where you will go . . .

This is an addendum of sorts to the d’var Torah about #metoo that I posted here a few days ago, in response to a question from a classmate.

After reading my d’var Torah, one of my classmates asked me about the p’sukim from Hosea (2:21-22) that are traditionally said as an intention for tefillin, while completing the wrapping of the shel yad. I addressed it briefly in this post about tefillin, but I want to do so a little more fully here.

The verses say:

כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה

21 I will betroth you to me forever; indeed I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. 22 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know Adonai.

They sound so lovely! But the context is the prophet’s problematic metaphor of a marriage between Gd and Israel, in which Israel is portrayed as an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution (to put it delicately, in a way that the Biblical text does not). Hosea describes the punishment for this woman: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. In short, a complete debasement. The verses here are an affirmation of the reconciliation between Hosea and his wife, that is, between Gd and Israel.

1960Chagall_Bible_Naomiandherdaughtersinlaw

Marc Chagall, Naomi and Her Daughters-in-law (1952)

There is more than one way to understand these verses and their use in this ritual context. For instance, there is something to be said for the fact that saying these verses puts men (the ones who have traditionally laid tefillin) into the role of the woman, perhaps encouraging a kind of empathy for the subordinate position in which many women find themselves.

For more, I highly recommend the book A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, edited by Athalya Brenner, which is about the book of Hosea and about sexual violence in all of the (latter) prophets. In fact, it is just one book in a series, A Feminist Companion to . . .,  and the series has saved me in many a class at my school that had no one but white men scholars on the syllabus.

But in the short time I have in completing the wrapping of my hand in the tefillin straps, I’m not interested in having to do those mental gymnastics. As suggested by the Siddur HaKohanot, I say part of the famous verse from the book of Ruth (1:16):

.כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people; your Gd, my Gd.

In addition to having special resonance for me as a convert (as Ruth is generally understood by the rabbis), these verses are an expression of much gentler and more intimate loyalty. Ruth says them to Naomi as the two prepare to leave Moab, each having lost her husband, two women cleaving to each other in grief and in hope for the future.

holy body

Today I gave this d’var Torah in my class on Deuteronomy, on parshat Ve’etchanan.
10/20/17: There’s an update below, in response to a question from a friend.

In the wake of the recent horrific accusations of sexual harassment and assault against a famous and powerful Hollywood producer, there has been an outpouring of testimony in the media from women about their own experiences with the same. Specifically, the hashtag #metoo on social media has given some idea about how prevalent the issue is: Women have been posting the words “me too” or the hashtag #metoo to indicate that they have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, and some have been sharing the actual stories.

I used to volunteer for and I served on the board of the DC Rape Crisis Center, and for years I saw how sexual assault cut across the lines of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, gender, disability status, etc. I worked shifts answering our 24-hour crisis hotline, and I made myself available to go to the hospital when a sexual assault survivor came in for a rape kit. I’ve had my own experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. But I wasn’t prepared for what has happened on social media over the past few days.

Almost every single of my female friends has posted the words “me too.” In the stories that have been shared, the perpetrators have ranged from the entitled boss, to the sleazy uncle, to the nice guy next door — and everyone in between. As there is no standard survivor, there is no typical perpetrator.

People always asked how I could work at the rape crisis center. I used to say, yes, I’ve seen the worst that human beings can do to each other. But I’ve also seen the best that human beings can do for each other. People who have said to the survivor: I believe you. You are not crazy. You are not alone.

One of the things that I tried to do as a volunteer, especially at the hospital, during my short time with survivors, was to try to empower them, to give them back a sense of autonomy. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are actually about power — not sex — and what these incidents often have in common is that they make the survivor feel that her body is not her own, that it is public domain, that it can be used by others how they want, that she does not get decide what happens to it. This loss of control is absolutely devastating, and its effects are long lasting.

I’ve been thinking about these issues constantly over the past few weeks, ever since the allegations about the Hollywood producer emerged. And they took on particular poignancy as I delved into parshat Ve’etchanan. It is in this parshah that the sh’ma and ve’ahavtah are found — and therefore is also found the main source for the mitzvah of tefillin (incidentally my favorite mitzvah).

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photo credit: Vera Broekhuysen

Deuteronomy 6:8 says, וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they will be for frontlets between your eyes.”

Since the late Second Temple era, these verses, have generally been interpreted literally; thus emerged our current practice of strapping small containers with parchment inside to our arms and heads.

This idea — of signs or memorials on the hand and between the eyes — appears a few other places in Torah: later in Deuteronomy, but then also in Shemot. Jeffrey Tigay argues that the allusions in Shemot imply a more metaphorical practice.

Exodus 13:9 says, וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes.”

Later in the same perek appears a similar formulation. וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְכָה, וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes” (Exodus 13:16).

The lack of explicit subjects (וְהָיָה, “it shall be . . .”) in the Exodus verses suggests that we are enjoined to hold ideasyetziat Mitzrayim, and chag haPesach, respectively — not הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, “these words,” as in Deuteronomy, on our arms and heads.

As Tigay notes: “Exodus 13 seems to be using sign, memorial, and headband metaphorically to indicate that certain historical events and/or certain ceremonies are to be remembered well, much like the metaphoric use of other items of apparel or ornaments that are close or dear to those who wear them. . . . On the other hand, the injunction to ‘bind’ these words in Deuteronomy 6 and 11 seems to be meant literally.  Here the reference is to words which, unlike events and ceremonies, can be literally bound to the body, and the following injunction to write these words on the doorposts and gates suggests that something concrete is intended” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Devarim, p. 443).

Ibn Ezra more trenchantly makes the point in his commentary on the first part of Deuteronomy 6:8, where he comments simply: מפורש (“literally”).

In 1967, the Lubavitcher Rebbe tapped into this literal understanding when he announced his famous tefillin campaign: On Lag B’Omer, at the end of May that year, on Eastern Parkway — just a short walk from my apartment in Brooklyn — the Rebbe spoke about the existential threat facing Israel at that moment.

The Rebbe was reportedly optimistic, and he assured the crowd that Israel would prevail. And indeed, less than a week later, Israel would launch the offensive that transformed its future. But that day, the Rebbe called for support for the young country: material support, but perhaps even more importantly, spiritual support. He urged Jews all over the world to lay tefillin, even if they weren’t religious, and even if they hadn’t done so since their bar mitzvah, or even ever in their lives. For the Rebbe, the performance of this mitzvah was a tangible contribution to Israel’s security.

In support of this ask, he cited a passage later in Deuteronomy, from parshat Ki Tavoוְרָאוּ כָּל-עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, כִּי שֵׁם יְהוָה נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ; וְיָרְאוּ, מִמֶּךָּ: “And all the peoples of the earth will see the name of Gd is proclaimed over you, and they will fear you” (Deuteronomy 28:10).

 In BT Brachot 6a, Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol explains that this verse refers to the shel rosh, the part of tefillin worn on the head, that bears the letter shin, symbolizing Gd’s name.

I’m ultimately uncomfortable with the Rebbe’s line of thinking at this moment in time, because he takes the association of tefillin with war pretty far: In his Likkutei Sichot, the Rebbe points out another difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages about tefillin. In Exodus, what we have come to understand as tefillin are conceived of as two parts of one unit: . . . וְהָיָה לְאוֹת . . . וּלְזִכָּרוֹן and . . . וְהָיָה לְאוֹת . . . וּלְטוֹטָפֹת

But in Deuteronomy, the two verbs indicate that the shel rosh and shel yad are conceived of as two distinct acts: . . . וּקְשַׁרְתָּם . . . וְהָיוּ

The Rebbe ascribes the variations to the differing understandings of the conquering of the promised land. In Exodus, Moshe was meant to lead the people into Cana’an, and they would not face resistance. The effect of “tefillin” was conceived as singular. By Deuteronomy, however, it is clear that Yehoshua will be the one to lead the people into Cana’an, and there will be a mighty war. This two-fold plan now requires a double dose of security for the combatants.

And the idea of tefillin as apotropaic, as warding off danger, as a kind of protective amulet, is not the Rebbe’s innovation. The word טוֹטָפֹת (“frontlets”) is mysterious, occurring only in this context, in these verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy. It’s been interpreted any number of ways, including as denoting a “Jewish” (vs. pagan) amulet. But most seem to agree that טוֹטָפֹת are literal items.

The word תפילין (“tefillin”) only appears in later, rabbinic sources — where they are at times ascribed magical properties. Bemidbar Rabbah (12:3) presents tefillin as capable of defeating demons. In the Bavli, Rabbis Yohanan and Nahman use their sets to repel danger while going to the bathroom (BT Berakhot 23a-b), and Elisha is said to have been miraculously saved from the Roman persecution because of his scrupulousness in performing this mitzvah (BT Shabbat 49a).

It is these two principle characteristics of tefillin — literal markers of transcendence — that I find so compelling and that put them in my mind as I’ve followed the recent conversation about sexual assault. I don’t expect tefillin to be apotropaic: The only way to end sexual assault is for men to stop perpetrating sexual assault. But in an interesting way, this discourse around sexual assault has made manifest some immutable truths about the rape culture we inhabit. The tangible nature of tefillin avers transcendence.

If sexual assault makes me believe that my body is something to be abused, tefillin mean that my body is worthy of holding our most sacred text. And not just the words, but a holy scroll with the words: klaf, written by a sofer(et) with special ink, much like our sifrei Torah.

Tefillin mean that my body is not the purview of anyone else (or at the most the purview of Gd).

Tefillin mean that my body is part of maintaining the centrality of one of Judaism’s most prominent pieces of liturgy.

Tefillin mean that Torah is not just in my mouth and in my heart, as Deuteronomy will later tell us in parshat Nitzavim, but also on my hand and on my head.

If sexual assault makes me disconnected from my body, tefillin affirm the following truth: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא . .. כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, “It is not in heaven . . . indeed it is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:12, 14).

If sexual assault is about power and dominance, tefillin are about intimacy and relationship.

This has been a hard week. But I hope that in the Jewish community these disclosures will lead to more conversation, most simply. Just further acknowledgement and discussion. But also conversation about the literal truth that almost every woman (and of course, some others) has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at some point in her life.

The sh’ma gives us guidance: “Pay attention,” it says. Rape culture is all around us: We teach it to our children, it’s at home and at work, we go to sleep with it and we wake up with it. It is inscribed on our bodies and in our institutions.

We have a responsibility as teachers of the Jewish religious tradition to insist on and affirm the sacredness of the body. That this belief is deeply embedded in one of our most central texts. Through these disclosures, deep truths have been made manifest, and it is upon us to accord them holiness.

Update: One of my classmates asked me about the p’sukim from Hosea (2:21-22) that are traditionally said as an intention for tefillin, while completing the wrapping of the shel yad. They say,

כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה
21 I will betroth you to me forever; indeed I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. 22 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know Adonai.

They sound so lovely — but the context is the prophet’s problematic metaphor of a marriage between Gd and Israel, in which Israel is portrayed as an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution (to put it delicately, in a way that the Biblical text does not). Hosea describes the punishment for this woman: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. In short, a complete deba

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.

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.

morning

File this under “things I worry about when I think about rabbinical school.” I imagine this post to be a first in a series. The issue today is prayer and exercise.

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

I think about prayer a lot these days, more than I used to, which was generally on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. There are several reasons for this. My year-long b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I began by exploring some philosophy of prayer: We read Reuven Hammer’s Entering Jewish Prayer and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God. We then moved on to learning the parts of the different services (Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma’ariv) — and talking about the differences between the services on weekdays and on Shabbat. We learned how to put on tallit and lay tefillin. And we’ve been encouraged by the rabbi to at least begin saying the Birchot HaShachar, the thirteen morning blessings — perhaps as practice towards expanded morning prayer.

And in the Talmud class I’ve been attending once a week, we’ve been reading the tractate Berakhot, which deals with the logistics and requirements of prayer, especially the Sh’ma and the Amidah.

Finally, my applications to rabbinical school have asked me to reflect on my relationship with G-d, of which prayer is certainly a part. And at every school that I visited, I had the chance to attend at least morning prayers. I’ve already realized that davening at rabbinical school is likely to be a unique experience: The minyan is most likely more committed than average, as you might expect from a roomful of aspiring rabbis, leading to perhaps a more spirited and spiritual experience. The students run the services and are oftentimes encouraged to experiment and innovate with the liturgy. Plus, in the institutions with cantorial schools, the services can make use of unbelievably beautiful music.

That’s prayer. On to exercise: It’s taken me a fair amount of my adult life to realize that consistent, almost daily exercise is key to my mental health. And for me, that exercise needs to happen first thing in the morning. It makes my whole day better. Plus, if I’m going to exercise, I’m more likely to do so in the morning: At the end of the day, I just don’t have energy to work out.

And the conflict: At all the schools I visited, Shacharit starts before 8:00 a.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m. This doesn’t preclude morning exercise, but it certainly makes it trickier than it has been here in D.C., when I’ve started work at 9:00 a.m. or later. (Plus, my current morning commute is just 15 minutes of walking. My commute in school could be 30 minutes or more on public transportation, further shrinking the morning exercise window.)

I want to have a meaningful prayer life in rabbinical school and participate in communal prayer services. I also want to practice self care through morning exercise. So, I’ve got some thinking to do. And maybe some afternoon exercising to get used to.