Terumah and the Age of Rage

Terumah – it is a parsha about gifts. It is a parsha named “gifts.” Terumah is a collective noun: this parsha is about the collective.

Speak to the Israelite people, YHVH tells Moses. Offer everyone whose heart is moved to generosity, to thankfulness the sweet opportunity to bring something of themselves to the Holy One. And the people respond, with gifts of gold and silver and copper, with gifts of blue, purple, and crimson yards, with tanned ram skins and acacia wood, with oil for lighting, spices for anointing and burning incense, with lapus lazuli for the ephod and the breast piece, with the means to build a sanctuary.

It is a parsha filled with magical objects, with golden cheruvim who will spread out their wings and shield the ark in their care. With a lampstand adorned with metal petals curling about its seven branches and cups fashioned in the form of almond blossoms. The tabernacle itself will be made of fine twisted linen, of deep shades of purple and blue and wine-red, held together with gold clasps.

It is a parsha of abundance, a parsha, Chassidic tradition tells us, which contains the heart and substance of the Torah in its second verse. These are tzedakah and good deeds. The point of all our texts is reduced to this commandment: Give of yourself. Do good things. Gold and silver, as Torat Moshe tells us, may belong to God, but the pure willingness of heart is ours to give.

Just a few verses later, God says, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The preposition at work here is bet. While that can certainly be translated to “among,” bet also means “with” or “in.” The Holy One, it appears, is suggesting that humanity build a sanctuary so God can live in them. Not in an edifice. Not in a structure, however beautiful, but in human hearts: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them.”

If only.

It has been another week in the maelstrom of rage. We are living in such an age. It is infecting every aspect of our lives. It begins with a self-righteousness that is permeating every single social and news media platform. It ends with dismissing every compromise, with murdering others by word and deed.

The Dreamers have been crushed – again. Children have been slaughtered in their schools – again. Blame has been cast, again.

So many of us are feeling overwhelmed – even bullied – by the ceaseless, unending vitriol. We read Terumah and long for human hearts to be sanctuaries of peace. Our hearts are bruised and battered. We are exhausted. For every day, in every way, we are bombarded by the rage that so many Americans seem to hold dear – as if it were their most precious possession. Can this be our country, our world?

How can we make a sanctuary for God when we choose to fill our hearts with resentment and anger? How can rage be the bedrock for anything holy? No sanctuary can be built on such a foundation.

We know that rage is generated by fear. The essential question is this: What are we afraid of?

Note: This parsha was read the week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born. This blog post was inspired by her efforts to understand and speak with those who have harmed and hurt her and the people she tries to protect. It is dedicated to her.

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Waddya Know ? A Questionnaire for the History of Hasidism

The Baal Shem Tov… we think. It appears that it is actually a different guy: Rabbi Falk, the Baal Shem of London.

True/False

Hasidism emphasizes the negation of the material world.
Hasidism was a messianic movement.
Hassidism was antimessianic.
Hasidism regarded prayer as “higher” than study.
Hasidism considered prayer and study as equally holy.
Christians considered the tombs of tzaddikim as sites of veneration and visited them.
The Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) recycles stories from the Shivhei ha’Ari.

Multiple Choice:

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. was an unschooled radical who opposed the social structure of his time.
b. was a paid functionary with a plum residential post.
c. intended to found a movement.
d. became popular because he offered comfort to a traumatized people.

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. paid no taxes; he was granted a domicile and supported by the local religious b. establishment.
c. was a rebel against the religious perspectives that surrounded him.
d. was a true “man of the people”.

Hasidism became a movement….
a. because the Besht and his followers worked consciously to create one, spreading out across Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, etc..
b. composed of poor and unlettered Jews.
c. in part as a result of the opposition of Jewish Enlightenment thinkers.

Answers
True/False questions: Every one is true.   Hasidism has a lot of bandwith; ideas we might think as polar opposites  show up in varied sources. Multiple Choice: b, a, c

This semester, my ALEPH seminary students are answering these kinds of questions in our course on the history of Hasidism. We are busy dissolving a good bit of mythology, working instead with the messy reconstructions of history.

No, the Baal Shem Tov had no idea and no intention of founding a movement. He worked as a local practical kabbalist and hung out with other scholarly and semi-scholarly men who were interested in Kabbalah. The men he fraternized with were, in large part, exploring mystical ideas we can trace to mystics of 16th century Safed and the early pietistic elite who succeeded them.

No, the Besht was hardly revolutionary or engaged in a battle with “establishment religion.” His sources of learning were also theirs. Many scholarly Jews studied Kabbalah – including the Vilna Gaon who so opposed the Hasidim. Rabbinic leaders across Eastern Europe were sympathetic with Hasidic pietists who preceded the Besht, men whose ideas and practices he often borrowed.

The Besht was a faith healer, hired as such by the religious establishment in Meshbizh. He was given a house (#93) to live in and, as a paid functionary, he didn’t have to pay taxes. It is likely that his work included the writing of amulets (a longstanding part of Jewish practice that dates back to Second Temple times), incantations (also an established practice), and conducting exorcisms (ditto).

In some respects, finding the Besht is a little like looking for the historical Jesus. The Besht did not leave treatises or books for us to ponder. His letters have been redacted and “produced” by later followers. Te stories we read in the Shivhei ha-Besht are part of a well-known genre of hagiography, one particularly popular in Christian circles and adopted in Jewish ones.

Hagiographies originated as accounts of saints or ecclesiastic leaders, accounts that were, by the nature of the writing, packed with holy deeds and miracles. Jews adopted the genre and populated their pages with figures like the Ari and, later, the Baal Shem Tov. Christianity had its saints; Judaism had its tzadikim.

Hagiography is  history. The former is about building legends. The latter is about dissolving them.

Are we, then, to discard such legends and myths? Should the “real” history, such as we know it, lead us to dismiss the hagiographies we are heir to? The beauty of the stories we read is that their beauty never fails to move us, after all. That’s why they were written; that’s why we read them.

But we learn history for good reason, too. It is important to place the Besht in his own time – as far as we are able. History is a messy, complicated thing. Discovering how those opposed to Hasidism actually played helped (re)create it as a “movement” helps us understand where, how, and why Hasidism spread in the first place. Knowing how rooted in tradition Beshtian Hasidism was can illuminate a great deal about Hasidic community in our own time.

And this, too, is important. If the Besht is not who his followers made him out to be, what is it that they needed him to be, and why? That is, in a real sense, a spiritual question as well as a historical one.

Just as importantly: Who do we need the Besht to be, and why?

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Kotzer Ruach – Finding Breath (and Life) in Torah

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, used to tell a story about the rebbe who insisted that his students should “live with the times.” The students, his Hasidim, were more than a little perturbed by this remark until the rebbe explained. Live in your Torah time, he insisted, in your liturgical time. Follow the rhythms, the teachings, the texts of the Jewish year. You will simultaneously travel with our people’s stories and discover your own.

In the past weeks, we began reading story of the Exodus. Just days ago in Jewish time, YHVH revealed the private, particular, special name Moses should use when speaking to his people. YHVH explains its meaning: Ehyeh asher ehyeh: The one who is sends Moses to Egypt. The one who will be, sends him. The one who is becoming sends him.

Many Jewish Renewal teachers point out what happens when we try to say the letters of YHVH’s private, mysterious name, with no vowels at all. We are, simply, breathing. Yeh, weh.

After creating Adam in Genesis 2, YHVH’s very first act is to breathe life into the human being. Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation and interpretation of Torah, tells us that in that moment “man became a living being” (Gen: 2:7). As Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk wrote, “it says [‘and there was in the body of Adam’] the inspiration of a speaking spirit.” Speech, according to the rebbe is equivalent to life.

Imagine that YHVH’s very essence is breath – the essence YHVH breathes into us. My name is breath, YHVH says to Moses, my name is life.

In last week’s portion, Vaera, we read that children of Israel could not hear what Moses had to say. They suffered, the Torah tells us, from a kotzer ruach. Sometimes our translations read: “their spirits were stunted.” Ruach can mean spirit of course. But it can also mean “breath.” The root for kotzer, kuf-tzaddi-reish  can suggest “shortening.” In Psalm 102:24 we read that YHVH kitzar yamai – YHVH “shortened my days.” The Israelites were short of breath, the very essence of life.

The root for kotzer also evokes powerlessness, decline, distress, anxiety of spirit. Combine kotzer with the Hebrew word ruach and you might translate the words as a “depression of soul.”

YHVH, who is breath – life itself – sees, hears, understands that the people are short of breath, short of life. No wonder YHVH asks Moses to make sure that these people learn God’s name – it is the name of that which sustains them, that which seems lost to them. How else can they return to life and regain their freedom?

Breath is speech, Menachem Mendl writes. YHVH gave Adam a speaking spirit with that first breath. Even more: Our speech, they add, is akin to YHVH’s speech. With it, we can create new heavens and new earth. We can remake our realities, recreate our world. Name that which we must do, which we must change, and we partner with YHVH in creating the world.

But when our spirits have been crushed, when we are short of breath and life, it is hard to speak, to find the words that will free us.

We are living in such times. There is no need to point out the obvious barrage of speech and the onslaught of action that appears to be sucking the very life out of the world.

For a long time I felt I could write nothing in this blog. I was suffering from a kotzer ruach; I felt powerless, distressed, anxiously crushed by a tsunami of cruelty around me in the speech of those who would lead, in the actions of those who do.

We must indeed live with the times. Our stories are not only of our people. They are not only of ourselves. They are of the world. And we are, right now, living in mitzrayim, the narrow space where spirits are crushed, where the burden of pain makes it impossible to catch our breath and speak.

Our task, as we read, is to make liberation real. For us and all who depend on us. Name them. Find them. Offer them the breath of life through your own speech and action.

How else can we cross the water and reach Sinai?

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On the Rabbinic Narrative and “Threats” to Judaism

Some weeks back, The Forward introduced a rabbi round table to its readers with this question: What most threatens the Jewish people?

Only one rabbi, Scott Perlo, asked readers to think about the subtext. “Can we think clearly about who the Jewish people should be, what the Jewish people could be, if our frame of reference is what threatens to end us?”

But most spoke to well-worn narratives about the dangers of assimilation, apathy, and indifference. What was at stake in the answers? A definition of Judaism that rests on rabbinic influence and rabbinic power.

Rabbis generally adhere to a mythology about the Jewish past that insists that Jews used to live a halakhic, rabbinically defined, life. They equate this “halakhic life” with Jewishness, per se. In their imaginations, this life included daily observance of rituals, Shabbat practice and regular prayer, and concrete knowledge of the mitzvot governing Jewish thinking and action. For even the most liberal rabbis, those things constitute “traditional” Judaism.

Rabbis thus assume that their role is to find a way to inspire Jews to be “more Jewish” by knowing more “tradition.” “Tradition” here is a code word for rabbinic Judaism.

It is, of course, a form of Judaism that grants rabbis authority and power. No wonder that it is this Judaism that rabbis cling to, this Judaism, they lament, which evokes only apathy and indifference in today’s Jews. Once upon a time it was this Judaism that gave us knowledgeable Jews who appreciated their traditions. Now…

Rabbis (and other Jewish clergy) need to feel that what they know and what they long to give is vital to Jewish life. Whole rabbinic conferences generate, so it is hoped, new ideas and fresh ways to get Jews to recognize the value of what rabbis think today’s Jews have “lost,” to get them – please God – to walk through the synagogue doors, to appreciate the riches of their inheritance, to embrace their traditions.

Such laments are exposés of rabbinic vulnerability and insecurity. The complaints naturally follow: Today’s Jews are all about themselves. They could care less about Judaism or Jewish community.

It is interesting, as one reader noted, that rabbis were asked about what is endangering Jewish life. What might have happened had The Forward asked some of those “ignorant” and “apathetic” Jews the questions they put to rabbis?

As a teacher of the history of European antisemitism, I am not naïve enough to claim that the world is without its dangers for Jews. But the question The Forward asked and the answers the rabbis offered presupposed a rabbinic narrative about what constitutes a “threatened” Judaism.

That narrative is recent, modern, and does not speak to a great deal of Jewish life and Jewish history. It ignores the existence and history of Jews outside of Europe who knew not Talmud. It completely jettisons the history of Judeans in the Second Temple period and Late Antiquity – a history which was not defined by rabbinic ideas about what constituted Judaism and Jewish practice and featured all sorts of practices the rabbis would likely have condemned. And it assumes that rabbis are the spokespeople for the Jewish people when the truth is that rabbis of any age are often prone to speaking for themselves.

I suspect that a good many of those ignorant, apathetic, and indifferent Jews the rabbis so worry about are, in fact, fully identifying themselves as Jewish and reveling in that fact. Many of those Jews are deeply interested in social and communal action and moral and ethical issues of the day. Plenty of them see these issues as related to their Jewish identity and Jewish inheritance.

Rabbis may prefer to bemoan the ignorance of today’s Jews about what they studied in seminary and what they love and think defines Judaism. But my questions for my fellow rabbis are these: What makes you so very certain that your definition of Judaism, a definition that relies on a mere piece of Jewish history and hardly reflects the diversity, the richness, and the power of multiple ways of creating and living Jewish lives is the one you must defend and guard and keep – even in spite of the real Jews before you? How much of your insistence is due to your own need to be respected, honored, and appreciated? And if this need is any part of the wisdom you want to offer The Forward, might you want to sit quietly with your egos and ask whether they are the best guide to the actual condition of Judaism and real Jews?

It isn’t about us, the rabbis. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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We Would Repay You Tenfold – Answering America’s Dreamers (DACA)

Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you.
Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Yesterday I listened to an hour-long documentary about the long battle to get the United States to begin opening its doors to the Dreamers, young people brought to this country as children.

I cried through the entire broadcast.

I cried because the story is familiar, known, somehow visceral. It is all those things because I am a Jew.

It’s not as though we Jews do not know what it is to live in fear of expulsion. It’s not as if we Jews don’t know what it is to live on the edge of legality, without protection of kings, dukes, or modern states. It’s not as if we Jews did not carry centuries’ worth of living at the margins, in the darkness, in fear. We will be sent out, we will be thrust into danger, hunger, even death.

I do not exaggerate. Some 800,000 young people may very well be shunted back into just such a world. The government has all their information, can find them easily enough, can deport them and their families – and not infrequently to places where their lives are at risk. So much for Trump’s promises to go after all those “bad hombres” and leave these young people alone. So much for his claim that Dreamers were “incredible kids.” There are more important concerns for a man who pardoned Joe Arpaio; they are embodied by those who are still screaming “lock her up.”

And, let’s face it: Trump hardly invented anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant policies, or anti-immigrant vitriol. It is the Republican Party and Republican senators who are threatening to sue the government unless DACA is eradicated.

Remember that chant the neo-Nazis shouted through the streets of Charlottesville – “Jews will not replace us”? During the documentary, I listened to one Trump supporter express exactly the same vitriol against Dreamers, whom she blithely accused of stealing opportunities and their jobs from American kids who had the luxury to be born to citizens.

But we don’t get to choose who we are born to or how our parents make their decisions. And a goodly number of the parents of Dreamers made exactly the same decision this woman would make if her ability to feed her child was threatened: Find a way to feed the child, no matter what it took. Go where food is, where there is more safety, more opportunity. Even if it means accepting danger, it is less danger than having your child go hungry, be at risk of gang violence, have a life so tenuous it is no life.

Our biblical forefathers and foremothers, too, left their homeland for foreign countries so they could feed their children.

It is a bitter pill. One government invites these young people to come out of the shadows. We will not deport you, we said. You can work here, you can get an education here, you can start a business and pay your taxes.

And they did.

There is no economic case to be made to deport immigrants – there is a clear economic case to be made to giving them a path to citizenship. I could spend all this space citing statistics showing how important it will be for an aging population to have and to retain immigrants (and to offer them citizenship, too). I could point out that numerous reports demonstrate that our annual GDP would actually take a serious hit if we deported the immigrant population.  We could demonstrate the purchasing power of immigrants in a capitalist society, point out the businesses and jobs created by immigrants who are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as the native born, discuss the way any costs of immigration get more than paid back in the second generation. The Dreamers’ generation.

I am thinking of students of mine who are Dreamers, who have been paying their way through college, working one night shift after another to get their out-of-state tuition paid for, struggling to make a way for themselves in a world that refuses to admit to their existence.

I keep remembering the words of one teenage Dreamer who said: “If you would only give us a chance, we would repay you tenfold.”

Have not we Jews known what it is to ask for chances? Should not the entire Jewish community be up in arms, calling senators and representatives, asking that we give these young people the chances they work hard for and the chances they deserve?

Should we Jews not know our own texts, our own mandates? Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you. Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

We ignore our God-given Torah at our own peril. Those Dreamers are us.

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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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