On Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.
Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.
When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.
Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.
Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.
Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.
Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.
IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.
We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.
As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.
Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.
One way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).
Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.
This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.
We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.
Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.
To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.
Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).
In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.
Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.
For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.
Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.
Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street (it is an outdoor mall in the heart of the city) to prepare for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (worth about 25 cents) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed all in white (he was a Bratslaver Chasid), persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law, when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him I would not give him money but would buy him his three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he had asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative Rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know about the laws of Tzedakah (Charity).”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach (Messiah) is near. When a Bratslaver Chasid asks a Conservative Rabbi to teach him Torah, the Mashiach must indeed be coming.” Perhaps for his own reasons, he heartily agreed.
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are , and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However, Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
There are many issues in our world today. There are many causes that grab and hold our attention. There are also myriads of hungry people all around us. They should not be forgotten.
Every year, I laugh out loud at this week’s Torah reading, the crossing of the Red Sea.
There Moses stands, so close to his goal of guiding the Israelites out of slavery, when suddenly everything goes wrong. A body of water blocks the group’s path forward. An advancing army blocks them from behind. The people begin to melt down, yelling that they prefer slavery to death.
What does Moses do? He says, “Shut up everyone, God is going to save you.”
God, however, has a different idea. “What are you calling on me for?” God asks Moses. “You’re the leader! Speak to the people and tell them to go forward! Lift up your magic staff, point it at the sea, and divide it!”
Moses raises his staff, God whips up an east wind, the sea parts and the Israelites cross. And Moses becomes such an enthusiastic leader that his father-in-law has to teach him to delegate.
Some Hassidic Biblical commentators say the moment transforms everyone. At the Red Sea, the Israelites share a profound mystical experience, uniting them into a nation.
It’s a funny interpretation, however, as the Torah itself suggests they had many different experiences. Multiple descriptions of the crossing of the Red Sea sit side by side in the text. God blows a puff of wind through the Divine nostrils. God fights for the people. Moses redirects the water with his magic wand. Moses reasons with the people, and they move forward, displacing the water. Windy weather, a happy coincidence, works in their favour.
Some Israelites see a miracle; some see human psychology at work; some see basic science. They aren’t having a shared mystical experience at all. In fact, they are all over the place in their faith and their experience of God. And yet somehow, without that spiritual unity, they move forward to save themselves and each other. A delightful message.
This year, however, I am not laughing.
Our whole world, one might say, is standing at the shores of the Red Sea. As anger over economic inequality erupts through dangerous religious conflicts, we cannot see a safe way forwards. The prophet Zechariah might have promised a day when God would harmonize all religious conflicts, but such a day seems far off. Instead of laughing, I am frowning, anxious and metaphorically paralyzed.
Then I remember the Torah’s teaching about the psychological reality of standing at the sea. Moses is unskilled. The Israelites agree on little. Yet, Moses takes leadership and the people move forward. They do not permanently abolish injustice or change Pharaoh’s mind, but they do move forward.
How do we move forward in a world torn by religious differences? Following author Stephen Prothero, we first recognize that the differences are real. Religious traditions ask different questions, and create cultural practices around the answers. Jews ask, “How can we heal broken human communities?” Christians ask, “How can we forgive and be forgiven?” Muslims ask, “How can we be aware of God in every moment?” Hindus ask, “How can we see through illusions of materialism and egotism?” Buddhists as, “How can we learn to minimize suffering?” Indigenous traditions ask, “How can we live in awe of the land that sustains us?”
Of course these are inexact generalizations, based in spiritual teachings that become distorted through political manipulations. Still, they are challenging questions, interrogating our own and each other’s cultural practices. For example, Christian-based cultures may heal rifts through forgiveness, but how do they respect the land? Jewish culture may successfully create a transnational community, but how do we see through illusions of materialism? Muslim cultures may excel at spiritual awareness, but how do they reduce suffering?
These questions, left unanswered, erupt in bursts of violence. We must ask them of ourselves and each other In our more rational, peaceful moments. And by “we,” I mean all of us.
Few of us are presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens, but all of us have spheres of influence. All of us can reach out across difference and allow ourselves to be challenged. If we don’t who will?
Because, as God says, “You’re the leader!”
Adapted from my sermon at Cloverdale United Church, for Vancouver School of Theology‘s “Theology Sunday” January 25, 2014.
Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.
Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.
He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.
And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.
Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.
Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.
“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”
Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.
And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!
Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.
There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.
Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,
וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:
“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”
What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:
וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה
“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”
The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:
A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?
The “modern” take on this story is that it is about the disgust for exogamy. But a closer reading reveals something different.
It seems unlikely that Shechem was that besotted by a young girl – even a young woman – with whom he was unlikely to have had much interaction. And in fact, he clearly doesn’t “love” her before he violates her. The son of the prince may want her for the moment- but not, probably, because he loves her, but rather because abductions are a tried and true way to marry someone whose family won’t consent (in many cultures- some even today). He wouldn’t have known much about Dinah – but he – and his father – clearly knew whose family she was a part of. And there is some confirmation from the text itself (which a number of commentaries pick up on) that it was not just Shechem, but the entire city, who are implicated in this vile crime: “Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. (34:27)”
Note also the focus on family in the verses: “Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land” and “Dinah the daughter of Jacob” – even though the story begins by calling her “Dinah the daughter of Leah.” As the daughter of Leah, who is not, of herself, wealthy, she is not too interesting. As the daughter of the wealthy Jacob, however, she is someone the son of a prince might be interested in acquiring. So he takes her. And he does it in such a way that – in the Hivite culture- makes her impossible to take back. She’s now someone – they presume – that her family must get rid of, because surely they can’t give her to anyone else now.
But the brothers of Dinah don’t hold that view. To them, she isn’t a pawn in a family dynasty, perfect for cementing an alliance between the city and a wealthy clan that can bring in a lot of money. To her brothers, she is not to be sold. Her brothers may be awful – and there’s a case for that – but clearly they cared about their sister. They didn’t say “shall our family name be blemished?” or “Shall our line be tainted?” but “shall our sister be treated as a whore?”
In other words, they refused to let her body be a pawn for financial exchange. Her brothers, unlike the Hivites, are saying that they don’t care what the state of her virginity is, they won’t stand for this behavior, and won’t write her off as ruined. Remember, the circumcision is a ploy. They have no intention of leaving her there, regardless. And they know that Hamor wants this deal, and will do whatever it takes to get them to settle there because he wants not their family, not their God, but their wealth.
Compare this episode to those of Dinah’s paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Both were claimed as sisters in order to avoid the threat to Isaac and Abraham that might have been posed by the local prince desiring them. In the case of Sarah, in fact, Avimelech does take her. One might even think of Dinah’s brothers’ actions as a corrective to these earlier episodes. In the case of Sarah, God has to rescue her: and perhaps, indeed, Dinah’s brothers do one better – in Sarah’s case, God goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that Sarah isn’t defiled by Avimelech – in Dinah’s case, the brothers make it clear that they don’t care – she is their sister, regardless.
Our society also has its Shechems – we read in the news constantly about the ways in which womens’ bodies are treated as objects, and not a month went by in the past year without a story of how a high school or college student was sexually assaulted – and how it is the victim, not the perpetrators, who so often pay the price. In that atmosphere, I find it troubling to turn a story of rape into a romance.
The story of Dinah is still one of its time: we never hear what Dinah thinks, or feels; we don’t really know what happens to her beyond the speculation of the classical midrash. But we know that at the very least, her brothers care enough to protect her, and go against an entire society – and indeed their own father- to bring her home.
“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.
When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.