Torah on the Misuse of Power (and NC House Bill 2)

MirrorDinah. The Levite’s concubine. Tamar, the princess. They, and the other characters who populate their stories, are our mirror images.

Every one of them became pawns. Two of them were, without any question, the victims of violent sexual assault. Each figured in narratives focused on men securing male privilege and male power.

There are some who may argue that Dinah, whose story is told in Genesis 34, may have consented to a liaison with Shechem, the prince of the nearby city. But no one can argue with Jacob’s silent acquiescence in the machinations of his sons, who insist that Shechem can only marry Dinah if he and the men of his city are circumcised. Jacob’s sons wait until the townsmen are weak and in pain, march through the city and kill every last one of them. Their women, children, and property become Israel’s chattel.

In Judges 19, we read about the Levite’s concubine, who runs away from her husband is eventually reattached to his household. We don’t know how she feels. She does not utter a word in the story and her fate is decided by her husband and father. Her death, too, is her husband’s decision; when an angry mob rushes the home where he is staying he hands her to them to save himself and his host. The next morning, after she has been gang raped, the Levite finds her lying at the door, her fingers on the threshold. Later, he dismembers her body and calls the Israelites to war. Nearly the entire Benjamite tribe is destroyed and another 600 women will be abducted.

King David’s daughter, Tamar will desperately try to convince her half-brother Amnon not to rape her (2 Sam. 13). She will fail. When the searing account of the assault ends and Tamar tries to save her future by convincing him not to cast her out, Amnon will tell his servant to send “this” out of his room.

This past week, my students and I worked through these stories. We discussed common elements: In each, the narrative either gives the woman involved no voice at all, or she is told to remain silent by men when she speaks.

My students offered observations: Dinah’s brothers gain a city’s worth of women, children, livestock and goods. The Levite, who threw his concubine to a raging and murderous mob, lies about his own part in the horror and will never have to answer for his crimes. The war he starts will make his own crimes negligible, forgotten by his fellow Israelites. Tamar’s full-brother Absalom will eventually, after two years, arrange for Amnon’s death, but Absalom’s revenge could be a cover for his ambition: Amnon was, before he died, the first-born son, and heir to David’s throne.

They noticed this, too: In no way do these stories valorize the exercise of male authority and prerogative in these stories. Dinah’s brothers act cruelly. The Levite’s Concubine fills us with horror; the war he unleashes proves what happens when a society has gone amok. The men who circle around Tamar – not Amnon, nor Absalom, nor her father David – all enact and accept her ruin.

These are lessons about what happens when male power is exercised to hide male weakness. These are stories that show us the consequences when women are abused. They are, in every regard, pertinent to our times – obviously, women in this world are not safe from any of the kinds of assaults these biblical narratives describe. Gender neutral toilets

But there’s this, too: Just as in biblical stories, today’s privileged continue to marginalize and silence those whose very bodies they make into vehicles for their exercise of power.

In North Carolina, our state legislature, one dominated by a privileged white majority, has just made it so much more likely that transgender individuals will be subject to abuse and attack. LGBT individuals have been stripped of legal protections. House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act is an act of violence that has been based on a comprehensive effort to silence transgender persons and criminalize them.

Those who supported the bill have been tarring transgender women as potential rapists. Facts don’t matter (they mostly don’t this election year). There is not a single case in the nation to substantiate all the talk about the dangers women and girls face if we don’t control where transgender women use a toilet. Nevertheless, the smearing, searing calumny is voiced.

What does bible tell us? Privileged individuals in our country frequently claim bible as their inspiration. But our texts condemn the manipulation and misuse of the weak in service of the powerful and strong. We do not walk away from Dinah, the Levite’s concubine, or Tamar believing that those heartbreaking narratives are meant to tell us how life should be lived, but how life should not be lived.

Torah holds a mirror to each generation. To look is to know: We must change.

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Leviticus (and Voting on the Right )

Voting stickerLast Tuesday, I decided to do my civic duty right after lunch. I stepped into a church I attend regularly – at least, for a Jew. I’ve attended this church for friends’ weddings and for funerals; I also typically give several presentations there each year.

I know the people working the booths, since they happen to be neighbors of mine. It’s a pretty casual affair. There is never a line, which is sad, and always chit-chat about family life and suchlike, which is nice.

I was given my number, which was quite high, considering. I was Voter Number 272. I happily acquired my ballot, went to the cubby, set down my bag, and prepared to be a good citizen.

My choices for president included Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.I stared at the ballot. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so it took me a moment. Then another. By the time the third moment arrived to tap me on the wrist, I had figured it out. Despite asking me my party affiliation (I confess: lifelong Democrat), my neighbors had handed me the opposition’s ballot.

In fact, I had been offered the opportunity to commit voter fraud – perhaps the very first actual case of voter fraud we would have seen in these United States this century. I could make history, right then and there at All Saints Episcopal, just yards away from the sanctuary I had taught in three weekends running the month before. “Voter Fraud Rife in the Tarheel State: Rabbi Arrested.”

Leviticus came to mind. Just a couple of days earlier I had spent an hour making the case for the beauty of the Torat Kohanim with congregants in my Torah study. Each year, as we leave Exodus behind and head into the spring, I wax eloquent over the sheer loveliness of biblical law. “Here we go,” someone is thinking, “she’s going to tell us about the ethical mandates behind whole chapters on corpses, skin diseases, and genital discharges. Again.”

But none of these things were on my mind. Ritual was.

Voting is a ritual with all sorts of important constituent parts. Here, in North Carolina, we’ve recently (and unnecessarily) added a few. Before I voted this March, a woman at the door formally informed me to please take out my photo ID before stepping forward to the table where I would have to recite my name, my address, and my party affiliation. Then I was reminded that phones must be turned off, ballots must be brought to the altar, and there, one must make sure to mark small ovals properly. The closing ritual includes feeding the completed ballot into a machine which consumes the results with a pleasing, whirring noise offered to the gods of democracy, after which one receives a sticker.

Ritual, I am fond of telling my congregants, is how Leviticus embeds values. The well-being offering of Leviticus was to demonstrate joy and gratitude and marked the fulfillment of vows. Priests might bring purification offerings to expiate any of the errors they might have committed, errors that could harm the people they served. Reparation offerings provided a way to get right with community, humanity, and God, Godself. Expressing thankfulness, making sure to be attentive to potential error, figuring out a way to repair the hurt or damage one’s actions can cause – these are values worth embedding in ritual.

As I stood at the voting booth, I thought of Nadav and Avihu. Obviously, I told myself, casting the Republican ballot would have been offering up some pretty strange fire. Sure, I could run Philo through my mind – Philo, who asserted in the first century C.E. that Aaron’s sons had acted out of piety, out of a heartfelt wish to be closer to God. In not voting for certain people and voting for others, I could be acting for the good of the Republican Party. I could be acting for the good of North Carolina. I could be acting for the good of America – of all the world, in fact. I could have voted against the Golden Bull, which is everywhere this year.  Golden calf

Instead, I went back to the table and explained that I had been given the wrong ballot. Utter consternation ensued, apologies were given thrice over, and I went back to my voting altar. I fed in my ballot, got my sticker, and went home.

“Leviticus,” according to one of my commentaries, “is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation… The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression.” But, the writer maintained, this book teaches us that at critical times we need to know that we are “doing it right.”

Amen.

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Halakha as a Petaled Flower – Lessons from Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hand crafting Jewish ritual wear is one of the ways I pray. This week, I am sewing angel tallitot.

When I designed my angel tallitot, I meant to solve specific problems faced by guitar-playing rabbis and cantors; rectangular tallitot often go askew or get caught in guitar straps. And I wanted to see if I could create a tallit with wings.

One night, after a deep conversation with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel about All Things Jewish, I saw the tallit I would create. Those who know Rabbi Hanna Tiferet will understand why the tallit appeared to me in the form of angels’ wings.

tie-dyed tallit front small

I spent some months designing a pattern. But while I drew, cut, and drew again, it was mostly Rabbi Daniel Siegel who kept coming to mind.

When I first started rabbinic studies with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a decade ago, I arrived with enormous enthusiasm, a pleasant singing voice, and modest guitar-playing skills. As someone who had grown up in fairly secular surroundings, I had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. I had next to no experience with liturgy. I knew, as my grandmother would say, “from absolutely nothing” when it came to halakhah, Jewish law.

So when a classmate told me that the tallit I had made back then for my guitar-playing self was not “halakhic,” I felt worse than awful. I felt humiliated by my own ignorance.

My first course with Reb Daniel was at an ALEPH Kallah. I knew from absolutely nothing then. Reb Daniel, on the other hand, was so steeped in all things Jewish that when he sang a niggun in his gravelly voice I felt I was listening to generations – centuries really – of Jewish longing for the Holy One of Blessing.

Reb Daniel never seemed to care about our ignorance and never tried to measure it. He simply wanted to offer us – with both heart and mind – the beauty of Jewish tradition, learning, and text. He wove Chassidic tradition and halakhic intention together with such tender care that the room would shine.

I went to Reb Daniel, who told me to get the tallit and meet him outside. When I returned, he was holding a number of books. He examined the tallit, which had been made with two shawls sewn together. He noted where I’d placed the tzitzit. He began reading, translating and explaining from his various volumes. We went over the issue of corners the student had addressed. Was there, in fact, a limit on the number of corners a tallit could have or was the only question I needed to be concerned with around making sure the tzitzit were placed on the corners farther from one another?

I will always remember the way Reb Daniel walked me through each of the rabbinic texts. I never felt small or ignorant. I felt, simply, like a beloved and respected student.

I have never, ever forgotten the way I experienced my first real encounter with halakhah and the halakhic process. I learned from Reb Daniel how humane and life-giving Jewish law can be; I learned how to recognize its thoughtful purpose.

But most of all, I learned how to teach those who are anxious and frightened because they think they aren’t Jewish enough, don’t know enough. Reb Daniel taught me: Open Judaism up like a petaled flower and your students will be glad to take in the beauty of their inheritance.

So now, Reb Daniel, ten years later, I thank you for doing just that. Yours has been beautiful learning I won’t forget.

P.S. Happy birthday!

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