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.

Cousins.

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.”
“Wassup?”
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.