Broken to Whole – An Elul Story in Three Parts

Part 1: Naming What is Broken

About two years ago a young woman arrived in my life and irrevocably altered it.

CALA Demonstration

For the past two years, I have watched this young woman grow from strength to strength. She went back to school to acquire skills to help her understand and combat systemic oppression. She spends most of her energy in community activism and organizing.

She serves as secretary and grant-writer for the board of the Community Activism Law Alliance of Chicago (CALA), an award-winning organization that brings lawyers and activists together to offer free legal services to marginalized individuals and communities. CALA fights for workers, for victims of sexual and domestic violence, for immigrants of all kinds. CALA offers free workshops and free legal representation, advice, training, and pro bono support to those who are not simply underserved, but utterly isolated.

Dream Riders cheering each other on with Serafina Ha in the most amazing green pants I have ever seen.

She also brings her indefatigable spirit to her work as a community leader, filmmaker, interviewer and publicist for NAKASEC, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a grassroots organization working on behalf – especially – of Asian immigrants. This past summer, NAKASEC has been sending its young people out to demonstrate, to speak, to bike for more than a month across the west coast to help make the gifts and hopes of immigrants real for those willing to hear their voices.

She listens to the stories of those who have been hurt and harmed; she imagines any way she can to help heal and free those she serves. And then she builds those ways and makes them concrete.

Part 2: On Broken Things

If you love a musical instrument you own, you do not want it baking in a car or freezing in the hold of an airplane.

I needed a guitar I could travel with – for teaching and for leading services. But the guitar I wanted was – at least for me – a rather expensive endeavor. For good reason: it was made with an inventive technology that allowed its owner to take its neck from its body and pack it up into a package so neatly that it could be placed in an overhead bin on an airplane.

I listened to the demos of guitar players far more skilled than I on and off for many months. I put aside money. Finally, I contacted James Brawner, owner and partner at Journey Instruments to think through my options. We talked about the guitars, music-making, even a bit about what we were doing with our lives.

Just a day or two before the guitar was about to arrive, James wrote me an email. He had received a note about the guitar indicating that it had suffered some small nicking on the wood near its neck. But I was leaving on a trip for which I really needed the guitar for a service I was leading. I wasn’t sure what to do – send it back? Take it anyway?

I grew up in a world of broken things. Having a newly-made guitar arrive in even a slightly damaged state triggered unhappy memories. I called James and confessed my uncertainty. He generously told me to take the guitar on the trip and pray with it. We would work it out when I got back.

I took the little guitar to ALEPH’s 2018 smicha week, where I was teaching. Then she helped me lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.

I returned from my trip and called James. I was still uncertain, still fighting the childhood memories of having things harmed and broken, of knowing harm and hurt. I could send the guitar back, James said. He could also offer me a discount if I decided to keep her.

I called James back. “James,” I said, “I want the discount.”

Part 3: Transforming Brokenness into Wholeness

I explained. I had prayed with that guitar. After all, I said, all of us have been harmed and hurt and even broken.

I wanted the discount not because I needed it, but because I wanted to give it to organizations offering hope and strength and help to those who have been harmed and hurt and broken. My little guitar wasn’t perfectly whole, but, in the end, her small hurts could be the agency of healing.

James was so delighted that he told me he would match the money he was sending to me and give it to organizations he loved.

I got the discount last week. Today I added a little money to the discount so I could round it up. Then, I sent half to CALA and half to NAKASEK.

In honor of the young woman who walked into my life two years ago in Grant Park, Chicago. In support for the work she does. In the name of those she serves.

This blog post is dedicated to Serafina Ha.

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Repurposing, Renewing, Revisioning Judaism — The Work of Our Hands

I made my first tallit out of an embroidered shawl. I shook when I put it on for the first time.

I had grown up in a world in which only men wore prayer shawls. A part of me felt as if I were transgressing.

That was eighteen years ago. And I’ve been making kippot and tallitot ever since.

I resisted turning my hobby into any kind of business. My practice was, for years, to make my work into gifts for friends and colleagues. But after repeated requests to sell my work, I eventually created Not My Brother’s Kippah and put my things up on Etsy.

I began to meet people I would otherwise never have known. I learned about their lives. I found that what I designed and cut and sewed was a wholly new way to bless – even to heal.

In the past year, three women purchased tallitot from me. One of the women had two different p’sukim she was thinking about for the atarah, the embroidered neckband of a Jewish prayer shawl. Which should she choose? “Go and sit with the verses,” I told her. “Just hold them in your heart. You’ll know which one.”

About an hour later, she wrote back to tell me that she did know, after all.

She had become, she said, her mother’s courage during her “early departure.” The verse she chose brought her mother back to her again: Al tirah ki imcha ani. Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:10).

There was a second client who wanted a tallit that would speak both to her Chinese and her Jewish heritage. I learned a life story in our correspondence – how her parents had escaped from danger, how she had learned to make her life in America, how she had, over three decades, framed every aspect of her Jewishness in the tikkun olam work she embraced.

And then there was a young Jewish-Vietnamese American woman who contacted me in December of 2017. We engaged in months of consulting and negotiation about colors, patterns, and texts. We needed fabric with a lotus pattern but had to be sure to avoid anything white – especially touching her head. White, she told me, is the color of death in Vietnamese culture. So though her kippah was made of fabric that included a creamy white, I lined it with lilac silk.

On her atarah, she wanted Genesis 18:27: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). She knew the tale of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha, who carried two slips of paper in each of his pockets, one of which read: “bishvili nivra ha’olam” (for my sake the world was created) the other v’anokhi afar v’efer” (I am but dust and ashes). At her suggestion, I embroidered the two phrases on the inside corners of her tallit. To be clothed in humility and surety in perfect balance – that was her kavannah.

Once she wrote, “I’m going to pass this down to my great-grandchild with all the blessings you’ve prayed OVER it, that I’ll pray IN it.” I finished it just before her thirtieth birthday. She celebrated by leyning Pinchas in shul that weekend.

A sari tallit
Made from a sari

Recently, I decided to heal as I created in a whole new way; I began making tallitot out of gently used saris.  I want to repurpose, reuse, renew.  Each sari has its own story.  As each becomes a tallit, it binds traditions and cultures together in a wholly new way. And why not celebrate diverse worlds coming together? We could use more of that in our time.

Connections emerge, take life, become unexpected gifts.  This past month I have corresponded and talked with the mother of a boy whose bar mitzvah is a year away; I’ll be talking both with the young man and his rabbi at some point. Just this past week or so, after he bought four kippot of mine, I began corresponding with a young man in Munich, whose story becomes increasingly tender and beautiful with each email.

My life is inordinately busy with classes to teach, administrative work to accomplish, research to complete. I never have the time I would really like to have to sew as much as I long to do. And I usually think of my teaching and research and writing as the most important work I do to nourish the tribe.

Maybe it is. But I have also learned that the renewal of all we know and the discovery of all we have yet to realize about Jews and Jewish life – these are things, it turns out, that can be found in cutting, stitching, and blessing.

May the work of all our hands serve such aims.

Note: This post is in honor of my son, Erik Henning Thiede.  He had the idea for using the saris to make tallitot so that I could become a more environmentally aware fabric artist.

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So Much for Deuteronomy: The Trashing of Overbrook Estates

Some of the trash from Overbrook Estates

We’ve lived in our little house for twenty-five years. For a quarter century I’ve tried to nourish the land we are living in, to plant native plants and to offer increasing cover for insects, birds, and small creatures. This piece of land is as holy as any other on this earth; it deserves my care.

The people who drive by our house are generally headed for Overbrook Estates, a wealthy residential neighborhood that abuts our modest little circle of ranch houses. There’s been no other way to get to Overbrook most of the time we’ve lived here. The construction of another wealthy neighborhood added another side street but traffic past our own house remains minimal and mostly local. People drive past our home to get to theirs. Aside from our short strip of straight road which leads to the entryway to Overbrook Estates, all the other roads are windy, curvy, and hilly.

For twenty-five years folks have driven the short straightaway that is our street and dropped plastic bottles, cans, candy wrappers, cigarette butts and more on our lawn.

But that was not the cause for the frustration I brought home this morning.

I like to walk.  Last Monday I decided to walk around Overbrook Estates. I don’t usually walk there because it the road is so windy and hilly; cars won’t see me until they are practically at my feet or my back. There are no sidewalks.

But I had less time for the walk than usual; walking there would take me a little more than half an hour. So I chose that route.

Overbrook Estates features homes that are worth up to ten times the value of our little ranch house. Because homes are placed in large plots of land, they are often set back and high above the street – far away from the little creek that runs on one side of the road. The yards are landscaped and the lawns are neat. That morning, I passed by both lawn service and maid service cars and vans.

As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw multiple signs. One had to do with saving our local school, another asked dog owners to clean up after their pets. There was a sign that read “Thank you, Jesus!” and another that asked people to drive with children in mind.

What’s to see in Overbrook Estates? Immaculate homes, well-manicured lawns, full-grown trees, and signs about good behavior and offering gracious thanks.

And garbage. Cans and bottles and plastic bags. When my hands were full, I put two plastic bottles on the driveway they lay next to. That, I thought, would ensure that at least they would be recycled.

Yesterday, I walked the same way – this time, armed with plastic bags and gloves.

I picked up cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles and straws. I found cups from McDonalds, Bojangles and Starbucks. I gathered plastic bags, candy wrappers, old Christmas decorations and even a stuffed animal that was sodden and ripped apart. After thirty minutes, my two bags were filled.

People went in and out of their driveways and passed me by. Though residents drove past me and my plastic bags, though some saw me picking up in their neighborhood, none stopped to thank me. Even the driveway where I’d left plastic bottles two days earlier had – you guessed it – the same two bottles lying where I’d put them.

I walked around one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in my town. What I gathered during that time was a fraction of the trash I saw; some had fallen into the creek and was simply unreachable given that I was in tennis shoes.

Eighty to ninety percent of what I gathered was recyclable. I know, because I spread it all out when I got home, sorted it, and recycled everything I could.

It’s been pretty annoying to clean up after those who have tossed their garbage onto my lawn for the past twenty-five years. I like to think of my little plot as a holy space. But it felt a lot worse to walk around a neighborhood where people pay for maid services to clean their homes and lawn services to trim their bushes but appear to care less about the earth they built upon than the grand homes they inhabit.

We’re filling our oceans with garbage, we’re eradicating species, we’re paying little attention to the way our earth cries out to us for relief from our selfish, self-centered behaviors.

It’s the time of year when Jews read through the Book of Deuteronomy. And in this book we are reminded not to destroy trees, to be certain to give from the land to the poor and vulnerable, and to offer the land itself a sabbath rest from human desires and needs.

Dear neighbors everywhere: All the earth is holy, including that which supports your homes. Please treat it as such.

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Getting Outside the Ashkenazi-Normative Box: On Jewish Identity and Jewish History

Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd (Photo AP).

What can we be sure of? What constitutes an unchangeable, indelible, essential marker that makes a person Jewish, that defines what we can call Judaism?

Twelve students and I joined together to consider these questions at the ALEPH Ordination Programs’ annual retreat (otherwise known as smicha week). I was teaching a class entitled “Judaism without Halakha and the Holocaust.” We had gathered to consider how these two elements had been deployed as identity markers and, just as importantly, what Jewish communities looked like when neither were primary factors in their practice.

I had peppered our reading with a set of wide-ranging data points that could take us beyond our mostly Ashkenazi-normative, rabbinically influenced education. For example…

  • Sometime in the century or so before the Common Era, a Jewish man survives a shipwreck.  His inscription of thanks survives – in a Temple of Pan, one of multitudinous pieces of archeological evidence demonstrating that our ancestors regularly worshiped other deities.
  • Who is leading synagogue life during the so-called “rabbinic period”?  Women, for one.  Gentiles, for another. (Really!)  In his article “Epigraphical Rabbis,” historian Shaye Cohen points out that “[t]he Jewish community of Rome alone left behind over five hundred inscriptions, many with references to archisynagogues, archons, gerousiarchs, grammateis, patres synagogae, matres synagogae, exarchons, hyperetai, phrontistai, prostatai, priests, teachers, and students, but not one with a reference to a rabbi. Not only did diaspora Jewry have no Rabbis of its own, it also did not look to Israel for Rabbinic leadership.”

During the course, my students learned that some Jews still practiced polygamy in the twentieth century – and slavery, too.  They discovered festivals they’d never heard of (Sigd).  They read about practices that intrigued them (Kaifeng Jews reciting Torah barefoot and with veils over their faces).

We asked ourselves: What does it mean for us to think about Judaism as a genetic inheritance when Jewish communities in some parts of the world have practiced matrilineal descent (European), others patrilineal descent (Kaifeng, Karaites) and still others have found their way to Judaism through forced or voluntary conversion (the Idumeans of the ancient world and the Abayudaya of ours)?

What about texts?  Must Jews at least know of the existence of Talmud, and rely on rabbinic texts for their practice to be legitimate?  If so, a number of Asian and African communities would be exiled from Jewish history.  If we assumed Jewish communities have to have Tanakh, would that mean casting out the Lemba, whose Torah was an oral tradition of biblical stories?

At one point, I asked my students: What, if anything, about Judaism could you do without?

Lex Rofeberg, rabbinic student, wrote this:

Here is a list of some of my favorite elements of Judaism:The Book of Numbers

  • The Book of Numbers
  • Shavuot
  • Emma Goldman
  • Mishnah Nedarim
  • Reb Zalman
  • The number 18
  • My mom’s brisket, on Passover

I love these pieces of Judaism. They add incredible, deep meaning to my life. And yet…any one of them, or all of them, could disappear from Judaism, and it would still be Judaism.
Because it’s not about me or my preferences. It’s not about any of us. There is nothing – no holiday, no practice, no language, no community, no belief, no symbol, and no book – whose absence would transform the something that we call ‘Judaism’ into a something that is no longer ‘Judaism.’
Many of the somethings that our ancestors would have said define Judaism are already long gone. Not just our ancestors from millennia ago, like Moses and Miriam, but our literal grandparents! Some of the core pieces of their Jewish experiences have disappeared from our collective memory.
And yet there is still a something that we call Judaism. And I like it! Despite the absence of so many rich treasures of our past, this Judaism thing is still pretty great!
Because of that, I have a question that I commiserate over. More than asking what I couldn’t bear to live without, from Judaisms that exist today, I ask myself: ‘What doesn’t exist yet that my children will one day consider an inalienable, necessary, uncompromiseable piece of the thing called Judaism?’ That they could never imagine losing? How can we invent it? How quickly?
That question, regarding our Jewish future and those who will inhabit it, should loom large at the core of what we do. May we be blessed with many diverse answers to it. We need to be checking our rear-view mirror frequently. But the road in front of the windshield beckons us too. Let’s keep our eyes there as much as we can.

Regardless of our viewing direction, we need to ask questions that nourish, feed and sustain what we call “Judaism.”  For our future’s sake, we will be required to think beyond what we think we know is Jewish. From Asia to Africa to Europe and beyond.  From ancient Israelite to modern Karaite.  From all that is now to all that is yet to come.

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An Artist’s Eye for Love: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hector and Ricky Baker on the run.

Ricky Baker is angry. He arrives at a ramshackle house and barn in a police car. A stern and equally angry woman climbs out of the car with the boy. Paula represents Child Services, the agency that is delivering Ricky to Bella, a scruffy, middle-aged, hopeful foster mother. Paula doesn’t mince words: the boy has run away from previous homes, he’s been caught “stealing and graffiti-ing.” He’s no good.

Bella greets the child cheerily, and despite the boy’s efforts to escape that very night, relationship-building is on.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is situated in New Zealand and directed by Taika Waititi (also known as Taika Cohen). Waititi is of Te-Whanau-a-Apanui and Jewish descent. The film is a tender, hilarious narrative of love.

When Bella dies suddenly, her taciturn husband, Hector, receives a letter. He hands it to Ricky and orders him to read it out loud. Paula, Ricky reads, will be coming to collect him.

Ricky refuses to go back. He’s just turned thirteen; he’ll just end up in juvenile detention. Hec is uninterested; he didn’t want the boy to begin with and doesn’t much care to have him now. He is grieving for his wife.

After resistance and accidents of fate make it impossible for Hec not to protect Ricky, the two go on the run. Their escape attempt sparks a national manhunt to save Ricky from a presumed “molesterer.”

Hec and Ricky have nothing to tie them together except their knowledge of Bella’s love and their grief for her loss. They don’t much like one another, but faced with happenstance, they throw in their lot together.

The two struggle through the bush; they scramble for food and shelter. Their effort to survive feels tight, even claustrophobic. Climbing through the dense foliage requires one arduous step after another. Suddenly, they break into a summit treating the viewers to panoramas of mountain and lake. Hector, takes a long look around.

Hec: Pretty majestical, aye?
Ricky: I don’t think that’s a word.
Hec: Majestical? Sure it is.
Ricky: Nah, it’s not real.
Hec: What would you know?
Ricky Baker: It’s majestic.
Hec: That doesn’t sound very special, majestical’s way better.

It’s not a word then. But it becomes one.

No scene in this film is without a measure of grace. Boy and man learn to love one another although the child is an insatiable reader and the man is wholly illiterate.

Ricky is fond of haikus. At the outset of the film he tells Bella that a counselor told him to write them to express his feelings. He offers one of his first efforts: “Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.”

There are a few more choice examples. But Ricky, the heavy boy who struggles to run more than a few steps, is a boy who can love. One night he tells Hec he’s written a new haiku. “It’s personal,” when Hec asks him to recite it. Ricky gives in: “Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.”

Their run ends as it must – badly. Ricky calls Hec a traitor for giving in and then claims he is, in fact, a “molesterer.” Hec ends in jail yet again.

It’s easy to kill human beings. It’s hard to kill love. In a last meeting, Hector recites his own haiku: “Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best.”

We are living in an America where babies of eight and ten months are separated from their parents. We have been shown terrified children, desperate parents.

No amount of phone calls to our representatives or donations or demonstrations can wipe away the trauma our government has inflicted on families; nothing we do will ever change the ugly and violent and heartless history we have witnessed.

Still: the work we can do must be done. But to be able to do that work, we must find places of relief, of healing, and of hope. We must reacquaint ourselves with the knowledge of humor, of tenderness, of our human capacity to give.

For all my colleagues and friends who are exhausted and worn, please watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

You are in need of an artist’s eye for love. Such a narrative could not be created if such a thing did not exist.

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Acharei Mot and Little Girl (or: No More Scapegoats)

Little Girl and Ralf

On Wednesday, I noticed a small brown and black dog running at full speed across our front lawn.

I sighed.

We live near a highway rest area. Some people go to that location to drop off unwanted pets. But when I got on a jacket and went out to look, the dog was gone.

The next day, when my husband, Ralf, and I came home from work, we saw the same dog in our front garden.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Honey, I think we have a stray.”

My husband does not much like dogs. He worked as a security guard to help pay college costs when he was young and had to deal with aggressive dogs, who attacked and bit him. When Ralf is around other people’s canines he is polite, but distant. He does not pet their animals, he avoids them.

So it was odd – even strange – that after collecting our mail I turned to see him crouching down and calling to the strange animal.

Life as I knew it then turned upside down. The dog headed toward my husband and literally climbed onto his lap. He murmured softly to the creature, who repeatedly tried to lick his face.

I moved closer. The animal was starved to the bone. Her pink collar was frayed. She ran off to pick up the cadaver of a squirrel, then dropped it and came back to the house. I went inside to get her a bowl of water and cat food and then to call the appropriate authorities.

I came out to take turns with Ralf. Between wolfing down bowlfuls of cat food she sidled up to me to be petted and loved.

“Little Girl,” I said, “you smell pretty ripe.”

Over the next half hour we found a rope to tie to Little Girl’s collar and promptly fell utterly, completely in love.

She was not a pretty dog. She was, however, the very soul of love.

Nevertheless: our cat was not happy that she was outside his window. My husband has allergies, and we knew we couldn’t keep her.

“I feel guilty,” he said.

Watching her being taken away was painful. That night, I lay awake thinking of her beautiful, loving, smelly and starved self on my husband’s lap. I woke several times to worry about whether she would eventually be put down because no one would have her. In the morning, I called the shelter.

Little Girl, they told me, already had a possible home. I shouldn’t worry, they told me. “She is so lovable,” I was told, “we can guarantee she won’t be put down.”

Still, I gave them my number. “Please call me if she doesn’t find a home,” I said. “I’ll find her one if I have to.”

And then I sat down to reread my birth parsha, Acharei Mot.

Two goats, I read. One for the sacrifice and one to be sent to Azazel. I thought back to every Yom Kippur, when I chant about how we found, every year, the scapegoat for Israel.

As Jonathan Sacks explains in his book, Covenant and Conversation, some commentators have claimed that the name is actually a compound noun: It means “the goat (ez) that was sent away (azal). And when an William Tyndale produced the very first English translation of Tanakh, he rendered Azazel as “the escapegoat.” So, Sacks says, we have come to our present-day iteration of that word.

Every year I chant about an all-too human practice: making animals bear our burdens. Animals are there for our sake, to comfort and to surprise us. They offer their playful or sleepy selves to be stroked because, in such great part, we are calmed, we are made happier by petting them.

In this parsha, the escapegoat carries our burdens and bad behaviors away for us. We have atoned, we are cleansed.

Little Girl was sent away from whoever owned her as the very expression of human, ugly behavior. She was sent into a wilderness and she was starved of food and comfort and safety. She was a scapegoat.

All of us are engaged in banishing animals in one way or another: we destroy their habitats, poison them with our own products, and hunt them down – even now – for their body parts. They are bearing our burdens.

Just now I want to chant this passage, imagine those two goats, reimagine their fate and set them free.

May there be no scapegoats for Israel.

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Bible is Real: Rahab’s Stormy Relative

“It’s not history.”

I explain: We have no corroborating evidence. The Hebrew Bible is our sole source for the stories and tales we tell about Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob (and we can say the same thing about all the matriarchs, too). We have to reach King David’s time to find texts that affirm even the smallest measure of Israelite history as Tanakh tells it.

Scholars have found no trace of hundreds of thousands of ancient slaves traveling along the pathways the Israelites are supposed to have taken during the Exodus. We don’t have evidence that Israelites were monotheistic – just the opposite, if you look at the archeological evidence.

The Hebrew Bible (read Tanakh) is a minority report, I tell my university students. A likely all-male, educated elite wrote its books over many centuries and from many different historical and theological perspectives.

Our classroom conversations are around the role of mythical narratives, and their inestimable value and power for defining the human-divine experiment. It’s interesting stuff, a way to travel on the ancient wild side. And my students connect with it. They discover that it is relevant. In our classes, bible becomes real for them in ways they never expected.

Example: The recent discussion of Joshua 2 in my class on women in the Hebrew Bible. The story features a Canaanite prostitute who announces an imminent victory for the invading Israelite nation and negotiates safe passage for herself and her family. Rahab, who lives in the very walls of Jericho, manages to hide two Israelite spies sent by Joshua to scope out the city’s defenses. She bluffs her way out of an interrogation conducted by the king’s men and sends them into the countryside on a crazy goose chase after the spies (who are, in the meantime, sunning themselves on her roof). Afterwards, she heads upstairs to deliver an oracle to her Israelite guests in true Deuteronomist style.

We have heard, Rahab tells the Israelite spies, how YHVH dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt. We know how God helped the Israelites defeat powerful Amorite kings. Jericho’s inhabitants are quaking in their boots, she says, “for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Based on her intimate knowledge of Israelite narratives and her surety about the Israelite future, she follows her oracular prologue with hard-hitting negotiations. She’s protected them; now, they owe her. She stipulates her conditions and the Israelites do the same. There are sanctions for both sides if anyone fails to meet their obligations. Rahab demands an oath to seal the deal, the spies agree, and they, in turn, give her a scarlet cord as the physical sign of their agreement.

The day we discussed this story, my students spent time marveling at the way Rahab managed all the men in the story. She was tough, clever, aggressive in ways they could admire, and did.

One student pointed out that a Canaanite prostitute had effectively doomed the king and his entire administration.

She’s the ruler of Jericho,” she said.

“Oh, my,” I said suddenly. I stood very still.

“What is it, Dr. Thiede?” one of my students asked.

“I just had a thought,” I said slowly.

Everyone waited patiently. My students are Very Nice People.

“You know how I am always reminding you that we have to treat these narratives as stories, tales with a lot of mythical elements?”

“Yes,” one said slowly.

“And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing,” I continued. “Except it just occurred to me that we are living in a time when a pornographic actress has been sending a lawyer who is the king’s man on a wild goose chase to secure her silence.  She has declared a contract void because the king hasn’t signed it. She is posing a serious threat to the king’s credibility. Who is ruling Washington, DC, these days? Or,” I added, “at least, CNN.”

“Omigosh!” one of my students said. “Stormy Daniels!”

“Ha,” I added. “The bible says: Be careful about tangling with someone connected to sex work. It may not be history, folks, but Bible is real.”

Class ended. I headed for my office, looking at the sky. Clouds were gathering. As might be expected, I thought. And just as you thought yourself. Just now.

It’s another stormy day.

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The Gift of an ALEPH Student – A Story of Torah

The classroom – material or virtual – is a location for revelation. I am not just a guide in that setting, I am guided.

Nowhere is this truer than in a classroom with students of the ordination programs at Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Most, though not all, are pursuing their ordinations as cantors, rabbis, and rabbinic pastors as second careers. Many have already led professional lives as lawyers, social workers, teachers, musicians, health professionals and more. Even my younger students are carrying rich experience and admirable maturity into the classroom – it’s a reason, I suspect, why they are there in the first place.

This semester, I am teaching the history of Hasidism. Students have discovered that much of what they believed to be factual about Hasidism belongs to the realm of myth. But simultaneously, they have learned what has made those myths powerful.

The power of story, for example.

One of my students, Chaya Lerner, frequently speaks both to the history she is learning and the way she sees this history playing out among the Hasidic communities she serves as a social worker. Her class contributions are consistently thoughtful, measured.

Chaya is pursuing ordination as a rabbinic pastor with Aleph. She is a calm, clear-headed woman — straightforward and true.  She is, above all, fair.

One day, she told us that a member of her own Reform congregation had died. He was not a learned Jew, she said, but he was a kind man. He cared deeply about supporting and strengthening other congregants’ Jewish identity. He gave generously to programs to do just that.

“I was sitting in the sanctuary when his casket was rolled out,” she told us. “And I suddenly realized: There went Torah. He was Torah for our community.” Without the slightest self-consciousness, Chaya described what she did. She leaned over and kissed the casket as it went by. “Just as I would a Torah scroll.”

We were quiet for a few moments. A good man, not so Jewishly educated, had reminded his community to care about Jewish identity – to nourish and sustain it. It was a kind of Torah.

The community was enduring loss. Chaya had told us, with a story, how deep that loss had been.

“And there,” I said finally, “we have had a story from Reb Chaya.”

It was the kind of story that could be told decades from now or in the next hour, I added. We could each tell Chaya’s story in all sorts of settings, because it gave over the raw truth of the power and gift an individual Jew could be for others.

One week later, I did just that. I was speaking at an interfaith event about Torah scrolls – how they were made, what they were made of, how their features could tell a story inside their stories. I spoke about the importance of owning a Torah scroll for each and every community. I walked my audience through various commentaries about selling a Torah scroll – when it was to be avoided at every and nearly all cost, the rare and specific cases where such a thing could be permitted.

“The Torah is the heart of a Jewish community,” I said, “but in the end, the life of a human being is the most sacred of all. In fact, we believe that the life of a human being can itself be Torah.”

I looked at my audience. “Let me tell you a story I heard from my student, Reb Chaya,” I said.

 

Note: Thanks to Chaya Lerner for giving me permission to publish this post.

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Terumah and the Age of Rage

Terumah – it is a parsha about gifts. It is a parsha named “gifts.” Terumah is a collective noun: this parsha is about the collective.

Speak to the Israelite people, YHVH tells Moses. Offer everyone whose heart is moved to generosity, to thankfulness the sweet opportunity to bring something of themselves to the Holy One. And the people respond, with gifts of gold and silver and copper, with gifts of blue, purple, and crimson yards, with tanned ram skins and acacia wood, with oil for lighting, spices for anointing and burning incense, with lapus lazuli for the ephod and the breast piece, with the means to build a sanctuary.

It is a parsha filled with magical objects, with golden cheruvim who will spread out their wings and shield the ark in their care. With a lampstand adorned with metal petals curling about its seven branches and cups fashioned in the form of almond blossoms. The tabernacle itself will be made of fine twisted linen, of deep shades of purple and blue and wine-red, held together with gold clasps.

It is a parsha of abundance, a parsha, Chassidic tradition tells us, which contains the heart and substance of the Torah in its second verse. These are tzedakah and good deeds. The point of all our texts is reduced to this commandment: Give of yourself. Do good things. Gold and silver, as Torat Moshe tells us, may belong to God, but the pure willingness of heart is ours to give.

Just a few verses later, God says, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The preposition at work here is bet. While that can certainly be translated to “among,” bet also means “with” or “in.” The Holy One, it appears, is suggesting that humanity build a sanctuary so God can live in them. Not in an edifice. Not in a structure, however beautiful, but in human hearts: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them.”

If only.

It has been another week in the maelstrom of rage. We are living in such an age. It is infecting every aspect of our lives. It begins with a self-righteousness that is permeating every single social and news media platform. It ends with dismissing every compromise, with murdering others by word and deed.

The Dreamers have been crushed – again. Children have been slaughtered in their schools – again. Blame has been cast, again.

So many of us are feeling overwhelmed – even bullied – by the ceaseless, unending vitriol. We read Terumah and long for human hearts to be sanctuaries of peace. Our hearts are bruised and battered. We are exhausted. For every day, in every way, we are bombarded by the rage that so many Americans seem to hold dear – as if it were their most precious possession. Can this be our country, our world?

How can we make a sanctuary for God when we choose to fill our hearts with resentment and anger? How can rage be the bedrock for anything holy? No sanctuary can be built on such a foundation.

We know that rage is generated by fear. The essential question is this: What are we afraid of?

Note: This parsha was read the week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born. This blog post was inspired by her efforts to understand and speak with those who have harmed and hurt her and the people she tries to protect. It is dedicated to her.

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Waddya Know ? A Questionnaire for the History of Hasidism

The Baal Shem Tov… we think. It appears that it is actually a different guy: Rabbi Falk, the Baal Shem of London.

True/False

Hasidism emphasizes the negation of the material world.
Hasidism was a messianic movement.
Hassidism was antimessianic.
Hasidism regarded prayer as “higher” than study.
Hasidism considered prayer and study as equally holy.
Christians considered the tombs of tzaddikim as sites of veneration and visited them.
The Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) recycles stories from the Shivhei ha’Ari.

Multiple Choice:

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. was an unschooled radical who opposed the social structure of his time.
b. was a paid functionary with a plum residential post.
c. intended to found a movement.
d. became popular because he offered comfort to a traumatized people.

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. paid no taxes; he was granted a domicile and supported by the local religious b. establishment.
c. was a rebel against the religious perspectives that surrounded him.
d. was a true “man of the people”.

Hasidism became a movement….
a. because the Besht and his followers worked consciously to create one, spreading out across Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, etc..
b. composed of poor and unlettered Jews.
c. in part as a result of the opposition of Jewish Enlightenment thinkers.

Answers
True/False questions: Every one is true.   Hasidism has a lot of bandwith; ideas we might think as polar opposites  show up in varied sources. Multiple Choice: b, a, c

This semester, my ALEPH seminary students are answering these kinds of questions in our course on the history of Hasidism. We are busy dissolving a good bit of mythology, working instead with the messy reconstructions of history.

No, the Baal Shem Tov had no idea and no intention of founding a movement. He worked as a local practical kabbalist and hung out with other scholarly and semi-scholarly men who were interested in Kabbalah. The men he fraternized with were, in large part, exploring mystical ideas we can trace to mystics of 16th century Safed and the early pietistic elite who succeeded them.

No, the Besht was hardly revolutionary or engaged in a battle with “establishment religion.” His sources of learning were also theirs. Many scholarly Jews studied Kabbalah – including the Vilna Gaon who so opposed the Hasidim. Rabbinic leaders across Eastern Europe were sympathetic with Hasidic pietists who preceded the Besht, men whose ideas and practices he often borrowed.

The Besht was a faith healer, hired as such by the religious establishment in Meshbizh. He was given a house (#93) to live in and, as a paid functionary, he didn’t have to pay taxes. It is likely that his work included the writing of amulets (a longstanding part of Jewish practice that dates back to Second Temple times), incantations (also an established practice), and conducting exorcisms (ditto).

In some respects, finding the Besht is a little like looking for the historical Jesus. The Besht did not leave treatises or books for us to ponder. His letters have been redacted and “produced” by later followers. Te stories we read in the Shivhei ha-Besht are part of a well-known genre of hagiography, one particularly popular in Christian circles and adopted in Jewish ones.

Hagiographies originated as accounts of saints or ecclesiastic leaders, accounts that were, by the nature of the writing, packed with holy deeds and miracles. Jews adopted the genre and populated their pages with figures like the Ari and, later, the Baal Shem Tov. Christianity had its saints; Judaism had its tzadikim.

Hagiography is  history. The former is about building legends. The latter is about dissolving them.

Are we, then, to discard such legends and myths? Should the “real” history, such as we know it, lead us to dismiss the hagiographies we are heir to? The beauty of the stories we read is that their beauty never fails to move us, after all. That’s why they were written; that’s why we read them.

But we learn history for good reason, too. It is important to place the Besht in his own time – as far as we are able. History is a messy, complicated thing. Discovering how those opposed to Hasidism actually played helped (re)create it as a “movement” helps us understand where, how, and why Hasidism spread in the first place. Knowing how rooted in tradition Beshtian Hasidism was can illuminate a great deal about Hasidic community in our own time.

And this, too, is important. If the Besht is not who his followers made him out to be, what is it that they needed him to be, and why? That is, in a real sense, a spiritual question as well as a historical one.

Just as importantly: Who do we need the Besht to be, and why?

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