it’s not in heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on Friday, September 11, 2015 (and then again the next morning), on my first Shabbat as the rabbinic intern.

Today is September 11.

Long before that date came to stand for national tragedy, as the twin towers that long stood over the New York skyline crumbled, it was the birthday of my favorite aunt; she long stood as a positive example for me in childhood.

She and my uncle divorced when my cousin, who is close to my age, was very young, and I watched my aunt step bravely into the role of, essentially, single mother to a grade schooler. She took a position as an English teacher at a prestigious college prep school and later became head of the English department. She eventually left as the head of the upper school, to take a position of head of school at another institution.

I recently recommended to my aunt a podcast called “Mystery Show,” which I’ve been enjoying. Each episode, the host solves a different puzzle, and in the most recent one I listened to, she investigates a license plate she saw years before while standing at a red light: It read “I-L-U-V-9-1-1” — “I love 9/11.”

The host is shocked — and then determined to find out the story behind a plate that is probably not owned by a terrorist, as an initial reading might suggest. I won’t give away the ending, but I knew it was something that my aunt would also enjoy.

And the truth is, I love 9/11. September 11 is the anniversary of my conversion. Six years ago, I was standing in the mikveh and made brachot while several rabbis stood nearby as witnesses. I emerged a Jew.

And in a strange turn of events, today is also the day that my divorce becomes official. It’s just a fluke — a combination of court bureaucracy that scheduled the hearing and state law that requires the judgment entered that day to be final some months hence. Last spring, I stood before a judge and averred that my marriage had irretrievably broken down.

This date stands for
The towers stood above
My aunt stood as
The car stood at the light
I was standing in the mikveh
The rabbis stood over me
I stood up in court.

In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, we stand as the people Israel to enter into the covenant with Gd. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים, the parshah begins: “You are standing.” And it is most definitely we, the people in this room, who are standing.

The covenant that Gd makes is with those who were there in that moment in the distant Biblical past — but also with us, the people who were not there that day: וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. And my standing in the mikveh all those years ago affirmed that I, too, stood with all of them and with all of you.

The Torah emphasizes the breadth of the covenant by enumerating a list of the different sorts of people that stood that day to accept the covenant: the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officers, children, women, the strangers in the camp.

Also mentioned are two other groups: the woodchoppers and the waterdrawers. I love this strange, ordinary detail. We’ve already been told that everyone is there: כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why are these two random professions mentioned at the end of the long list of, let’s face it, more distinguished groups of people?

I think it’s because this point really paints a picture of the day: That day, the last day of Moshe’s life, the day that would come to be known as the one on which the people of Israel accepted our covenant with Gd, a woodchopper gets up and begins to go about his day.

He exchanges words of affection with his family. He eats his manna. He talks with his neighbors. He walks to the woodpile. He picks up his axe and begins to swing. And then Moshe summons everyone . . .

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל is abstract. It’s hard to picture. It’s when we’re told just a small, specific detail about one of the people that stood with everyone else that we can begin to see the scene.

So too with the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Center. It can be hard to comprehend the number 3,000. In his review of the 9/11 memorial in New York City, which stands now where the towers once stood, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik writes about the power of the spontaneous memorials that emerged right after the attack:

“In truth, the simplest memorials of the first days after the disaster, those xeroxed handbills with ‘Missing’ emblazoned on them and the photographs and descriptions of the lost below, still move us more than any other remembrance. ‘MISSING One World Trade Center, 100th Floor, Roger Mark Rasweiler’ ‘We’re looking for Kevin M. Williams, 104th Fl. WTC’ — these signs were made with the foreknowledge that the missing were in truth dead. There’s a wall of them within the museum. They voiced a refusal to accept their passing without protest and insistence: he died here, not some office worker. (Since we take pictures of the ones we love mostly on holiday, some bore apologetic inscriptions: ‘Was not wearing sunglasses on Tuesday.’)

The handbills still move us so because they touch so entirely on a central truth: these people came together one morning with no common purpose beyond making a living, and were killed by people whose evil lay in the belief that without a common purpose life has no meaning. The lesson of these handbills is simple: that life is tragic and precious and fragile, that there is an irreducible core of violence in the world, and of fanatics in love with it, and that we failed once in our responsibility to protect ourselves from them, and from it.”

as beautiful as this cap cod sky is -- the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא: as beautiful as this cape cod sky is — the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In parshat Nitzavim, we are given our common purpose as we stand together as a people before Gd: Torah.

I go back to the mikveh each year to commemorate my conversion. I say shehecheyanu, thanking Gd for another year as a Jew. It’s also my tradition to say during these annual visits the blessing over Gd as giver of Torah, Baruch ata Hashem noteyn ha Torah. Torah is what brought me to Judaism and what now sustains my Jewish identity. It is my belief that I have a stake in our sacred book that made me want to be a rabbi.

Indeed, we are given that most wonderful of gifts in parshat Nitzavim, when Gd tells us לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — the Torah “is not in heaven.” It continues: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ — “Rather, it is very close to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

It’s in this last statement that the pronouns change: When we are told that “you are standing,” it’s אַתֶּם, the “you” plural. Y’all. But when we are told that Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart,” it’s “you” singular. In the midst of the crowd of Israelites standing in the desert, Gd gives Torah to each one of us, individually, down to the humble watercarrier and woodchopper.

Parshat Nitzavim reminds us what we have always known: that there is power in standing, just as 9/11 brought home for us the devastating lesson that there is equal power when what once stood falls.

I had to stand before a judge to make the oath dissolving my relationship with my husband — and we all had to stand together to make the oath formalizing our relationship with Gd. These big moments in our life require nothing less than that we rise to meet them. In so doing we indicate our commitment, our intentionality, our seriousness, our authenticity. We stand in order to say: “We know what is at stake.”

Right now, we are all now standing at the gates of repentance. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, begins on Sunday evening. The gates open then, and they close again on Yom Kippur. My blessing for all of us is that we rise to meet Gd, the giver of judgment, just as we rose to meet Gd, the giver of Torah: together, all of us present.

I want for all of us to know that even as we take responsibility for our individual shortcomings and make atonement for our individual mistakes, that we do so as one people, standing before the Gd of the covenant, whose greatest gift to us was accountability on a human, not divine, scale. Gd gave Torah to us, to our mouths, to our hearts. It is not in heaven. It is right here.

standing divorcing at sinai

This year my husband and I split up, an extraordinarily painful process. And because Gd has a (brutal) sense of humor, this past semester I got to take a Lifecycle Seminar class that focused primarily on weddings. This is my final reflection for that class. (I was mercifully excused from having to write a wedding drasha for a ceremony.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss, drawing on a longstanding Jewish tradition of Shavuot as the occasion of the wedding between Gd and Israel, writes:

At Sinai, God and the people of Israel stood at the base of the mountain be-tahtit ha-har (Exodus 19:17). Commenting on the word be-tahtit, the Midrash concludes that we, the Jewish people, were literally standing beneath the mountain — much like bride and groom stand under the huppah, the bridal canopy during the wedding ceremony.

But there’s another, less felicitous, interpretation of the standing be-tahtit ha-har. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave” (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion.

Though not unique in Jewish tradition, for one passage to have such divergent interpretation is not insignificant. What does it mean for a symbol of a wedding to also be understood a sign of duress? These are not the happy thoughts that might typically spring to mind when considering the Jewish marriage ritual, but this Shavuot the Israelites’ committing themselves to Gd has had a particular resonance for me.

I attended my divorce hearing the morning of May 11. Because of unexpected circumstances, my soon-to-be ex-husband was not present. He was represented by his lawyer, who submitted a notarized statement on his behalf. The judge asked me to aver both that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” and that “there is no chance of reconciliation.” I hesitated for just the slightest second. I know she was looking for just a spoken affirmation of the statements; indeed, the process for our uncontested divorce was highly ritualistic, since we had already submitted a written, notarized separation agreement when we requested a hearing two months earlier.

But it seems to me that those two statements are not actually able to be answered with any kind of certainty. “Irretrievable”? “No chance”? I consider the resuscitation of our relationship highly unlikely, but I can’t know what the future holds. And I felt similarly when we got married. Though I was not asked during the ceremony to affirm any unrealistic statements (such as the traditional Christian vow of “until death do us part”), the specter of “forever” was nonetheless present. Again, even under the huppah I considered the dissolution of our relationship unlikely, but I couldn’t know what the future held.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my marriage I said what I was expected to say. But I wonder if in so doing I was back at Sinai along with all of the other Israelites chanting na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do, and we will understand”) — traditionally interpreted as a sign of our deep commitment to Torah. We are the people who first promise to observe the laws of Torah and only then to study them. We say this before revelation, according to the rabbis, and this is how they the solve the problem of the appearance of coercion that one of those Midrashim creates: We may have been threatened by Gd, but we had already accepted Gd’s conditions.

The nature of this acceptance of Torah speaks to my experience of the institution of marriage. I never felt the weight of the change in my legal status in entering into it as I have in leaving it; it’s been in the dissolution of the relationship have I’ve really understood its weight. Maybe it’s the same with Torah: It’s easy to accept but hard to keep. And the comparison could go even further: Even if the Israelites had decided to understand Torah first, they most likely would have never gotten to the acceptance. They might not have had time — after all, we spend our lives struggling with how Torah speaks to us — or they might have decided against it — after all, we are warned against overwhelming converts with too much Torah.

In the end, revelation and marriage are acts of faith. There are simply no guarantees in entering new relationships, and especially in formalizing them, even when both parties know each other pretty well. Gd and the Israelites had generations of monogamy, to put monotheism in human relational terms, before matan Torah. And many disappointments were to follow it.

This is (perhaps) a dour read of marriage. And I acknowledge that it is informed by where I am right now in relation to my divorce and to the institution of marriage. I doubt that I will be asked to perform an weddings anytime soon — but I couldn’t do it responsibly right now even if I were. I am too cynical about “happily ever after,” and I can’t stand the undimmed excitement of betrothed couples. Maybe my attitude will change radically with time. More likely, I hope I’ll be able to incorporate some of my current views into useful pastoral perspective. I can imagine that it might be helpful for some couples to have marriage taken off the pedestal and put in a more realistic context.

So maybe I am back at Sinai again, saying na’aseh v’nishma. I’m doing the process of healing with the faith that it will lead me to understanding.

don’t go near a woman

This post originally appeared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left the Building.

mayyim hayyim nametag; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mayyim hayyim nametag; photo by salem pearce via instagram

This semester, as part of my rabbinic education, I am taking a class on the book of Exodus. Recently, we’ve been studying the account of the revelation at Sinai.  In the complicated choreography of Moses (and others) going up and down the mountain in chapters 19 and 24, a question arises regarding Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about preparations for receiving the Torah.

In Ex. 19:10-11, God tells Moses that the people should wash their clothes in order to be ready for God’s appearance on Sinai. In verse 14, we’re told that the people have done so, but in the next verse Moses makes his own addition to God’s instructions: אַל-תִּגְשו אֶל-אִשָּׁה, “Do not go near a woman.”

In the hetero-normative world of Torah, it would seem that Moses is now speaking to the men encamped at the base of the mountain. But God’s previous instructions were more inclusive. In verse 3, God tells Moses: “So you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Concerned about the potential redundancy in “house of Jacob” and “sons of Israel,” Rashi identifies the first group as referring to women and the second, to men.

By comparison, the acceptance of the covenant in the last installation of the chumash (Five Books of Moses), in parshat Nitzavim, explicitly includes men, women, and children, both at that time and in the future (Deut. 29: 9-10).

It’s not at all clear what Moses intends with those four words; “Don’t go near a woman.” In all likelihood he is forbidding sexual intercourse. Indeed, this is how the phrase is almost universally understood.

The reason for the prohibition, following Rashi, is similarly widely accepted. Rashi believes that the abstinence is in order that the women may immerse themselves (in a mikveh) on the third day and be pure (spiritually ready) to receive the Torah. The idea being, that if any of the women in the camp had recently had intercourse, she would need three days to be considered ready for immersion, and in this case, ready for the revelation (Rashi on Exodus 19:15). Rashi, then, is bringing women back into the picture with Moses’ directive— and is also introducing the idea of mikveh.

This is an incredibly powerful idea in and of itself: Women have an equal share in the giving of Torah, and they are required to be in a state of ritual purity to receive it. In a text that has so far seen women’s value as principally procreative (especially in Genesis), to be full participants in the foundational Jewish narrative is near revolutionary. And we’re doing so through the mitzvah of mikveh.

But what’s more, the text demonstrates the primacy of mikveh itself. This might be the first allusion to the mitzvah in Torah. We don’t see the patriarchs immersing, and while we do have midrashim about the matriarchs’ practicing niddah, there is nothing as strongly suggestive in the Torah to this point as Moses’ charge to the Israelites at Sinai.

In preparation for the peak moment of the Israelites’ relationship with God, women visit the mikveh. A holy teaching for a sanctified people. And yet another reason to immerse, in remembrance of this transformational moment.

a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.

the world is on fire

I lost it this morning while chanting Torah.

I volunteered to read the weekday portion, Emor, at the beginning of the semester, not realizing that this reading would coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, we read the first 10 to 20 verses of the weekly portion. Parshat Emor begins with special laws for priests and for the high priest in their temple service, specifically around ritual impurity. Midway through the reading, a verse states:

“When the daughter of priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles: she shall be burnt in the fire.”

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As repugnant as it is on any day to read a sacred text, with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal liturgical event, about burning a woman to death, it is unconscionable on a day when we remember the Holocaust. I started crying, and I had a hard time stopping.

I was a little embarrassed, especially since at least one person at the Torah with me didn’t understand what was going on. I think the majority of folks got it, though. (There’s also the complicated relationship that I have to the Holocaust as a convert, as well as my anxiety how others perceive my relationship to the Holocaust as a convert — but that’s another story.)

Mostly, though, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re told to do something to one of us that will later be a part of the mass extermination of us by others. It’s almost as if the Torah presages the Holocaust.

Complicating the day further is the fact that on Mondays I take a class on the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. The traditional understanding of these services is really hard to stomach in conjunction with the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur in particular we confess our sins and declare our hope for G-d’s forgiveness. On Yom HaShoah, it’s hard not to think that G-d owes us.

My professor acknowledged this difficulty when he began the class by citing Yitz Greenberg: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

I would add, or a burning woman.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”


This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

i treated her harshly

I wrote this midrash (a story in the tradition of the rabbis, who used such tales to explain passages in the Tanakh) for an assignment in my class on Bereshit (Genesis). It’s based on some of the events in Genesis 12-16: Abraham’s passing Sarah off as his sister to Pharaoh, the covenant that G-d makes with Abraham, and Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham to bear her a son. It also assumes Rashi’s explanation that Hagar is Pharaoh’s daughter.


I am barren. Fruitless. Unproductive.

It’s all that that anyone knows about me.

We went forth from Ur, but no one has come forth from me. When we were in Egypt, I managed to secure provisions for my husband, but I cannot provide him with the security of a son.

Egypt. Where I met her. Where the seed was planted and began to grow. Just as the extent of my identity is barren, hers is daughter. She came to me that first night; she’d heard about us, the sojourners from Canaan. You are beautiful, she said as she walked into the room, startling me. I hadn’t even seen her father yet. She wanted to know, so I told her about Ur, and Haran, and Schem, and Beth-el. I’ve never been anywhere, she sighed. I thought, did I ever know a time when I so misconceived of the known? I miss my family, the streets of Ur, the river. We’ve been wandering in the desert for a long time. The desert that reflects back my own aridness.

I wasn’t well guarded. She came to me one night: I know the plagues are because of you. I’ll tell my father if you’ll let me go with you and your husband. To her, the unknown was pregnant with possibility. We all left Egypt with more.

She wept with me as we watched Lot move eastward. I remember watching Haran die; I thought I might be watching his son die, too. We comforted each other when my husband went to his rescue. We made plans to return to her father’s household if they didn’t return to us. Sometimes I wonder if we would have been better off.

I definitely wondered that a few mornings after he returned. She startled me again, this time by shaking me awake. I followed her outside the camp, to a large clearing. I screamed. At the far end, he was lying on the ground, unconscious, pieces of animal carcass next to him, buzzards circling above. Smoke swirled up from a pile of wood and bricks nearby. I fell to my knees. She looked with fright at me, and then at him, and then back at me.

The truth is that my husband frequently feels that far away. I used to bring food to the idols in his father’s shop in Ur; now he builds altars at Beth-el and Hebron. He talks in his sleep. He prays to a god I don’t know. They’re both mysterious to me. A long time ago, I thought that a child would ground us; one day after she and I revived him in that field, he mumbled to himself, “Your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs.” Your seed, I repeated softly. That possibility had stopped for me.

It was her idea. She said she didn’t know why I hadn’t asked before. I didn’t want to tell her that while he didn’t have a son, I had her. Though we had tried to do otherwise, it turned out that I still saw her as daughter, and she still saw me as barren.

She saw it as another adventure. I probably should have known that ten years of the same would make her restless again.

She gave me the words to say, the language of his god. She was a quicker study than I. “Behold, now, the Lord has kept me from bearing.” In spite of myself, I began to hope. When I asked him, I allowed myself to imagine building a different future. And suddenly, the desert wasn’t so dry anymore.

Later, I soaked the bedclothes with tears. I blamed myself more than him, and him more than her. It was my wrong. I thought it would make them both happy. But separately. I underestimated her need for a new role and his need for a son. The future was now theirs.

I lashed out, and I hit him where it hurt. “The Lord judge between you and me.” His face became expressionless, like he was once again unconscious. He couldn’t see my pain in the midst of his own. “Do to her what seems appropriate in your eyes,” he replied stiffly. I know I had wounded him deeply, that he was able to let go of his son, his only son, the one whom he loved.

Her, too, I treated harshly. She was too brave not to run away, and so she did. I am childless.

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”


At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.


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