the wall(s) of Jerusalem

Last Sunday, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got dressed in preparation to walk to the Old City to participate in that morning’s shacharit service. By all accounts I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping at all that evening, since it was Shavuot, and traditionally on this holiday Jews stay up all night learning Torah and then go to morning davvening. But I’m a morning person (generally of no use to anyone after 9:00 p.m.), so Shavuot’s marathon study sessions have always been challenging for me. I prefer just to eat cheesecake in celebration of the revelation at Sinai.

Along with my mom and my roommate, I headed towards the Western Wall, walking in darkness with many dozen others from the neighborhood. We reached the Dung Gate and entered Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian praying space at the Wall. Well, not exactly at the Wall — or not at the Wall’s main plaza, the one that is always shown in photographs of the prayer and pilgrimage site. Instead, we walked down a long set of wooden steps and across a wooden bridge to a temporary platform erected near the remains of what is known as Robinson’s Arch, which once supported a massive staircase that led up to the Second Temple.

The schatz had just begun birkot hashahar when we arrived. As I settled into the space, I looked around at the attendees: lots of Americans (I ran into someone I knew from D.C. on the way down the stairs), lots of what seemed like secular Israelis. Everyone looked tired, resulting in pretty quiet and lackluster singing — especially in comparison to the very loud davvening a little up and over on the main plaza. The sound of men’s voices threatened to drown out our service.

To my surprise, occasionally walking through the service, to get closer to the wall accessible from a staircase at the far end of the platform, were a number of Orthodox Jews — men, women, and children. They just passed by, prayed at the lower platform, and then passed back by again. The logical extension of an egalitarian space, I guess: everyone is welcome. 

view of the walls of jerusalem from the ramparts walk; photo by salem pearce

By the time the Torah service started, I had moved to the front of the platform, partly to see what the davvening crashers were doing. I also turned around in a circle to really see where I was, continuing to sing the prelude to taking out the scroll.  As we got to the line tivneh chomot Yerushalayim, “build the walls of Jerusalem” — our plea to Gd each time we read Torah on Shabbat or holidays — I happened to be looking at the sun rise over the actual walls of Jerusalem. In spite myself, I was moved.

I say “in spite of myself” because I don’t feel particularly invested in prayer services at the Western Wall. For one, I’m actually glad the temple cult in Jerusalem of the 1st century CE became the current diasporic system of symbolic remembrances of the temple. I question the holiness ascribed to the remnants of the ancient sacrificial site. What’s more, many of those who revere the Wall actually want the temple to be rebuilt, on the Temple Mount, where currently stand the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred Muslim sites. The Third Temple can’t exist without starting the Third World War. This fact doesn’t stop various Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from making provocative statements to that effect from time to time. And even more, when the Israeli army captured Jerusalem in 1967, a Palestinian village was razed to widen the plaza for increased access to the Wall — for Jews only. But the folks fighting for the right to hold egalitarian prayer on the Wall’s main plaza, in the name of justice, don’t talk about that.

The Torah service was followed by the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Or at least traditional for Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardim don’t read Ruth, so as a compromise we read just the first and fourth chapter of the book. As a convert, I love the book of Ruth. I say the famous line from the first chapter when I put on my tefillin in the morning: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people, my people; your Gd, my Gd. My friend Rachel was leyning the book that morning, and she has a beautiful voice. I stood mesmorized as she sang, all the way to the end of the book, which traces the lineage from Ruth’s child to King David, whose son Solomon . . . built the First Temple.

All right, Western Wall, you got me this time.

palace in time

On Friday evening, I left the delegation on for Shabbat: The group was traveling and spending money the next day, neither of which fits into my practice. Plus, to be honest, I felt like I needed Shabbat (even more than I normally do). This past week has been so, so hard

I took a cab from our East Jerusalem hotel into West Jerusalem, to the neighborhood of Baka, where I’ll be living for the rest of the summer with two other rabbinical students. Before I joyfully reunited with them (I hadn’t seen either in about a year, since they’ve been in Jerusalem these past two semesters), I watched the scenery change outside of the window. The tight, crowded streets with buildings and business smashed up against one another gave way to wide roads with white stone buildings, tall green trees, and freestanding restaurants and coffee shops. 

After dropping off my suitcase, I ran a few blocks to meet a friend I also hadn’t seen in a long time (from another rabbinical school). We then walked just a few more blocks to the Baka Community Center, where the independent minyan Zion was meeting for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Later, after services, we walked about 15 minutes to dinner at the apartment of a friend of hers on the top of the hill in Talpiot. The next morning, I went to morning services at Sod Siach, another independent minyan about 15 minutes away from my apartment. Afterwards I went to lunch in Talpiot at the apartment of another rabbinical school classmate, and then it was back home for a havdallah/melavah malkah celebration at my apartment. 

photo by salem pearce

This is pretty similar to how I would spend my Shabbat in Boston — except I would be leading services or reading Torah, so it was pretty nice to have a break in that way. I give all of these details to underscore how those 25 hours really drove home for me my American Jewish privilege: With almost no effort, I was able to come to Israel/Palestine and find safe, welcoming, familiar, desirable, accessible community. As an example, a friend claims that this summer I am “living in the neighborhood with the single highest concentration of interesting davvening options . . . in the world.” 

It was a mad dash to my apartment on Friday evening: The group was meeting with two Israelis doing work with IDF refusniks, and I wanted to hear as much of that presentation as possible. And earlier in the day, we’d protested in Paris Square, near the prime minister’s home, with Women in Black (a longtime anti-war-cum-anti-occupation organization). Then the cab driver and I had some trouble finding my apartment, making me late to meet my friend before services. So by the time I sat down in the community center for Kabbalat Shabbat, it was the first time I had caught my breath all day. 

There was absolutely beautiful singing happening when we entered: A chanting of the first two chapters of Shir HaShirim, one of my favorite texts, to a sublime melody I had never heard before. But it was all I could do to just sit there: I wasn’t in a joyful, restful place. The moment and the music seemed discordant in comparison with the rest of my day. It just didn’t seem right to sing. All I could think was: “It wasn’t enough that you occupied the land? Now you are singing happily in it?”

I eventually found my voice, but the discordance came back a few hours later at dinner. My friend’s friend lives in a gorgeous apartment with a terrace twice the size of it. There was a view of the Old City, and you could actually see Al-Aksa Mosque. As I stuffed myself with delicious food and enjoyed interesting conversation, I remembered that a little over 24 hours before I had been walking in the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem. Established in 1950, shortly after the declaration of the Israeli state, this dwelling place of 6,000 Palestinians defies the definition of “camp” — which, to me, implies a temporary structure. Aida is now a conglomerate of concrete buildings and narrow roads along the separation wall. As my dinner hosts talked about their son and daughter, I kept flashing back to earlier in the day when our refugee camp host told us about his daughter. She once said to him, “I only want daughters. If I have sons they will just be jailed or killed.”

I rejoined my group in the village of Nabi Saleh after Shabbat ended. They’d had an incredibly hard day hearing from its residents about their clashes with the IDF, which enters the village with impunity even though it is designated as “Area A” and therefore ostensibly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The power of Shabbat, and especially Shabbat in this land, came became to clear to me. For those 25 hours I had been in another world, one which, comparatively, Jewish Israelis inhabit all the time. Shabbat, what Heschel described so poetically with the metaphor of “a palace in time,” has been concretized. It seem that the palace exists now in time and space, and the Palestinians are not allowed in.

one of them

I step back into my hotel room from the balcony and turn around to put away my tallit and tefillin. I’ve just davenned Shacharit, the morning service, and ended my prayers with the traditional refrain: oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, alienu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teveyl, “may the one who makes peace above make peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I turn I catch a glance of myself in the mirror, the thought flashes through my head: “I look like one of them.”

I’m in East Jerusalem, traveling with Interfaith Peace-Builders on a delegation to the West Bank, with a special focus on the effects of incarceration and detention on Palestinian society. This hotel is our home base for the 10 days we’ll spend learning about the occupation. There are 27 of us, mostly non-Jews from the States (with a Scot thrown in for good measure), plus a handful of Jews. 

For me the difficulty started as soon as our bus drove out of the airport: “This is the Jewish neighborhood of [x],” the guide intoned, “built on the Palestinian town of [y]. It was called [a], but now it’s called [b].” This has been a constant refrain over the past three days.

“One of them,” of course, has become Jewish Israelis, and specifically religious Jewish Israelis, whose racist government continues to systematically oppress the native Palestinian population. As has been said more than once, the Nakba, the Palestinians’ word for what Israelis call Independence Day — May 15, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established — is ongoing.

photo by Asher Emmanuel


I identify as a religious Jew. But what really brought me into my Jewish practice was social justice. I understand Judaism as requiring that I act in pursuit of the liberation of all people. All of my social justice work is rooted in Jewish values. And those values are antithetical to destruction of homes, and building of walls, and detention of children, and forcible removal of peoples, and use of Biblical names as a signal of colonization. To witness the devastation that religious Judaism has wreaked in this land has been . . . well, devastating. For the first time in my life, I have felt ashamed of being Jewish.

Yesterday, we visited the Palestinian town of Yaffa, now annexed to the city of Tel Aviv. (The latter is officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.) Our guide told us about the private construction of an apartment building on municipal land: The religious Jew who won the bid declined to rent units to non-Jews, with the excuse that they would not “respect Shabbat.” When asked whether apartments would be let to secular Jewish Israelis who would respect Shabbat, the answer was affirmative. Just not to Palestinians — even if they agreed to “respect Shabbat.” The extensive litigation process by a Palestinian activist group was unsuccessful in preventing this discrimination.

Shabbat is sacred to me, essential to my survival as a Jewish seeker of peace and justice in this painful world. As Heschel said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” To hear about the use of Shabbat as a tool of racism is heartbreaking. More than once I’ve felt like I literally cannot hear anymore the onslaught of the catalogue of Israeli crimes. And then I feel guilty, because Palestinians live this reality every day, and they cannot opt out of it.

I know this is part of my process of learning and of integregrating that new knowledge into my identity: What does it mean that these human rights violations are perpetrated in my name, as a Jew, and what is my responsibility in responding? How do I deal with the internalized anti-Semitism that I’ve been experiencing? I feel confident that I’ll eventually work it out. It’s been hugely helpful to have two Jewish leaders who have gone through this process — as well as being able to get and give support to and from the other Jewish participants on the trip.

I will note that this is just part of my experience. I have criticisms of this delegation and its speakers as well. There are things that aren’t being talked about (as there are in a Zionist narrative), but I also think this is not the trip for me to point that out. My job here is to listen to what Palestinian civil society has to say.

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.

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.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

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.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

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

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

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

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

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

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

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

questions in a vault

For the past three years between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — often called “The Days of Awe,” or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew — I’ve participated in 10Q‘s question-a-day online activity. Once you sign up, the organization prompts you on each of the ten days to go to its website and answer that day’s question. (If you miss a day, you can go back to previous questions.) The questions are designed to get you to reflect on the past year and make commitments for the coming one. After Yom Kippur, your answers “are sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection.” I’m doing it again this year.

a lovely M.A. Hadley plate from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

a lovely m.a. hadley plate (a family tradition) from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The website is not explicitly Jewish (I’m not sure why), but I can’t see the timing as anything but. I’m guessing, though, it wouldn’t occur to non-Jewish participants and might just seem like an interesting exercise, if an oddly timed one.

Update: My friend Melanie tells me that the organization behind 10Q, Reboot, intends “to make Judaism relevant to those who are secular/completely assimilated.” I think this extremely interesting, because this exercise appeals to me, too, as a religious Jew. (Plus, I am sort of fascinated by secular or humanist Judaism.)

I was pleased — and not a little surprised — when I got my answers from 2012 at the end of last month. I actually did some of the things that I wrote that I wanted to, and where I didn’t, it’s because it’s still a live issue for me. I voiced my waning support for the president, I talked about my parents’ efforts to be more involved in my Judaism, and I wrote about my ongoing struggle with my weight.

On Day 8, I was asked and I answered:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2013?

Your Answer:

Tefillin!

Indeed, my experience wearing tefillin while praying has been one of the best things about rabbinical school for me so far.

While looking through my photos from two years ago to include in this post, I was struck by what I left out. I was definitely in the thrall of my first few weeks of rabbinical school; I wrote quite a bit about it, at the expense of other important events in my life, like my bat mitzvah! For this year’s questions, I definitely need to use my photos from last year to jog my memory, which I recently discovered is quite poor. While I was in England this summer, I saw two old friends (one from college and one from my first job in D.C.), and both of them remembered so many more things about our friendship that I did. On the plus side, it was totally amusing to hear stories that I seemed to have forgotten.

It’s not too late to join in the 10Q fun if you’re interested: we’re only on Day 5!

tikkun halev

On Monday I went to Mayyim Hayyim to use the mikveh, as I do every year before the holidays to prepare for the new year as well as to commemorate my conversion four years (!) ago.

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but . . . my first year of school was really hard, psychologically and spiritually. And despite my intentions, my summer matched the academic year. So when I returned from England on Friday, I was looking forward to leaving 5773 behind with the start of Rosh Hashanah this evening.

I love going to the mikveh. I love the feeling of calm and of possibility and of transition. I love cleaning and scrubbing every part of my body. I love combing my wet hair to rid it of tangles. I love wrapping myself in a sheet as I enter the immersion room. I love counting the steps down into the pool. I love the warmth of the water. I love breathing deeply and saying blessings and setting intentions. I love floating underwater, suspended in time and space, touching nothing. I love doing that three times. I love re-emerging. I love drying off and getting dressed again and feeling, for at least one moment, perfectly anew.

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Every time I go to the mikveh I think that I shouldn’t wait another year to go again. And then I wonder if it’s the infrequency of my visits that give them power. And I still can’t help but wish I could feel that way more often.

As last year, I used the mikveh’s immersion ceremony for Rosh Hashanah. This year I was especially struck by a few parts of the text. After the first immersion and Hebrew blessing, I read,

Though the future is uncertain, I release this past year and all its difficulties and joys. I open my heart to receive the blessings of the new year. (emphasis mine)

And then after the second blessing,

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev — repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh — repairing the soul, and tikkun olam — repairing the world. (emphasis mine)

I am definitely feeling a desire for the seemingly contradictory events (to me, at least) of heart opening and heart healing. I often wonder whether opening my heart makes it vulnerable to pain. But maybe the heart can only heal when it is able to open, even if that is a risk.

When I popped out of the water after my third immersion, I felt, for just a split second, dfferent. Somehow. It was hard to believe and yet oddly comforting.

May we all have shanah tovah umetukah (a good and sweet year)! I am hopeful for 5774.

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