Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the important Jewish innovators in postwar America, inspiration to a generation and ecumenical spiritualist, died on July 3 aged 89.
A tireless organizer and spiritual architect, Schachter-Shalomi single-handedly created a new form of Jewish practice and spirituality known as Jewish Renewal, founded on the idea of Gaia consciousness: the notion that the earth is a living organism and that human civilization needs to construct religion to frame its responsibility to the planet. He developed a theory of eco-kashrut that incorporates environmentalism and animal rights as an integral part of Jewish dietary practice.
At times he found himself at the nexus of influence and at times he put himself there, but Schachter-Shalomi used his friendship with two Lubavitcher rabbis, a number of Sufi sheikhs, the leaders of the 1960s counter-culture and a clutch of colleagues in university professorships to bring the intensity and passion of the fervently religious, the insights of spirituality and the openness of the counter-culture to the practice of progressive religion.
Continue reading here, then come back and comment or add your memories, reminiscences, appreciations…
The new doc by frequent Jewschool guest blogger Eli Ungar-Sargon is premiering on July 3. If you are in New York go see it. The film is by turns saddening, angering, depressing, and hopeful. What more can you ask?
July 3rd at 3pm at the Quad Cinema 34 W 13th St. NY.
This guest post by Stuart Tochner is a response to Aryeh Cohen’s piece on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations.” Cohen’s post can be found here. Coate’s essay is here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations is one of the most stunning social arguments I have read in years. It’s remarkable because it’s not simply a case for mass payments to an entire people in compensation for past wrongs. It is a call for national reckoning. It is plea to come to terms with the centrality of slavery and its progeny upon the creation of what we call the American Dream, and to wrestle with what those implications are for our society. It is, in a sense, a plea to look within ourselves, and our story, and to admit how we became what we became, and if there are demons within that narrative, to confront them.
In that narrow sense, Aryeh Cohen is absolutely correct to draw an analogy with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, that national reckoning has been going on now—or has at least started—for years now. With the publication over the last fifteen years or so of books from the so called “New Historians”—and from Benny Morris in particular– Israelis have been fed a steady diet of meticulously researched and documented hard truths about the birth of the State of Israel. Difficult decisions were made in the years surrounding 1948, and ugly actions were taken. Some Palestinians suffered greatly as a result of the miracle of Zionism, and that’s a truth that can’t be ignored. Increasingly, those truths are being wrestled with, and they need to be appropriately reconciled with the Jewish values to which we aspire.
But it is important to note that the analogy abruptly ends there. Slavery was a conscious decision by white colonists in the Americas to forcibly kidnap and enslave African human beings, haul them across an ocean in unimaginable conditions, and create an entire economy built upon the backs of the labor of those individuals and their descendants. Slave owners had nothing to fear from the Africans they kidnapped, they had no issue or problem with them; they had no dispute that divided them. They simply held persons with black skin in contempt, as persons with rights inferior to them, and therefore entirely free to plunder. Coates goes on to describe persuasively how that plunder has continued right up to this day, in the form of Jim Crow laws, housing policies, and loan practices,.
Indeed, the word “plunder” appears throughout Coates’ essay. It really is the theme of his argument. More »
Ta-Nehisi Coates has powerfully opened a conversation about reparations. Though not a new topic, it remains an explosive topic. Race is not a subject that is ignored in American discourse. As John McWhorter points out at the Daily Beast, race has not been absent from the stage of American cultural conversation. Think of Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book which made the argument that the justice system (sentencing laws, incarceration, and the aftermath) has developed into a new system of control of black men—was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. Americans have not been ignoring race.
However, what is importantly disturbing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument, what will continue to be disturbing, is that Americans are still talking, or screaming about race as a passing phenomenon, a problem that will be solved. The Supreme Court almost said as much as it gutted the Voting Rights Act and declared affirmative action unconstitutional. Coates’ argument is that reparations is not just about slavery, and the economic and psychological impacts of slavery, and the economic legacy of slavery in the guise of the housing scams in Chicago. Coates’ is not advocating a wholesale payout on the order of German reparations for the Holocaust. What Coates’ is arguing for is that we must come to terms with the fact that the United States was built on slavery. Slavery was the wealth—both the bodies of the slaves and the slaves as means of production—that enabled this country to come into being. Furthermore, the history of the United States after the Civil War continued to be inextricably tied to the oppression of African-Americans. We cannot tell the story of this country without telling it within a narrative of slavery. The colonists, the founding fathers, the writers of the Constitution, and the writer of the Gettysburg address, all lived in a slave culture. FDR’s New Deal made way for compromises with the South on farmworkers and domestic workers so as to protect the “Southern way of life.”
This is what truly upsets those who are upset. What is truly upsetting, angering, is that the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically called, was not an anomaly like, perhaps, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or the House Unamerican Activities Committee under Joe McCarthy, from which the United States recovered, returning to its better angels. Slavery was, and will continue to be part of the warp and woof of this country’s story. This is the conversation that we must have. Until we have that conversation, the unfinished business of the peculiar institution will return in the guise of a “war on drugs” or disparities in educational allocations, or the criminalization of every day life for young black men.
“All who are hungry come and eat. All who are in need, come and enjoy the Passover seder.”
Looking for intellectually engaging seders in New York? Gabriel Wasserman is looking for guests. Anyone wishing to expand their familiarity with obscure ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish customs and texts should not ignore this invitation! He will supply lodging in Washington Heights, NY, for the entire two day Holiday, as well as meals for the lunches both days, besides the seders.
All are welcome, every level of observance or non observance. Pre, post, non, everything. Everyone will be welcomed and made comfortable.
The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”
It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.
It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” More »
Thirty thousand people are killed each year by gun violence. First we need to mourn. Not only the children of privilege whose lives are mourned publicly, but all the children, and the men and the women, who were killed, who killed and then were killed, who committed suicide because in their moment of rashness a gun was at hand. All are part of this maelstrom of violence. First we need to mourn. We need to declare a Sabbatical. To let go of the impulse to shoot, to kill. To let go of the rhetoric of cheap heroism and violent fantasies. We need to rest and be ensouled as God rested on the seventh day and was ensouled.
This weekend has been set aside by the National Cathedral and Faiths United Against Gun Violence as Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. This weekend is a time when in our communities of faith we can spend some time meditating on the mounting number of casualties that are a result of gun violence. Gun violence is a catastrophe. The deaths and injuries, intended, and unintended, malicious and negligent, are all tragic. Every human life wasted by a small piece of metal forced out of a metal casing by a small amount of gun powder at incredible speed, is a whole world cut off, wiped out. More »
The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.)
The Sages of the Talmud, especially the fourth century Babylonian Rava, were neither so simplistic nor were they naïve. It is to Rava that we owe the free flow of alchoholic drink on Purim. Rava says: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” The statement is immediately followed by a story:
Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together.
They got drunk, Rabbah rose, slaughtered Rav Zeirah.
On the morrow, when the wine had left him,
he [Rabbah] asked for mercy on him [Rav Zeira], and he revived him.
A year later, he said to him, “the gentleman should come and we will do the Purim feast [together].”
He said to him, not in every hour does a miracle happen.
Why does Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”
If we read the megillah carefully we are left unsettled. In the beginning of the story (after the King kills Vashti and takes Esther in her stead) he gives Haman his ring and tells him that, yes, he can “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” After we are led through the intricate paths and byways of the royal intrigue for the next six chapters, Haman is found out and killed. The King then takes the ring from Haman’s cold, dead hands and gives it to Mordecai. He grants Mordecai and Esther permission to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—on a single day.” For good measure, the Jews of Shushan repeat this on the morrow.
The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.
It is not coincidental that in that unredeemed world Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeira. The point of the story is just that. It is a miracle in an unredeemed world that people don’t kill each other. Not being able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai means living in a world of constant enmity where there is no solid ground to stand on.
If we “celebrate” Purim this year, and any year, it can only be as a way of looking into the darkness of the unredeemed soul of the world. That is the place where we will stay—the place of Haman slaughtering then Mordecai slaughtering, Palestinians slaughtering then Jews slaughtering—until we all move to solid ground, when we get rid of Ahaseurus and throw away the ring—when we create political structures, states and societies, which support justice rather than fomenting injustice and fantasies of revenge.
Shaul Magid, over at Tikkun, argues that the settler movement and Neturai Karta are equally anti-Zionist. What do you think?
There are arguably no two movements in Israel as disparate as the Settler Movement (known as Yesha) and Neturei Karta. Yesha represents the community of Israelis who live in the West Bank. It does not support a two-state solution and remains wed to a Greater Israel ideology that claims all of historic Erez Israel belongs to the Jews. Many, but not all, see Zionism in messianic terms, an idea promulgated by their patriarch Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) and continued by his disciples to this day. continue reading here then come back and discuss.
What to do about shul? And about prayer? And about God?
The Jewish people are in crisis. The synagogue is in crisis. And, of course, Pew. One need not even remember the whole name of this latest diagnosis of the demise of our people. It suffices to just hint at it to strike terror in the heart of the terror-stricken.
Amichai Lau-Lavie has the latest salvo. He has put together something called Lab/Shul which is apparently the evolving answer to the problem. What however is the problem? It seems that the problem is shrinking synagogue membership or affiliation or some such. Why is this a problem? Because Pew said it was. Well, actually, Pew just said it was happening. Actually Pew (currently the reified voice of Jewish demise) said that just like the rest of America, Jews were affiliating religiously, or actually that they were identifying themselves as having a religion, at a lower rate than before. So this might just be a problem like rising tides is a problem. It is a phenomenon, but its only a problem if your house is close to the ocean at low tide. The solution then is not to try to stop the tide from rising. The solution probably has something to do with moving your house.
According to Lau-Lavie the problem is that there are too many bars to entry. The synagogue is a wonderful place, potentially, but the rabbis just prattle on and on, and people mention God. A lot. Lau-Lavie’s friends don’t like that. At all. The answer is a place where other terms are used instead of “God,” and maybe there is more music, and the translations are tweaked so that even if God is in the Hebrew, “source” or “creator” is in the English translation. So that, perhaps, a famous Israeli pop-musician will sing a beautiful unplugged version of Kol Nidrei—despite the fact that he is singing a bit of legalese that blessedly few people understand—and the emotion will suffice for the shul which wants “authenticity”. More »
In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.
This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.
Yesterday, in the Jewish tradition, was the “Sabbath of vision.” It is named after Isaiah’s bleak vision described in Chapter One of his eponymous Scripture. Isaiah, speaking, no, screaming at those who would sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem declares in the name of God: I am tired of your sacrifices, I am sated already with the fatted calves that you offer, your offerings are now abominations to me. I no longer wish for you to celebrate festival days and Sabbaths. When you reach out to me, when you raise your voices in prayer, says God, I will ignore you, I will turn a blind eye. Why? First you must “Learn to do well; demand justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
Finally, Isaiah turns to the city of Jerusalem and wails: “O! How the city full of justice, where righteousness dwelt, now dwell murderers!” It was not a true question, of course, it was the strangled scream of a prophet pointing to the everyday injustices, which led to the larger injustices, all hidden behind a veil of righteousness, of holy celebrations and fatted calves upon the altar and the smell of spices in the Temple. More »
This is a guest post by William Deresiewicz, a board member of Tivnu: Building Justice. Bill is a writer and former English professor at Yale.
Who says that working with your hands can’t be a form of Jewish expression? Who says that tzedakah must be understood as charity? Who says that Jewish high school graduates have go to Israel, if they want to do a gap year program?
Tivnu: Building Justice, a new nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, aims to challenge those assumptions. Tivnu’s model combines hands-on construction training, work on actual projects with affordable-housing organizations like Habitat for Humanity, social advocacy, and Jewish learning and living. Programs include events as short as a day or a week, two four-week summer sessions for high school kids, and our capstone program, a gap year experience for high school graduates aged 17-20 (a year or two of college is okay) that starts this coming fall.
This will be the first Jewish gap year that takes place in the United States, as well as the first of any kind that focuses on construction and housing. Our aim is not only to reach kids who have fallen through the cracks between existing Jewish programs and to overturn stereotypes of what it means to be a Jew. We also want to show them how to work with other communities in ways that go beyond the typical understanding of “service.” We don’t see ourselves as “giving” our time and energy to those who are “less fortunate,” but as working together with others towards a larger form of justice that embraces us all. This is what we mean by tzedakah.
You can come not knowing how to swing a hammer, and you’ll leave having learned to use a table saw, read blueprints, hang doors, manage a worksite, and a great deal besides. But the program is also about a lot more than learning how to build a house. Participants will develop their skills as activists and community organizers, get on-the-ground experience with non-profit work, and debate issues of poverty, inequality, social justice, and collective responsibility with the help of Jewish and other sources. They will also live together in their own house or apartment, preparing communal meals, celebrating Shabbat and the holidays, and having fun in beautiful, hip Portland and the surrounding areas: hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking, and exploring the city’s legendary food and music scenes.
The program runs from August 26 to June 9 and is currently accepting applications. Financial aid is available. For more information, click here or contact Tivnu’s founder and director, Steve Eisenbach-Budner, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 232-1864.
Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, dedicated the second of his two major works (he wrote many, many more than that) Otherwise than Being with the following:
To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.
On the bottom of the same page, in Hebrew, he dedicates the book to the memory of his father and his mother, his brothers, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, all of whom were killed by the Nazis. The dedication is sealed with the traditional Hebrew acronym for the statement: “Let their souls be bound in the binds of life.”
The next page has four epigraphs. Two quotes from Ezekiel, one quote from Rashi’s eleventh century commentary to Ezekiel and two quotes from Pascal, from the Pensées.
The second quote from Ezekiel is from Chapter 9:4-6:
Then he … said to him, “Pass through the city—through Jerusalem—and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst of it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity. Old men, young men and maidens, little children and women—strike them all dead! But touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary!”
The narrative context of this strange and powerful quote is the arrival of a scribe in a vision to Ezekiel. That scribe is ordered to go through the city and mark the people who are righteous. Accompanying the scribe are six angelic beings each carrying a weapon of destruction. These latter are the ones who are commanded to “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity.” More »
My latest post on Justice in the City.
It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.
A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.
The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. continue reading here and then come back and comment.