Call Me Rabbi: A Letter to Representative Richard Hudson

Representative Richard Hudson, NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did talk about the economy, though.

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

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

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

“Of course!” Brett replied.

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

Brett apologized and said he would pass on my concerns.

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

Representative Hudson your constituents are not all Christian.

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

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

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

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

I’d like your answer in writing, please.

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Nothing Means Something: Not Responding to Charlottesville

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.
And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Y. Talmud 4:9, B.  Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.

When Paris was hit by a terrorist attack in November 2015, then candidate Trump tweeted that he was praying for victims and hostages. After the Orlando attack in June 2016, he tweeted that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day last January, the White House did not even mention the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazi regime although their eradication was Hitler’s first aim. Last February, Adam Purinton shouted “get out of my country” as he shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani. President Trump said nothing. When a mosque was bombed just eight days ago in Minnesota, we heard more in the way of nothing. When David Duke tolds us that Charlottesville is a “turning point” for a movement aiming to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” no one in the White House protested. The president did not distance himself from such claims.

Nothing means something. Nothing is not merely silence. It is acquiescence. It is permission. It is consent.

When white supremacists showed up on the streets of Charlottesville this weekend heavily armed, showing off their machine guns, when they marched to Nazi slogans, wore Adolf Hitler’s words on their backs, and when they attacked counterprotesters, we heard an awful lot of nothing from our president.

When the president deigned to speak, his words were no words at all. President Trump refused to use words like “white supremacy” or “white nationalism” although these words would have said something Americans need to hear. Instead he informed the American people that there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on many sides. When asked, neither the president nor his spokespeople could describe what they had seen from counterprotestors that constituted bigotry or hate.

Asked whether he considered the car rammed into a crowd of protestors and act of terrorism (a tactic that has been linked to terrorism in the past), President Trump refused to respond.

He touted the economy.

Trump eventually offered his condolences to the woman killed by the young white man who used his car as a murder weapon. He praised the Virginia State police and mentioned the death of two officers in a helicopter crash. “So sad,” he tweeted.

Black people have been enslaved, robbed, imprisoned and shot in the streets and in their churches. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been defaced, mosques bombed. Muslims and Jews across this country have been harassed and attacked. Documented immigrants have been murdered and undocumented immigrants have been deported and separated from their families. Thomas Homan, the chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has told undocumented immigrants that they should live in fear.

There are no words to hold this pain. There are no verses that can take the measure of the murder and enslavement of peoples. There is no way to quantify terror.

Oh, wait. There is something you can do. Say nothing.

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The Cloak of Visibility in the Book of Ruth – A Teaching for Today (Really)

The Cloak of Conscience by Anna Chromy

For the past six months I have been exploring, together with various Christian church communities, the issue of immigration through a shared text: The Book of Ruth.

There is much to say about the way the immigrant is seen (or not) in this text. The Israelite Naomi all but ignores her Moabite daughter-in-law’s moving declaration of loyalty and love. Naomi sends Ruth into a truly dangerous setting in pursuit of a man who will answer all their problems, and says nothing when Ruth’s child is handed over to her at the close of the book. The narrator reminds us several times that Ruth is a Moabitess, a member of the tribe that seduced the Israelites at Baal Peor and whose ancestry stems from an incestuous one-nighter between Lot and one of his daughters.

The story begins with human beings going hungry: the famine in Bethlehem leads to Naomi’s family emigrating to Moab, an enemy territory, in search of sustenance. That initial misery is followed by others, it cascades, expands, consumes – it seems – every hope; Naomi loses not only her husband, but her children. Ruth “clings” to her mother-in-law as if she were her only tie to any kind of safety. Both go hungry when they return from Bethlehem in search of the sustenance granted others; the villagers and kinsmen ignore their plight.

Today, I read my daughter-in-law’s Facebook post about the famine in East Africa. She notes that the famine has nothing to do with natural disasters. It’s caused by civil wars.

We pass by the world’s pain and dust it off our spiritual sleeves. We are the villagers who noticed the arrival of the widows at the close of chapter 1 and then did nothing to support or help them. We are the ones who read of immigrants trapped and dying in a boiling truck, and of women and children crossing deserts in desperate, often fatal, attempts to escape violence. We know what our administration’s answer is to the need of human beings to live with dignity: In America, when such men, women, and children cross our borders, we send them to inhumane detention centers which treat them like slaves (literally) and which profit from their presence. We will tear – and we have torn – parents from children. We have deported people who have lived honorably, only seeking to find a way to live safely and legally in a country they, too, love.

In the Book of Ruth, it is the immigrant Moabite who finds a way out. She notes Naomi’s mention of Boaz as a redeeming kinsman who could restore to Naomi the land her husband left behind. She combines that important information with the knowledge of the levirate she gained when Naomi bewailed the fact that she was too old to provide sons who could marry Ruth and Orpah and sire sons for their dead husbands. It is Ruth who first puts redemption and levirate law together. When Boaz asks who she is when she appears on the threshing floor in the middle of the night, Ruth answers: “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (Ruth 3:9).

In one fell swoop Ruth has proposed to Boaz, hinting at a potential role as a levir. In the same verse she names him a go’el, a redeemer. Though the law as written in bible hardly makes Boaz a levir, he concurs, and insists on defining himself as one in the final chapter, proclaiming his intention to sire a son in Ruth’s first husband’s name (4:10).

“Spread your robe over me,” Ruth says, using the word kanaf. Here, it means the edge of a garment. But the word can also mean “wings,” and Boaz uses it in exactly that sense, when he blesses Ruth with the prayer that YHVH spread his wings over her in protection (2:12).

Ruth gave Boaz, in essence, a cloak of visibility. Only when he spread it over her did he truly understand, calling her an eshet chayil, a woman of strength and valor. The legal maneuvering Ruth set in motion is later presented to the community by Boaz and sanctioned by ten elders and the villagers.

I do not find it a happy development that it is, yet again, the foreigner, the minority, the woman, and the immigrant who has to brave danger in order to make the privileged (male) see her. Boaz has had to be reminded that Ruth and Naomi exist, that they are in trouble. Neither Boaz nor anyone else came to the aid of these two women when they returned to Bethlehem.

Today, President Trump called for 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. He agitated again for the building of his border wall with Mexico and measures against sanctuary cities and insisted on legislation to expedite the removal of undocumented immigrants from Central America.

We are the villagers. We are Boaz. Can we be better? What, when we look, do we see? When we see, what, then, must we do?

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Patriarchy Shmachiarchy — Let’s Re-dress Ancient Israel

Why do we keep assuming that Ancient Israel was a “patriarchal” society when it wasn’t?

Despite the evidence demonstrating how problematic the term “patriarchy” is, my university students employ it about as frequently as they do the expression “Old Testament.” Both slip from the tongue with aplomb.

It’s obvious why “Old Testament” is a problematic term, given the odor of supersessionism attached to it. But, you may be asking, why do we need to banish the term patriarchy from our discourse about Ancient Israel? 

In Greek, patriarchy means the “rule of the father.” We generally tend to use patriarchy to describe an entire society organized around excluding women from positions of power.

Men did have a great deal of power in the ancient world. But, as a number of scholars have pointed out in recent decades, they did not have the absolute rule the term patriarchy presumes. Male power may have been a legal construct, not a sociological reality. Roman law failed to mention any absolute authority of men over their wives. Elite Roman women managed both households and property. The women of Greece and Rome took part in public religious activities and acted as religious leaders in mainstream public cults and cultic activities.

What about Ancient Israel? Most Israelites lived an agricultural and pastoral existence in which women played a major role. Women were, among other things, responsible for food processing, textile production, and creating household implements. They were commodity producers. As managers of households, they likely allocated resources and tasks. We can tell from the position and number of weaving, grain-grinding, and other implements found at archeological sites that women worked in groups. How much family and village planning went on during the work? Women would be able and willing to negotiate connections, marriages, and sharing of resources when needed. That’s not private work – that’s public – even “political.”

In Tanakh, female characters are not wholly without access to power. The Shunnamite (2 Kings 4:8-37; 8:1-6) takes charge of inviting and housing a prophet, demands said prophet’s intervention when her son’s life is at risk without her husband’s help or involvement, moves her family out of town when drought threatens their survival, and negotiates their reentry and reacquisition of their land by talking over her situation with the king himself.

Women of Tanakh functioned as professional musicians and mourners, temple seamstresses, circle dancers, judges, prophets, and necromancers. They negotiated, argued, and formed clever plans and daring maneuvers. They are depicted as strategic thinkers in stories that demonstrate, time and time again, that they were hardly understood – even by the male elite authors who wrote their narratives – as either inferior or subordinate. While we do have difficult stories of male control (Dinah) and terrible narratives of outright brutality against women (the Levite’s Concubine and the hundreds of women kidnapped, raped and killed after her death), biblical women were not – per se — either voiceless or powerless.

Archeologist and biblical scholar Carol Meyers has suggested we consider the term “heterarchy” for Ancient Israel.  A heterarchy is a society in which different power structures exist at the same time. Hierarchies are at work, and these are not fixed, but shift and change. Is Sarah the one in control when it comes to her slave, Hagar? Is Abraham’s servant in charge when it comes to negotiating a wife for his master’s son, Isaac? Class is important, as is ethnicity, and we need to keep these things in mind as we read: servants, slaves, and non-Israelites are part of our stories and play different roles at different times.

No scholar is likely to claim that there was gender equality in Ancient Israel’s society. But when we think about that society, we need to think in terms that transcend the binaries of male and female. We need to see that there are nuances to be noted – ones that will give us a richer appreciation of the complexity of our narratives. Who had power or control in this society did not depend on a fixed, unalterable rule of male control.

Ancient Israel was not a patriarchy.

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It Wasn’t Funny (On a Whole Semester of Jewish Humor)

A scene from Mel Brooks’ The Producers (one of many controversial ones…)

Many, many years ago I complained bitterly to a colleague that no matter how I taught our department’s course on Judaism, I was unhappy with my efforts.

If I focused on Jewish history, knowing full well that I was likely privileging the European experience at the expense of our Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian past, was the outcome intellectually corrupt? If I focused on rabbinic thinking, I asked, wasn’t I leaving students in the dark about how most modern American Jews lived? If I spent time teaching liturgy and festivals, was I going to end up operating at the level of Wikipedia, spending too much time explaining why Jews put horseradish and a lamb bone on a plate and then eat the first while letting the other sit in its juices?

“Well,” my colleague said, “have you ever thought about teaching the course just for fun? How about building the semester around the theme of Jewish humor?”

“Hahaha,” I said.

“No, really,” he insisted. “You could show Woody Allen films, find out how the students react to Mel Brooks, tell some Jewish jokes about Hitler…”

I laughed. Then I stopped laughing. Jewish humor is, after all, a thing. A serious thing.

He had convinced me. The students, I decided, could ask what could be learned about Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Jewish religious expression through the lens of humor.

I decided I was going to tell a Jewish joke at the opening of every class. We would spend the first ten minutes of each class dissecting the joke and the way it revealed something of Jewish history, practice, or ritual. I could use humor to tell important stories: We would explore, for example, the symbolic role of the Holocaust in American Jewish life and read up on the controversy that erupted over Mel Brooks’ comedy The Producers. We would look at the ways Jews had struggled to define what it meant to be Jewish and how to fit in (or not) into white, Christian-American culture. Then we would watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

It would be rich, deep, and funny. Humor would help us learn.

At one point, I delivered a series of lectures about antisemitism in Europe. Among other things, my students learned about the blood libel myth – that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their blood for making matzah or curing various illnesses.

We had already explored the way humor could articulate actual conditions of oppression and discrimination. I thought it was a good time to illustrate. I told a joke set in an archetypal Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe.

“A child had been found dead,” I began. “The Jews immediately locked themselves in the synagogue. They feared the worst. Would a mob come and attack them – even in the synagogue? Was the whole community doomed? Suddenly, someone banged on the doors. ‘Rabbi, rabbi!’ a voice called. ‘It’s Moyshe! Let me in!!’ The doors were opened and Moyshe practically fell into the synagogue. ‘I’ve run the whole way,’ he panted. ‘I have good news – the dead child was Jewish!’”

My students looked at me. They were very, very still.

I struggled through the semester. My students hardly ever laughed. I had to explain why the films were ironic (and funny), why the texts were acerbic, edgy (and funny), why anything about the course was funny. No one laughed at my jokes.

Towards the end I reported to my colleague. I told him that my jokes were falling flat, that the students did not understand why the films I showed were labeled comedies, and that it appeared that Jewish humor was boring them out of their minds.

He didn’t say one word. Not one.

He just laughed.

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Holy Things and Holy Homes – A Teaching from B’midbar

B’midbar, in the wilderness. We begin by taking account of ourselves, by numbering and naming our strengths, assigning our families to their places.

How did the Israelites travel?

The tribes of Issachar, Judah and Zebulon camped at the front, facing east – and the sunrise.  Gad, Reuben and Simeon were located on the south side, wellspring of warmth. On the west, behind the Tabernacle, Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin set up their tents. On the north side Asher, Dan and Naphtali. Abraham came into Canaan from the north; the north is our ancient history.

The Levites were named and numbered too after the four sons of Levi. They, too, were placed around the Tabernacle.

The parsha describes their duties: The sons of Aaron were to take care of the service; the sons of Gershon were to care for curtains, hangings, and ropes, of the sanctuary. The sons of Merari were to maintain and care for the Tabernacle’s bones — its posts, crossbars, courtyard, and tent pegs.

The sons of Kohath, the Kohathites, were charged with carrying vessels and objects within the sanctuary – the menorah, the table of showbread, the ark. When it is time to break camp, Aaron and his sons first covered the ark with a purple blue cloth. Over the table of showbread and the menorah, they lay a cloth of purple red cloth. They must protect the altar of gold, the service vessels, the copper altar, the fire pans and the flesh hooks, the scrapers and the basins – all the vessels of Temple service. Then, and only then, only after Aaron and his sons have covered all the holy objects, may the Kohathites enter to take and transport what belongs inside the Tabernacle.

Do this with them, God says to Aaron, that they may live and not die when they touch sacred objects (4:15).

Why such a prohibition? One explanation from our rabbis: Aaron and his sons must cover everything because the clans of Kohath would otherwise find themselves transfixed at the sight of consecrated objects. They would be overpowered, unable to do their work.  Another tradition: The problem the Torah seeks to avoid is just the opposite concern. If holy objects are not covered, the Kohathites might get too used to handling what is sacred. Sacred things will become ordinary. The Kohathites might “die spiritually,” and lose their capacity to see the tabernacle and its hallowed objects as holy things.

Aside from our Torahs, our synagogues do not contain many ritual objects. What do we invest with a sense of sacredness?

Once, some years back, I came home to find my kitchen cabinet doors hanging open, drawers upturned, musical equipment moved out of place and left, discarded, in the hallway. My jewelry had been spilled out of their containers and left tangled and twined together. My tefillin were lying on the flour, half unwound.

After the police left, I moved from room to room. The shofar was left untouched while the back door, kicked in by our burglars, swung awkwardly. Shredded wood lay on the carpet nearby. Each piece of Judaica, one my husband, Ralf, bought for me each year on my birthday – was standing in its accustomed place, whole, clean and bright.

The burglars were not interested in my seder plate, my chanukiahs, my yad. For them, the little wooden figures my mother-in-law, Evelyn, gave us over the years were worth nothing. To me, the little town musicians, the night watchmen, the deer and the goats were magical.

Our homes are sacred. It is there where we can love without fear, cry without restraint, feel free to be ourselves.

Jewish tradition declares that the marriage bed is the second most holy thing that ever was or can be – second only to the Holy of Holies. Our central relationships are sacrosanct; we represent them with real – and hallowed – things. We mark our doors and gates with the injunction to love the godly in and around us with all our hearts and souls and might. Our homes are our sanctuaries, no matter how temporary they may be and no matter how often we move. The things we place inside are holy stuff.

 

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Listen to Leviticus – And Fly Free

Listen to Leviticus.

Who owns the earth? Is it right for some to be rich in every material way and for others to go hungry? Do some people have the right to refuse others the chance to decide where they want to live? How do we create a time or a space in which people cannot be identified in economic terms?

Leviticus takes up all these questions, and more.

Our final readings, B’har and Be?ukkotai, insist that the laws they reveal came from Sinai – despite the fact that Leviticus otherwise often describes its commandments as given over at the Tent of Meeting. But the author wants to make a point at the close of the book: All the Israelites were at Sinai. Everything we know and must know comes from that place of epiphany. B’har begins: “The Holy One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, and told him: ‘speak to the Israelite people.’”

And what should Moshe say?

Every fifty years the Israelites must mark a sacred time – for themselves and for the land. They must live off whatever the land produces on its own. During the Jubilee year the land is to be left to rest.

Leviticus gives us an idea so radical that it puts our own society to shame. In the fiftieth year, B’har says, we must remember that the earth and everything in it actually belongs to God. The Israelites are mere tenants. God has made the land available to the Israelites, but it may not be exploited for the enrichment of some to the detriment of others.

In the Jubilee year, on the day of Atonement, after the shofar has been blown a last, long, magnificent time, all land reverts back to its original apportioning. Rich or poor, all become equal not only in the eyes of God but in the actual reality they inhabit.

Unity is restored where it has been fractured or assailed. Those who have sunk into poverty will have their self-respect restored. No one can be defined in economic terms during this year. Just as Shabbat asks us to take a time apart from the market, so the Jubilee year asks us – as a whole society – to take a rest from a world defined by buying and selling.

The tenth verse of this parsha is inscribed on our Liberty Bell: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

The Hebrew word translated as “release” is d’ror. But d’ror is also the name for a creature of liberty: the swallow. Just as we speak of a “pride” of lions, so one way to speak about swallows as a group is to describe them as a “flight” or “sweep.” The swallow has been called the “bird of freedom” because it cannot endure captivity. Swallows only mate when they are free, only in the wild.

We must be, then, so Leviticus, be free as birds. We must be released, given freedom of movement.

D’ror has also been read from the root dalet-vav-reish, “to dwell.” Leviticus 25:10 could also be telling us that people ought to be guaranteed the freedom to live wherever they wish.

We are living in a country where more tax breaks are in the offing for the wealthiest citizens among us – and we do well to remember the disparities we are talking about here: the top wealthiest one percent of Americans now own at least forty percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom eighty percent own a mere seven percent.

We are living in a country in which God’s own earth is under assault by those who wish to have unrestrained access to its wealth. National monuments and parks are at risk; some of our officials are so allergic to the word “regulate” that they seem to be willing to deregulate nature out of existence.

As for the chance to live free: last week, an officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services attempted to get into an elementary school in New York in order to question a fourth grader – a mere nine or ten-year old.

Leviticus tells us that no Israelite may be taxed beyond their means, that no Israelite should ever endure the shame of poverty, that the land needs to be respected and cared for and that freedom and liberty must be the bedrock on which we build our society.

Shouldn’t we listen to Leviticus – and fly free?

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Who is the Snake? A Biblical Immigrant Story

She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
“I saved you,” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake

He read the poem again. He read it despite the protestations of the author’s family members who are well aware that the author would been horrified to find his work used to incite hatred. But that is our president and this, in part, is our America.

Today, the day after Donald Trump once again compared immigrants to treacherous snakes, I began a three-part series of classes with a local church group on the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is a narrative of immigrant experience. As such, it cannot be a mere idyll. In three verses we learn that an Israelite named Elimelech emigrates to Moab with his family to escape famine in Bethlehem only to die in a foreign land. His widow, Naomi, is “left over.” Her sons marry Moabite women, but they, too, die in Moab. The text hammers the point home again: she is “left over,” a remnant of sorts.

Naomi is an immigrant. There is no evidence that she is mistreated by the Moabite locals. She does not leave with her sons after her husband’s death. After they marry, she clearly grows to love Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law. While the narrator defines them according to their marital status, Naomi calls them b’notai, my daughters.

Places can define us. But relationships can change everything. After they lose their husbands, Orpah and Ruth plan to stay with their beloved mother-in-law. They insist that they will “return” with her, accompany her as she goes back to Bethlehem (1:10). As her daughters, they believe that her home is theirs.

Naomi protests. Perhaps she is afraid for them. Moabite women could hardly expect a warm welcome from Israelites. So she tells them they should return to their biological mothers. She has no more sons to give them, she says.  Dreaming of the apparently impossible, she adds that even if she were to remarry and, miraculously, have more sons, it would be unkind to expect her daughters to wait for them to grow up.

Naomi does not just send Orpah and Ruth away; she believes that going “home” is their best choice. But not before desperately – even hopelessly – imagining what it would be like if she could offer them shelter, security and hope. Naomi did not wish to be separated from the women she called her daughters.

The first chapter in the Book of Ruth includes a number of variants on one Hebrew root: shin-vav-bet. Lashuv, tashav, shavah, nashuv, shov’nah… in twenty-two verses one or the other character is turning, returning, or told to turn around. Naomi will return to Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth plan to return with her. Naomi insists they turn around, go, essentially back-wards. Ruth insists that to do so would be to leave Naomi, and she begs her mother-in-law not to make her turn back.

Is our identity generated by the place of our birth or the places we adopt? Do the kin we are born to or the kin we embrace define who we are and who we wish to become? Turn, and you become a different person. Return, and you will find that  those you missed have changed. You are a different person, too. Naomi discovers that her fellow Israelites will greet her and leave her.  It is the widow’s Moabite daughter-in-law who sees she is fed, not her former neighbors. Ruth, in turn, will be treated as a cipher by those same Israelite women though they also extol her service to her mother-in-law: Ruth, they say, is better to Naomi than seven sons (4:15).

One wonders how Ruth endured being passed over as Obed’s mother and simultaneously praised for the decency with which she tends to Naomi, the Israelite. As an immigrant she seems to exist primarily to ensure that Israelite society and royal lineage is secured. All she has to do is brave a potentially dangerous nighttime encounter, marry Naomi’s choice for her, bring a son into the world and hand him over to the Israelites. They will call him their own. They will name him. They will say he belongs to Naomi.

If there is a snake in this story, it sure isn’t Ruth.

America does well because we use immigrant labor without regret, concern, or thanks. Immigrants are our farm workers and our school janitors. They are small business owners who employ American citizens. They work as computer scientists, nurses, and doctors. Without immigrants in this country, America will not have the workers it needs to pay to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent in the decades to come.

Immigrants work for privileged Americans hoping to be accepted and understood, imagining what it would be like to give freely, safely, and openly to their new home. Like Ruth, they are enterprising, interested, energetic.

And we citizens do as the ancient Israelites did to Ruth. We live off their labor, their contributions, and their taxes. I must ask the leader of the Free World, who is so quick to demonize the immigrant population in this country: Who is the snake?

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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.

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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.

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