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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Kotzer Ruach – Finding Breath (and Life) in Torah

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, used to tell a story about the rebbe who insisted that his students should “live with the times.” The students, his Hasidim, were more than a little perturbed by this remark until the rebbe explained. Live in your Torah time, he insisted, in your liturgical time. Follow the rhythms, the teachings, the texts of the Jewish year. You will simultaneously travel with our people’s stories and discover your own.

In the past weeks, we began reading story of the Exodus. Just days ago in Jewish time, YHVH revealed the private, particular, special name Moses should use when speaking to his people. YHVH explains its meaning: Ehyeh asher ehyeh: The one who is sends Moses to Egypt. The one who will be, sends him. The one who is becoming sends him.

Many Jewish Renewal teachers point out what happens when we try to say the letters of YHVH’s private, mysterious name, with no vowels at all. We are, simply, breathing. Yeh, weh.

After creating Adam in Genesis 2, YHVH’s very first act is to breathe life into the human being. Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation and interpretation of Torah, tells us that in that moment “man became a living being” (Gen: 2:7). As Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk wrote, “it says [‘and there was in the body of Adam’] the inspiration of a speaking spirit.” Speech, according to the rebbe is equivalent to life.

Imagine that YHVH’s very essence is breath – the essence YHVH breathes into us. My name is breath, YHVH says to Moses, my name is life.

In last week’s portion, Vaera, we read that children of Israel could not hear what Moses had to say. They suffered, the Torah tells us, from a kotzer ruach. Sometimes our translations read: “their spirits were stunted.” Ruach can mean spirit of course. But it can also mean “breath.” The root for kotzer, kuf-tzaddi-reish  can suggest “shortening.” In Psalm 102:24 we read that YHVH kitzar yamai – YHVH “shortened my days.” The Israelites were short of breath, the very essence of life.

The root for kotzer also evokes powerlessness, decline, distress, anxiety of spirit. Combine kotzer with the Hebrew word ruach and you might translate the words as a “depression of soul.”

YHVH, who is breath – life itself – sees, hears, understands that the people are short of breath, short of life. No wonder YHVH asks Moses to make sure that these people learn God’s name – it is the name of that which sustains them, that which seems lost to them. How else can they return to life and regain their freedom?

Breath is speech, Menachem Mendl writes. YHVH gave Adam a speaking spirit with that first breath. Even more: Our speech, they add, is akin to YHVH’s speech. With it, we can create new heavens and new earth. We can remake our realities, recreate our world. Name that which we must do, which we must change, and we partner with YHVH in creating the world.

But when our spirits have been crushed, when we are short of breath and life, it is hard to speak, to find the words that will free us.

We are living in such times. There is no need to point out the obvious barrage of speech and the onslaught of action that appears to be sucking the very life out of the world.

For a long time I felt I could write nothing in this blog. I was suffering from a kotzer ruach; I felt powerless, distressed, anxiously crushed by a tsunami of cruelty around me in the speech of those who would lead, in the actions of those who do.

We must indeed live with the times. Our stories are not only of our people. They are not only of ourselves. They are of the world. And we are, right now, living in mitzrayim, the narrow space where spirits are crushed, where the burden of pain makes it impossible to catch our breath and speak.

Our task, as we read, is to make liberation real. For us and all who depend on us. Name them. Find them. Offer them the breath of life through your own speech and action.

How else can we cross the water and reach Sinai?

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On the Rabbinic Narrative and “Threats” to Judaism

Some weeks back, The Forward introduced a rabbi round table to its readers with this question: What most threatens the Jewish people?

Only one rabbi, Scott Perlo, asked readers to think about the subtext. “Can we think clearly about who the Jewish people should be, what the Jewish people could be, if our frame of reference is what threatens to end us?”

But most spoke to well-worn narratives about the dangers of assimilation, apathy, and indifference. What was at stake in the answers? A definition of Judaism that rests on rabbinic influence and rabbinic power.

Rabbis generally adhere to a mythology about the Jewish past that insists that Jews used to live a halakhic, rabbinically defined, life. They equate this “halakhic life” with Jewishness, per se. In their imaginations, this life included daily observance of rituals, Shabbat practice and regular prayer, and concrete knowledge of the mitzvot governing Jewish thinking and action. For even the most liberal rabbis, those things constitute “traditional” Judaism.

Rabbis thus assume that their role is to find a way to inspire Jews to be “more Jewish” by knowing more “tradition.” “Tradition” here is a code word for rabbinic Judaism.

It is, of course, a form of Judaism that grants rabbis authority and power. No wonder that it is this Judaism that rabbis cling to, this Judaism, they lament, which evokes only apathy and indifference in today’s Jews. Once upon a time it was this Judaism that gave us knowledgeable Jews who appreciated their traditions. Now…

Rabbis (and other Jewish clergy) need to feel that what they know and what they long to give is vital to Jewish life. Whole rabbinic conferences generate, so it is hoped, new ideas and fresh ways to get Jews to recognize the value of what rabbis think today’s Jews have “lost,” to get them – please God – to walk through the synagogue doors, to appreciate the riches of their inheritance, to embrace their traditions.

Such laments are exposés of rabbinic vulnerability and insecurity. The complaints naturally follow: Today’s Jews are all about themselves. They could care less about Judaism or Jewish community.

It is interesting, as one reader noted, that rabbis were asked about what is endangering Jewish life. What might have happened had The Forward asked some of those “ignorant” and “apathetic” Jews the questions they put to rabbis?

As a teacher of the history of European antisemitism, I am not naïve enough to claim that the world is without its dangers for Jews. But the question The Forward asked and the answers the rabbis offered presupposed a rabbinic narrative about what constitutes a “threatened” Judaism.

That narrative is recent, modern, and does not speak to a great deal of Jewish life and Jewish history. It ignores the existence and history of Jews outside of Europe who knew not Talmud. It completely jettisons the history of Judeans in the Second Temple period and Late Antiquity – a history which was not defined by rabbinic ideas about what constituted Judaism and Jewish practice and featured all sorts of practices the rabbis would likely have condemned. And it assumes that rabbis are the spokespeople for the Jewish people when the truth is that rabbis of any age are often prone to speaking for themselves.

I suspect that a good many of those ignorant, apathetic, and indifferent Jews the rabbis so worry about are, in fact, fully identifying themselves as Jewish and reveling in that fact. Many of those Jews are deeply interested in social and communal action and moral and ethical issues of the day. Plenty of them see these issues as related to their Jewish identity and Jewish inheritance.

Rabbis may prefer to bemoan the ignorance of today’s Jews about what they studied in seminary and what they love and think defines Judaism. But my questions for my fellow rabbis are these: What makes you so very certain that your definition of Judaism, a definition that relies on a mere piece of Jewish history and hardly reflects the diversity, the richness, and the power of multiple ways of creating and living Jewish lives is the one you must defend and guard and keep – even in spite of the real Jews before you? How much of your insistence is due to your own need to be respected, honored, and appreciated? And if this need is any part of the wisdom you want to offer The Forward, might you want to sit quietly with your egos and ask whether they are the best guide to the actual condition of Judaism and real Jews?

It isn’t about us, the rabbis. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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We Would Repay You Tenfold – Answering America’s Dreamers (DACA)

Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you.
Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Yesterday I listened to an hour-long documentary about the long battle to get the United States to begin opening its doors to the Dreamers, young people brought to this country as children.

I cried through the entire broadcast.

I cried because the story is familiar, known, somehow visceral. It is all those things because I am a Jew.

It’s not as though we Jews do not know what it is to live in fear of expulsion. It’s not as if we Jews don’t know what it is to live on the edge of legality, without protection of kings, dukes, or modern states. It’s not as if we Jews did not carry centuries’ worth of living at the margins, in the darkness, in fear. We will be sent out, we will be thrust into danger, hunger, even death.

I do not exaggerate. Some 800,000 young people may very well be shunted back into just such a world. The government has all their information, can find them easily enough, can deport them and their families – and not infrequently to places where their lives are at risk. So much for Trump’s promises to go after all those “bad hombres” and leave these young people alone. So much for his claim that Dreamers were “incredible kids.” There are more important concerns for a man who pardoned Joe Arpaio; they are embodied by those who are still screaming “lock her up.”

And, let’s face it: Trump hardly invented anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant policies, or anti-immigrant vitriol. It is the Republican Party and Republican senators who are threatening to sue the government unless DACA is eradicated.

Remember that chant the neo-Nazis shouted through the streets of Charlottesville – “Jews will not replace us”? During the documentary, I listened to one Trump supporter express exactly the same vitriol against Dreamers, whom she blithely accused of stealing opportunities and their jobs from American kids who had the luxury to be born to citizens.

But we don’t get to choose who we are born to or how our parents make their decisions. And a goodly number of the parents of Dreamers made exactly the same decision this woman would make if her ability to feed her child was threatened: Find a way to feed the child, no matter what it took. Go where food is, where there is more safety, more opportunity. Even if it means accepting danger, it is less danger than having your child go hungry, be at risk of gang violence, have a life so tenuous it is no life.

Our biblical forefathers and foremothers, too, left their homeland for foreign countries so they could feed their children.

It is a bitter pill. One government invites these young people to come out of the shadows. We will not deport you, we said. You can work here, you can get an education here, you can start a business and pay your taxes.

And they did.

There is no economic case to be made to deport immigrants – there is a clear economic case to be made to giving them a path to citizenship. I could spend all this space citing statistics showing how important it will be for an aging population to have and to retain immigrants (and to offer them citizenship, too). I could point out that numerous reports demonstrate that our annual GDP would actually take a serious hit if we deported the immigrant population.  We could demonstrate the purchasing power of immigrants in a capitalist society, point out the businesses and jobs created by immigrants who are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as the native born, discuss the way any costs of immigration get more than paid back in the second generation. The Dreamers’ generation.

I am thinking of students of mine who are Dreamers, who have been paying their way through college, working one night shift after another to get their out-of-state tuition paid for, struggling to make a way for themselves in a world that refuses to admit to their existence.

I keep remembering the words of one teenage Dreamer who said: “If you would only give us a chance, we would repay you tenfold.”

Have not we Jews known what it is to ask for chances? Should not the entire Jewish community be up in arms, calling senators and representatives, asking that we give these young people the chances they work hard for and the chances they deserve?

Should we Jews not know our own texts, our own mandates? Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you. Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

We ignore our God-given Torah at our own peril. Those Dreamers are us.

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Call Me Rabbi: A Letter to Representative Richard Hudson

Representative Richard Hudson, NC

All year I have struggled to get through to Representative Richard Hudson of Cabarrus County about what seems a blatant disregard for constituents who don’t happen to be Christian.  I live here and my congregation has called Cabarrus County home for over a dozen years.

My struggle began last February, when I received a newsletter from Representative Hudson. He began by describing a meeting with in which he was “struck” by President Donald Trump’s statement that “he was blessed to be raised in a ‘churched home.’” In the very next sentences, Hudson went on to say this:

“At a time when our country faces serious challenges, I believe it’s critical that we unite in placing our trust in the Lord and put the interests of the American people first.”

Hudson first touted the value of a presumably devout and Christian president and then seemed to assume that every one of his constituents should share his faith.

I wrote him. Did my representative acknowledge that his constituents included people of other faiths? Was Representative Hudson insisting that atheist constituents follow his lead in “placing our trust in the Lord”?

I wrote five times about this matter. I never received an answer to my request for a specific response in writing. I did, at one point, receive a phone call in which a staffer insisted to me that I was attacking Hudson’s right to express his beliefs.

I was writing often to Representative Hudson about a range of issues. He did respond to some of my other concerns. A pattern emerged.

I signed as Rabbi. He wrote to me as “Ms. Thiede.” Once, after I signed “Dr.” he wrote back to me using that title. He can respect my PhD, apparently, but not my ordination.

Yesterday, Representative Hudson send me his latest newsletter, entitled “We Must Act Now.”

Not one word about Charlottesville or the murder of a peaceful protester. No mention of the fact that North Carolina’s Loyal White Knights, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan were among the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville were. They were among those who chanted “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”

This past weekend, we all witnessed how President Trump dodged his responsibility to use words like “white supremacy” or “white nationalism.” When asked whether he would label the murder of Heather Heyer an act of terrorism, he refused to respond.

He did talk about the economy, though.

In like spirit, Representative Hudson sent me a newsletter about budgets and tax reform.

This morning, I had a long talk with a nice young man named Brett who works in Representative Hudson’s office.

“When someone chooses, for example, ‘reverend,” on your email system does your office use that title in their response?”

“Of course!” Brett replied.

I explained that I am the only Jewish clergyperson in Cabarrus County. I lead the only Jewish community here. Why can’t my representative respect my position as a clergyperson?

Brett apologized and said he would pass on my concerns.

But in case you don’t get to hear this the way I need to express it, I’ll say it again for you, Representative Hudson.

Representative Hudson your constituents are not all Christian.

Representative Hudson, can you respect those constituents who don’t happen to be Christian or do you believe that you only represent Christians?

Representative Hudson, you have refused, for eight months now, to acknowledge that I am an ordained rabbi. You have demonstrated a pattern of disregard for those who do not believe as you do.

Representative Hudson, you have made no discernible effort to stand against white supremacy or white nationalism.

Your choices make me wonder: With whom do you stand when it comes to bigotry and racism?

I’d like your answer in writing, please.

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