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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It is a Matter of Torah

TalmudIt has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. Babylonian Talmud Mas. Berachoth 62a

Perhaps you are feeling awkward just now. You may be feeling reminded of the many unpleasant things folks have had to say about the Talmud over the last, um, 1500 years.

Perhaps this text is making you wonder whether the neuroses described by Freud (after hearing the dreams of largely middle class Jewish women day in and day out) were a natural outcome of belonging to the tribe.

It’s not so much that figuring out appropriate directions, positions, or even which hands to use for what task is an unusual topic for human beings of any religion. It’s rather that idea that students are watching their teachers perform intimate functions because “it is a matter of Torah.”

Now you may argue (some will) that Torah is everything and Talmud Torah is the process of figuring out, labeling, and processing the everything of life. One can certainly make the argument that the purpose of scripture is to explain how it is that we should live our lives, and that living life involves all sorts of details that are human and personal. After all, the functions described in the above text are fairly universal in nature. You can’t survive without being able to perform the first set of functions described above, and though the heterosexual scene Kahana overhears is just one of many ways human beings engage in erotic play, sex itself is a pretty common occurrence among human beings.

(Recently, I learned things about the sex lives of fruit bats that were really quite interesting, but this is neither the time nor the place.)

But what intrigues me most about the passage above is not so much what the students were studying but what the text says about the claims their teachers were making. It is a fascinating example of the way the rabbis who composed Talmud maneuvered themselves into positions (yes, the pun is intended) of authority.

In this text, the direction that rabbis chose for food processing or the way they have sexual relations is now Torah. In this text, it isn’t scripture that has the last word, but the behavior of the teacher, the rav. Torah is now what the rabbis do, what the rabbis interpret, what the rabbis say.

I bring this up because it is common among today’s rabbis to valorize the way our Talmudic texts encode multivocality. Talmud, we happily observe, permits a range of opinions. Maybe one school (Hillel) will get most of the final accolades and approval from on high, but in the end, even the Holy One of Blessing will insist that the rabbis must agree to disagree: “It is taught, a heavenly voice went out and said, ‘These and these are the words of the Living God, but the Law is like the School of Hillel’” (Palestinian Talmud Yabmut (sic) 3b, chapter 1, halakha 6).

I can’t say that I don’t value the Talmudic practice of permitting – even encouraging — dissent. I do. But today’s rabbis need to acknowledge that the dissent they prize was happening among a small and elite group of Jews who managed, ca 500 C.E. and onward, to take upon themselves the right to be the religious authorities for all Israel (with a lot of assist from Christian authorities, by the by).

Judaism and Jewishness is a thing that is created and recreated by a diverse people, a people which, in many areas of the world, have rejected halakha. Most Jews are living lives that have little to do with Talmud. Most do not see what their rabbis do as a source of learning or practice.

So the question for our time is this: Who is a rabbi and what should she teach?

(To be continued….)

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