Teaching While Afraid

I have learned to fear my students – their unknown past and what might inhabit their present is worrying me.

My love of teaching is under assault.

A year ago, I taught a lecture course on religion and magic to about 120 first-semester and transfer students at UNC Charlotte. Our lecture hall was dark, without windows. The entrance was at one end of the long room, opposite the stage.

The subject of gun rights came up early in the semester. A student introduced the issue during a lecture on the term “religion.” He wanted to compare the challenges of definition I described to the difficulty he faced defending gun rights.

I tried to return us to our lecture topic. Another student raised his hand and made a second comment about protecting gun rights. Most Americans misunderstand the nature of an assault rifle, he said.

It was a strange, disconcerting moment.

A couple of months later, on October 29, I walked into class both fragile and fearful. It was just two days after eleven people were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter’s social media profiles included an account description that read: “The Jews are the children of Satan” (John: 8:44).

I was to lecture on how magic had become associated with the devil in medieval Christian thought. The lecture would explain how the depiction of Jews as the devil’s offspring had led to labeling Jews as evil magicians and sorcerers.

I mentioned the shooting. Then, I looked across a dark lecture hall filled with people I didn’t know. “I am afraid of you,” I said. “I am afraid to give this lecture.”

Though we spoke about those fears together for a few minutes, I never went into the classroom again without anxiety. My students knew I was Jewish. Some knew I was a rabbi. I’d walk up the stairs to the stage and think wryly what an easy target I could be. I tried to stand behind the podium instead of pacing across the stage, as I usually do.

That fear never went away. Exactly seven months later, on April 29, I went to teach just days after the Poway Synagogue shooting in San Diego. I wondered on the drive to campus: Was I putting my students at risk by teaching a course on the history of European antisemitism? Would a student look up courses on Jewish history and pick up an assault rifle?

Two hours later UNCC was put on lockdown. A shooter killed two of our students and injured four others.

There is no evidence that the shooter harbored any antisemitic views. But he showed how easy it was to bring a gun on campus and to murder people. Simple, really.

This fall, a student in my online course on Hebrew Scriptures (read: Tanakh) wrote me an email suggesting that dropping the course might be necessary. The student wanted to make sure it wasn’t “Jewish-based.”

It was the week Donald Trump called Jews ignorant and disloyal if they voted for Democrats.

Had I been searched online? Had the student discovered I was an ordained rabbi? What kinds of websites did my correspondent like to frequent? Where did the student come from?

I was afraid to provoke by asking what was meant by the comment. I was afraid to do anything more than I did, which was to write explaining that the class material was taught in a secular, academic environment.

For the first time in my life I have gained a semblance of understanding for the kind of courage teaching can require.

I want to thank the teachers of this broken world. I am certain that most of us only want to bring good things into this world.

Dear students: Here, with us, you can learn that the world is beautiful, complex, extraordinary and precious. Here, with us, you can find that humanity can create literature that lasts millenia, art that transcends its time, music that can move each and every soul. Your classrooms are playgrounds for your minds, for your hearts, for your future.

You can learn to love your world and find humanity in our classrooms. If you do, there will be no reason for fear.


Oath of Disloyalty – by Irwin Keller

The poem below was written by Irwin Keller: rabbinic student at ALEPH Ordination Programs, friend and colleague:

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to a political party.
Nor will I be loyal to dictators and mad kings.
I am not loyal to walls or cages.
I am not loyal to taunts or tweets.
I am not loyal to hatred, to Jew-baiting, to the gloating connivings of white supremacy.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to any foreign power.
Nor to abuse of power at home.
I am not loyal to a legacy of conquest, erasure and exploitation.
I am not loyal to stories that tell me who I should hate. 

I am a loyal Jew.
I am loyal to the inconveniences of kindness.
I am loyal to the dream of justice.
I am loyal to this suffering Earth
And to all life.
I am not loyal to any founding fathers.
But I am loyal to the children who will come
And to the quality of world we leave them.
I am not loyal to what America has become.
But I am loyal to what America could be.
I am loyal to Emma Lazarus. To huddled masses.
To freedom and welcome,
Holiness, hope and love.

Irwin Keller
August 21, 2019
#loyaljew #disloyaljew


Hebrew Bible, #MeToo, and the Light of the Moon

I went to church again last Sunday.

Every summer, I offer a series for this particular church. This summer, the series was entitled “The Hebrew Bible and #MeToo.” It is based on Malignant Fraternities, a book I am writing for Routledge Press on male homosociality and friendship in Hebrew Bible.

A host of biblical male relationships lead to frightening outcomes for women in Tanakh. In 2 Samuel 13, for example, two men trap a woman in a room (shades of Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge). In the biblical text, the victim is Tamar, the daughter of King David. Tamar is raped by her half-brother, Amnon.

Amnon’s friend. Jonadab, helps him. Other men are involved, too, including an unidentified number of male witnesses who are permitted to watch the scene unfold. They watch, listen, and partake vicariously until Amnon finally orders them to leave. He rapes his sister immediately afterwards.

When he is finished with Tamar, Amnon calls a servant, who appears at the ready. One must wonder whether the servant and the other men continued participating in a shared, vicarious fantasy – listening, perhaps, at the door?

Amnon orders his servant to get rid of the residue. For that is what Tamar is to him now. “Get that,” Amnon orders, “and bar the door behind her” (2 Samuel 13:17). The word Amnon uses for Tamar is “that,” a simple demonstrative pronoun, zot. Tamar is no longer a person, no longer even a woman. For Amnon, she is no more than detritus.

“Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name” (Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 27).

The parishioners and I went through this terrible story. We spoke of the #MeToo movement, of the powerful men who have abused women at will. Some women spoke of their own fears – could they go to a bathroom alone in a bar? Could they walk to their care late at night feeling safe?

We agreed that women are not safe in this country. But they could be.

Towards the end of our hour together, I spoke of this week’s parsha, Pinchas. In it, Torah describes a sacrifice that should be brought for YHVH (Numbers, 28:15).

It’s a surprising idea – even shocking. For what, asked the rabbis, must God atone?

Genesis says that God made two great lights. Then, the text goes on to assert that God made one light (the sun) larger than the other (the moon).

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 60b), the moon was deeply hurt. Quietly, she asked God how such a thing could be possible; how could God create two great lights with the result that one would be smaller than the other? God’s response was impatient and commanding. “Go,” God said. “make yourself smaller.”

The moon did not understand. Why should she make herself even smaller? YHVH propitiated: even though she would be smaller, she would be seen both by day and by night. But the moon pointed out: what use is a lamp in the light of the day?

The Jewish people will reckon days and years by her cycles, God said. Holy people will be named after her.

But all these gifts are as nothing to the moon. Eventually, YHVH sees the light and offers to make an atonement sacrifice. In effect, God apologizes to the moon.

In Moon: White Sliver of Shechina’s Return, a baby naming ceremony co-created by my beloved teachers, Rabbis Daniel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Reb Daniel writes that the moon will not always be the lesser light.

He reminds us that Isaiah says: “And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun” (30:26).  He notes that prayerbook blessings for sanctifying the new moon reads: “May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished, as it is said: ‘The two great luminaries.’”

Imbalance between and women must be temporary. Women will not always fear. They will not always be made to be smaller. There can be a future in which both lights will shine with equal strength and equal brilliance.

May it be so in our own lifetimes. May we make it so in our lifetimes.

This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. For reminding us, for teaching us.


Remembering Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

In 2003, my new friend and UNC Charlotte colleague Brian Cutler came over to tutor my son, Erik, for his bar mitzvah. At the time, we were both members of a havurah in Charlotte, North Carolina. We had met there during High Holy Days. Since Brian had just moved to Concord, where we both lived, he offered to help teach Erik.

To get to Sunday school or services entailed at least a forty-five-minute drive, if not, at times, a full hour.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to shlepp so far?” Brian asked. “It would be so cool to have our own havurah in Concord.”

“What,” I said, “you, me, and who else?”

I’d been living in Concord for twelve years. Until Brian arrived, I had never heard of any other Jew living in my adopted town.

Still, we agreed to look around. A week later Brian showed up for Erik’s next lesson and announced happily that he had a contact. I was thrilled. We might double our number from two to four right away – I had been given a name, too.

“I’ve heard there is a Jewish accountant somewhere in town,” I said triumphantly.

Brian started laughing. We had both spent a week looking, inquiring, sleuthing… and found exactly the same person: Samuel Leder.

Samuel had grown up in Whiteville, North Carolina. His Jewish upbringing included traveling rabbis and a small group of Jewish families. It was a tiny community, and close-knit. Samuel was intimately familiar with congregational life.

I knew and taught Jewish history; Samuel knew and taught me liturgical practice. When I forgot to give a page number, Samuel would riffle through the pages and kindly announce it, softly, himself. When I neglected to remember to remind everyone to stand, Samuel would rise firmly, signaling others, leading from his seat.

Samuel nourished our every effort; he supported our best hopes. He was invariably kind and gentle when we hit a bump in the road. He helped make a community. In truth, he helped make a rabbi.

I watched as Samuel went from one of Concord’s most respected business people to the first Jewish member of the Concord City Council and mayor pro tem. He became a close friend.

Two weeks ago today, Samuel died suddenly and without any warning from cardiac arrest. He was just fifty-one.

It was an unbearable shock. Unreal, surreal, impossible.

Members wrote me: He knew all the prayers they didn’t know. He helped when one of us was out of a job and went through multiple job searches. He was invariably gentle, kind, a mensch in every respect. How would we do without his booming, open laughter?

The town of Concord knew Samuel in so many ways. He was a respected and ethical leader, someone who cared deeply about the town he chose to live in—and all its people.

We at Temple Or Olam will remember Samuel as the only member who could chant Torah with a southern accent; Samuel’s leyning was both unforgettable and delightful. We will remember how he performed hagbah; when Samuel lifted the Torah, we’d see those three columns high and clear and our own spirits were elevated. We will remember him as the professional we relied on for communal help and advice. Samuel did our congregational taxes. He took care so that we could take care to remain ethical, transparent, and consistent.

As he was, so he helped us be.

Samuel Leder was a person of chesed, of sheer, unmitigated kindness. He was reliable, steadfast, and true.

Last night, our havurah held a separate memorial service of our own for Samuel. Neighbors and family members attended, including Samuel’s open-hearted wife Shannon, and his two teenage sons, Matthew and Bennett.

Whenever I led Shalom Aleychem, Samuel sang with a devoted, full-throated energy. Every Hebrew word was accented Southern, every note unforgettable for the love of God it contained.

In his honor and memory, we called in angels of peace, angels of lovingkindness. We asked them: Come in peace, bless us in peace, depart in peace.

We thanked Samuel for the peace and the lovingkindness he gave to all who knew him.

We will not forget what you gave us, Samuel. We will never forget you.


Healing Wounds of Cruelty and Rage at UNC Charlotte

I had written my students, to ask how they were doing. It was just two days after the April 30th shooting at UNC Charlotte, where I teach in the Department of Religious Studies.

One student in my small seminar class on antisemitism wrote: “I’m feeling very numb to everything. “I’m staying off social media for a bit because students are arguing and it’s exhausting to look at.” She wrote that she had met classmates at the vigil. One had told her that she “was sad because she’s not walking and the last time she’d be in that auditorium would be for the vigil. I don’t know if we have the time or not,” she added, “but I’d like to give her a graduation ceremony with our class during what would be our finals period.”

I sat at my desk and cried. Then, I got ready.

Over the next days, our graduation plans grew in shape and size. I suggested that other students play the roles of chancellor, provost, the dean. One student was going to call the names of the graduating “class” (I’d learned that we had another student who wasn’t walking, either, though he was also graduating). I sent all the jokes our chancellor tells at every single graduation ceremony to the student taking on his role.

I committed to bringing regalia. The student who’d had the idea said she could make cords in school colors out of yarn and print up mock degrees.

I told my department chair and asked her to play the photographer. I invited all the faculty to join our little class for our graduation ceremony. I invited other students, too.

Most of the class got to our room early. We piled food on one table and students hung decorations for the “class of 2019” on the wall. I stood guard outside.

When the two graduating students were allowed to enter, we all gave a full-throated cheered. We dressed them in the regalia. We took them outside. One student was charged with lining up all two of our graduates; the others took their places. The chancellor-student started her speech.

“Now I want to explain why we don’t have a commencement speaker here today,” she said. “Why am I speaking instead?” She paused for dramatic effect. “Because we cannot release the students into the world if they are not properly sedated.”

Our chancellor gives the commencement speech (using her phone, of course).

“Have you been to graduation?” called my department chair. “How did you know he says that?”

The student who’d had the idea in the first place spoke next. “I was in Dr. Thiede’s office before the shooting,” she said, “and we were talking about how I needed to get loud.” Then she got loud — with joy, with praise, and with hope. She spoke about what students needed to do, who they needed to be in the world. Every word she said landed.

One by one the two students walked the line, shook hands with the “dean,” received their “degrees,” and were told to stop for the requisite picture.

“Throw your caps in the air!” someone shouted.

They did. High.

UNC Charlotte will not be the same. We will have to ask whether to keep the Kennedy Building, where the terror took place, standing or whether to tear it down. We will need to figure out how to get loud ourselves, how to do what we must do to protect the young people who come to learn with us.

Our graduates threw those caps with certainty. We celebrated with all the affection we felt for them, for our class, for our school.

We taught ourselves at UNC Charlotte.

Goodness and kindness can heal wounds of cruelty and rage.

It is two weeks to the day that two UNC Charlotte students, Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell, were shot and killed. Four others were injured. This post is dedicated to Alexandria Osborne, the student who had the idea for our graduation ceremony, as well as all my other students in our class on antisemitism; they are courageous human beings.


Lamentation, April 2019

In the memory of Lori Kay Gilbert, Ellis Parlier, and Riley Howell and all victims of gun violence; in honor of my students and colleagues at UNC Charlotte.

Lonely she sits…
her squares, once teeming,
her buildings, alive with sound.
She is a widow, now,
mourning her dead,
weeping for the injured, the fallen,
whose voices once called out in greeting, in play,
across her pathways, walkways, glens and gardens.

Bitterly she weeps in the night,
her cheek wet with tears.
There is none to comfort her.
“Thoughts and prayers” mean nothing without rage,
without anger so righteous, it rises up to cry out:
Let their wrongdoing come before You.
Let their wrongdoing be named.
For making murder easy, slaughter simple.
For placing pistols and assault rifles in every hand.

Our steps were checked,
we could not walk in our squares.
The breath of our life was captured in their traps.

See how the foe has laid hands on everything dear to us.
Our young, shot at study.
Your supplicants, shot at prayer.

Hear my plea.
Do not shut your ear
to my groan, to my cry.

For these things do I weep.
My eyes flow with tears.
My children are forlorn.
For the foe has prevailed.
See, how abject I have become?

This text includes sections from Lamentations, Chapters 1, 3, and 4.


Who Can Hear Us? The Poway Synagogue and UNC Charlotte

Tuesday, April 30th, my husband, Ralf, and I were driving to campus. It was just three few days after the attack on the Poway synagogue and the murder of Lori Kaye Gilbert.

I was afraid. I was afraid to go and teach, again, the history of antisemitism, the way the Holocaust is marketed, the terrible recurring history of hate.

 “I’m thinking about the cost of teaching these courses,” I said. “What if someone becomes radicalized, finds our course and its location, comes in to my classroom and starts shooting at me and my students?”

That day, I told the students in my antisemitism class that they might be the last students to take the course. I explained why.

Afterwards, I went to my office to see students. My last student of the day and I spoke about her growing strength, her own awareness that as a woman of color she needs, as she said, “to get loud.” If you only knew her story – if you only knew – then, you would know my pride in her.

Around 5 pm, she and I left the building, and hugged happy goodbyes. I met my husband at his building and we walked toward the garage, got into our car, and left campus.

Just about fifteen minutes later, as I was reading email on the way home, a message flashed on my phone screen. “Run. Hide. Fight.”

Campus was locked down. Frantically, I tried to understand. Kennedy, Kennedy. Every report mentioned the Kennedy Building, the building I see when I look out my office windows in Macy. At first it seemed that someone had shot students in the open gathering space outside Kennedy and outside Macy, too. I kept replaying the minutes when I had been near that space with my student. She is tall. Would she have been easily shot? What would we have done? What would I have done?

I couldn’t stop transposing time, even as I emailed with that same student, who had returned to Macy for an evening class. She and her fellow students had just seen students running from the Kennedy Building, she wrote. One was bleeding from being shot. He had collapsed just at the entrance to Macy.

A colleague who has the office next to mine was still working when the building was locked down. Later that night I learned that when she finally got home the apartment complex was filled with reporters and police. The shooter lived a few floors above her.

For days I have been emailing and texting with my beloved students. For days I have replayed the active shooter training my department had the Monday after the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. I keep putting myself in the actual room where the shooter murdered two of our students and shot four others. I had a training for online teaching in that very room last summer. What would I have done? What would I have done?

One of my students has experienced so much recent violence that I immediately worried about the triggering this would cause. I wrote to ask: How are you? I wrote my classes, multiple times. I sent links to counseling services, help lines. I wrote individual students. I gave out my home number. I heard from students who long-since graduated. From colleagues, from administrators as we untangled what to do about final exams, final projects, finals of any kind. (Forgive it all, let go, give students time to take care of themselves…)

No one who knows me does not know the measure of my love for my students, for my department, for my beloved UNCC campus. Yet I was unable to protect our students, my colleagues, our campus.

On Tuesday, April 30th, just hours before the shooting, one of the students in my course on gender and sexuality in Hebrew Bible was assessing texts of violence we had studied. He said: “Sometimes, the silent scream is the loudest.”

I have been screaming for days without a single sound coming out of my mouth.

In one week right wing radicalism destroyed the peace of a Jewish community and took the life of a woman at prayer. In that same week, two young people – two of UNCC’s beloved students – were murdered. Four more were shot and injured.

There is no one on our campus who has not been assaulted. We are all screaming.

Who can hear us?


Tazria: On Behalf of Seeding Life

We are smack dab in the middle of the Torah. Tazria, “she seeded,” marks the exact halfway point of our fifty-four parshiot.

And it is the kind of parsha that makes readers wish it had no place in Torah at all.

It’s easy to see why. This is the parsha which reads like a medical textbook. We learn in nearly sickening detail how inflammations of the bodies may present: scaly, yellow, white, and otherwise. We read about the various ways skin may appear after a burn. The presence and color of any hair growing out of inflammations or burns are considered and described.

Those whom the priest declares “impure” must remain outside the camp and call out “impure, impure.”

We can do all sorts of things to make Tazria easier for us to read. We can note that words like “impurity” and “purity,” “cleanliness” or “uncleanliness” may appear to encourage judgment and rejection but weren’t actually used that way by Ancient Israelites.

Ancient Israelites didn’t use these terms to describe individuals as inherently evil or sinful. They are using them to describe conditions, not moral states. Being pregnant or giving birth is a state of being. Being intimate with someone else is, too. A skin inflammation alters one’s condition, as does menstruation. Yes, people are being quarantined or kept from the Temple precincts if they aren’t in the appropriate state. But no one is being judged for presumed ethical failings or violations of law.

We can note, as academics long have, that each of the conditions described in this section of Leviticus deals directly with two alternate states of being: life and death. If you have a wound and bleed, you are not considered “impure.” If you are a menstruating woman, you are. A menstruating woman’s blood loss is the loss of potential life.

As for all those eruptions and inflammations? Skin diseases that look like wasting diseases naturally reminded ancient peoples of something most of us have never seen: the way a decomposing corpse appears.

Still, we cringe reading this parsha, and not only because the descriptions of some of these states elicits a visceral reaction. “This is gross,” one student once told me. And I could understand that reaction; I’ve felt it myself.

I don’t want to pretend that I am not disturbed by the idea that any person has to call out to warn others that he or she is in some altered state. This year, as I read the parsha, I wanted to imagine, with the rabbis, that the whole purpose of calling out is to ask for sympathy and compassion from others.

But it wasn’t good enough. I wanted another way to see the text and I couldn’t find it – not even by relying on my own stock in trade: the historian’s lens. It’s a convenient method of course, since a historian can insist on judging texts solely as products of their own time.

And then I found something that did work for me. I imagined the scene: afflicted person and priest, together.

What does the priest do in this parsha?

He diagnoses the effect of altered states. He must examine and explore and analyze and understand. He will have to get very close to whoever has the skin eruption or burn or inflammation. He does not treat the condition. He observes and figures out what is needed – either by noting that nothing warrants any action at all or that the individual should spend time outside the camp.

The priest doesn’t do this once, but regularly. After seven days, he is once again with the person in question. If the situation has changed, the burn or inflammation subsided, changed color, he can change the situation. The person can come into the camp again.

It’s a position and a responsibility that is rife with possible misuses of power, of course. It is also potentially a place of tenderness and care. This priest is up close and personal; he has to observe, examine, touch the person whose condition he is assessing.

Tazria is a creation word. To bear seed, to create seed – this is a way to offer life to the world. I wonder and I hope: Perhaps priests of old understood every examination of every burn or inflammation to be holy service in returning people to life.

So I will imagine them: Looking closely and carefully for signs of healing. Hoping, always, for the latter. Announcing it with joy. In their own way, seeding life.


Art, History, and Jews: Parsha Vayakhel

“Judaism,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “in sharp contrast to ancient Greece, did not cherish the visual arts. The reason is clear. The biblical prohibition against graven images associates them with idolatry. Historically, images, fetishes, icons and statues were linked in the ancient world with pagan religious practices. The idea that one might worship ‘the work of men’s hands’ was anathema to biblical faith.”

This is what we are told, over and over again – and the narrative comes from some of the most literate, erudite rabbis in the world, a description which most certainly applies to Rabbi Sacks.

We can anticipate what will come next; it is predictable. Tanakh, they will say, demonstrates that our ancient forebears loved beauty. But all such beauty was in the service of God. All such creation supersedes anything the secular artist can create. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel, is a prime example.

In it, we read of Betzalel, designer and craftsman, jeweler, woodcarver, even embroiderer. He is entrusted, together with Oholiab and all other gifted artists and artisans the Israelites can find, to create beauty for the service of God. Under his direction, the Tabernacle would be gorgeous and lush, filled with objects that shone, that glittered, that glowed.

One has to image the scenes – scores, hundreds, maybe thousands of Israelites cutting, sewing, embroidering, carving, forming. Gold and silver, melted and poured into forms, cloth dyed in brilliant hues, the creation of artistry is everywhere. And indeed, this is work with one goal: to make a beautiful residence for the Holy One.

But otherwise, we are told, our forbears eschewed artistry because it could distract from God, rather than serve God.

I want to take those good rabbis on a tour. I want to show them the mosaics of ancient temples with leaping animals and biblical figures. I want to show them the walls of Dura-Europos Synagogue of 244 CE. — walls filled with brilliantly painted scenes from Tanakh, with human beings so alive to their story that one feels the artist telling us everything we could read in the scroll.

Fresco from the Dura Europos Synagogue

I want us to walk by a gallery of spice boxes from the centuries – in the form of castle towers, yes, but also in the shape of almost anything imaginable, from flowers to fish.

I want those rabbis to look at embroidered and painted wimpels, Torah binders made from the cloth used to diaper baby boys at their circumcisions. Medieval women of Ashkenaz let their imagination run riot in their work, producing a plethora of creatures wiggling out of Hebrew letters near scenes of wedding couples, Torah scrolls, symbols of tribal inheritance and affiliation. Look for the flowers, the birds, the priestly hands and the Levite’s jug. Look for folktale characters embroidered across the cloth – if you look late enough, you’ll even find Micky Mouse adorning the cloth.

Detail from an embroidered wimpel of Ashkenaz.

No, the Birds’ Head Haggadah is by no means an exception to a world in which care has been lavished on so much that is so beautiful. In the last thirty years, academic research into Jewish art has demonstrated that fact – in colorful, brilliant reality.

Open the pages of Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts and you will find illuminated versions of machzorim, haggadot, and the Tanakh. But you will also discover art enhancing the Mishneh Torah, rabbinic commentaries, collections of teshuvot, and even a woodcut mapping the world with Jerusalem at the center. Mythological beasts (like the unicorn) and grotesque animals show up in medieval Jewish texts as does God, strangely enough, emerging from a cloud.

Pharaoh's Daughter pulls Moses from the waters.
Illuminated Mishneh Torah

Chagall is not the exception we imagine.

Centuries of Jewish love for beauty has indeed often found its way into our ritual objects. Judaism is a religious culture that relies on objects, on things of beauty to be distributed in our homes as well as our sanctuaries. Who does not possess a favorite hanukkiah, a Passover seder plate, a mezuzah that was bought in significant part because it was beautiful?

Rabbi Sacks notes all this loveliness is the product of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying the commandment.” We are supposed to fulfill each commandment, each mitzvah, in the most beautiful way we can.

But he insists, like so many rabbis, on making a distinction between this kind of art and secular art. Art for its own sake, he suggests, cannot point to anything beyond itself. Art in the service of God, however, is the kind we find in Vayakhel — the kind that is worth valuing.

I suspect that our forebears loved creating, from the time of the Tabernacle onward. And I wonder: When God creates, we call that holy. When we create, we do so as beings formed betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Whatever we create, may it be holy. And may it be beautiful, too.


I Promise: An Ethical Will for My Students

Two times a week, I meet with a class of exactly ten students in a small conference room at UNC Charlotte. Those ten students are dealing with the most difficult history I teach – the history of European antisemitism.

It is challenging work because the readings assigned are among the most sophisticated I teach. It is challenging work because my students are almost always unfamiliar with this history, and it is a painful one.

It is likely that my students will be Christian. Some will be devout. These are students who usually came into my world via courses I teach on Hebrew Bible. We forge, in such courses, deep connections around biblical literature. Our learning may include rabbinic midrash as well as academic commentaries. The exposure to ways Jews have read biblical texts sometimes leads them to question what they might have believed about the Jewish relationship with bible. That can lead them to this course.

I am – and this is hardly unusual – the only Jew in the room. I know, from long experience, how much courage my students are bringing to our course of study. After we covered the way John’s Jesus vilifies Jews as children of the father of lies, as offspring of Satan (John 8:44), a student said: “I’ve read this before. Somehow, I passed over the text. It was just a story. I can’t believe I did that, now.”

Sometimes, as we gather, we trade small news. Recently, I told my students about my new glass whiteboard. It’s huge – it takes up a good part of the wall next to my desk at home. There are columns for each realm I work in – one for the course I am currently teaching for ALEPH Ordination Programs, another to cover administrative work in that realm, another for my work as the director of graduate studies for UNCC’s department of Religious Studies, one for the courses I teach for the department, another for the work I do as a spiritual leader of a small havurah, another for the little Etsy business I have making kippot and tallitot. There is a little corner for “personal.”

My students laughed and asked what was put in that corner.

“The first thing on it,” I said, “is ‘ethical will for Serafina.’”

My students know the name of my son and my daughter-in-law. So they knew who I was talking about – but not what I was talking about.

Ethical will,” one asked. “What is that?”

I explained. “You know how you have a will for your assets, and what you want done with them after you die? An ethical will is a Jewish tradition. It’s a document that might include pragmatic information, like how you want your funeral to go and that sort of thing. But the main thing is writing down what you want to leave your children in the way of wisdom or learning. It’s a way of summing up what you hope your children will take from you that is truly important or good.”

I had long since written such a text for my son, Erik, and I explained that I periodically updated it for him. But it was now over two years since he had married Serafina, and I felt it was time for me to write her one, too.

For Sera has brought a perfect completion to our little family. I can no longer imagine us without her. She and I had become friends, and as much as I was learning from her, I hoped that there would be some learning I could give back to her. When I died, I would want her to have that from me.

“Well,” one of the students said, “we would miss you, too. What about an ethical will for us?”

The other students agreed, though one was afraid that given everything else on the board, adding something might not be the best thing for me.

“I think it’s a good idea,” I said. “I like it.”

I have been teaching for almost four decades. My students have given me life and hope. They sustain me and they teach me. I rely on their generosity, their kindness, the wisdom they bring into every classroom. I do not overstate: My students also complete my life and make it perfect.

I went home late that day and after I took off my coat and put my backpack in the corner of my office, I picked up a marker and drew a line from “Ethical will for Sera” to the word “students.”

And I will write both.

This post is dedicated both to Serafina, on her birthday. If I hadn’t thought about what I want to write to her I wouldn’t have ever been asked whether I would write to my students….