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.”

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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.

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

first person

Yesterday I heard a Holocaust survivor speak in-person for the first time in my life. A few weeks ago, after finishing Refuge in Hell, with its many survivor interviews, I realized that I hadn’t ever heard a survivor speak about his/her experience firsthand, save the film that runs at the end of the permanent exhibit “The Holocaust” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I went to the museum for the first time in the spring of 1995, right after it opened, and I haven’t been back since (except for a quick visit to the gift shop — for classroom supplies with my mom — last July). But I’ve been thinking about the site a lot recently since Stephen Johns was murdered one year ago today.

On June 10, 2009, a man dressed in a confederate coat walked up to the museum’s entrance. Johns, a security guard at the museum, saw him and moved to open the door for the 88-year-old man, who then opened fire on the museum with the rifle hidden in his coat. Johns died at GWU Hospital, where my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, as the Director of Spiritual Care, was called to minister to the Johns family — a job which later played a role in the hospital’s firing her in July. I’ve been working for Rabbi Miller for the past six months, helping her to build her new private practice in the wake of her dismissal.

This is how I found myself, a little before 1:00 p.m., making my way to the museum to hear Inge Katzenstein (née Berg) as part of its “First Person” series.

I was already thinking about senseless loss of life as I walked up to the building. And my sadness only increased as I navigated to the Rubenstein auditorium. The architecture of the museum is purposefully inescapable. Imposing. You can’t pretend that you’re anywhere except a memorial to the genocide of 6 million people, even if you just want to hear a nice Jewish lady tell about her family’s escape from Germany to Kenya, and then to the United States.

After a brief introduction by (the rather unfortunately named) Bill Benson — an introduction which included several pictures of the Berg family, including the one above of Inge, her sister, and her cousin — Inge sat down with Bill for an informal interview.

A member of an observant Jewish family, Inge lived in a small village outside of Cologne. Kristallnacht was the breaking point for her parents, who had been trying to leave Germany since 1933, but had been denied entry to the United States. (Inge recalled that they had a quota number, but it was so high, she quipped, “I doubt it would have even come up by today.”) Her father illegally left Germany for Holland right after Kristallnacht, and through a cousin who was a lawyer in the then British colony, 17 of her family members obtained visas for entry into Kenya.

Inge’s mother was left alone to manage the clean-up of the family’s house — which had been ransacked, and all items within damaged or destroyed, during Kristallnacht — as well as the orchestration of the family’s move to Africa. In May 1939, Inge, her mother, and her sister left Cologne for good; they made their way first to Switzerland and later to Genoa, Italy, where they caught a German boat to Mombasa. (At that point, the Germans were apparently happy to help Jews leave Europe.) And the boat even provided kosher meals!

Inge, her mother, and her sister lived in Nairobi while her father, his parents, and an uncle and a cousin ran the farm in the highlands. Eventually though, the political climate in Kenya became uncomfortable for the Bergs, who were considered to be Germans by the British and by the Kenyans, and in 1947, they immigrated to the United States.

I especially loved hearing all of the little details in Inge’s story. Her observant family managed to keep kosher even after such customs were outlawed in Germany through a cousin who had been a kosher butcher; after the Nuremburg Laws were passed, his business continued to slaughter animals but fired a shot afterwards, so that anyone listening wouldn’t suspect a ritual killing.

Inge recalled being driven with her grandparents out of her village to the relative safety of the countryside after the day after Kristallnacht. Her grandmother’s leg was in a cast, and Inga related how her grandmother used the cast to keep her on the floor of the car, so she and her sister couldn’t see what had happened to the village.

My favorite story was one that illustrated Inge’s self-described “rebellious” nature. A boy called her “a dirty Jew,” and Inge, tired of such insults, gave him a bloody nose. “And then I ran,” she grinned.

refuge in hell

Yesterday I finished Refuge in Hell, recommended to me by one of my Melton instructors (and University of Maryland Hillel executive director) Rabbi Ari Israel. Ari brought up the book during the Melton lesson about Yom HaShoah; we were discussing the post-war debate by Israel’s Knesset about whether to designate a day as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Hard as it is to imagine in the early 21st century, when the Holocaust is generally considered *the* defining Jewish experience of the 20th century (rivaled only perhaps by the non-unrelated event of the founding of the state of Israel), there were members of the Knesset who spoke out against establishing such a day. For some, the issue was choosing a day to be symbolic of the extermination, as many Holocaust survivors rightly considered every day of the war to be “Holocaust Day.” Others argued that the victims of Nazi genocide should be remembered on the traditional Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Ultimately, the Knesset decided to designate the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but this was problematic because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. The date was finally moved to the 27th of Nisan.

During our class, the discussion wound its way to the commemoration of Holocaust, when Ari brought up the fact of Berlin’s WWII-era Jewish hospital — which had potential to become a symbol of Jewish survival but never did. In fact, most people don’t even know its story.

Daniel B. Silver’s book would seem to be the definitive history of the institution (in English at least). Silver is an attorney, not a historian, who just happened upon his knowledge of and interest in the hospital, which inspired him to write the book — but his account is obviously exhaustively researched and documented (including interviews with former hospital employees). The story begins a little slowly, and is slightly repetitive at the outset, but overall Silver presents a detailed view of Jewish life in Berlin from 1938 to 1945, during which time the hospital survived as the one, improbable outpost of Jewish life in the headquarters of the Third Reich.

One of the most interesting details that Silver uncovers is the role that intermarriage played in the hospital’s survival. Pre-war, German Jews were among the most assimilated in all of Europe, leading to a much higher rate of Jews’ marrying Aryans than in neighboring countries. Although Nazi racist ideology would, all other factors’ being equal, have not considered these Jews to be any different than less assimilated Jews, German ideals about the sanctity of marriage trumped (for a while) the Nazis’ ability to dissolve these family ties through deportation and arrest. Thus, Jews in what were deemed “mixed marriages” (although in many cases the participants themselves might not have considered them so) were afforded more privileges than other Jews. And many members of these mixed marriages worked, or came to work, at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. So while intermarriage in descried in the United States in the 21st century as a threat to Jewish life, in Nazi Germany it might have contributed to its survival.

And herein lies the main reason that Silver posits for the obscurity in which the hospital has languished, in historical terms: It is admittedly difficult to seize upon, as a symbol of Jewish survival, an institution that may well owe its existence to intermarriage and assimilation.

Silver concludes the book with an afterword, in which he notes the current locations and occupations of the hospital employees. I was struck by how . . . ordinary their post-war lives war. Almost all emigrated from Germany and then found fairly pedestrian employment in their adopted countries. Perhaps the routine and quotidian was by then a siren call, after years of living on the brink of hell. But I think the post-war stories also serve to underline the fact that it was ordinary people, pressed into extraordinary circumstances, who contributed to the survival of a Jewish institution — and therefore many Jews — in the heart of the Nazi regime.

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