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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Parashat HaShavua – Parashat Va-Yetze

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone:
They paved paradise and put in a parking lot.”
            “Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Paran” (Genesis 28:10). Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob does not just “go”, he “leaves.” At the end of Parashat Toledot, both his parents tell him to “rise and go”, with a meaning of “flee”. But the beginning of Parashat Vayetzei does not say, “So he went/goes” or “He fled.” It says: “He left.” He left behind his tangible absence among his remaining family members, and he left behind the struggle and the pain that he caused. Rashi questions the use of this word, and answers it with what Avivah Zornberg calls a “classic midrashic response.” He says, “This tells us that the ‘leaving’ of a righteous person from a place makes an imprint [Zornberg’s emphasis]. As long as the righteous person is in the city, he is its glory and light and majesty. When he leaves, its glory, light and majesty are evacuated.” Zornberg, in her commentary The Beginning of Desire, “The imprint, the full awareness of the indispensable person, is known only after he has removed himself from his place.”
            Last week, the Academy of Jewish Religion held its annual retreat, this year on the topic of “Torah and Terra: Jewish stewardship of the environment.” We spoke a lot about climate change and unstoppable destruction we’ve already put forth into the atmosphere. Climate change science has been discussed for at least 20 years, but only now is the mainstream starting to care. Only now are we starting to realize that we have already passed the point of no return. We can still make changes, make a difference, save the Earth, but the carbon we’ve already emitted is enough to cause irreparable damage. The globe is already warming, the ice caps already melting, the waters already rising. We are losing shorelines. Without drastic changes on a governmental and international level, life as we know it could be over by 2100 (not to say the world will end, but that life will be unimaginably altered to adjust to the new face of Earth). This is the lifetime of the generation being born now. People who are already alive will see the devastation we have created for them. Even with drastic changes, we could find large swaths of land under water and innumerable species extinct by 2100. But we, as a human race/species, don’t seem to be making moves to make those drastic changes in time. We won’t know what we’ve lost til it’s gone.

            Zornberg, with the help of Rashi and the midrashists, continue in a more hopeful vein: the void that Jacob creates is within him as well, and is necessary in order for him to cleave to his mate. In order to find and attach himself fully to his wife, Jacob must separate himself from his family, from his place of origin, from “previous identities and fixities.” Perhaps we, too, can find something new to cleave to in the absence of life as we know it. Maybe we need to be faced with the paving of paradise before we can fully embrace the trees and the birds and the bees. Maybe only after we’re left with the void of our current coastlines will we be able to better develop – with clean building, recycled and recyclable resources, and carbon-free energy – more of our currently uninhabited land. Maybe being forced to move inward and shift boundaries will force us to make peace with our neighbors and create global cooperation in the name of saving what’s left of our planet. More than just hope and speculate, let us work toward any of these options, work toward cleaner energy and ways of development, urge our policy makers and fuel providers to listen to our rising need for drastic change, and work toward peace with those who may be very close neighbors competing for fewer resources in the not too distant future. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Parashat Toldot – Torah and Terra

My d'var Torah from Monday night's ma'ariv at the AJR retreat on Torah and Terra. I was told that my delivery was brilliant, so I apologize that those simply reading it may be missing out on key moments of understanding. 

            We all come to this retreat with varying levels of knowledge and observance. Some of us may be learned environmental scientists, or dedicated Jewish-Environmentalist activists, and others may be completely new to the concept of conservation or Biblical laws that dictate we care for nature. But we wouldn't be having the retreat on the topic of Torah and Terra if we generally consider ourselves to be a community of experts on the topic. Personally, I consider myself an environmentalist, and I’m going to guess many of you are in a similar camp. I recycle, I turn off lights when I leave a room, I use reusable canvas shopping bags, I participated in the People’s Climate March. However, I still enjoy a nice bubble bath or a long hot shower, I use all kinds of electronics and do not own anything solar-powered, I don’t grow my own food or even know where most of it comes from half the time, and I have not helped to organize, promote, or otherwise contribute in any meaningful way to environmentalist activism. But I still get to tell people I’m an environmentalist, because I believe that environmentalism is good, right?
            “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands.” In this week’s parasha, Isaac asks in many ways for identification of the son who brings him his meal and awaits the blessing. The last of which is the declaration, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands, and he discerned him not… so he blessed him.” The commentary Matnot Kehuna says that the voice of Jacob is “one of indirection and cunning.” Jacob’s very name is derived from the root meaning “crooked”, “indirect”. Jacob speaks knowing that his deeds are duplicitous, that who his voice reveals him to be and what his hands reveal him to be is not the same person.

            Sometimes, we speak with our true voices, while the actions of our hands reflect untrue representations of ourselves. It may be that in our heart of hearts, we all want to be true environmentalists. We speak as the person we see ourselves as, an idealized version of our ethics. But we act out in the way that is convenient. We masquerade ourselves to impersonate those we see around us, knowing full well that it’s not right, because it is the easiest way to get what we want, what we think we deserve. It would be really hard work to be so mindful of our carbon footprint that we actually make a difference on a global scale! Ain’t nobody got time for that! Meanwhile, we see those around us validating this. Like Rebecca scheming for Jacob in the kitchen, we’ve got governments heaping a solitary option for fuel on us, and shielding from our view the devastation it causes. We can hope things turn out alright for us, like they do for Jacob. That speaking as one person and acting out as another will not cause us any real harm. But the science would disagree. Rather, let us find a way to pull off the goatskins and unify our hands with our voices, and act in accordance with our words. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Parashat Chayei Sarah - There can be no light without darkness

             Just this week I found myself reflecting on a difficult time in my life, a time when I was facing feelings of suicidality, a time when I felt abandoned by my Jewish community, a time when I questioned my point and purpose in life, a time when I wondered what and where God was. The reflection focused on overcoming those feelings, finding peace again in a different Jewish community, reuniting with God and myself, and feeling a sense of intense liberation at having gone through that and come out the other side.
In her commentary for this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, Avivah Zornberg recalls the same midrash from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer that I wrote about in this year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, and a hand full of others like it. Satan appeared to Sarah, or perhaps Satan in the guise of Isaac appeared to Sarah. Satan told Sarah that Isaac was killed by his own father on Mount Moriah, or perhaps Satan-Isaac told Sarah that Abraham had raised his hand to kill him but the angel stopped him just in time. Maybe Sarah didn’t hear the end of the story, so great was her anguish, and maybe she did but was anguished anyway at the idea that if not for the interference of the angel at just the right moment, her husband would have killed her son. At any rate, in hearing this news, however much of it she heard, she let out wails and cries of varying sounds, corresponding to the sounds of the Shofar, and then she died.
            Zornberg’s point of bringing all these midrashim, unlike my point at the High Holy Days of remembering her cries and those of other women and children in distress, is to show us the “impossibility of full joy in this world” (The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Vertigo – the Residue of the Akedah). Isaac and Abraham have just undergone a horrible experience in Parashat Vayera with the Akedah. Their relationship will probably never recover (in fact, in the Torah, we never really see them speak to each other), and they are each undoubtedly deeply damaged psychologically from it, but still they succeed. Abraham proves his worthiness and devotion to God, and Isaac gets to live: a happy ending to that story, only to be undercut by Sarah’s death as a direct result in the opening of this parasha. Zornberg goes on to speak of the nothingness we encounter in life, the way in which we only find true meaning after accepting this meaninglessness of our lives, or the way in which we experience anxiety and vertigo, uncertainty and panic, if we do not accept this. She uses the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being” as the source of Sarah’s death, but I think this same phrase well-captures what I felt as rebirth after the time of my life described above. Tyler Durden says, “It is only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything”; Avivah Zornberg says, “[D]oubt, interrogation, absence, anguish create the possibility of freedom”. It was this unbearable lightness that caused me to feel like I could float above my world, my depression, my negligent Jewish community. It was only after I accepted that maybe there is no meaning to the world, that perhaps God’s generosity is darkly shaded and roughly textured, that I felt liberated to experience my own generosity to myself, to find new meaning in a self-created world that recognizes and embraces one’s own darkness. As Zornberg says, “To know the brokenness, the hollow resonance of the Shofar, is to sharpen one’s hearing for the affirmations of faith.”
            After Sarah’s death from her unbearable lightness of being, the parasha goes on to tell the tale of Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca. Rebecca is found by a well, and Abraham’s servant recognizes her as the correct woman for Isaac by her radical kindness. She not only gives him some water, but carries water to his animals as well. Her life and her soul are characterized by this light, this goodness. When she follows the servant back to Abraham’s homestead, she sees a man on in the fields meditating as they approach. She asks, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant answers, “That is my master”. So she covers herself with her veil, suddenly feeling bashful in front of her soon-to-be husband. Midrashim famously attribute this to Isaac’s embarrassingly good looks, her humbling in front of this great man, and their true love. Zornberg draws a different conclusion. She says that Rebecca sees Isaac praying in the field, sees and hears the anguish in his prayers, broken up over his mother’s death, and perhaps holding survivor’s guilt as the indirect cause of her death, and she experiences “confusion, doubt, and suspense.” She has never seen this sort of darkness in her “sunlit world of hesed”. They build a life together, though we are left wondering how well these two people, who essentially live in different worlds, can relate to one another?

            Some people don’t ever experience this darkness. Some may but live in denial, in that troubling state of vertigo that Zornberg describes. Some live through it, embrace it, and push past it. We internalize the meaninglessness of life and choose to go forth anyway, and create our own meanings. We are all given birth and death, some of us just want some say in between, even if it ultimately doesn't matter. There is an intense sense of liberation at being able to accept this, that Sarah was unfortunately unable to experience. For any that find themselves on this threshold, forced to face unbearable truths or nothingness, I urge you to push on, to find a comfortable place to sit in that void and wait for light to return. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Parashat Vayera

“And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre … and he lifted his eyes and looked and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door and bowed himself to the ground.”
What does it mean for the Lord to appear to Abraham? What does it mean that when he looked up, three men were already standing next to him? Why did Abraham run to meet them so enthusiastically? In just this short passage, we are able to open ourselves up to a world of questions and potential answers, midrash and meaning, and life lessons.
            First, how does the Lord appear to Abraham? In Lech-Lecha, we read that God speaks to Abraham, but there’s no explanation on how they interact, where the voice comes from, how Abraham experiences God. Here we read that God appeared to Abraham. Abraham saw God, in some way. Some midrashists believe that because this parasha immediately follows the details of Abraham’s bris, God is paying a Bikkur Holim visit, keeping Abraham company as he heals. This midrash helps to emphasize the honor of Abraham as he rushes up to meet the strange visitors. He was hanging out with God, and turned away to greet strangers! We learn from this that greeting weary travelers is of utmost importance, a real mitzvah!
            So, who were the weary travelers? Another midrash suggests that two are the angels that travel on to Sodom and Gemorrah later in the parasha, and the third is God. The progression of the introduction to the parasha, saying “The Lord appeared… and Abraham looked up and saw three men standing by [literally, upon] him” is meant to suggest that the three men and the appearance of the Lord to Abraham are the same thing. Further reinforcing this is the way the men appear. Abraham does not seem to see them approach, he simply looks up and there they are, right by his tent! And this is the desert, there were no trees for them to ninja rope down from or shrubbery to hide behind and sneak up on him. There’s only sand. They appeared out of nowhere. This teaches us the importance of welcoming in strangers without glorifying Abraham’s earnest honor. He did not walk away from God to greet the men, he greeted the men and in doing so, greeted God! It seems he even knew that the men were representatives of God, which makes the importance of greeting them obvious and not necessarily something deserving of praise. However, we might not know when God or angels are in our midst. We learn from this that we should be welcoming to everyone, because we might never know who we are leaving out if we don’t. Beauty and the Beast teaches a similar lesson, so if you feel unconvinced by this midrash, you can always just watch the opening scene to the Disney movie and learn basically the same thing.
            So why did Abraham run to greet the three men so enthusiastically? Was he trying to make a good impression on important visitors? Was he trying to show off his inclusivity skills to God? Was he just a really nice guy? Was he just bored and eager for new faces and stories, perhaps information from whence the travelers came? In the end, it doesn't really matter. Any of these are good reasons to greet new people. Make good impressions, build networks, make friends, gather fresh anecdotes and information, spice up your life with new experiences, be nice to people who may feel left on the outside. These are all things that can be accomplished with a simple hello and a handshake. So, Hello!


Lech-Lecha - Go Forth

“Once or twice in a lifetime, a man or woman may choose a radical leaving, having heard Lech L’cha – Go Forth. God disturbs us toward our destiny by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice which explode and confirm who we are. We don’t like leaving but God loves becoming. Blessed are You, HaShem our God, who chooses Your people Israel in love.” (Mishkan Tefillah, Shabbat Morning service)
            Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, in her book The Beginnings of Desire, presents to us a tension of Parashat Lech L’cha. Abraham is sent forth from his home, the land of his father, to a place he will not know until the “light falls on it with a difference”, that is, when God shows him that this is the right place. Zornberg points out that to go on a journey without a clear destination is madness, and Abraham must be a madman to embark on it. However, she also shows us that this madness is necessary, a new step in creation toward life as we know it. Playing with the same root letters that make up the very different root words for “tear” and “barrenness” (k’riah and akirah), she suggests a total rootlessness for Abraham and Sarah – or Abram and Sarai as they are at that point. They have no children, nothing giving them root and causing them to stay in one place, nothing extending their family tree, so they are able to tear themselves away from what they have known. In this journey where they are torn and rootless, they finally stop on the Promised Land, the first time it is promised; they are promised blessings and descendents, roots and branches for their family tree. In doing so, they are able, as Zornberg puts it, to “create entirely new paradigms of reality.”

            It is a paradigm we still live within today. Most people do not just leave their parents’ homes when it is time to cleave to their spouses. They leave when they feel the need to discover something new, to find or reinvent themselves. Whether the call comes directly from God or from the urging of a good friend or from within, we have come to realize that our own betterment, “enlargement”, real understanding of the world comes from destabilization and re-stabilization. This idea is not unlike Zornberg’s reading of Genesis. Adam and Eve were exiled as punishment, Abraham was sent away from his home in search of blessings, both were hardships, and both created new ways of living, life as we know us, a richer, fuller life of meaning. In Abraham’s new paradigm, we must simply create that new life of meaning for ourselves. 

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. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Parashat Shelach-Lecha

            This week’s Torah Portion is Shelah-Lecha, the sending out of the spies. Moses sends out a scout from each of the twelve tribes to scope out the Promised Land and determine if it is inhabitable. The spies discover that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey (date honey, specifically, most likely), and that there is good fruit to eat there, including grapes so large it takes two people to carry the bunch! But they also discover that the land is already inhabited, and they view the inhabitants as large and scary, and they report back to Moses that they should not try to conquer the land. All but Caleb and Joshua prepare to elect new leadership and head back to Egypt. The work was hard and the pay poor (read: non-existent), but at least there were no giants! They even cry out, “Oh! It would be better to die here in the Wilderness than to die by the sword in the land!” So, G-d declares that that is precisely what will happen. In case you thought the Israelites wandered for forty years because Moses’s fragile male ego didn’t allow him to ask for directions, this parasha confirms otherwise (take that, gender stereotyping!). G-d commands that the Israelites should wander for forty years to allow for all the unfaithful to die out, as they claim would be better than trying to enter the land. Then, all the children who did not try to overthrow Moses’s leadership will be able to enter the Promised Land.
            Often, I disagree with the accepted view of our tradition’s so-called “villains”. I think Esau was misunderstood, Korah gets a bad rep, and even sneaky Laban who treated his children like his cattle was really only playing by the rules of his day and giving Jacob his comeuppance. However, I have to concede to our tradition that the ten spies and the people who sided with the them, are cowards and stupid. G-d has already performed great miracles for them, leading them out of Egypt, parting the Sea, raining down manna and quails so they have enough to eat in the wilderness, and making G-d’s constant presence known through the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. How could these people still be afraid that the land G-d promised them will be somehow inaccessible to them? That they will all die by the sword fighting for this land? Did NO ONE even consider, that maybe there wouldn’t even be any fighting? I mean, I know I mentioned last week that there are parts of the Bible where G-d commands the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet when the spies are sent. Maybe there’s enough land for everyone and no one needs to fight over it!    Of course, we know, as wise Torah scholars, that they do need to fight over it, and probably the scouts knew that too, even before being told. Sadly, that’s the way society worked back then, and even more sadly, it is too often still the way things work. People conquer new lands, and push out the old inhabitants. I’m not advocating for this; I’m just acknowledging that it happens, and that these spies had every indication that their venture would be successful, in spite of the big scary giants that already lived in the land.
            Most of us probably have not seen any great miracles like the parting of the Sea or manna from heaven, and even if we are spiritual people that feel we can have conversations with G-d, probably have never really seen or heard G-d’s presence in such a direct way as the Israelites have, with their guiding pillars of smoke and fire, and their revelations on Mount Sinai. So, when faced with a difficult task, it’s far more reasonable for any of you to feel frightened or inadequate than it was for these spies. But if you know, deep down, that it is the right thing for you to do, then that it the same as G-d commanding you to do it. And even if it is daunting, do not shy away from your calling, or you will squander your life in the wilderness.

            I have encountered some difficult moments throughout the decade I’ve been on my journey toward becoming a rabbi, times when I was unsure I was doing the right thing or that I would be good enough at it. But all along, there was a tug in my soul letting me know it was what G-d wanted of me and for me; the rabbinate is my Promised Land. There have also been really wonderful moments, where I didn't need a tug in my heart or soul, because such joy was already right in front of me, and a lot of those moments have been here at Temple Beth Emeth, and especially with the Hebrew school and Youth Group. I want to thank you for being an important part of my journey, and leave you with a wish that you all find your calling and that you run toward it, not away from it. May it bring you a heart flowing with metaphorical milk and honey: joy, peace, and fulfillment. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.