Orlando: It’s Not About Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice texted his mother Mina from Pulse:

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

Eddie did die.

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

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

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

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

It’s about them.

Hope (in Humanity) in the Book of Ruth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarajevo_Haggadah_1Cheer? Laugh? Cry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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