To Face Fears (and Create Miracles): On B’shallach

We are at a critical moment in our Torah. God decides his people will not go the short way to the Promised Land. The Israelites, former slaves, a frightened people running from their slaveowners, will turn back if they are forced to face the Philistines who block the short passage, God says. They are not prepared for war (Exod. 13:17).

Commentators offer other reasons for God’s decision. Ibn Ezra argued that it was important that the newly freed people understand, first, the challenges of freedom. Maimonides agreed, suggesting that hardships endured in the wilderness would function as training for the task ahead: to conquer and settle the land of Canaan God had promised them.

Certainly, hardship was coming. It was before them and behind them.

They stood at Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. What must it be so stand at the shore of a sea of water, to look over one’s shoulder and to see the dust storm of six hundred chariots manned by officers and soldiers of the greatest and most powerful empire coming in pursuit? The Israelites stood at the edge of death –death rushing toward them, death in the sea behind them.

God says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exod 14:16). Moses is to lift up his staff and hold it over the sea to split it.

A famous midrash tells us that the sea refuses to split unless the Israelites demonstrate their faith and march into the waters. The Israelites, we are told, wanted the miracle to happen before they could believe in the miracle.

Finally, so that midrash goes, Nachshon of the tribe of Judah does exactly that, stepping into the water with nothing but courage to steady his feet. Some stories claim that the water reached his nose before it finally parted.

David Ebenbach writes: “Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.”

Walls of water stand between us and what we long for. There is so much to be afraid of.

We are afraid we will not be understood by someone we love. We are afraid of being hurt by someone we love. We are afraid we will fail at some important task we have set for ourselves. We are afraid we will not fill expectations.

We see our own leaders violating oaths, caring about nothing but their hold on power – even if that means putting children in a cage. We are afraid for our democracy and the values so many once believed were permanent fixtures of American life.

We look at the climate crisis unfolding in the world and we are afraid we cannot stop the tsunami that is coming, a tsunami which will melt icecaps, swallow islands, peninsulas, and cities, change seasons and, we can be sure, inflict widespread suffering. We are afraid that we are helpless.

There is, indeed, so much to fear and so many reasons to feel helpless and afraid. Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.

The reconciliation and understanding we seek cannot be found in fear. We must take chances, step into the water, hope for an opening, a way forward.

The values we hold dear can only be embedded if we live them in every aspect of our own lives, if we reject bullying and aggression at each and every turn. We must take every opportunity over the next nine months to begin to do just that. We must try to birth a different America than the one we live in, one that embodies justice and generosity.

What must we live for? The possibility of miracles. They will not happen without us. Let us all step into the sea, frightened though we are. Let us part the water, walk forward together, and create the miracle of our freedom and our hope.


The Mixed Multitude We Ignore

I know what I wanted on the second Torah mantel I made. The mountain of Sinai and the words erev rav alah.

The words come from Exodus 12:37-38: “The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.  Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them…

By the time I made that Torah mantel, I had served a community that had included Asian Jews, African Jews, Latin Jews, American Jews who had come to the tribe as adults and, of course, a plethora of Ashkenazi Jews. We were a “mixed multitude” of sorts, an eclectic collection of Jews of all kinds. I thought that our Torah mantel should reflect that fact.

I believed that this phrase was true for the tribe as a whole. Each and every course I teach on Jewish history emphasizes how many different kinds of Jews have made Judaisms. I ask my students to learn about Jewish communities of Africa and Asia, among others. I ask them to consider communities which counted descent patrilinealy (like Tanakh does!) rather than matrilinealy (as European Judaism does). I ask them to at least try to assess the evidence we have that Jewish women studied Torah and led congregations prior to the rabbinic period. And, this might surprise: there are select examples of medieval women working as cantors and mohels, among other things, during the heydey of the rabbinic period. We shouldn’t ignore that fact, either.

I try to find the histories of those Jews whose stories have been erased and marginalized. Where are Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, women? How can I extract, discover, include those who are so often left out?

Consider: The rabbis suggest Mordechai nursed Esther. An amulet from the Cairo Genizah includes a spell to ensure love between two men.  There is homoerotic poetry from medieval Spain. (For a collection of Queer Jewish texts, see A Rainbow Thread, by Noam Sienna.)

I want American Jewish communities to ask what they could do to acknowledge the contributions of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews to Jewish history. How many congregations in the U.S have ever heard Baghdadi trope or Iraqi traditional melodies? It’s not that hard to introduce either – you just have to look, learn, and transmit what you find.

The task of making it possible for us to hear lost voices has really only just begun. Even in a realm where we think we have accomplished so much – understanding and honoring the role of Jewish women in our history, we are woefully behind.

A couple of years ago I purchased what purported to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of Hasidism possible.  Hasidism: A New History was edited by David Biale and featured the work of eight foremost scholars in the field. All male.

“The volume,” Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff, two noted female Jewish historians, recently remarked, “ignores the women who help finance the Hasidic movement, either with cash, property or their own labor. Changes in women’s religious practice, the role of their piety, differences in Hasidic marriages and relations between husbands and wives, interactions between women and the rebbes they consult, even the tremendous Hasidic concern with sexuality – there are so many gender-related topics central to Hasidism that were ignored by the volume’s authors…”

If this book were an outlier, we could at least comfort ourselves with that fact. But as Heschel and Imhoff note, collective work and anthologies generally include few female authors and/or pay little attention to gender concerns. Despite the gains of First Wave Feminism, despite pivotal books like Standing at Sinai (1990), we continue to live in a world which silences Jewish women and dismisses their contributions. 

We read Parsha Bo this week. We will tell ourselves that a mixed multitude went up to Sinai.

We must do the work of taking that statement seriously.

Thanks to ALEPH Rabbinic Students Cat Zavis and Lex Rofeberg for contributing to my ongoing quest to find the sources I long to teach.


Half-lives, Half-breath, Hope: Jacob and Joseph

About one quarter of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, dreamer and diviner, the child of Jacob’s old age, the child Jacob favors over all his sons (Gen. 37:3).

His brothers hate him for that. Joseph himself seems to stoke their hatred. At 17, he dreams that he and his brothers are sheaves of grain – and each sheave bows to his. He tells his brothers. In turn, “they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” (37:8). Joseph dreams again: Now his entire family bows to him, as eleven stars, the sun, and the moon. Even Jacob is shocked: “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him and his father kept the matter in mind” (37:10-11).

Sometime soon after, it seems, Jacob sends his favored child to check on his brothers. He is to see how his brothers are doing, how the flocks are faring, and to come back to report to his old father. He goes unaccompanied. Alone.

His brothers see him coming; their rage takes over. They strip him of the special tunic his father had made for him. They throw him in a pit. They debate. Should he die? Should they sell him? Does he, in that dark pit, hear every word? Joseph’s brothers harbor a murderous hatred, but, in the end, they leave Joseph’s life – or death – to slaveholders: “Come,” his elder brother Judah says, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves” (37:27). Sold into slavery, carried to a foreign land, does he play back each word in his mind?

At seventeen, Joseph is cast into a dark pit and sold into slavery. He rises to become the right-hand man of Potiphar. He falls again, accused by Potiphar’s wife. He spends at least two years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He rises again, becomes the right-hand man of the chief jailor. At thirty, he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier because he is not only a dreamer, but a dream interpreter. Pharaoh even gives him a new name: Zaphnath-Paaneah, a name which might mean “Egyptian,” though Jewish tradition reads it as “revealer of secrets.” Finally, Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On, to be his wife.

In a position of extraordinary power and prestige, his life secure, beloved by the ruler of the most powerful country in the known world, he might, one imagine, send word. He is alive, he is well. But he does nothing. He sends no word to the father who loved him best, the father who coddled him and who relied on him.

Joseph named his first child Manasseh, from a root that means to forget, to make disappear from the memory. Joseph is explicit: I name him Manasseh, he says, because “God had made me forget my hardship and my parental home” (41:52).

The years go by. And by. Joseph is about 39 when his brothers appear in Egypt, hoping to buy food in a time of famine. Two more years will pass before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and only after repeated manipulations. He will pin crimes on them, he will hold one brother prisoner and threaten to make another his slave. He is 41 years old when his father, Jacob, finally discovers that his beloved son is still alive.

Jacob, aged and broken, revives. “Enough,” he says. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!” (45:28).

We read this story as a quintessential narrative of sibling rivalry, one of so many describing murderous hatred among brothers. Cain kills Abel. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers almost murder him.

But if this story was just about sibling rivalry, why does Joseph not let his father, who loved him so, know he is alive?

When he learns that Joseph is alive Jacob’s breath, his ruach, lives in him again (45:27). Believing Joseph dead, Jacob had lived a half-life for twenty-four years.

Surely Joseph knew his father loved him with an abiding, consuming love. How could he let his brothers get in the way of such a love? How could he leave his father half alive for over two decades?

Remember the second dream? His whole family had made obeisance to him. His father was angry, accusatory, he “kept it in mind.” And then, he sent his son to his eleven brothers, brothers who hated him.

Did Joseph believe his father betrayed him to his brothers? Did he decide that a new identity, a new name, a new world could be his only future? Did he think: I will kill the past; everyone in it tried to kill me?

His tears gave him back what he could not kill: hope. Joseph cries, often. First, when he overhears his brothers talking about what they had done to him (Gen 42:24), next, when he sees his younger brother, Benjamin (43:30), and again when he reveals himself to his brothers (45:2). He cries and kisses his brothers after the revelation (45:14-15), and when he finally sees his father again, he weeps on his father’s neck “a good while.” (46:29). Somehow, in all his pain, he could still cry for what he had lost, cry and thus, hope.

In this broken world, where terror and horror surround us every day, perhaps we can hope that our own tears can heal – ourselves and others. May it be so.


Christmas (and Hannukah) in the South

It’s the Christmas season. Even though today is Christmas Day, the season will actually go on until about ten days after the New Year. I live in the South, after all.

One way you know that Christmas season has arrived is through the wild things that sprout from the earth. Not far from where I live, for example, a multitude of lights forming figures, messages, and other decorative forms did exactly that right after Halloween. At night, “God Bless America” twinkles next to two nutcrackers, the American flag and huge praying hands. “Remember Jesus” is not far from a massive, 20-foot angel with a watering can. I am confused by her presence, but there may be time to figure it out before the season is over.

The other way you learn that it is Christmastime occurs when you have any pleasant exchange with other human beings. I recently visited with two nice women in a tiny and overly frigid medical examination room – one, a doctor I had just met, and the other her assistant.

The doctor finished her instructions and got ready to leave. “Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I said brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

She smiled and left. The assistant handed me some paperwork to take to take to the checkout desk.

“Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I repeated brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

You can guess what occurred at the checkout desk…

I used to find all this southern Christmas excess pretty annoying. I grew up in a relatively urban setting where it was incumbent upon right-thinking individuals to wish each other “happy holidays.”

So, when I first arrived here, almost thirty years ago, Christmas was a tinch challenging. Predictable questions were always being put to my adorable young son at the checkout line. Either folks wanted to know if he had been good so that Santa would bring him lots of presents or, if we were past Christmas Day, he would be asked if Santa had recognized how good a child he was and brought him lots of presents. We would be wished a merry Christmas for walking in the door, we would be wished a merry Christmas for passing along the aisles, and we would be wished a merry Christmas as we left.

Still, it’s all a matter of perspective, right?

I can prove it. Or rather, a colleague of mine, an ordained rabbi and former professor of child development, will.

“I was living in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Steven Silvern told me a while back, “and one Friday morning I went out shopping. After all, what does one do Friday mornings in Jerusalem? Shop for Shabbos!”

The supermarket was right across the street from a convent. While Reb Steven was shopping, one of the nuns came across the street to do her shopping. She was dressed in nun habit.

She was a large-ish woman, wearing an imposing cross hanging on a chain. My colleague demonstrated the size of the cross with his hands. It appears to have checked in at about eight by twelve inches.

He ended up near the nun at the checkout line. The cashier wrapped up all her purchases, she paid, and as she got ready to leave, the cashier turned to the nun.

“Gut Shabbos!” he said cheerfully.

Human beings, God bless us all, are creatures of reflex, not reflection. We are rather inclined to focus on our navels and to presume that all other navels look like ours.

And they do, sort of.

So, that said, I would like to say something to anyone who has read to the end of this post. Happy Hanukkah! (And Merry Christmas, too…).

This post is dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Steven Silvern, who never fails to help me laugh.


Love’s Courage: In Memory of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers

Today, on Shabbat, I sang and prayed with the family of McGill Baptist Church in Concord, North Carolina. We remembered together.

We had gathered for the memorial service of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers, librarian, mother of three, grandmother of six, and wife of Pastor Steve Ayers.

Janet was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the record of her last years has been chronicled by Steve’s moving testimony. In one Facebook post after another, we have read of every small and painful progression of the disease, the moments of memory lost and regained. We discovered how Janet learned to live, and we witnessed the way everyone around her lived in the grace of her love.

Steve has, with the courage of Janet’s love, created a chronicle of love. Even when Janet could not remember or use his name, she remembered their love. When she still could, she would tell him how she loved “her Steve.” Nearing the close of her life, if Steve told her he loved her, she would say “I know!” During the service, he told us that after one particularly happy visit, she turned to him and announced happily, “Steve, we ought to get married!” And Steve, who has had the grace to stay in all the holy places Janet inhabited throughout these years, no matter what time or what location he found himself in, agreed. “That’s a great idea!” he said.

There is no one who met Janet who does not carry some lasting memory of her. Of course she was gracious to my little havurah, my small congregation. Of course she wanted to join Steve and the church in welcoming us, making us feel at home. She did that no matter what troubles we went through, how large we were, or what we could do in recompense for the welcome we were given. Of course, she was always warm and kind and welcoming. Janet was that way.

For a couple of years, we moved away from McGill Baptist Church, and though we grew by doing so, my heart broke when we did. McGill had taken us in when finding a place to meet turned out to be a challenge. McGill had refused our donation the year we had to restore our first Torah – to this day, I point out that Baptists helped put letters back on that scroll. McGill had held us, given us love and kindness and friendship, for over a decade.

When we finally returned, I had given up on all those dreams of growth so many of my then congregants had found so important. I had paid a price, and those I came back with had paid it with me. I returned with just six families; we were back where we were at our beginning.

But when I was sure we would still need someplace for us to meet, I called Steve. I asked him if there was still a place for us at McGill.

“Barbara,” he told me, “we would be so glad to have you back.”

“Then we are coming home,” I said.

Janet overheard Steve’s reaction. And then I overheard hers.

She called out quite clearly: “We love you, Barbara. We love you.”

“We love you, too, Janet,” I called back, crying like a child on the other end of the line.

Janet hardly knew the power of the healing she offered me that day.

Janet was a woman not to be underestimated. She possessed an intelligence and a sense of humor that was subversive and delightful.

But above all else, she knew how to love and how to receive love. “She had a love that knew no bounds,” Steve said as we remembered her. To the last, he said, no matter what else she might have seemed to have lost, she knew she was loved and she knew that she was a child of God.

We say in my tradition: May her memory be for a blessing. And all who knew her know: it already is.


Naming Gender-Based Violence to Stop Gender-Based Violence

In honor of the annual international campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The texts of Tanakh were written with male hands, redacted by male minds, transmitted for the benefit of men by men. For almost two millennia, scriptural commentary in both church and synagogue has been almost entirely male, written with male hands, redacted by male minds, and transmitted for the benefit of men by men.

We cannot respond to texts of terror we find in this male corpus with the cliché that “times were different then.” The times, where cisgendered male power is concerned, are not as different as we might wish. Moreover, if we refuse to judge texts of gender-based violence we abrogate our moral responsibility – we give those texts either our approval, our excuses, or our indifference.

I’ve been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the texts of Tanakh for almost fifteen years. For the past few years I’ve taught for the ALEPH Ordination Program, where I was ordained as a rabbi in 2011. All my courses address issues of gender, power, and class. I am currently writing a book for Routledge Press in which I address the ways in which male homosociality and male friendship in Tanakh are dependent on the use (and abuse) of women and women’s bodies.

It is painful work. I write and teach about texts engendered by rape cultures while working in a rape culture. At least one in five of my transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students will be sexually assaulted during their college careers. One out of every four female students will be the victim of sexual assault.

For over two millennia, the Bible’s male texts, male commentary, and male scholarship have licensed the power and control of cisgendered men. College and seminary courses still feature syllabi dominated by male authors and reflecting male concerns. Song of Songs, for example, is still taught as an exquisite, transcendent love story. Cisgendered men profit from such a reading. Such readings describe a mythical sexual equality between the female protagonist and her lover despite the fact that the male partner is often absent and appears and disappears in ways that should concern its readers.

My students ask: Is the female protagonist being portrayed as an obsessed woman who can think of nothing else than a man who is manipulating her? When she calls for her lover, he does not answer. When she goes to look for him, she is stripped and beaten by the city’s watchmen (5: 6-7). Is the Song of Songs a cisgendered man’s fantasy of a sexually accessible woman, a fantasy in which such a woman is brutally punished for her sexual initiative (again)?

How do we deal with a long tradition of cisgendered male fears explaining away cisgendered male violence in the textual tradition? In 2 Samuel 13, Amnon, King David’s eldest son and heir to the throne, is described as sick with “love” for his half-sister Tamar. With the collusion and aide of his cousin, Jonadab, he sets a trap for Tamar and rapes her. After he rapes her, Amnon’s lust turns to loathing.

The Hebrew root for “hatred” (sinn-nun-aleph) is used no less than four times in a single verse. We read: Then Amnon hated her, a great hatred indeed; the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the lust he had felt for her (13:15). Where does such a hatred come from? The rabbis explain: the reason Amnon hated Tamar after he raped her was because she had tied her pubic hair around his sexual organ during the rape and castrated him (BT, Tractate Sanhedrin 21a).

Despite decades of feminist scholarship, despite the addition of masculinity studies and the brilliant work being done by scholars of Queer studies, we have yet to fully articulate the dangers of biblical texts written by men, interpreted by men, and dominated by men. Biblical texts describe rape cultures. Their violence goes unnamed in countless social, political, educational, and religious settings; thus, in turn, these texts and much of their commentary continues to support rape cultures.

Texts of gender-based violence are part of our inheritance. Their gender-based violence must be named, revealed, and condemned if we are to create the world we long to see: One in which sexual violence against any human being is made fully impossible.


America’s Slaughter of Children (in the Week of Vayera)

This is how I go to work at UNC Charlotte now.

First: I choose my clothing carefully. I no longer wear shoes with even the slightest of heels. I never wear a straight skirt. Anything I wear has to be something I can run in.

Second: I drive to campus, get out of my car and get on my backpack. I carry at least one very heavy book at my back. In my right hand, I carry my keys.

The keys are heavy, and they are ready for me to throw, and throw hard. Distracting shooters is a key “fight” response; I took that training.

I pass by buildings marking where the nearest entrances are. I’ve memorized most of them, now.

Third: I reach class and wait until the start time of class. Then my students shut and lock the door. I also carry wedges we can push underneath the door.

It’s little more than six months after the April 30 shooting at UNC Charlotte. Two of our students, Ellis Parkee and Riley Howell, were shot and killed; four students were injured and hospitalized.

This past weekend, four of my students and I went to speak at a local church about the UNCC shooting.

I described how I go to school, how I go to work, why it’s important for me to carry something I could throw in order to disorient a shooter.

“These young people” I said, gesturing to my students, “are my charge. I should be able to protect each and every one of them.”

I know I can’t.

In turn, my students described being locked in their classes, getting emails and texts about the shooter, the two shooters, the three shooters at the library, at Kennedy, somewhere on campus. Emails, reports, texts. There was no clarity, only confusion.

After hours of waiting, not knowing, campus police came into the building yelling their loudest: “Come out with your hands up!

One of my students described her reaction. Was the shooter in the building? Why else would the police be shouting like that?

Another admitted being upset by relatives who told her they were praying for her. Action, she said, was what was needed. “Faith and works,” she said.

It is little more than six months later, and each one us, in turn, spoke of terror and grief and anger. Today, it is just five days after we spoke at the church. Yesterday, as I was teaching, we learned that a student went to Saugus High School in Santa Clarita and shot five classmates and himself. Two children are dead.

To teach is the greatest privilege I have ever been offered. Every year I have watched my students grow in strength and purpose. They are extraordinary. They are committed. They are responsible, caring, adults.

“This isn’t about politics,” one said. “It is about human lives.”

Yesterday, reporters introduced the shooting at Saugus High School with these words: “Two people were killed today…”

Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I shouted at the radio: “Children! Children were killed!”

This week’s Torah portion offers a scene of a father holding a machelet, a “devourer,” a butcher’s knife, over and above his son.

America is pointing guns at our children. Firearms are the second leading cause of death for children and teenagers. We are complicit. We are compliant.

We cannot wait upon God’s angel to call us to account, to tell us to stop.

We cannot wait.


Teaching While Afraid

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

My love of teaching is under assault.

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

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

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

It was a strange, disconcerting moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oath of Disloyalty – by Irwin Keller

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

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

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

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

Irwin Keller
August 21, 2019
#loyaljew #disloyaljew


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

I went to church again last Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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