Elul – The Return of Longing and Longing for Return

Our son was born on Rosh Hodesh Elul. I did not know that, when he was born. I did not live, then, in a world that included Jewish months, Jewish seasons, Jewish time. The holidays I had grown up with were the ones one might expect from a family that only sporadically lit Friday night candles: The High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Passover.

My adult life has been a long journey of return. I expect the remainder of my life will not differ.

The rabbis say that Moses ascended Sinai for the last time on the night of Rosh Hodesh Elul. He went to recover the covenant, to make it anew after the first tablets were destroyed by doubt. Hope seemed broken beyond repair. And yet, Moses ascended. This time, the Holy One told Moses to carve the tablets. This time, the covenant would be carved and inscribed by both human and divine energies.

Moses learned that the covenant would have to be a joint project. The Israelites stayed below, reflecting on the burdens they had schlepped into their new lives. How could they let go of things they no longer needed to carry?

Elul was then – and is now – a month for reflection.

This year, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the day our son would turn thirty, my husband, Ralf, spent eight hours in an emergency room. By phone (I wasn’t allowed inside the hospital) we went step by step through ugly possibilities. Had he suffered a stroke? A heart attack? Why that sudden loss of vision? Why the awful and debilitating flush of burning over his entire body? Why the nausea, why the dizziness? He joked despite his own fear; I walked through our little ranch house numb to everything around me.

In the end, none of the direst possibilities were fulfilled. We returned to a calmer present, and to Elul.

The name of the month of Elul has exactly the same numeric value as the word binah, wisdom. We reflect on the stuff of the past year, on the pain and trouble we have carried, the misguided decisions and the hasty actions we could wish away. It is a time to reflect on hopes and dreams yet unrealized. It is time to acknowledge our longing to draw near to God.

Elul is also an acronym for a well-known phrase from Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. During Elul, we hear the call of our Beloved in the shofar that is sounded each day. That primal sound awakens us, reminds us.

For what? To discover our own wisdom. To reflect on who we are now and who we long to become.

Our covenant is rewritten and reinscribed every year. During the month of Elul, we partner with God in the renewal. As this year ends, we define what we long for in the next.

I have never felt the need to rush into the loving embrace of the Holy One quite as I have experienced it this year. I was called to come home, to acknowledge my own longings, to embrace a New Year that would be filled with all that my soul is starved for in this broken world. I want clarity and truth. I want the knowledge of what is right and the doing of what is right. I want to nourish the earth I stand on and the creatures I share it with – that has become an imperative. The list of my longings is long.

There are days left in Elul. Days left to complete my list of longings, and return.

May this month birth our homecoming.
 

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Fixing the Text (or Not)

I can’t. I won’t. I will not fix texts anymore.

It is what we are taught to do, of course. We meet up with a terrible text, a dark one. Then we hunt for some word, some strategy to redeem the text, to uplift, to provide light. We look to our rabbinic royalty, famous rabbis from centuries past and times present. The right quote, the right insight. A tale complete with the sweetest of textual crumbs will lead to a wholly different conclusion.

Relief. We have fixed the text.

Each year we go through this cycle. Each year we read one painful and difficult text after another. At the end of July, we read Balak. An animal, so kindly serving and protecting her master, is beaten again and again (Numbers 22: 23-27). Should we not name the bitter abuse humanity exercises on non-human animals — then and now?

Last week, we read Phinehas. YHVH’s priest is praised for turning back divine wrath. How has he achieved such an awesome task? By driving a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. Such relationships displease the deity.

The plague is checked, and Phinehas is richly rewarded with divine praise, commitment, and gratitude. How does one get the deity to calm down and stop slaying his people? Pick up a weapon and kill those that piss him off yourself.

This next Shabbat we will read about the war of vengeance YHVH commands against the Midianites. When the Israelite troops return from battle, Moses discovers that they failed to slaughter all the Midianite women and children. He orders them to do the deed. They may spare virgins. Only virgins (Numbers 31: 15-17).

Women taken prisoner by Israelites are owned by the soldiers who have captured them. Such a woman has one month before her body is permitted to her captor for his use — that way, he can be certain that any resulting child is his own (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14).

If we are not reminded of soldiers in our own time stealing girls and women for their sexual use, we are not paying attention to the world we live in. Would you call such women “captive brides”? That’s what the Israelite’s female prisoner is often named.

These women, like those of Tanakh, have been raped.

Animal abuse, ethnic and sexualized violence, sanctified rape — these are what we so often feel we must explain away.  

It is painful work to sit with the full implications of difficult texts; we naturally long for ways to soften the blow. And yet, naming the shadow and the dark empowers us – it brings light. We rabbis must sit with our thoughts and feelings. We must consider deeply and honestly how our grief and anger — and the grief and anger of our congregants — can and should inform us.

Otherwise, we silence not just ourselves but those everywhere around us who suffer from the kind of violence described in such texts. That is no fix.

My book on similarly dark questions, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, has just been published by Routledge Press. Abstracts can be found here. May we provide safe space for naming and confronting sexual and ethnic violence wherever we find it to bring the healing we seek.

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Lament in the Season of Lament

A father carries his youngest child, an infant daughter. Her elder sister walks just steps behind him, her hair caught up in a ponytail. My dad, me, and my older sister, Suzie.

It is a season of private loss for me, one inescapably colored by the season of my people’s lament. This weekend marks the start of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha B’Av, a date which records repeated planned assaults on Jews. The destruction of the First Temple and the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — all these happened on Tisha B’Av. I could add to that short and devastating list. Those who wanted to hurt us sometimes purposefully chose that day to harm us again.

We remember Tisha B’Av, our past, in order to build our future. We remember so that we can know ourselves.

During this season, my father died. My beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede, died a few years later in a shocking mishap on the surgery table — just days after my dad’s yahrzeit. Ruth Kingberg, once matriarch of my spiritual community, died in a different year, but also during the same week.

Mourning them, inevitably, calls up my greatest loss — the death of my elder sister, Suzie. Suzie died from breast cancer that had metastasized to liver, brain and lung. She died at 42 — the mother of five children. Her youngest was just three.

Suzie at 13, me at 8.

I was sewing, this past week, listening to Chicago’s Saturday in the Park. I grew up knowing Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and the beaches that border them. The picture of my dad holding me, with Suzie walking alongside shows Lake Michigan in the near distance; we were at my grandparent’s apartment and my dad was taking me and my sister down to the beach.

Hearing the song, I was suddenly living my childhood. My dad was playing drums while the music played. “Listen to that brass section!” he’d call out. My dad was fully alive in the moment he picked up his drumsticks.

For weeks Suzie had been appearing every time I looked in the mirror.

A month ago I decided to stop coloring my hair. As I watched a thin white line emerge on my head I remembered how my sister, back in the 1980’s, stopped coloring hers. She was in her early thirties at the time. We had both seen our first gray hairs appear in young adulthood. Our mother handed us the dye that would hide them. In those days, going gray early was kept secret — no one found out your actual hair color until you were a grandparent.

I kept seeing Suzie lying on her hospital bed just days before she died. Her hair was just growing in from the waves and waves of chemo she’d been subject to. It was sparkly silver and sat short and close to her beautiful skull. I imagined it long and thick — a crazy, silvery, curly cascade that would be the right replacement for the mane of red-brown hair she’d never tried to tame in our youth.

I looked in the mirror at my own hair and wanted, badly, to have her back. We could be white and silver together, sisters grown old in each other’s company. In my mind, I told her: “Had you lived, maybe I would have had the courage to do this thing so much earlier, to become myself.”

Suzie in her early-thirties; me in my late twenties.

Had she lived, I would have seen that silvery, sparkly hair grow out, be all curly and wild again, rest on her shoulders, get loose from her braids.

My dad and my sister walk to the beach, with me in my dad’s arms. My own hair in that picture is that of an infant, but it was, even then, as blue-black as my father’s. When I was a child, people stopped my parents on the street to tell them how amazing my hair was. I remember the embarrassment and the pleasure — my hair was my only beauty, I thought then.

During my lifetime, I will have had my dad’s hair and, in a way, my sister’s. I will travel a path my sister never had the chance to complete herself.  Remembering them, do I become more myself?

Lament opens up grief and loss and sorrow. And truth, too. So we learn, all of us, who we are.

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Harvesting the Blessing of Inner Longings

May YHVH bless you and keep you.
May YHVH’s Presence illuminate and shine upon you.
May YHVH bestow Presence upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6: 24-26
Parshat Naso

It is Year Two of my Covid garden, the vegetable garden my little family and I created when we went into isolation in March of 2020.

In one year, the garden has trebled in size. It features newfound knowledge and different hopes. It has embedded itself in the little territory around our ranch house, land I had filled with many flower gardens over the decades we have spent here.

Surrounded by kale and lettuce and chard, encircled by tomatoes and peppers and strawberries, my vegetable garden is also home to nasturtium, marigolds, lavender, rosemary, basil, and borage. The hedge garden features plants beloved by wasps and bees; elsewhere I have built flower gardens designed for butterflies. A birdbath and a bee house, three compost piles, and many bird and hummingbird feeders are positioned nearby.

Kale and rosemary

Marigolds, rosemary, assorted veggies…

Now what I plant, I harvest for our table. Now, what I grow connects me with the land I temporarily inhabit and the creatures I share it with. Here, this past year, I have finally found it impossible to ignore the murmuring of my soul’s longing, the Still Small Voice.

I have suppressed and snubbed that inner voice for decades. I have drowned her in tasks, in responsibilities, in an endless and boundless number of needs I must answer to.

I love my work. I love almost all its features, all its tasks, and all of its challenges. I like to create order and clarity in the worlds I inhabit. I want to contribute to intellectual and spiritual safety while making room for adventures in every one of those realms.

And: all my adult life, I have had several jobs at once. Most of the time I have found much of the work rewarding, fulfilling, important. Whether teaching, writing, or administrating for universities or seminaries, whether writing for newspapers, magazines, or foundations, whether running a small business on Etsy featuring handmade Jewish ritual wear or serving as a rabbi or a mashpiah (spiritual director), I have been, mostly, happy in my work.

Yet, I know what it is to struggle with burnout. There are too many people to care for, too many tasks on the list, too many hats to wear and change, and far too many meetings for too many jobs. The work worlds I inhabit have the power to rule my days for 12 hours at a time. Sometimes the only breaks are for the fuel that is needed to keep me going.

The fact that so many people read me as an extrovert, as someone who wants to engage 24/7, is an irony. I love solitude and quiet. I am happiest when I read and write at home, not at my university office. I can spend hours designing in my head and creating at my sewing machine. I can spend a day in any of my gardens utterly and happily on my own. Hours without needing to say a word are a gift.

I care for my students, my congregants, my colleagues. They are wonderful, growing, and exciting human beings. And yet, the older I get the more I realize that I have been told a truism I only now understand: if I can’t balance my care for them with care for myself, I won’t be able to care about anything.

And so, even on the days I cannot work in my vegetable garden, I visit it. Walking down the slope of the backyard I feel the inner voice, the Still Small Voice, the voice of shleimut, wholeness. Her call is a physical thing, asking me to pause, to pray, to soften into a place where there is oneness in all the disparate and separate colors and sounds and movements of the garden. Striped skinks with bright blue tails surprise me with quick and sudden slithery movement. Wasps and bees make house calls at white and yellow flowering peppers and bright periwinkle blue borage. The breeze rustles a low accompaniment to birds calling overhead.

Zuchini

Hungarian hot pepper

Passionflower

The voice of shleimut is as tender as the seedlings I have nurtured for weeks. She wants loving attention, concern for her well-being. She knows that the Other Voice, the voice of tasks and, often, trouble, the tzuris voice, is the louder.

To feel blessed and kept, to experience light and peace is to listen for her.

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A Seder Not a Seder but a Seder of Our Lives

It was our second Pesach seder online. So it was not really a seder.

I wanted to be able to tell the Passover story in the light of our own, though.

For indeed, we have learned what it is to live each day in Mitzrayim, in a narrow space often defined by squares on a computer screen. We have spent a year unable to see those we love, touch those we love, live our lives alongside and intertwined with those we love. We could not be full persons in a world in which we existed as head shots, living onscreen. We were perennially faced with our own images, constantly seeing ourselves react. It was difficult to be completely free to focus on others.

Our seder unfolded in unexpected ways. The lyrics to our Passover songs resonated differently. Avadim Hayinu led us to ask: how have we felt enslaved to forces beyond our control, trapped by fear of a virus we could not see but which rode roughshod across the planet? Dayenu — what could we call enoughness in a time of scarcity? Where was the Hallelujah of the moment?

During the maggid portion of our seder, I asked members of my havurah to go to a Padlet online. I set the Padlet so that everyone’s responses would be anonymous; I wanted everyone to feel free to be open, unencumbered by any expectations. Across the picture of a desert, members wrote their responses to my Passover prompts. Their answers were simultaneously heartrending and liberating.

A first question: What element of the Passover story seems most real to you after living through a plague in your own time? “The loneliness that happens when you are walking the same direction as all the other people but still separated because there is no end point,” one wrote. And though the travails in the wilderness are not part of our traditional Pesach story, another added, still, the sense that we were all wandering in the desert without any idea how long the journey would be brought the narratives of Torah home. “There is no external place to flee to,” wrote a third.

A second question: Imagine you speak to a Jew of the future for whom the pandemic is a description in a history book. What would you need to tell that future Jew? One of my havurah members wrote, “My friend, it may not look that way to you now, but you would not be here without us.”

We are a people who tells and retells our stories every single year. We revisit a shared past — however mythical — and we reinterpret that shared past in order to give meaning to our times. To imagine ourselves part of that legacy was surprising, even shocking.

And indeed: those Jews of the future depend upon us.

A third question: If you could get a letter from YHVH in your mailbox (safe to open!) what would be in it? Some wrote words of encouragement, the Holy One blessed them with the knowledge that they would get through the pandemic. “You are stronger and braver and smarter than you sometimes believe,” one wrote.

A fourth question — perhaps the most moving on the board: What is your post powerful hope right now?

And the members of my havurah answered: Could we just mask up? Could everyone please get the shot for everyone’s well-being? Could we understand that the entire globe had to work together to beat this pandemic? Could we just normalize common sense and compassion?

We took some time to look over each other’s responses, to post and share our gratitude, too. Our families were healthy. Our little havurah had come through this without illness or loss. We had a realistic hope to be together again sometime soon, to hear each other’s voices in prayer and song.

No, it was not really a seder as we have known all our lives. It could not be so.

It was a seder describing our lives. It had to be just so.

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Magic and Art, T’rumah and Truth

T’rumah became dear to me more than a decade ago. It is a parsha so rich in imagery, so filled with color that reading it feels like being bathed in a rainbow. It is tactile, too, filled with scent and substance, magical figures (the cherubim) and magical objects (menorah).

Cloth and design, wood and metal, hues, light, and fragrance — the story of the building of the Tabernacle is exuberant, creative, holy indulgence. Inside and out, filled with every kind of material, it seems the very essence of a human project of beauty and truth. The Tabernacle is art, made of every kind of art. And though I have often heard that reading this parsha is difficult, for me it has always seemed like an incantation of making, a spell and a chant that must call up beauty and delight.

T’rumah means “to elevate, raise up.” It is often translated as “offering.” In the first verses of this parsha, the use of T’rumah suggests “gift.” Indeed, the Tabernacle is a gift made of many. The hands of multiple, uncounted artists would have been required to create it.

The Tabernacle is, of course, as the sages noticed long ago, humanity’s answer to God’s own creation. Just as we learn of color and light in the divine fashioning of the world in Genesis, so we learn of the human making of color and light in the world in Exodus.

Philo writes that the materials of the Tabernacle were made of things grown from the earth. The purple color, he said, was like that of water. Blue was to resemble the sky. Scarlet would recall fire. All four elements were stitched, molded, formed into the Tabernacle and all its implements, devices, and decorations.

There may be something holy about making art. Is not the artist a truth-teller?

If truth makes us free — or at least able to understand what freedom would look like, then it must be holy. If an artist reveals truth, her art must therefore be a vehicle for freedom. Her work must be, on some level, a sacred task, for she seeks truth in her work.

Crooked Street, Serafina Ha

The week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born, T’rumah was read aloud all over the world.  Serafina — social worker and activist — is an artist, a creator of beauty and truth.

It has been less than two years since she began recognizing her own gift. In those first months she would draw strangers and give them her portraits. She empowered disadvantaged youth with sketches she made of them, giving them the opportunity to see their strength through her yes.

Her talent was obvious, striking, powerful. We have been lucky to be able to watch the unfolding and the unleashing of both truth and beauty under her hands.

It takes work and time and great love and one leap after another into the unknown. No one gave any dimensions for the menorah, either. Art is not predictable.

Still, it is a gift, a t’rumah. As such, it is magical and it is truthful. And it can make us free.

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Musing at the Mountain: Thoughts on Yitro, and Freedom

We arrive at Sinai. We stand, each one of us, at a location that tradition refuses to name or describe. We have arrived at the “wilderness of Sinai.” We have encamped at “the mountain.” Moses climbs high, then higher, YHVH calling to him as he rises.

The Talmud says that we should understand this very scene as figurative, not literal: “Moses went up” is be read as “Moses was raised high.” And indeed, God reminds Moses that the God Godself raised up the people, lifting them up on eagle’s wings to be born out of pain and anguish, out of oppression and depression, out of slavery and bondage. Now, we may fly free; now, we may find our strength and our power.

Who does not love this verse? Who does not feel their heart lift, rising into the promise of flight and freedom? Finally, we are out of Egypt, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression.

And yet: Innocents everywhere suffered and died—and not only among our people. The plague that took lives of the first born passed by Israelite homes; we must have walked by the ravaged fields of Egyptian farmers on our way to freedom. This story is marked by violence, devastation, and sorrow on all sides.

“I have lifted you up. I have brought you back to me,” YHVH says after unleashing one plague after another before Pharaoh—proving, without a doubt, who was boss of the world. Do I excuse the divine horrors inflicted on Egypt by insisting that any people who oppresses another people must, in the end, be held accountable? How do I reconcile the beauty of liberation with the cost? Was there no other way to achieve our freedom? Was there no other way to escape, and fly? How do I live with the death of the first born?

Every year I find myself adrift, lost in the quagmire of a narrative that insists that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened—by godly intervention, no less—so that the tyrant’s humiliation would be complete.

It is a challenging guidebook, this Torah of ours. To read it is to engage in a delicate and difficult balancing act, holding the pain and the joy even in a single verse.

If I strive for the best possible interpretation, I will land in places that feel safe to me. Rabbi Ishmael says that Torah was not given in the Promised Land but in a wilderness for a reason. Torah given in a no-man’s land is Torah for every man (and woman).

YHVH lifts us up, tells us we can be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. The rabbis tell us that the role we are asked to take on is conditional, however. To be a nation of priests means fulfilling the law, devoting ourselves to creating a world suffused with righteousness, holiness, and love.

It is true: I feel more comfortable with universalizing principles. I feel safe when I am told that I must earn any position I might claim.

The Hebrew in Exodus 19:5 uses an infinitive absolute together with a regularly conjugated form of the verb shinn-mem-ayin, the three letters most of us know well in their command form, in the Shema. Im shamoa tishm’u b’koli, we read: “if you can truly obey me.” Or more gently? “If you really, really listen to what I am saying…”

Rashi explains: If you will but once hearken, you will continue to hearken. The gift of flight depends, above all, on my ability to listen to the words that will rush toward me from that mountain, my ability to take them in, to believe in their mandate, to act on the obligations they impose.

The Israelites commit before they know what they are committing to. They accept the law before they even receive it. All that YHVH has said, we will do. Then, we will get it, and by the doing, too (Exodus 24:7).

Freedom cannot be won without commitment to doing our part to make it, create it, sustain it, and strengthen it. We must ask ourselves: what must we do to fly?

All the earth is mine, says YHVH. And all the earth is ours. May we hearken so that we may hearken yet more, hear yet more, understand yet more. Listen, and do. Then, we may fly.

Upon delivering a version of these musings at services this past Shabbat, I suggested that the members of my havurah write down what they felt they could do in concrete terms, make a paper airplane out of the paper they wrote on, and fly it around their homes. I flew my own down a dark hallway and into the light a couple of times this weekend.

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Is Exodus a Myth? Not Exactly….

This last Shabbat, we read Vaera, the parsha in which the first of the plagues unfolds. Nothing can convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go. Nothing can alter his understanding of who he is and the power he wields.

Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart. Three different words are used in the story for the action on and in Pharaoh’s heart: Pharaoh “hardens,” “strengthens,” makes his heart “heavy.” Pharaoh is stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible.

In such a time as this, the Exodus story becomes a noisy one indeed, a narrative that sounds all the alarms. The tale we read in Torah right now tells the sordid story we are living at this moment — a story of plague and death, a story of a corrupt and grasping ruler and the people who follow him, a story of a people exhausted, worn, oppressed.

Is Exodus really a myth, after all?

After the destruction and violence we witnessed last January 6, we know that Exodus is no myth. “Camp Auschwitz” was written on the t-shirt of one of the insurrectionists; 6MWNE, which stands for “six million was not enough,” was printed on others. We, the descendants of those Israelites, have been enslaved in recent memory yet again in Nazi camps; we have lived through and died of plagues both natural and man-made. Typhus killed uncounted Jews in the camps; gas killed millions.

Torah is a mirror. Look into it, and you will see your neighbors, your brethren, your rulers. You will see all the glories and ills humanity is capable of. All that we do now, we know already in its pages. We are creating variations on themes we have before us in every parsha we read.

This year, there was a verse that emerged more powerfully than any other for me.

The Holy One has just made a slew of promises. “I will free you,” God says. “I will deliver you… I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people.” These four commitments, vows of redemption, are the source for the four cups of wine we use at our Pesach Seder. We read these promises each and every year.

But in the Torah, when Moses tells the people what the Holy One has said, the text tells us, “they would not listen (v’lo sham-u) to Moses; their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage” (6:9).

They would not listen, they did not listen — this is how v’lo sham-u is typically translated. Perhaps they could not listen.

Mikotzer ruach, the text continues. The noun, kotzer, might mean ‘short,’ and literally so. And it could also mean ‘impatience,’ or ‘despondency.’ One might translate this as so many do: The Israelites’ spirits were crushed, even stunted: made short and small.

Ruach can also evoke ‘breath.’ Perhaps it was their very breath that was cut short. The Israelites gasped for breath, and why? The text tells us. U’meyavodah kasha, because of their enslavement.

Because they had no freedom, they could have no breath. And because they could not breathe, they could not hear, either. Who among us, gasping for breath, can hear anything but our own struggle to get air into our lungs, to hear, terrified, our own rasping efforts to live?

Almost two million people on our planet have died in this past year, trying to breathe. More will die, and we, in America, will lead the world in deaths, watching as more struggle, and more die.

It was Martin Luther King’s birthday Friday. We mark a day in his honor a few days later. I often wonder how his people could hear him, how they could follow him, enslaved and cruelly used for hundreds of years, imprisoned and lynched, terrorized, redlined, denied the right to vote, denied ease and breath.

No, Exodus is no myth.

Are we, too, suffering from shortness of breath? How do we make our way out of this narrow space? Can we even imagine what it would mean, in our time, to dance our freedom from plague, from oppression, from the cruelty of corrupt and power-hungry leaders?

Despite everything, despite our knowledge and our fears, I would like to have hope. I have never believed that the Holy One will fix things for us. I do believe that God sends us all that we need to do things for ourselves. Feel divine compassion and love, and you are strengthened; you breathe more easily. And then take on the task of our time as Moses and Miriam did in theirs. We must work to free ourselves and deliver and redeem each other.

And then, perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, we will dance our joy.

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Jewish History – Unbound

American Jews mostly believe that “the” rabbis saved Judaism, that the Baal Shem Tov was a simple man of the people, and that Judas Maccabaeus led a battle against the dangers of assimilation.

None of this is true. Still,, we often rely on myths like these to define our failings as Jews.

It is too bad, really. Our history is far more complicated and far more interesting. What we can learn from it can be more than simply informative — it can press a reset button on our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

I offer an example: the last myth I mentioned in the first paragraph: Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance. Judas Maccabaeus fought against oppression and assimilation and his story is a warning and an inspiration to us to maintain our Jewish practices and rituals.

I explored this myth with Judaism Unbound listeners this past week. I pointed out that while it is true that II Maccabees refers to both Hellenism and Judaism, nowhere do the references introduce these two words as competing concepts. As historian Erich Gruen notes: “The laudatory monograph on Judas Maccabaeus, II Maccabees, the one work regularly cited as the locus classicus for the battle against Hellenism, does not make the point” (my emphasis).

In I Maccabees, Greeks, as such, go entirely unmentioned. The author describes foes as the “surrounding nations.” He even uses Greek terminology, labeling the enemy as “barbarian hordes”!

Our author is engaging in a time-worn tactic of the Second Temple period: making current events like biblical ones. That’s how you add gravitas and authenticity to your story. Just as Joshua fought against the Canaanites, Moabites, and Amorites, we Jews of Second Temple must fight the “sons of Esau” and those who live in “Philistia.” The author of Esther does the same thing, tying his story to biblical history by claiming Agagite heritage for Haman and Benjaminite ancestry for Mordecai.

In actual fact, Jewish leaders of Second Temple times negotiated and parlayed with their royal overlords (sometimes playing one off against the other). Mostly, they get a good piece of what they want, too: the right to practice their customs, the right to offer sacrifices on behalf of the emperor rather than to the emperor, the right to send tithes to the Temple, and so on. Is their occasional friction? Absolutely.

Still, there is no evidence that life among the Greeks was imagined as a bitter contest between “Hellenism” and “Judaism.” Ancient Jews wrote mostly in Greek, generally spoke Greek, and likely thought in Greek. Jews gave their children Greek names, they printed Palestinian coinage with Greek images on one side and Jewish ones on the other, and they are wrote their civil documents in Greek.

Ezekiel (not the prophet, a writer of 2nd century BCE) wrote a play in which he depicted Moses in the mode of a Greek philosopher king. The author of Joseph and Asenath produced a romance in the style of Greek novels in which Joseph shows up with a crown of twelve radiant points that makes him look suspiciously like the god Helios. Aristobulus of Alexandria (2nd BCE) claimed Plato got his best ideas from Moses and the Letter of Aristeas offered a picture of seventy Jewish elders explaining philosophy to King Ptolemy.

Jews successfully negotiate their position in the Greco-Roman society. They are appropriating, not assimilating. They not only remain Jews, they proudly declare their traditions to be superior to Greek ones, even the source for Greek ideas.

We should think about why this history is retold as one of oppositions and dangers around “assimilation.” There is a polemic and a subtext here that rabbis, mostly, insist on (past and present).

Should we see this story as one about the dangers of assimilation when the time really tells us how well Jews manage living in other cultures while remaining proud and confident Jews?

I vote for the latter. It might set us up for a wholly different kind of Hanukkah celebration.

I dedicate this post to soon-to-be-rabbi Lex Rofeberg (January 2021!), co-founder of Judaism Unbound. He and his colleague, Daniel Libenson, offer a venue for exploring Jewish life, Jewish doings, and Jewish history in ways that can excite and liberate Jews anywhere in the world.

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Naked Truths: Democracy (in Inaction)

A Christian minister and friend of mine, Marcus Singleton, said recently: “We go to church to dress up, not to take off.”

What was his point? We put on our clothing and we protect ourselves against the nakedness of heart and soul that tells the real truth about who we are and what we must do. Instead, we wrap ourselves in known phrases, in liturgy we can recite by heart. We are good, we hear the word of God clearly, there are safe havens for us.

Yet: If ever we needed to take off and take away what we think we can use to protect ourselves, it is now. And we must not only do this in every faith setting we know. We must do this work as a nation. Who are we now? What have we become?

We can wrap ourselves in symbols and platitudes as Americans just as we can wrap ourselves in liturgy and scripture, but if we do not face the raw truths of our condition and name the naked realities before us – whether we are in church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or the streets of our country – there will be no clothing of any kind to protect us or the generations after us. Our democratic institutions are vulnerable and naked.

When Donald Trump was inaugurated, I told family members that I was pretty sure that if he relieved himself on the Oval Office rug, leading Republicans would rush in to ask “May I clean that up for you, Sir?” I was engaging in dark, ironic humor. So I thought.

My friends, we have seen exactly this occur for years. Donald Trump has effectively done just that all over our democracy and every institution that upholds it. The Republican Party leadership has rushed in to clean away the evidence and pretend that there are no stains. They have regularly engaged in selling out America’s democracy, and they are doing just that right now.

Breaking News: The president of Acirema just lost his bid for reelection by millions of votes. He is refusing to admit defeat. He has publicly lied about the voting process, claiming corruption and fraud though there is no evidence of either. He is filing lawsuits to throw out ballots and pressuring his party leaders for support. He is refusing to engage in a peaceful transfer of power and his party leaders are, so far, supporting him.

This is no banana republic. Acirema is America, backwards. This is us, right now.

There is a real effort to subvert the rule of law going on. There is an attempt to hold on to power despite the will of the people. The leadership of one party in this country has acceded and agreed to support the destruction of the country they claim to serve.

Republican leaders are putting on all sorts of fancy clothing. The president has a “right” to file frivolous lawsuits. He has to have his “say.” He has to “ask questions.”

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick will offer up to up to $1 million to “incentivize, encourage and reward” people for reports of voter fraud even though members of his own party dominated election results up and down the ballot, winning and winning big. That’s how important supporting a would-be dictator is to Mr. Patrick. What Trump has excreted on our country is being spread about by Republican leaders.

There are not just stains to contend with. Acid is being thrown at our democracy, on our country. I want to know where my fellow Americans are — Republican, Democrat, Independent, et al. What are you dressing in, today?

Last Monday and Tuesday marked Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom the Nazis unleased on Jewish communities. Some 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish businesses were attacked or destroyed. The Nazis arrested and imprisoned 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.

Maybe we should remember what happens in dictatorships. Because there are people in this country leading this country who sure don’t seem to mind if we look like one. As a historian, I can say this: Looking like one leads to becoming one.

You thought your clothing protected your body? You thought our institutions would protect your rights? History demonstrates that states give rights and states can take them away.

You, and the country you love, stand naked. If we do not recognize how vulnerable we are right now, and if we fail to do the work of protecting the democratic institutions of these United States of America, what comes may be no United States of America at all.

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