With a Bang and Not a Wimpel – Jewish Women Subvert the Rabbis

Wimpel 5Ritual acts may be fleeting. Ritual objects are not.

The Jewish women of Ashkenaz created the latter and, by doing so, shaped the former. They subverted the rabbis, created new liturgical practice, and left scholars a rich record of the culture of Ashkenaz. Rabbinic texts neither determined nor decreed their practice; a female laity creatively managed to call the shots.

It’s a story we should know.

Jewish tradition often relies on rabbinic texts to explain or justify a particular custom. The Torah binder, otherwise known as “wimple” or “mappah,” is no exception. According to the Sefer Hamaharil, published in 1556, the first connection between a boy’s circumcision and a holy object, the sacred Torah, occurred because, quite simply, a particular set of parents committed a faux pas.

It happened one time, Rabbi Ya’akov Segal Molin (Maharil) was sandek (godfather) and no cloth had been provided to wrap the baby’s legs. The rabbi ordered that a mappah (binder) be brought from the Torah scroll to be used for the child. He declared this permissible, citing “danger of life”; further, that the binder might be used again without impairing its holiness, provided it had been cleansed of blood, also, the family should give a donation to charity, so as not to enjoy the use of holy objects free of charge.

The historicity of this particular rabbinic tale may be doubted; the fact that Ashkenazi rabbis legislated the removal of women from brit milah, the rite of circumcision, cannot. In the thirteenth century, the Maharam, Rabbi Meier b. Barukh of Rothenburg, ruled that it was improper for a woman to sit among men at a circumcision. In the next century, the Maharil concurred. Confirming male status in the covenant required a celebration of maleness. Women were excluded.

Ashkenazic Jewish women, however, cleverly reinserted themselves in the ritual and related observances, creating customs and practices that gave them a significant – sometimes even a public – role. They cleaned and cut the cloth used either to bind the infant’s feet or to catch drops of blood, embroidered and decorated a blessing onto the fabric, and presented the wimple to their communities in a public, liturgically embedded ceremony. Cloth from a circumcision was repurposed to serve as a tool for a sacred task: binding and wrapping the Torah scroll.

Sixteenth-century Jewish women sidestepped their rabbis in an audacious act of spiritual ingenuity. Banned from the rite of brit milah, they used the wimpel to reestablish their presence by introducing a new liturgical practice. The custom of presenting the wimpel to the community during a synagogue service is first recorded in the 1530 Augsburg edition of Margaritha’s Der gantze jüdische Glaube. Customs varied: The wimple might be the child’s “first donation,” made while still an infant. Sometimes the wimple was presented at the time of the boy’s weaning, sometimes during his bar mitzvah. Women’s artistry, artistry created from the rite of brit milah, was on display for the entire congregation.

After the ceremony, came the commentary. In Germany, women congratulated the mother and made predictions: If the boy gave up his wimpel willingly to the men leading the service, he was clearly a Goldkind and he could be expected to grow into a loving, generous man. If the child cried or was loathe to give up his wimple, he was demonstrating that he was already deeply attached to Torah.

The cloth that caught drops of the baby’s blood was connected with the Torah that would, it was hoped, sustain the child’s life. But the wimpel also artistically rendered a record of contemporary culture. Embroidered animals and flowers and Judaica spoke of the child’s immediate surroundings, of the baby’s homeland, of a life lived in the presence of Jewish symbols and ritual objects.

A stork rises out of the lamed. A stag, a peacock, a fox, a monkey, and a unicorn run along the length of the cloth. One binder features a man in a boat, a small house, a cluster of rural buildings, a wedding scene, and Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit. Another features Judaica: a menorah, Torah scrolls, and the Star of David. Yet another ends with a Leviathan, evoking the Messiah’s arrival and the world-to-come. One generation’s wimpels are peppered with animals and flora. A half century later, zodiac signs and tribal symbols predominate. Lilith, the beast-goddess, the baby kidnapper, and Adam’s first, recalcitrant wife appears, as does Moses, the lawgiver. The wimpels of Central and Eastern Europe constitute a woman’s record of the way Ashkenazic Jewish communities interpreted the world around them over several centuries.

In many wimpels, the form and shape of the Hebrew letters include puns and jokes, even direct references to Scripture. When a woman embroidered a nun in the shape of a fish, she was punning; the name of the letter also means ‘fish’ in Hebrew. Women embroidered the lamed of the Hebrew word nolad (is born) into the shape of a stork. Do Torah wimpels suggest greater Hebrew literacy than historians commonly assume among Jewish women of the late Middle Ages?

Certainly, they demonstrate a sophisticated interface between liturgical text, pictoral representation, and cultural commentary. The rabbis could legislate the exclusion of women from Jewish ritual, liturgy, or practice. The women, in turn, could find their way right back in.

Jewish women subverted halakha. And everyone won.


Judaism and Journalistic Dribble

UNC Mascot RamesesI know I should be writing about the political situation in Israel. It’s timely, tragic, and offers plenty of opportunity for expressions of despair, frustration, or wishful thinking. Depending on your mood, of course, and whether you have had something to eat in the past hour or so. Or drink.

But instead, my attention was captured by an article that appeared today in The Charlotte Observer. The author was writing about college basketball. For people not from the south, college basketball is so big here that it trumps any kind of international news, to whit three suicide bombings in Yemen, the violation of the Ukrainian cease fire and Australia beating Pakistan to reach the cricket World Cup semifinals.

The author compared the NCAA March Madness tournament to a religious rite – a rather specific one, in fact.

Those who say that college basketball is like a religion are to be forgiven for engaging in drastic understatement… No, college basketball is more like a cult. It consumes its followers. It demands all. It shapes your most intimate relationships.
Come, let me show you.
Thursday was the first of the high holy days here. With heads of the faithful bowed in solemn unison, the brackets were writ. Dietary sacraments were stored; sacred garments were donned.

This passage was brought to my attention by my twenty-three-year-old son, Erik, who is visiting us whilst on his own spring break from graduate school from the great city of Chicago, where people have no idea what college basketball is, and March Madness refers to driving in repeatedly melting and refrozen slush.

“Mom,” he said. “I am thinking about sending Mr. [name redacted] an email.”
He showed me the quote, quoted above.
“Oooh.” I said.
“This is a little difficult,” Erik began. “Our ’High Holy Days’ is associated with bowing, prayer, dietary sacraments and sacred garments. I’m pretty sure he is not talking about Shintoism.”
“Amen to that,” I put in.
“Either he is implying that we are a cult or that our religion is about as serious as college basketball.”

The idea of sports as religious ritual is hardly new. Scholars have worked on understanding the ritualized behaviors that come with games of all sorts, from chess to curling. There is sophisticated work done on this topic.

The problem here is not simply the lack of academic sophistication but the author’s misunderstanding of the connections between games and religions. He is not analyzing how the behaviors of sports fans can demonstrate religious characteristics. He is applying a specific ritual belonging to a particular religion, excising the ritual from its context, and co-opting it to make a cute point.

Journalists are certainly free to make statements – whether critical, positive, or somewhere in between about Judaism and Jewish practice. But there is no connection between High Holy Days and college sports. The former are about personal assessment, reevaluation of individual and communal purpose, the relationship of human beings to the divine. The latter are about physical and mental skills, competition and winning.

Nothing the author did was malicious, it was merely journalism too quickly satisfied with its metaphors.

Still, I must ask: What is the gesture behind taking the days of March Madness and dressing them up as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

We live in a time when the future of whole peoples is affected by fuzzy assumptions about their beliefs. Can we afford to be quite so casual with each other’s religious traditions?

P.S. Go Tarheels!


Thanking My Hashpa’ah Teachers

God and AdamHonestly, I wouldn’t know how to thank my teachers.

I don’t mean those who patiently helped me understand why reading Philo was A Good Thing (really) or introduced me to the peculiar mix of Aramaic and Hebrew to be found in gnostic Jewish texts. I have had teachers who unpacked matters of history, language, liturgy, and texts study with enthusiasm and style. It’s easy to thank them.

It is far more difficult to know how to thank my hashpa’ah teachers. They helped me learn how to stay alive to the moment, to the needs set before me. They taught me to acknowledge and work with my projections and my triggers.

They are teachers of the heart, guardians of the divine. I am deeply dependent on them.

These days, particularly. I am working with a brilliant and funny young woman. She is from North Carolina. She is not Jewish. She is twenty-three and she has been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.

Not long ago, she was a student of mine. She knew me as “Dr. Thiede.” Her main concern then was whether she had evidence for her class contributions, or a strong thesis statement for her papers.

I had no idea why she called me – out of the blue – almost two years after she had graduated from UNC Charlotte. She told me about the cancer; I asked her if she wanted to come and visit.

The first time we talked, she told me that she didn’t know what she believed. But, she said, she had always had “these hunches.” I asked her to tell me more.

Then I asked: “Where do these hunches come from, Sarah?” “I have no idea,” she said. “Did you ever ask?” She laughed. Then, we asked.

Before she left, I asked her why she had called me. She explained. She and her boyfriend, Eric, had been driving around Houston after she got the diagnosis. She saw a temple and thought of me. She knew I had been ordained as a rabbi and had a small congregation.

“I want you to do my funeral,” she said.

I am not “Dr. Thiede” now. Sarah is asking me to be a teacher of the heart; a guardian of the divine. I long for my teachers’ wisdom.

Rabbi Nadya Gross understands where Sarah and I are right now: Yes, it is necessary to name the threat. She comforts me: Yes, Sarah (and I) have the right to hope.

“I know you will love Sarah through this and help her connect to her eternal essence,” writes Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. Simple, direct, a clarion call.

Sometimes I cannot predict who will become one of my teachers. Last week it was Tara, my yoga teacher, whose elegant person and beautiful, disciplined form is an inspiration. Afterwards, I thanked her for a sweet and challenging class.

“Tara,” I said, “I needed that.” “What’s up?” she asked. I explained: “I am working with a brilliant, amazing young woman in her early twenties. Her name is Sarah. She has fourth-stage colon cancer. Tara, in ten years I never worked with anyone so young.”

Tara looked at me, her face open like a flower: “What a blessing!” she said. “Because now you have the knowledge and the wisdom you will need.”

The most important work I ever did was in the spaces of fear and pain. Paradoxically, those places are also those of healing – and love.

Recently, Sarah came to see me together with Eric. I made us lemon ginger tea while they sat at my kitchen table. Before we walked into the library for our session, I noticed that Sarah and Eric were resting their hands, tapping each other’s fingertips lightly, with tiny wavelike motions.

In the library, Sarah cried. She felt like she was nearly buried in a tar pit. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t get out. I asked her to describe the pit.

Initially, I panicked with her. Then, I remembered that moment in the kitchen, her hand and Eric’s, their fingertips touching.

“Sarah,” I said. “In the kitchen you and Eric were tapping each other’s fingers.”  “That’s just something we do,” she said.  “Who invented that?” I asked.  “Eric.”

I asked: “Are you still in the tar pit?”  “Yes,” she said.

“Sarah,” I asked, “can you imagine Eric reaching to your hand, touching your fingertips, tapping lightly on them?” She could.

“If he steps backward, can you follow him, if he keeps tapping your fingertips?” Once Eric was there, she was able to get out.

I asked if she knew the Michelangelo painting on the Sistine Chapel, where God is just about to touch Adam’s finger. She had seen it herself, she told me. She had been in Rome.

“That is the touch of the divine, isn’t it?” I said. “When Eric reaches for your fingertips, he is touching you with the touch of the divine.”

I will not forget the way she looked at Eric. Or the way he looked at her.

To all my teachers: You made that moment – a moment of healing and love in the midst of fear and pain – possible.

I will continue to depend on you.

Maybe that is my thanks?

A note: This blog was approved by Eric and Sarah before posting.


Bring Back the Magic: The Book of Esther

Prim costume 2Esther is the Bible’s book of bawdy. God plays no part in outrageous proceedings: A 180-day party is followed by another…. party. Haman is hanged on a gallows considerably higher than Solomon’s own Temple. Jews manage to kill 75,810 Persians without themselves taking a scratch in the battle, much less a single death.

Still, the rabbis acknowledge it: The Book of Esther is pure magic.

Esther is permeated by wondrous reversals, calendrical and astrological associations, and references to divination. It describes a well-attested magical ritual of the Ancient Near East – the casting of lots. In the ancient world, such knowledge was essential. At the behest of kings, prophets and priests threw (literally) fate into the air, foretold auspicious days and dangerous ones, and regulated the calendar by consulting the skies.

The Book of Esther is obsessed with chronology and dates. The text is a literary treasure trove for depicting the magical regulation of time. Haman casts lots for the exact day Jews are to be destroyed; Esther uses her own calendrical methods to avert doom and save her people. An unlucky day becomes the lucky one. Magic and astrology were partners for the rabbis; medieval rabbinic texts explore the Book of Esther in just such astrological terms, from Ibn Ezra to Bahya ben Asher.

King Ahasueras’ wise men were astrologers, according to the former, who also asserted that Adar was chosen for exterminating the Jews because the stars were in the correct conjunction for enacting Israel’s downfall. Esther herself – so the rabbis – was named after the planet Venus (Istahar) and was served by seven maids (Megilla 13a). Can anyone miss the reference to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the “seven sisters”?  For the rabbis, Esther is star stuff.

You find that when the moon is not visible in the sky at night, the darkness in the world is such that a man cannot [see to] walk about even in the city. But once the moon appears in the sky, all rejoice and are able to walk about. So, too, in the days of Ahasuerus, when it was decreed that Israel should be destroyed, slain, and exterminated. But then Esther appeared and gave light to Israel, as is said, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Exod. R. 15:6.).

The rabbis say that all the miracles of scripture end with Esther (Yoma 29a). They read between the lines to add to the textual list: Mordecai wanders about Shushan looking for a wet nurse to suckle Esther (Gen. R. 30:8). Unable to find one among the Jews of the city, he simply, magically begins to breastfeed the infant himself. Hey, presto!

The book is a treasure trove of enchanted events. God is not present, but sorcery is. The story is composed of a series of abracadabras, uttered on the thresholds of earthly existence. Words, like characters, mirror their opposites and conjure power over them. The fourfold depiction of joy with abstract terms (light, gladness, joy, and honor) in 8: 16 reverses the four nouns that signal gloom in 4:3 (mourning, fasting, weeping, and lamenting). Kings become buffoons and nobodies become royalty. Haman, the insider and best buddy to the king, is actually an Amelkite outsider. Mordecai, who sits at the threshold outside the palace will not bow to the king – but he will, eventually, rule over him. Transformation is par for the course.

How to bring back the magic of metamorphosis back?

We could read the book, and take it seriously. It is a roadmap for navigating liminal spaces and dangerous places. We could read the book, and laugh at the absurdity. The hen-pecked king issues an edict to secure male privilege? Virgins are dipped in oil for half a year and perfume for yet another six months? Oy.

And then, try this: Read the book and find yourself. Anyone can become as self-absorbed as Ahasuerus. One day, you might find yourself calling on the kind of calm courage that Mordecai models. Like Esther, we all will – at some moment during our lives – face our most primal fears just as we are being called to tasks that will transform us.

The Book of Esther lends itself to reinscription, rediscovery, to an abracadabra of the soul. That is its power.

Look for yourself in it. You will bring that magic back back.


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