A Text of Terror, A Torah of Hope

gumball tree leavesPain oozes from the haftorah before us. Pain and violence and horror. God announces that Israel can no longer be his partner, his spouse. She is an adulteress, a harlot.

I was the one who honored and loved her, YHVH says. I gave her everything and she betrayed me. And now? Now, I will take back my grain and my wine. I will lay waste to her vines and her fig leaves. I will snatch away my wool and my linen and she will go naked. I will expose her before her lovers; I will end her rejoicings. Her festivals and new moons and Sabbaths – they will all cease.

Then YHVH suddenly, shockingly, begins to speak like the kindest of lovers. I will speak coaxingly to her, he says. I will lead her through the wilderness and I will speak to her tenderly. I will give her everything – thriving vineyards and valleys of hope and she will be mine again. I will take the word baali, “my Lord” from her mouth for it sounds like baalim, a name for other gods. She will never mention them, her former lovers, again.

I will make a new covenant, God says. Then, YHVH turns to speak directly to Israel.

And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to YHVH

What kind of relationship is this? I, YHVH says, lavished silver on you and gold. I gave you all that you had. Now I will rip the clothing from your body. I will destroy all that you possess. Humiliation and terror, subjugation and punishment are followed by wooing: I will take you back. I will be good to you.

The last verse is ominous, given the context. “Then you will know YHVH” (Hos. 2:22). Now, you will know who I am. If only you would behave just as I want you to. If only you would do exactly as I demand. Then I can love you. Only then.

I sang every word of this haftorah forty-three years ago. Our cantor was thrilled. I sang clear and clean and made not one single mistake in the blessings or in the haftorah text.

Now, I wish I had made mistakes. I wish that I had transformed the Hebrew. I wish I had had the capacity and the knowledge to rebel, to insist at my bat mitzvah that I must sing words of hope and love that were free and safe, untainted by words of rage and terror.

But I didn’t know what I was singing. I had been given a cassette and the Hebrew and told to practice. And I did. Faithfully, carefully, with enormous love for the cadences of haftorah trope. No one cared to teach me about the text or its context.

Perhaps the men who were in charge would not have known how to tell me what I was about to sing.

This text describes an abusive relationship. And these come in so many forms. Frequently, we have have no idea that we have succumbed to one. Any one of us can be groomed by a predator who woos us with praise and attention until we are open, vulnerable. Then, wide-eyed, we are shocked to the core when the attack comes. We want to love; we are exposed to aggression and hatred.

It has taken me over five decades to realize that the wish to love is itself dangerous. Abusive people are everywhere, discontented human beings who will project their unhappiness on anyone near enough to care. Abuse comes in so many forms that it is dizzying – from the willingness to aggress to the willingness to stand by and acquiesce as the aggression occurs.

Where is God in all this?

Sometimes, I tell my own b’nai mitzvah students, I just don’t know. I’d be lying if I told them I was certain in every minute of the actual nature of what we call, so inadequately, “God.”

It is nearing Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah. We tell the story of Naomi, who lost everything and Ruth, the Moabitess, who restored her to life. And we, the generation that struggles to give Judaism new life – even after the Shoah, must still contend with texts of terror and rage, texts which offer a deity we will never embrace.

Where is God? What, and who is God?

Today, I looked out my window at the five-fingered leaves of the gumball tree in our backyard. The tree drops spiny balls on the lawn each year that will pierce the skin if you walk on them barefoot. But the leaves are shaped like stars and they hover in the golden light of the sun. They are clean and bright, and where shadows fall, these, too, are not dark but simply safe – a richer shade of green.

I must pray my thanks at the sight, even when I am unsure where my prayer will go or what purpose it will serve.

May we receive a new Torah this year, a Torah of hope.  May it help us understand who our God must be, and who we are called to be ourselves.

May only the safest love be in it.

On Sheol, Necromancy and a Bar Mitzvah

Worshipers before symbols of Marduk“I don’t believe in God,” he says.

“Okay,” I answer. “Which God don’t you believe in? The bumbling, fumbling, and mumbling LORD God in Genesis 2:4-3? YHVH of Job 38, portrayed as a birthing mother? What about Adonai of Lamentations, accused by Lady Zion of mass murder?”

For the next twenty minutes we compare and contrast all sorts of ideas about the divine. I pull a text off my shelf to show him how ancient Babylonians pictured their deities – sometimes in purely symbolic form.

“Look at this one,” I say, pointing to a drawing. “A worshiper standing before the symbols of the Babylonian deity Marduk. We weren’t the only ones to think that it might be impossible to make a picture of a god.”

“So,” he asks, “do Jews have a heaven and a hell?”

I start describing Sheol, a dark and murky place mentioned mostly in poetical biblical texts.

“It’s often a code word for grave,” I say.

Sometimes the earth opens up and swallows people into Sheol, I add. The deceased live a kind of shadowy existence there, but the texts don’t indicate that there is either reward or punishment.

“Sounds boring,” he says.

“Yup,” I answer. “I’d be bored.”

We move on to the world-to-come in which all sorts of important Talmudic answers will finally get answered. Then, we end up discussing funerary practices.

“Why do people cover mirrors?” he asks.

“Some people believed that the soul had a really tough time acknowledging that the body it had inhabited was dead and buried,” I say, “and that it would go back and forth from grave to home in a kind of confusion. They also thought that if the soul went past a mirror and didn’t see the body it once belonged to in the mirror, it would be deeply upset and confused.”

“But wait,” he said, “surely the soul had known that custom when it was alive with a body. Why wouldn’t it come back from the graveyard, see the covered mirrors and say, ‘I guess somebody must be dead. Oh. That’s me!’”

I start laughing.

My conversation partner is twelve. Each and every week, between practicing the Hatzi Kaddish or the first prayers of the Amidah or some other component of the service, we find our way into conversations like these. You never know. We might start with Ancient Israelite polytheistic practices and end with medieval ideas around how to trick the dead into revealing the future.  Necromancy is a thing, and not only at that time In Jewish history, either.  Ask the witch of Endor.

(The latter, by the way, requires an invocation that begins: “I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question.” The invocation actually ends with the adorable command: “Do not make sport of this!”)

We’ve looked at ancestor worship in Chinese Jewish settings (supported by the evidence that incense was burned to venerate Abraham and Sarah, for example). We’ve talked about the archeological record that reveals that our ancient forbears thought YHVH had a consort by the name of Asherah.

He’s brought up Greek mythology, the Khazars, and the Crusades. I’ve talked about the Babylonian Exile and the books that never made it into the canon.

“Like what?” he asks.

“There’s a reference to something called the Book of the Covenant in Exodus,” I say. “There appears to have been something called the Book of the Wars of YHVH – it’s mentioned in Numbers. There’s a book that the prophet Samuel was supposed to have written and one by Nathan.”

“What happened?” he asks.

“They fell off the bestseller list,” I say, and it is his turn to laugh.

Is any other rabbi lucky enough to have this kind of student?  I delight in his frank, fresh thinking. I think he enjoys my delight.

In August, when this young man stands up in front of his friends and family and leads a Shabbat morning service, I will be (yes, it sounds cliché), one very proud rabbi. He has offered proof that our children and teenagers can experience their tradition, heritage and history as an intellectual and spiritual playground.

I hope our conversations continue long after the mazal tovs and the candy tossed in the air.

It’s worth a prayer, I think – to the God I believe in, anyway.

On Jewish Demons and Sublunary Buttercups

matted hair babyButtercups are blooming in our back yard. Sighting spring buttercups inevitably leads my husband, Ralf, to remember the many walks he took with his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn loved flowers and meadows, and upon seeing buttercups she inevitably said the exact same thing. Each time, each year, wherever they happened to be.

Wenn man das sieht, dann möchte man eine Kuh sein und gleich reinbeißen!

For those of you who don’t speak German, a translation: “When one sees that, one would want to be a cow and start munching.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Ralf told me this morning, “was that some kind of past life experience talking?”

“Funny you should say that,” I answered. “I’ve been wondering about the same thing where my mother was concerned.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, it’s not exactly the same thing,” I explained. “But I was reading the other day about the way medieval Jews described demons at work in the world.”

“Wait,” Ralf said, “what are you saying about your mother?”

“It’s actually about my mother’s stories,” I said. Then I paused. “Though she did tell me she was a witch.”

This is the absolute truth. When I was a child my mother professed to be a witch who could fly to the moon. She did so frequently, she said, and she claimed to have taken me with her, too. Sadly, I seem not to have been able to remember these nocturnal lunar visits, so she always had to fill me later about the experience.

She also provided an explanation for the knots and tangles in my hair. That, she claimed, was the doing of Mr. Tangle. Apparently, he would party down in and among the strands with selected invited guests all night long. This would account for the knots that had to be combed out in the morning. Tears stinging my eyes, I would get to chastise Mr. Tangle because he was mean and cruel.

“Bad Mr. Tangle,” I would say through gritted teeth. “Bad!”

I know. It doesn’t seem like this has much to do with buttercups or cows. Bear with me.

I had been reading about medieval Jewish demons, you remember. I had learned, among others, about the mares (these are not horses, but demons). Mares hang out in groups of nine. If there are ten, Satan will surely come along and seize one. Moral of the story: Don’t make a minyan with mares.

Apparently such demons hang out with sleeping humans and make it impossible for them to speak by grasping their tongues and choking them. The mare is responsible for nightmares. (Surprise!)

On to my mother.

Well, actually, the mikveh, first.

Most of us know that a dip in the mikveh requires that before stepping into the water, every last item on the body must be removed. No rings, no jewelry. There are other rules about clipping nails and the like, but the question that concerned some of our ancestors was apparently this one: Should badly matted hair be cut off before allowing a candidate to step into the ritual bath?

Answer, according to one of the greatest rabbis of the thirteenth century, Isaac Or Zarua: No.

And why not?

Matted hair is caused by a demon. It would be courting mortal danger to cut such hair. Mortal dangers are not something to be courted at any time, particularly during the Middle Ages when Jews are oft surrounded by such things.

It turns out that there is a name for this demon. Actually, a demoness. She is Holle, also known as Holda and/or Hulda (no connection, I think, to the prophetess in II Kings, 22:14 who sanctifies a scroll supposedly found during the time of King Josiah). Though her origin is likely German, in which tradition she took the form of a rather ugly witch with long, matted hair and buck teeth, she apparently made her way into Jewish folklore.

As I was reading about this demon, I couldn’t help wonder: Was my mother refracting some old belief, some traditional story she had been told? My grandparents came from central and eastern Europe, with names like Kirschenbaum (or Karschenbaum – we aren’t quite sure which).

Was Mr. Tangle actually Holle? Was this Jewish-past-life experience turning up in modern America? Given that my mother claimed to be a witch, what might she know about demons and demonesses of the past?

“Maybe Holle and Mr. Tangle worked together,” Ralf said when I was done explaining.

“How so?” I asked.buttercups

“You don’t think it takes two to tangle?” he asked innocently.

“I am going out to water the sublunary buttercups now,” I said.

More Healing — Of the Levitical Sort

Leviticus 2Leviticus offers pages and pages of ritual. Sacrifice of all kinds. Blood daubed here and there. It’s generally not the sort of reading you’d find on the best seller list. And yet: Levitical example can teach us how to heal our psychic wounds, our spiritual sorrows.

Don’t believe me? Try Parshat Metzorah.

An Israelite suffers from a skin disease – one whose name we don’t know and whose condition is like nothing we can name. The symptoms described in Torah do not correspond to any known skin disease. Chronic skin diseases doesn’t disappear by counting off seven days; Leviticus’ quarantine period would be utterly ineffective against psoriasis or vitiligo.

The text, congregants frequently assume, is about hygiene, about the treatment of contagious diseases. There is, in fact, plentiful literature from the Ancient Near East on diseases of the time – which included, by the by, bubonic plague and Lyme disease. The diagnosis and treatment of disease was a serious concern of ancient societies. But it’s not the issue in Leviticus, which offers no list of medical ailments needing to be “treated.”

In fact, Leviticus describes rituals the priest and the Israelite must fulfill – after physical healing. In Parshat Metzora, the priest orders up two live pure birds, cedar wood, some red stuff, and hyssop. One of the birds is sacrificed over fresh water; its blood drips into the water below. He dips the living bird, the cedar wood, the crimson stuff and the hyssop into the water. Seven times the priest sprinkles some of mixture on the healed Israelite. The live bird flies free overhead, the Israelite bathes, washes, and reenters the camp. In seven days he may return to his tent and on the eighth day he makes his own offering before God. He is no longer tumah.

We can be lousy translators. Terms like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” are, obviously, laden with negative connotations. But we are retrojecting when we use those terms. What we are seeing in tumah is not Israelites contaminated, but affected. They are simply in a particular state of being – one that has nothing to do, in the ancient world, with actions or mistakes. One is pregnant or has given birth. One is menstruating. One has just enjoyed the joys of intimacy with one’s beloved. No one is bad or sinful as a result.

But they do become different, altered in a way that requires a holy ritual to bring them into a state that will be appropriate for Temple worship. Holiness in that precinct is of a different nature. It requires a kind of psychic and spiritual healing after pain and loss.

The parshiot we read this past week tell us about how a priest diagnoses the effect of altered states, on people, on cloth, even on houses. What do all the conditions described have in common?

Each is about the most elemental of conditions: Life and death. Someone bleeding from a wound does not qualify as “impure” but a menstruating woman does. Blood is life, our Torah says; when bleeding represents a clear loss of life it signifies death. One must be returned to life to enter the sanctuary.

Someone who has touched a corpse is and must be deeply affected by contact with death. Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases to our ancient forbears seemed to signal an oncoming death. All these required rituals for acknowledging reintegration into the community.

Death affects us. It changes us. How can we be returned to life? Sacrificing birds and sprinkling ourselves with bloodied water is not an option. But learning from this text is: It tells us that ritualizing our transitions from any death-like world is critical to the maintenance of life.

Last Friday evening, I asked my congregants to call to mind someone they had lost and missed. I asked them to think of a relationship that had died – one they would mourn for a long time. Whatever grief they carried, I said, also contained the source of their return to life. For whatever they head learned from beloved friends and family, whatever they had reveled in, whatever happiness they had been afforded – this could not die as long as they remembered and honored it.

I asked them to go to the table where our Shabbat candles still burned. I had laid marbles and assorted glass beads across the table.

“Take the one that calls to you, shines for you,” I said. “Take the one that reveals the light of the soul that shaped and transformed yours. Remember someone you have lost, someone who changed your life, who you loved deeply, and who will never be forgotten as long as you live. Come forward to gather the light of that beloved to you.”

Each came forward. Each took a bead, a marble. We chanted Mourner’s Kaddish. We acknowledged loss and we returned to life.

Ritual brings healing. Leviticus teaches us that.

This is Healing: From Yom Hashoah to Hope (Via a Renewal Beit Din)

pier to lakeThis is healing: When a rabbi asks gently, “How was that? To know you were Jewish for so many years?”

And the young man describes years of that feeling, of “almost Jew,” or “not Jewish enough.” Those in the room hear the pain and the confusion.

This is healing: When a rabbi acknowledges how hard your travels were and says, simply, “Thank you. Thank you for coming home.”

And the young woman smiles, her heart so open that the joy spills into every corner of the room.

Even this is healing: A cold, cold night at the lake, with the rain alternating between a steady downpour and a soft drizzle, crazy and confusing moments with a small crowd of friends walking you down to the water, occasional shushing so neighbors are not alarmed. A ritual that involves each person present speaking kavanot as you stand, and dunk, chatter your blessings and the Shema and finally, Shechechiyanu: Thank you, Holy One, for bringing us to this sacred moment in time.

After years of knowing who you are, you are, “Jewish enough” because your community has finally recognized that you were a Jew all along.

Conversion to Judaism: What is that, really? Some years ago I realized that all the study and experience that preceded the actual beit din was not about building a new identity. The identity was already there.

The time spent reading, living congregationally, journaling about Judaism and Jewish life helped fill in some corners, of course. But there is no “almost Jew” who could study – and master – all the aspects of a multi-cultured culture thousands of years old. No one born Jewishly could do that either. Study the Talmud all your life and you will still have no idea of how Jews lived in Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era (understanding the works of Philo, a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived and wrote in the city back then, would be a lifelong commitment on its own…).

None of us is, by any measure, ever “Jewish enough.” Such a measure is both arbitrary and useless.

In the end, as Renewal rabbis know full well, it is not about whether you have memorized the minor festivals or can recite the Thirteen Principles or even, simply, name the number of branches on a hanukiah. It is about the heart and soul. It is about knowledge and understanding. It is about a word Jews seldom use freely.It is about faith.

Our history makes it hard for us to advocate for faith. Our texts do not command belief, but action. We often birth our Jewishness – however we come by it – by asking questions. But there is also a faith in one’s Jewishness, a certainty, a knowing.

This is healing: Still feeling the shiver, after warm showers and the application of many thick towels, they come into the room. The young couple before us will be married in almost exactly six months. He knew he was Jewish when he was  just twelve, he told the rabbis. But when she told him she wanted to convert, he felt he had been granted permission. He finally knew how to go home.

She is – heart and soul – connected to her people. She speaks of her pain at a Yom Hashoah gathering, and one of the rabbis says, “When a Jew cries, and you cry, you know you are Jewish. When another Jew laughs, and you feel that joy, you know you are Jewish.”

They arrive in the room, hair still wet, the memory of the cold still clinging to them. Those waiting begin singing and clapping: “Siman tov u’mazeltov umazeltov v’siman tov!” And afterwards, there are many warm and heartfelt blessings for long life, growth, a family and a Jewish home that is nourished, each and every day, by their commitment and their love.

“Be mensches,” my husband, Ralf, says. “Be good. That’s not a blessing, it’s a commandment.”

We all laugh. Then we go out into that good, dark night, a night that saw the transition from Yom Hashoah, from a day honoring grief and anguish and sorrow to a day of joy and hope.

This is healing.

Yom Hashoah – So I Believe

Boy in the striped pajamasRitualizing remembrance was a straightforward matter when I first began to organize, create, and lead Yom Hashoah programs thirty years ago. Holocaust survivors played an important role; hearing their stories and contextualizing them with honor and respect was my task.

Three decades later, the Holocaust has become a cliché for horror and terror. Now it is frequently a subject for thinly developed stories of heroism, personal tragedy, or revenge. Popular films and children’s literature have proven that the Shoah is marketable to a wide and varied audience.

But the marketing of the Holocaust has transgressed — even violated — the memory of the victims. An example: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a children’s novel that features a lonely German boy whose father is a camp commandant. Though the boy sees the inmates from his bedroom window and plays yards away from the electric fence that separates him from a city of death, he hears no screams and smells no burning bodies. By asking the reader to accept this absurd premise, the author renders the real victims’ experience invisible and inaudible.

The little fable manipulates its audience. The German boy meets a Jewish one imprisoned in the camp while he takes a walk on his side of the electric fence. In the end, the German boy ends up dying in the camp because sneaks in to visit his friend. We are more conscious of his tragic death than those of the camp inmates, who face death in the gas chambers each and every day.

In identifying with the German child we have exchanged history for a fantasy. We have traded grief that can honor the actual dead for a cathartic experience that tells us nothing about the Holocaust – not how genocide is constructed, and not how it succeeds.

Frequently, I teach a text describing the way Hungarian Jewish children were burned alive during the Shoah. I do not do this as an act of grisly insistence on shocking my students. Shock value is of no educational value.

But historical reality presented inside a context is important. My students spend weeks contending with Europe’s long acceptance of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Then they read that terrible, brief text. In class, I ask: How are these two histories related? Can mass murder occur without an embedded history of disdain or contempt for a given people? If so, how would that alter our understanding of the Holocaust? Does it?

I want to inspire critical thought and understanding. I hope that my students can become better human beings. Isn’t that the only education that matters?

What do I long for? I wish we could look our history in the face. It tells us: We must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

Last Sunday morning, I taught a preschooler about the Torah using a paper model about sixteen inches high. I taught him how to dress and hold our “Little Torah” and how to raise it high for hagbah. We discussed the pretty silvery crowns, the breastplate, and the Hebrew letters on the mantel, and the funny hand at the end of the pointer.

“Yosef,” I said, “we are asked to hold the Torah near our hearts. Where is your heart?”

Joseph touched his chest. I laid our Little Torah against his heart and rested it against his shoulder. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around the Torah and held it tight.

“Why do you think,” I asked, “that we hold the Torah close to our hearts?”

“So we believe,” he said.

I hold the Torah of the Holocaust close to mine. So that I believe. I can and must honor those we lost. I can and must try to give renewed life to Judaism. I can and must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

May we, this Yom Hashoah and all those to come, remember our dead and sanctify life.

The “Holy Land”? In What Context and in Whose Language?

Holy LandA critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based… To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.
Michel Foucault

A friend of mine recently sent me an email asking for my reaction to her distress over an article that recently appeared in The Charlotte Observer. The email included a screen shot of the story.

The headline read: “Greetings from the Holy Land!” A picture of members of the Eastern North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church holding a copy of The Charlotte Observer accompanied the blurb: “These Observer readers from Kannapolis and Charlotte visited Israel in February…”

The Observer thus neatly equated the term “Holy Land” with the current state of Israel. But a goodly number of locations that are critical to the story of the “Holy Land” are currently in locales that are not within that state – like Hebron/Al Khalil, Jericho, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

My friend wrote to the newspaper in protest:

[T]hat one, innocent photo and blurb just erased 3 million Palestinians living under a military occupation for almost half a century; erased a persistent and lethal conflict and the context surrounding reporting on that conflict, made an incredibly inaccurate political statement and just misled your readers to believe that that entire area belongs to the State of Israel and [that] the Palestinians (or those pesky Arabs throwing stones) are hostile interlopers – not human beings who live there and have lived there for centuries.

Most Jews don’t use the term “Holy Land” much – and there is a good reason for that. The only time the expression is arguably used in Tanakh is in Zechariah 2:16: “YHVH will take Judah to Godself as YHVH’s portion in the Holy Land (adama ha’kodesh) and will choose Jerusalem once more.”

The term is, in fact, medieval. It has a Latin origin (terra sancta) which is first attested in the 11th century C.E. The first English reference we know of dates from 1297, and that reference is related to the Crusades. Crusaders thought of the “Holy Land” as the area where Jesus lived and died, and as the location of the Holy Sepulcher.

The expression “Holy Land” is almost entirely sourced in Christian theology and Christian conceptual frameworks. Like the terms “Old Testament,” A.D. (anno domini, “in the year of the/our Lord”), and C.E. (“Christian era”), “Holy Land” was brought into regular use by Christian writers and theologians.

All of these expressions represent a Christian take on the Way the World Works. None  have any place in a secular venue.

We perpetuate the discourses of dominant cultures with incredible – and destructive – ease. But when we name things from the perspective of the powerful, we are capable of erasing the lives of real people, of doing away with cultures and peoples, of committing irreparable, indelible harm.

Michael Foucault writes, “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

It is nearly the end of Passover, the festival that calls us to resist oppressive power of any kind, to free ourselves and humanity, too. To free ourselves, we must give names to oppression we face. May the names we use and the language we employ be accurate, truthful, and enduring.

Longing for Liberation: Passover Reflections on an Open Hillel

open hillel“You know,” he told my son, Erik, “thirty years ago we stood in a New York street saying goodbye. And your mother cried the tears of a sister.”

“Mohammad,” I said, “you are going to make me cry again.”

It is more than three decades since I saw Mohammad. In the interim he has married. He is now the father of five children. He has lived and worked mostly in the United Arab Emirates; he only returns to his parents’ home in Ramallah for visits. His family is scattered — his brothers and sisters have lived in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the world. Mohammad commutes these days to workplaces and countries far from his own family.

We were (and are) the best of friends. Mohammad, my husband, Ralf, and I used to joke about the worlds we represented: European, Middle Eastern, and American. We compared cultures and religions, family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad and I called each other “cousin.”

Palestinian and Jewish, we know that we are related.

In those long-ago days, we both belonged to an international graduate student group that created educational programming around conflict-ridden areas. Themes of those programs? Peoples silenced, peoples longing for liberation. In those days, I also taught adult education courses on the Holocaust and  the complicated history behind the birth of Israel. Same themes, obviously.

I offered those courses at our college Hillel.

Then, I spoke about the invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Algerians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. I spoke publicly about the way the IDF had aided and abetted in wholesale slaughter of innocents. There were those who disagreed with me and my conclusions. But no one ever shushed me.

Today, college students who openly critique Israel are not only being shushed. They are being bullied.

Last month, Hillel International sent Swarthmore College a letter threatening legal action if the college’s Hillel chapter went through with a planned program bringing Jewish Civil Rights veterans who are sharply critical of Israel to campus. Hillel International also pressured the Hillel chapter at Muhlenberg College to cancel the same program.

There, however, the program went forward. It was financed by Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that aims to encourage open discourse at campus Hillels, in part by changing the “standards for partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines that exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.
The program, as one might have predicted, was quite successful. Over 100 students and faculty showed up. But the pressure from Hillel International was too much for Muhlenberg’s Hillel president, Caroline Dorn, who resigned. She wrote:

I feel Jewishly at home in Open Hillel’s leadership for the first time in a while. I don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being Pro-Palestine–those two important parts of my personal identity can complement each other. It’s a wonderful feeling to be accepted, supported, and to feel like I have a community of open-minded and progressive Jewish friends and allies. I am deeply disappointed that Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards of Partnership keep Muhlenberg Hillel from serving this function in my life.

Open Hillel also released a statement:

Hillel is facing a choice – it can continue to spend valuable resources devoted to fighting its own students in an attempt to dictate what students can and cannot say about Israel/Palestine, or it can return to its mission of engaging Jewish students.

Is it genuinely impossible for Hillel to welcome all Jewish students, regardless of political persuasion or perspective? If so, we need to ask specific and trenchant questions in order to understand why (and how) that has happened. Who donates, who funds, and who, we might ask, determines Hillel International’s policies?

Mohammad and I will be talking again this weekend. I expect we will do as we have always done: Express our anguish for our (related) peoples. But at least, in that conversation, no one will shush or bully us or demand that we be other than we are.


P.S. May Jews sit down tonight to tell a story of national liberation with all the world’s people’s in mind.

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!