject to immediate reinterpretation in their very own time…

Halakha is a source of ongoing revelation. It has the power to define and redefine Jewish thinking, Jewish practice, Jewish purpose. Because we know that halakha itself invites change for the better, we have, in recent decades, invited women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews to the bimah. We were able to reconsider what was presented to us as the law and to reread the texts in a way that offered new pathways, new halakha.

I would still make this claim: Jews are asked to visit and revisit our texts in order to reinscribe them on our hearts. The reinscription is not literal, nor is it automatic. You can’t be childish about Judaism; you have to take responsibility for what you decide it is and must become.

But in the past weeks, I have had to ask myself if the rabbis’ solution is good enough. Here is the truth: The mere existence of such texts in any time and in any tradition is a dangerous thing.

Vian Dakheel 2Recently, a Kurdish Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, Vian Dakheel, pleaded for her people. She begged her brothers, again and again, she included the slaughter of Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Turkmen and Shabak. She described the butchery, the starvation, the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls.

“Mr. Speaker,” she says, weeping, “We are being butchered under the banner of ‘There is no God but Allah.’”

This example is an “easy” one. We can identify the evil represented by the Islamic State without the slightest hesitation. We can see how the injunction to doom an idolatrous city might translate into the kind of thing we are witnessing now as ISIS slaughters and destroys innocents.

I could also take an easy way into present-day politics in Israel. There are those in that state who openly call for the complete destruction of the Palestinian people. There are extremists I can cite, tactics they advocate I can describe. I can remind you of the murder of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israelis apparently of that ilk.

But what if I were to make this a much more difficult post? What if I were to say that the text about the idolatrous city is a frightening echo not only the extremist positions to be found in Israel but mainstream ones?

Look more closely at this passage in Deuteronomy and the verses that precede it. You will see that one of the most important aspects of the injunctions therein are warning the Israelites against those in their midst that can be declared traitors to YHVH.

Jews who beg other Jews to recognize the rights of Palestinians are regularly, in this country, pilloried and attacked for “betraying” Israel. How many Jews are still afraid to express their doubts after seeing the cost of this latest war – on Palestinian homes and communities, on roads and hospitals, on the elderly, on children?

We cannot so neatly and easily put the blame on Hamas for every aspect of destruction the Palestinians have experienced this past summer, and we know it. Or we should.

We need to name dangerous points of view in Israel in the same way we need to name our dangerous texts. Both present a frightening intransigence and self-righteousness. Intransigence and self-righteousness are killing people.

Dangerous speech, dangerous texts – these things must be outed and condemned, not circumvented or explained away. As the founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said, we have shit to shovel.

Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, for you will be heeding the LORD your God, doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 13:18).

What we write, we create. What we speak has power. What we excuse will haunt us.

What’s Your Workout Plan?

Lazy girlA woman goes to try on wedding dresses. The dress attendant asks: “So what’s your workout plan?”

No joke. Neither is the picture, at left, or the images you will get if you do a search for “workout plans.”  Try it, if you want to get inundated with images of what America thinks are healthy bodies.  Expect, if you have a feminist bone in your body, to find the experience upsetting.

It is, of course, incumbent upon all American brides to lose weight and turn into Kate Moss for the actual ceremony. But does a wedding dress attendant have any business asking such a question to anyone regardless of their proportions? Classify this under “rude” and “intrusive.”

Also: The question is predicated on the prevailing notion that a wedding is all about how the bride looks and that every last one wants – or needs – to lose weight.

Dress size is not relevant, heart-size is.

Just now, I am working with a mother whose child is approaching his bar mitzvah. Her anxieties about finding the right dress for her child’s bar mitzvah strike me as running along rather similar tracks. She has discussed these worries with both my husband and me. Why?

Wretched excess is par for the course at family simchas.

More than a decade ago, my then twelve-year-old son, Erik, and I attended a bar mitzvah that boasted a Caribbean theme. Little umbrellas were everywhere, along with tropical fruit decorations. The décor must have cost thousands of dollars. The family had hired a steel drum band that only knew the first part of Hava Nagila. This led to endless loops of the same opening verse, which led to dance step confusion. What about “uru.. uru achim…”?

I began to rant as soon as we left, listing all the absurd b’nai mitzvah “themes” I had seen in my life. Finally, I imploded.

“Why not the shtetl?” I asked Erik. “Let’s do something that belongs to our history. Poverty and potato soup!”

“Why not Siberia?” he asked. “Solitary confinement!”

“Why not the ghetto?” I rejoined. “Disease and dread!”

Suffice it to say that there was no theme at Erik’s bar mitzvah. There was no band. There was no catering. We had a pot luck.

We did mark the fact that Erik was reading from Parsha Noach by lining up little rubber animals we got from a dollar store on each table in rows of two. Adults played with tiny camels, anteaters, and a few dinosaurs that didn’t make it in time to the ark.

What is the purpose of such ritual celebrations?

A wedding is when two people stand publicly in holy space they have made with one another and for one another. They allow beloved family members and some friends to witness the existence of that space. Witnesses are given a window into a miracle: What (true) love looks like.

You can see the same kind of miracle at a baby naming. You can watch it unfold in the lined faces and graying hair of the couple celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. You can see it in the faces of parents watching their children leyn from a Torah scroll. You will find true love in abundance at funerals.

It is so simple for officiants and family alike: Offer the holy space of the couple’s love, the child’s miraculous (always) birth, the teen’s learning, the gifts the deceased gave to others during his or her life. Provide opportunities for tears and laughter. Understand the power of witnessing.

I interview all the couples I officiate for. During the interview I type about four or five pages of notes – single spaced, no less. I learn their story. They tell me about themselves, about sad and wonderful times, about who they want to be.

Various aspects of the ceremony come from these notes – most importantly, the message I deliver.

The message is meant to be a prose poem. Its theme is the holy and unique space that belongs to that couple. I describe the partnership they have created together, the marriage they will make.

Recently, a groom asked me for a copy of my notes. He didn’t care that they might not always be in perfect sentences and well-crafted paragraphs. He wanted the raw stuff of my message. He planned to frame each page and hang them before his wife’s desk. She would raise her eyes from her work and see the stories she had told me about the way he had become her friend, partner, lover, and husband.

I witnessed, from afar, what happened when he gave her this gift. She held up, ever so carefully and slowly, each frame. She scanned the section about her pumpkin sweater, about the way he had his grandmother’s ring resized for her.

What was her workout plan (or his)?

To create a wedding in which they could declare, with love all around them, what their love had become. To invite the small group that was present – to share and to witness the couple’s hope and to relive and revive their own.

You know, I think it worked out.

Torah of Many Gods – No One is Alone

kuntillet ajrud 02bIn the interests of fair disclosure, I am about to demonstrate that the authors of our Torah sometimes went to unusual lengths to cover up our polytheistic tendencies.

To some extent, you would not think the twisted maneuvers I am about to describe would be necessary. After all, if the Israelites hadn’t been wayward worshippers of Baal and the like, our prophets would have been out of a job.

It remains a fact that ancient scribes found various passages troubling, and they messed with them. We know this for a fact. We can identify insertions, deletions, and the like in the service of clarifying (for example) a confusing theological problem. It helps to have, in some cases, various examples of the same text to see what’s going down, but there are also other methods of discovery.

The following lesson will be based on textual comparison, though, just so you don’t think I am one of those people who will post anything that wanders into my dreams and nightmares. I know those people. My students keep quoting them.

The writers of Torah were mostly monolatrous. This is not some form of sexual deviance. Monolatry is a kind of polytheism in which one recognizes the existence of other deities for other people-groups. In the Ancient Near East, deities possess specific geographical territory. Chemosh holds sway in Moab. Marduk hangs out in Babylonia.

Here’s the important part: Your own deity is always the biggest and the bestest on the block.

The name of our national God-dude is YHVH. That’s the name. Not “Elohim” or “Adonai.” Our God has a name, and it is YHVH. To be certain, we are not exactly certain how to pronounce it, but that is the stuff of another blog (though really, you can find that information everywhere –rather like pictures of the humongous statue of Jesus in Brazil).

YHVH shows up in some rather unexpected places in the archeological record. Often, on pots. And not infrequently, given the sample sizes from the eighth century BCE, YHVH is paired with another deity whose name happens to be Asherah.

Long, long ago, in the Canaanite culture that helped give birth to Israelite culture (some historians say the Israelites were actually just Canaanites with a new look), the pantheon of deities was headed up by El Elyon, also known simply as “El.” He bossed around a number of lesser deities. Among them were Ba’al and Asherah and, it would seem, for some ancient Israelites, YHVH.

Check out Kuntillet Ajrud, an archeological site occupied between the ninth and eight centuries BCE. The site has yielded a number of inscriptions to El, Ba’al, Asherah, and YHVH. Here as elsewhere, YHVH is paired with “his” Asherah (in other texts, she is referred to as his “consort”). YHVH, for some ancient Israelites, had a wife.

Now, the text in question. Here it is, in three textual forms:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Masoretic Text (MT) Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Septuagint (LXX)
 [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.[9] For YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the divine beings (literally, “sons of god[s]”).[9] For the YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his inherited portion. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)divided the nations,when he separated the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.[9] And his people Jacob became the portion of the YHVH, Israel was the line of his Inheritance.

“Sons of men” are people groups. Who is “Jacob”? Jacob is not used just to refer to the character of our Torah, but to the whole people of Israel. Same thing for the Septuagint’s use of the name Israel. The names Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably for the Israelite nation in ancient texts. See, for example, the point at which the seer Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelite nation though he is hired to curse them:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5).

Still, no matter how you shake it, the Masoretic Text is weird. El Elyon apparently fixes the boundaries of people according to the, um, sons of Israel. Wait, what?Torah names an awful lot of people groups – we don’t ALL descend from Jacob’s loins. Let’s see: Ishmaelites, Moabites, Kenites, and so on and so forth. Weirder: the text says YHVH is given Jacob as a people group, as a “portion” of all humankind. But all humankind is from Israel/Jacob.

Scholars have long since decided that the DSS is giving us the older version of this story, in which El Elyon (that Canaanite head honcho, remember?) divided up the peoples according to the subsidiary deities of his pantheon. El Elyon gave Israel/Jacob to YHVH.

The Septuagint is trying to get a more monotheistic read by insert angels for subsidiary deities. The MT is going one better and trying to get the reader to read as though El Elyon is actually the same deity as YHVH. But the rewrite is challenging – almost nonsensical.

The Israelites were not monotheistic. Actually, most Jews today aren’t monotheistic either – not strictly speaking. Neither are Muslims or Christians. All three of us insist that there are other supernatural beings inhabiting the divine world – whether angels or demons of some sort. God is not alone.

But then, no one is.

A Prayer for Eleanor

ElanorWhen I was young, I decided that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Elanor, after the tiny, tender yellow flower described in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

As a middle-aged woman, I met an Eleanor. She reminded me of that little blossom, the small, star-shaped flower brought by the Elves to the earth, a blossom of grace and beauty.

The Eleanor I met was mostly called ‘Ellie.’ In our first meeting, at a Shavuot picnic, she sat on a park bench, spotlessly and elegantly dressed in summery whites and pastels. Her face spoke of composure, introspection.

In our early year, I accompanied Ellie through the death of her brilliant and gentlemanly husband, Dr. Irving Joffe, a man who held a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Irving Joffe held patents in his first profession and then went on to become a doctor of radiology at Tufts University, at the University of Rochester, at the Yale School of Medicine.

Ellie bore her loss with grace. And then, her own decline with like grace.

Ellie has struggled for years with a brain tumor. First, she could walk less and less. Then she was entirely confined to her wheelchair. In the past months, she has been unable to get out of bed.

She is a considerate, thoughtful woman. She loves to learn. Until very recently, I never visited her without seeing a stack of books nearby.

This past year, she lost more and more control over her speech. Now and again, I would see a tear of frustration as she struggled to speak, to find the words.

“I know what I want to say,” she said. “I can’t find the words.”

One day, as she fought for words, finally giving up with a gentle smile, I said: “Ellie, your eyes are trying to tell me what you are thinking. I will try to read your eyes.”

Over the past year, she would compose herself, I could tell, for every visit. I had to name the challenges she was facing before she would acknowledge them. Slowly, a little reluctantly, she would nod if I asked her if she was feeling sad.

I visited her this morning. Now, Ellie is having trouble swallowing. Her caretaker told me she was not communicating. She was sleeping, mostly. I expected her to sleep through the entire visit and decided to play soft prayers so she could rest.

I took out my guitar. “Shalom Aleychem,” I sang. “Peace be on you.” Then I sang a lullaby of angels, B’shem Hashem. “May Michael be on my right, and on my left Gavriel. Uriel before me and behind me, Rafael. And over me, Shekhinat El.” I sang the prayer of peace, Oseh Shalom.

But I did not sing Ellie to sleep. Her tender eyes were open, observing me the entire time. She twice wiped a tear from her right eye while I was singing “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Listen, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Finally, I sang Adon Olam.

I knew what I was doing, and it hurt.

Adon Olam is sung as a final prayer in Friday night services. But it is also recited in the room of a dying person. The last stanza reads “Into Your hand I entrust my soul both asleep and awake. And with my soul, my body too. You are with me; I am not afraid.”

“God’s palm,” I said, “is holding you tenderly, Ellie.”

I believe that. I believe that God knows Eleanor Joffe for the quiet, loving lady she is. I believe she is treasured and held. She is beloved.

After I sang, I blessed her. I asked God to give her ease and shalom. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me. I tried to read her eyes. But all I saw there was her exhaustion.

I kissed her head. “I bless your kepe,” I said.

I stood at the door, speaking softly with her caregiver, when I heard, suddenly, Ellie’s voice.

“I love you,” she called out hoarsely. “I love you. I love you.”

I turned. Her arms were outstretched.

I put down my guitar, my notebook. I went back to her hospital bed and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. “I love you, too, Ellie. I love you, too.”

And she said, again and again, “I love you. I love you.”

Ellie, tender, star-shaped, yellow flower of generosity and kindness, of beauty and grace. When the time comes, I pray that the Holy One of Blessing gathers you up like one would gather a flower. With the tenderness a fragile, elegant, lovely thing deserves.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.

Healthy Irreverence

Jesus in Brasil 1Everyone needs a dose of healthy irreverence now and again. Two such doses are found below. My advice: Avoid like a biblical plague, should you feel disinclined to laugh at religion. Including your own.

Part 1: In which I make fun of relatives and an excessively large statue of Jesus

I am not certain why, but I grew up with Jewish people who frequently called on Jesus. As in: “Jesus! I can’t believe that guy just ran that light. What in God’s name was he thinking?”

You could have all sorts of fun with this. Who would Jesus be in this formulation? Who is God?

Certain relatives of mine invoked Jesus’ name with middle initials included. Or they described his actual location. You can imagine.

For many decades, I have worked to purge myself of the remotest tendency to follow examples set by my relatives. Seriously, how would I feel if I overheard someone saying: “Adonai on Mt. Sinai, what the hell just happened here?”

I will admit it. I regressed last Sunday.

My husband, Ralf, and I were watching the World Cup finals between Germany and Argentina. It would take time to explain, but it happens that I am a die-hard fan of the German team.

The broadcast kept getting interrupted by shots of the second-largest statue of Jesus in the world (the other one is in Poland, as you might expect). The 98-foot tall soapstone and concrete statue in question is located at the top of the 2,300-foot Corcovado mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Jesus looks down at the city below, arms outstretched. A huge sun was burning over Jesus’ head. Very dramatic.

We have seen a good deal of this impressive statue during the tournament.

Naturally, the first time the statue appeared on the screen, I was annoyed. After all, pictures of this statue are everywhere. Just google “Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro” and you will get twenty-four million hits. (And now, for full effect in actual numerals: 24,000,000 hits.)

So why did we need to see it just then, I ask, when the Lionel Messi was very likely to make another crazy-beautiful run for the German goal?

The second time the image interrupted the game, I felt the ire rising.

“Crikey!” I said.

I used to think this was a harmless, meaningless expression. But I just discovered, whilst looking it up, that it is a 19th century euphemism for “Christ.” Um, sorry.

On Jesus’ third coming, I leapt up from my chair and shouted, “Jesus! Can we please watch the game?”

Yup, my bad.

Part 2: In which I make fun of my own people

Jews across the world, when citing the only creedal statement Judaism possesses, generally do not know that what they are saying actually contradicts what they are saying.

I shall explain. Jews possess one essential dogma: the Shema. The whole phrase goes like this: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.” Most translations say something to the effect of “Listen, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Jews think they are making a steadfast declaration of God’s oneness when they chant the Shema. No loose and irregular ideas about any family relationships or separate components. God is a unity.

Just say “one.”

I should first mention that the word “Lord” is not actually to be found in this text. Jews apply the vowels for the Hebrew word “lord” (adonai) over the letters that represent the personal, private name of the deity so they won’t try to pronounce said name. This was once the prerogative of the High Priest. Now, no one gets to try.

Some people add other vowels in to come up with the transliterated name “Yahweh,” but this is mere speculation. The letters in the scroll don’t have vowels. This is what you get, and that’s all (transliterated, of course): YHVH.

The second salient word for our purposes is “Eloheinu” which means “our God.” I will not get into the complex fact that the source for this word is “Elohim,” which can also mean “gods” and does sometimes mean exactly that in our scriptures (as in “other gods” – see Exodus 20:3 where you will find exactly this expression).

Once upon an ancient time, there was a Canaanite deity who went by the name of El, sometimes referred to as El Elyon. And if you look about in ancient texts and archeological evidence you will find that our forefathers of long ago knew quite a lot about the Canaanite pantheon in which El had subsidiary deities. One of these went by the name of YHVH.

I can go into all the detail in another blog post and when I do, we will hang out in Deuteronomy for an excellent illustration of what happened to biblical texts when their editors tried to cover up our messy theological history. The important facts in this particular blog are these: Long, long ago, in some parts of the Ancient Near East, El and YHVH were two different deities, one subordinate to the other. Eventually, our ancestors did the work of conflating names for those deities into varying appellations for the one god we worship.

We mean it when we say that God is one. But we use the names for two different ancient deities when we say so.

Religion is funny.

Given the many terrors in the world that religion produces, I like to take it tongue-in-cheek now and again. Only now and again, though.

Today is the 17th of Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached in the 6th century BCE. The destruction of Jerusalem was just weeks away.

Here’s why I make sure my irreverence is a sometime thing.  Because I am, in fact, certain that divinity is both in all of us and ever around us, eternal and beautiful. I like to look for it, hope for it, and be thankful for it.

Given the world we are living in, that’s one thing I am never irreverent about.

Horror Upon Horror – And Hope?

Three Israeli Boys

Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel

There is never enough horror.

In the first week of July, we learned that Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar, the three Israeli boys kidnapped on June 12 were, in fact, murdered – within hours of their capture. Likely, the authorities were aware of that fact, given, among other things, the frantic cell phone call from one of the teens played at the burial.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Israel reacted with a massive round-up of over 400 Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. Five Palestinians died in the crackdown, including another teen, 15-year-old teenager Mohammed Dudeen.

The burial of the three Israeli boys was followed, also within hours, by the brutal beating of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was then set on fire.  He died sucking in the flames consuming him.

Terrors unfold so fast that there is no keeping up or holding back the bile.

Yesterday I read an eloquent analysis of the horror of acquiescence.  David Grossman’s essay “On hope and despair in the Middle East” was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Today,” Grossman wrote, “in an Israel that has known so much disappointment, hope (if ever mentioned at all) is always hesitant, a bit timid, and apologetic. Despair, on the other hand, is utterly confident and self-assured, as if speaking on behalf of a law of nature, an axiom that states that between these two peoples there shall never be peace, that the war between them is a heavenly decree, and that altogether, it will always be bad here, nothing but bad. As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer, and at worst, a traitor who weakens Israel’s wherewithal by encouraging it to be seduced by false visions.

“In this sense, the Israeli right has won. The right, which adheres to this worldview – certainly over the last decades – has managed to instill it in a majority of Israelis. One could say that the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.”

It is eloquent, impassioned reading.

For days I have remembered the nightmare years of the early 1980s, when I went on radio shows in Columbia, Missouri, as a local peace activist.  I was asked to speak about the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.  The Israelis were complicit, it had been discovered, in the Phalangist-perpetrated Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Palestinians were murdered en masse while Israeli Defense Forces surrounded both camps, stationing troops in order to stop any residents from escaping the slaughter.

And now, today in Israel?

Tens of thousands of “likes” on a Facebook page calling for “revenge” for the murder of the three teens.

Explicit calls from all directions to kill Arabs (or political leftists).

Members of the Knesset quoting Torah to prove that there is a God of revenge who backs their murderously inflammatory rhetoric.

And the like, as one would expect, from the “other side” is just as pernicious, just as hateful, just as ever-present.

This is not “mere” extremism.  None of this is spontaneously generated by the particular horror of the way those boys died.  It is the result of years of hope suppressed, perverted, dismissed.

In my lifetime, I have watched – yes, in horror – as Israel’s hope has been highjacked.

I was lucky to have been ordained by ALEPH – The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the same year as Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who was born and raised in America and has lived and worked in Israel on a kibbutz for decades.  Recently, he wrote: “I am very much aware that history is playing itself out on so many different levels and that recent events look very different from different vantage points… The more I read, the more I feel that the distinction is not between Jews and Arabs, but really between those who believe in using physical force, violence and fear, and those who believe in ‘live and let live,’ in using tools of peace and coexistence, in creating peace by de-escalating at EVERY OPPORTUNITY.”

He signed, as he always has as long as I have known him, “pray for peace.”

And so I shall.  Because there is enough horror.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l

My copy of Jewish With Feeling wasn’t on the shelf.

“Oh,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “I remember. I lent it to someone. Again.”

Jewish With Feeling is one of many books by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on my shelf. It is also a book I lend out more often than any other in our library. It is a book anyone can read – without fear of knowing too little; without fear of knowing too much.

It is a reflection of Zalman’s spirit: Light-filled, opening, welcoming, rich.

Reb Zalman died this morning, just weeks away from his ninetieth birthday celebration.

He was the founder of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The ALEPH seminary has ordained over 80 religious leaders. I am among them. I learned, at this seminary, the difference between rebbe and rabbi; I learned to be the former even when I was called the latter.

He was friends with countless other religious leaders across the world. One was the Dalai Lama. Their encounters were described in Rodger Kamenetz’ book The Jew in the Lotus.

I read the book well before discovering Jewish Renewal. I very much liked the Reb Zalman I met there – years before I got to like him in person.

Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear.

This morning I told a friend, “He gave something to everyone.”

Wisdom, first and foremost. I learned from Zalman to put aside the siddur and listen for the prayer that needed to be voiced. I learned, from Reb Zalman, to recover the Jewish practice of spontaneous blessing, though I am certain he would have understood why I so closely observed Christian friends practicing their own take on that art.

I learned from Reb Zalman that it was the task of the rebbe to look into the soul of a congregant.

Zalman was a seer of souls. The first time I met him was after he attended a service I co-led in 2005. He remarked on my “singing smile.” Later, that very day, he dedicated one of his books to me, to one “who delights in tefillah.”

Of all the facts of my life, this is one that has never failed. Give me any opportunity to sing prayer and I will know God’s presence for the gift it is. Zalman (fore)saw that.

In his book, Wrapped in Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman quotes his friend, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l: “How do you know that you have met your true teacher? Whatever this person teaches you, you knew it all along.”

Reb Zalman taught people what they knew all along – that went for everyone, Jewish or not.

I teach his work. For me, his most gorgeous teachings were these: Look into the soul before you. Help make our texts speak. Tell our stories and live them in the telling.

Show others what it is to be Jewish with feeling.

The Whole Story

Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara  Photo by Ronald Hartsell

Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara
Photo by Ronald Hartsell

I don’t really know if anyone knows the whole story.

The whole story is painful. It is beautiful.

When my little congregation formed in January, 2004 as a havurah, our first meetings were held at a local church in Concord, North Carolina. One of our interfaith couples suggested that church; one of the two spouses was an active and happy member at that church.

So we met in their fellowship hall once a month or so for about a year.

None of us knew that there was a deep division in the community about our presence. None of us knew that the minister (who has long since moved away) was being visited each week by church members who believed Jews worshipping in the church was a real danger to the community.  She told me later what they had said.

“The Jews will destroy the church.”

I had a few other minister friends in Concord. One was Pastor Steve Ayers, of McGill Baptist Church. Wounded and shocked, I told him what had happened.

He said, “Come to McGill, Barbara.”

So we moved to a Baptist church in Concord.

We knew that some Jews would automatically assume that we were messianic and would not dare to come and find out otherwise. We knew that some people would call McGill and ask if Jews met there. We knew both congregations might take a hit for their conviction that they could worship in the same space with love, tenderness, and respect.

In the very first year we were at McGill we learned we would have to raise thousands of dollars to restore our first Torah. For twelve families, that was a daunting challenge. Steve told me that McGill Baptist would refuse to take any rent; whatever money we had should go to the restoration.

To this day, I remind congregants that some of the letters on our first Torah were put there by Baptist generosity.

Sometimes, despite all our busy schedules, we managed to do congregational things together – a joint Hanukkah-Christmas party, a trip to see the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit when it came to Charlotte. I visited the McGill Baptist Adult Education class every year and spoke on a range of different topics to a community of enthusiastic and loving learners.

I stood before the congregation yesterday to thank them. I cried through each word. I thought of the things that had happened to me in that sanctuary.

Before we made the move to McGill, the congregation had invited me to deliver a talk on Judaism. After a long and wonderfully enthusiastic conversation with congregants at a program that was supposed to last an hour and turned into almost three hours, I turned to my husband, Ralf, and said, “I think I better apply to rabbinical school – I need to know a lot more than I do to answer questions like those.”

Later, I joked that I got the “call” in a Baptist sanctuary.

I have sung Avinu Malkeynu with passion and power in that room. I have prostrated onto its floor. I have felt the souls of my ancestors attending to our prayers.

I have heard birds chirping at the window while we sang Elohai neshama, “my God, the soul you have given me is pure.”

I have seen my congregants dance across the sanctuary floor. Children have sung prayers and chanted from our Torahs. We have celebrated, and celebrated, and celebrated again.

God has flowed right through my bones.

How could I manage to tell those generous people at McGill that I became a better rabbi in their sanctuary, that I learned how to serve the Holy One there?

At yesterday’s service, Pastor Steve gave Temple Or Olam a blessing. He wished us well as we move closer to the university area, to another location and a different part of the way on our path. He reminded his congregation (and us) that living the love of God is our task. We are the face of the divine, he said. Sometimes we are the only messenger to others for that love.

He spoke about what it means to love others who are not always like you, who speak or look or act differently, but who need your outstretched arms, your heart and soul extended.

B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God were we created. Each of us is a face of the Divine.

To all of you at McGill Baptist Church: For your grace, your generosity, your open-heartedness, and your love, I say again, “thank you.”

God knows the whole story.