Naked Truths: Democracy (in Inaction)

A Christian minister and friend of mine, Marcus Singleton, said recently: “We go to church to dress up, not to take off.”

What was his point? We put on our clothing and we protect ourselves against the nakedness of heart and soul that tells the real truth about who we are and what we must do. Instead, we wrap ourselves in known phrases, in liturgy we can recite by heart. We are good, we hear the word of God clearly, there are safe havens for us.

Yet: If ever we needed to take off and take away what we think we can use to protect ourselves, it is now. And we must not only do this in every faith setting we know. We must do this work as a nation. Who are we now? What have we become?

We can wrap ourselves in symbols and platitudes as Americans just as we can wrap ourselves in liturgy and scripture, but if we do not face the raw truths of our condition and name the naked realities before us – whether we are in church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or the streets of our country – there will be no clothing of any kind to protect us or the generations after us. Our democratic institutions are vulnerable and naked.

When Donald Trump was inaugurated, I told family members that I was pretty sure that if he relieved himself on the Oval Office rug, leading Republicans would rush in to ask “May I clean that up for you, Sir?” I was engaging in dark, ironic humor. So I thought.

My friends, we have seen exactly this occur for years. Donald Trump has effectively done just that all over our democracy and every institution that upholds it. The Republican Party leadership has rushed in to clean away the evidence and pretend that there are no stains. They have regularly engaged in selling out America’s democracy, and they are doing just that right now.

Breaking News: The president of Acirema just lost his bid for reelection by millions of votes. He is refusing to admit defeat. He has publicly lied about the voting process, claiming corruption and fraud though there is no evidence of either. He is filing lawsuits to throw out ballots and pressuring his party leaders for support. He is refusing to engage in a peaceful transfer of power and his party leaders are, so far, supporting him.

This is no banana republic. Acirema is America, backwards. This is us, right now.

There is a real effort to subvert the rule of law going on. There is an attempt to hold on to power despite the will of the people. The leadership of one party in this country has acceded and agreed to support the destruction of the country they claim to serve.

Republican leaders are putting on all sorts of fancy clothing. The president has a “right” to file frivolous lawsuits. He has to have his “say.” He has to “ask questions.”

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick will offer up to up to $1 million to “incentivize, encourage and reward” people for reports of voter fraud even though members of his own party dominated election results up and down the ballot, winning and winning big. That’s how important supporting a would-be dictator is to Mr. Patrick. What Trump has excreted on our country is being spread about by Republican leaders.

There are not just stains to contend with. Acid is being thrown at our democracy, on our country. I want to know where my fellow Americans are — Republican, Democrat, Independent, et al. What are you dressing in, today?

Last Monday and Tuesday marked Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom the Nazis unleased on Jewish communities. Some 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish businesses were attacked or destroyed. The Nazis arrested and imprisoned 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.

Maybe we should remember what happens in dictatorships. Because there are people in this country leading this country who sure don’t seem to mind if we look like one. As a historian, I can say this: Looking like one leads to becoming one.

You thought your clothing protected your body? You thought our institutions would protect your rights? History demonstrates that states give rights and states can take them away.

You, and the country you love, stand naked. If we do not recognize how vulnerable we are right now, and if we fail to do the work of protecting the democratic institutions of these United States of America, what comes may be no United States of America at all.

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Seeing in the Dark

My childhood was mostly spent in the dark. People said things each day, each hour, that featured a disconcerting disassociation with truth. There was so much gaslighting it is a wonder we all didn’t go up in flames.

To live in confusion, surrounded by lies and fabrication, evil deeds and coverups, is to live in the dark. There is only one way out: to name what hides in the black, to describe it in all its awful detail, to insist on dragging it into the light so that it may be seen for what it is. A dark world is given its power by fear and by silence.

I have spent my adult life as a teacher and writer naming what I see in the dark: every historical field I worked and wrote about — from the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the silver mines of Potosí to the merciless marketing of the Shoah in literature, film, and even memorial sites — was another effort to reveal that which can destroy life, honor, and memory.

I came to biblical studies late in my life. The texts we call sacred mean the world to me — they are rich and real. And they are as limited and flawed as we are. We may not imagine ourselves safe from their deficits, for they constrict and even harm us. To name those deficits is as important as naming what can inspire us. We may laud the transformative words of psalms attributed to King David; we may not avoid passages describing his unmitigated, wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Canaan. “When David attacked a region, he would leave no man or woman alive; he would take flocks, herds, asses, camels, and clothing” (1 Sam. 27:9).

Recently, I joked with my ALEPH seminary students that the book I am currently writing — Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities — is not a book I imagine many of my Jewish Renewal colleagues wanting to read. That book will not offer wise advice or well-crafted and stirring interpretations of beautiful and, yes, inspiring texts. This book is about the dark, and about naming things and making things visible that hide there.

Emily Stern, one of the students in my class, later wrote to me: “It is this very love of looking at the hard stuff, of bringing ourselves to a text that does not even appear to include us, to shun us even, and NOT sweeping the ugly or complicated things under the rug, that is one true nature of love—  ‘I love you too much to ignore this and not try to work through it. To bring myself truly to this honestly,’ to not be too tired to do this work, or to do it despite being tired…”

Emily wrote that such work was an act of praise, a praise of God.

I had thought, all these years, that I was drawn to study what terrified me because I believed that I could master fear that way. Emily recast my life’s work for me: Was naming things in the dark, the things that threatened life, my way to learn what I needed to do to protect life? And was that learning an act of praise and thanks to God for helping me have the will to do that work?

We are living in a dark world. In some parts of our country the skies are orange and gray and our people cannot breathe. In others, storms are coming at accelerated speed. Our planet burns and bakes and boils and we continue, each day, to witness those in power lying so obviously, so provably that the lies are not so much shocking as surreal. The destruction of life, of honor, of memory is in the click-baiting headlines that frighten us as they draw us in.

How can we praise God? By naming what we see in the dark.

May we enter this New Year with courage and strength. May we find conviction and clarity to insist on naming what we must reject and calling forth that which we need to create life, to live love.

You put a new song into my mouth:
Praise to You, our God.
(from Psalm 40, translation Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

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On Blessing and Curse: A Prayer of Repentance From One Who Went Astray

O Lord, You have set before me blessing and curse: blessing if I obey the commandments and curse if I do not (Deut. 12:26). You have warned me sternly not to go after other gods. You have reminded me that all that is birthed first on this earth is yours, whether animal or vegetable.

And lo, O Lord, this summer I have gone after other gods, most particularly the god of pride. I have failed to sacrifice the first fruits and I have earned the curses that have arrived at my door.

For in the springtime, I ventured on a new path of blessing. I tilled the earth and I established a garden with my little family. In hope and joy we planted; the sweat of our brows watered our seedlings. Much grew apace, Holy One, for we had an unusually wet and cool spring for North Carolina, at which time it is far more typical for the sun to blaze and parch the world, destroying all that is green, yea, unto the last blade of grass.

Our lettuce and spinach grew in the spring rains. And the kale, O Lord, was so prolific that we knew not a single day without it filling our salad bowls. When spring plants were done with us, we planted tomatoes and cucumbers, squash and zucchini, and, with great joy, the jalapeno peppers and baby eggplant.

My husband, Holy One, helped me tear down our fence and rebuild it so that we could double the space in our garden. And we were proud, very proud indeed of our very first vegetable garden.

We were, O Lord, so proud that we posted pictures of our produce on the very field of false gods. Yes, I speak of Facebook, which otherwise we both pretty much ignore, for we do not wish to be used and abused by those who lie and cheat and lie again in a world where there is no law.

O Lord, I tried many new recipes with our Malabar spinach, which, like the kale, pleased our digestive tracts. The first tomatoes began to sprout and we reaped large and impressive cucumbers that solicited silly jokes even, yea, from two aged people such as we have become. And I continued to speak of our garden to all who would listen, boring my friends and family with tales of the perfect jalapeno peppers and the deep purple of the baby eggplants I dipped in oil and spices and roasted to perfection.

But I failed, Holy One of Blessing. I failed in my folly and my pride. I am sure that You were fed up when the first yellow squash was harvested, for I took it into our kitchen and chopped it up and cooked it that night in a curry with Berber spice. The very next day, O Lord, I walked proudly down to the garden and found my beautiful squash plant collapsed, lying flat on the earth from which it had been birthed.

I blamed voles until I discovered holes in the cucumbers, O Lord.

In great distress, I googled and read of nasty boring beasts which lay their eggs on cucumber and squash and their relative, the zucchini, only to give birth to death and destruction. I continued anointing my plants with Neem, O Lord, but it was no use. I cut off the offending dead parts, but healthy leaves collapsed the next day. I smote the bugs and laid out Tupperware with bright yellow rags and water to divert them from the pretty yellow flowers unto which the pesty things laid their disgusting, jelly-like eggs. There was no hope, O Lord: every small, beautiful vegetable upon my zucchini and squash plants was bored through in a matter of days, yea, even hours.

Upon reading Parsha R’eih, I began to suspect that my immediate consumption of our first yellow squash was too much for You, O Lord. For by that time I had long since consumed the first fruits of nearly every plant in our garden. And so the pests came and the curse arrived. I suspect, too, that you may have had something to do with the bizarre and torrential daily rains that have never before been seen during late summer months, at least not during my three decades in this state. For they have forced my shiny green tomatoes to stretch their skins and crack before they could possibly turn the coveted rich red of those to be found supermarkets. Even a few of the cherry tomatoes have suffered the bursting disease.

Had I only sacrificed my first fruits to you, O Lord, had I only thanked you in kind for the gift of my garden, had I but paid attention, too, to learning about pest control before planting, perhaps the plagues of beast and storm would not have ravaged my garden.

O Lord, I vow that in the next growing season I will sacrifice the first fruit of every plant, from eggplant to tomato and pepper to, I pray, zucchini. For you have set before me blessing and curse and you have reminded me that my pride is a dangerous thing indeed.

And you will get an extra helping of kale, I promise.

I dedicate this post to my son, Erik Henning Thiede, who was born the first of Elul in a year when the reading was R’eih. And I thank him and his wife, Serafina Ha, for helping us create our first vegetable garden ever.

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Which Temple Should I Mourn? Reflections on Tisha B’Av, 5780

I knew Tisha B’Av first as a date that stood for repeated griefs for European Jews. I taught it as such in my courses on the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Jews were expelled from England and from Spain on that date, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated… the list I offered my students was painful and exhausting.

I was factually aware that Tisha B’Av was sourced in far more ancient pain – the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE. In later years, reading, studying, and teaching the Book of Lamentations became a way to understand the desperation of a people trapped and doomed. God’s absence and silence in this text is shattering, no matter how often you read it.

The destruction of the Second Temple is often depicted as a fundamental crisis for Jews of the first century. Surely, the Temple was a symbol of power and might for Jews already long since living in diaspora. It was a memory of a long-lost sovereignty and power. It was imposing for those who saw it.

But by the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, Jews were living all over the known world and had been doing so for many, many centuries. There were a dozen functioning synagogues in Rome. There were Jews in Africa, Asia Minor, living their communal lives without sacrifice and temple services. Was the destruction of the Second Temple a massive dislocation of Jewish life, a cataclysm for (say) the Jews of Ostia, Italy or Priene, Turkey? We have no evidence that it was. In fact, of all the literature produced by Jews in the time of the Second Temple available to us, almost none of it actually refers to the Temple itself. Jews had other things on their minds.

Every year, as I step into this day of mourning, I ask myself: What am I really mourning? Is there a land, a space, a place more holy than any other on this earth? Is there any structure humans have built that I should value more than any other – even in memory?

What grief needs to be recognized, understood? What am I mourning?

It is the earth itself that cries out to me now. In the maelstrom of a pandemic, understandably worried about our human survival, we seem to have forgotten that we have unleashed disease and death on her, on Gaia.

The teshuva the last chapter of Lamentations begs for? This is a teshuva Gaia cries out for in every day of melting polar ice caps and deforestation and collapsing insect populations. We are burning our planet.

Every day I go to my gardens. I check my compost piles. I watch for the tomatoes growing on the vines, the peppers, the eggplants. I turn the earth and I touch it, I tend and I harvest and we eat what we have grown as often as we can. I look to see if the hummingbirds and bees and butterflies and birds have the right blossoms, the right colors, the right sense of home. Can I sustain them through what I plant, what I farm?

My mashpiah (spiritual director) recently suggested that I ask, each day: Mi bara eyleh? Who made this? Doing so, I bring the Holy One into my home and I thank her. And then I ask for forgiveness and recognition: I am mourning, I tell her, for what we are destroying – Your home, Your Temple.

On this Tisha B’Av, may we think of the Temple that truly needs saving and rebuilding. It is the Temple we stand upon. It is God’s own Temple, this earth.

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We (white people) are not just implicated. We are responsible.

In the early 1980’s, I started worked as a teaching assistant in American history classes at a major Midwestern university. The professor for the course delivered weekly lectures; I went over reading assignments and lecture materials with the students each week in small groups.

In those days it was a rare experience to have any student of color in any of my classrooms. All the professors I worked with were white; I am white.

I used to give a speech at the outset of the semester to my white students about the importance of studying history. I spoke to the way each one of us were heirs to legacies we needed to understand. I spoke to the need for us to take responsibility for the real outcomes of those legacies in our time.

As white Americans, we inherited the legacy of racism, a racism that dispossessed Native Americans, decimated their peoples, and condemned them to the status of despised strangers in their own land. We had inherited the racism which had enslaved Africans and continued, post-Civil War, to devise systemic ways of keeping Black Americans oppressed, marginalized, and condemned to a lifetime of struggle. We were the inheritors of the racism that made immigrants subject to peonage and sex slavery.

Inevitably, a student would raise a hand to inform and correct me. “My grandparents,” said student, “came to this country as hardworking immigrants and had nothing to do with…”

  • “wars against Native Americans.”
  • “slavery.”
  • whatever else was on my list.

Students told me that what I described was part of the past, “history.” I heard the claim that “anyone can do anything they want in this country if they just work hard enough…” Or I was offered personal, anecdotal evidence. “My great grandparents experienced prejudice, too, as Irish Americans.” (Prejudice = racism, in this view.)

“It doesn’t actually matter,” I’d say. “You are white Americans. As white Americans you have inherited a legacy and a burden of white Americans did and do to people of color. As white Americans you have to know what that legacy and burden looks like and how it is plays out right now to ensure that people of color continue to suffer. That inheritance makes you responsible.”

That was 40 years ago. We did not have the words we have now in common parlance. My students then would not have known phrases like “white privilege” or “systemic oppression” or “school to prison pipeline.”

Black men were being arrested, shot, and killed by white police in the 1980’s. Black men and Black communities knew (as they know now) that the world they live in is permeated by vicious barriers to their safety, and life itself. Police brutality is not a creation of our recent past; it was part and parcel of the first formation of police forces in the 1700’s, organized by white men to capture, beat, whip, and reenslave any Black person trying to escape. Systemic racism? That is our history, and from the outset.

People of color cannot breathe in this country. The looters we ignore are white Americans who have stolen their breath. The looters we need to name are those white people who are part and parcel of a system of white privilege that permits black schoolchildren to be punished for behavior white children can display with impunity. That system which permits redlining, which permits unfair mortgage rates to be the only mortgage people of color can receive, which permits people of color being paid less when they have the same educational background and/or experience, which permits…. That list is a long one.

White looters sit in Congress, creating tax benefits for a wealthy and white upper class, traveling on taxpayer money to their homes and resorts, passing laws which protect their privileges —  these men and women have gotten away with their own kind of murder. Our current president refused to pay people who worked for him, created a sham “university” to rook people out of tens of thousands of dollars, and routinely relied on the undocumented immigrants he pillories to clean his toilets. He will loot even the right to protest peacefully, using tear gas on protestors so he can stand in front of a church for a photo op.

The students I taught forty years ago are now in their late fifties and early sixties. They run America, as white Americans do. They failed, as did all the white generations in our history, to understand the burden of the inheritance of systemic racism. They refused to take responsibility for its pernicious, murderous outcomes.

A white police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck and killed him. Two others kneeled on his back and legs; a fourth stood by and watched. George Floyd died, as so many have before him, because he could not breathe.

White people are not just implicated. We are responsible.

This post is dedicated to my colleagues and students of color.

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Passover and Easter in the Age of Covid 19. And, Beyond

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. Both speak to salvation. Both are marked by intricate, formal liturgies which follow specific, vital steps. Both necessitate ritual. Both require community.

What could happen in such a year as this? We were all faced, we Jews and Christians, with a surreal existence which obliterated all our usual expectations. Every colleague I had – in either realm – struggled to understand what was needed, what could be done, what could be salvaged or transformed. Where were our congregants? How could we serve them honestly?

Some recorded services. Some went awkwardly, unusually, “live” from empty sanctuaries. I led an unorthodox seder from my tiny home office; others surely joined me from their own solitary locations. We were all, I want to imagine, rethinking, reconceptualizing, reformulating every aspect of rituals and texts we had recited for years.

This year, we were (are) in mitzrayim – a narrow space. This year we were indeed surrounded by darkness, threatened by death.

This year some of our own cannot visit the ill or bury their dead.

We are isolated and we are crammed together.

We are living in not-knowing.

We told the Passover story while living it. The Israelite slaves, too, did not know how to escape the death pursuing them. They had no idea how they would traverse the Reed Sea. How must it have felt to walk through a passage which could crash down and drown them at any point?

My Christian friends, accustomed to rejoicing in the story of life beyond death, remained largely isolated and alone. To celebrate hope, not just to believe in it, seemed, one told me, temporarily impossible. “Next year,” she said.

Next year, indeed. At one point I asked my congregants to sing a Passover song as if they were singing it next year. “Let’s imagine ourselves living the joy of Miriam’s dance of freedom,” I said.

Keva (structure, framework) and kavannah (intention) often know an imperfect balance in our rituals, in our celebrations, in our festivals. We all suffer from the difficulties too much keva can inflict upon our spiritual lives. Too much keva can blind your prayer, act as a muzzle on your inner voice. Stay wedded to the recitation of texts because they’ve been recited for centuries and you may find the texts drying out before you, the words turning into sound without resonance.

Kavannah needs a foundation, a place it can stand on. Our intentions this Passover, this Easter — they needed to note who we are right now, what we fear right now, what we long for right now.

Keva and kavannah danced a new dance this year for both Christians and Jews.

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. This year, Passover marked why freedom is precious. Easter marked the joy of rebirth.

Hope, however, is not to be taken for granted.

We may say “we will all get through this,” but we won’t. Next year at this time we will be remembering not merely the innocence we lost, but the lives. Our celebrations next year will know a new fragility.

May we honor that fragility. May we guard it, and keep it close. May it help us understand Passover and Easter again, anew, for the first time. May it help us understand now and in the future what we must do.

We all need liberation. We all require freedom. We must rebirth this world.

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To Face Fears (and Create Miracles): On B’shallach

We are at a critical moment in our Torah. God decides his people will not go the short way to the Promised Land. The Israelites, former slaves, a frightened people running from their slaveowners, will turn back if they are forced to face the Philistines who block the short passage, God says. They are not prepared for war (Exod. 13:17).

Commentators offer other reasons for God’s decision. Ibn Ezra argued that it was important that the newly freed people understand, first, the challenges of freedom. Maimonides agreed, suggesting that hardships endured in the wilderness would function as training for the task ahead: to conquer and settle the land of Canaan God had promised them.

Certainly, hardship was coming. It was before them and behind them.

They stood at Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. What must it be so stand at the shore of a sea of water, to look over one’s shoulder and to see the dust storm of six hundred chariots manned by officers and soldiers of the greatest and most powerful empire coming in pursuit? The Israelites stood at the edge of death –death rushing toward them, death in the sea behind them.

God says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exod 14:16). Moses is to lift up his staff and hold it over the sea to split it.

A famous midrash tells us that the sea refuses to split unless the Israelites demonstrate their faith and march into the waters. The Israelites, we are told, wanted the miracle to happen before they could believe in the miracle.

Finally, so that midrash goes, Nachshon of the tribe of Judah does exactly that, stepping into the water with nothing but courage to steady his feet. Some stories claim that the water reached his nose before it finally parted.

David Ebenbach writes: “Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.”

Walls of water stand between us and what we long for. There is so much to be afraid of.

We are afraid we will not be understood by someone we love. We are afraid of being hurt by someone we love. We are afraid we will fail at some important task we have set for ourselves. We are afraid we will not fill expectations.

We see our own leaders violating oaths, caring about nothing but their hold on power – even if that means putting children in a cage. We are afraid for our democracy and the values so many once believed were permanent fixtures of American life.

We look at the climate crisis unfolding in the world and we are afraid we cannot stop the tsunami that is coming, a tsunami which will melt icecaps, swallow islands, peninsulas, and cities, change seasons and, we can be sure, inflict widespread suffering. We are afraid that we are helpless.

There is, indeed, so much to fear and so many reasons to feel helpless and afraid. Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.

The reconciliation and understanding we seek cannot be found in fear. We must take chances, step into the water, hope for an opening, a way forward.

The values we hold dear can only be embedded if we live them in every aspect of our own lives, if we reject bullying and aggression at each and every turn. We must take every opportunity over the next nine months to begin to do just that. We must try to birth a different America than the one we live in, one that embodies justice and generosity.

What must we live for? The possibility of miracles. They will not happen without us. Let us all step into the sea, frightened though we are. Let us part the water, walk forward together, and create the miracle of our freedom and our hope.

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The Mixed Multitude We Ignore

I know what I wanted on the second Torah mantel I made. The mountain of Sinai and the words erev rav alah.

The words come from Exodus 12:37-38: “The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.  Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them…

By the time I made that Torah mantel, I had served a community that had included Asian Jews, African Jews, Latin Jews, American Jews who had come to the tribe as adults and, of course, a plethora of Ashkenazi Jews. We were a “mixed multitude” of sorts, an eclectic collection of Jews of all kinds. I thought that our Torah mantel should reflect that fact.

I believed that this phrase was true for the tribe as a whole. Each and every course I teach on Jewish history emphasizes how many different kinds of Jews have made Judaisms. I ask my students to learn about Jewish communities of Africa and Asia, among others. I ask them to consider communities which counted descent patrilinealy (like Tanakh does!) rather than matrilinealy (as European Judaism does). I ask them to at least try to assess the evidence we have that Jewish women studied Torah and led congregations prior to the rabbinic period. And, this might surprise: there are select examples of medieval women working as cantors and mohels, among other things, during the heydey of the rabbinic period. We shouldn’t ignore that fact, either.

I try to find the histories of those Jews whose stories have been erased and marginalized. Where are Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, women? How can I extract, discover, include those who are so often left out?

Consider: The rabbis suggest Mordechai nursed Esther. An amulet from the Cairo Genizah includes a spell to ensure love between two men.  There is homoerotic poetry from medieval Spain. (For a collection of Queer Jewish texts, see A Rainbow Thread, by Noam Sienna.)

I want American Jewish communities to ask what they could do to acknowledge the contributions of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews to Jewish history. How many congregations in the U.S have ever heard Baghdadi trope or Iraqi traditional melodies? It’s not that hard to introduce either – you just have to look, learn, and transmit what you find.

The task of making it possible for us to hear lost voices has really only just begun. Even in a realm where we think we have accomplished so much – understanding and honoring the role of Jewish women in our history, we are woefully behind.

A couple of years ago I purchased what purported to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of Hasidism possible.  Hasidism: A New History was edited by David Biale and featured the work of eight foremost scholars in the field. All male.

“The volume,” Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff, two noted female Jewish historians, recently remarked, “ignores the women who help finance the Hasidic movement, either with cash, property or their own labor. Changes in women’s religious practice, the role of their piety, differences in Hasidic marriages and relations between husbands and wives, interactions between women and the rebbes they consult, even the tremendous Hasidic concern with sexuality – there are so many gender-related topics central to Hasidism that were ignored by the volume’s authors…”

If this book were an outlier, we could at least comfort ourselves with that fact. But as Heschel and Imhoff note, collective work and anthologies generally include few female authors and/or pay little attention to gender concerns. Despite the gains of First Wave Feminism, despite pivotal books like Standing at Sinai (1990), we continue to live in a world which silences Jewish women and dismisses their contributions. 

We read Parsha Bo this week. We will tell ourselves that a mixed multitude went up to Sinai.

We must do the work of taking that statement seriously.

Thanks to ALEPH Rabbinic Students Cat Zavis and Lex Rofeberg for contributing to my ongoing quest to find the sources I long to teach.

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Half-lives, Half-breath, Hope: Jacob and Joseph

About one quarter of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, dreamer and diviner, the child of Jacob’s old age, the child Jacob favors over all his sons (Gen. 37:3).

His brothers hate him for that. Joseph himself seems to stoke their hatred. At 17, he dreams that he and his brothers are sheaves of grain – and each sheave bows to his. He tells his brothers. In turn, “they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” (37:8). Joseph dreams again: Now his entire family bows to him, as eleven stars, the sun, and the moon. Even Jacob is shocked: “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him and his father kept the matter in mind” (37:10-11).

Sometime soon after, it seems, Jacob sends his favored child to check on his brothers. He is to see how his brothers are doing, how the flocks are faring, and to come back to report to his old father. He goes unaccompanied. Alone.

His brothers see him coming; their rage takes over. They strip him of the special tunic his father had made for him. They throw him in a pit. They debate. Should he die? Should they sell him? Does he, in that dark pit, hear every word? Joseph’s brothers harbor a murderous hatred, but, in the end, they leave Joseph’s life – or death – to slaveholders: “Come,” his elder brother Judah says, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves” (37:27). Sold into slavery, carried to a foreign land, does he play back each word in his mind?

At seventeen, Joseph is cast into a dark pit and sold into slavery. He rises to become the right-hand man of Potiphar. He falls again, accused by Potiphar’s wife. He spends at least two years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He rises again, becomes the right-hand man of the chief jailor. At thirty, he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier because he is not only a dreamer, but a dream interpreter. Pharaoh even gives him a new name: Zaphnath-Paaneah, a name which might mean “Egyptian,” though Jewish tradition reads it as “revealer of secrets.” Finally, Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On, to be his wife.

In a position of extraordinary power and prestige, his life secure, beloved by the ruler of the most powerful country in the known world, he might, one imagine, send word. He is alive, he is well. But he does nothing. He sends no word to the father who loved him best, the father who coddled him and who relied on him.

Joseph named his first child Manasseh, from a root that means to forget, to make disappear from the memory. Joseph is explicit: I name him Manasseh, he says, because “God had made me forget my hardship and my parental home” (41:52).

The years go by. And by. Joseph is about 39 when his brothers appear in Egypt, hoping to buy food in a time of famine. Two more years will pass before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and only after repeated manipulations. He will pin crimes on them, he will hold one brother prisoner and threaten to make another his slave. He is 41 years old when his father, Jacob, finally discovers that his beloved son is still alive.

Jacob, aged and broken, revives. “Enough,” he says. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!” (45:28).

We read this story as a quintessential narrative of sibling rivalry, one of so many describing murderous hatred among brothers. Cain kills Abel. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers almost murder him.

But if this story was just about sibling rivalry, why does Joseph not let his father, who loved him so, know he is alive?

When he learns that Joseph is alive Jacob’s breath, his ruach, lives in him again (45:27). Believing Joseph dead, Jacob had lived a half-life for twenty-four years.

Surely Joseph knew his father loved him with an abiding, consuming love. How could he let his brothers get in the way of such a love? How could he leave his father half alive for over two decades?

Remember the second dream? His whole family had made obeisance to him. His father was angry, accusatory, he “kept it in mind.” And then, he sent his son to his eleven brothers, brothers who hated him.

Did Joseph believe his father betrayed him to his brothers? Did he decide that a new identity, a new name, a new world could be his only future? Did he think: I will kill the past; everyone in it tried to kill me?

His tears gave him back what he could not kill: hope. Joseph cries, often. First, when he overhears his brothers talking about what they had done to him (Gen 42:24), next, when he sees his younger brother, Benjamin (43:30), and again when he reveals himself to his brothers (45:2). He cries and kisses his brothers after the revelation (45:14-15), and when he finally sees his father again, he weeps on his father’s neck “a good while.” (46:29). Somehow, in all his pain, he could still cry for what he had lost, cry and thus, hope.

In this broken world, where terror and horror surround us every day, perhaps we can hope that our own tears can heal – ourselves and others. May it be so.

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Christmas (and Hannukah) in the South

It’s the Christmas season. Even though today is Christmas Day, the season will actually go on until about ten days after the New Year. I live in the South, after all.

One way you know that Christmas season has arrived is through the wild things that sprout from the earth. Not far from where I live, for example, a multitude of lights forming figures, messages, and other decorative forms did exactly that right after Halloween. At night, “God Bless America” twinkles next to two nutcrackers, the American flag and huge praying hands. “Remember Jesus” is not far from a massive, 20-foot angel with a watering can. I am confused by her presence, but there may be time to figure it out before the season is over.

The other way you learn that it is Christmastime occurs when you have any pleasant exchange with other human beings. I recently visited with two nice women in a tiny and overly frigid medical examination room – one, a doctor I had just met, and the other her assistant.

The doctor finished her instructions and got ready to leave. “Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I said brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

She smiled and left. The assistant handed me some paperwork to take to take to the checkout desk.

“Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I repeated brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

You can guess what occurred at the checkout desk…

I used to find all this southern Christmas excess pretty annoying. I grew up in a relatively urban setting where it was incumbent upon right-thinking individuals to wish each other “happy holidays.”

So, when I first arrived here, almost thirty years ago, Christmas was a tinch challenging. Predictable questions were always being put to my adorable young son at the checkout line. Either folks wanted to know if he had been good so that Santa would bring him lots of presents or, if we were past Christmas Day, he would be asked if Santa had recognized how good a child he was and brought him lots of presents. We would be wished a merry Christmas for walking in the door, we would be wished a merry Christmas for passing along the aisles, and we would be wished a merry Christmas as we left.

Still, it’s all a matter of perspective, right?

I can prove it. Or rather, a colleague of mine, an ordained rabbi and former professor of child development, will.

“I was living in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Steven Silvern told me a while back, “and one Friday morning I went out shopping. After all, what does one do Friday mornings in Jerusalem? Shop for Shabbos!”

The supermarket was right across the street from a convent. While Reb Steven was shopping, one of the nuns came across the street to do her shopping. She was dressed in nun habit.

She was a large-ish woman, wearing an imposing cross hanging on a chain. My colleague demonstrated the size of the cross with his hands. It appears to have checked in at about eight by twelve inches.

He ended up near the nun at the checkout line. The cashier wrapped up all her purchases, she paid, and as she got ready to leave, the cashier turned to the nun.

“Gut Shabbos!” he said cheerfully.

Human beings, God bless us all, are creatures of reflex, not reflection. We are rather inclined to focus on our navels and to presume that all other navels look like ours.

And they do, sort of.

So, that said, I would like to say something to anyone who has read to the end of this post. Happy Hanukkah! (And Merry Christmas, too…).

This post is dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Steven Silvern, who never fails to help me laugh.

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