Jews: Surround a Mosque…

RIng of Peace in Oslo 2One life rescued saves the world. One life taken destroys it.

Just one week ago, after Shabbat came to an end, more than 1,000 Norwegians of all faiths came to Bergstien Street to surround a synagogue in Oslo. The organizers were Muslims. Pictures showed a chain of human beings, arms outstretched and holding hands. Thomas Holgersen Daher Naustdal, an event organizer, insisted that the human ring of peace was intended to demonstrate “that if you want to commit violence in the name of Islam you will have to go through us Muslims first.”

There were, naturally, grateful reactions from Jews and Jewish communities. And then, there were (inevitable?) reports that the entire event was staged, created by a media capable of ruthlessly playing on people’s fears and exploiting their hopes.

Were there actually more than twenty Muslims present, some asked? Were some inside the gates and some outside? Were some difficult to identify because they were not wearing clothing that would clearly identify them as Muslim? Come to that, clothing doesn’t necessarily prove a thing, so… were any Muslims around at all?

How were we to assess the fact that protesters spoke not only about the dangers of antisemitism but about those of Islamophobia? Reportedly, demonstrators chanted, “no to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia.” What were Jews to conclude? Were those demonstrators willy-nilly equating a merciless cultural pathology that had cost the lives of millions of Ring of Peace in OsloJews with something that could not begin to compare?

To save one life, Talmud tells us, is to save the world. If we believe that, then a single Muslim showing up at any synagogue with holy intentions may well be, in our book, doing her best to save a life. If the only non-Jew present in Oslo had been Naustdal, coming to stand, as he said, “against all types of hatred, violence and particularly in this case anti-Semitism, both within our own ranks and from society as a whole,” that’s a life-saving intention.

Just a short while ago, Jews could have shown up to support the single time allowed Muslim students for the recitation of the call to prayer from the Duke Chapel belfry. Right now, tomorrow, or next weekend, Jews could create their own ring of peace around a mosque in this country – maybe in Chapel Hill, where the community is mourning the brutal murder of three Muslim students.

I could imagine Jews stating, proudly, that they are present to fight all forms of hatred, from antisemitism to Islamophobia because the latter also kills.

If such Jews said: “we get your grief and we get your pain and we understand why you are afraid,” I would hope that we would not be accused of minimizing the pain we are witnessing by honoring and remembering the pain we have ourselves known.

We should be inspired by the Muslims who showed up in Oslo, regardless of number.

Imagine a world in which, every week, we showed up to protect one another. Imagine if we announced, day after day, that we must stand for peace and for life: Together. Imagine if we did not concern ourselves with “how many” but rather with hearts, with meaning and with intentions.

We might save a life. We might save the world.

Written for Sarah (with her permission)

Sarah McCurry

Sarah McCurry

She graduated UNC Charlotte in 2012. She was an irrepressible student. Precocious, and very funny. She described herself as a little wacky.

She had a droll way of speaking about herself; One day, she came to me with notes on a major project she had started for another class. She made wry comments about feeling overwhelmed.

I asked her to explain the project. I looked at her notes.

“Sarah,” I told her with mock sternness, “this is completely out of control.”

She sighed. “I knew you would say that, Dr. Thiede,” she said. “I just knew it.”

“Let’s get to work,” I said, and we did. We spent about an hour tightening up the project’s parameters, finding out what she really wanted to say, and making sure she could demonstrate that she knew a thing or two.

Sarah majored in German and International Studies and she minored in Judaic Studies. She took courses in Judaism and in antisemitism with me; she researched the Holocaust. She decided to study abroad in Germany. Before she left, I asked her to keep in touch.

One day, she wrote me this:

Germany is amazing and awesome.I never want to leave, but the reason I’m emailing you is because of an incident that has left me shaken. I don’t know how to react or why I’m so unprepared. This past weekend, two of my friends and I rode the S-Bahn into Stuttgart, and as we were nearing the Hauptbahnhof, all of a sudden this guy stands up and begins yelling (swearing) at this woman, and begins to push her and he punches her twice, saying she can go to hell with the Jews, and he ranted fuck Jews, etc.. The woman was scared and kept saying to him it’s no reason to get upset… There were about eight other grown German men… not one of them batted an eyelash, just ignored it as if it wasn’t happening. I wanted to do something, I was tiny compared to this guy and I was paralyzed with fear and rage and turned to my guy friend and told him to do something. He got up and walked back there, guided the lady to sit with us… I know we’ve studied this, and I know hatred of Jews still exists, but it left me unprepared for that, and I’m unsettled and somewhat ashamed that I sat there.… nobody did anything or said anything. I’m stunned that this could be tolerated in Germany of all places.

I don’t know what to say or why emailing you, I guess just to vent. I’m so stunned and shocked, I can’t just ignore stuff like this, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to react either. I don’t want to be personal or rude, but have you ever experienced this, if so, how do you respond?

Sarah is not Jewish. But she had learned about human horrors. She cared – deeply – about the world.

I don’t have my reply to Sarah, though my computer tells me I wrote one. But now, I know, I will keep every reply I write.

Last week, Sarah called me from Houston. She told me she had been diagnosed with fourth-stage colon cancer. Sarah is 23.

She was worried about her family and her boyfriend, she said. She had lost an aunt to colon cancer two years ago; a grandparent died of the same disease. She had flown to Houston to see a particular surgeon, a specialist of some sort. He wouldn’t operate, she told me. His advice: Try chemo and come back to see him in six months if she was still alive.

She said: “I am frightened. I don’t want to die.” She said: “I’m sorry to ruin your day like this.”

No, no, I wanted to say. You called; I answered. Two human beings, connected by the simplest of facts. Two human beings, connected.

I am not going to pretend otherwise to anyone – even to Sarah. I am scared. I am scared I won’t say or do the things that would be perfect and right. I am scared because her youth hits home: Sarah was born when I was five months pregnant with my son, Erik.

Sarah’s boyfriend’s name is Eric.

We spoke, she cried. She stopped herself crying, cried again.

That night I found an internet site on gofundme (http://www.gofundme.com/duckcoloncancer). Sarah had put the site up when the first diagnosis had been made, just a few weeks before she called me. At that point, her cancer was third-stage. Sarah needed money to see more specialists.

I wrote to faculty members and asked them to spread the news. I am writing this for the same reason.

Here is what Sarah needs now: To try everything she can. This is her right. I will help with that.

To readers, then, if you can and feel so moved: Please visit that site and make a donation.

To Sarah: I will walk with you however you decide you need my presence. That’s a vow.

To the Ruach Ha’olam: Help me walk.

The Procrustean Choice: Living with Antisemitism or Living with Racism

NetanyahuBenjamin Netanyahu flies to Europe not to grieve, but to calculate. As families are mourning their loved ones, he chooses to agitate for his political agenda. Instead of compassion, he offers European Jews a lesson. Theirs is misplaced allegiance. Israel, so Netanyahu, is the only place they can truly call home.

I’ve taught the Holocaust for almost three decades. Antisemitism has never left Europe. I don’t believe it will. Even the murder of a million Jewish children and five million Jewish adults could not do away with it. What could?

Europe was long ago infected with a cultural pathology, a virus that appears to go into remission only to return – still virulent, still horrifying, still murderous.

White Europeans may not, however, point fingers at non-white Europeans and claim antisemitism is no longer “their” issue. This is not the problem of some Muslim “other.” This disease was born in Europe. Variations on neo-Nazism are everywhere, and they find a home in a number of varied populations across the continent.

It is true: No one can guarantee the safety of Europe’s Jews.  But is Israel their home? Is it mine? What will Israel offer, should we make aliyah?

A lot better, of course, than it offers other refugees seeking asylum. Do you happen to be a black and African soul fleeing violence instead of a white, European, and Jewish one? So far, the Israeli government has managed to respond to less than 1½ percent of asylum requests from Sudanese nationals. Not a single Sudanese has been granted refugee status.

Eritrean asylum seekers face similarly awful conditions. Just four of almost 2,500 Eritreans in Israel have acquired refugee status. Some of the detainees in the Holot detention facility, where such refugees face (and freeze) in despicable conditions, have been there for six years.  Israel is hardly a safe haven for them.

Nor is Israeli society free from its own forms of virulent racism. Lehava (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land) is just one of many virulently racist groups whose supporters can be heard screaming “death to Arabs” in the streets of Jerusalem. Three Lehava supporters have been indicted in the arson attack against a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in the city.

Last January, a Druze man who had recently completed his service with the IDF reported that ten religious Jewish men had assaulted him after hearing him speaking in Arabic. He had to pay for his own ambulance to get to a hospital.

Before we consign Israeli racism to extremist right-wing groups, we might want to consider the kinds of things coming out of the mouths of some Israel’s leaders – and as a matter of course, these days. Just this month, Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, spoke about internal security concerns in the country, referring to areas with high Arab populations. “Anyone who’s gone traveling in the Negev in recent years knows,” he asserted, “that they can’t leave their car … because it will be broken into and stolen.”

Arabs, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, are car thieves.

European Jews fleeing antisemitism will, if they make aliyah, live in a country that is home to hate speech and hate crime. They will be fleeing to a country that has been – for five decades – exercising colonialist methods to subdue and control millions of Palestinians.

Netanyahu claims to belong to a western culture that is “based on freedom and a culture of choice.”  For whom, exactly?

The extent to which any western culture has achieved such an ideal is worth questioning. The extent to which Israel presents humanity with anything close to such a thing is debatable.

I want Israel to exist. Most Jews in the world want Israel to exist. But the Jews of the Diaspora do not live in order to support Israel on any and all terms presented by Netanyahu and his supporters. The dangers faced by Jews in a Europe that is still home to antisemitism should not blind anyone to the dangers of living in an Israel that has been made a comfortable home for rampant racism.

No home we have had has ever been a safe one. That fact should not keep us from trying to create one.

Shrewdaic Studies

Serpent and Eve 1Stained whiteboards. Walls pained yellow or sickly green. Scraped up floors and gray windowpanes. The smell of sweat and the after-odor of Chik-fil-A.

It’s my classroom, the classroom I’ve inhabited for decades, in various states and a number of universities. The most amazing things happen in that worn space, that aging, decaying structure. It’s divine.

Last week, in my class “God and Sex in Hebrew Bible,” I told my students that there is a pun going on in Genesis 3.

“The serpent is arum,” I said, “usually translated as ‘shrewd.’ But arum can also mean ‘nude.’ Adam and Eve are described as arumim after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Are they nude or shrewd?”

Discussion ensued. A student raised a hand:

“If the serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals, if he had so much knowledge he even knew what God would or would not do if they ate, why wasn’t he punished for that?” the student asks. “Why is he only punished after he passed knowledge on to Adam and Eve?”

“Snap!” another student said. “Snap, snap, snap,” the student continued, with finger-fomented percussion.

A contribution from another quarter: “Is that whole scene between the serpent and Eve sexual? Is eating the fruit meant to symbolize a sexual act?”

I took the opportunity to tell the class that there is a midrash that claims the serpent saw Adam and Eve having sex and immediately craved a little nookie for himself (Bereishit Rabbah 18:10). The student, in turn, speculated that the sharing of the fruit with Adam might be another sexually charged act.

“I always knew the world began with a threesome,” the student said.

We all laughed.

In my classroom, my students are asked (not just permitted) to treat the text as a site for multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations. They do have to argue from the text, from what they have learned about its authors and the culture it comes from, but they are free to be creative, to speculate. We try to avoid retrojecting our assumptions; modern ideas do not generate ancient agendas. Ancient Israelites had no acquaintance with the Devil, with the capital D.

YHVH is a character in a narrative in our classroom setting. The texts we study are not the word of God but a human product. Whatever they once thought was “the original” is a product. Luck may have played a role in its transmission; certainly human choice did. The Book of Yashar once was on the best-seller list for ancient Judeans; it fell out of favor, disappeared, or was, at some point, dropped from the list of “must-reads” for later generations.

We know of a short version of Jeremiah and a long one. One is found in the Septuagint, the other in the Masoretic Text. How will my students decide which is “better” or “more important”? Why didn’t the Book of Jubilees make the cut for our canons? How about the Book of Enoch?

Once they get over all the shock value, they begin to realize: what we have of biblical literature extends far beyond any bible. It is a rich, vast corpus.

Take away the blackboards and whiteboards and smelly leftovers from fast food joints. Imagine a small sanctuary with windows looking out towards the naked, gray branches of wintering trees.

I am in conversation with congregants. YHVH is not just a character for most of us, but our questions and our freedom to ask them is equally untrammeled. Jewish tradition has enshrined the right to treat our texts as earthly products. The humanness of the authors and their characters is not just appreciated but valorized. Torah, we believe, is accessible, human, altogether ours. It is not too baffling for us to understand; it is not unreachable or incomprehensible (Deut. 30:11-13).

In any setting, I am nourished by this fact: These texts ask us to think. About ourselves, about our world, about all that is human and (perhaps) divine, too.

Ancient Israel Patriarchal? P’shaw.

Ancient Israelite Woman playing a tambourine -- ca. 8-9th BCE Esteemed scholar and eminent theologian Rachel Adler once quipped that if you took all the patriarchal bits out of Tanakh, you’d be left with a pamphlet.

But no, the Torah is not a “patriarchal” document. And no, women were not simply under the thumbs of a male-dominant culture in Ancient Israel.

The term “patriarchy” comes from nineteenth-century Western scholars. According to scholars even of the present day, a patriarchal society is one in which men organize social and political realms to exclude women from positions of authority.

Nineteenth-century scholars mostly relied on a narrow set of sources (legal texts, largely) to make such claims, though. But there are ancient legal texts which assert what their authors thought should be; they didn’t necessarily describe what was. Was there a rebellious son stoned in Ancient Israel? Who knows? Lived culture is not the same thing is written culture.

According to the archeological records of Ancient Israel, women were responsible for a range of important responsibilities. These included food processing, textile production, creating household implements, and the like. Women of Ancient Israel, like their forbears of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian societies, functioned as professional musicians and mourners.

Clay statuettes show women holding musical instruments in their hands. Biblical texts describe women celebrating with musical performances. Miriam is the stock image, but not the only one. Just consider how Jepthah’s daughter goes to greet her triumphant father, timbrel in hand (Judges 11:34). Even King David acknowledges the importance of women’s laments: “Daughters of Israel,” he says, “Weep over Saul, Who clothed you in crimson and finery, who decked your robes with jewels of gold” (2 Samuel 1:24).

When a mysterious scroll is discovered some centuries later, the story goes that King Josiah commanded priests, scribes, and servants to “..[G]o, inquire of YHVH on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah, concerning the words of this scroll that has been found” (2 Kings 22:13). Off they go – not to priests, high or low, but to a prophetess by the name of Hulda, who declares the scroll kosher, along with all its dire predictions and warnings.

The Shunammite had the chutzpah to order her husband around and to bypass the prophet Elisha’s servant to make a direct appeal to the prophet himself (Kings 4:8 – 37). Women in Tanakh function not only as underwriters and supporters for prophets, but as queens, counselors, leaders, poets, judges, and avengers, too.

I am not suggesting that women had as much power as men in the political realm or the public arena. But neither can we claim that Ancient Israel’s male society intentionally organized to exclude women. In agricultural settings, women may have done more of the technologically advanced work than men. In those settings, there may have been a sense that everyone in the family had to partner with everyone else. The archeological record seems to support a vision of family and communal life that looks less like patriarchy than hierarchy.

Social and economic status, slave or free, child or adult, urban or rural – these things complicate matters and don’t support a simplistic judgment that insists that men had all the power. Which men? In what context? In what realm of daily life? Why would men write the stories of Deborah and Hulda and what might they have been telling us?

We need a more subtle understanding both of our biblical literature and of the culture of Ancient Israel. We need a more accurate one.

In the meantime, the term “patriarchal” – at least where Ancient Israel is concerned – needs to be consigned to the dustbin of inadequate analysis.

Duke University and the Heart of the Matter

heart with thornsI asked her to look into her heart. What question was it asking?

She was silent for a short time.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s unexpected.”

“Can you tell me?” I asked.

“I saw something I haven’t seen in many years,” she said. “I saw a heart, crowned with thorns.”

The image she evoked was uncomfortable for me, at least initially. Silently, I prayed to stay open. I needed to meet her, as all spiritual directors must, on her territory.

“You see a heart crowned with thorns,” I repeated, giving myself time to look at the image. “Can you tell me more about what it means, what it might be telling you?”

For almost a year, I have been working with a devout Christian. We have explored her spiritual path. I have asked who her guides were and sometimes invoked them: Jesus, of course, the Virgin Mary, and God, the Father.

In every encounter, I enter her devotional and sacred space. I learn how to look through her eyes, if not with them. I must see and honor her spiritual constellations; they sparkle with life and faith. They are her life and her hope.

They are not mine. But they are as true as mine.

Last Wednesday, I returned home from an annual conference held under the auspices of Ohalah, a transdenominational association of rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic chaplains. The conference is heavily populated by Jewish Renewal clergy and students. But representatives from a wide spectrum of Jewish denomination settings also attend, as well as clergy from other faith realms. This was my tenth such conference.

As usual, the conference included plentiful opportunities to discuss the work of deep ecumenism, including an entire session led by Rabbi Dr. Victor Gross on the subject.

Our minds were populated with images from Paris. We also discussed the ramifications of a rising tide of antisemitism in Europe as well as continued threats of terror in Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere.

But look up terrorism in the dictionary. Do you find the word “Islam” there?

Duke BelfryThe day after I returned, North Carolina’s Duke University reversed its decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel. The newspaper quoted Franklin Graham, the heir to Billy Graham’s throne.

Muslims should not be allowed to use the chapel for the call to prayer, Graham insisted, “because it’s a different god.” Using the bell tower is for worship of Jesus Christ, he explained, and added: “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

Clearly, there are people in the world who are writing their own dictionary – without enough regard to veracity or accuracy.

Graham called for people to cease funding Duke University until the decision was reversed. Duke caved.

I should have been enraged, I suppose. Instead, I cried.

Our task is to enter each other’s devotional space, not to condemn it. If we can’t do that work with other systems of faith and philosophy, then none of us can claim to be representing peace.

Deep ecumenism is hard work. I admit: I find it challenging to see images of Jesus on the cross. I may respond viscerally; I may find myself reminded of the millions of Jews who have died at the hands of others. But this is not what a Christian sees. It is my job to understand that Jesus on the Cross can be – and is for many – an image of hope, not an image of despair.

The adhan, the call to prayer, nearly came forth from Duke Chapel’s belfry. Adhan is derived from a root that means “to listen, to hear, be informed about.”

“Shema, Yisrael,” I imagine saying. “Listen, Israel.”

I hope I would have tried to listen to that prayer the way I tried to understand a sacred heart crowned with a cross. These are neither my words nor my image for the divine.

But they are as true as mine.

Not History. Still Truth.

dancing_figuresI know it didn’t happen that way. It may not have happened at all.

Instead of a grand Exodus, there may have been a release of Semitic slaves from Egypt – that, after all, is attested in Egyptian annals. Or a small group of slaves may have escaped the horrors of forced labor.

We have no proof that Moses existed, that any larg(ish) number of Israelites won their freedom or made their way through the wilderness. There is no archeological record to prove that a mass number of people trekked through the landscape between Egypt and Canaan.

Neither is there any historical corroboration for the actual existence of Joseph. Or Abraham, Isaac, and the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

These stories are literature. They are myth. They are folktales. Though they are certainly attached to the experience and time of their composition, they are not history.
This fact has never prevented them from telling us truths.

We are, this week, standing at the juncture between the conclusion of Bereishit and the first parsha of Sh’mot. Waiting for the ancient freedom ride to begin, I have been preoccupied with a particular vision. It seems as real to me as the desk I write at, the gum tree branches against the gray sky outside my window, the sound of Beowulf, our cat, snoring in the kitchen.

I see the first aron. I see the second aron.

The first is the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets of the law – both the shattered version and the whole one. The first was inscribed by YHVH (Ex. 31:18) and destroyed by Moses. The second was created and carved by Moses, but inscribed by divine and patient agency (Ex. 34:1).

The second aron is the one that contains Joseph’s bones – aron also designates a coffin.

An ark. A coffin.

The mixed multitude that trembled with fear, that danced in rejoicing, the mixed multitude that will experience a lifetime of vicissitudes in the wilderness, that people carries with them both memory and hope, both death and the law that sustains life.

The act of ritual remembrance has been one of the most powerful ways by which we have maintained our multifaceted, diverse, and ever-changing sense of what it means to be Jewish. We know who we are when we can identify who we come from. This is fact, even when our ancestors are mythical creations, the stuff of stories told around campfires under ancient skies and brilliant stars. They are real to us – or can be. Their flaws are our flaws; their struggles are heartbreakingly familiar.

What child with brothers and (or) sisters does not worry that her mother favors a sibling? So, too, did Esau suspect Rebecca, and not without reason. How many women have found themselves trying to do everything right, only to be pushed aside, misused, even abused? Both Tamars of Tanakh will be, though Judah’s daughter-in-law will win the day in the end. David’s own daughter will be disgraced and humiliated by a half-brother who mercilessly ignores her pleas and rapes her. Afterwards, like so many women of our own time, she will be told to hush, to keep silent, to say nothing.

Memory binds us. And the law? Most Jews of our time hardly live by it. Yet it still sustains us, still teaches us, still asks us to consider: What is ethical speech? What is thoughtful, kind behavior? Do we not know this in our bones (did Joseph?): Treat the stranger kindly and love your neighbors.

Perhaps there are few Jews who study the commentary Hillel directed us to explore. But most Jews know something of its existence. Our law can be our hope to be better human beings as well as better Jews.

I see those people (who never existed?) before me. I see them carry that aron, the one holding our ignorance and failure in the form of shattered shards of stone, but holding the whole ones, too, the Second Chance.

I see them carrying the other aron, the coffin holding memories of an earlier time, of a patriarch and our family of origins, of a man who acted both cruelly and mercifully.
This Shabbat, we begin the story of Exodus. We will read of terror and darkness, of death and daytime horrors. We will read of freedom and joy, too. Memory and law, knowing where we came from and who we must be: This is my vision of those two arons.

Perhaps it is not history. But it is true.

My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah

Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, www.notmybrotherskippah.com. I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.

“Merry Christmas”: The Language of Power in the Season of Grace

Woodstock and Merry ChristmasThis semester, I taught the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust in two different courses. My students know that I am Jewish and that I also work as a rabbi. I don’t hide those facts.

Last week, after a semester’s worth of information about Christianity’s history regarding Jews, the second-to-last student in the undergraduate course finished her final essay, handed it in, and cheerfully wished me (you guessed it) a “merry Christmas.”

I am encountering, as minorities will, the realities of power.

The dominant discourse of the West is Christian. Sixteen weeks learning how Christian assumptions and Christian language affected Jewish history did not, it seems, prompt this particular student to reappraise her buy-in to that discourse. For that student, everyone celebrates Christmas.  Even her Jewish teacher.

This semester, my upper level and graduate students spent a semester reading David Nirenberg’s masterful Anti-Judaism. They encountered, again and again, the ways in which Europeans make sense of the world by encoding Jews and Judaism as the embodiment of all that is dangerous.

Nirenberg goes to work on this problem for over four hundred and fifty pages. He covers over two millennia with extraordinary care. Setting one’s opponents squarely in the synagogue, it turns out, is an almost automatic intellectual reaction to social, economic, or political problems of any kind. At turns, particular heresies inside the Christian church, or the dangers of mercantilism, or revolutionary ideals, or capitalism, or socialism are all “Jewish.”

This is a matter of power wedded to a given discourse.

Minorities can only protest, educate, teach, and hope to be heard. But power-holders don’t give up entrenched ideas easily – in part, because they rarely have to examine the premises on which their authority is based.

Recently, I was invited to speak on a local and beloved radio show, “Charlotte Talks,” for a program called “The State of Faith on Higher Education Campuses.”

Those who designed the program assumed that the word “faith” was key to religious practice. But “faith” and its use as a defining characteristic of religious life is a Protestant perspective. Jews don’t make “faith” the yardstick of Jewishness. Creed as a determining factor of one’s status simply isn’t an issue for most Jewish communities. It hardly works as a litmus test in a good many other religious communities, either.

No one had to think critically about the Christian assumptions at work in the program’s narrative, in its publicity, or in its composition.

One of my co-presenters, a chaplain at a local liberal arts college, maintained that it was his job to teach his students that there was “no such thing” as a Christian world, a Muslim world, a Jewish world.

I protested then. I protest now. Those worlds do, in fact, exist. It is my job to teach my students to think critically about systems of power and discourse in these worlds.

We must examine the ways we exercise power and privilege in our everyday, ordinary discourse. We collude in and support systems of power that denigrate, ignore, or oppress others — sometimes in brutal, sometimes in subtle ways.

The kindest people can do just that.

Less than two weeks ago, I visited a church headed by a liberal and open-minded minister. He introduced me and thanked me for coming.  Then he told me how grateful he and the church community were for their Jewish brethren.

“After all,” he said, “without you we wouldn’t exist!”

I have been told this countless times by well-intentioned Christians.

But this is the language of privilege.  Jews and Judaism can (now) be valued by Christians. Not because of what they might offer in the way of wisdom or insight. Not because of the richness of their traditions and culture. Not because of who they are and have become over millennia. But because they “birthed” Christianity, a religion Jews have legitimate reason to associate with grief and loss.

Discourse has actual and material reality (see Foucault). The way white America speaks about black America has systemic and discriminatory outcomes. The way heterosexual America’s culture hammers home the message that no other sexuality exists and that gender is mappable only according to (apparently) male or female bodies does real harm to the LGBTQ community.

We have to consider the possibility, Nirenberg writes, “that Christian ideas about Judaism might have greater impact on the conditions of life for real Jews than anything those Jews might actually do.”

Perspective: I am not being asked to convert at the point of a sword. My family is not threatened by the Inquisition. For American Jews, the world is not particularly dangerous.

But it is a Christian world and it speaks Christian.

I don’t want to be greeted with “Merry Christmas.” I don’t want those I meet to assume I am their reflection, or that I should pretend to be. This is not a harmless expectation on their part.

We must name and address the language of power, not excuse, ameliorate, or condone it.

Little Shulamit

Little ShulamitShe is one of the best gifts I have ever gotten. Naturally, she came home and immediately found herself a space on my desk, just to the side of the computer screen.

She was given to me by two of my congregants after Yom Kippur ended.

“She looks just like you!” he said.

“We couldn’t resist,” she added.

Indeed, the first thing I noticed about Little Shulamit (besides the Torah scroll she held in her arms) was the fact that she was clearly either smiling a really huge grin or singing her heart out.

That would be me, at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Or at Religious School, dancing around with our kids. Or at… any number of congregational settings where the thing I most feel and most need is joy.

Perhaps this is what others need most, too? Last Friday, I watched a guest at our service dance with her little girl to a sweet and rousing rendition of Oseh Shalom. She clearly longed for the shalom she was dancing for. Her daughter felt as much, I suspect.

And then, this past Sunday, our newest member at Temple Or Olam sent me a note she had written to her adult children.

“We just returned from Friday services,” she told them. “Like nothing either of us have ever experienced – or imagined occurring – in a synagogue! It was like being at a wedding: food, dancing and singing… We smiled, laughed and sang throughout! The spirit of goodness, sharing and love was intoxicating. I am so glad I found this place.”

Is it possible to make an entire congregation drunk on kindness and goodness?

I could wish for such inebriation. I long for us to remember our vows at Yom Kippur to do better in the coming year, to listen and to forgive, to love.

Every time new members join Temple Or Olam, I take some time to speak to them personally about congregational life. It is hard work to maintain a community, to work with different personalities, to keep the spiritual flames alive while accomplishing the more mundane tasks that are so necessary to each get-together, each program, each communal moment.

I ask new congregants to remember, if they are hurt or disturbed by something I have done, to come to me, to speak with me or “softly and soon.” Go directly to those you might be having any kind of miscommunication with, I ask. Trust them to be able to listen and respond just as you would – with love, with hope, with conviction in the essential goodness and kind intentions of all parties.

Joining a congregation is easy. Staying with one is hard.

Congregations are made of fallible human beings. New congregants who believe (not infrequently) that I am their ideal rabbi will find out in no time that I am just as human as they are.

We all make mistakes and they are often serious.

But most mistakes are also less grievous than they may seem, and much more forgivable than we want to admit. It is, after all, mostly our pride that makes it so difficult for us to forgive others when we feel hurt.

So here, right on my desk, stands my little Shulamit figurine. She is innocent and happy and she loves her Torah.

I want to be like my little figurine: Singing my heart’s hopes to the Holy One of Blessing, wrapping the Torah to me, body and soul.

I want to be just like her.