Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why I always find a way to link Parashat Bereshit to Patriarcy thanks to Avivah Zornberg

                Shabbat Shalom! Last week, I spoke quite a bit about internalized antisemitism and some of my realizations from the conference on the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism that I attended. But it was such a full and amazing weekend, I have more to say about it! This week, I want to address something that everyone in this room has probably joked about in a positive way, but I came to realize during the workshop two weeks ago seems to have stemmed from internalized antisemitism for Jewish men: the “Nice Jewish Boy.” I received an email from the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse earlier this month informing that October is Domestic Abuse Awareness month and urging all DC area clergy to talk about this issue this month. The first Shabbat after I received this email was the week I was away, and last week I was just bursting to address the realization I had made about my own personal intersection of antisemitism and racism, but this week I am ready to rise to JCADA’s call to speak on this issue, and it too relates to something I thought about during the conference.
Of course, this is not to say that Jewish men aren’t nice or that I think it’s wrong to want/expect/assume/pretend that the men of our community are better than others, exempt from the toxic hypermasculinity and violence that many other men fall prey to. But, in pretending that this is so, we may be silencing people in our same community that have been abused by those “Nice Jewish Boys.” Because too often we assume that such things can’t happen in our communities because our men are just “Nice Jewish Boys,” and that thinking is so harmful to survivors, especially those still unsure how to report abuse, escape the situation, or talk about it in order to heal. Once in a college Hebrew class, a professor was reinforcing this idea that there is no domestic abuse in Israel and that the IDF never has to worry about war crimes the way other militaries might because Jewish men are so inherently peaceful and just all above hurting women. I pointed out what an absurd claim that was, that no community can claim such a thing, and she replied, passively, “Well, there are criminals anywhere.” At the time, I felt like that was such a dismissive way to address my point. My point was not that there are criminals everywhere. There are men being socialized to never express their emotions in healthy ways and learning from a young age that tougher and stronger is better everywhere. That is a large part of what causes violent hypermasculine behaviors and domestic abuse.
During the workshop two weeks ago, one of the facilitators talked about how Jews have historically been judged by their gender performance. Jewish women have been painted by antisemitism as too domineering, pushy, nagging, masculine, bossy. Jewish men have been painted by antisemitism as soft, feminine, passive, emasculated by their overbearing mothers. I’m not sure why that information given by the facilitator triggered the memory of my college Hebrew class, but it did. I thought about Karen Brodkin’s brief gender assessments in her book, How Jews Became White Folks, in which she talks about her mother’s obsession with the two of them being thin and blond and beautiful by white Anglo-Saxon-centric standards. She draws attention to the fact that Barbie was created by Jews, yet looks nothing like Jewish stereotypes, and points out the ways in which gender dynamics played in Jewish households in the old country were different from the ways in which gender dynamics were expected to play out in proper American nuclear families. I came to the conclusion, with nothing but my own observations to corroborate this, that the concept of the “Nice Jewish Boy” is an attempt to reclaim the negative stereotyping Jews have faced about our previously cultural and traditional forms of gender performance. I’d been thinking about this since the workshop, and then just this week I heard a story of a Jewish woman who ran the family farm in Eastern Europe, who was indisputably the head of her household, until the family moved to the United States. Here, obsessed with assimilating, her husband became the domineering head of the household and she was forced into the role of the demure housewife. Hearing that tale hit the nail on the head for me and solidified that we need to be talking about these issues in our communities.
The traditional gender performances and dynamics of Jewish cultures may well be one that legitimately allows for a “Nice Jewish Boy” narrative. But we’re not in the shtetl anymore, and our boys are exposed to the same glorification of violence and objectification of women that all other men are. When we ignore that and continue to only perpetuate the “Nice Jewish Boy” narrative, we are simultaneously embracing an inherently antisemitic idea that our culture has errant gender roles, and silencing those who are hurt by the men we insist are so nice.
Tonight we honor Simchat Torah, which occurred earlier this week, and we begin our Torah readings over again. Parashat Bereshit, specifically chapter two (the Adam and Eve story) is one that has been used for thousands of years as a reason to subjugate women. I once believed this was the fault of the Christian Patriarchs, but two years ago I read a commentary on Genesis by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg that forever changed my view of this parasha:
“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.”         
This quote leads me to believe that this patriarchy and sexist double standards have existed from time immemorial, and that our Jewish ancestors are just as guilty of passing on this harmful legacy. Tonight, we honor and celebrate our Torah, our traditions, our Jewish history and culture, but we have to be honest with ourselves about what some of that history has entailed, and we are tasked now to reaffirm the celebration of our matriarchs as well as our patriarchs. After all, Zornberg also says in her commentary on Genesis that the expulsion from Eden wasn’t so much a fall, a downward motion, but a going out, an outward motion of reaching and expanding. Human beings didn’t become real people, thinking and feeling and in serious communication with each other and God until after they consumed the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and were forced from the Garden. We could thank Eve as much as blame her for the world as it is today, for making us complex and interesting creatures. And yet, after Eve, the mother of us all and the one who brought us human autonomy, so few women’s stories are told in the Torah. Only men are officially counted among those who left Egypt. While women have played a prominent role in building Judaism throughout the ages, only the rituals and legal rulings of men were formally recorded and codified. Our society is now seeing more and more feminist approaches to Judaism, and it’s important to know how much of that is really revival, a reclamation to our traditional roles as women of prominence in our communities, after years of subjugation by assimilation. I’ll conclude with this poem by Tzemah Yoreh in his book A Love Song for Shabbat:
In the Torah, men are born
Women, ex-machina, appear
From nowhere
Jacob had a daughter
Who disappeared, silently
If one day all women leave
What will happen to Torah?

            As we embrace our Torah, celebrate the Beginning, and start to really get into the swing of the New Year, let it be one of honesty and equality. Let sexism and abuse not be tolerated in our communities.  May we be willing to see the difficult signs that our own “Nice Jewish Boys” are not always so nice, and maybe, let’s just do away with that phrase altogether. And may we find peace and love in our Nice Jewish Homes. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Shabbat Sukkot and Unpacking Internalized Antisemitism

Shabbat Shalom! As some of you may know, I was away last weekend to participate in a workshop on the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism. It was a heavy weekend with many ideas brought in and a lot of time spent on unpacking internalized antisemitism. We shared a lot about all the ways that antisemitism has shaped our lives and upbringings. We started off with a brief overview of antisemitism and how it works: a system of ideas based on White Supremacy and Christian hegemony that are passed down through institutions to enable scapegoating of Jews. It is fundamentally different from racism in this respect. Whereas most racism functions on lies of the inferiority of the marginalized people, antisemitism functions on lies of superiority of Jews, and puts us in positions of buffer between the real ruling class and the other marginalized people, so that we can be more easily scapegoated when the ruling class deems it necessary. It functions on our isolation, especially in separating us from other marginalized communities, and leading us to believe that we can only ever count on ourselves, while leading other marginalized folks to believe that we are the source of their exploitation. It is cyclical, allowing Jews to succeed in good times, so that they will be an easy target in bad times.
Most of this was not new to me, though it felt validating to hear it from facilitators of this workshop and to sit in a room of people who see this reality and are committed to fighting it. After this background session, though, we moved on to “Facing the Unfaceable:” how antisemitism has affected us personally. We teased out all the Jewish stereotypes and neuroses and the ways in which so many of us have lived those stereotypes as coping mechanisms against the anxiety of antisemitism. This is when we started to unpack our internalized antisemitism. We practiced saying, “I hate what antisemitism has done to my beloved people!” and then naming a thing that we hate that has been caused by antisemitism. The facilitators called this and the other coping mechanisms we discussed, “Ancestrally designated best practices for our survival.” At this point, one of the facilitators said (paraphrasing because I can’t remember the exact wording), “Jews are human, just like all other humans. This means our grief and trauma connects us to the grief and trauma of all other people. This is important because antisemitism causes us to believe that we are a mutant people.”
This struck me hard. I walk around with both of those pieces and never realized it before. I assert to my fellow Jews all the time that we need to be involved in liberation politics because our grief and our trauma connects us to the grief and trauma of other people. I come into Jewish spaces assuming that our shared culturally inherited trauma and our shared values of Tikkun Olam means everyone is already on the same page as me, equally committed to ending state violence against other peoples, equally committed to intersectional liberation. But I don’t enter liberation movements with the same expectation and assumption that everyone is equally committed to ending antisemitism. And that is my internalized antisemitism. That is me accepting the narrative that we have no allies, that we shouldn’t even try to get other folks on our team. That the only way to break out of the buffer space that White Supremacy places us in is to show up purely as allies to other people that White Supremacy exploits, rather than to advocate for our own unique freedom from the ways in which White Supremacy exploits us. And that’s not good Jewish leadership. We’re a little over a week past Yom Kippur, but I realized during this conference last week, that I still have some more teshuvah to do for the Jewish people. For the sin I have committed against you by holding the people I love most against a higher standard than I hold for other people. For the sin I have committed against other peoples by assuming they can’t stand up to that standard.
We are now in the midst of Sukkot. Our sukkah reminds us of the fragility of life, and the miraculous strength and abundance of spirit. We can be vulnerable to antisemitism and but we can also be strong advocates for ourselves and our communities. In the Festival Torah reading for today, from Exodus, Moses demands that God show him Godself. He is concerned that God will abandon him to lead the people on his own without knowing what exactly they are getting into, and so he wants to see God’s leadership straight on. God, of course, cannot show God’s full self to a mortal, but allows the Divine Goodness to pass by Moses and Moses is able to get a fleeting glimpse of that Goodness. This is God reassuring Moses that God will lead and Moses can follow God’s trail, never quite seeing what’s ahead or God’s whole glory, but feeling certain that he is following the right path. The people of Israel dwelt in Sukkot throughout their desert wanderings, vulnerable to weather and war, but certain of God’s presences among them. We now often live the opposite way: in secure homes and seemingly safe from oppressive forces but vulnerable to theological doubts and existential dread. I want to hold both of these truths for our people. I pray that this time in which we put ourselves into slightly more vulnerable positions in our temporary dwelling places will help us see God’s presence in ourselves and strengthen our spirits so that we may all learn to be better self-advocates. May this festival season be one of community building and love, safety and strength, and may we be certain the holiness dwells among us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Yom Kippur - Cheshbon haNefesh shel Olam and Prison Reform

          We are here today to fast, to cleanse our souls in self-affliction, and to finish our cycle of teshuvah we began on Rosh HaShanah or perhaps at Selichot. Our reading from the Prophets this morning has Isaiah telling us that God does not care for our fasts. Fasting alone does not make for atonement. We afflict ourselves so that we might feel the pains of hunger that the poor, the orphaned, the strangers yearning for a new life, feel every day. We practice self-denial so that we can turn our hearts and minds toward God with no distractions of our base desires. We oppress our bodies to think about the oppression we are complicit in toward our neighbors. We allow ourselves this pain so that we do not allow our hearts to harden, our souls to callous, our compassion to atrophy. A meaningless fast that does not change us, does not help us make true teshuvah, does not cause us to help others, does not allow us to pray more deeply, is not a fast that God desires, and it is not worth hurting yourself over. These outcomes are the real meaning for the holiday, and if you are unable to fast, you can still achieve a deeply meaningful Yom Kippur of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.
          Meanwhile, there are those who go hungry without choice, or those who choose hunger for a greater cause. I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah that on that day we began our cycle of teshuvah thinking about ourselves and our personal sins. Once we threw those away at Tashlich, we turned to thinking about our community and its missteps. Now, more than halfway through our 25 hour fast day, it is time to turn our thoughts outward, to the wrongs we are complicit in even if we feel no connection to them. Let’s turn our prayers for return and transformation toward those we don’t ever think about, a population we don’t consider ourselves a part of, a community we may have even turned our own backs on completely: those who hunger for justice and their own right to life. For example, back in New York, where I most recently lived, activist Ramsey Orta is starving at Riker’s Island, because a previous time he was there, rat poison was found in his food. He is fearful for his life, certain that the poison was retaliation for his filming of the death of Eric Garner in 2014, and starving himself may be his only chance to survive. 
          On a much grander scale, all around the country right now, there is a coordinated effort by prison inmates everywhere to strike until conditions improve, and in some prisons this has included a hunger strike. Each prison has a different set of demands on issues ranging from a lack of educational services to lethal medical neglect, but the one issue that has unified all approximately 20,000 strikers across 24 states and 45 prisons is the issue of prison labor. I could list statistics about the school to prison pipeline, trumped up charges, retaliation against activists, and the criminalization of poor neighborhoods and people of color in an effort to make you feel sympathetic to these strikers. Not all criminals in prison are violent or dangerous and many are there for things people we know have done and gotten away with. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This country abolished slavery about 150 years ago, and as Jews we know that every single human is made in the image of God and deserves basic human rights. So why, as American Jews, did we not already know or talk about the issue of prison labor until now? Our legal system allows for involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes whereof the party in question has duly convicted, and if the servitude in question was tantamount to thieves working off the debt of what the stole, it may be understandable. But the prison industrial complex is a $2 Billion dollar a year industry, and the prison laborers of all stripes make mere pennies an hour, if anything at all. That does not sound to me like a fair repayment of labor; that sounds more like a country profiting off the disenfranchised rather than justice, which is expressly what Isaiah warns us not to do in this morning’s haftarah.
          In the Torah reading this afternoon, we will read the Holiness Code from Leviticus. It will include a reiteration of the Ten Commandments, and it will also warn us to not exploit the disenfranchised, not to withhold a worker’s wages, not to place a stumbling block before the blind or speak curses of the deaf, and not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors; it tells us to judge with justice, to be honest in all our dealings, to hold no grudge, to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we want to stand with God and the Jewish people, as this morning’s Torah reading commands, we must do these holy things and stand with the Eternal God of all creation and all humanity, including, as Isaiah warns us, the most vulnerable of society.
          In an essay on Jonah, this afternoon’s haftarah, Rabbi Ed Feld writes, “We are a people who can catalogue the forms of human mistreatment. We have been victims of torture and abuse. We know what it means to be accused of all sorts of sins and have no defense. We know what it is to be captured, imprisoned, forced to confess to sins we have not committed. We know what it is to submit to arbitrary authority. In its place we have preached the rule of law – and have been accused by our enemies of being legalistic; we have preached the dignity of every human being, and have been persecuted for it.”
Jonah was an unwilling prophet. He is told to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they will be destroyed, and instead, he tries to run away. The people of Nineveh aren’t even Jewish, so why should Jonah help them, why does God care if they repent? After three days inside the belly of the fish, Jonah makes his own teshuvah and goes to do as God commanded, seemingly having learned a lesson in compassion. However, after the people of Nineveh do indeed repent and God does not destroy them, Jonah is angry that God has let them off the hook so easily, his compassion instantly gone again. He leaves the city of Nineveh and makes camp elsewhere, and God causes a gourd rises up from the ground to give Jonah shade and shelter. The next day, it disappears and Jonah is furious. The Book of Jonah ends with a lingering question posed to Jonah the angry prophet by God: “You pitied the gourd for which you neither worked for grew… Should I, then, not have compassion for the great city of Nineveh?”
          We, too, flee from God’s demands of compassion and care more for that which is close and useful to us than that which seems far away and unrelated to us, regardless of our own investment in either. We, too, call for harsher judgement than we ourselves are willing to face down. We claim to learn lessons of compassion, to make teshuvah, and try to be better people, but continue to turn a blind eye to great injustices in this country. We are a people who should know better than any to be wary of certain institutions of authority, to demand transparency and true justice, to know that torture and wrongful imprisonment happens regularly to marginalized people or those who threaten the status quo. Jewish people have experienced these things time and again throughout all the inhabited continents of the world and across generations for millennia. And I know it’s comforting to think that it couldn’t happen here. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is the one country we’ve lived in that hasn’t tried to cut off our rights to be Jewish, that hasn’t tried to ethnically cleanse or deport us en masse. America has, for the most part, been good to Jewish people. But when people who live below the poverty line, people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized identities (including those among those demographics who are also Jewish!) tell us that this is not a free land for them, that they face the kind of state violence our cultural memories and intimately familiar with, we need to listen. When those who hunger for justice feel compelled to starve themselves to maintain their own health and safety, we need to listen. When those who have been incarcerated are also being enslaved rather than rehabilitated, we need to listen. Only when we listen to those most vulnerable in our country, can we truly do the kind of cheshbon hanefesh shel olam that Rabbi Brous spoke of in her 2010 interview with Krista Tippet, the accounting of the soul of the world which I shared with you on Rosh HaShanah morning.
          As we feel the hunger pains stab throughout this day, let us allow them to remind us of those throughout our country who are hungry every day, by circumstance or by compulsion, for food and for justice. As the day goes on, and we hope that our teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah earn us a good year in 5777, let us hope it encourages within us true change and lasting compassion, sincere prayer and heartfelt honesty, and let that tzedakah go to worthy causes that truly fight for justice and righteousness. And may we see in 5777 a world a little more repaired, a little more compassionate, a little more peaceful. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.