Friday, October 30, 2015

Parashat Vayeira: Absurd Laughter in times of Darkness

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Parashat HaShavua, we read about the birth and near-death of Isaac, whose name means "will laugh". When you consider Isaac's terse character and likely PTSD, the name seems odd. His name comes from the laughter of his mother, Sarah, who laughs inwardly in disbelief when she hears the prophesy that she will have a baby in her old age, but it’s worth asking the question: will Isaac also have laughter in his life? In her book, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Avivah Zornberg quotes Baruch Spinoza, a great medieval thinker often considered the first secular Jew, who said “To laugh, to suffer, to rejoice, to hate, and to weep are to affirm the reality of the self.” Zornberg says that actually, Sarah’s laughter is not exactly the kind of laughter that Spinoza is talking about. Spinoza is setting up laughter as definitively joyful, distinct and separate from the suffering or weeping that are also a part of the human condition, whereas Zornberg is pointing out that Sarah’s laughter doesn’t seem all that happy, and when Isaac is born, she thinks that others will laugh at her for having a baby so late in life. Zornberg doesn't say it directly, but I think there is something in this explanation of Sarah's laughter that also leads us to the possibility of laughter for Isaac. Sometimes, when things feel bad, there’s nothing left to do but laugh at it in its absurdity, laugh inwardly and cynically. As the medieval rabbi RambaN (not to be confused with Rambam) says, when one laughs outwardly, it is of joy, but when one laughs inwardly, as Sarah did and maybe Isaac too, it is a laughter of denial and "cannot be said to be joyful." Zornberg also says that laughter is the closest thing two non-twins can share to private, wordless language. It is often non-sensical, and when shared with others, communicates deeply without real words: "silence is the essence".
The walk up to Mount Moriah is silent and without laughter, and although Isaac is saved by the messenger of God, things are never again quite right for this family after the experience at Mount Moriah. Laughter keeps us sane. It keeps us together. Even in cynicism and anger, there is room for laughter. May you all find something to laugh at and someone to laugh with this Shabbat and everyday. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parashat Noah and Collective Punishment

            At the end of Parashat Bereshit, there is a listing of genealogies, beginning with Adam and his often forgotten third son, Seth, and ending with Noah and his sons. There is then a break from the genealogies to talk about how corrupt people on Earth had become and establish God’s plan to destroy the whole thing. It ends with “And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” The next verse of Torah, the beginning of Parashat Noah, states, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” Rashi famously posed the question: was Noah an average man, only righteous by comparison of the evils around him? Or was Noah truly righteous, and all the more so perfect in his generation because he was able to stand against the evils around him? Zeroing in on the verse that precedes it, Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) suggests that not only was Noah an average man, who happened to just not be as evil as those around him, but his selection for the building of the ark was somewhat random. The Talmud suggests that Noah was not so different from the rest of his generation, but he happened to find favor in the eyes of God and arbitrarily avoid personal calamity. There may well have been others like Noah in his generation, people who were neither all good or all bad, but because Noah was the one who found favor in the eyes of God, and God only needed one family to take care of the animals and rebuild life after the flood, the others were all simply out of luck. Evil or just kind of mean, everyone was washed away together because God couldn’t be bothered to talk to judge them on an individual basis.
            It appears to be a recurring problem for God, although at least God is willing to work on it. Commentaries on a few other verses scattered throughout the Torah illustrate how looming and symbolic the Flood really was. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham demands that God not destroy the whole city, both Rashi and the a midrash from the Tanhuma Yashan suggest that Abraham knew of the Flood, and warned God not to wipe everyone away again. Rashi’s Abraham says, “This is a profanation of God – people will be held back by this from returning to You,” meaning that Abraham in Rashi’s commentary is concerned that if God is too wrathful and destroys whole communities regardless of individual guilt, all people who hear of this will not want to worship such a God. They will not care to be good or follow God’s laws, because they will fear being killed in collective punishment anyway. The Tanhuma’s Abraham says, “Let not people say, ‘That is His usual work! He does not change from His usual work!’” So God does change from God’s usual work. God allows Abraham to go in search of righteous people, and allows Abraham to keep lowering the number of righteous people he must find in order for God to spare the cities. In the end, of course, it turns out there is no one worth saving and God destroys the cities anyway, but at least God was willing to try to judge the people as individuals. In the case of the Flood, neither God nor Noah even think to search for anyone else worth saving.
            The Midrash Tanhuma says because of this, when the People of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, part of the Torah was a promise from God that people would be judged as individuals. Punishment and reward for sin or good deeds might carry from generation to generation within the same family, but no longer would whole generations be subject to collective punishment for the crimes of some. Rashi reconciles this hopeful reading of Torah with the reality that bad things still happen to good people by saying it applies in the World to Come. Good people may still be terribly affect by natural disaster but at least their souls will be properly rewarded by God, and the souls of the wicked will be punished.

            That’s fine for God, and that may be a hopeful response for natural disasters, but in the meantime, people still perpetuate collective punishment and have the power to stop. Obviously, no human has the power to wipe out whole generations, though some have tried and come terrifyingly close, but they do have the power to continue to believe and act on harmful stereotypes. They continue to hold onto prejudices and allow acts of violence to be done to people who look or sounds or pray like other people they don’t like. They oppress whole populations to try to control the potential criminals that may exist within those populations. But we know better. We know that whole populations cannot be held responsible or accountable to each other, other than in the broad sense that all humans are responsible to protect one another. We know that some bad people should not reflect badly on everyone who looks or sounds or prays like those bad people. We know that there is good and bad in everyone, and there are some people who are more good and some people who are more bad in each group of individuals. So we should start acting like. Let’s pray for a world in which people really are treated as innocent until proven guilty, where individuals are judged on their own merit and whole groups are not condemned or oppressed based on stereotypes. Let’s pray that there never again be anything like the Flood, that nothing, whether created by man or God, ever again come close to wiping out a whole generation. And may that world come upon us quickly. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bereshit to School Shootings: The Roots and Results of Toxic Masculinity

            Last week, on October 1st, the national news broke over the latest in our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Ten people died as a result of the shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus, and over the course of the last week there has been a lot of buzz about the source of this violence and what we can do to address it. The United States is the only developed nation in the world with this kind of gun violence. According to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 72 mass shootings as since 1982. The definition of “mass shooting” here is that the killer worked alone (or in the case of Columbine, was the work of two otherwise “loners”), the violence was carried out in a public place, and the shooter took the lives of at least four people. So, for example, the shooting on the Northern Arizona University campus this morning would not be considered in these statistics, because “only” one person died. The next developed country with the second highest rate of gun violence, Switzerland (surprisingly), has about a third of the number of gun-related deaths per year that the U.S. has. While the U.S. makes up about 4% of the world’s population, it makes up about 42% percent of the world’s gun-owning civilian population. See a pattern yet?
            It isn’t just about how many guns we own, or how the select few number of gun owners misuse them, the root of the violence is about the culture that promotes it. Plenty of gun-owners are safe users, but those who do seek to kill do so far too easily, and after the fact their actions are too often excused as “mental illness,” despite the fact that mentally ill people are statistically far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, and despite the fact that this diversion tactic away from the conversation on gun control also hasn’t led to helpful reform in providing access to mental health services for those who need it, either. The mental illness most of these killers are, or were, suffering from is toxic masculinity – the ideology that in order to “be a man” you must be aggressive, out of touch with your feelings, and feel comfortable wielding weapons and uncomfortable in a position of perceived powerlessness. Even those who were suffering from a diagnosed mental illness may not have sought the help they needed because of the desire to appear strong and masculine.
Of the 72 perpetrators of mass shootings, only one was a woman, and 63% were young white men. A 2013 study at the University of Washington looked at the disproportionate number of young, white, heterosexual men who committed mass shootings in the United States and found a correlation between “feelings of entitlement” and “homicidal revenge” against those perceived as being the source of the shortcomings on the man’s life. Misogyny and racism often play a part in these mass shootings. Just yesterday, I read of a teenager in Idaho who threatened to kill all the cheerleaders at his school because they wouldn’t send him nudes. We don’t know if he actually had access to guns or exactly how the authorities responded to his threats, but we know his friend was concerned enough of their veracity to report him, and the story became another in a national narrative of violent male entitlement.
Of the many responses that I’ve seen to the Umpqua Community College shootings, my favorite is one that has gone viral, though no one seems to know the original author:
 "How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hr waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he's about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence... Let's close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun. It makes more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and health care, right? I mean, no woman getting an abortion has killed a room full of people in seconds, right?"
 Of course, reproductive rights and gun rights don’t really work as a side by side comparison in a meaningful legalistic way that might dictate how we approach reform on these issues, but the comparison here draws attention to the greater issue of what society expects of women and what society expects of men, and how we respond to the respective disappointments when either lets us down. From the earliest ages, too often little girls who behave aggressively or talk too much are stifled, told to sit down and be quiet, told “Act like a lady,” while little boys are encouraged to be louder and tougher and when they go too far, parents and teachers will say, “Boys will be boys.” In middle school, too often girls are sent to the principal’s office because their blouses don’t cover up their bra straps, but if a boy snaps that bra strap, well, “Boys will be boys.” And when those little girls and boys and middle schoolers are all grown up, how are they supposed to know that it is ok for women to speak up and speak out for their own safety and health care or that men shouldn’t behave aggressively and violently, when their whole lives they have heard, “Act like a lady,” but “Boys will be boys”?
Often we think of the extremists on these issues in terms of the Christian right, but as Jews who want to properly grapple with the issues on our own terms, we have a responsibility to acknowledge where some of this toxic masculinity and double standards between the sexes lies in our own tradition as well. This week’s parasha is Bereshit. 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 after reading the analysis of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book, The Murmuring Deep, I feel like I have finally seen clearly how much is in the text itself, and how so much of the double standards we continue to live with today really emanate directly out from Genesis two, the Adam and Eve story. In a key passage that has forever changed the way I read our texts, Zornberg says, “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.”
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, excusing of male violence, 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 the promotion of toxic masculinity teaching men to stifle their feelings. 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. Women seeking abortions are told to take responsibility for their actions, but men who shoot people are given a pass for responsibility, and the men who defund women’s healthcare centers while maintaining loose gun laws that allow this reality say, “Stuff happens.” Act like a lady, but boys will be boys.

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 double standards and our view of autonomy for men and women. 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 giving Eve all of the blame or 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). It is in our grappling with good and evil and rights and privileges and law-making that we become fully human. I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story, one in which we can establish that each and every person is accountable for his or her own actions, and each and every person should have access to that which they need to feel protected and cared for in this world without harming others. Maybe if we start at the source, we really can reframe our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal and safe society for everyone. May we find holiness in our wrestling with difficult realities, may we find peace outside the Garden of Eden, and may our legislators find an agreement that will allow all Americans to feel secure. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, October 2, 2015

V'zot Habracha

In this week’s Parasha, the Torah comes to an end. Over the last year we’ve read about creation and death, wars and leadership overthrows, plagues and floods, miracles and walking from slavery to freedom. Reflecting on the closing of the Torah, David Levithan says in G-dcast’s V’zot Ha’Bracha video, “It’s hard to end something with a bang when it’s been banging all along.” So instead of trying to end with much excitement, it ends quietly, with a blessing and the peaceful death of a very old, successful leader. The beginning of the Torah, which we will read again next week as we restart the cycle over, is about birth and creation, blessings for goodness and God’s delight at all the works of God’s hand. The end of the Torah is about closure and death, but a natural peaceful death wherein Moses is buried by God alone.
The name of the parasha, “V’zot Habracha,” means “And this is the blessing”. Moses blesses all the People of Israel, speaks to each of the twelve tribes, and properly says his goodbyes. He might not feel one hundred percent ready to go, because goodbyes are often hard, but it appears he knows this is right and natural and important. He has served his purpose, led the people through the wilderness, and he was the last prophet to speak to God face to face. He is, and will always remain, very important to the Israelites and to Jews throughout history, but at this point in the story, it is time to let Joshua step up. The torch was already passed, Joshua was nominated to lead a few portions ago, and after some transition time, it seems Joshua, Moses, the people, and God, are all ready for the change to go into full affect. Moses has lived one hundred and twenty long years, and accomplished a goal he never even knew he wanted.
Not many people live to be 120 like Moses. In fact, only one person is documented to have definitely lived that long, a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She once met Vincent Van Gogh and was thoroughly unimpressed. At the time that, a wonderful site for easy-to-understand lessons on the weekly Torah portions, created its video for V’zot Habracha, the then oldest living woman had just passed. Her name was Gertrude Baines, and she was 115 when she died in 2009. She was the daughter of former Black slaves from the American south, and she lived to see women and Black Americans win the right to vote, and was herself able to vote for the first Black American president. When asked what she thought was the source for her good health and long life, she said simply, “God.” Currently, the oldest living person is Susannah Mushatt Jones. She was the child of sharecroppers, and worked hard in the fields in her adolescence. She was determined to work to get herself out of that difficult life, and was able to graduate high school. She had been accepted into the Tuskegee Institute for a higher education for herself, but couldn’t afford it, so she instead moved to NYC, where she worked as a nanny for wealthy families. Eventually she was able to use her some of her salary and savings to establish the Calhoun Club, a college scholarship for Black students. You don’t have to be a prophet to have a special relationship with God, or to accomplish much and witness even more with your life.
Not everyone lives to be 115 or 120, but we can all choose to make the most out of our lives at any age. May we all live each day in celebration of creation and freedom, appreciate each day’s excitements and moments of quietude, and embrace life’s adventures at every turn and do our best to help others do the same. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.