Seeing in the Dark

My childhood was mostly spent in the dark. People said things each day, each hour, that featured a disconcerting disassociation with truth. There was so much gaslighting it is a wonder we all didn’t go up in flames.

To live in confusion, surrounded by lies and fabrication, evil deeds and coverups, is to live in the dark. There is only one way out: to name what hides in the black, to describe it in all its awful detail, to insist on dragging it into the light so that it may be seen for what it is. A dark world is given its power by fear and by silence.

I have spent my adult life as a teacher and writer naming what I see in the dark: every historical field I worked and wrote about — from the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the silver mines of Potosí to the merciless marketing of the Shoah in literature, film, and even memorial sites — was another effort to reveal that which can destroy life, honor, and memory.

I came to biblical studies late in my life. The texts we call sacred mean the world to me — they are rich and real. And they are as limited and flawed as we are. We may not imagine ourselves safe from their deficits, for they constrict and even harm us. To name those deficits is as important as naming what can inspire us. We may laud the transformative words of psalms attributed to King David; we may not avoid passages describing his unmitigated, wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Canaan. “When David attacked a region, he would leave no man or woman alive; he would take flocks, herds, asses, camels, and clothing” (1 Sam. 27:9).

Recently, I joked with my ALEPH seminary students that the book I am currently writing — Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities — is not a book I imagine many of my Jewish Renewal colleagues wanting to read. That book will not offer wise advice or well-crafted and stirring interpretations of beautiful and, yes, inspiring texts. This book is about the dark, and about naming things and making things visible that hide there.

Emily Stern, one of the students in my class, later wrote to me: “It is this very love of looking at the hard stuff, of bringing ourselves to a text that does not even appear to include us, to shun us even, and NOT sweeping the ugly or complicated things under the rug, that is one true nature of love—  ‘I love you too much to ignore this and not try to work through it. To bring myself truly to this honestly,’ to not be too tired to do this work, or to do it despite being tired…”

Emily wrote that such work was an act of praise, a praise of God.

I had thought, all these years, that I was drawn to study what terrified me because I believed that I could master fear that way. Emily recast my life’s work for me: Was naming things in the dark, the things that threatened life, my way to learn what I needed to do to protect life? And was that learning an act of praise and thanks to God for helping me have the will to do that work?

We are living in a dark world. In some parts of our country the skies are orange and gray and our people cannot breathe. In others, storms are coming at accelerated speed. Our planet burns and bakes and boils and we continue, each day, to witness those in power lying so obviously, so provably that the lies are not so much shocking as surreal. The destruction of life, of honor, of memory is in the click-baiting headlines that frighten us as they draw us in.

How can we praise God? By naming what we see in the dark.

May we enter this New Year with courage and strength. May we find conviction and clarity to insist on naming what we must reject and calling forth that which we need to create life, to live love.

You put a new song into my mouth:
Praise to You, our God.
(from Psalm 40, translation Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

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Nothing Means Something: Not Responding to Charlottesville

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.
And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Y. Talmud 4:9, B.  Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.

When Paris was hit by a terrorist attack in November 2015, then candidate Trump tweeted that he was praying for victims and hostages. After the Orlando attack in June 2016, he tweeted that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day last January, the White House did not even mention the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazi regime although their eradication was Hitler’s first aim. Last February, Adam Purinton shouted “get out of my country” as he shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani. President Trump said nothing. When a mosque was bombed just eight days ago in Minnesota, we heard more in the way of nothing. When David Duke tolds us that Charlottesville is a “turning point” for a movement aiming to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” no one in the White House protested. The president did not distance himself from such claims.

Nothing means something. Nothing is not merely silence. It is acquiescence. It is permission. It is consent.

When white supremacists showed up on the streets of Charlottesville this weekend heavily armed, showing off their machine guns, when they marched to Nazi slogans, wore Adolf Hitler’s words on their backs, and when they attacked counterprotesters, we heard an awful lot of nothing from our president.

When the president deigned to speak, his words were no words at all. President Trump refused to use words like “white supremacy” or “white nationalism” although these words would have said something Americans need to hear. Instead he informed the American people that there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on many sides. When asked, neither the president nor his spokespeople could describe what they had seen from counterprotestors that constituted bigotry or hate.

Asked whether he considered the car rammed into a crowd of protestors and act of terrorism (a tactic that has been linked to terrorism in the past), President Trump refused to respond.

He touted the economy.

Trump eventually offered his condolences to the woman killed by the young white man who used his car as a murder weapon. He praised the Virginia State police and mentioned the death of two officers in a helicopter crash. “So sad,” he tweeted.

Black people have been enslaved, robbed, imprisoned and shot in the streets and in their churches. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been defaced, mosques bombed. Muslims and Jews across this country have been harassed and attacked. Documented immigrants have been murdered and undocumented immigrants have been deported and separated from their families. Thomas Homan, the chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has told undocumented immigrants that they should live in fear.

There are no words to hold this pain. There are no verses that can take the measure of the murder and enslavement of peoples. There is no way to quantify terror.

Oh, wait. There is something you can do. Say nothing.

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