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.

Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

It is a Matter of Torah

TalmudIt has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. Babylonian Talmud Mas. Berachoth 62a

Perhaps you are feeling awkward just now. You may be feeling reminded of the many unpleasant things folks have had to say about the Talmud over the last, um, 1500 years.

Perhaps this text is making you wonder whether the neuroses described by Freud (after hearing the dreams of largely middle class Jewish women day in and day out) were a natural outcome of belonging to the tribe.

It’s not so much that figuring out appropriate directions, positions, or even which hands to use for what task is an unusual topic for human beings of any religion. It’s rather that idea that students are watching their teachers perform intimate functions because “it is a matter of Torah.”

Now you may argue (some will) that Torah is everything and Talmud Torah is the process of figuring out, labeling, and processing the everything of life. One can certainly make the argument that the purpose of scripture is to explain how it is that we should live our lives, and that living life involves all sorts of details that are human and personal. After all, the functions described in the above text are fairly universal in nature. You can’t survive without being able to perform the first set of functions described above, and though the heterosexual scene Kahana overhears is just one of many ways human beings engage in erotic play, sex itself is a pretty common occurrence among human beings.

(Recently, I learned things about the sex lives of fruit bats that were really quite interesting, but this is neither the time nor the place.)

But what intrigues me most about the passage above is not so much what the students were studying but what the text says about the claims their teachers were making. It is a fascinating example of the way the rabbis who composed Talmud maneuvered themselves into positions (yes, the pun is intended) of authority.

In this text, the direction that rabbis chose for food processing or the way they have sexual relations is now Torah. In this text, it isn’t scripture that has the last word, but the behavior of the teacher, the rav. Torah is now what the rabbis do, what the rabbis interpret, what the rabbis say.

I bring this up because it is common among today’s rabbis to valorize the way our Talmudic texts encode multivocality. Talmud, we happily observe, permits a range of opinions. Maybe one school (Hillel) will get most of the final accolades and approval from on high, but in the end, even the Holy One of Blessing will insist that the rabbis must agree to disagree: “It is taught, a heavenly voice went out and said, ‘These and these are the words of the Living God, but the Law is like the School of Hillel’” (Palestinian Talmud Yabmut (sic) 3b, chapter 1, halakha 6).

I can’t say that I don’t value the Talmudic practice of permitting – even encouraging — dissent. I do. But today’s rabbis need to acknowledge that the dissent they prize was happening among a small and elite group of Jews who managed, ca 500 C.E. and onward, to take upon themselves the right to be the religious authorities for all Israel (with a lot of assist from Christian authorities, by the by).

Judaism and Jewishness is a thing that is created and recreated by a diverse people, a people which, in many areas of the world, have rejected halakha. Most Jews are living lives that have little to do with Talmud. Most do not see what their rabbis do as a source of learning or practice.

So the question for our time is this: Who is a rabbi and what should she teach?

(To be continued….)

Keeping the Ball in the Air

Balls in the airIn his book, Tales of a Dalai Lama, Pierre Delattre tells a story about rules, about games, and about life’s purpose.

Once, he writes, when the Dalai Lama was very young, he was invited to a volleyball game after an interview with a Swedish professor.  The players batted the ball over the net and whenever the ball hit the ground there were, of course, jubilant cheers from some fans.  Others looked on, distraught.

The young Dalai Lama asked the professor to explain why people were playing against each other.  He pointed out the obvious truth:  Every time the ball hit the ground someone needed to be consoled.

The professor explained that points were won when the opposing team missed the ball.

The Dalai Lama was distressed.  “But then the ball must hit the ground all the time. Such a way to play with the human spirit!”

Delattre describes the professor sitting, watching the game, thinking remembering his students batting ideas around, himself offering a concept only to find his student chomping at the bit for an opportunity to prove his argument flawed.

Suddenly, the professor yearned for a class discussion that would keep ideas in the air, allow the human spirit to take flight.  Ashamed, Delattre writes, he left for Sweden with one desire: To go home and to change the rules of the game.

I told this story during High Holy Days and asked my congregants: What if the rules of the game were to keep the ball in the air?

What if we did not wait for others to trip and fall, but actively held each other up?  What if we did not criticize what we felt were mistakes but simply asked others if they could rethink with us – and even consider that we ourselves might have rushed to judgment.  What if we decided that having an ax to grind is equivalent to wishing humiliation and pain on someone else?

WHAT OCCURRED?  The boulder left the mountain.
Who awakened?  You and I.
Language, language.  Co-earth.  Fellow planet.
Poorer.  Open.  Homelandly.

The course?  Towards the unsubsided.
Your course and mine was the boulder’s flight.
Heart and heavy. Adjudged too heavy.
Grow more heavy.  Be more light.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I read this poem by Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel.  Celan became one of the most well-known German – and Jewish — poets after the Holocaust.  He was the only member of his family to survive.

That night, I called the people Celan’s “unsubsided.” Class and gender-neutral, stranger in the camp and Israelite from way back, old and young, the unsubsided, I said, all these stood side by side to listen.  I imagined that the boulder’s flight must have been the truth expressed in that moment:  Torah is for us all.  We can stand together to receive truth, work together to understand it, and support each other in making our revelation real:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  1Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 30:11-14)

It is close to you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart.

On Kol Nidre I asked my congregants: Can we disavow clinging to agendas, our egos and their needs?  Could we vow to change the rules of the game, to keep the ball in the air?

Should this not be our life’s purpose?

Read Lament, Utter Praise: The Paradox of Mourning

Yom Hashoah candleThis Shabbat, at Yom Kippur, we will mark Yizkor, a service of remembrance, of honoring the dead.

Last Saturday night, I awoke around 2 am, remembering how we buried my sister, Suzie. That enormous mound of earth, the dark, deep hole.

Suzie died of cancer. Her youngest child was only three. I did not speak when we buried her. I did not know how.

In the immediate aftermath of death, life is undone. The world of the living persists but its existence is surreal. We long for our beloved; we are conscious only of our loss. Our mourning takes place in a ruin. No language suffices.

And yet, we must speak in order to heal. Centuries ago, when mourners appeared in synagogue, heads and faces covered, the service leader turned to congregants and insisted: “Demand the reason!” “Demand the reason!” Mourners were asked to speak, to explain.

It is easy to retreat from the face of pain. But this ritual made turning away an impossibility. We may not ignore those wrapped in grief.

Listening, we help a mourner open the heart. We honor longing and despair. We acknowledge denial and anguish. Demand the reason.

The rabbis knew that grief is many-faceted. All the behaviors of mourning are those, they say, of the ninth of Av. Mourners are directed to the Book of Lamentations, a book which records the horrific siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the First Temple, the exile. Are you grieving? The rabbis suggest reading a raw text of anguish.

Why? Encountering the pain Lamentations describes gives us permission to acknowledge our own. It is another way to demand the reason.

The rabbis added a text not of rage or defiance, nor of grief and sorrow to the rituals of mourning. Mourner’s Kaddish, inscribed into our practice in the Middle Ages, is a song, a musical text of pure, unmitigated praise for the Divine. At the time of loss, one says nothing about it. In the face of death, one praises the Source of Life.

Our texts do everything from indicting to praising the Holy One. Lamentations gives us longing and despair – but also resistance. Mourner’s Kaddish offers laudation. The central phrase y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorach l’alam ulal’mei almayya (may God’s great name be praised) is considered, so the rabbis, the very foundation of the world. Despite the ruin, affix and affirm the existence of the earth: y’hei sh’mei raba We remain in conversation with God, co-creating the world. We find our voices, we utter words.

“Weeping, she makes weep,” reads Lamentations Rabbah. She weeps and the Holy One weeps with her. The ministering angels, heaven and earth, mountains and hills weep with her. Everything in the created world joins together and laments. We communicate through tears. No one is alone.

A distressed people builds again, praises again. Such is a fact of Jewish life. No devastation – not even the Shoah – silences the survivors utterly. Read Lamentations, the rabbis say. Recite y’hei shemay raba. It is a paradox that sustains us.

It is a paradox that permits voicing all we feel. We mourn as our hearts must, in whatever way they must. To speak from our grief; to act on what we know: Deep and profound remembrance of those we have lost will lead us to sanctify and honor life.

In this year, with hearts and eyes turned to the terrors and the horrors unfolding in our own time, we must ourselves demand the reason. Recognizing lament, responding to the imperative of praise, we must find inspiration to act. For a more peaceful world – for a more loving world. For a world in which we may speak – gently, with compassion and understanding, and, in so doing, heal.