Loathing, Longing, and Leviticus

One must be at least a little meshugah to study history.

Historians suppose themselves to be in search of data, evidence they can use to (re)create something of the past.  Instead, they find themselves mere interpreters, functioning with limited vocabulary and with incomplete understanding.

If a historian doesn’t sense why his or her work is inadequate, never fear.  A rival historian will be sure to explain.  Pointing out others’ failings is called scholarship.

I don’t want to be scholarly just now, even though my summer reading (call it “Classic Volumes in Biblical Research”) is pushing such triggers big time.  The stack of books currently on my kitchen table feature gold lettering and many thick pages.  Such books have authority, magisterial language, and stains on their book covers.  I used to balance books such as these on my head when I studied ballet.  They were excellent tools for demonstrating poor posture.

I spent a part of July reading one of the great books of biblical studies, Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, published in 1878.  Wellhausen is mostly known as the father of the Documentary Hypothesis, which quite correctly posits that Moses did not author the whole Megillah, that a number of hands and agendas can be discerned in the Torah, and that these various authors can be ascribed identities as southern or northern or priestly or pre-or post exilic.  (The exile referred to here is the one that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, not one of the other multitudinous exiles in Jewish history.)

Here is what Wellhausen is not so remembered for: The actual thesis of his master work.

Wellhausen argues that ancient Israelites reveled in a personal relationship with God.  Along came the big bad priests of the post-exilic period and replaced spontaneity and individualism with fanatical devotion to law and the practice of the same, sucking the very life out of that old time religion.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and their ilk were followed by the equally small-minded and legalistic Sadducees, Pharisees, and rabbis of later eras.  The priests were, according to Wellhausen, unimaginative, dogmatic, opinionated, mechanical, cancerous, and parasitic.  Read Leviticus.

Wellhausen’s tome makes for exhausting reading, and not just because there are hundreds of pages of contempt for the priests and the Priestly Code.  It is exhausting because it smells of the nasty polemics of centuries.  Judaism was and is a dying religion of a narrow-minded, legalistically inclined people who are preoccupied with form, not feeling, with trivial details of ritual rather than grand connection with the divine.

Well.  Slander and cliché are hardly unknown in academic circles.

I must also admit it: Julius Wellhausen’s work is brilliant, imposing, overarching.  There is plenty to be learned from it, even now.

I know, too, that he was born into a culture that most often dismissed Judaism and Jews as petty, grasping, small-minded, and parasitical.  Teaching contempt of Jews is a typical practice in Europe from early church fathers on.

To what extent can I blame men and women who were the products of centuries of intolerance toward my people?  I too am a product, and I carry assumptions and prejudices of my own time.  Where does my right to judge, to evaluate, begin and end?

There’s this, too: In significant regard, historians are actually explaining themselves.  Wellhausen hated all ecclesiastic authority and praised any hint of spontaneous and individual religious expression he could find in Hebrew Bible.  He valued myths and tales that revealed a deity who talked and walked with humanity.

In this regard, what Wellhausen loved, I also love.  What he sought, I seek.

I like to revel in texts that express the all-so human longing for what is sweet and loving, transcendent and ineffable.  If you look in Torah, you can see the reflection of that longing slipping through the verses, framed even by the words of slaves.  “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me?” Hagar asks, wonderingly (Gen: 16:13).

The Torah’s authors marveled at existence.  Each of their authors attempted to make sense of a mysterious and magical world that deserved reverence and awe.

Even the priestly writers.  Even in Leviticus.

I wish I could convince Wellhausen of that.



Grieving my Naomi

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said,
Don’t calm your friend in the time of his anger and grief.
And don’t comfort him when (his loved one’s) corpse is placed before him.
Pirke Avot: 4:18

My mother-in-law, Evelyn, was a Protestant.

She was born in the Ore Mountains of Germany, a region known for the production of colorful nutcrackers and Christmas carousels powered by the heat of slim white candles. Typically, the carousels carry the lightest of singing angels, and, of course, a nativity scene. When Evelyn gave us such a gift, she carefully and delicately chose only the tiny deer, trees with balsam wood curlicued into branches, and folk figures for us to place on its discs. Evelyn knew tact.

The Ore Mountains are known for other handicrafts, including feather-light bobbin lace made with dozens to hundreds of individual threads. Evelyn taught herself the craft after her family escaped the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.

One of her most exquisite works was an altar cloth for her church. I saw the piece when she was visiting and we went shopping for linen to match the snow white border.

The lace was patterned with hearts. Inside each heart was a cross.

Evelyn died last summer after what was supposed to be a routine operation to lance a cyst that had grown near her heart.

For many years, and as often as we could manage, I sent my husband, Ralf and our son, Erik to Germany to visit Evelyn. We didn’t have the resources to go as a family. The spring before she died, I had started squirreling away money in secret. I wanted to surprise my family – and Evelyn – with plans to visit the following year.  I’d even started checking potential dates of departure to see how air fares compared.

There were years when I had lived just two hours or so from Evelyn. Then, we saw each other often. In those days I would bound up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, beating her own son to claim a first hug.

I loved Evelyn as, I think, Ruth loved Naomi.

We were two utterly different natures. I have never known how to sit still unless I am reading. I want a lot from the world, though what I want mostly concerns understanding and human decency.

Evelyn was calm, quiet, and expected little.

“You are always dreaming, Barbara,” she once said. “Why dream about things that might not come true?”
“Why not dream?” I asked.
“I never do that,” she said.

Perhaps Evelyn couldn’t dream because she had been born into Hitler’s Germany, a land that had made nightmares real.

Evelyn loved our Jewish family with grace and understanding. She came to love our congregation, too, and never failed to ask me about the members she had met when visiting America.

“How are the Kingbergs?” she would ask, and I would tell her that 86-year-oldArthurwas still getting up at the crack of dawn to garden while 86-year-old Ruth Kingberg continued to begin each day by lifting small (but significant) weights.

“Greet them for me,” she would ask, and I would. “Tell them I hope they are well.”

Evelyn had a voice like a girl’s. Some of my sweetest memories are the stuff of clichés: Evelyn, singing as she scrubbed the pots in her cramped kitchen; Evelyn singing old folks songs about chimney sweepers and winter snows and high mountains.

Once, for fun, we sat together and sang “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shalom Aleychem.” It was just weeks before Erik’s bar mitzvah, where she sang right along with the rest of us. She learned new songs and prayers quickly, no matter the language and regardless of faith.

In recent years, she began making me lace Stars of David. I sewed them onto kippot and gave them to my closest friends.

I have two such stars left. I do not think I will be able to give them away.

Jews have many exquisite and life-affirming rituals around mourning. We don’t demand that mourners “move on.” Instead, Judaism creates avenues for making memories, for holding our loved ones to us after they are gone. During the first, wrenching week of shiva (seven), we sit with mourners. The rabbis remind us not to try to comfort the bereaved but simply, kindly, to listen. The mourners will naturally, inevitably tell stories about their beloved one, and in the telling, make a blessing of the loved one’s name.

At the end of the week, the mourners are taken outside to walk around the block, to find their feet and the earth beneath them, to try to rejoin the world of the living. Their steps may be reluctant ones.

During shloshim (thirty), the month following the burial, the community acknowledges that mourners are still relearning the way of the world. Jews say Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months for parents, children, even, nowadays, those whom they simply loved beyond measure. At the close of the first year of mourning, we hold the first of many annual yahrzeit services, where we pray in honor and memory of the one we have lost. We light a candle that burns for a night and a day, tell stories, join with others for comfort and remembrance. At annual festivals we recite memorial prayers in honor of our loved ones.

For Evelyn’s yahrzeit we will, among other things, go to the American mountains she loved. There, in the Blue Ridge Mountains we will lay out things of hers. We will remember her and be blessed by our memories. We will recite Mourner’s Kaddish and El Melay Rachamim.

Before me will be the lace Stars of David, their blue and white threads woven by my patient mother-in-law. In my mind’s eye I will also see the altar cloth of hearts and crosses. Her hands made symbols of both our religions.

Grief, like love, transcends all boundaries. Both exist in respect of persons; neither is limited by differences.

To my Lutheran Naomi: My grief is my love.



Make it so!

Shortly after Independence Day had come and gone, my son, Erik and I left the relative cool of our home and dared to endure the dreadful heat of midsummer in the South to go on a series of purchasing-related errands.

This was a chore. Erik and I dislike shopping for just about anything except odd spices, variants of dahl, and music.

We especially detest having to buy small and stupid items, like plastic organizers. On the other hand, these things are often necessary. The recent rediscovery of bagged buttons had inspired me to sort the same. Now, I needed a plastic organizer.

So we waited until other errands of similar ilk presented themselves. They did so on a day that measured 100 degrees in the shade.

After sweating, cooling, shopping, and sweating, we ended our excursion at a local hobby center.  Upon entering, we were greeted by large orange objects, which turned out to be stacked plastic pumpkins.

I noted that it was not yet mid-July.

“Halloween is just around the corner!” Erik said cheerfully.

I made a face, muttered to myself and we pressed on. We discovered the wall filled with said plastic organizers, and bought two.

On the way out, we were greeted by large stacks of silvery balls. I stopped short.

“Oh, look!” Erik said. “It’s the Captain Picard Christmas ornaments!

The packages were labeled: “Make it so! Christmas ornaments.”

“What the…?” I said. “I am reading this right, right?”

“It’s July!” Erik announced. “But it’s Christmas! Make it so!”

“Stop talking in exclamation points. You sound like a listserve I subscribe to. Every email has at least three exclamation points for every five sentences.”

“A hostile listserve has been spotted. Unsubscribe, captain?” Erik asked.

“Make it so!” I replied firmly.

We pressed on toward the checkout counter.

As the cashier rang up our purchase, Erik and I watched a second cashier unpacking Christmas ornaments. She held one up for our cashier to admire. It was a metal strawberry, coated in the sort of paint that was meant to evoke chocolate.

“That’s another one I’m going to try and snag,” our cashier said.

“Uh huh,” the other woman agreed. “Makes me hungry.”

I tried not to look at Erik. He appeared to be making the same effort. We left the store.

“Wow,” Erik said. “Makes even us Jews want to put Christ back into Christmas.”



Reptilian Rapture in Ancient Israel

Honestly. I thought I’d read it all when it comes to Jews.

Teaching courses on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust (as I do) forces one to wade through centuries of muck. In the first century C.E, the noted Greco-Egyptian grammarian Apion accused Jews of, among other things, holding some random Greek personage hostage in the Holy of Holies, fattening him up with delicacies and dainties, slaughtering the poor gent, and serving up his remains to the multitude. Shades of Hansel and Gretel.

Or, perhaps, a precursor to the blood libel that emerged in the thirteenth century. In that story, and versions thereof, Jews kill Christian children in a mock reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, draining the child’s blood so that it can be used to make matzah for the Passover celebration. Little known fact: A blood libel accusation was made in our United States of America as late as 1928 in upstate New York. Better known fact: The blood libel is alive and well in the Middle East and some parts of Europe.

And how’s this for a twenty-first century twist? Jews are actually Nazis, and a Star of David can morph into a swastika. There are cartoons out there showing you just how it works.

We will not regurgitate all the things that have been said and written. You can find them in many other locations, if you must. It’s all old news, really.  And new news, I am sad to say.

Here, however, is a recent addition to all these various calumnies: Jews of ancient times worshiped lizards.

It is true. Not that Jews worshiped lizards, of course, but that a living, breathing person has alleged such a thing.

Said person made this statement on an exam in my course on Hebrew Bible. I do not remember who wrote such a thing. I blocked out the association of lizards and any particular student immediately after grading. For one thing, I have a lot of students each semester. For another, it seemed important to me not to remember which of my dozens of students had made such a claim. I was afraid that I would not be able to look said student in the face if I made the association.

Student raises hand.

Dr. Thiede: “Yes?”

Student: “Is there going to be a study guide for the next exam?”

Dr. Thiede: “Omigosh, aren’t you the student who claimed the ancient Israelites worshiped lizards on the last exam?”

(For the record, I send out detailed study guides before each exam.)

Aside from the mad hilarity said statement caused me then and now, aside from the fact that I occasionally wonder what I might have said in class to induce my student to connect ancient Israelites with the worship of lizards, aside from the fact that I am likely suffering some post traumatic stress after reading said exam, I ask myself: To what end do I mention this at all in any forum?

There is a reason, actually.

There is no hope for a world in which we do not know more about each other. We cannot create peace and lovingkindness among peoples on the basis of our present colossal ignorance. Education matters because, as I keep telling my students, it has the capacity to make you a better person. You can become a whole lot more humble when you have a smidgeon of an idea about how little you know about anything. You can become less judgmental, less inclined to seeing everything through the narrow field of your own experience.

You can learn, and by learning, learn to care.

That’s what this drash is about, actually. That’s what every drash should be about.

The Hebrew word “drash” means to seek, to inquire. Ask. Wonder. Reflect.

Do your thinking with drash, not dross. Have the energy to strip yourself bare of assumptions. Why are Jews still be circumcising their sons? People are asking that question – and they aren’t just gentiles. Is God really “in” everything (and does that include the cow manure)? Why do we keep repeating a prayer that insists that God will choose who shall die by sword and who by fire each year at High Holy Days when most Jews don’t believe any such thing?

Look here (if you like). Adrenaline Drash will do its best to live up to its name.



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