king of salem

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on October 24, 2015, Shabbat Lech Lecha. I originally wrote it as an assignment for my homiletics class. (If you want citations — not here because this text was for preaching — let me know!)

As a Jew and as a rabbi-to-be, I believe one of my main goals, both personal and professional, is to make meaning of Torah today — to ask, how is this relevant to my life and the lives of others? Put another way, my job is to find myself — and to find us — in Torah.

There are times when this job is harder than others, as in parshat Nasso, when we read the deeply misogynistic text of the Sotah, or on Yom Kippur, when we read laws of purity that have been distorted to justify homophobia.

And there are times when it’s just handed to me on a silver platter, as in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, with the appearance of King Malchitzedek of Salem.

This little known figure shows up in our text shortly after Avram and Lot split ways: Uncle and nephew decide to go in opposite directions to avoid competing for resources in the land of Canaan. But soon after, they are reunited, when Avram rescues Lot and his family, taken as prisoners of war in an puzzling episode known as “the battle of the kings.”

This short incident in Genesis 14 has only a tenuous connection to the previous narrative of Avram’s wanderings. Indeed, this chapter has often been noted as unique. It associates the patriarch Avram — not yet Avraham — with pseudo-historical events and presents him as a shrewd and revered military leader, a role unattested for him elsewhere in Torah. The story is of four kings who wage war against five others; after Avram’s successful campaign to recover Lot and his family, he declines the proffer of the defeated king of Sodom.

But the visit of the king of Sodom is interrupted by a brief interlude. He comes out to greet Avram, but the rest of their interaction is postponed by the interpolation of three short verses (Gen. 14:18-20) — about yet a tenth king not mentioned as part of any of the preceding battles.

.וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן
And Malchitzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine; and he was a priest of God the Most High.

.וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
And he blessed [Avram], and said: “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”

.בָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
“And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Only then, after these three verses, does the narrative of King Sodom resume.

Malchitzedek as priest -- with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Malchitzedek as priest — with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

King Malchitzedek appears out of nowhere, both textually and contextually. I’ve long been interested in this mysterious figure, most obviously for his provenance. Most translations, including the JPS that I just quoted, render מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם as “king of Salem.” As you might expect, “Salem” is understood as a name for Jerusalem.

Underscoring the peculiarity of the Malchitzedek story is the fact that the verse in Genesis is the only place in Torah to refer to Jerusalem by name. No other patriarch is connected with Jerusalem. We are told of many places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars — “but,” says one Biblical scholar, “there is no association with the one place that was later to monopolize the Judean cult.” As central as Jerusalem becomes in the development of Judaism, the city as such has almost no role in Torah.

As it turns out, it is the invocation of this king in Christian scripture that is the source of my name. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is repeatedly compared to Malchitzedek. A verse explains, “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is the king of Salem, that is, ‘the king of peace’” (Heb. 7:2). This inspired my parents, and they hoped for a peaceful child, my mom says. As a regular confounder of expectations, I am not sure that is always what I have given her.

And lest you doubt that the universe has a sense of irony, it is pointed out in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that the Letter to the Hebrews, the source of my name, has the dubious distinction of “the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text.”

Beside the fact of him as my namesake, I’ve also been drawn to Malchitzedek for another reason. As a convert, I sometimes struggle with the idea of Jewish ancestry. Officially I am Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah — but neither of those two of our ancestors particularly resonates with me. When I say the amidah, I include Bilhah and Zilpah — the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, and the mothers of four of the later tribes of Israel — because often feel that I relate more to women not native to the Abrahamic line. Though Malchitzedek does not explicitly express belief in Avram’s monotheism, tradition identifies him as a priest of the Hebrew Gd — making him, in Nahum Sarna’s words, “an example of the biblical idea of individual non-Hebrews who acknowledge the one God. Such a one was Jethro; another, Balaam; a third, Job. Melchizedek thus belongs to this category.” In this way, he is sort of proto-convert. One commentator even declares unequivocally that he is Avram’s convert.

A mentor once suggested, as I worked on framing my Jewish journey for a “story of self” for activist work, that Malchitzedek might be a source of inspiration and identification. And so I wondered, is there more than etymology and provenance to recommend this “king of righteousness, king of Salem” to me? Who is this strange figure? What does the Torah mean by including such a singular character in the Abrahamic cycle?

Malchitzedek really comes to life only in rabbinic and later literature, where he is almost universally identified as Shem, one of the sons of Noah. We know almost nothing about him from Tanakh. Besides the passage in Genesis, Malchitzedek only mentioned elsewhere in Psalm 110 (v. 4), where Gd is said to swear:

אַתָּה-כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל-דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Malchitzedek.”

This psalm refers to a royal priesthood: Noting that this hymn has the epigraph לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר, “a psalm of David,” the rabbis explain that the Shem/Malchitzedek character was a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy, which descended from Judah and Tamar, a daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Shem. Also in the line of David? Ruth, the Tanakh’s most famous convert. This convert king, whose convert descendant was the great-grandmother of דָוִד המֶּלֶך, might indeed be a good ancestor for me.

Interestingly, the Christian tradition understands this verse from Psalm 110 as an allusion to Jesus, with its references to the offices of king and priest in one man. All the more reason to recommend him to my Christian parents!

Indeed, in many early Christian traditions, Malchitzedek is Jesus. In one Gnostic text, the king lives, preaches, dies, and is resurrected. The book of Hebrews makes essentially the same point, focusing on the divinity of Jesus, when it claims that Malchitzedek is “without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of Gd . . .” (Heb. 7:3).

Jewish tradition gets similarly carried away: In various sources, Malchitzedek is the son of a virgin who is already dead at the time of his birth; the teacher of Torah to the patriarchs before it was given at Sinai; and is spirited by the archangel Gabriel to Gan Eden to escape Noah’s flood. The rich variety of lore that arose around this enigmatic character speaks to how compelling those three short verses in Lech Lecha have been through the ages and through traditions.

These interpretations are indeed fascinating — and they actually go on and on and on — but I think meaning for us may first be found simply in the placement of the Malchitzedek incident, obviously interposed into the interaction of the King of Sodom with Avram. Abarbanel claims that, in doing so, the text is trying to show the striking contrast between the behavior of the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Drawing on conventions of war, the Or HaHayyim explains further:

The interpolation regarding Malchitzedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Malchitzedek the righteous, with no obligation, behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine.

This understanding has much to recommend it: That the king of Sodom acts inhospitably foreshadows the destruction of the city of Sodom a few chapters later.

Though both of these commentators focus on what the incident suggests about the king of Sodom, I am interested in what the incident suggests about the king of Salem: What we do know about Malchitzedek from Torah is that he lives up to his name as a righteous man. Without prelude or pretext, Malchitzedek offers Avram a meal and blesses him — and then blesses their shared Gd, as creator of heaven and earth. Simply and humbly, Malchitzedek honors Avram.

The Yalkut Shimoni draws on the tradition of Malchitzedek as Shem, the son of Noah, to make even more explicit what his interaction with Avram means. The midrash imagines a longer conversation, after the flood:

[Avraham] said to Malchitzedek, “How was it that you [merited] to go out of the ark?”

[Malchitzedek] replied, “Because of the tzedakah that we did there.”

[Avraham] said, “What tzedekah did you do in the ark? Were there poor people there? Isn’t it the case that there was only Noah and his children there? So, for whom did you do tzedakah?”

[Malchitzedek] said, “For the cattle and the animals and the birds. We didn’t sleep for tending to this one or that one.”

Then Avraham said, “Had they not done tzedakah for the cattle and animals and birds, they would not have [merited] to go out of the ark! It was because they did this tzedakah that they went out. If I do so for human beings, who are in the image of Gd, how much more will I [merit]!

And then, we’re told, Avraham acts: Consistent with our understanding of this patriarch as the paradigm of hospitality, he opens an inn for needy travelers, providing them with food, drink, and funeral escort. It’s the king of Salem who first models for Avram this particular act of righteousness, when Malchitzedek acts with unfettered generosity towards a virtual stranger. And, as the midrash teaches us, Avram does the same in turn.

I don’t know that my parents are deep readers of Biblical text: In the church I attended as a child, I was taught that there was always one, literal meaning of any part of scripture. But I can’t believe that King Malchitzedek, King of Salem, King of Righteousness, my namesake, came into my life by accident. This border crosser, this convert, this mysterious figure claimed by both Jewish and Christian tradition, this king of Salem — Malchitzedek is a character that I can see myself in.

This deeper understanding of my name has made me start to think about the markers that our parents set out for us, knowingly and unknowingly. My parents definitely did not anticipate that I would find a spiritual, intellectual, and activist home in Judaism — but in naming me for Malchitzedek, they did bless me with the hope of peace and righteousness. Ultimately, they gave me what I needed to find my own way.

In parshat Lech Lecha, we generally focus on Avram’s call from Gd and his leap of faith.

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Avram, we usually say, began his pioneering journey of monotheism, as the first Jew, by literally setting out on a new and unknown path.

But last week, at the very end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually Terach, Avram’s father, who begins the journey by setting out with his family from אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים. Does Terach know what is in store for Avram? Is Terach helping Avram by initiating the first stage of his wanderings in a new land? We can only guess. Knowingly or unknowingly, like my parents, Terach acts in a way that allows his child to find his own path and identity. Avram develops a relationship with the one Gd and becomes Avraham — and later, Avraham Avinu, the father of us all.

I wonder if Avraham ever realized what Terach had done for him. I like to think he did. I like to think that somewhere along the way Avraham acknowledged that he didn’t actually become who he became through his actions alone. It was Terach, in leaving his home, who first blessed him with the model of fearlessness and faith. I like to think that Avraham spent his life trying to live up to that blessing — as I will strive to do with my parents’ blessing of naming me for King Malchitzedek, King of Righteousness, King of Peace, King of Salem.

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at

The t-shirt I mention in this post is available for purchase! All proceeds go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a local organization that my husband and I think is doing really important work. Wear your Jewish feminist commitment with pride. To own your very own matriarchs t-shirt, go to

In an odd confluence of events, I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about ancestry.

First, my husband made me an awesome shirt. (It’s in the style of this “goddesses” shirt — at least this is the first instantiation that I knew about; one of my classmates said the meme was originally from a band.) My shirt lists the six Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. You can buy one here, thanks to my husband, and all proceeds will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

When my husband and I were talking about making the shirt, his idea included just the first four women, who are indeed traditionally considered “the matriarchs.” Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, who married Rebecca, who had Jacob, who married Rachel and Leah. The latter two women gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel) and Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (Leah).

But Bilhah and Zilpah also gave birth to sons of Jacob whose lines would become four of the twelve tribes of Israel. The two were handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, given to the women by their father Laban on the occasion of their marriages to Jacob. Bilhah had Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah had Gad and Asher. The tribes that these men and their brothers (and their nephews) founded ended up in Egypt as slaves to Pharoah, leading to the Exodus story that is foundational in Jewish history. If, in the logic of the Bible, patrilineal descent is what matters, then Bilhah and Zilpah deserve as much recognition as the traditional four matriarchs for their role in the creation of the Israelite people.

Of course, that’s a low bar. If we know little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we know even less about Bilhah and Zilpah. They are passed from Laban to his daughters, and then loaned out by them to Jacob. They are so considered property that it is Rachel and Leah who have the honor of naming Bilhah and Ziplah’s sons. So we’re told in Genesis 30:6, after Bilhah gives birth for the first time, “And Rachel said: ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan.” Bilhah and Zilpah speak not a word in the Torah.

This issue of inclusion comes up most often in the amidah, the “standing” prayer and the most central one in Judaism. Said at every prayer service, the amidah begins with a section usually called the Avot (“Fathers”). It begins, “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, G-d of our Fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Jacob, and G-d of Isaac.” In progressive circles, one usually adds the Imahot (“Mothers”): “G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Rachel, and G-d of Leah” — as well as adding a few other words at various places to make the prayer more inclusive.

As my friend and teacher Eli Herb says,

When Jews use the word “imahot” they mean Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This comes from old traditions that say there are seven ancestors, namely those four women plus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many Jews appended the name of the “imahot” to ritual prayer as a feminist gesture. This gesture was remarkable in its time. However, as a convert, I have never been able to figure out how to include imahot authentically. This is for the very simple reason that there are NOT four matriarchs. There are six. The two that are left out are of questionable status as “part of the tribe” because they were slaves. I do not know how any self respecting feminist/progressive Jew can continue to omit two of the imahot. Yet the vast majority of the “progressive” Jewish world, including Hebrew College, can not seem to move past the discussion of how important it was to include “THE imahot” in the amidah. We are NOT including “THE imahot,” friends. Rather we are making a dramatic statement about how we still do not know how to truly include the imahot; we still actively silence women and strangers.

Most of the time at Hebrew College, at my synagogue, and at the Hebrew school where I teach, the prayer leader includes “the” imahot. (A few of my classmates don’t, and, frankly, it irks me.) If not all/none of the imahot are included, I make sure to say them to myself. (A husband of one of my classmates tells me that there is rabbinical precedent for recognizing the six matriarchs, in Bemidbar Rabbah and Esther Rabbah.)

This year I’m in a new tefila group, the so-called “Moshiach Minyan.” We explore the way prayer can be a forum for collective liberation and how it can sustain us in our work as activists. A recent exercise saw us rewriting the Avot section of the amidah. I found this task both daunting and exciting — and in an hour, I came up with a list of names of those who made it possible for me to be me.

Blessed are you, Lord, my G-d and G-d of my ancestors. (Ancestors? Antecedents. The ones who came before.) The G-d who created those who created the world I inhabit, who have accompanied me on my journey, and who allow me to exist as I am. The G-d of Southern Baptists; the G-d of Hardy; the G-d of Homer and Socrates; the G-d of Virgil and Ovid; the G-d of the Brontes and Eliot; the G-d of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Bulgakov, and Akhmatova; the G-d of Wells-Barnett, Lorde, Rich, Sanger, and Doe.

We shared our writing with each other, and almost everyone wrote about some aspect of their inheritance, whether from parents loving or harsh, from civil rights pioneers, or from past experiences. Mine reads like a timeline of my intellectual development, and I’m not totally sure that’s what I am seeking when I say the avot and imahot section of the amidah.

Like Eli, I feel conflicted when saying this portion of the amidah. As a convert, these nine ancestors absolutely are my ancestors. And they’re not. I still feel a tiny twinge when I’m called up to the Torah and I give my Hebrew name as “Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah.” (“Bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah” is the traditional formula for converts, whose parents generally don’t have Hebrew names.) I don’t love being publicly marked as a convert (the only place in Jewish ritual where that happens), and I feel it’s a little disrespectful to my actual parents.

And I can feel even worse when my ancestry is questioned. I volunteer once-a-month at a nearby senior living facility, leading a short Shabbat morning service. The first time I was there, I was talking to several of the residents after the service, and one of them asked me about school and what I was studying. She then exclaimed, “You don’t look Jewish at all! You could be a little Irish girl!” And then she kept repeating it. As I’ve written before, I usually pass pretty easily, so it’s always a bit jarring when I don’t. I didn’t take the bait (if bait it was — I’m never quite sure what people want to hear when they say things like that). I just shrugged and smiled.

The issue came up again recently in an “Exploring Jewish Diversity” workshop that I took through the Boston Workman’s Circle. The class was billed as a conversation about how cultural heritage, class, race, and privilege inform Jewish identity. In the States, Jews are largely assumed to be white and Ashkenazi; Jews of color and of other cultural heritages are often ignored. We were given a list of Ashkenazi privilege to examine. Many of them describe me — and some absolutely do not. My friend who attended the workshop with me asked me if I considered myself Ashkenaz. Similarly to my feelings about the avot and imahot, I absolutely do — and yet am not fully. I learned to be Jewish in and I now inhabit an Ashkenazi Jewish world. It is my cultural heritage, one that I chose (if not that thoughtfully). But, for instance, I am obviously not at risk for genetic disorders that are prevalent in this population. And I’m still occasionally questioned about whether I’m “really” Jewish.

born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

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.”

feminist teshuvah

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d 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.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.


Today began and ended with my reflecting on marriage. It also began with sad tears and ended with happy ones.

I am sorry to say that this morning I had to go to D.C. police (MPD) headquarters. My husband had his wallet and phone stolen from a gym locker last month, and the police report on the incident was the last document I needed to complete our renter’s insurance claim. The insurance company had requested the report from MPD but naturally had not yet received it three weeks later. The complainant (or the complainant’s spouse) can request the report for free — but only in person! — so I headed to Judiciary Square after breakfast. I expected the process to be at least somewhat trying — as is almost all interaction with District bureaucracy.

It started with the metal detector. “You have cuticle clippers in your purse,” the guy running the x-ray machine tells me. “Where are you going?” When I tell him I need a copy of a police report, he non sequiturs, “Please take the clippers out of the building.” (I have no idea why he asked me what I was doing in the building, because it sure didn’t seem to make a difference to him.)

“I have to leave them outside?” I ask, confused. “I didn’t say that,” he responds. “You have to take them out of the building.”

Sighing, I take the offending object outside and place it on a concrete window ledge. I come back inside and repeat the security drill. This time (but why wasn’t it last time as well?) it’s a pair of tweezers. “Take them outside the building,” he repeats.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This time, it’s my coin purse. He tells me to just hold on to it as I walk through the metal detector, which of course goes off. I point out the coin purse in my hand to the other security person, who wands me anyway. The wand beeps near my jacket pocket: my office keys, which haven’t caused the metal detector to go off during the previous three times I’ve already been through it. “Why did you leave those in your pocket?” she demands. Flustered, I stammer that I must have forgotten about them. She motions me back again. I put the keys in the purse and try again. This time she wants to know why I’m holding my coin purse. “Because he told me to,” I almost scream in frustration.

All of this would merely be Kafkaesque, but I’m retelling it to underline the fact that I was in no mood for bullshit when I got to the Public Documents Unit. The trouble begins when the woman returns with copy of the report she’s retrieved. “I need to see your ID, because your name isn’t on the report.” I explain that I wasn’t involved in the incident and hand her my driver’s license. She hands it back to me: “I need to see something with your married name.”

Feeling the heat rising, I force myself to say calmly, “I don’t have a ‘married name.’ I didn’t change my name when I got married. I am telling you he’s my husband; the address on my license is the same as his on the report, and I am wearing a wedding ring.”

“Well, I’m wearing a wedding ring, and my husband’s dead.” (Yes. She actually said that.) She continues, “I can’t believe you don’t have something with his name.” We go back and forth in this vein until she finally thrusts the report at me and peevishly informs me, “You just got a free report.”

“Yes,” I reply. “The free report that I’m entitled to as the complainant’s spouse!” I’m so angry at this point I am shaking. “So you say,” she ends.

I’m crying before I’ve gotten on the elevator, kicking myself for letting her get to me and for not anticipating something like this. The thought did flash through my brain as I was looking online for how to get a police report: It’s free for a spouse . . . I wonder how that is verified? (There is absolutely nothing on that page about needing proof of marriage or what that would entail.) As far as I can tell, the Public Documents Unit at MPD is “verifying” marriage through last names.

Not only is this “policy” hopelessly old-fashioned (I can’t believe I’m the first spouse with a different last name to request a copy of a police report), it’s only going to become more problematic as same-sex married couples (who choose to take each other’s names even less than straight people do) become victims of crime. So MPD is either going to have to come up with a way to easily verify marriage, or they’re just going to have to take our word for it. The kicker to all of this is that the fee for police report for a third party is $3. The woman who works in this office gave me a hard time over three dollars.

I was surprised this hurt so much, and I don’t cry easily. In retrospect I know it bothered me because I have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy. (And I choose these words in particular because my therapist has said exactly this to me: “Salem, you have issues with one-size-fits-all corporate or bureaucratic policy.”) And this is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic policy par excellence. Usually I just get annoyed or frustrated with this type of stupid inflexibility, not hurt. But this felt like an attack on my personal choices — and on my commitment to my marriage. It devastated me that someone would doubt that I was married solely because my spouse and I don’t share a last name.

The day ended better than it began, though. From one of my least favorite D.C. institutions to one of my favorite: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I went to the 6th & the City Friday night services because my friend Julia would be there on her last night in D.C. before moving to L.A., and my friend Annie was celebrating her aufruf.

Kabbalat Shabbat services always make me feel better, and sitting in the pew — listening to Rabbi Shira bless Annie and Marc, singing siman tov and mazel tov, watching everyone dance around the sanctuary, and throwing candy — I was so grateful to be a part of tradition that celebrates marriage. There was no one in that crowded room who thought any less of my marriage because my husband and I have different last names (least of all the rabbi, who also does not share a name with her husband). My heart was full, and I was happy to be affirmed, happy for Annie and Marc, happy to be Jewish, back in the space where I got married. Hare ata mekudeshet li betaba’ at zo k’dat Moshe v’ Yisrael . . .

what’s in a name?

A few weeks ago, I went to an event at Sixth & I hosted by “Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood” (a group that comes with the hilarious caveat, “For women in their 20s and 30s. And for the record, we love all bubbes everywhere.”)

The event was co-hosted by Lilith magazine: The cover article of its latest issues asks, “What’s in a Hyphen?” In it, the author explores “what’s lost, reclaimed, or reimagined when we’re hyphenates” (joining both parents’ surnames). In the salon-style event, we split up into small groups to talk about names and identities.

The discussion’s focus was a little too heterocentric for my comfort, but since name changing often happens when women marry men, and since I’ve struggled with this very issue, I’ll admit that I only tried to change the subject a couple of times.

I did not change my name when I got married. I always assumed that I wouldn’t, especially since I identify strongly as “Salem Pearce.” My husband wasn’t interested in changing his name, so any conversation that might have occurred ended there.

But I secretly struggled with the decision. I say secretly because it was hard for me to admit; I didn’t even tell my husband about my wavering until a few years after we were married.

“Pearce” is my father’s name, and my relationship with him is difficult, to put it mildly. When I visit him and my mother in Houston, we get along, but only when we stick to the safe topics of the weather, home improvement, and sports. My husband likes to tease that all I did by keeping my name was choose my father’s name over my husband’s, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I got married when I was 31: By that time, “Pearce” was my name, too.

But there’s another layer. As a convert, I long for a readily identifiable Jewish name, and my marriage could have offered an easy path to this. “Pearce” is just about the WASP-iest name there is, but I’m not sure I can see myself as anything else.

As it turns out, this desire for a more Jewish name is not limited to converts! The rabbi who teaches my b’nai mitzvah class cited as her reason for taking her husband’s name the fact that her father isn’t Jewish: Thus, she opted for “Holtzblatt” over her birth name. And one of the participants in the salon arranges trips to Israel in her job and fears that the people she corresponds with assume she’s not Jewish because of her non-Jewish-sounding name.

Of course, a fair number of “Jewish” names — ones that we dub “Jewish sounding” and ones that we’ve come to think of as “Jewish” — have been changed from the originals: at Ellis Island, by immigrants themselves, by longtime Jewish residents who wanted to be less readily identifiably Jewish. My colleague Liz just told me last week that her grandfather changed his last name from Rosenblum to Ross, and it was her father who changed it again to its current form, Rose. My father’s family has been “Pearce” for centuries: So many recent changes boggle my mind.

If I’m being honest, another thing that boggles my mind is the fact that two women in the salon were ambivalent about changing their names at their upcoming marriages. Feeling strongly one way or another I understand, but not knowing how you feel? Harder to get. Another soon-to-be-wed (to-a-woman) woman said she wouldn’t even consider it. But the best story of the night belonged to a woman who had changed her name when she got married, for a year felt like a stranger to herself with a new name, and then changed it back to her birth name! She said that her husband was fine with both decisions, and the only reason she made the first one was that she thought she should do something that was expected for once in her life. Of course, that’s overrated.


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