With a Bang and Not a Wimpel – Jewish Women Subvert the Rabbis

Wimpel 5Ritual acts may be fleeting. Ritual objects are not.

The Jewish women of Ashkenaz created the latter and, by doing so, shaped the former. They subverted the rabbis, created new liturgical practice, and left scholars a rich record of the culture of Ashkenaz. Rabbinic texts neither determined nor decreed their practice; a female laity creatively managed to call the shots.

It’s a story we should know.

Jewish tradition often relies on rabbinic texts to explain or justify a particular custom. The Torah binder, otherwise known as “wimple” or “mappah,” is no exception. According to the Sefer Hamaharil, published in 1556, the first connection between a boy’s circumcision and a holy object, the sacred Torah, occurred because, quite simply, a particular set of parents committed a faux pas.

It happened one time, Rabbi Ya’akov Segal Molin (Maharil) was sandek (godfather) and no cloth had been provided to wrap the baby’s legs. The rabbi ordered that a mappah (binder) be brought from the Torah scroll to be used for the child. He declared this permissible, citing “danger of life”; further, that the binder might be used again without impairing its holiness, provided it had been cleansed of blood, also, the family should give a donation to charity, so as not to enjoy the use of holy objects free of charge.

The historicity of this particular rabbinic tale may be doubted; the fact that Ashkenazi rabbis legislated the removal of women from brit milah, the rite of circumcision, cannot. In the thirteenth century, the Maharam, Rabbi Meier b. Barukh of Rothenburg, ruled that it was improper for a woman to sit among men at a circumcision. In the next century, the Maharil concurred. Confirming male status in the covenant required a celebration of maleness. Women were excluded.

Ashkenazic Jewish women, however, cleverly reinserted themselves in the ritual and related observances, creating customs and practices that gave them a significant – sometimes even a public – role. They cleaned and cut the cloth used either to bind the infant’s feet or to catch drops of blood, embroidered and decorated a blessing onto the fabric, and presented the wimple to their communities in a public, liturgically embedded ceremony. Cloth from a circumcision was repurposed to serve as a tool for a sacred task: binding and wrapping the Torah scroll.

Sixteenth-century Jewish women sidestepped their rabbis in an audacious act of spiritual ingenuity. Banned from the rite of brit milah, they used the wimpel to reestablish their presence by introducing a new liturgical practice. The custom of presenting the wimpel to the community during a synagogue service is first recorded in the 1530 Augsburg edition of Margaritha’s Der gantze jüdische Glaube. Customs varied: The wimple might be the child’s “first donation,” made while still an infant. Sometimes the wimple was presented at the time of the boy’s weaning, sometimes during his bar mitzvah. Women’s artistry, artistry created from the rite of brit milah, was on display for the entire congregation.

After the ceremony, came the commentary. In Germany, women congratulated the mother and made predictions: If the boy gave up his wimpel willingly to the men leading the service, he was clearly a Goldkind and he could be expected to grow into a loving, generous man. If the child cried or was loathe to give up his wimple, he was demonstrating that he was already deeply attached to Torah.

The cloth that caught drops of the baby’s blood was connected with the Torah that would, it was hoped, sustain the child’s life. But the wimpel also artistically rendered a record of contemporary culture. Embroidered animals and flowers and Judaica spoke of the child’s immediate surroundings, of the baby’s homeland, of a life lived in the presence of Jewish symbols and ritual objects.

A stork rises out of the lamed. A stag, a peacock, a fox, a monkey, and a unicorn run along the length of the cloth. One binder features a man in a boat, a small house, a cluster of rural buildings, a wedding scene, and Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit. Another features Judaica: a menorah, Torah scrolls, and the Star of David. Yet another ends with a Leviathan, evoking the Messiah’s arrival and the world-to-come. One generation’s wimpels are peppered with animals and flora. A half century later, zodiac signs and tribal symbols predominate. Lilith, the beast-goddess, the baby kidnapper, and Adam’s first, recalcitrant wife appears, as does Moses, the lawgiver. The wimpels of Central and Eastern Europe constitute a woman’s record of the way Ashkenazic Jewish communities interpreted the world around them over several centuries.

In many wimpels, the form and shape of the Hebrew letters include puns and jokes, even direct references to Scripture. When a woman embroidered a nun in the shape of a fish, she was punning; the name of the letter also means ‘fish’ in Hebrew. Women embroidered the lamed of the Hebrew word nolad (is born) into the shape of a stork. Do Torah wimpels suggest greater Hebrew literacy than historians commonly assume among Jewish women of the late Middle Ages?

Certainly, they demonstrate a sophisticated interface between liturgical text, pictoral representation, and cultural commentary. The rabbis could legislate the exclusion of women from Jewish ritual, liturgy, or practice. The women, in turn, could find their way right back in.

Jewish women subverted halakha. And everyone won.

Judaism and Journalistic Dribble

UNC Mascot RamesesI know I should be writing about the political situation in Israel. It’s timely, tragic, and offers plenty of opportunity for expressions of despair, frustration, or wishful thinking. Depending on your mood, of course, and whether you have had something to eat in the past hour or so. Or drink.

But instead, my attention was captured by an article that appeared today in The Charlotte Observer. The author was writing about college basketball. For people not from the south, college basketball is so big here that it trumps any kind of international news, to whit three suicide bombings in Yemen, the violation of the Ukrainian cease fire and Australia beating Pakistan to reach the cricket World Cup semifinals.

The author compared the NCAA March Madness tournament to a religious rite – a rather specific one, in fact.

Those who say that college basketball is like a religion are to be forgiven for engaging in drastic understatement… No, college basketball is more like a cult. It consumes its followers. It demands all. It shapes your most intimate relationships.
Come, let me show you.
Thursday was the first of the high holy days here. With heads of the faithful bowed in solemn unison, the brackets were writ. Dietary sacraments were stored; sacred garments were donned.

This passage was brought to my attention by my twenty-three-year-old son, Erik, who is visiting us whilst on his own spring break from graduate school from the great city of Chicago, where people have no idea what college basketball is, and March Madness refers to driving in repeatedly melting and refrozen slush.

“Mom,” he said. “I am thinking about sending Mr. [name redacted] an email.”
He showed me the quote, quoted above.
“Oooh.” I said.
“This is a little difficult,” Erik began. “Our ’High Holy Days’ is associated with bowing, prayer, dietary sacraments and sacred garments. I’m pretty sure he is not talking about Shintoism.”
“Amen to that,” I put in.
“Either he is implying that we are a cult or that our religion is about as serious as college basketball.”

The idea of sports as religious ritual is hardly new. Scholars have worked on understanding the ritualized behaviors that come with games of all sorts, from chess to curling. There is sophisticated work done on this topic.

The problem here is not simply the lack of academic sophistication but the author’s misunderstanding of the connections between games and religions. He is not analyzing how the behaviors of sports fans can demonstrate religious characteristics. He is applying a specific ritual belonging to a particular religion, excising the ritual from its context, and co-opting it to make a cute point.

Journalists are certainly free to make statements – whether critical, positive, or somewhere in between about Judaism and Jewish practice. But there is no connection between High Holy Days and college sports. The former are about personal assessment, reevaluation of individual and communal purpose, the relationship of human beings to the divine. The latter are about physical and mental skills, competition and winning.

Nothing the author did was malicious, it was merely journalism too quickly satisfied with its metaphors.

Still, I must ask: What is the gesture behind taking the days of March Madness and dressing them up as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

We live in a time when the future of whole peoples is affected by fuzzy assumptions about their beliefs. Can we afford to be quite so casual with each other’s religious traditions?

P.S. Go Tarheels!

Thanking My Hashpa’ah Teachers

God and AdamHonestly, I wouldn’t know how to thank my teachers.

I don’t mean those who patiently helped me understand why reading Philo was A Good Thing (really) or introduced me to the peculiar mix of Aramaic and Hebrew to be found in gnostic Jewish texts. I have had teachers who unpacked matters of history, language, liturgy, and texts study with enthusiasm and style. It’s easy to thank them.

It is far more difficult to know how to thank my hashpa’ah teachers. They helped me learn how to stay alive to the moment, to the needs set before me. They taught me to acknowledge and work with my projections and my triggers.

They are teachers of the heart, guardians of the divine. I am deeply dependent on them.

These days, particularly. I am working with a brilliant and funny young woman. She is from North Carolina. She is not Jewish. She is twenty-three and she has been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.

Not long ago, she was a student of mine. She knew me as “Dr. Thiede.” Her main concern then was whether she had evidence for her class contributions, or a strong thesis statement for her papers.

I had no idea why she called me – out of the blue – almost two years after she had graduated from UNC Charlotte. She told me about the cancer; I asked her if she wanted to come and visit.

The first time we talked, she told me that she didn’t know what she believed. But, she said, she had always had “these hunches.” I asked her to tell me more.

Then I asked: “Where do these hunches come from, Sarah?” “I have no idea,” she said. “Did you ever ask?” She laughed. Then, we asked.

Before she left, I asked her why she had called me. She explained. She and her boyfriend, Eric, had been driving around Houston after she got the diagnosis. She saw a temple and thought of me. She knew I had been ordained as a rabbi and had a small congregation.

“I want you to do my funeral,” she said.

I am not “Dr. Thiede” now. Sarah is asking me to be a teacher of the heart; a guardian of the divine. I long for my teachers’ wisdom.

Rabbi Nadya Gross understands where Sarah and I are right now: Yes, it is necessary to name the threat. She comforts me: Yes, Sarah (and I) have the right to hope.

“I know you will love Sarah through this and help her connect to her eternal essence,” writes Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. Simple, direct, a clarion call.

Sometimes I cannot predict who will become one of my teachers. Last week it was Tara, my yoga teacher, whose elegant person and beautiful, disciplined form is an inspiration. Afterwards, I thanked her for a sweet and challenging class.

“Tara,” I said, “I needed that.” “What’s up?” she asked. I explained: “I am working with a brilliant, amazing young woman in her early twenties. Her name is Sarah. She has fourth-stage colon cancer. Tara, in ten years I never worked with anyone so young.”

Tara looked at me, her face open like a flower: “What a blessing!” she said. “Because now you have the knowledge and the wisdom you will need.”

The most important work I ever did was in the spaces of fear and pain. Paradoxically, those places are also those of healing – and love.

Recently, Sarah came to see me together with Eric. I made us lemon ginger tea while they sat at my kitchen table. Before we walked into the library for our session, I noticed that Sarah and Eric were resting their hands, tapping each other’s fingertips lightly, with tiny wavelike motions.

In the library, Sarah cried. She felt like she was nearly buried in a tar pit. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t get out. I asked her to describe the pit.

Initially, I panicked with her. Then, I remembered that moment in the kitchen, her hand and Eric’s, their fingertips touching.

“Sarah,” I said. “In the kitchen you and Eric were tapping each other’s fingers.”  “That’s just something we do,” she said.  “Who invented that?” I asked.  “Eric.”

I asked: “Are you still in the tar pit?”  “Yes,” she said.

“Sarah,” I asked, “can you imagine Eric reaching to your hand, touching your fingertips, tapping lightly on them?” She could.

“If he steps backward, can you follow him, if he keeps tapping your fingertips?” Once Eric was there, she was able to get out.

I asked if she knew the Michelangelo painting on the Sistine Chapel, where God is just about to touch Adam’s finger. She had seen it herself, she told me. She had been in Rome.

“That is the touch of the divine, isn’t it?” I said. “When Eric reaches for your fingertips, he is touching you with the touch of the divine.”

I will not forget the way she looked at Eric. Or the way he looked at her.

To all my teachers: You made that moment – a moment of healing and love in the midst of fear and pain – possible.

I will continue to depend on you.

Maybe that is my thanks?

A note: This blog was approved by Eric and Sarah before posting.

Bring Back the Magic: The Book of Esther

Prim costume 2Esther is the Bible’s book of bawdy. God plays no part in outrageous proceedings: A 180-day party is followed by another…. party. Haman is hanged on a gallows considerably higher than Solomon’s own Temple. Jews manage to kill 75,810 Persians without themselves taking a scratch in the battle, much less a single death.

Still, the rabbis acknowledge it: The Book of Esther is pure magic.

Esther is permeated by wondrous reversals, calendrical and astrological associations, and references to divination. It describes a well-attested magical ritual of the Ancient Near East – the casting of lots. In the ancient world, such knowledge was essential. At the behest of kings, prophets and priests threw (literally) fate into the air, foretold auspicious days and dangerous ones, and regulated the calendar by consulting the skies.

The Book of Esther is obsessed with chronology and dates. The text is a literary treasure trove for depicting the magical regulation of time. Haman casts lots for the exact day Jews are to be destroyed; Esther uses her own calendrical methods to avert doom and save her people. An unlucky day becomes the lucky one. Magic and astrology were partners for the rabbis; medieval rabbinic texts explore the Book of Esther in just such astrological terms, from Ibn Ezra to Bahya ben Asher.

King Ahasueras’ wise men were astrologers, according to the former, who also asserted that Adar was chosen for exterminating the Jews because the stars were in the correct conjunction for enacting Israel’s downfall. Esther herself – so the rabbis – was named after the planet Venus (Istahar) and was served by seven maids (Megilla 13a). Can anyone miss the reference to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the “seven sisters”?  For the rabbis, Esther is star stuff.

You find that when the moon is not visible in the sky at night, the darkness in the world is such that a man cannot [see to] walk about even in the city. But once the moon appears in the sky, all rejoice and are able to walk about. So, too, in the days of Ahasuerus, when it was decreed that Israel should be destroyed, slain, and exterminated. But then Esther appeared and gave light to Israel, as is said, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Exod. R. 15:6.).

The rabbis say that all the miracles of scripture end with Esther (Yoma 29a). They read between the lines to add to the textual list: Mordecai wanders about Shushan looking for a wet nurse to suckle Esther (Gen. R. 30:8). Unable to find one among the Jews of the city, he simply, magically begins to breastfeed the infant himself. Hey, presto!

The book is a treasure trove of enchanted events. God is not present, but sorcery is. The story is composed of a series of abracadabras, uttered on the thresholds of earthly existence. Words, like characters, mirror their opposites and conjure power over them. The fourfold depiction of joy with abstract terms (light, gladness, joy, and honor) in 8: 16 reverses the four nouns that signal gloom in 4:3 (mourning, fasting, weeping, and lamenting). Kings become buffoons and nobodies become royalty. Haman, the insider and best buddy to the king, is actually an Amelkite outsider. Mordecai, who sits at the threshold outside the palace will not bow to the king – but he will, eventually, rule over him. Transformation is par for the course.

How to bring back the magic of metamorphosis back?

We could read the book, and take it seriously. It is a roadmap for navigating liminal spaces and dangerous places. We could read the book, and laugh at the absurdity. The hen-pecked king issues an edict to secure male privilege? Virgins are dipped in oil for half a year and perfume for yet another six months? Oy.

And then, try this: Read the book and find yourself. Anyone can become as self-absorbed as Ahasuerus. One day, you might find yourself calling on the kind of calm courage that Mordecai models. Like Esther, we all will – at some moment during our lives – face our most primal fears just as we are being called to tasks that will transform us.

The Book of Esther lends itself to reinscription, rediscovery, to an abracadabra of the soul. That is its power.

Look for yourself in it. You will bring that magic back back.

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.