Teshuva: A Letter from Charlotte

Black Lives Matter Black FridayIt is a day before S’lichot. I live in a country that has done no teshuva, that avoids the consequences of four centuries of white privilege and white power.

On Tuesday, my husband, Ralf, and I left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where we both teach.  We walked to our car wondering why a helicopter was circling overhead.

On Thursday morning, after two nights of mostly peaceful protest (yes, really), I listened to a well-known, local, liberal white journalist insist to Charlotte’s mayor on the radio that videos of the killing of Keith Scott should be released. Why? Because, he suggested, protesters would then see why Scott was shot. If there were “reasons” for the police shooting, protestors would realize they were reacting on the basis of hyped stories, and everything in Charlotte would calm down.

Convenient, isn’t it? Convenient not to face the fact that in North Carolina, as in the entire United States, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black America is a daily reality. White and privileged conservatives have made national news by their every effort to gerrymander districts, to limit and restrict black votes. White liberals have, mostly, responded by not responding to the stink of this reality, a stink sadly measured in statistics: Who is being arrested, who is being stopped, who is being killed? Black people. Here and across this nation.

White America should be surprised how little protest it has witnessed. It’s nothing. It cannot compare to the violent oppression black America knows every day.

Thursday, on campus, I heard students and faculty decry violent protest. It shouldn’t be done that way. Violence only leads to violence, they said. Even black students said this – as if they had to reassure their white colleagues that they knew that there should be well-mannered attempts to be heard by a system that has been, for centuries, deaf and dumb. Black people need to whisper, and politely, too.

It is convenient for white people to insist that black people behave themselves. Frequently this takes the form of referring to Martin Luther King as the ideal role model and depicting the Civil Rights Movement as the appropriate way for a tormented people to clearly, kindly convince white people to be nice.

But to insist that black people make sure not to act too angry, not to reach for rocks or trash cans is the privilege of the powerful. The powerful can and do use the police and the national guard and curfews and the law to make sure that black people are controlled. To make sure their movements are confined. To make sure they can’t vote. To make sure…. Shall we count the ways?

This is violence, too. It is widespread, endemic and pernicious. It is a violence inherent in the political, social and economic systems built by a white elite.

My black students tell stories of that violence. Your car breaks down and when the police approach you make sure to move very, very slowly when you get out of the car. Be careful not to drive in late night or early morning hours at all – stay inside and at home lest your actual appearance in the world be regarded as a danger. Make sure to give white people all the space they need to be anxious. Be understanding about their fears, be able to explain why they don’t need to fear who you are or what you want from them.

White America has done enough to convince itself that they’ve done enough. But what has been done is nothing, really.

There has been no teshuva. There has been no constant, clear, precise acknowledgment of this country’s past. White people have owned black people. White people have controlled black people. White people do not need for black people to explain why racism is still “a problem.” They need a teshuva that will have actual consequences, that will offer genuine reparation, that is widespread, systemic, and institutionalized.

Yesterday I sat with five students in an advanced class on the history of European antisemitism. One white student spoke about the inevitability of Martin Luther King’s name coming up in white conversations about black protest, and added, “and they killed him.”

Even during that raw, open conversation, I wondered: Were we white people in the room approaching the teshuva we are responsible for wholeheartedly embracing?

Did we even make a start?

Learning is Healing

Genesis 4:1-8 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Learning heals in mysterious ways. It’s a reason to teach.

Take Genesis 4: Eve has just gotten a child with the help of YHVH. Said child is Cain, whose name means “acquisition.” Abel follows; his name can be translated as “vapor.”

Like a vapor, Abel is here… and gone.

We all know the story. Or we think we know it. Cain offers YHVH a sacrifice of fruits; Abel offers the firstlings of his flock. YHVH accepts the latter and doesn’t much care for the former.

Last week, my college students and I discussed various midrashim about these few verses. We explored the interpretations suggesting that Cain and Abel fought over an unnamed sister. We read from Targum Pseudo Jonathan (Gen. 4:1), which insisted that Cain was the devil’s child.

No wonder God had a divine hissy fit.

Biblical literature is cryptic, mysterious. There are plentiful gaps between the lines. What did Cain actually say to Abel? Why does YHVH seem to be overreacting to Cain’s disappointment by delivering an overbearing and sententious lecture?

We came back to the sacrifice issue. Some of the midrashim suggest that Abel’s offerings were better than Cain’s – meat, after all, in ancient Israel, was to be prized. Shake out the sheep’s value and you would likely trump the tangerine, after all. By a bunch.

“So,” one student says, “if God wants a blood sacrifice, is it possible that Cain just misunderstood? He didn’t have any flocks. Was Abel the only blood sacrifice he could offer?”

There was a tad bit of gentle mayhem for a few minutes.

Here is what’s important, though: I want my students to ask questions of the text – even if they seem outlandish or bizarre. I want them to approach these texts as if they had never known a thing about them, never been told how to interpret them, never heard that they were supposed to take an explanation on faith.

I want them in the wide open space a classroom is supposed to provide. In such a place, my students will ask about Cain’s grief and sorrow when he anguishes over a future defined by wandering, marked by banishment from God, Godself. They will acknowledge that rejection and dismissal – in their world, too – can be a thing of a moment that can scar lifelong.

They see that the texts are real.

Last semester, a student of mine noticed the way Ruth appeared to be manipulated by Naomi.  Naomi instructed Ruth; she was to venture down to the threshing place in the dark of night, entirely alone. She was to enter treacherous territory. She was to seduce an older man.

This student was thinking about Ruth’s vulnerability, the danger she endured. Maybe she was also, in a way, thinking about herself. This student walks in a hazardous world herself. She moves from one classroom to another but avoids ever going to the bathrooms on campus.

“I don’t want to face a confrontation,” she says.

Once, she and I spoke about her upbringing, about the way her classes in biblical literature were allowing her, finally, to ask questions in a safe environment. She joked with me once, claiming that after learning what was going on in our classrooms, it was possible that her parents were finding it easier to acknowledge that she was trans than to talk bible with her.

Will this student ask amazing questions, write revelatory and astonishing texts, find, in a way, that her learning can be healing?

I think so. I hope so.

transgender-symbolNote: The student in question was given a copy of this post before it was published and asked for her permission to do so.

For those of us who write about worlds not our own, a prayer: May we write respectfully, carefully, and with the safety of those we write about in mind.

The City of My Dreams

City on the Hill by Pa-Cook

City on the Hill by Pa-Cook

There’s a town of Jewish folklore we all know. It’s had a number of names over the centuries – Schildburg, in the sixteenth century, Poyzn in the nineteenth. Eventually, Chelm. These have all been our city of foolishness.

For some time, I’ve wondered if we have created an American version of this city. It’s a town, though, that is not a mere safe haven for silliness. To be blunt: It’s a city of hate.

A little over a week ago, I realized I was living in this city, and that this city seems to be my native country, actually. I came to this conclusion after the city mayor, a man known as “The Donald,” made another run through Main Street. The Donald is known for running amok through the town, brandishing a weapon called Twitter.

Twitter is quite an effective weapon, actually: It’s fast, furious, and unstoppable.

Using Twitter, The Donald attacked a Muslim family: specifically, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who died protecting his troops in Iraq in 2004. The attack was heartless and hate-filled.

That’s our town. Hatesville.

I decided to write to other officials of our town, because I wondered if the town’s councilmen and women might feel that the mayor might need to step down, find a nice house in the country, and consider daily meditation to calm his raging nature.

I wrote as a rabbi, a spiritual leader.

Rep. Larry Pittman represents me in the North Carolina legislature. Donald Trump has attacked brave men and women, I wrote. “Why do you not do the right thing and repudiate Donald Trump?” I asked.

I addressed my email: “Dear Representative Pittman.” I signed it, “Rabbi Barbara Thiede.”

Mr. Pittman avoided my title. In fact, he avoided using any sort of address. He wrote: “Trump is not against the American people.”

Hmmm. Maybe Muslims, Americans of Mexican descent, women who don’t fit Mr. Trump’s standards of beauty, and, perhaps, even crying babies are not included among “the American people.” I read on.

“But most of all,” Pittman wrote, “love of God, not God as He is reimagined by those who reject the authority of Scripture, but God as Scripture and personal acquaintance with His Son present Him, and love of country, make it absolutely unthinkable to allow Hillary Clinton anywhere near the White House… I must vote for Trump to save the people of our nation from Hillary.”

Admittedly, from my rabbinic perspective, God is one and all humanity are God’s children. But, if I may say so, many of my closest friends and neighbors here in Cabarrus County have such an acquaintance with the divine as Mr. Pittman describes. They are dear to me and the world because of the goodness and generosity with which they manifest that relationship.

“Are you truly suggesting that a believing Christian can only vote for Donald Trump?” I asked. I signed simply as “Rabbi Barbara,” hoping that a more informal approach might grant me the grace of an address.

No such luck. But Pittman did answer. It turns out that no believing Christian has a “reasonable excuse” for voting for Hillary Clinton. Why? Donald Trump “is the only chance we have to stop a murderous criminal from getting back in power.”

Oy gevalt. The Donald has councilmen supporting him who are clearly with Hatesville.

For centuries, American leaders have been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount to describe our country as a city on the hill, a model of charity and virtue. “These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as… Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill.”

BTW: That was Ronald Reagan.

I think I’d like to move to that city.

To Earn the Trust of Immigrants: Teachings from the Book of Ruth

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

“Why did Elimelech and Naomi leave Bethlehem?” I asked.

They knew the story: This is a church filled with bible-literate individuals, after all.

“Because there was a famine,” one woman said.

“Does that happen elsewhere in bible?” I asked.

They named examples: Abraham leaves his land because of famine. Jacob sends his sons to foreign climes to find food.

“So,” I said, “Naomi and her family leaves Bethlehem, the house of bread, because there is no bread to be found. They leave their homeland because they are hungry, because they need to feed their children. They leave because they need to find a better place for their family.”

I paused and looked around. “Can we think about that, please? Can we think about the way our texts tell us that our forefathers and foremothers had every reason to emigrate in order to survive?”

Then I asked: “Do we know this family? Do we know these immigrants?”

For two Sundays church members and I explored the Book of Ruth. We spoke about the ways in which the text showed is the despair of indescribable loss. It is Ruth, the Moabite, who creates hope for her mother-in-law, Naomi. It is Ruth – not the townspeople of Bethlehem – who makes sure her widowed and childless mother-in-law is fed. It is Ruth who intertwines the law of the levir and the law of redemption and asks Boaz to help her make certain her husband, Mahlon’s line, will not be extinguished and her mother-in-law will eat.

The Book of Ruth is not simply a happy idyll.

Naomi sends Ruth into the night dressed and perfumed and tells her to lie down in the dark next to their kinsman. Naomi prepares her adopted daughter to act the seductress. What risks is Naomi taking with Ruth? Ruth belongs to a hated people. Moabites are clearly associated with sexual profligacy in bible (Numbers 25). Moabites may not be admitted, so Deuteronomy 23:3, into the congregation of Israel.  Ever.

Every major character of the Book of Ruth bends the rules in order to assure what appears to be a happy ending. And the outcome still leaves us with questions. The townspeople both name Ruth’s child and hand the infant over to Naomi. What of Ruth, who dared to come to a foreign country though she belonged to a despised people? Ruth vowed to be a daughter to Naomi. Ruth herself proposed the marriage that would, at one fell swoop, permit her mother-in-law security and a descendant who could – in some way – replace her dead sons? Does the end of the story give Ruth her due?

“Yes,” I said, “we know that immigrant women in this country are at risk. Yes,” I said, “we know immigrants who have given everything they had to this country and its people. Yes,” I said, “we know immigrants who are hated because they belong to a despised people. Yes.”

“Who here has served in America’s military? I asked. About ten people raised their hands. “Please rise,” I said. “Who has had a parent who served in America’s military?” I asked. “Please rise.”

And then, the parents of sons and daughters in America’s military. “Please rise,” I said.

I looked at those parents.

“It is reprehensible to attack the parents who have lost a child serving in America’s military. It is doubly reprehensible to do so because of those parents’ religion.”

Then I asked everyone to reflect about what they had learned and to dedicate it to the memory of Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan and in honor of his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

I asked everyone to pray with me. So we did. For an America that opens its arms to our immigrants. For a country that knows that we are the stronger for those who cast their lot with us.

We have our Moabites. The Book of Ruth tells us what we should do when they arrive at our shores. Welcome them, make them at home, and honor them for their courage and their hard work. Thank them for trusting us.

Earn that trust.  May we learn that lesson and act accordingly.

As Always – With Hope: For Elie Wiesel, z”l

Wiesel dedication I own a paperback copy of Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. It sits on my library shelf next to many other books he authored. But this book is wrapped in order to protect the inscription on the first page; the cover is partly detached, and worn.

I first met Elie Wiesel when I was in my early twenties. I had just completed my M.A. on the American Jewish community’s post-war response to the Holocaust and started a new project: studying the work of Ferdinand Isserman, a Reform rabbi who had written about the condition of Jews in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

Isserman published a number of detailed and passionate texts about the horrors Jews were facing in Germany and Poland. But when he was first presented with the reality of the Final Solution during the 1940s, Isserman did not write about the fate of Europe’s Jews. His sermons did not touch on what was happening; he published no pamphlets. Here was a rabbi who had publicly agitated about the persecution and oppression of Europe’s Jews; why had he found no words for the attempted genocide of his people? His silence was shocking.

That year, Wiesel was speaking in Chicago, the city of my youth, and my husband, Ralf, and I drove up from Missouri to hear his lecture. I do not know how it happened, but my father got an essay I’d written on Rabbi Isserman to Wiesel and arranged for us to meet.

Ralf and I went together and I discovered, to my surprise, that Wiesel had actually read my essay. We talked about the difference between faith and hope. At that point of his life, he told us, he could subscribe to the latter, but was not sure he possessed the former. We spoke about anger – even rage. Wiesel quietly admitted to both. After the Shoah, he said, he was only certain of hope. He signed my book: “For Ralf and Barbara, as always with hope – Elie Wiesel.”

Over the years, we corresponded a few times. But eventually, I stopped writing. I became a young mother. I left academe for a time, and began working as a journalist.

In 1997, when our young son, Erik, was five, Wiesel came to Charlotte. The Charlotte Observer asked me to cover his lecture and write an editorial piece for the Viewpoint page. After the lecture, the audience dispersed and Wiesel took questions from the press.

The lecture had been titled “Against Indifference.” As Wiesel has famously said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I do not remember the exact shape of my question. I self-consciously avoided recalling our one-time meeting – it had happened well over a decade earlier, after all, and it seemed artificial to bring it up. My question did use both the words “hope” and “faith.” I asked whether one could lay claim to either, given humanity’s capacity for indifference.

Elie Wiesel looked straight at me. He quietly stated that hope was essential despite the Shoah. Then he added firmly, “and I am still angry.”

I was stunned. I had not used the word “angry.” I had not referred to that part of our conversation.

When I had the opportunity to speak to him for a few moments alone after the press conference, I discovered that I wasn’t imagining it; he had remembered the Chicago meeting. It was as if we were merely continuing our conversation.

Toward the end of our few minutes, I mentioned that Ralf and I had had a son. He wanted to see a picture of Erik. He asked questions about him. (And later, Erik wrote to Wiesel himself – and was answered.)

In recent years, I have not always inhabited the same political space as Elie Wiesel. I could not support his every statement about Israel. I tried to hear him and listen as best I could. Sometimes, it was difficult.

Wiesel’s books line my shelves. There is a depth and richness in them that cannot be gainsaid. They reflect traditions that are a visceral part of my own existence. They ask essential questions. They nourish me, remind me, and console me.

And so, as always, I hope. In part, I thank Elie Wiesel for that.

Orlando: It’s Not About Us

Eddie Jarnoldroy Justice, who died in the attack on Pulse (from GoFundMe)

Eddie Jarnoldroy Justice, who died in the attack on Pulse.
(from GoFundMe)

It was easy to condemn Donald Trump’s self-congratulatory response to the Orlando massacre: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…”  Trump’s response was transgressive and jaw-droppingly narcissistic, a violation against the victims, their families, and their friends.

It wasn’t hard to be appalled by the letter written by Brock Turner’s father, Dan. The Stanford student had been convicted of rape, but was given a sentence of a mere six months in prison with probation. His father wrote to the judge that his son’s life had been ruined, and that “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” The actual victim was erased. Again.

Either example is now notorious. But there are many, many more subtle ways to forget a cardinal rule I learned as a teacher, a spiritual director, and as a rabbi: It’s not about us.

At the side of a distressed individual, an anxious congregant, a hospital patient, victims of emotional, physical, and sexual violence we are told to remember: It is about them — their voice, their feelings, and their experience. Listen, acknowledge and honor that fact.

It is natural for any of us to respond to tragedies and horrors from our frame of reference. That’s how we make sense of things – for ourselves. As onlookers we experience sadness, grief, and rage. We use the tools we know and love, the tools that give us strength. These include our rituals, our texts, our liturgies. That’s what they are there for.

In the past week, Jewish communities and their leaders have noted the concurrence of the Orlando massacre with the arrival of Shavuot, matching numbers of those murdered with the days of the omer and  juxtaposing the hope for joyous arrival at Sinai with the terror that unfolded at Pulse. This is an understandable response for Jews – our frame of reference helps us comprehend the world.

But our frame of reference is not that of the victims. The victims were members and supporters of the LGBTQ+ community. They were targeted and terrorized. Most were Latino. There were many issues at play for the killer, it seems, from extremist terrorist ideologies to condemnation of the LGBTQ+ community, and even the possibility of sexual confusion and self-hatred. But Omar Mateen certainly did not choose to kill because of associations with Jewish liturgy, Jewish ritual, or Jewish holidays.

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice texted his mother Mina from Pulse:

Mommy I love you
In club they shooting
Trapp in bathroom
Call police
Im gonna die

Eddie did die.

Is the counting of the omer or the arrival of Shavuot relevant for Mina Justice, for Eddie’s friends and family? Is it relevant to the LGBTQ+ community and mostly Latin victims?

Again: What we do privately in our homes to understand this horror in terms of our own tradition and experience is perfectly reasonable. How we describe this horror in public – even among our own constituents – will say something about our capacity to remember that cardinal rule: It’s not about us.

It is important that we create space for the victims, their families, and their friends, to speak in their own voices. It is important that when we speak in public we focus entirely on acknowledging and honoring their frame of reference.

The victims were members of a hunted and despised community. LGBTQ+ individuals in this country do not have the privilege of taking their safety for granted. To give them that safety requires that we avoid overlaying their voices with other voices – of any kind. With the best of intentions, when we do such things we run the risk of silencing the victims, their family, their friends, and the community that has survived.

It’s about them.

Hope (in Humanity) in the Book of Ruth

Path_of_Israel_National_Trail_in_Hula_ValleyA family has been decimated.  Father and sons have died, leaving only their widows behind.  Naomi, the matriarch, cries out in her grief and rage. She comments sardonically: she is far too old to bear and raise children for her adult daughters-in-law to marry.  She has no more sons in her body.  The obvious solution is impossible.  She cannot imagine another.  Cut off from any foreseeable future, without children or grandchildren, Naomi is, on some level, dying.  God, she says, has stricken her; there is nothing more to hope for.

But the Holy One knows what we must learn again and again: Human beings are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, not God.

Even in the midst of her grief, Naomi reveals how deeply she cares for Orpah and Ruth, calling them “my daughters” rather than “daughters-in-law.”  Her own sorrow and bitterness does not prevent her from acting generously, wishing them renewed life and new hope: “Turn back, each of you, to her mother’s house.  May YHVH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and me” (1:8).   Naomi can think about their future even when she believes she herself has none.

Ruth, in turn, braves new circumstances and a series of unknowns – sometimes dangerous ones – to make sure her mother-in-law survives.  According to Boaz, the entire community observes Ruth’s hesed: “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before” (Ruth 2:11).

In Pirkei Avot the rabbis say that one mitzvah leads inevitably to the wish to do another.  The Book of Ruth – despite its darker moments – suggests that human beings can rely on the kindness of others.

Shalom is what we, as spiritual leaders and congregants, wish for.  Yet, we know that all sorts of ills can be acted out in congregational settings – jealousies and projections lead to gossip and slander.  Most communities suffer from the pernicious effects of lashon hara.  Everything that can go wrong does – in any age and in any community.  We are the recipients of a plethora of biblical texts demonstrating how ancient our frailties are and how dangerously they can affect whole communities.  But in the Book of Ruth, things go well because individuals act well, and with higher purpose.

Not all, of course, and not always.  During most of the Book of Ruth, the townspeople do little more than note Naomi’s return and Ruth’s hard work.  They do not appear to take any action to help the two struggling widows.  It is Ruth who secures survival for her mother-in-law by accompanying her home and by going out to glean.  Boaz extends gleaning laws for Ruth’s benefit, even going beyond the requirements of halakha, and instructing his workers to pull stalks from the heaps to leave for Ruth to glean (2:15).  Boaz and Ruth both teach hesed by example.

In the Book of Ruth, vulnerable individuals have the hope of redemption.  Outsiders demonstrate the impact of ethical action and remind the insiders of their own commitments.

Irving Greenberg insists that “God’s self-restraint in not preventing the Holocaust was a divine cry to humans to step up and stop the evil.”  If the covenant indeed now relies on our recognition that God’s human partners are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, then the Book of Ruth is model enough for the tasks ahead.

Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Kingberg, zichrona l‘vracha a Holocaust survivor who served my community as matriarch for a decade.  Ruth was a model of hesed.

Taking Jewish Life In Hand: Medieval Jewish Women Circumcise, Slaughter, and Sing

Sarajevo_Haggadah_1Cheer? Laugh? Cry?

Sometimes, when it comes to the ways Jewish women have struggled to co-create their religious life, all three in quick succession. After all, for most of the last two millennia Jewish women have been subject to male authority, their access to education impeded, their roles sharply limited, their independence compromised.

And yet: During the Middle Ages, a period we generally imagine to be among the most repressive of times for women, some Jewish women had more privilege, more rights, and more power than many of our contemporaries.

Women of the earlier Middle Ages worked as mohels – at least in Germany. They functioned as ritual slaughterers. They took up  practices in part because their men were away – but also, in part, because they clearly wanted to engage with Jewish ritual and religious expression. They even had their own “synagogues,” where female cantors appear to have led them in prayer.

Rabbis legislated sharply against a number of female practices (the Maharil, for example, made no bones of the fact that he found a woman wearing tzitzit arrogant and bizarre), but the fact that the rabbis legislated against a practice demonstrates that women were eluding their control.

Isaac Halevi, rosh of the yeshiva in Worms and one of Rashi’s teachers, announced that women should not be prevented from reciting the blessing over lulav and sukkah. Clearly, women were already pronouncing the blessings. Halevi is simply sanctioning an existing practice.

This kind of trend runs all through the Middle Ages; one historian has noted that in the middle of the 12th century, Rabbeinu Tam justified his own ruling that women could pronounce blessings over time-bound positive mitzvoth by saying: “they were accustomed to do so and to fulfill them.”

Here, we can cheer – both for the women and for the male authorities that responded to their hopes to engage with ritual and practice.

Then laugh. In the 13th century, for example, the women of Ashkenaz seem to have started a veritable movement on behalf of declaring their independence, refusing to have sex with husbands and petitioning for divorce on perfectly legitimate grounds: Their husbands were repugnant to them. Payback for the popular trend of marrying off mere girls to men who were decades older?

Sometimes, the reading hurts: In the late 12th century, Jewish women began to impose increasingly severe restrictions on themselves where prayer and ritual practice were concerned. Menstruating women developed a whole set of strictures, from not touching the Torah scrolls to refusing even to recite blessings accorded women on Shabbat.

Maybe they sought to find some kind of equivalent to practices embraced by Christian women, who had embraced fasting – sometimes in extreme forms – as a sign of piety. But the effort to demonstrate religiosity through self-imposed restraints on participation in religious life had lasting repercussions. In my time as a rabbi, I’ve been asked by female congregants if they could touch the Torah while they were menstruating.

Sometimes, we read of historical moments that offer us a chance to cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time.

Take the two grandmothers who appear to have fought over which would be allowed to be the sandek (godparent) at a grandson’s brit, a role which meant holding the child during the actual circumcision. Keep in mind, the dispute is occurring at a time when rabbis are doing their best to legislate women wholly out of the rite, refusing mothers or grandmothers the right to be present during the circumcision, much less hold the infant.

Obviously, the rabbis weren’t always winning the battle over women’s presence, or such a conversation would never have occurred. The ruling? The paternal grandmother won the right to be sandek. The grandmother who bucked the male control of the rite of circumcision won because she represented the male line.

We’re still negotiating because there is still work to be done on women’s place in Jewish life.

Thankfully, we are now negotiating beyond binaries: We must answer for rabbinic conversation and rulings which continue to affect LGBTQ+ individuals. We need to learn how to treat all Jews as equally valued members of the tribe.

When we get that right, there will be only cheers.

Divorcing Demons: Rabbinic Prescriptions and Folk Traditions

Incantation Bowl with demonMythologies are persistent – especially when they support present-day power realities. But the historical record is clear on the Yavneh myth: the rabbis neither “democratized” Judaism nor created it. In the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbis spoke pretty exclusively to one another, as educated elites often do. What folks did both in and outside of the synagogue was certainly not determined and, in some respects, hardly affected by rabbinic conversations or prescriptions.

The rabbis came into their own as powerbrokers only in the fifth and sixth centuries. In significant measure, we can thank Christianity for that development (that’s another post).

Christianity posits a Satan and a Jesus foretold in Tanakh. We look at Mishnah and Gemara and invent a rabbinic leadership for the first five centuries of the Common Era that never was.

This doesn’t make Talmud and the corpus of rabbinic texts unimportant. Not by any means. Once ensconced in positions of power, the rabbis did have a great deal to say about how Jews would live their lives. But even in those centuries, there was a dialogue between folk practice and rabbinic law. The latter not infrequently yielded to the former – just as it does in our own time.

An ancient example: The incantation bowls of Babylonian Jewish society.

Incantation bowls were a common phenomenon in the Ancient Near East – they likely hark back to Babylonian times (think Hammurabi and the 19th century BCE) when apotropaic figurines were buried at specific locations in both private and public dwellings. In Late Antiquity, incantation bowls were routinely buried in the four corners of a given dwelling or room, sometimes cupped together as a trap to contain demonic forces.

Inscriptions written on the inside of the bowls frequently name the people tIncantation_bowl,_Nippur,_terracotta_-_Oriental_Institute_Museum,_University_of_Chicago_-_DSC07064o be protected as well as the various classes of threatening demonic characters. These were the liliths and the lilin, their male counterparts. Both engendered general misfortune and illness, and attacked adults using their powerful sexual wiles. Children were also presumed targets of these malevolent creatures.

How on earth did those poor humans rid their houses of demons? By divorcing them. Or so we read in incantation bowl inscriptions.

And again, do not appear to them, not in a dream of the night and not in sleep of the day, for I dismiss and separate you with a get of dismissal and a writ of separation and a letter of removal, according to the law of the daughters of Israel.

Another inscription:

I adjure you by the glory of your father and by the glory of your mother. Receive your gets and your divorces, gets and divorces that were sent in the curse that Joshua ben Perahia sent against you, about which Joshua ben Perahia said to you, “a get has come to you from across the sea. In it is found written, whose mother’s name is Palhan and whose father’s name is Pelahdad Lilith. Hear and go away and do not lie with her, with Komis bat Mahlapta, not in her house and not in her dwelling.”

The adjurations clearly use language that is familiar, echoing rabbinic texts. A rabbinic get includes the phrase “according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Here, one of the bowls alters that phrase to apply to the afflicted women. Now we read “according to the law of the daughters of Israel.”

The second inscription provides rabbinic authority, giving Joshua ben Perahia, a first-century B.C.E. rabbi, the credit for creating a get especially designed for demons. As in a rabbinic get, the names of both the mother and father of the being to receive it appear as part of the text.

There’s shared ritual here and shared language, though the Talmudic sources are produced by an educated elite and the incantation bowls are a folk practice (one Christians, Mandeans, and other peoples of the time share with their Jewish neighbors). Some scholars wonder why rabbinic literature doesn’t mention the gets of incantation bowls. Amulets, after all, are discussed as aids in healing in Talmudic texts. Some wonder who drew the demons and wrote the incantations. One scholar in the field has speculated that women might have had significant roles to play in creating the inscriptions, and that women’s participation in this common practice may partially account for Talmudic claims that “most women are sorceresses” (b. Sanh. 67a). Rabbis, she claims, may be pushing back against female (and magical) practices.

Rabbis probably never had the authority we imagine over the daily practices of their communities. They frequently don’t have that much authority now, either.

This isn’t to say that in the fifth and sixth centuries Jewish communities hadn’t begun looking to their rabbis to respond creatively to their own needs. The get for demons could be a folk creation based on familiarity with rabbinic language. But it also could have been the work of a poor rabbinic student of the fifth century C.E. Maybe drawing and inscribing incantation bowls paid for that much-needed course on Jeremiah?

The takeaway? It’s not really about folk practice versus rabbinic prescription. Jewish practice, Jewish learning, Jewish ritual, and Jewish traditions are intertwined and created anew each and every generation – by us all.

With a Pride That is Personal

UNCC graduation 1Nature provided perfection: a clear, Carolina blue sky, temperatures comfortably hovering in the upper seventies, a slight breeze. Well-dressed people of all ages streamed purposefully out of parking lots, my husband, Ralf, and I among them.

We prepared for a ritual.

We gathered up our robes, hats, and tassels, and walked among hundreds. Today, we conferred degrees on over 4,000 students at UNC-Charlotte.

Faculty were directed to the bowels of the student activity center, where we lined up in twos, told stories of our students, and prepared for a ceremony that is always important and nearly unendurable.

As the faculty marched out into the large sports auditorium with the wretched, back-breaking seats, I fantasized about innovation, spontaneity, and the use of Real Words. I imagined casting all clichés aside. I began to pray that I would not find myself anesthetized by a series of mundane speeches.

This time, I brought a little notepad just to keep myself alert. Ralf sat to my right. A technical writing professor was on my left.

“Are you taking notes?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said with quiet determination. “I am planning to write down every single endlessly repeated phrase from every graduation ceremony that ever was.”

“This auspicious university,” began one of our speakers.

“Did she say “suspicious university?” Ralf asked.

“Distinguished faculty and graduates,” she intoned. “Education is a valuable, life-long tool. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. We honor your teachers, who offered you important and proper guidance.”

The clichés came faster than I could write. The word “endeavor” had yet to appear, however.

“We appreciate your many endeavors….”

“Ha!” I muttered.

“…you’ve worked long and hard to get to this important milestone. We offer our thanks to family and friends for their love and support.”

After a series of forgettable speeches, graduates began lining up. The doctoral candidates processed to dignified silence. The M.A. students generated an occasional shout of support. Our undergraduates, with mortarboards glittering with sparkly accouterments, sayings, and a plethora of flowers and trim cheer, raised their fists, and gratefully received their due decibels. The speakers read through hundreds and hundreds of names. The dean shook each hand, a picture was taken of every face.

But they all blurred together on the large screens and the sounds of most names were drowned out. A young man sang our university anthem.

Hail University! To you we sing our praise. May Charlotte’s light dispel the night, illumine all our days. In Charlotte’s crown the brightness gem we see. Without your power our finest hour would hold no victory. So let us love your life and cherish your great name. To aid your cause and uphold your laws and your enduring fame.


What does one long for?

Next year, stand them all up, I say, confer the degrees en masse, and then send them off to their departments where we, their teachers, will honor them with real ritual and words that are attuned to the particulars of their college careers.

And so:

  • To R, a sixty-something-year-old who grew to trust in her own fine mind: Yes, you are ready for graduate school.
  • To R, an army vet who made me leap out of my office chair because, finally, argument, evidence and structure came together so powerfully in the first paper of your fourth semester with me that I danced into the kitchen high on your achievements and went back to my computer screen to type YAYYYYYYYYYYYY across the bottom of the page.
  • To M, another vet, who I invited to learn to write with me, warning of the work ahead. Thank you for doing that work, sweating out each sentence and paragraph in draft after draft. You learned the power of words (and how to command them).

Give us the opportunity to acknowledge our students not with clichés and shouts but with their own stories offered back to them and their families. Allow us to look into their eyes as we hand them their degrees. Allow us to honor them with a pride that is personal.