Live Like an Egyptian… Reflections on Bo and B’shallakh

In Parsha Bo, we learn that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”went up with the Israelites to worship YHVH (Ex. 12:38). Nice, right?  We can rejoice in our diversity (there from the get-go!) and take all sorts of self-congratulatory pleasure in pointing to Tanakh to confirm it.

What follows in Parsha B’shallakh? A celebratory, militaristic text. YHVH repeatedly declares his intention to win glory in the battle against Egypt (Ex. 14:4, 17, 18). He* can prove, now, that he is the biggest and most powerful deity by taking down the biggest, baddest nation around, one with a ruler who imagines himself a god. The Egyptians will die horribly – either sinking like lead in the water (Ex. 15:5, 10) or, after a divinely-induced tsunami, left dead on the seashore (Ex. 14:30). The triumphal notes sounded here are part and parcel of midrashic treatments, too, which claim that neither the sea nor the land wanted to take Egyptian bodies.

The Egyptians can be accepted only so long as they adopt the Israelite project, it would seem.

I’ve been the Egyptian, victim of attempts to defeat and erase me with the better god. If I expressed any interest in a Christian friend’s theologies and practices, I was assumed to be an unhappy Jew. Conversion attempts ensued. As a rabbi invited to speak to a local church, I had to be prepared for comments and questions which either a) told me I was simply wrong to be Jewish or b) reminded me that my job at the church was to provide some magical historic reenactment of the Way Jesus Lived. I could be accepted if I supported, somehow, the Christian project.

And so… I’d be asked: do Jews believe that Jesus was crucified? (If I did, I wouldn’t be Jewish, right?) I was asked if I had read the New Testament in order to be certain I had made the right choice. (Ditto.) If I taught a song in Hebrew, the minister might intone later: “Now we have learned a song such as Jesus might have sung.” (In this case, the song was Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, which was composed in the 20th century.) Then there were the seders I was asked to lead in order to teach Christians how Jesus celebrated Passover.

And… reading militaristic, self-congratulatory texts of Torah is tough if I take a moment to be the Egyptian to be beaten and erased. I don’t want to be reminded that texts that are foundational to my Jewishness can be painful, even ugly, reeking with something like the self-righteousness and ignorance that have hurt me when I experienced them as a Jew.

Recently, I spent two hours teaching nineteen graceful individuals at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Concord, NC. I’ve been teaching there for at least a decade or so, and usually several times each year.

My long-standing relationship with All Saints took years to create. At the time my little congregation was founded, the then minister at All Saints and I had a painful conversation when he told me that Jewish friends of his were coming to the church to teach Christians about the seder. He was speaking about several Jews for Jesus who were known to harangue Jews for purposes of conversion to Christianity.

But just a couple of years later, the next minister, The Rev. Nancy Cox, invited me to have lunch with her. And during that lunch I felt safe enough to say yes to coming to her church.

Year in and year out I have gone to All Saints** and repeatedly deconstructed biblical texts for a Christian audience. I have talked about humor – even burlesque – at work in texts Christian parishioners grew up taking very seriously. I have turned Levitical texts used to harm LGBTQ+ folk on their heads (I hope). I have introduced the deity of Tanakh as he often can be found in the Hebrew text: neither omnipotent nor omniscient but very certainly male and, often, bumbling, grumbling, and fumbling.

I recently discovered that the classes and lectures I offer every year fall under a particular rubric at the church. It’s called “Christian formation.”

When I heard this, I laughed out loud. The local rabbi forming Christians?

And then, suddenly, I was so utterly delighted and happy to imagine such a thing. I had the most wonderfully naïve and loving moment of pure joy. What if we knew for certain that every interaction would be free of any expectation or demand? What if anything other than growing our Selves in the light of what we could learn together were our goal?

No winning glory at anOther’s expense. No self-congratulation about our own readings, our own interpretations. No othering.

What kind of (healthy) mixed multitude could humanity become?

*I am deliberately choosing the third-person masculine form; that’s the deity we encounter her.

**This blog post is actually a love letter to All Saints and the folks therein. I owe them more than I could actually explain for their patience, their welcome, and their trust in me.


Seeing the White in Their Eyes

I hope that my reading of Ruth will function as a form of learning that will enable Native people both to understand more thoroughly how biblical interpretation has impacted us, and to assert our own perspectives more strongly.

Laura E. Donaldson, “The Sign of Oprah: Reading Ruth Through Native Eyes.”

Recently, I read the work of a white female feminist biblical scholar on 1 Samuel 25. In the text, David uses the most courtly language imaginable in, it appears, a bit of extortion. Nabal, a wealthy farmer, is about to celebrate a sheepshearing. David suggests to Nabal that, but for him and his men, his shepherds would have nothing to sheer and suggests a payoff for their services (1 Sam. 25:6-8).

Nabal, whose very name means “fool,” is not so willing. He openly insults David (10-11), who, in turn, gathers 400 armed men to confront the ungrateful farmer (25:13). For good measure, David curses Nabal, too, threatening him and his line with wholesale extermination (25:22).

Enter Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who saves the household (though not her husband) by making obeisance to David (18, 23-31). She loads herself down with bread, wine, meat, and baked delicacies. She delivers the goods to David, along with some pretty fulsome flattery (25: 18-31). In the end, Nabal is conveniently struck dead, and Abigail becomes another of David’s wives (37-40).

The scholar in question seeks to point out Abigail’s limited opportunities and choices, so she points out that Israelite wives shared experiences of physical subjugation with enslaved people. Indeed, even as a wealthy farmer’s wife, Abigail must navigate a violent hegemonic masculine system. Biblical law does not offer women “human rights” but largely focuses on organizing male access to female bodies. A woman is always under the control of some man. Indeed, wives and enslaved women are often grouped together, and women are also referred to alongside a man’s material possessions (Exodus 20:14, for example). Wives and enslaved women are both physically dominated and controlled by men. This is a condition they have in common, she explains.

Her explanation serves to justify using a particular text as a jumping off point for her discussion of the biblical Abigail. This text was written by Hannah Crafts, a formerly enslaved woman. In it, Crafts describes how she must constantly attune herself to the moods of her mistress and master. Living in violence forces her to accommodate and assimilate, to propitiate and placate. Those are her survival skills. They do not always succeed in protecting her from her owners’ violent tendencies.

The scholar assumes, as far as I can tell, that when her readers confront the texts of a formerly enslaved Black woman, they will better understand Abigail’s situation. She, too, so her argument, had to navigate the violent potential of male power figures.

But when a white scholar uses the experience of people of color who have been historically subjugated, colonized, and oppressed (and still are) to try and help explain Tanakh, there is another kind of violence at work, and that is the violence of appropriation.

It needs to be said: any white person – whether scholar or spiritual leader or any other person of power – who uses the trauma of people of color to elucidate the very literature that regularly served to justify their enslavement and oppression is perpetuating trauma.

White people cannot read through indigenous eyes. They cannot read through enslaved ones.

Scholars and spiritual leaders have the task of making these biblical texts real for their readers. They need to interrogate the texts and challenge the violence they contain rather than normalize it. But if they are white, they need to do that work without reinscribing the exploitation of people of color. That means seeing the white in their own eyes.


Emojis, a Game of Jeopardy, and the Jewish World

I discovered rituals of head bowing and hands placed palm to palm in prayer when I moved to the south. I grew up outside of Chicago and such things did not occur either in my childhood home or in the synagogue my parents (intermittently) visited. No, people looked at each other when they prayed and every “amen” was made with eyes wide open.

But here in North Carolina, I experienced a great deal of head bowing and prayerful hands. When, for example, I worked for Reed Gold Mine, a state historic site commemorating the location of the first documented discovery of gold in the United States (no, really, North Carolina was first in this, if not first in flight), I regularly experienced both. The then manager opened our meetings with head bowing, prayerful hands, and words of blessing in Jesus’ name. Never mind the separation of church and state stuff I assumed would govern a government-run site – it didn’t.

Later, as the (only) local rabbi in my southern town, I found myself regularly invited to do some version of the ubiquitous “What is Judaism” program for local religious and civic organizations. I learned to watch and listen for the words that beckoned my hands to meet and my chin to drop. Generally, this happened just before I was introduced.

When I was asked to give invocations at various events where Christians not only outnumbered any other denomination, they were almost always the only denomination present (aside from me), even my own Jewishly-framed words magically produced the same response. I wore a kippah. I had the look and the task of a religious functionary. Such individuals bow their heads and place their hands together. I didn’t, but everyone else did.

And so I learned to understand head bowing and hands placed palm to palm as particularly Christian practices.

This led to major confusion when I finally decided that texting constituted a mode of communication.

Most of the people I was texting with were (and still are) Jewish. Nevertheless, they frequently responded to my missives by sending me an emoji that featured two hands placed palm-to-palm.

I was pretty sure that my correspondents were not all the products of a mass conversion induced by social media. Admittedly, I generally do my best to ignore such platforms. I have yet to rely on Facebook as a venue for sharing my life story, Twitter as a location for Pithy Thoughts I have had whilst showering, and Instagram for providing the world with pictures of my meals. Tik Tok has never even been on my radar.

Recently, after receiving yet another folded-hands emoji (from a rabbi, no less), I went to my dearest friend and spouse of many decades.

“Why are all these Jews sending me a Christian image?” I asked.

“Ah, no,” Ralf said kindly, “Look it up. That emoji is often described as ‘folded hands’ which symbolize please or thank you in Japanese culture.”

“Look up an emoji?” I asked.

“Emojipedia,” he said.

I groaned. “Really?”

“Really,” he said. (Ralf is also not much attracted to social media platforms. But he knows what that jazz is and does.)

Indeed, he was correct. Down to the Japanese connection.

Clearly, I had jumped to conclusions.

I had been made curious, however, about whether there were such things as specifically Jewish emojis. You already know there are, dear reader, because you are not, as I am, crawling into the past all the time and thinking it’s better to stay there with the evils you know rather than to force yourself to face the evils that are headed at you at warp speed this very minute.

Ralf encouraged me to look and see.

“Guess,” I said. “Jewish symbols for $500!”

“A building with a Magen David.”

“Score: a synagogue,” I muttered.

“A channukiah described as a ‘menorah,’” he added.

“Another five hundred points for Ralf!” I added. “And don’t say it, ‘cause you know it’s there: the Magen David. And that’s it for Jewish emojis.”

There was a long pause.

“I think I need to say a prayer for the invention of new Jewish emojis,” I said. I looked at Ralf. I paused meaningfully. Then I folded my hands together and bowed my head. “May the emoji makers of the world offer us Jewish emojis with the power to renew emojiland. All of it.”

Ralf, who had Jewishly not bowed his head or put his hands together answered, “Amen.”

I take this moment to apologize to my blog. It has been woefully neglected for many years, largely because of my attempts to renew the Jewish world (though not with emojis). I promise to visit you more often. Chag sameach!


The Honeymoon Tallit

Assaults on transgender individuals, assaults on women’s rights to control their own bodies, assaults on the environment… the list is long, the sadness and anger is overwhelming.

I am not great at hope. It’s hard to be, as a historian of the human experiment. We are a short-sighted species, woefully arrogant and selfish. Our much-vaunted intellectual talents are more often used to take than to give. We say much more about love than we should; our words are not commensurate with our deeds.

Still: my soul has to say otherwise. Now and again, I come face-to-face with an innocence and courage that sustains me, that offers a model of hope for my saddened soul.

Early this past summer, an old student of mine from the ALEPH Ordination Program sent me an email. His grandson, a transgender child, was having a b-mitzvah and he was looking for a tallit.

The making of Jewish ritual wear is a hobby and side-business of mine, one that initially grew out of my frustration with the kind of kippot and tallitot that were marketed for women. In those olden days, there were “women’s colors” and “women’s themes.” Kippot were inevitably the same as those meant for men, just in the shades that, presumably, men would never wear.

Over the years, I found I was making ritual wear for all sorts of folks – LGBTQ+ individuals often showed up at my Etsy shop, Not My Brother’s Kippah. Some cisgender and heterosexual men, too, who were just as interested in smashing binary expectations as I was.

I told my former student that I would be thrilled to take on the job of co-creating a tallit with his grandson. Said young person and I started by talking on the phone about his interests.

I asked simple questions – learning the nature of the person is key to the design of any tallit. The child, I learned, loved insects – especially bees. And then I heard about a passion for all things heavenly – stars, moons, constellations.

“Goodness,” I said. “You want it all on your tallit, then. Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. At the start of it all, God created heavens and earth.”

“Yes,” he answered, and I could hear the grin in his voice.

A tallit with everything. A tallit of all creation at once. I went to all my favorite embroidery sites and started sending my new client links to embroidery patterns of bees, stars, and moons.

But nothing I chose was his choice. In the end, he found the pattern that said it all.

A crescent moon, covered with a fine honeycomb, dripping with honey. Bees buzzing around the moon. A honeymoon.

Here is a child who has forthrightly told the world who he is, regardless of how the world might want (or insist) on seeing him. Here is a young person whose playful nature and whose innocent energy has led him to rejoice in his impending adulthood Jewishly. He is acting, I think, out of hope and love for the world he lives in. There is courage in him.

Who am I to disregard such strength? And who am I to feed sadness, rather than joy, despair rather than hope?

The knowledge of the historian is not always commensurate with the knowledge of the soul. And the human experiment must be a repository for courage and hope, too. Else, there is no experiment.


Reb Elliot’s Kippah

I made Reb Elliot’s kippah about two years before he knew it existed. I sold Reb Elliot’s kippah to a number of people who did not know they were purchasing Reb Elliot’s kippah.

In fact, the kippah belonged to Reb Elliot — at least, in my mind.

Reb Elliot’s kippah features a delicate embroidery of a snow-white hot air balloon made of dandelions. Or rather a dandelion after flowering, when its seeds can be blown into the air by the lightest puff of wind. (For the curious among my readers: the fluffy white parachute that carries the seeds is called a pappus. This is a delightful-sounding word that ought to be said aloud as often as possible. Try it. It will make you happy inside.)
A pappus,

The seeds and their light, feathery-white supports are intertwined in the pattern, intersecting, and delicate. Just a few are escaping the hot air balloon. I believe an unseen breath, a tender ruach Elohim has sent them wafting into the skies and into some heavenly, unknown realm.

The hot air balloon’s basket appears to be empty, but I know it is not. That balloon is carrying secret thoughts, mystical ideas, and imaginary worlds.

Reb Elliot’s Kippah

Because mysterious worlds are inside Reb Elliot’s head, this is the kippah he should be wearing upon his head. Or so I thought to myself, every time I made it.

Many, many years ago, when I went to rabbi school at the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), I took courses on mysticism with Reb Elliot Ginsburg, Vaad member and head of the Kabbalah and Hasidut Department.

I read hasidut and a little Zohar. I read a lot of work about chassidut and Zohar so I could help myself understand.

I learned to read upside-down and sideways. This was because many of our sources had been scanned by Reb Elliot. But not in nice, neat rows. No, little three or five sentence Hebrew texts had clearly been cut out and placed on the page in wildly diverging directions. Reb Elliot peppered the pages with arrows and comments, often in different colors, too. Sometimes I had to turn the page sideways, even upside down to get to the Hebrew text that was assigned. At least once or twice I ended up in the wrong text.

No matter. That, too, was part of the hot air balloon.

Each week of each course with Reb Elliot meant entering a mental labyrinth of enigmatic passageways.  Sometimes the way seemed barred to me until we met in class and either a fellow student or Reb Elliot showed me the direction I should have taken and had innocently missed.

During those semesters I learned to fly into thought realms that I had believed my pragmatic, academic self would neither understand nor care much for. I learned to love moments when I felt the ruach Elohim in those texts, gently breathing me into mystery.

Reb Elliot doesn’t just teach. He dreams. Then, he flies. You don’t know where you are going until you get there. He thinks a thought and, before you realize it, the thought has started darting about the classroom — Reb Elliot has just set it free to start its own life in the minds of the students who noticed it fly by.

Reb Elliot’s kippah has been in my Etsy shop, NotMyBrothersKippah, for two years or more. It has been purchased, I believe, by lighthearted Jewish souls in the world who would, I imagine, love to know that they are wearing Reb Elliot’s kippah (and why).

Just about a week ago, I showed Reb Elliot his kippah. I was wearing it myself. Then, I asked for his address.

It is time to send him his kippah.

This blog post is, as is likely already clear, dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg.


Asking Questions About Circumcision: Is that Allowed?

No, circumcision does not make a Jew. No, what ancient peoples called circumcision wouldn’t count as one for us. And, no, we do not have proof that circumcision was unquestioned or even highly valued by our ancestors.

History and mythology have a complicated relationship. The latter is not infrequently taken for the former and the former has pretensions about doing away with the latter.

The history of circumcision is a perfect case in point. We are told, among other things, that circumcision is a Jewish practice that dates back to 3,000 years (or, more modestly, 2,500 years). That’s a myth. First, Judaism as such did not exist until the Common Era. Second, our only evidence (and it’s not overwhelming) that circumcision was important to any ancient Israelite is in the TaNaKH, a notoriously unreliable record for reconstructing ancient history and, importantly, the work of a minority male elite. Just ask the archeologists who have repeatedly proven that ancient Israelites worshiped all sorts of deities and could only be called monotheists in a fairy tale.

Ancient circumcision, such as it was practiced, did not involve the complex surgery that is done on infant boys today. Any circumcision of, say, 200 BCE or even later did not require the same set of tools or involve the same procedures.

Circumcision seems to have become important in the second century to the rabbis, not necessarily to Jews at large. And it got that way mostly because of the emergence of Christianity (though the fact that some Greek Jews had discarded the ritual may also have played a role). Wannabee leaders get most insistent about the value of a practice when people aren’t doing it. The well-known historian Michael Stone once told me: “The thing that ancient prophets railed away against? That was ancient Israelite religion.”

The rabbis of the Mishnah (as historian Shaye Cohen and others have long noted) were concerned about the competition they were getting from early Christians. These “Pauline Christians” argued that since Genesis 15 gave us a “righteous” Abraham well before Genesis 17 insisted on Abraham’s circumcision, it was not necessary to perform the latter to become the former. The rabbis therefore extolled the virtue of circumcision at great length, and rabbinic tradition continued extolling through the centuries. So…  we do something largely because outsiders told us it wasn’t important?

All of this, and much more about circumcision can be heard on Judaism Unbound’s recent series of podcasts on the subject (#303-306). Or you can read Shaye Cohen’s Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Or, perhaps, Lawrence Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood.

You will discover more mythology in the history you were taught than you might imagine. Why is this important?

Because for all the much-vaunted insistence that Judaism and Jews can question everything, there are subjects that are taken off the table. Circumcision is one of them. The repercussions for real Jews and their families are not inconsequential.

There is, of course, always hazards around unnecessary surgery on an infant. Then there are dangers for real Jewish children who are exposed for being uncircumcised. Those children have been denied their Jewish identity and any place in the synagogue. They have been ostracized. They have been expelled. I once knew of a community who, when they found out that a cisgender male child had not been circumcised, tuned into a veritable mob. The child’s body was mentally stripped. Obscene poetry was sent over email.

Circumcision is a gendered practice that marks the value of infants who are male assigned at birth as most valuable to the community even while they are simultaneously subjected to an invasive surgical procedure. Are Jewish parents wrong to ask about the implications, here?

We have inherited mythologies that are taken for history, even truth. By circumcising, we keep faith with our ancestors (who might have been more than a little surprised to find us putting this much value on circumcision and wouldn’t have recognized the way we practice it, either). By circumcising we prove that we know, as parents, we can’t control everything that will happen to our child (heaven help the parents of cisgender females for not having the opportunity to learn this lesson). By circumcising, we relive the value of sacrifice (except that it’s not our own sacrifice, but that which we insisted our child must make).

History and mythology. What happens if we do away with what we think of both and do what we claim is natural to Jews and Judaism and… ask questions?

For parents opting out of circumcision who are looking for help in locating welcoming Jewish spaces, go here, to Bruchim.


The Leviathan: On Laughter, Wildness, and Justice

There is a midrash about Tevet time, one that tells a curious story about a curious creature who shows up in Tanakh: the Leviathan.

Some scholars believe that the Leviathan’s name comes from the Hebrew root lamed-vav-hey to mean to twine, or join. Wreathed, twisted in folds, the Leviathan is a mysterious creature, like the Tahom we find in Genesis. Both tahom and the leviathan were understood in medieval times as two sides to a chaos coin, female and male respectively.

These two creatures had forerunners. Tahom’s ancestress was Tiammat, the deity whom Marduk defeated in a gory battle that ended in dividing her body to create the world and the heavens above. The leviathan is a descendent of a Ugaritic sea monster, servant to the sea god Yammu (you can find that sea god showing up in Jewish texts as Prince Yam).

Sea monsters are big in ancient Near Eastern mythology. Mostly, they are pictured in cosmic sea battles as the embodiment of turmoil, upheaval, and confusion. Their opponents, whether a god or some kind of heroic figure, represent order.

And in Tanakh? Of course, there are scenes of YHVH doing battle with the Leviathan, fighting and destroying the creature with aplomb (Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:14). And yet, Yhwh is described as the Leviathan’s creator, too.

In one vision, though, the Leviathan is not an enemy, but a companion to YHVH. In Psalm 104:26 the narrator tells the deity: “There go the ships,” he says, “and the Leviathan that You formed to sport with.” And the word he chooses for “sport” or “play” here should make us smile. Sachak, samech-chet-kuf, is a kind of twin to a word we know very well, tzachak, tzaddi-chet-kuf, the root that is the source of Isaac’s name. The words are related not only in sound, but in meaning: they are both associated with laughter.

Another place we see sachak is in Proverbs 8:30, when Lady Wisdom announces that she herself was there at the start of all creation, together with YHVH. He rejoiced in her, she says; she was his delight; she laughed before him.

God, apparently needs laughter and wildness together. The Leviathan is just that, a creature that twines and turns, that folds and unites.

A midrash:

God created in the sea big fish and little fish. The size of the biggest fish was one hundred parsangs, two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred. If it was not for God’s merciful tikkun, the big ones would have eaten the smaller ones. What tikkun did God make? God created the Leviathan. On every first of Tevet, Leviathan would rear his head and make himself great and snort in the water and stir it up, and the fear of him would fall on all the fishes in the sea. If this were not so, the small could not stand before the great.

The Leviathan roars and snorts to make sure that the large fish will back off, so that they won’t eat too many smaller fish—without this roar, all the fish in the ocean would consume one another. The Leviathan offers us a wild force of nature that acts to balance the forces of nature.

So where could we go with this creature, a creature that seems to represent uncertainty and confusion, a creature of chaos who brings order into the teeming seas, a creature who makes God laugh?

We are all dealing with a world of chaos, a world in which big fish eat little fish, a world in which justice seems elusive and a compassionate order a dream.

At the darkest time of the year, do we need the roar of the Leviathan to stir us up, to remember that we, too, must do battle for righteousness, for justice, for a world of compassion? And in order to keep ourselves sane, to make sure we do not despair, should we, must we remember to give space for play and for laughter?

Is Purim not around the corner?


Vayeishev: When Men Bond (and Others Pay the Price)

Vayeishev is a parsha that details the violence of brothers against a sibling they reject. Their rejection is sexually fraught as are their actions, from stripping Joseph naked to selling them* into slavery. Joseph’s body was never Joseph’s. It belonged to Jacob’s sons. Jacob’s sons owned Joseph, and they sold Joseph. Others were given the power to repeat their crimes.

In the midst of the Joseph story is a chapter that is not about Joseph at all, but about Judah. Genesis 38 tells a story of Judah and the men he hangs out with, the men he sires, and the men he orders around.

Here, too, there is rejection and sexual violence. Here, too, male characters plan together and bond over sexual experience and violent behaviors.

In my recently published book Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, I make the case that shared sexual experience is a pivotal part of male homosocial relationships in the Hebrew Bible. Male characters may not be having sex with each other, but sex with women creates bonding opportunities, ways to maintain alliances and to establish status and rank.

When Judah leaves his brothers behind, he turns to Hirah, the Adullamite (Genesis 38:1). Immediately, in the verse following, Judah sights the wife he wants — notably, right in Hirah’s locale. He takes her (yes, that is  biblical texts articulates marriage) and sires three sons in quick succession. As his sons grow up, it becomes clear that Hirah and Judah have remained close friends. It is Hirah who, after the death of Judah’s wife, is part of his decision to end his mourning. They decide to enjoy themselves together. Judah is single and ready to mingle.

They travel together to a sheepshearing, a pastoral festival. As I write in Malignant Fraternities:  “It is a time to have fun, break boundaries, play tricks, an even plot murder. During a sheepshearing, Jacob surreptitiously escapes from Laban (Genesis 31); David acquires a new wife—Abigail—from a foolish husband who is inclined to heavy drinking (1 Samuel 25); Tamar disguises herself to induce her father-in-law to have sex with her and impregnate her (Genesis 38); and Absalom deceptively invites Amnon, his half-brother and heir to the throne, to festivities where his death will be arranged (2 Samuel 13).”

We forget that Hirah and Judah were traveling together when we read Genesis 38. We forget that Hirah was around or nearby when Judah crassly bargains for the use of Tamar’s body. He certainly knows the results of the negotiations, for Judah sends Hirah to redeem his pledges to Tamar. And it is Hirah who does everything he can to make sure that what has happened between Judah and Tamar remains secret (and that involves some complex and fancy dancing on his part that is revealed in the Hebrew nomenclature he uses for Tamar).

Two men shared interactions that had to do with sexual gratification. One had the actual gratification. Perhaps the other experienced it vicariously. But both were part and parcel of the negotiation and the attempt at controlling the consequences. It is an ancient version of the news we were subject to when we discovered how Donald Trump sent Michael Cohen to negotiate the silence of the women he slept with.

The story ends with an apparent redemptive moment for Tamar, when Judah cedes her right to make sure that he performed the levirate. But Tamar’s body, like Joseph’s, was never her own.

She was taken by Judah to be a wife for his first son, Er. When that son died, she was given to Judah’s second son, Onan. He, in turn, did his best to protect his own share of the inheritance, “spilling his seed.” This happens not once, but repeatedly.

When Onan dies, Judah refuses to free Tamar, casting her as a man-killer and exiling her to her father’s house. In the end, Tamar makes sure Judah himself performs the levirate by selling her body to him. He orders her burned alive when he learns she is pregnant. She escapes his sentence, bears twin sons, and disappears from the narrative, her body having served its purpose: to ensure Judah’s lineage.

Male characters plan, plot, and bond over the sexual use, misuse, and abuse of others in this story.

It is an old story. And sadly, a familiar one.

  • The use of the plural pronoun is deliberate; Joseph’s gender identity does not fall on one side or the other of a simple binary.

The Singer of the Single Song: In Honor and Memory of Chazzan Richard Kaplan

Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with a tenderness that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with an exuberance that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with his soul so open to giving and receiving that he was, simply, unforgettable.

We were blessed with a chazzan who we could trust with our own souls because he was honest, gentle, and true to the bone.

I did not know Chazzan Richard well. And I knew him well enough to be grateful for the rest of my own life.

We met at my first Kallah; my son, Erik, was hired as teenage staff to work with children and was permitted to take one single course. He chose Chazzan Richard’s.

I experienced a healthy jealousy each day as Erik reported on each class. All the usual words — inspired, excited, motivated — none of these could describe what my boy radiated that week. He was experiencing, I think, a kind of mikveh in music. He could not go from that learning unchanged — no one could.

Erik was the only teenager in the group, a reason, I expect, for Richard to notice him. He kept the connection live well after the course was over, answering follow-up questions, sending Erik sheet music.

Or maybe it was that Richard noticed all his students, noted their longings and their hopes. He seemed, inevitably, to find a way to lift their every note to the heavens. When the class gave a public recital, one song was filled with humor and joy, another with yearning, a third performed with such wholehearted love for the Holy One. We smiled, laughed and cried our ways home.

At the next Kallah, I introduced Richard to my husband, Ralf. I mentioned that Ralf played the darbouka for our services. To my astonishment, Richard asked him to play with him that night at a public performance. He had never heard Ralf play, he could not have known anything about his training, his experience, his technique.

Still: Ralf was his only accompanist that night, playing darbouka and tar. The performance was extraordinary even for those who knew Richard’s work. No one there could ever forget the niggunim, that night’s delicate Hayoshevet Baganim. I watched Ralf touching the def as if to connect every tap directly to the heart of the man who sang next to him.

It was unearthly. They played as if every note was foretold, bound to one another.

After the performance, I had to ask. “Richard, how did you know?” He looked at Ralf, gave a little shrug and a shy smile and said: “I knew.”

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg has said of his friend Chazzan Richard: “yours was a planetary Judaism…” Indeed Richard traveled the globe in his music, in his performance, in his own settings. There is no way to encompass or describe his knowledge, his clarity, or his understanding of the myriad rivulets of Jewish musical desire.

Elliot also wrote: “you showed us that the wild aggadic claim of our ancestors just might be true: that had the Torah not been given, the world could have been conducted according to Song of Songs. For you, like the Maggid, knew what Shir ha-Shirim meant:  A single Song that kindles many Songs — on high and down here below. You knew from that Song, and much more.”

Since I heard of Richard Kaplan’s death I have been unable to stop noticing the light around me. The light of the sun streaming through the five-fingered gumball tree leaves outside my office window. The light of the cerulean sky still glowing over the all the fragile dwellings of the world. The light of the moon in the morning sky, waning, but still brilliantly white and glowing.

Chazzan Richard Kaplan illuminated this world.

In honor and memory of Chazzan Richard Neil Kaplan, z”l. Every note sounds in gratitude.


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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