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.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

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.

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver. Another example: A nazirite is not allowed to drink wine. Therefore you are not allowed to offer wine to a nazirite because of lifnei iver.

By contrast, veahavta lereiacha kamocha is hardly heard in legal discourse, outside of a few citations by the Rambam. And I can imagine how helpful it could be! Don’t hit anyone — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t overcharge in business — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t throw loud parties at 3am — because love thy neighbor as thyself.

But no, it’s the bit about the blind person that gets dragged out time and time again.

In interpreting biblical verses, giants in the tradition, such as Rashi and Rambam, pull on the Talmud’s statement, “Ein mikra yotzei midei pshuto” (Shabbat, yevamot) — a verse’s interpretation may not contradict its plain meaning. Though it isn’t universally applied, let’s try it here.

What is the literal meaning of lifnei iver? The halakhic implications of not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind would surely include tucking your backpack under your chair rather than leaving it in the aisle at the library. Making sure that all announcements posted on the bulletin board are also conveyed auditorily. Taping down the edges of rugs so they don’t get folded and become tripping hazards.

Using lifnei iver to name a category of situations where a person is drawn to forbidden acts not only obscures the simple meaning of the verse, it also subliminally erodes the esteem in which we hold blind people. They lose their agency, becoming faceless victims to circumstance, led into horrible situations because they can’t control their own environments.

We have a similar problem in English. We say that someone is “deaf to the cries of those in need” or “blind to the plight of people.” What we actually mean is “willfully ignorant.” We use “schizophrenic” to describe an incoherent argument and “obsessive-compulsive” to describe our coworker’s tidily organized desk.

But this leaves us open to harming others in our inarticulate use of language. How would it feel to be a deaf person and have your identity constantly used to mean “ignorant”? How would it feel to be struggling with anxious repetitive behavior that caused clinically significant impairment and have your diagnosis dismissed as behavior typical of precise or controlling personality types?

Perhaps we are drawn to expansive readings of lifnei iver because we convince ourselves that we would never be so careless as to place an actual barrier in front of an actual blind person. And it feels daunting to try to shift our language around any of these issues. There are too many people asking too many things of us. And maybe I don’t understand why they are asking me to change my language from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

How would the halakhic category of caring for each other’s vulnerabilities be different if we framed it as Veahavta lereiacha kamocha instead of lifei iver? If we came from an angle of thinking through and asking how we can be of service to another human like ourselves, rather than taking a patronizing tack and assuming we know how to best serve a person who is unlike us?

Veahavta lereiacha kamocha relationships are admittedly harder than lifnei iver relationships. It requires us to learn about each other’s experiences, act with compassion and humility, give benefit of the doubt, and trust that everyone else is doing the same. But what we stand to gain is a life where we learn about each other’s experiences and community characterized by compassion, humility, trust, and second chances.

Kamocha means that the person in question is fundamentally like me, relatable. It pushes against our instinct to view ourselves as separate from each other. Kamocha encourages us to see difference as incidental rather than fundamental. This solidarity lends itself to compassion. Problematically, the lifnei iver frame puts me in a place of approaching an “other” who is fundamentally different from me. On the other hand, the veahavta lereiacha kamocha tack lends itself to broadly defining who we mean when we say “us” and using language to both reflect and encourage inclusive notions of community.

In the mindset of lifnei iver, if I don’t understand the utility of putting effort into changing language, then it isn’t incumbent upon me to try. I don’t have evidence leading me to believe that what I do is going to trip them up. Additionally, I have no responsibility to be proactive, to think about and ask about other people’s needs. If I just care about avoiding stumbling blocks, then I am only responsible for the harm I do through action, but not the harm I do through inaction

But if we work the same situation from a frame of veahavta lereiacha kamocha, we come to a very different conclusion. A human being has told me that they want me to change my language around a particular topic — gender, mental illness, disability, race, income, whatever. They seem to have a real stake in the issue. Veahavta lereiacha kamocha does not invite me to weigh whether I think this language should or shouldn’t matter to them or whether it will or won’t radically change society.  It invites me simply to respect another human’s stated experience and join them in creating the world they wish to live in.

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.

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at www.therearesix.com

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 www.therearesix.com.

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.

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.

reading texts together

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 am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

columns of consonants

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again.

This is how I’ve been spending a good deal of my time this summer, as I mentioned in a previous post. We’ve held a once-a-week summer minyan at Hebrew College on Thursday mornings, one of the weekdays on which Torah is read. And I’ve leyned (read Torah) every week there since the end of May. I’ve also read four times on Shabbat at Nehar Shalom, the community synagogue in our new neighborhood.

I’ve loved reading Torah ever since I first did so at my bat mitzvah a little more than a year ago. I was part of an adult b’nai mitzvah class, and we each read three or four verses. One of my classmates dropped out towards the end, so I read her part as well — a whopping seven verses! And I worked on those seven verses for about four months.

A few weeks ago I read for the fourth time this summer at Nehar, and I was the only reader — for a total of 30 verses. (Nehar follows a triennial cycle of Torah reading, meaning that, like many other congregations, only a third of the weekly parshah is read each week.) I learned those in under a week. Same thing yesterday: The weekday portion for parshah Eikev is unusually long — 25 verses — and I learned those in about a week, too.

I’m proud of this progress — most of which has been achieved in the past two months by just forcing myself to volunteer. Both the minyans I’ve been reading at this summer use a Google doc for sign-ups, and it’s amazing how indelible it feels to type your name in a shared, editable web document, in a field marked “aliyah 1.”

Indeed, it has been one of my goals this summer to improve my Torah reading skills. This past year I took an entire class on Cantillation, the art of the ritual chanting of Torah, and it’s a bit of a complicated process. The class focused mainly on learning the melodies associated with each trope mark, as well as the technical skills needed to be able to learn a section of Torah for ritual reading.

A printed book of the Torah in the original Hebrew — one used for studying — has vowels, as well as other symbols (called trope marks) above and below the letters that aid in pronunciation and indicate the proscribed melody. But a Torah scroll, what is used in services for the ritual reading, has none of those; it’s column after column of Hebrew consonants, sometimes without spaces between words. Oftentimes a single letter will be elongated in order to make the columns both left- and right-justified. And some of the letters also have adornments, tiny crowns that seem to sprout from their tops. It’s fair to say that all of this presents something of a challenge for the novice Torah reader.

When learning a part of Torah for ritual reading, I use Trope Trainer, which I can’t recommend enough. Depending on how the program is used, it can practically do the work for you, or be just a helpful tool. It gives the dates of each parshah, and you can open just the reading for a particular day, customized by whether you’re in Israel or the Diaspora and whether you follow the triennial or the yearly cycle. Then you can choose melody, voice, and accent. An electronic voice will sing the whole thing for you — or just a word, a phrase, or a verse. (I now only use this feature to double-check the melody of an unusual trope combination.) It identifies each trope mark, transliterates each word, and indicates the syllabic accent. It provides translation and sheet music. It indicates all k’rey, or words that are read differently than how they are spelled in the scroll. What I like most is the export feature, which creates a PDF of the reading, with or without vowels and trope marks.

statges of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

stages of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So: I start by printing the reading with vowels and trope marks; then I highlight the text with various colors that correspond to the different trope mark families (so that the same melodies are the same color). I read the text to fluency and make sure I understand what it means. Then I practice singing, using the highlighted text. I usually practice about 20-30 minutes at a time, until I start making a bunch of mistakes, and then I stop and take a break. A little while later, I practice again.

More than any other skill I’ve worked to master, chanting Torah is a marathon. You just can’t cram. The words and the melody have to have a chance to make “tracks” in your brain, as one teacher explained to me. So I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

Finally, at least a day before I am scheduled to leyn, I begin practicing from the plain, Torah-scroll-like text. I see what I remember, and I check the highlighted version if I’m not sure. I create mnemonic devices to help me remember the vowels of unusual words and the order of melodies. I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

On the days I’ve read at school, I’ve been able to come in early and take out the Torah scroll and practice a time or two again from the scroll itself. After a few times stumbling through a reading that I thought I knew cold, I realized that the lettering of the scroll was tripping me up (a phenomenon that I hope will lessen over time, with more practice). Looking at the actual text — being able to see which letters and words in the scroll look different from the typeset — has helped enormously.

I’m particularly proud of my skill at finding my place in the scroll: I used to think that I’d never be able to find the beginning of the parshah in the sea of Hebrew letters, but I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. This rabbi thing just might work out.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,006 other followers