Ritual Embeds Values – It’s Levitical

“Leviticus is one of my favorite books,” I say, and the room goes still. Someone gulps quietly. Leviticus, they are thinking, that book of rules and regulations, that book about skin disease and diverse bodily emissions. Ugh.

Admittedly, our priestly manual contains whole chapters that seem simultaneously repetitive and obscure. But there’s a big idea here worth taking seriously: in Leviticus, in Vayikra, we learn that ritual embeds values.

Right away, we are told that there are many ways to offer ourselves to God. The gratitude expressed in the olah, the burnt offering, demonstrated our ancestors’ willingness to give without expecting reward. Making a zevach sh’lamim, a well-being offering, gave the individual Israelite a chance to offer thanks and share the wealth with others in the form of a communal meal. There are levitical rituals for reconciliation, for reparation, for teshuva.

Revelations can emerge from texts that seem, in a word, bizarre. Some years back, my community’s Torah study group read about a purification ritual involving a recipe which included mixing up red cedar, crimson yarn, natural water and the blood of a bird. Our discussion of the passage – which centered around how to bring someone who had been exiled from camp back into the community – led the group to consider how congregations could make a home for the isolated and mentally ill.

Rituals embed our values.

Last December I took part in a ritual called pyebaek (pronounced paybeck), one of a number of Korean marriage rituals. During the ritual, the bridal couple must make a series of full prostrations to parents and parents-in-law – no mean feat, as the couple are dressed in ornate and colorful dress. Both sets of parents offer the couple advice and gifts. Thereafter, the couple spreads out the apron held high by the bride throughout the ceremony. The parents engage in a classic fertility ritual, throwing chestnuts and dates in the direction of the apron. Those the couple catch will foretell the number of sons and daughters they will have.

I learned about pyebaek from my son, Erik, and his then fiancée, Serafina Ha. Since I knew both Erik and Serafina wanted children, I made the most predictable of jokes, and vowed to toss a bowlful of chestnuts and dates at them.

What happened, however, was not at all the lighthearted scene I’d imagined. Ralf and I kneeled on a straw mat before a low table. We were served a sweet liquor which we sipped from the same half of a gourd.

Then Erik and Serafina walked in. I was immediately aware that they were taking the ceremony very seriously. Each prostration was unified — performed almost like a dance. They knelt, bowed and rose with a solemnity I had not foreseen. Ralf and I spoke a few words each, and then I took two dates and two chestnuts from the bowl before me. Erik and Serafina spread out the apron.

Before the chestnuts and dates left my hands, all things stopped and were still. I was kneeling at a threshold, aware that my life as a parent was, if not ending, certainly transforming. In that moment, I felt that I was holding everything Ralf and I had tried to do as parents, how we had tried – for twenty-five years – to earn our son’s trust rather than assume it. Openness, loyalty, integrity, devotion – I imagined everything we’d done well arcing through the air towards them.

I tossed the dates and chestnuts. They caught them all.

It was a sacred moment, unexpected and wholly real. And it reminded me: the embedding of values in ritual is both ethereal and actual. It is, in fact, Levitical.

Shema, Yisrael

In three separate locations, Torah records the Israelites’ commitment to accept Torah. In each, they promise to do: na’aseh (Exodus 19:6, 24:3). The third time, the text tells us, they answer: na’aseh v’nishma – “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

A midrash: “And they [the Children of Israel] said, ‘all that God has said we will do and we will hear,’ since they had initially prioritized doing. Moses said to them, ‘Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.’” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).

V’nishma. Literally: “we will hear.”

To listen well is to understand. To understand is to discern. To discern is to recognize what is right to do. We certainly are told this much: To do right is to hearken to Torah, to obey the true leanings of the heart. For what is our time here if not an effort to hear what our hearts can tell us, to discern what our hearts call for, to understand?

Listening, so Torah, entails a commitment to justice, certainly. In First Kings 3:11 we learn that King Solomon asked not for wealth or long life, but for havin lishmoa mishpat – discernment in dispensing judgment, understanding in order to discern what is right. Deuteronomy 1:16 tells us: Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between all – fellow Israelite or stranger.

Last Shabbat we read from Parshat Yitro, which begins with listening. V’yishma Yitro, it says. And Jethro heard. He listened to the story of all that YHVH had done. He must have imagined the jubilation on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

Did Jethro also foresee the challenges a free people would face? Free, the people would face the fear of starvation and thirst in the wilderness. Free, they would contend with unexpected enemies, face their first battles for survival. Famished, exhausted, frightened, and free, they would be forced to contend with day-to-day difficulties. Disputes, tensions, concerns. Arguments, conflicts, disagreement.

He listens, and he acts. He takes Zipporah and his two grandsons and, upon arriving at the Israelites’ camp, he listens again. Then he tells Moses, shema b’koli, listen to my voice, my discernment, my understanding. He offers Moses good counsel: Seek capable persons who will serve unencumbered by greed. These may be your judges; these may help you establish righteousness and justice. He gives the gift of judgment so that judgment can be a gift.

We believe ourselves, in this country, to be a free people. But are we a listening one? Do we understand what Moses says in the midrash, that one cannot do right without understanding right, without hearing?

We have all heard stories in these past weeks.

The woman at my eye doctor’s office who helped me order my new lenses was gentle, friendly. Her name tag tells me she speaks Spanish. I am relearning Spanish, so we chat first. Then we talk. She tells me about herself. She tells me she is afraid. Why? Her best friend was brought to this country illegally as a child. She is a DREAMer. She thought she would be protected from deportation by applying for DACA status.

This past week, we learned, it is by no means clear that DACA recipients won’t be rounded up and deported despite the protection promised them.

Two days later my Muslim colleague at UNCC shows me pictures of her car, covered with graffiti. It is crude, ugly. Wiping it all off before her young children saw, she tells me, that was a gruesome task.

It will not be enough to hear these stories.

Listening must lead to understanding, to discerning, and to acting justly. Torah tells us that this is our very purpose during our time on earth. And we know what it means when a people hears and does not act. We know the cost of apathy, inaction, and indifference.

Learn by doing. But do by learning, by listening. And may we all – by listening, discerning, and understanding – do what we know is the right thing. To care for the world and for those who live in it. To protect the weak and the homeless and the stranger among us.

Shema, Yisrael.

Use Your Words (And Save a Life)

When I was a little girl – I’d say around four or so – I had this idea about where words came from. It seemed to me at the time that new words were coming my way almost every day. I was sure there was a big, beautiful building somewhere and that the building was filled with people who were busily inventing new words. I imagined them meeting and inventing. They would sit around a table, thinking up new and exciting words. Then, they would send them out into the land until they arrived in my neighborhood in a suburb outside of Chicago. I was sure there was a language company and its products would trickle down and out – for free.

I loved new words. I can still feel that little girl inside me, her eyes going wide with excitement: A new word, a new meaning, a new idea! She had a kind of happy delight in learning which grew, over the years, into an adult devotion to education.

When I went to college, I studied the things words are made of – stories and poetry. I became, first, a literature major. About halfway through my undergraduate years, I added a history major. I learned over the course of those four years that I loved words for the beauties they could create.

But increasingly, I was possessed by the ethics, the challenges inherent in making certain that words accurately described real human beings, real times and real events. It seemed to me that this task – discerning what I could be sure was real – was essential to creating a just society. Only when our words truly told us what was going on around us could we possibly do the work of reconciliation, understanding. Only then could we use our knowledge to make the world – truly – a better place. Studying history implied advocacy.

These days I find my eyes get opened very, very wide every day. That little girl inside me is expressing wonderment every morning when I read the news. She has even located the building where all the words are. The best words, in fact.

It’s nice, there. Gold curtains and busts and paintings and many people who are working very, very hard to create not just words and phrases, but whole histories.

She (and I) have learned new phrases. “Alternative facts” is our favorite. It seems we are not alone. The entire nation loves this phrase. “Post-truth” doesn’t seem as popular, but I like that one, too.

An amazing, daily outpouring of stories based on alternative facts are dizzying my adult mind. Three million people voted fraudulently in the last election! Refugees are dangerous! People got massacred in Kentucky and the press didn’t even notice!

I imagine all those people in that fine house huddling around the table working on these amazing stories, choosing those amazing words.

Of course, when I got to graduate school I learned that my equation of ethical historicizing and creating justice was too simple. After all, as Michael Foucault wrote, history is not an object. Discourse is. Discourse creates a set of rules for a given time period. Statements have a material reality: The rules of discourse are rules of power.

So the rules of our discourse have the capacity to destroy as well as to inspire. The rules we choose can save. They can also kill. That is exactly what will happen as long as that nice building and the people in it keep continue to churn out words, phrases, and stories as they have over the past weeks.

They have the best words for doing exactly that.

But guess what. I’ve learned words. So have you. Ours might be better. Let’s use them, and find out.

The Antidote to Dread: Make a Joyful Noise – Together

I was at the front desk, putting books on reserve for next semester’s classes and chatting with the librarians.  I know these women pretty well.  Usually, we share complaints about the new carpet, which, frankly, is halucious.  Green.  Looks like it belongs in a gambling establishment.

Today, we spoke about politics, about the future, about fear.  All four of us remarked on the past year.  We talked about the nights interrupted by inexplicable wakefulness, about a constant dance with anxiety.

“It’s like waking up to find you aren’t in the same country.  But you are,” one librarian said.

Folks, there are objective reasons to be fearful – for our environment, for voter rights, for immigrants and minorities – the list is not a short one.

But we are not helpless.  We cannot afford to sink into inaction, or to be dulled by our dread.  I say there is an antidote.  Psalm 100, folks.  Let us make a joyful noise.

Here are some ways to do just that.

Write, call, write and call again: Recently, I have been signing a lot of petitions.  But I am also using technology to message my representatives.  This morning, I wrote not only to each and every Republican white guy who serves me in the House and Senate.  I did not think that the plan by other Republican white guys to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics seemed like a good way to start draining swamps (this move seemed more like part of an ongoing effort to build one).   Yes, I know that this was a House Republican move, but I wrote my U.S. senators anyway, too.  I am writing almost every week about something, and I am not planning to stop.  I am making noise.  Joyfully.

Write to Mr. Trump, too!  I have been visiting Mr. Trump’s website, where he includes a page for Americans to “tell their stories” and give him ideas about “how to make America great again.”  I’ve written about my ideas for making America great again by, for example, providing access to citizenship for hardworking immigrants.  I’m going to continue writing Mr. Trump.  Joyfully.  Want to join me?  For your convenience, the URL is right here:

https://www.donaldjtrump.com/contact

Give, give, and find another opportunity to give: Want to give a friend a present?  How about denying capitalism its chance to inundate the world with more trash and, instead, giving a present that counts? Make a donation to the most awesome cause you think your friend supports.  My family did this for the holidays, supporting organizations which provide free legal aid to the underserved, which are desperately trying to get relief to Syrian refugees, which help immigrants adjust to America, which work here in this country on progressive causes – well, you get the idea.  It was fun and utterly joyful gift-giving.

Make a joyful noise – together!  I am happily looking forward to becoming the program director at UNC-Charlotte for our combined Judaic-Muslim Studies Minor which will be launched this very spring.  I can’t wait to bring the students in these fields together and to generate ideas for extra-curricular programming for each other and for our university community.  We have a lot to share with one another.  We have a lot we can do together.  We can and will do this joyfully.  You have yet to meet all the people you can sing with, pray with and join to good effect.  Look around.

Lately, on my list serve, we’ve been writing about what we are grateful for as an antidote to our anxieties and fears.  People, what if we were writing each day what we had done or plan to do to make a joyful noise?

We need each other’s joy.  We need our own.  We need to build and strengthen and support the good in this broken world.

Hari’u l’YHVH kol ha’aretz…ivdu et YHVH b’simcha.

Authenticity and the Sacred: Thanks to Katyah Gohr

Our seminary teachers taught us: Authenticity is a channel for spirituality. Don’t produce yourselves; be yourselves. You aren’t making a statement, you are embodying one.

This month, rabbinic pastor and chazzan Katyah Gohr flew to Chicago, bringing her tallit and her guitar. There she did exactly what our teachers had taught us to do. She was, simply, herself.

Authenticity can be revealed in all sorts of ways, of course, but it shows up most clearly when something altogether unexpected occurs in the course of a service. Something did go awry on Katyah’s watch as she officiated the marriage of my son, Erik Henning Thiede and my new daughter, Serafina Ha Kim.

And it was my fault.

The ceremony had been unfolding with tender and gentle surprises. There was the Rumi poem Erik had asked Katyah to read before he and Serafina drank from a shared Kiddush cup.

The Lovers
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
Become this,
fall in Love,
and you will not be separated again.

There was Katyah’s soft singing of beloved phrases from Hosea in Hebrew:

I betroth you to me forever.
I betroth you to me with steadfast love and compassion.
I betroth you to me in faithfulness.

There were Erik and Serafina’s vows, so deeply felt that time itself seemed to pause during the reading. Recognizing the moment, Katyah first asked the two if they were fully willing to receive each other’s vows and then, in the very center of the ceremony, to kiss.It was a hatima, a seal.  We all felt it; we witnessed the truth of love – sacred, peaceful, and whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a few minutes later, the rabbi mother (me) unintentionally managed to bring a sudden halt to the ceremony.

I was sitting very near the table where various accoutrements for the ceremony were located. I glanced over about and noticed the wine glass that Erik was to break. It was standing, covered by the napkin we had brought to wrap it in.

Imagining the horror of shards all over the floor where we planned to dance all night and supposing that the participants had simply forgotten to wrap the glass, I reached, as discretely as possible, to take the glass, wrap it up, and replace it on the table.

Erik saw my gesture. Katyah saw Erik’s look, and both uttered involuntary exclamations. “No,” Erik said, though he was smiling. “Don’t. It’s all right.”

Katyah walked out from under the chuppah. “Not yet!” she said, and gently took the glass, still covered by the napkin, and set it back on the table.

I was mortified (and confused). I tried to refocus.

Katyah, of course, already had. She sang the Priestly Blessing. She spoke about Miryam, of her dance, of her connection with mayyim chayyim, the waters of life. She read another Rumi poem Erik had selected.

The beauty of the heart
is the lasting beauty:
its lips give to drink
of the water of life.

Truly it is the water,
that which pours,
and the one who drinks.
All three become one when
your talisman is shattered.
That oneness you can’t know
by reasoning.

Then she returned to the table, grinned at me, and with a gentle but perceptible flourish, she lifted the napkin off the glass, and presented the wine glass to Erik and Serafina. It was filled with water.

I laughed, my husband, Ralf, chuckled, and guests smiled. The couple drank, and Katyah brought the empty glass back to me with the napkin.

“Now,” she said. “Now you wrap it up.”

Carefully, tightly, I wrapped up the glass, and a few moments later Erik smashed it without the slightest shard escaping. Katyah picked up her guitar and played Siman Tov. We all stood up to celebrate the couple, the line dance started, and we danced with abandon.

I was Katyah’s roommate at nearly every retreat and workshop for all the years I was in the rabbinic program at ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I knew her good sense, her unassuming way of, simply, being herself when she led a service or sang a niggun. She has known Erik for well over a decade, since he was fourteen. They have sung together – even co-led services together. He knew what he was doing when he asked her to officiate his wedding.

I was not surprised by her authenticity, but by the outcome of it: moments no one will forget because they were both unique and real.

Thank you Katyah.

Learning “Jewish” (Or, no, Victoria, Hanukkah is not Purim)

A Thiede Chanukiah; we like moose.

Yesterday, I received an email from the spouse of a Jewish person. Said individual is cheerfully colluding in creating a Jewish home.

“I was told gift-giving isn’t a practice done in Hanukah,” my correspondent wrote, “and that, in fact, I can avoid holiday gift-giving by claiming that my spouse is Jewish.”

Aha! I thought to myself. Judaism 101, a course which enrolls friends, lovers, partners, and spouses all over the world is in progress.

The email clearly reflected the author’s hope to avoid the mania of seasonal commercialism. I am sympathetic. I cease to go into any store of any kind immediately after Halloween. If I do, I know I will be inundated with good cheer. Good cheer and holiday music is capitalism’s sugar-coating for its systemic need to encourage materialism of all kinds.  In excess-sius each day-o.

“Jews have lived in a largely Christian world for the last two millennia,” I wrote back. “We’ve also lived in Muslim worlds, Confucian ones, and so on. But most of us in the west have been swimming in the currents of Christianity.” I readily admitted that Hanukkah was not the “traditional” time for gift-giving. That honor, I said, fell to Purim.

I promised to explain the messy problem with the word “traditional” later. For many Jews, after all, the word “traditional” really means “what my parents did.” Sometimes it refers to “what the rabbi of my shul did when I was bar/t mitzvah age.” It can also mean “rabbinic” and is often used in this sense when the Jew in question wants to feel firmly grounded about whatever he or she is claiming is “traditional.”

(“Rabbinic,” of course, is a term with its own issues, as Jews frequently forget that is a category with time and geographical limitations.  I can promise you, for example, that Jews of the first century C.E. certainly were not practicing a halakha promulgated by an elite that, at the time, had little to no authority in Jewish communities. But that’s another matter.)

“Jews,” I wrote, “have faced the onslaught of All Things Christmas for over a century. As Americans became more and more disposed to making Christmas the highlight of our capitalist and materialist culture, as they added sparkly lights and showy decorations and glittery Christmas trees, as reams of television shows and movies told adorable Christmas stories, some featuring an overweight and overwhite elderly dude who tossed presents into every home, as rabbits and elves and Nutcracker Suites proliferated, as Christmas music flowed into every ear from every possible locale, we poor Jews watched as our children increasingly felt their holiday to be out-performed by the robust glory that was America’s Christmas. American Jews had only one way (they thought) to fight back.”

Thus, I explained, Hanukkah began to resemble Christmas in, at the very least, the tradition of plentiful gift-giving. Jewish parents could even find a way to outdo their Christian neighbors. After all, Christmas is just one day. Hanukkah is eight! I know Jewish parents who give one present each night to their children. Oy.

One could (and maybe should) consider bringing back the idea that Purim was for gift-giving, which might also help to support the festival commandment of matanot la’evyonim, giving to the poor. Another perk of Purim? Encouraging American Jews to develop their cooking skills, given that a second festival commandment, mishloach manot, is to send gifts of food to friends and family. Americans could stand to use their kitchen appliances now and again.

Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev. The twenty-fifth word of the Torah is ohr (light).

The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” “consecration.” The root of the festival’s name, chetnunkhaf, means “to learn, to make experienced.” The first two letters of Hanukkah, chetnun, mean “grace.” Add a hey to that and you get “to rest.”

A Hanukkah candle takes about thirty minutes to burn.

May we abandon malls and stores and online purchasing locales for the opportunities those thirty minutes offer: true rest in the glow of a small and tender light, fragile and short-lived. May our Hanukkah candles remind us that life is precious.

May we, this year, give one another the best gifts of all: hope, understanding, and love.

Ant Misbehavin’ (Or: A Rabbi is Brought to Heel)

fire-antWe spiritual leaders approach our deployment with joy and hope. We long to transmit the compassion and love of the Holy One of Blessing, to be at work infusing the world with the Shekhina’s light.

And then we are brought right down to earth. Literally.

Last fall, I arrived to officiate a funeral at a relatively new cemetery in our town. It was small – barren, mostly of trees or landscaping, but featuring a sizable and rather muddy-looking pond at one side.

On the other side of the cemetery, across a busy local highway was a gas station and a storefront that had certainly seen brighter days.

Though I often do funerals for unaffiliated Jews, I had met the woman whose funeral I was officiating. She had been a witty, acerbic, and, in her way, absolutely charming presence at one of our Hanukkah parties. I knew the kind of culture that gave rise to her style of quips and comments, and I appreciated her intelligence and her sense of humor.

She attended my small community’s doings once or twice more; she was not “religious,” she told me, so we shouldn’t expect to see her. Still, nearly a decade later, it was not at all hard to remember her. Her sons told me the way she had become a second mother to their friends and distant cousins but remarked, repeatedly, on her sense of humor. I could certainly recall her loving and witty personality from my own brief encounters with her, so writing a hesped for a woman who had given so much and taken care of so many came easily.

The funeral itself was a rather different matter.

There were not too many attendees – perhaps about twenty. One came in flip-flops; another took her shoes off during the service.

The casket was a bright fire-engine red; I was given to understand that it had been ordered, then rejected, by another family.

All appeared to be going well, however, regardless of a casket shining like a fire truck in the sun, the sound of cars whizzing by, and an unusual lack of footwear.

I greeted the mourners. I read two psalms and a poem that seemed to capture the spirit of the woman we had come to honor. I was glad to see that the hesped managed to capture her bright and powerful personality. Both sons nodded at me; both had tears in their eyes as I spoke of their beloved mother.

It was time to chant El Malei Rachamim. I waited, composed my soul, and asked the Holy One help me convey simple and honest compassion.

About ten words in to the haunting, exquisite melody, I felt a sudden, sharp stinging on my left foot. Then my right. While singing, I looked down for a moment to see a crowd of ants congregating in little red minyans of their own, running into my shoes. I saw the telltale sign. There was a mound next to my left foot and the ants were swarming from its crushed mouth.

I went on singing. There was no way to try and brush the creatures off, no way to stop the proceedings, no way to do anything but ask the Holy One – with great and fully spontaneous intensity – for the strength to ignore the fiery pain in my extremities.

Fire ants are among the many insects I react to allergically.

Thank the Holy One. I finished the prayer, competed the service, allowed time for the mourners to say a last goodbye, all the while feeling the flaming pain and itching rise up my legs. Some of the ants had found my calves an attractive alternative venue for their impromptu meeting.

When I could, I made my way over to my husband, Ralf, and told him what had happened.

“With spiritual experience,” he said, “comes the agony of the feet.”

“He says sole-fully,” I rejoined.

Knowing that such things usually cause violent swelling and a long road of misery and sleepless nights, Ralf did his best to find ways to whisk me home.

But mourners also wanted to thank me, bless their hearts, and there was no gracious getaway.

Religious leaders have no idea what they are getting into when they feel that call to serve. You can’t dream up the things that will happen at life cycle events, in your communities, at the lecture you thought would go so smoothly.

My only advice: Be prepared to be brought back down to earth.

Lech L’cha: On Necessary Journeying

journeyingLech L’cha: Betake yourself. Get on with you. Go forth!

God’s first words to Avram are a command, a demand, even. Avram will be sent into a wilderness of not-knowing, a future he cannot predict. He leaves Haran, a city literally named “street” — harrannu, in the Akkadian.

Avram is ivri: a Hebrew, one who crosses over thresholds, boundaries. He is become, by his crossing, an immigrant and a stranger.

Our sages point to the many ways these two words might be translated.

Lech l’cha: Go by yourself. Or, “go to yourself.” Or even: “go for yourself.”

Go by yourself, the Holy One says: Are we asked to go it alone, to wander inward to our very souls? But if we do not venture into the depths of heart and soul and mind, how are we to know who we are, much less who we might become?

Go to yourself, YHVH says. Go into a new world, a new land. There, Avram is to find his roots. Must we leave in order to come home? Do we journey in order to know where we belong? We must know the vulnerability of the new because the new – not the known – teaches us how to stretch, risk ourselves, and go forward.

Go for yourself , Rashi insists, is the message here. If you do not go you will have missed the mandate: it is for you, yourself that you must leave, and see the world.

Again and again our Torah asks us to go deep inside its words, deep inside ourselves. Go by yourself, to yourself, for yourself. The answers we seek are alone inside us, to us and part of us, for us to find.

Goethe wrote: Wonach sollen wir trachten? Die Welt zu kennen, und sie nicht verachten. What shall we strive for? To know the world and not to despise it.

This last year we have, as a nation, journeyed into the deadliest of territories. We have traveled through thickets of lies and invective. We have longed for a peace and a forgetting.

We have been caught in a city of streets that led nowhere. We must cross over and leave. We must journey away into some open territory.

What might we meet there? Who might we meet there?

We might meet other immigrants and wanderers too – those who have escaped danger and death only to find themselves described as a hateful burden. We might find those have lived in fear of rejection after decades of offering their labor and their hope to this country. We might find those who have been exiled from opportunities to settle, to find the rest they need.

We might find fellow human beings who need to know that their lives matter. Black Americans must finally be freed from entrenched systems of violence and oppression.

When we lived in Haran, did we help build walls as well as streets?

I am privileged to teach at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Every day I go into that known territory to discover the unknown, and to discover myself.

Who can I be for Kamala, the student whose parents were immigrants, who works harder than just about any student I know because, she says, she is so privileged.

Who must I be for Caleb, a white boy from this state, who is desperately trying to escape his past as a drug dealer. The very dealers he used to work with do not let him go; they insist that he work with them again. They brought guns to his apartment this semester and gunfire was a part of their visit.

Who can I be for Alex, who lost his mother to cancer in the first weeks of the semester and who reads Lamentations for our class and asks me why God is absent in a text of the most extreme pain.

As Avram did before us, we must journey.

The Holy One tells us, too: Leave Haran, a city of streets and boundaries. Leave to find the world. Leave in order to find yourselves.

May we journey into the world this year so that we know our purpose. May our purpose nourish the peace and the safety we long for. May we fill the world with shalom by journeying into its very center, and ours.

 

The names of my students have been changed to assure privacy.

The Last Shabbat: On Noach and Election 2016

double_rainbow_with_niagara_fallsFor over a month I could not write anything other than lectures or lesson plans. I could write what I had to; I could not write anything else.

How could it happen? I live a life in which my students offer me extraordinary insights on a weekly basis. My studies offer me pleasure. Learning is a daily practice – even, in a sense, a prayer. Normally, I write with enthusiasm and joy.

But for weeks since the unrest in Charlotte, I have been unable to compose a word. I have felt helpless. Why add to the accumulated grief? We have been awash in vitriol for months, nearly drowned by the flood of slanderous speech. Violent language has been so mainstreamed we can hardly imagine a political conversation without insults and epithets of the worst kind.

Today, we read Noach.

It is no children’s story. All those brightly constructed toy arks and colorful storybooks ought to be banished. We may not pretend that this story is a happy one. The flood was mass destruction, a catastrophe we know in smaller, but terrifying forms: Hurricane Katrina. The 2011 T?hoku earthquake and tsunami. The nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mother Nature and humanity alternately cause destruction beyond words.

I imagine him when I read it: Noach seeing the nightmare unfold, the bodies wash away. Noach listening as the trees snap in two, watching the refuse swirling about the boat. He must have heard the cries.

But Noach, the comforter, could say nothing. Not before, not during. And when he spoke after it was all over, it was to utter a curse.

This Shabbat was the last before the 2016 election. I tried to create a fence around my Sabbath. I have tried this for weeks. But never, I admit, with the full measure of success I longed for.

How could I? Like everyone else who has paid a modicum of attention, I have seen the effigies, the ugly signs. I have heard screaming protesters shout appalling slogans. I have absorbed this fact: Political leaders have excused the language of sexual assault and thus, the rape culture that engenders it.

Last summer, during the first days of July, I was visiting Chicago. My husband Ralf and I walked around the city for days. On one of them, we chanced by a rehearsal in Grant Park. The Chicago Symphony Youth Orchestra was practicing for their Independence Day performance.

The orchestra was made up of young people whose heritage was obviously and beautifully diverse. Asian and Caucasian, Latino and black — who knows how many other ethnicities were part of the musical mix.

They played the national anthem.

It was the only time I ever cried hearing that piece. I cried because the orchestra’s very existence seemed like an antidote to the misery this entire nation has suffered this past election year.

It has been an ugly, unforgiving time. I have been tired even when I slept well. I am exhausted even after I try to rest.

So why speak? Why write? What is there to say?

There must be a way to turn away in order to turn towards. There must be a way to repudiate what has been in order to create what must be.

May we long for a rainbow?

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?