Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the beginning ... of Patriarchy (version 2)

It may still seem a little edgy to some, but this is the version of my Bereshit d'var Torah that I intend to deliver for teens. 


Bereshit is an oft-questioned and commented on parasha. Why are there two creation stories? Who is the snake? Was Eve, as some bumper stickers may have led you to believe, framed? Do we live in a patriarchal society all thanks to this text, or is it only possible to read this text as patriarchal through tired eyes wearied by centuries of oppressive medieval misogyny?
            Up until very recently, I thought it was the latter. I tend to think of the images of “The Fall” and Eve as the “mother of all sin” as very Christian concepts, and assumed it was due to some pervasive Christian ideology that we continue to frame our Genesis story this way, even occasionally as Jews. But I’m not so sure anymore. This week, for a Parashat HaShavua class, I had to read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s analyses on Bereshit. In one of her books, The Murmuring Deep, Zornberg discusses the language of seduction in our Torah. When God “took” Adam and put him into the Garden of Eden, Rashi says “took” is more like “lured with beautiful words.” Then, of course, we have the serpent luring Eve to eat the fruit, and Eve handing the fruit over to Adam to eat. Zornberg sums up this chain of enticing thus: “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
            And this is where my reading is forever changed. This is where I become certain that it is not the fault of pervasive medieval Christianity informing an uncomfortable understanding of this text. This is the basis of patriarchy and a culture in which victim blaming, objectification, violence against women, and a denial of women’s voices are still pervasive even to this day and in the progressive Western world. This is the crux of our double standards and “she was asking for it” attitude. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. She finds herself unable to say no, but to say yes leads her into trouble and a birth to victim blaming.

            Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our attitude toward women, our view of autonomy for men and women, our victim blaming. The parasha also contains a verse in which Adam proclaims Eve the “mother of all life,” and Zornberg points out that what we categorize as a “Fall” is really an outward motion: the expulsion from Eden into a new world. The new reality Eve has borne to us is harder, for sure, but also richer and fuller. It is only through obtaining the knowledge of good and evil did we really become fully human, in relationship with God. Instead of stigmatizing this event, we should celebrate it. Instead of giving Eve all of the blame and credit, we should recognize that there are at least three “people” (though not human, the serpent is undoubtedly a person) with full agency participating in this text (possibly four; God’s role in causing this narrative to play out is a little more vague). I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story and it is up to you, a new generation, to do it. I don’t know how often you participate in Bible study or conversations about Genesis, but next time you find yourself in such a situation, I hope you will hold your head up high and say, “There are three equal actors in this narrative, each with their own valid agency, and a resulting chain of events. There is no crime and punishment, and no one person to blame. Eve is not the cause of Original Sin and Eve does not represent the entire lineage of womankind.”  Maybe if we start at the source, we really can re-frame our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal society for everyone. 

In the Beginning ... of Patriarchy (version 1)

I had to write a short d'var Torah on Genesis this week for a class, and I also have to give a d'var Torah at the teen minyan I'm leading in Westchester on Saturday. The two are pretty similar, but I'm sharing both. This one is a little more adult and academic. 

Maybe Eve wasn’t really framed. All my life I held to this bumper sticker feminist summation of Genesis, using modern understandings of feminism and misunderstanding of patriarchy to look back onto our narrative. I believed Eve was framed, set up for the Fall, tricked by the serpent and given up by Adam and blamed by misogyny for all the world’s sins.
            But the use of the word “frame” implies there was indeed a crime for her to be blamed for. Certainly eating of the forbidden fruit was transgressing, but was it criminal? Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her book, The Murmuring Deep, talks about the eating of the fruit as the beginning of a humanity that is recognizable to us (though, she argues, the first true humans are Adam and Eve’s children, born of woman instead of God). Rather than categorize the expulsion from Eden as a Fall, she points out that it is really an outward motion, a birth into a new life. One that is harder, for sure, but also fuller and larger. Does this sound like crime and punishment or merely action and consequence?
            Zornberg does not directly address the question of criminality, framed or otherwise, or
“fault” per se. She seems to be more interested in dissecting the texts and deciphering the psychology of the characters. But she does touch on subjects within the narrative that, to me, begs for new feminist inquiry, something deeper than “Eve was Framed.” Zornberg does not directly “blame” Eve, but she does say, “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validitating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
            This is the beginning of patriarchy and modern day rape culture. We do not merely look back at a text that clearly contains the agency of three people and choose to blame one of them because of our current view of women, or even because of some oppressive Medieval view of women that has stuck. This is the text that has informed and continues to inform our view on women. This is the crux of our patriarchal double standards and “she was asking for it” attitude. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. She finds herself unable to say no, but to say yes leads her into trouble and a birth to victim blaming.

            Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our attitude toward women, our view of autonomy for men and women, our victim blaming. We can take it upon ourselves to recognize that every person is unique and equally susceptible to seduction, equally able to be seductive. We can take a modern feminist awareness and project back onto our text and say, “There are three equal actors in this narrative, each with their own valid agency, and a resulting chain of events. There is no crime and punishment, and no one person to blame. Eve is not the cause of Original Sin and Eve was not framed.”  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

G'mar Chatima Tova!


            When I was younger, middle or early high school age, there was a short lived cartoon called God, the Devil, and Bob. The premise of the show was that a very Jerry Garcia-looking God is contemplating destroying the world again, but he’ll save it if one person can prove that it’s worth saving. The catch, of course, is that he lets the Alan Cumming-voiced Devil choose the one person, and, of course, he chooses Bob Allman, Grade A Schlub. In the first episode, Bob has great difficulty with the concept and asks God what exactly it is he’s supposed to do. God’s words echo those of this week’s Torah portion, “This is not new stuff! It’s written in scrolls, books, stone tablets! What do you want me to do, scribble it on a bar napkin?!”
            As we learn from Moses, the lessons that we need to guide us on daily life are not only written down in all sorts of books throughout history, they are very close to us. God is not in the heavens, not across the sea, not far off. God is in each of us, and we are here to guide each other, as much as we are to learn from Torah. And yet, sometimes, doesn’t it feel like it would be nice to have concise directions scribbled onto a bar napkin? We sit in services every Yom Kippur listing off sins, including ones we didn’t commit, and it starts to feel wearisome. It’s so repetitive. What are we even doing here?
            Well, we do it year after year, and year after year we remind ourselves of the closeness of God’s way, because we still constantly find ourselves missing the mark. We go searching for meaning in our lives, like we think it must be far off, that it will be hidden in a good job or an exotic land or at the bottom of a bottle. Maybe it’s in the oceans or the skies or the deserts or jungles, maybe it’s at the crowded Kotel in Jerusalem or the empty Choral Synagogue in Vilnius. Or maybe it’s much harder than that. Maybe God and the way to a better world is through Isla Vista and Ferguson. It’s in fighting for justice. It’s in discomfort. It’s in intersectionality and breaking down all institutionalized systems of oppression together. It’s in the tears that well up when you worry you’re not doing enough or that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s in the kind and friendly words you share with strangers, when you are mindful that “Friendly” or “complimentary” don’t cross into “cat-calling” and “harassment”. It’s in the challenge to look in the mirror and find your own flaws, it’s in checking your privilege, and it’s in opening up your world to be inclusive of those different from you. It’s in reading things that upset you. It’s in speaking out. It’s in tzedakah. It’s in g’milut hasadim.
We can only get there through true and honest t’shuva. It’s not going to be scribbled onto bar napkins for us. We can’t send someone into the heavens or across the sea to receive the directions straight from God as Moses was able to. All we can do is read and reread the directions we have, the Torah. All we can do is read between the lines to find all the extra hidden messages of faith, love, and righteousness for our time. All we can do is be honest with ourselves and God and each other at this season and make a point to do better in the coming year. So when we stand in this same place next year, t’shuva won’t just mean apologies and forgiveness, a clean soul and a fresh start. It will mean really looking back and saying, “Did I walk a little more along the Way? Did I stay on course? Am I actually any farther along this year? Did I make the world better?” And when that time comes, may we all answer: Yes.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Shana Tova! (Second round)

            The story of the Akidah centers on Abraham. It is his faith that is being tested, his burden to journey out to sacrifice his unknowing son, his reward when God stops him just in time, satisfied to know that he was willing. Little is said about Isaac in this story. Isaac’s faith is not tested, he is not let in on what’s happening. He seems to catch on a bit as they make their way up the mountain, as he says, “Father… here is the firestone and here is the wood but where is the sacrifice?” His father dodges the question, and Isaac may not know exactly what is in store, but he knows something is up. When they get to the spot God has indicated to Abraham, Abraham is seemingly able to bind Isaac without resistance. We know nothing of Isaac’s struggle against his father, his thoughts or feelings as he sees his father’s arm raised above him, knife in hand. When they turn around and go home, Isaac remains strangely silent. In fact he is so silent, and the Torah says, “Abraham returned,” that some midrash even wonders if Isaac was indeed killed on Mount Moriah … but then somehow resurrected in time for the next Torah portion, wherein he gets married.
            While Isaac is featured relatively little in a story about his own near-death experience, his mother is not mentioned at all. As we often find in our history, and especially Torah, the voices of women have been completely silenced. Abraham disappears with her son, they undoubtedly return changed men, and the Torah tells us nothing of what she may have known, thought, or said about Abraham’s “test”. The next Torah portion begins with Sarah’s abrupt death. An old midrash from Rabbi Eliezer suggests that our shofar sounds are modeled after the cries Sarah made when she heard where Abraham had taken Isaac. He says, “HaSatan went and said to Sarah, ‘Sarah, haven’t you heard what happened in the world?’ She said, ‘No.’ He said to her, ‘Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him and brought him as an offering on the altar.’ Sarah started to cry. She cried three long sobs, correlated to the t’kiot, three yellallot, slightly shorter cries, like the shevarim, and three short sobs, corresponding to the t’ruot, and her soul departed and she died.”
            The sound of the shofar is a call to action for us as Jews, and as should be the sounds of pain, such as Sarah’s sobs or news of oppression. The story of the Akidah shows how fragile life can be, how even people you trust could be willing to hurt you. Of course, I am not saying you shouldn’t trust people or that everyone is out to get you or that God is commanding anybody to sacrifice anyone else. But, I am saying that life is precious and fragile for each and every one us, those that are here right now and those that are not, and as Jews, we are called by the shofar to act in ways that make life a little safer for those around us.
            This means different things to different people. Yesterday I talked about welcoming the ger and mentioned farmworker rights. That happened to be a topic that came to mind because I wrote the d’var Torah right after attending the People’s Climate March and food justice/sustainability was on my mind. I’m also currently participating in a year-long fellowship with the American Jewish World Service, and helping them with the We Believe campaign which fights for the rights of women and children, like those silenced in today’s Torah. For others, making the world better or safer may mean advocating for a campus policy change for greater inclusivity. It might mean choosing media and supporting business that promote your own values and politics. It might just mean generally being nice to everyone you meet.

            Whatever it means to you, do more of it this new year. Listen to the shofar this season, and hold that sound in your heads and hearts for the rest of the year, reminding you of the various possible directions each choice you make may lead. Choose paths that contribute to your own personal growth as young adults, and choose paths that contribute to a better world, safer lives for those around you. May you never turn a deaf ear to cries of pain, may others hear your cries as well, and may we all work together toward a world of unity and peace. Amen and Shana Tova. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh HaShana 5775 Day 1 - Inspired by T'ruah

In this morning’s Torah Reading, Hagar asks us: Can we make a place for her, or her descendants? Is there room in our communities and in our land for those who come from the outside? In Dirshuni, a collection of modern midrash written by Israeli women, Elah Tzruyah interprets two well-loved statements from the Torah as questions: “You have known the soul of the ger, the stranger” – Exodus 23:9 and “Love the ger” – Deuteronomy 10:19. She says, Do not read ha-ger, the strangers, but ha-gar – have you known the soul of Hagar? Have you loved Hagar? (p.40: Israel, 2009).
            Abraham may not have loved Hagar, but he was concerned with her well-being. He loved his son by her, and wanted to leave a space for them in his house, but was forced to drive them out at the commands of his wife and God. Tomorrow we will read the Akidah, the binding of Isaac, which contains the verse, Take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Rashi drashes that the reason God has to offer all these qualifiers for Isaac is because God takes for granted that the son destined to be the link to the Chosen People is Abraham’s favorite, and Abraham is having none of it. “Take your son.” I have two sons. “Your favored one.” One is favored by his mother, and the other is favored by his mother. “Whom you love.” I love both of them. “Isaac.” Oh, ok, why didn’t you just say so. What comes next leaves us plenty to talk about for tomorrow, but right now, this explanation of this verse can speak volumes. This may be about family feuds, but it is also about accepting those that are different, defending those with no real rights, and welcoming those who come from the outside.
            As someone who is only briefly visiting your community, I must say I feel very welcomed and accepted! But I do already have rights, and a pretty clear sense of them, and I’m not that much of an outsider. As a fellow Jew, we are part of the same wider community. I am not really a ger and I’m certainly no Hagar. So who are the strangers in our midst that we are not treating properly? They might be people here at the school who are simply outside your friend group, people who are just too weird to take the time to get to know and befriend. Or they might be migrant workers who provide your produce. You may never meet them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t defend their rights, welcome them as residents of our country, and accept them as resident aliens. Organizations like Farmworker Justice (one word) are fighting for farm workers’ rights, and have lots of suggestions on how you can help!

            There are lots of ways we encounter injustice to the ger, and lots of ways we ignore it. This new year, let’s not ignore it. As we cleanse ourselves of last year’s sins, don’t allow the sins of elective ignorance and perpetuating xenophobia continue into 5775. We can do better, be better, and make this world better for everyone. Our ancestor knew the soul of Hagar, and wanted to do better by her, but found himself unable to do so. We can make it up for him by embracing our own Hagars and ha-gers. May we bring ourselves in to a new year of camaraderie, solidarity, unity, by treating better those deemed as outsiders. Let us say: Amen and Shana Tova. 

Rosh HaShana 5775 at Virginia Tech Hillel

Thank you all so much for welcoming me here to your kehillah, and for coming tonight to services. There are lots of ways to mark the new year, and being in a sanctuary is only one of them. As we dip our toes into the new year, I invite you now to think, really think about what will be different in 5775.  You’ve all just started a new school year. How is being a freshman in college different from being a senior in high school? How is being a senior in college different from being a junior? Does it feel significant that the Jewish new year coincides with the academic? How does this moment feel different from January 1st?
Tomorrow we will read the story of Isaac’s birth, and on Friday we will read of his near-death, but in some traditions, the Akidah is read on the first day and the story of creation is read on the second day. The creation story starts with the darkness, just like our holidays. After God creates light merely by saying, “Let there be light,” the Torah says, and there was evening, and there was morning, a first day. It is based upon this that the Jewish holidays start with evening, and consider the “day” sunset to sunset. In many ways, it feels so fitting for our new year to be in autumn for this same reason. The days are starting to get dark and cold, it feels like the year’s twilight hours. Soon it will be winter, utter darkness, and then spring, dawn, and summer, full day. There was evening and there was morning, a first year. Of course, this is coincidence that only works if you live in the right climate and hemisphere. The Torah tells us what day to celebrate Rosh HaShana, and it has nothing to do with the season, really.
Regardless of the accident of this timeliness, it does give us a chance to think. What is the darkness that is coming in winter? What can we create out of it? The Sefer Yetzira, an ancient and densely confusing book of Jewish mysticism teaches that all of creation exists in the Aleph-Bet if you just know how to put the letters together right. God of course knows, and that is why “Let there be light” is enough to begin the creation of the whole world. Humans do not really know, but they can learn. The myths of golems and such come from this mystic tradition; they teach us that while magic and divination is not allowed, Jews can possess their own magic to create great things, but only if they really apply themselves. It is not an easy task, and may feel like months of darkness before light and positive results of all that hard work. Not just anyone can call a golem into being. It comes only after deep study and meditation and understanding of what it means to create.

This is important for the People of the Book. Jews may be carpenters, or bankers, or computer scientists by trade, but in essence, we are people who study. Especially here in this room, as students, we are really all people who study! We love words, we rely on them to teach us, we rely on them to pray and commune with God; our aleph bet is dear and holy, we don’t discard it to keep up with the changing times of language. We honor letters and words and language. The idea that the key to the universe is locked in these letters is important for us. It lets us know that by studying and reading and writing, we are looking, seeing, understanding, and probing, as the Sefer Yetzira says we should. Once we are able to read a certain level of understanding and wisdom, we, too, can learn to engrave and carve, to create with our words, as God does. After all, we are created in the Divine image. We need only apply ourselves. This season, as we pass into 5775 and a new academic year, I challenge you all to learn something completely new, and to strive for creativity in your field. And may you find creation in your own hands.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Parashat Shoftim - Justice Justice Shall You Pursue

            I know I haven’t written in a few months, and I’m not sure how often I will continue to write. But I’m sitting on the train back from my amazing, relaxing vacation in Maine, where I spent almost a week with my partner in near-solitude, with a car lent to us by my parents and a house lent to us by his parents, kayaking and watching movies and shutting out the world. Now I’m on the train back to the real world, and I’m listening to Ani DiFranco’s album “Not So Soft.” I received the album as a holiday gift sometime around 2004 and didn’t even realize at the time that it was already almost 15 years old. The anger at classism, racism, and sexism was still so current and felt so validating for my budding teenage raging leftism to hear. And now, another ten years later, the tones of the album are still so relevant and still feel so validating for my young adult raging leftism. So, with Ani’s melodic anger in my ears, thinking about my anxiety about my work load in the coming months once the school year starts and sadness about certain events of white male entitlement of this past year, I turn to Torah.
            This week’s Torah portion is from Deuteronomy, the final book of Moses. The parts of the Bible that lose narrative tend to get overlooked or forgotten, but this parasha, Shoftim, is full of some good lines. It contains my favorite laws regarding fairness in war, reminding us that trees are innocent bystanders and not to cut down the foliage surrounding the city your warriors are sieging (this seems like a good time to remind anyone who reads this in time that the Arava alumni are throwing a fundraiser at Central Bar in NYC on Wednesday, August 27 from 6:30-9:30, and if you cared about environmental cooperation between conflicting nations, like the Torah tells you to, you will be there!). Ahem. Also, most notably perhaps, Parashat Shoftim contains the line “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof,” or, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (16:20).
            Many of you are already pursuing justice. Good on you. Some of you think you are, but more likely are doing exactly what I am doing. Seeking half-heartedly to better educate yourself, getting sad and angry at the situation, thinking to yourself, “Someone should do something!”, wondering what you can do to help, then going back to enjoying your privilege and what’s left of your summer and shutting it all out because it’s just so hard. Probably no one who would read this is heartily in favor of maintaining the racist or sexist systems that in some fashion hurt us all (and in all fashions hurt others significantly more). However, every time we don’t actively pursue justice, we are aiding these systemic subjugations.
            And just in case, any readers out there might be on the wrong side of history (and I assure you, this is not a matter of difference of opinion, there is a wrong side in cases of violent sexism and racism), and are willing to support systems of oppression that pre-judge certain members of society, I remind you that this Torah portion also contains two verses that tell us at least two witnesses are needed (17:6 and 19:15) to pass judgment. Whatever your feelings on the death penalty as the outcome of a fair and honest trial, and whatever you may think was done that warrants persecution, it is at least clear that no one person ever has the right to take the life of another person, for any reason. Claims of self-defense muddy the waters and tend to be open to interpretation, but self-defense rarely involves multiple gun shots, including to the back, or strangling someone from behind to death. And anyway, self-defense starts to seem a flimsy excuse when those doing the “defending” are people in power and those dying are people without.
            Although my references should be pretty clear and not at all vague, I’ve purposely not named specific cases, because these specific cases represent a larger whole and the larger whole is completely abhorrent. Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in May and the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner this summer were very different in nature, but were equally wake up calls for me. It is not enough that I have been loud and proud with my raging leftism my whole life, that I have always considered myself a feminist and anti-racist, that I got on some soap boxes and used to have a serious interest in social activism before rabbinical school consumed my whole life. We are too long overdue for real equality in this country to be self-satisfied with our own baby steps toward progress and equality. I understand real change takes time, and we are battling centuries of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, but come on. It is 2014, people.

            I’m partially writing this because I needed it off my chest, because Ani inspired me, because this week’s Torah portion suited it, because I needed something to do with this train ride, because I wanted anyone else who wasn’t jolted awake by these killings to be awake now, because I love my #LizzRants. But I also am writing and posting this, because I’m hoping it will make me more accountable to myself. This is out there now. You all know how I feel and I that I am setting a goal to get more educated, more involved in fighting systemic oppression. First and foremost, I am participating in a fellowship with American Jewish World Service and have pledged to bring more social justice mindfulness and hopefully opportunities to the Academy for Jewish Religion this year. But that isn’t really enough. Please join me in pursuing justice. Let’s hold each other accountable, educate one another, and gently remind one another when the [social] media gets bored of #Ferguson that we can’t get too comfortable and forget that racism still lurks there and everywhere. Rapists and misogynists continue to walk the streets and troll the internet despite the fading of #YesAllWomen, but the awareness it sparked is real and it hasn’t completely disappeared yet. Real change is attainable, but only if we pursue it.  Justice Justice shall you pursue. Let’s pursue it.