Friday, February 5, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah Portion is Parashat Mishpatim. Traditionally, commandments in the Torah are seen as being in one of two categories: chukim or mishpatim. The word mishpatim is understood to mean “laws”, the rules that we are given, but we probably could have figured out on our own. This usually means ethical laws, like “Don’t kill or steal”. The word chukim, on the other hand, is understood to mean “ordinances,” the rules that we are given to help us serve God, which might not always make sense. This usually means ritual commandments, like the laws concerning how a priest should properly perform sacrifices. So the fact that this parasha is called mishpatim already tells us something about the sort of commandments we’re going to see in this portion.
            The portion comes in the Torah right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, which contains both chukim (keep the Sabbat) and mishpatim (don’t steal or kill). However, the great medieval commentator, Rashi, claims that the written chronology of the Torah doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which these things actually happened. So, he says, this reading of the mishpatim actually precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is a flashback, basically. At the end of this parasha the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” (Exodus 24:7), which had caused a lot of confusion over the years. Don’t we usually hear the instructions first, and then commit to do them? It’s important to note that, according to Rashi’s reading that this portion is actually taking place before the Ten Commandments, the people have not yet personally heard from God yet. This means that when the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” they really haven’t actually yet heard God at all. They’ve only heard Moses report on what God has said, and they’re expressing an interest in having a more personal connection with God.  Rashi says that what the people mean is, “We will do the rules you have given us, and we will hear the additional ones that you will give us now.” Some laws were given before Sinai, and we call these Noahide laws, rules that are good for everyone to follow, even if they are not Jewish. Although the word mishpatim usually refers to the laws of Sinai, from this portion, it could be an example of the people accepting the mishpatim, the rational laws of how to behave like a good person, and saying, “Now we’re ready to hear the rules that maybe won’t make sense to us, because we trust in God.”
            In the same section of the portion it says that Moses “wrote these words,” and it is upon this verse that the tradition that Moses wrote the Torah is based. Rashi says, he wrote everything from Creation to this moment, including the laws given at Marah, which aren’t actually explicitly stated in our Torah. We just know that before Sinai, people had received some commandments at Marah (a place where the Israelites camped at one point in the journey from the Exodus). Therefore, the people are not only saying, “We will do” to the commandments given so far, and “We will hear” to rest they know are coming, but are responding to the narrative of all of history thus far. They are being reminded of all that God has done for the world and humanity since the beginning of time, and they are saying, “We will follow all of God’s commandments, we are ready for the Revelation.”
            As modern Reform Jews, we don’t always follow all the chukim. We do care more about the mishpatim, the rules that govern our regular behavior and help guide us to be good people. No one observes the laws of sacrifice anymore, but as Reform Jews we may also not observe the laws of Shabbat or Kashrut, either. What would it mean for us, “to do and to hear?” Maor Va-Shemesh, a nineteenth century Chasidic commentator who more or less agrees with Rashi’s reading of this parasha, adds a helpful insight: when the Torah says “On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai,” the significance of saying “this” and not “on that day” is to teach that we should feel as if the words of Torah and God are new to us each day. Every day is a new revelation, a new Sinai. This is the part we can relate to. When we say, “we will do and we will hear,” we may not mean “we will follow ALL of God’s commandments,” as the ancient Israelites did, but we mean, “We will do all the mishpatim that make us better people, and we will listen for God’s guidance in our day to day lives.” We mean, “We will inspect the tradition and find the things that are meaningful for us and help us observe the rational laws.” We mean, “I want to be part of this chain of tradition that teaches us to continuously study and interpret Torah in order to find its relevance to the modern day.”
            In the beginning of the Torah portion, God tells the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. The Israelites have just been freed from Egyptian slavery, and should now be serving no master but God. But, financial hardship might make it such that a person must sell their self into slavery. The Israelites are not to keep their slaves forever, and are to deal fairly with their slaves, especially when it is time to let their slave go. However, if a slave wants to stay with their master forever, they may commit themself by allowing their master to more or less staple their ear to the door post. Tradition teaches this is because to choose to be a slave to another human is to revoke the statement, “We will do and we will hear.” Part of being Jewish is listening for God, hearing the ways in which we must each grapple with the commandments and keep rituals because they enrich our lives. Giving up one’s autonomy is an affront to the God who freed us and it is a way of saying one no longer wants to be alert to the further and finer intimations of God’s will, but would rather become robots who fulfill lives of only doing what others ask. As a result of this offense against the slave’s ability to “hear,” the ear, the source of hearing, is mutilated.
            Of course, this is also a practice that is now completely dead, as there are no more slaves in Jewish cultures. However, the warning remains: a life without trying to understand God on your own terms is a life of slavery to other humans’ understandings. Approach each day as one with the possibility of revelation, and say to the world, to yourself, to God, “I will do and I will hear!” And thus may each day bring you a deeper understanding of the world, yourself, and God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

             

Friday, January 8, 2016

Parashat Va'ara and Speaking Up

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion opens with God reminding Moses of the important task ahead of them: redemption. Moses speaks to the people of Israel, but they do not listen to him, as Pharaoh did not listen to him when Moses stood before him in the last parasha. God, seeing that the people of Israel are not ready to hear the message of redemption while they are so oppressed and exhausted by their workload, tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and tell him that God has commanded that Pharaoh let the people go. Moses responds, “Behold the people of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?”
            The plain meaning, the most immediate and obvious explanation, of this protestation, is that Moses is pointing out that the people of Israel should want to be liberated. If they, who have reason to listen to a promise of redemption, who have something to gain from believing Moses, aren’t interested, why should Pharaoh, whose interests are put most in danger by this news, listen to Moses? There’s something to be said about speaking truth to power, and not placing the blame on those who fear being let down, but it’s also completely understandable that Moses holds this fear.
            However, he doesn’t stop with that comparison. That alone is not his main reason for believing he should not or cannot speak to Pharaoh, as he feels the need to add on the comment about his obstructed lips. Several times throughout the beginning stages of the Exodus narrative, Moses fears he will be an inadequate speaker for the task at hand. A rather well known legend, appearing in Shemot Rabbah, as well as recorded in the ancient historian Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, and even mentioned in Freud's Moses and Monotheism, explains Moses’s speech impediment as the result of a cruel test put to infant Moses by a fearful Pharaoh. Moses had taken the crown off Pharaoh’s head and crowned himself with it and Pharaoh worried that it might be a sign of baby Moses’s precocious desire to overthrow Pharaoh and rule over the Egyptian people. The angel Gabriel, disguised as a court sage, suggested that Pharaoh put before the baby an onyx stone and a burning coal. If the baby reached for the coal, it would prove that he just liked shiny objects and the self-crowning moment meant nothing. If he reached for the precious stone, it would prove that Moses was indeed destined to overthrow Pharaoh, and Pharaoh would be advised to kill the baby now. Moses, being precocious and destined to be the demise of Pharaoh, started to reach for the onyx stone, but the angel caused him to grab the coal instead. The baby put his burning hand into his mouth to cool it, burning his mouth as well.
The scar was left on his mouth forever, a constant reminder of the first time Pharaoh tried to destroy Moses for being powerful. This is one possible explanation for Moses’s reluctance to play the part of prophet and redeemer. Not only is his speech physically impeded, he is afraid to try to show himself to be too formidable a foe, having already escaped near infanticide for his precociousness. The great rabbi and biblical commentator, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, points out that when Moses complained he could not be the right choice to speak for God, he never asked that his speech impediment should be healed. He does not want to be healed; he does not want to speak for God. It is not his lips alone that hinder him, but his fear.
The Sefat Emeth, a Hasidic work of Torah commentary, suggests that perhaps Moses felt afraid to speak specifically because thus far no one has listened: “Because they would not listen, therefore I am of uncircumcised lips.” The Psalmist says, “Listen, my people, that I may speak.” One who has none listening may as well not talk, according to this reading. Each way of looking at the situation, whether Moses feels afraid to speak because his lips are impeded or his lips feel impeded because his speech has been disregarded, whether the physical scar in his mouth keeps him from speaking or the emotional scar of having escaped near death for being important, his reluctance to keep trying is an act of self-preservation, and as Ani DiFranco sings, “Self-preservation is a full-time occupation; I’m determined to survive on this shore.”
But the next line in that Ani song is, “You know I don’t avert my eyes anymore.” Because while self-preservation is extremely important, and we can all probably empathize a bit with Moses’s reluctance to put himself out there, ultimately if it comes at the cost of self-expression, then what exactly are we preserving? Moses’s reluctance to serve God in the manner he was selected angers God. Midrash HaGadol offers a few possible responses to Moses’s protestations:
“Rav Yehuda said: God said to Moses, ‘I am master of the universe, I am full of compassion, I am reliable in paying reward, My children are enslaved by human beings – and you say to Me, Send by whose hand You will send?!’ Rav Nehemia said: God said to Moses, ‘The anguish of My children in Egypt is revealed and known to Me... My children dwell in anguish and you dwell at ease, and I seek to set them free from Egypt – and you saw to Me, Send by whose hand You will send?!’”
Both midrashic twists by each of these rabbis suggest a similar sense of incredulity from God. Whatever his fears or disabilities, Moses has been hand-picked by God to do this hugely important task that will not only serve God, but free an entire race of oppressed people, and Moses has the audacity to say, “No thanks”? Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, said in his book Water and Dreams, “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak … it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us. The brook will nonetheless teach you to speak, in spite of sorrows and memories, it will teach you euphoria through euphemism, energy through the poem. It will repeat incessantly some beautiful, round word which rolls over rocks.” The continuation of the passage of Midrash HaGadol quoted above, finishes with a suggestion that Moses’s reluctance to do this task was the first and real reason he was not allowed into the Holy Land. How much suffering did he bring upon himself by trying to keep silent? How much extra suffering did he cause the Israelites by dragging his feet and not rallying himself and them sooner? How much suffering do each of us cause ourselves by not speaking about things which are important to us because we are afraid we will say them imperfectly or no one will hear us or others’ perceptions of us will change as a result of speaking out?

There are times when it is reasonable to want to keep quiet as an act of self-preservation. But if we are always focusing on self-preservation and making ourselves as small and quiet as possible so as not to expose ourselves to potential harm, we will never fully live. Moses eventually finds his voice. While he relies on Aaron as his mouthpiece for Pharaoh, he rallies himself up and does what God asks of him, and eventually is able to speak with great confidence to the people of Israel. For a guy who complains he is slow of speech and heavy of tongue, the later books of the Torah sure are filled with him yapping. May we all find that confidence, our voices, the ability to speak out for what is importance, no matter how long we remained silent before. May the brook teach us how to babble, may we find euphoria in euphemisms, may we stop averting our eyes and hiding from ourselves. May we survive and thrive, and in that way better serve ourselves, God, and our fellow humans. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: Joseph and George Bailey

            I don’t know if you guys know this, but there is a non-Jewish holiday coming up next week. Maybe you know some people who celebrate it? Maybe you even get to partake in the celebrations of friends and family? For those who don’t know about this holiday, it is one about which hundreds of movies have been made, so I’m sure you could easily look into those if you’d like. One such classic is a film entitled It’s A Wonderful Life. While reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book on Genesis, something she said about the Joseph story caught my eye and made me think of the main character of It’s A Wonderful Life. The following d’var Torah contains spoilers, but the movie is 70 years old and there should be some statute of limitations for spoiler alerts.
            At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is reunited with his brothers, only, they don’t know that it is their own brother to whom they are speaking. The Torah says “[Joseph] recognized them and he acted like a stranger toward them” (Genesis 42:7). The peculiar thing is that the Hebrew words the Torah chooses here: “vayikareim” for “he recognized” and “vayitnakair” for “he made himself strange to them,” both come from the same three letter root. In order to scope out what kind of people his brothers really are now, after all these years have passed, Joseph must make himself invisible to them. Only in seeing how they behave while still thinking that he is dead, can he properly gage how they have grown since they sold him into slavery. While his identity is invisible to them, Joseph tests his brothers by demanding they go back to Canaan and bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do, seeing his brother compels Joseph to leave the room and weep (for a second time). On this second weeping, inspired by seeing Benjamin, the medieval commentator Rashi offers a midrash: “Joseph asked Benjamin, ‘Do you have a full brother [from your mother]?’ He answered, ‘I had one, but I don’t know where he is.’ Joseph asked him, ‘Do you have children?’ and he answered, ‘I have ten children … their names are Bela, Bekher, etc.’ Joseph asked, ‘What do these names mean?’ and Benjamin replied, “They are all for my brother and the troubles that have befallen him: Bela – because he was swallowed up among the nations; Bekher – because he was first born to my mother; Hupim – because he did not see my wedding, nor did I see his; Ard – because he went down among the pagans.” In the midrash, Joseph is moved by hearing the names of his nephews because, as Zornberg says, “His own existence is suddenly fleshed out in absence.”
            In It’s A Wonderful Life, main character George Bailey makes a wish that he were never born. An angel named Clarence grants his wish and takes him all around his hometown of Bedford Falls, seeing what life would be like for the town and the people he loves if he were not present. It’s not exactly analogous to Joseph’s situation; for Joseph did exist and his brothers are explaining to the stranger they do not know to be him the loss of him, while George Bailey interacts with people in an alternate universe where they have never known him. Still, in seeing how the world around him would move on in his absence, he is able to develop a stronger sense of his existence. The film ends with him re-wishing himself back to his original reality, where he exists and the people around him know who he is, and the whole town comes to his home to celebrate him and fill the void that had previously caused him to wish he were never born.
            In this week’s parasha, Joseph’s own George Bailey moment concludes similarly. By making himself strange, by using and interpreter and pretending to be a real Egyptian, by “disappearing” for his brothers, Joseph “has gained access to his lost self. His brothers, equally, have recovered a vital sense of pain at their loss” (Zornberg’s commentary on Parashat Miketz). Finally, he is unable to contain himself anymore. Parashat Vayigash, our reading this week, opens with a long speech by Judah which thoroughly illustrates how much the brothers regret what they did to Joseph. At the conclusion of the speech Joseph bursts into tears a third time. Unlike the first two times, when he left the room himself, this time he commands his attendants to leave him and his brothers alone, which Zornberg takes to mean that these tears are more passionate, so overwhelming he cannot move himself. The rest of the parasha is primarily about Joseph struggling to make himself seen again after being hidden in plain sight, having to convince his brothers and father that both their eyes and ears are working correctly: they are seeing and hearing Joseph. It’s a significant move from the focus on Joseph’s lack of existence to the focus on physical senses to assure his family of his true identity. Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “The Torah is given in the Light of a face. The epiphany of another person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the Other is already an obligation toward him,” (Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings). This week’s Torah portion ends with everyone in the Israel clan finally seeing each other clearly and harmony settles among them, at least for now. Jacob and his sons stay in Egypt, close to Joseph, where Joseph remains in his position of power in the Egyptian courts, just as George Bailey’s friends and family gather near him in Bedford Falls, where he remains the proprietor of Savings and Loan.

            Sometimes we must draw back in order to see ourselves and others more clearly, to allow others to see us more clearly in our absence. Understanding others and ourselves is an important goal through life, lest we live impulsively and reactionary as Joseph’s brothers did in the beginning of this narrative. We don’t want to be going around throwing people in pits just because they annoy us. But we also don’t want to stay hidden forever. The principal is to make space for others so that you may see them better, without allowing yourself to disappear completely. Take the time to conceal yourself when necessary to investigate the true motivations of yourself or others, and make sound decisions based on those investigations, but remember to still stay true to yourself. In this way, may we learn to recognize our own worth, appreciate those around us, and make peace with our friends, family, and neighbors. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Parashat Miketz: Assimilation, Chanukah, and Joseph

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! We are reaching the end of our joyous 8 nights of lights, celebrating Chanukah. As we know, Chanukah is at its core a holiday about embracing a freedom of religion, a pride in being Jewish, and a refusal to change just for the sake of fitting in with those in power. As modern, progressive Jews, we have changed ourselves a bit to keep up with the times, but we maintain our Jewishness and can still appreciate our ancestors who fought for our right to do so. The emphasis of the miracle of the oil takes on a new importance for our rabbis who lived in ancient Babylonia, at a time when maybe talking about fighting foreign governments didn’t seem like a good idea, ironically further emphasizing from an historical point of view the importance of true freedom of religion.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph makes his way out of his jail cell and into the inner circle of Egyptian leadership. The pharaoh himself arranges for Joseph to marry an Egyptian woman of high status, and she bears him two children. The first is Menashe, meaning "God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home," and the second is Ephraim, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Joseph is ready to fit in with the Egyptians, but there's a level of obvious discomfort in it. He has come from a home where his own family members wanted to kill him, and fled to a place that has (aside from his stint in prison) mostly been good for and to him. He is able to rise to a position of power, but is unable to feel totally Egyptian. I'm not sure exactly what to make of this, but I think there's something worth acknowledging in the need to assimilate for survival. Did Joseph marry his wife because he loved her or because that was the only to keep himself from getting thrown back into the prison cell? Did the Hellenized Jews throw off Jewish observance because they were bored of it or because it felt unsafe to continue to do so? Did Babylonian Jews shift the focus of Chanukah because it felt unsafe to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees or because fire looks cool? When we give gifts for Chanukah now, is it because that feels like it is really the right thing to do, or because we are trying to compete with Christmas?
Rashi offers a Midrash on the story of the famine in Egypt, that the soil didn't stop producing food, but that the food grew and then immediately rotted. There's this sense of intense and immediate terror in this Midrash, that all of what we have may fall apart in front of our eyes at any moment. Joseph, the one in charge of managing the famine, is not only concerned about the physical rotting of the produce, but that all of what he has built for himself may rot. His children, half-Israelite and half-Egyptian, are central to his feeling rooted in the strange land of Egypt, and their names reflect his fear of this new place as well as his desire to assimilate into it, his remembering of home and his desire to forget it, his concern for life, staying alive, giving life, keeping alive. We're all in various ways assimilated Jews, trying to live safely in the broader communities we are a part of, but still feel in some way a pull to our Jewishness. May we find safety and strength as Jews, living by our values and with our traditions in mind, in whatever way that feels honest. May we welcome the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and may we stay alive and thriving, give life and keep alive those around us to the best of our abilities. Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev - Human Rights Shabbat

            This week’s parasha is called Vayeshev, named for the first line: “And Jacob settled.” It tells of how Jacob tried to settle his clan after much time spent feeling transitory. Even the years in one place, in Laban’s camp, felt as a place of impermanence, and Jacob seeks to settle in peace in a land for his family to have for themselves. This immediately gives way to the Joseph story, and much of the parasha is focused on the strife between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s near-death and actual enslavement and ends with Joseph the Dreamer wasting away in prison. The medieval commentator Rashi expounds on this, “‘And Jacob was settled’: Jacob sought to settle in peace – there leapt upon him the agitation of Joseph. The righteous seek to settle in peace – God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg further explains Rashi’s comment by saying, “One might even say that it is characteristic of righteous people to yearn for such a ‘settling,’ a clarification of the turbulences and anguish of life. But God rebuffs this yearning, in a tone of strange sarcasm: ‘Is it not enough?’ In God’s rhetoric, the righteous are made to seem… almost greedy, their desire for peace in this world wrongheaded, in view of the treasure awaiting them in another world.” Zornberg takes it in a theological direction, implying those who are self-assured of their place in the world to come shouldn’t bother trying for peace in this world because if they do, God will cause disaster to fall upon them. As soon as Jacob got too comfortable, God caused Joseph to be torn from him as a means of keeping Jacob on his toes, according to this reading.
            However, I connect with Rashi’s comment through a slightly different lens. The righteous may not settle in peace in this world because of all the peace that awaits them in the world to come, and this is because to be righteous, to earn a place in the world to come means to keep fighting for a better world for all here and now. Self-care, inner peace, and time to recharge are hugely important for the righteous, but lest they ever think their struggle is over while there is still injustice and people fighting for survival elsewhere, there will always come upon them a painful reminder that their duty is not ended. A righteous person may feel the anguish and turbulences of peace and yearn for a time when that may settle, but to be truly righteous is to know better than to seek that peace for yourself before the time is right.
            In ancient rabbinic literature, it is common to use oppositional terms to describe human behaviors and regulations of those behaviors. One such pair of contradictions is that of “Yishuv hada’at” – a settled mind – and “Tiruf hada’at” – a torn mind. Obviously, human experiences exist on a spectrum full of gray nuance, but the idea is that if we were to simplify our lives and thoughts down to a binary of extremes, we would find that we either have our minds at peace, able to think clearer and coherently, or our minds are scrambled, confused, maybe not even fully conscious. In this Torah portion we find these terms bookending the same chapter (Genesis 37). In the beginning of the parasha, starting with Genesis 37:1, we have the yishuv, the settling, of Jacob. After all his travels, this is clearly meant to be a physical, permanent settling, but the Midrash also has us understanding this as an emotional settling for Jacob. He has had some exhausting experiences up to now, and he’s ready to settle his brain. The end of the chapter, 37:33, about halfway through the portion, has Jacob lamenting that Joseph has been “tarof toraf,” surely and completely torn apart. Again, to Jacob, this is a physical tearing, of the coat and, in his mind, of Joseph, but it is also an emotional tearing. This news causes his mind to tear, tiruf hada’at. Eventually, this will lead to his physical unsettling, when Jacob and his clan will move to Egypt. When Jacob seeks the one, he inevitably finds the other; when he tries to “settle in peace,” he unleashes the “vengeful furies” of the Joseph story – “not because his is a moral offense,” Zornberg assures us, “but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.” We are not meant to have complete peace in this world while some still have none at all. Those who allow themselves to stay unsettled, their minds troubled, in order to help others, are the truly righteous.
            This Shabbat, as we are joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and many other congregations in support of Human Rights Shabbat, let us seek to find comfort and peace in unsettled realities. Let us learn how to live with the anguish that comes from knowing better than to think peace has yet come to this earth, so that we might continue to work toward peace and human rights for all. May we earn the label of righteous and true peace in the world to come. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

              

Friday, November 20, 2015

Parashat Vayetzei - Mussar

            Every fall, my school has a retreat in which we spend three days together in study and in community. It is off campus and away from our homes, where we truly live together, sharing three meals and prayer services together daily, in addition to study sessions and a cabaret. It is a great time. This year, our retreat was on the theme of Mussar. Mussar may be translated to mean ethics, but it’s more than just being nice to each other or living a moral life. It’s about learning where your own strengths and weaknesses are, and learning to fix them so that you can be a better person, serve others more fully, and live a more thoroughly moral and honest life in every way. In preparation for this, the week before retreat, our retreat organizers shared a video: “The Making of a Mensch.” One of the things mentioned as possible avenues to mussar is learning when to be more patient and when to be impatient. I have spent a lot of time in the past learning to be more patient in social justice. I used to be angry all the time at the state of the world, and wanted to know how to fix it, all of it, right now. I learned to be patient, to see success in small victories, to appreciate the ways in which the world is better now than ten years ago or sixty years ago or 600 years ago. As a whole, humanity lives longer, healthier lives. We have amazing advances in technology, including medical technology, we are more connected to one another than ever before, and xenophobia is definitely less normal than it once was.
            Unfortunately, it is still fairly common. People still discriminate against others based on their differences, and plenty still carry out hateful and violent acts based on these differences. And many, many more react in indifference. When those we perceive to be like us are discriminated against or experience violence, we show solidarity and empathy. When the same things happen to those we perceive as different from us, we ignore it, or worse, if those perpetrated those acts of violence are a part of our in-group, we defend it. When we find ourselves in 2015 still living in a world where people are hurt just for being who they are and too many turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices, it is time to get a little impatient. In 2015, we don’t have time anymore to put up with systemic oppression or indifference to war. We’ve come too far in our understanding of these problems to allow them to continue.
            In this and next week’s Torah portions, we see Jacob dawdling. Avivah Zornberg writes in her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, brings a Midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” He spends over fourteen years in Laban’s camp, acquiring capital and personal fulfillment. The time, says Torah of the first seven years and Midrash of the second, flies by for him as though it were only a few days, because of his love for Rachel. But meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps turning and for them, time is moving at a real pace, and Jacob is not doing anything to create goodness. Abraham welcomed strangers and argued with God for justice. Isaac was willing to allow himself to be sacrificed for God. And what has Jacob done, other than sleep and get married and tend sheep? He’s not a nice brother, he deceives his father, he is unloving to one wife and insensitive to the one he does love. He doesn’t acknowledge God until God comes to him in a dream, and he doesn’t interact with strangers. Where is his mussar?

            Eventually, after things start to fall apart a bit with his family in the next parasha, he does get going and fulfills his promise to God, allows God to continue the promise to Jacob and all the descendants of Abraham. For so many of us, it takes personal tragedy or at least a tragedy that hits close to home to wake up and realize how much time we’ve been wasting, to get going and fulfill the promises we made to ourselves or to our friends and families and communities, or to God. Let us not wait anymore. Let us feel some impatience. May we feel spurred awake today to take action toward improving the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Parashat Toldot: Jacob's Performance of Masculinity and Life for Trans Jews

                This past Monday evening, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Joy Ladin speak at an event host by the National Council of Jewish Women. Ladin is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She received her tenure teaching at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University as a man, and then began her transition and gender reassignment. Her talk on Monday was very frank, explaining that she knew it was a decision that negatively affected her family, but that she had reached a point of depression and dysphoria where she really felt her only other option was suicide. She simply could not go on living as a man. Now fully transitioned and living as herself, she is teaching again at Stern, has published several books of poetry, a memoir about her transition, was featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippet, and serves on the Board of Keshet, the national organization devoted to full inclusion of LGBT+ Jews in the Jewish community.
            On the train ride to the Upper West Side, where the NCJW is housed, I had already begun my weekly reading of Avivah Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis for this week’s parasha, and had noted her focus on verses eleven and twelve of chapter twenty-seven: Jacob says, “If my father touches me I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” Zornberg notes it is not the deception itself that is troubling to Jacob, but the fear of being found out, and of being judge negatively for it. The Hebrew word used here, metateia, is also used in contexts of mockery, a dissembler, and for those who make mockery of Jewish worship by worshipping idols. In this context, it means that Jacob fears that Isaac will think he’s mocking him, when that is not actually his intent. In playing the role of his brother, Zornberg says, “Jacob risks having his own authentic reality misunderstood.” A Midrash on Proverbs asserts that to neglect that which is most essential to one’s authentic being is a criminal act of mocking God. From here, Zornberg quotes Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true… Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
            And so, as of early Monday evening this week, my brain was already churning all the ways in which each of us lie to ourselves and lie to others; obscure who we really are so that we might be accepted, and try our best not to be found out as the tricksters we all sometimes are. Then, during Ladin’s talk, she was explaining how she was raised by pretty secular Jewish parents and did not have a strong religious identity and for various reasons she did not have a formal Jewish education. But she did like to go to synagogue and read the Bible during prayer services she did not understand. In reading the Bible without guidance, she says she was able to always find the things that connected with her and validated her relationship with God, who, like her, was a being without a real body (for that was how her dysphoria processed her image of the body she had – that she simply didn’t corporeally exist yet), and who other humans did not understand. But when she would get to this part of the Bible, this week’s parasha, she would simply skip it. Again, the perks of reading it on her own and without guidance or formal education meant she only had to read the parts she liked. And she did not like this part. She said, “Reading about Jacob’s need to perform his masculinity in a forced way was a little too close for comfort.”
            I realized that while all of us have parts of ourselves we must hide or masquerade, that we must lie to ourselves or others about, ways in which we don costumes of what we think other people want us to be so that we may get what we need out of them, we still live in a world that particularly requires this from trans and non-binary people. Also on Monday, an essay by Leah Falk was published on the Jewniverse, a blog dedicated to forgotten bits of Jewish knowledge. Falk acknowledges traditional Judaism’s enforcement of the gender binary: men pray three times a day and wear tefillin; women go to mikveh once a month and light the family’s Shabbat candles. However, she says, even the Talmud, the ancient source for Halakha, recognizes six gender identities. Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first trans rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College, explains the Talmud references those who are male, female, androgynous or having both male and female sexual characteristics, those who are tumtum or having indeterminate sexual characteristics, ay’lonit or identified as female at birth but developing male characteristics at puberty, and saris or identified as male at birth but developing female characteristics at puberty and/or becoming a eunuch later in life. Of course the Talmud doesn’t fully discuss the differences between gender identity, presentation, and chromosomes or genitalia, but they seem to get pretty close to understanding how diverse human representation of gender can be. It’s a little disturbing to think that in some ways, society has actually gotten further away from this understanding and tried harder to force people into discrete boxes of gender binarism.
            We must all work harder to make this world a place in which none of our fellow Jews need to fear “seeming like a dissembler.” We should strive to both be more honest with ourselves about our own self-presentations and perceptions, and also more open to differing presentations of others. Zornberg brings into her discussion of Jacob’s trickery and performance of masculinity the scholar Lionel Trilling, who writes in his study Sincerity and Authenticity, that we have often receive the message through culture that
“sincerity is undeserving of our respect,” that people should detach themselves and hide themselves in order to achiever power in society. But, Zornberg expounds on Trilling by saying, “to detach oneself from imposed conditions, from the roles assigned by birth and social rank, is to lose oneself, but thereby to gain access to a new authenticity of self.” When Jacob puts on the sheepskins and pretends to be Esau, he is able to develop a more complex, nuanced, and sincere sense of himself. I think we can probably all relate to this on some level, and yet, many people in society still seem to have a hard time being empathetic to this exact struggle in the trans community. To shake off the perceived gender assigned at birth may well mean losing everything, but it also may allow someone to truly become their self. If being inauthentic is an affront to God, as the Proverbs Midrash said, how can being one’s authentic self be ungodly? How can religious institutions bar someone for this?

            Thankfully, as Reform Jews, we can rejoice in knowing we are part of a religious institution that supports this authenticity. The URJ just passed its resolution for further inclusivity for trans Jews, and here at Temple Beth Emeth, I believe we are willing and able to meet all the URJ's expectations on this front. May we all continue to spread acceptance and sincerity of self throughout our communities, and pray for a time in which all people may be treated with equality and respect. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.