Friday, June 12, 2015

Parashat Shelach - What our Haftarah has to teach us about sex work

      As you all should know by now, I have had the pleasure and privilege of holding a Global Justice Fellowship with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) this year. AJWS works on several facets of social, economic, and environmental justice, but this year chose to focus on a campaign to promote the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world. One of the organizations that AJWS supports that I had the opportunity to meet during my trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua was called Flor de Piedra, an association for sex workers. As you can imagine, these women have been looked down upon by their communities, not only face discrimination and abuse from local business owners, clients, and find themselves unprotected by the police, they often face the discrimination and abuse from the police.
            In this week’s Haftarah, we meet Rahav, “the prostitute”. Today we say “sex worker” instead of “prostitute” for a few reasons. One reason is simply stigma: when people hear “prostitute,” too often a specific image comes to mind that is derogatory and so we change the language to help move the ideas behind it forward. Another reason, which is sort of two-fold, is an attempt to emphasize that sex work is work and sex workers are whole people with lives outside of their work. There would be no industry if there were no clients and so stigmatizing the providers of this service and limiting their identity to the way they pay their bills is unfair and dehumanizing. But most translations of Joshua chapter 2 will say “Rahav the prostitute.”
            In Women in the Hebrew Bible, Phyllis Bird explores the question of who Rahav really was and why she gets to play a heroine’s role in the fall of Jericho. “Why would the Israelites consort with a prostitute, who is portrayed as a heroine, without apparent censure of her profession or role?” she asks. The stigma of prostitution that continues to this day already existed in the Biblical world, and yet we see none of this in our Haftarah this week. Rahav’s profession is mentioned in passing, and then the focus of the story is on her role in helping the Israelites invade Jericho, in which she takes control of her own situation and makes alliances with strange men to protect herself and her family. Bird suggests that this is no mere accident, and neither are we meant to understand Rahav as some sort of high level cultic prostitute of the ancient Canaanite religion (as some have suggested). Rather, Rahav’s position as a lowly harlot is “essential to the story.” Bird explains how in the story, we learn that in order for her family to be protected through her deal with the Israelite spies, they must come into “her house,” i.e. the house the Israelites come upon is not the family home but clearly her brothel. The brothel, also possibly an inn or tavern as some translators will have you believe, offers a good cover for the strange travelers, and a good place to pick up the seedy information that may help the Israelite spies in their plan to overthrow Jericho. Whether this is historical document or literary technique, it was no accident that the Israelites happened upon the house of a harlot. Further, Bird explains, the whole story hinges on Rahav’s marginal status as a sex worker. It is because she is an outcast to respectable society that the strange men (Israelites) have access to her at all, and it is presumably at least partially because of her outcast status that she is so willing and eager to throw her current society under the bus (though our narrative tells us it is because she has heard of the wonders of our God and knows that God’s people will win either way and just wants to protect herself and her family).
            Bird pauses here to describe the “low status and despised state” of the prostitute, saying how neither “unfortunate circumstance [n]or personal fault … would elicit much sympathy or charity from an ancient audience,” and here I would like to pause to say that unfortunate circumstances and personal autonomy (for “fault” has such a negative meaning) are not mutually exclusive. Often, in sex-positive feminism, while we seek to end human trafficking and raise up the autonomy and rights of sex workers, we forget to acknowledge the potential link. While some women absolutely go into sex work with full autonomy, most of the women we met at Flor de Piedra were forced into it at a young age. Now, as adult women with children, they find that it is the only job that affords them the flexible hours and decent pay to help keep their homes afloat. In some cases, they actively seek out other work but find no one will hire them because of their history in sex work. They come together at Flor de Piedra to seek support, to learn their rights, to fight for more, to learn where they can find proper health care without stigmatization, to reach out to and educate others. The focus for the work now is on building and understanding autonomy, but we would be remiss to think that trafficked women and the empowered women who self-identify as “sex workers” are necessarily different.
            Rahav was a heroine, and so are many of the women we overlook every day. Just as the Israelites repaid Rahav’s kindness and bravery by sparing her and her whole family when they conquered Jericho, so too should we today honor the humanity in those society has looked down upon by promoting the right to safety, healthcare, and protection from harm for sex workers worldwide. Whatever your thoughts on the morality or legality of the work, the truth is a person’s profession should have no effect on how they are treated. Every human deserves the same access to healthcare and police protection, the same right to be treated with basic respect. For more information, check out AJWS’s resources here: or feel free to ask me more about Flor de Piedra! May we all look toward a future in which every person’s life is valued for its inherent worth, and no longer judge others by the work they engage in. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Parashat Shemini and AJWS

During my January semester break, I spent a little over a week traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua with American Jewish World Service, as part of my Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbinic and Graduate Students. We met with several grassroots non-profit, non-governmental organizations that AJWS partners with in the collective global effort to promote human rights and equality everywhere. Our fellowship is particularly focused on AJWS’s “We Believe” campaign, fighting for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world, so all the groups we met with work in those particular demographics. We met with some amazing, empowered, inspiring people: the women of Flor de Piedra, a sex workers’ rights organization in El Salvador; COMCAVIS Trans and ANIT, trans* women’s rights groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively; FESPAD, a “strategic ally” in El Salvador (that is, not grassroots, but a large-scale non-profit organization that works as a parent to smaller groups like COMCAVIS, representing their needs to international governmental bodies); Estrellas del Gulfo, an LGBTI group in rural El Salvador; Groupo Safo, a group that organizes particularly for lesbians in Nicaragua, but works with other local LGBTI groups; and Gaviota, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of indigenous women in the autonomous region of Nicaragua.
The thing that most struck me throughout our travels was the warm welcomes we received. Particularly in El Salvador, every group greeted us with a welcome to “our home”. There was a sense of love and solidarity in the connections we were making that was so heartwarming. These groups are fighting for their rights, in some cases fighting for their lives. They are doing incredibly important work on the ground to improve their own lives and communities, to change laws in their own countries, and to gain access to the basic healthcare and safety that we all take for granted. Yet, they welcomed us, outsiders who do not have to share in their personal struggles, as partners. They embraced us, not as beneficiaries or interlopers, but as equals in the fight for freedom of all people.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites in the desert are ready to make their first sacrifices in the Mishkan, to officially give home to the Shechinah among them. After Aaron completes the offering, he blesses the people with the priestly blessing and descends from the altar to stand among them. After all this is said and done, the “glory of God appeared to all the people.” When the organizations we met with in Nicaragua and El Salvador greeted us into their spaces as though it were ours as well, I felt the Shechinah among us. Speaking with them felt like receiving the priestly blessing: that God may bless and keep us all, that God will shine God’s face upon us, and that God will lift God’s face toward us, and give us peace. The work that these groups do feels like a modern re-building of the Mishkan. They are building spaces, both physically and emotionally, in which the Shechinah will reside among them. It is incredibly exciting and inspiring to be welcomed in, and I can understand the desire to rush forth and jump right in, to participate, in the way that Nadav and Avihu do in the next part of the parasha. But one lesson we can learn from their tragic deaths, is that over-zealousness can interfere with our rational thinking. So we maintain calm and remember our place, as an allies to these groups and not their “white savior.” AJWS promotes solidarity and support, not a paternalistic approach of taking over and overstepping our bounds. While it is important to remember that none are free until all are free, it is also important to remember that some are considerably less free, and they must be allowed to set the direction of their own liberation while the rest of us listen and assist.
After the deaths of Nadiv and Avihu, the Torah says Aaron “vayidom” – traditionally translated as “was silent.” But Rabbi Shai Held, one of the human rights hero rabbis arrested at JFREJ’s Black Lives Matter march back in December, offers a different drash for this. He cites Bible scholar Baruch Levine in explaining that sometimes the root word for dalet-mem-mem means “to moan” or “mourn” rather than “to be silent”. Sometimes, when we hear the news of oppression that does not directly affect us, we hear silence and we are silent. Sometimes we have no reaction at all, and this is truly a shame. But sometimes when we hear the moaning of oppression, we moan too. We hear the cries of oppression, and we remember the commandment to pursue justice, and we bear witness to their pain, and we do our best to understand it, even though we never really can. Only then can we really approach it to learn how to help.
Although the trip was short and we have been back for a few months now, the work continues. The fellowship is not over, and the trip was not a self-contained experience. Leading up to our international voyage, as well as throughout the week we were on the ground, we learned about the issues, the We Believe campaign, AJWS’s partners on the ground, and about transnational solidarity. In the remaining half of the fellowship, we have more to learn about organizing and educating our communities about the issues, and how to use what we learned and experienced in Central America to help inspire change here in our own country and communities. On February 22nd, we were trained in the Wellstone model of activist organizing, which was exciting. In college, I fancied myself a social activist, and in the last year I’ve been yearning to get back into that work. I’ve been participating in protests and marches in the city this year and I’ve been sharing information on social media, seeking to educate myself and others, but I have felt a lack of the tools necessary to help with any planning or organizing. I was thrilled to be taught how to better connect with people, build justice-oriented relationships, and work toward a brighter tomorrow with and for my community, to participate in this modern and metaphoric Mishkan building, a world where we can all feel the presence of holiness. In about a month, we will be participating in AJWS’s Policy Summit, which includes lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Slowly but surely, I am finding my social activist voice and allowing people to see who I am and what is important to me even when it is scary. It has been liberating and empowering, and I am immensely grateful for this fellowship for helping me in this endeavor, both in learning and experience, as well as in finding more like-minded people to surround myself with. If you are also interested in the work AJWS does, I’d be thrilled to speak with you at Kiddush about how you can get involved! 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Something that I would die for, something that I could live for too

As you might know, I’ve just returned from the international component of my Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World service. I say “just”, even though now it’s been a few weeks, which is more time than I actually spent in Nicaragua and El Salvador with my cohort, because although that is more than enough time to readjust to normal life, it has not been quite enough time to explain to others all that I learned there. There were so many key moments of understanding, learning, remembering, and recentering of my values. For the last three years, I’ve been very focused on my studies and on youth programming. To many around me, my bleeding liberal heart and my desire to incorporate Tikkun Olam teachings into my youth programming was still a strong identifier of my burgeoning rabbinate, but to me, my politics and love for social activism took the backseat. For a variety of reasons, I have committed myself this year to putting the important Jewish values of human rights and social justice back in the front seat, and this fellowship has been a very important part of that goal. As such, one of the key moments of my time in El Salvador was visiting the home and church of Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s hero priest, and soon to be saint.
Father Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. He was outspoken against poverty, class disparity, torture, and a number of other human rights abuses he saw happening in his country. He wasn’t afraid to write to President Jimmy Carter and tell the U.S. to stop funding the corrupt military junta that had recently taken over El Salvador. He knew his politics were unpopular with the government, and that he was making himself a target for assassination, but he knew what was right and he spoke out for his people. In 1980, in the early years of El Salvador’s civil war, Father Romero was shot and killed during evening Mass. At his home, now a museum, we were able to hear a recording of his last sermon, in which he acknowledged he was likely to be killed in the near future. He seemed comfortable with the idea of being martyred, while at the same time, urging El Salvadorians, particularly those fighting in the organized military, to rethink their actions and choose peace and holiness instead killing and oppressing. Right up to the very end, he was not afraid to call out those perpetuating human rights violations, and was willing to die if it meant giving voice to the voiceless.
Now, Jews generally don’t believe in martyrdom. Judaism teaches that pekuach nefesh, protecting the sanctity of life, is more important that almost anything else. There are a few notable exceptions, though, and allowing yourself to be slain to save others is one of them. Although in Romero’s case, he didn’t exactly give himself up to directly save another soul, he did knowingly get himself killed for the sake of trying to stop the killings of others, and I think his martyrdom is something we as Jews can appreciate. Learning about Father Romero and being in his house reminded me of one of my earliest role models as I began to think about a future in the rabbinate: Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a preacher, he was able to be the charismatic leader for a movement that changed America. Right now there is a lot of discussion, both in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement and in response to the movie “Selma”, about all the other people instrumental in the civil rights movement, people that history has washed out of the picture, people whose names are completely unknown to most of modern America (or at least white America). All of those nameless others who marched and fought and were arrested and beaten and hosed, they are all invaluably important, too. But one of the things that made Rev. King so iconic, so memorable, was that he was already a community leader. He had a pulpit to speak from, and he spoke honestly and unafraid about what was holy and right and good for his people. That’s the kind of rabbi and community leader I would like to be.
However, it is not the leader alone that makes a movement. When Father Romero was killed, the fight against human rights abuses in El Salvador did not cease, and in fact the civil war continued for over a decade as the disenfranchised poor continued to vie for control. When Dr. King was killed, the civil rights movement did not cease, and in fact continues to this day, without the need for another charismatic preacher to lead. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law warns Moses of the dangers of carrying the burden of the community by himself. He reminds Moses that God is truly with us when we work together and delegate. And as the Ten Commandments are given, we see that Mitzvot bein adam lamakom (commandments between man and God) and Mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro (commandments between man and his fellow), are not evenly split, but that there are more for the latter. That is, while the Mitzvot bein adam lamakom are given first and given with more explanation, showing they are for sure important, there are more commandments for how people should interact with each other, showing they are more important. It is important for a spiritual leader to lead you in prayer and help you connect with God, but it is more important for a community leader to lead by asking for your help in making the world better and allowing you to connect with your fellow.
As I continue to unpack emotionally from my trip, it is important for me to figure out how to use the information I learned there and impart it to all of you. You may not burgeoning rabbis or social activists. You may not believe in martyrdom or have any desire to put yourself at risk for any particular cause. But I believe everyone has values and a genuine desire to connect with a community that shares those values. If you’re not a Father Romero, a Dr. King, or a Moses, you can still be a Yitro, an Israelite receiving the Ten Commandments, a nameless fighter just trying to make his or her own community a little healthier, happier and safer. You can always help share the burden of your fellow, just by lending a helping hand or a listening ear. May you each find your own route toward making your community, your country, or the world a better place.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A reflection on my trip with AJWS

I've been trying to get around to writing something about my trip for a while now, and it's been difficult. There is a lot to say, and it's hard to know what's worth saying, or how to frame it. Should I just type up all my notes about the organizations we met with? Should I just write a short reflection on the trip, just the sorts of things I've been saying when people ask how it was? Write a d'var Torah that includes information and emotions from the experience? In the coming weeks, I will be presenting a lunch program at school, giving a sermon at WJC, and publishing an article for WJC's newsletter. For each of these experiences, I may speak about my trip a little differently. What follows here is more or less the submission for The Review (the synagogue newsletter). In the week's to come, I might post more about the trip as I prepare for my other presentations about it and the follow up with the fellowship.

During my January semester break, I spent a little over a week traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua with AJWS. We met with several grassroots non-profit, non-governmental organizations that AJWS partners with in the collective global effort to promote human rights and equality everywhere. Our fellowship is particularly focused on AJWS’s “We Believe” campaign, fighting for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world, so all the groups we met with work in those particular demographics. We met with some amazing, empowered, inspiring people: the women of Flor de Piedra, a sex workers’ rights organization in El Salvador; COMCAVIS Trans and ANIT, trans* women’s rights groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively; FESPAD, a “strategic ally” in El Salvador (that is, not grassroots, but a large-scale non-profit organization that works as a parent to smaller groups like COMCAVIS, representing their needs to international governmental bodies); Estrellas del Gulfo Groupo Safo, a group that organizes particularly for lesbians, but works with other local LGBTI groups; and Gaviota, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of indigenous women in the autonomous indigenous region of Nicaragua.
didn't exactly have expectations for this international adventure to El Salvador and Nicaragua; I knew that I didn't know enough to make projections about what the countries would be like. I think what shocks me most about my experience of this travel is how much it actually did feel similar to my some of previous travel experiences. When I traveled to Lithuania in 2010, I thought that was a poor country. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t really that poor, that I still hadn’t traveled to a developing nation or to the “Global South,” but by my New York-centric American standards, the city of Vilnius is not exactly a thriving city, and it feels haunted by the ghosts of my ancestors. Travelling to El Salvador and Nicaragua, I was surprised by how luxurious it felt at some points – there was almost always wifi and plenty of food and bottled water (we were not to drink the tap water, though it seemed the local people were able to tolerate it). The people did not seem like how I pictured the people of the “developing world,” even as much as I had tried not to picture them at all. Even as the people we met with told us of their struggles, they still seemed filled with hope for a better future. They seemed relatively healthy; even those living with HIV seemed to have the access to the treatments they needed to maintain their normal lives, at least through the successes of the groups advocating for them. When Rene, our tour guide through Nicaragua, told us about how the people, particularly in Managua (the capital), talk about how things used to be, how the country used to have money, the city used to have a downtown, it was reminiscent of my feelings wandering around Vilnius, which used to have a vibrant Jewish community. This surprise taught me that no matter how much I try to deny my own projections and presuppositions about places I know I can’t presume anything about, there are still images that sneak into my mind from somewhere. Of course, this surprise also taught me the obvious, that which I didn’t think I needed to learn and the reason I tried so hard not to make those presuppositions in the first place, and that is that people are really quite similar all over. They’ll make a life with what they have, build communities with who they have, and look forward to new or renewed life with a brighter tomorrow. It’s a worthwhile reminder for everyone, but particularly for those interested in AJWS’s model of partnership. We seek to be in solidarity with the groups we meet with, to learn from them, to learn what we can do to help them achieve their own goals with their own methods. We do not want to be paternalistic or assume to know what’s best for them.
We are back now, but the fellowship is not over, and the trip was not a self-contained experience. Leading up to our international voyage, as well as throughout the week we were on the ground, we learned about the issues, We Believe, AJWS’s partners on the ground, and about transnational solidarity. In the remaining half of the fellowship, we will learn to better organize and educate our communities about the issues, and we will be participating in AJWS’s National Policy Summit in DC. One of the things I am most looking forward to is the Wellstone Activist Organizing training. In college, I fancied myself a social activist, and in the last year I’ve been yearning to get back into it. I’ve been participating in protests and marches in the city in the last couple months and I’ve been sharing information on social media, but I have felt a lack of the tools necessary to help with any planning or organizing. I know this particular movement doesn’t really need me, isn’t exactly waiting around for another white girl to feel empowered to take the mic, but I think the training will help me learn how to be a better, more useful ally and use my white privilege to speak truth to power, as well as of course the intended use of the training, and that is to help me be a better organizer around the We Believe campaign. I will know I have successfully gained the organizing tools when I have the opportunity to put them to use. 
Currently, I am not really doing much organizing, and that is my challenge. In my last three years in New York and as a rabbinical student, I have not participated much in social justice work for a variety of reasons. Last spring, I remembered how important it was to me, and realized how much I had been stifling myself in just trying to keep to my designated school work and internship duties at places where social justice were not priorities. My decision to sign up for this fellowship this year was partly a fulfillment of a long-time desire to work with AJWS, but also was timed as such because of a need to re-center myself on social justice Torah. Already, through the webinars, chavruta learnings and international travel, I have gotten so much out of this, and I anticipate so much more through the Wellstone training and the policy summit. Slowly but surely, I am finding my social activist voice and allowing people to see who I am and what is important to me even when it is scary. It has been liberating and empowering, and I am immensely grateful for this fellowship for helping me in this endeavor, both in learning and experience, as well as in finding more like-minded people to surround myself with.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Parashat Bo and the Intentions of Panicked Haste

            In one of my first Divrei Torah, I speculated on the timing and what seemed like poor planning of the Israelites in Parashat Bo. They leave in haste, yet they had all this warning that the time to flee would be imminent. Why didn’t they prepare better, make tastier snacks for the road? Why does our festive meal every year have to be commemorated by tasteless matzah to commemorate the haste of the exodus, when really, they should have had breads and cakes already ready to go with them when the time came. In 2012, I likened this to the time a family friend, then about thirteen years old, was the last one to be ready for a multi-family excursion to a Yankee game, and ran into the car dressed with great intention – full fan attire, including Yankees pants over her shorts, hat over perfectly brushed hair, the whole deal. But no shoes. And she will never in her life be able to live down the tale of “Two pants, no shoes,” when she spent a day walking around Yankee stadium barefoot. In 2012, I used this story and the story of the Israelites to caution a sanctuary full of kids and parents to think ahead in their day’s preparations, and be certain to have all the necessary, useful things for their sojournings.
            This year, however, I have read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture and was struck by her observation on this very problem, which she calls the “ungainly haste.” In her typical fashion, dense with esoteric references, she spends considerable time on the concepts of day and night in the Exodus narrative. In some places, both in this parasha and in later references to the Exodus, it seems God led the people Israel out of Egypt by day. In other places, it says night. What is the meaning of this? And how does it relate to the ungainly haste?
            Zornberg argues, with the help of traditional midrash, of course, that the Israelite slaves of Egypt were free at night. But their first act of freedom is to ignore the plea of Pharaoh to hurry up and leave so that his suffering at the hands of our God might end. Even as liberation comes at night, Exodus only comes in the day. As the tenth plague draws near, God tells the people Israel to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to put the blood on their doorposts so that God knows to pass over those homes as the Angel of Death goes through the land slaughtering the first born. Then, God tells the people to eat the roasted meat, along with the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and to do so in haste. Before night has even fallen, let alone before day has broken and the moment for hasty leave has arrived, God is commanding that these actions be done in haste. Matzah is not an accidental symbol of haste, a mistaken food created because the people left so quickly they did not have time to make leavened snacks for the road. Matzah is intentional, the haste is intentional. Rashi adds connotations of panic to his translation of the word “בחפזון” (haste).
With this explanation of the day/night divide, and a vivid image of what the night entails, Zornberg establishes for us the “tableau of leaving, exodus,” a “tableau of release,” and a “tableau of readiness-to-leave.” In short, she paints a picture of the Israelite people biding their panicked time through the night, poised to leave at first light, quivering in darkness and their own silence as their hear the cries of anguish from the Egyptian households. They are ready to go all along, but wait in anticipation of this pre-planned panicked haste.
According to Zornberg, there are three moments in the narrative “when panic haste was central: one was at night – referred to as chipazon deMitzrayim [the haste of Egypt] – and was informed by the terrified pressure of the Egyptians on the Israelites to leave the country; while [another] was the following day – referred to as chipazon deYisrael [the haste of Israel] – the urgent flight of the Israelites by day.” The third is the “chipazon of God’s Presence.” In the narrative itself, it is visualized in the “leaping” (“bechipazon/ufasachti”- “in panic haste/I shall leap”) of the Passover story. Zornberg translates the verb pesicha (notice the connection to the noun pesach) to leap, adding a frenetic energy, a panic haste already to the movement of God, as distinct from our usual interpretation of “to pass over”. Combined with God’s own admission of “bechipazon”, we have a very strong illustration of God’s own wait and hurry narrative.
            Zornberg says the effect of all these strands of the intentional panic haste narrative is to “postpone, till after the Splitting of the Sea, any sense of complete freedom.” I would argue a slightly more nuanced rephrasing. Although it does delay the sense of complete freedom until after the deaths of the Egyptians, I don’t see it as the holding back of freedom, as I read her commentary as suggesting. I read more of a sense of stages of freedom. A people oppressed for generations, they find themselves freed from one master, paradoxically, as Zornberg points out, only at the commandment of a new master. This new master has told them to remain until morning, so that even as the old master urges them out of his land, they timidly test the waters of their new affiliation to God rather than Pharaoh by staying put. One act of liberation against their old, cruel enslaver. As morning breaks, they burst forth, gather the spoils of Egypt and march out of the land of their oppression. A second act of liberation from their wretched lives as slaves. After the Israelites have safely made it across the sea, the waters rush in on the Egyptians, washing away any concern that the Israelites might face repercussions for their acts of defiance to Pharaoh or for their “borrowing” of the jewels and precious metals of Egypt. A final act of liberation. At which point, of course, the people are fully free to start whining about wanting to go back to Egypt and fear that God will be an even more hateful master than Pharaoh was.
“And when your children ask, What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to God, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:26). The commemoration of the Passover is to remember the paschal lamb that offered protection from the Angel of Death. But the Passover as a whole is also a reminder about the stages of freedom and our responsibility to uphold them. Rather than the narrative of the seemingly unnecessary panic-haste being a cautionary tale against poor planning, as I once drashed, I would now posit that it is a story about the forced patience we must endure when fighting for justice in our unjust world. When the African slaves were freed in the United States, it took another hundred years to desegregate and at least pretend to do away with Jim Crow. Fifty years after that, we are still fighting for equality for all races. It is an unacceptably slow process that comes in stages. When the time comes that the nation, government, society as a whole is ready for change, those who are interested in fighting for it charge forward, with a panic haste, despite having been ready for this change all along. When the strong hand of forces unseen come down, they are forced to pause, hold back, tip toe slowly toward the next step, until another flash point flares up so that they can charge forward again. It’s really a bad system, but apparently one that humanity has been working with for thousands of years. The purpose of retelling our own people’s liberation stories year after year is to remind ourselves of the importance of our freedom. What the cost is for liberation. And how we must help others achieve theirs.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Rape Culture: the Healing Ritual

Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai … (Song by Rabbi Menachem Creditor: May the world be built on kindness).
SURVIVOR: Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is consumed with grief, my soul and my body.
FACILLITOR: Be gracious to survivors, who have been consumed with grief, who strive to cleanse their souls and reclaim their bodies.
SURVIVOR:  I am the scorn of all my enemies and exceedingly of my neighbors, and a dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
FACILLITOR: They are taught entitlement to your body and here you walk among them demanding autonomy.
SURVIVOR: I am forgotten out of mind like one who is dead; I am like a broken vessel.
FACILLITOR: To remember you would be to take responsibility for their creeds and deeds that have led to your trauma, so they choose to forget.
SURVIVOR: For I have heard the slander of many; fear was on every side; while they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life.
FACILLITOR: But in spite of their slander, you have been brave. In spite of their counsel, you live on.
Group: Let God’s face shine upon you. Let you not feel ashamed; let the wicked be ashamed. Be of good courage, and let your heart be strong.[1]
Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai …
FACILLITOR: When Tamar was raped by Amnon, she tore her clothing and bore signs of grief out into the streets, wailing, even as her brother Absalom told her to keep quiet. We come together now to support you in your own decision to be as vocal or quiet about your experience as you choose, even as you, too, perform this k’riah to mark your grief with us. [2]
Survivor tears pillowcase (it may be the very same one on which her head lay as she was assaulted, or it may be symbolic, and old one dug out of the closet or a brand new one bought just for this occasion) and recites:
Rend your garments and not your heart, for God is gracious and compassionate, and full of kindness.
קִרְעוּ בִּגְדֵיכֶם וְאַל לְבַבְכֶם,  כִּי-יי חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד[3]

Group: Wherever you go, we are there with you; whatever your need, we are beside you. Be strong, be strong, and may we all be strengthened.
Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai …

[1] Based on Psalm 31
[2] 2 Samuel 13
[3] Based on Joel 2:13

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Problem of Delay

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has his dream of the angels, and at the conclusion of the dream, God blesses him, saying, “I am with you and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. When Jacobwakes up, he famously says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” He then goes on less famously to restate, confirm, God’s promise back, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” Time passes, Jacob lives and works in Laban’s home, marries two wives and takes two concubines, amasses great fortune, and leaves Laban’s home. Then we come to Parashat Vayishlach, when everything hits the fan. In the span of this one Parasha, Jacob and Esau are reunited, accompanied by much fear and fanfare around Esau’s intentions, Jacob wrestles with the angel, receives a new blessing and a new name and a new injury, his daughter is violated, his sons commit genocide, his favorite wife dies and is buried in haste by the roadside rather than carried to his family’s gravesite, and his oldest son has an affair with one of his concubines. Things are not going so well in the clan of Israel. 
In her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desiremodern midrashist Avivah Zornberg 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.” God creates this chaos in Jacob’s life to draw his attention to the fact that he has been on the road, exposed to these dangers for too long. But Jacob just doesn’t get it. Once cunning and sneaky, the Jacob of Parashat Vayishlach is passive and seems a little dense. Finally, God gives up on the subtleties of symbolism and directly says to Jacob, “Arise, go to Beth El.” Essentially God is saying, “It’s time to pay the piper: I have been with you, gave you prosperity and peace, and you have not returned to Beth El to establish My home there, you have not returned to the land of your father, you have not completed the cycle of your fathers to establish the My people in the Holy Land.” 
Much like Jacob’s obligation to fulfill his end of his covenant with God, to return to Beth El to establish it as a holy site and to return to Canaan to establish it as the holy homeland of his people, as Jews, we also have an obligation to fulfill our end of our covenant with God, to uphold commandments andlive up to our creation in the Divine image. While some commandments are unadvisable to follow for various reasons, I have to argue that the commandments to pursue justice, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors, and other such justice-focused mitzvot are not commandments we are allowed to do away with in the modern age. They are still applicable, in every era and in every place. How can we live up to our Divine image, how can we choose life, how can we honor God’s creations, if we ignore those that need our help, if we turn our backs on justice, if we hold onto hatred and violence? We must be careful not to delay to fulfill these obligations. 
Why does Jacob delay? He does not appear to be actively ignoring the signs from God, or disavowing the promise. Zornberg says, “This is a passive, not active, denial. But, effectively, repression is the gravest form of refusal … since it will not engage with –avow or disavow – the vow.” Zornberg discusses at length Jacob’s attachment with “lastness.” When he meets with Esau, he carefully arranges his family in order of importance, with the most beloved being last, which Zornberg equates with Jacob’s emergence from the womb last, holding onto the heel of his brother. I have never before associated with Jacob. He starts off sneaky and deceitful, he is absurdly silent in the narrative around his daughter’s violation and his sons’ committing of genocide, and generally I do not find him to be a particularly sympathetic character. However, here, in Zornberg’s explanation of his “lastness” I read myself. Much like Jacob here, I tend to be one who will “wait… bide [my] time… plan [my] strategies from the rear.” I often do not speak out until I am certain of the facts and players, until I feel sure of my own voice and am ready for the responses I might have to face. Sometimes, this can be an asset, a sign of wisdom. Sometimes, this is also a foolish insensitivity, and can cause me, Jacob, and those like us, to “miss the boat,” so to speak. Jacob feels the need to plan ahead, to be certain of his moves and motives. Not just with Esau; this is what keeps him from returning to Beth El and to his father. He expresses concern about the fulfillment of his father’s blessings, that he is not yet a master over his brother. Despite the fact that he has amassed great wealth and fortune, he is unsure about how he’ll know that it is time to complete his journeying and return home to settle in as the leader of the people Israel. As a result of this unsureness, he brings upon himself and his family tragedy and chaos. He must seek equilibrium, as must we all, between patience and thoughtful planning, and passion and decisive action.
This is the human condition, to be eternally struggling for this balance, “pressed by God’s hand.” We can plan, be cunning and patient with our pursuit of justice. But we must also be passionate, and careful to not delay too long, or else it may be too late. Only in this equilibrium can we find stability, true wholeness and freedom.