A few weeks ago I posted this story on Facebook:
“Waiting in line in an extremely crowded supermarket. The woman in front of me, watching the register, realizes that she has only 100 shekels and her bill has gone over. She asks the cashier to cancel a few items. The cashier, who clearly knows her as a regular shopper, refuses: “It’s only a little bit. I’ll pay the remainder. It’s in honor of shabbat – you need nice food for shabbat.” The woman argues: “no, no… I can’t let you do that” but the cashier is adamant, and also refuses offers to eventually be paid back. The woman, finally relenting, dissolves into tears, and the cashier comes around to the end of the counter and gives her hug.”
The post went mildly viral, accumulating comments and introductory words as people shared it with their friends. By far the most common, shared over and over, was the proud statement: “Only in Israel!”
“We are different,” these words seemed to say. “We Jews take care of each other in a way that no other nation ever has or will. For all our brusque Israeli straightforwardness, we have a commitment to each other that is absolute. We care deeply for the strangers among our people.”
As I watched this string of comments develop I became startled, then upset, and then really sad.
In this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re going back to July 2013, when Aryeh Cohen wrote about Trayvon Martin. If you’re wondering about why this post now, visit #Ferguson on Twitter.
by Aryeh Cohen [➚] · Monday, July 15th, 2013 · Edit
crossposted from Justice in the City
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.
As Sabbath finished and I performed the ceremony of differentiation with wine and candle and spices with my family, I turned on my computer to news of the acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. How do we answer Isaiah’s lament? What were the steps that led from there to here? From the quotidian racial injustices to the loosening of gun laws to the ignoring of the history of racial discrimination.
We cannot make believe that we do not know how murderers came to dwell in our midst and how murders came to be accepted as normal. We cannot make believe that young black men grow up with the same chance of making it to adulthood, to college, to a life which was not interrupted by a bullet or incarceration as young white men. When we turn to face Isaiah we cannot answer that we did not know that over 6000 people were killed by guns in the past six months and that most of them were black or brown. When we try to answer Isaiah’s accusation we cannot say that we did not know that loosening of gun laws, that creating laws which escalate violent situations would lead to more deaths.
On another day we need to spend time thinking of Isaiah’s solution: “Zion will be redeemed in justice, and her penitents with rightousness.” For now we must grieve for Trayvon Martin and all the young black men who will not reach adulthood because of a bullet. We must rage against a legislative system which supports and promotes the death-industrial complex of gun manufacturers and the NRA gun lobbyists.
We must all come together and say finally enough.
Max Socol is a Jewish educator and political activist in Raleigh, NC.
With so many remembrances of the Freedom Summer published in the Jewish press over the last month, it seems strange to say that something was missed. But it’s true, there is more to this story, as I learned at the 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, MS. To my surprise, the event was a “who’s who” of Jewish political activists who have been quietly shunned from our community because of their unorthodox views on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”
This is a guest post by Rabbi Joshua Strom. Joshua Strom is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, where he lives with his wife Tali and their sons, Jonah and Gabriel.
Black – White. Yes – No. Israeli – Palestinian. All – Nothing. Us – Them.
Once again we find ourselves in familiar territory. Once again our passions are inflamed. Once again the words fill the op-ed sections, our conversations, our e-mail forwards, our social media feeds:
“The right to defend itself.” “End the occupation.” “Rockets fired.” “Civilian casualties.”
And so on. And so on.
And once again, it seems, all nuance has gone completely out the window. The word “and” is replaced with “but,” negating everything that came before it, all for the sake of having the last word in our Facebook comments, our Twitter exchanges. The complexity of the events that led us here; the volatility of those directly and indirectly touched by the conflict; the range of emotion and logic spanned on a daily, if not hourly, basis; the fluctuation between hope for a better day and utter despair that peace will never come—they all seem to disappear, vanishing into thin air with a pop and a fizzle, like missiles intercepted by our own personal Iron Domes. More »
by Danya Lagos
The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors. More »
by Rabbi Ari Hart
Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance and of Uri L’Tzedek.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God is called “Elohei haruchot l’chol basar,” the one who gives spirit to all flesh (Numbers 27:16).
In that spirit of a God who gives life to all beings, I ask that those who, like me, support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s civilian targeted missiles, stop and read the names below of the children who have died in Gaza since the fighting began. Know that the same God that breathed spirit into you breathed spirit into them.
Seraj Ayad Abed al-A’al, 8
Mohammed Ayman Ashour, 15
Hussein Yousef Kawareh, 13
Bassim Salim Kawareh, 10
Mousa Habib, 16
Ahmad Na’el Mehdi, 16
Dunia Mehdi Hamad, 16
Amir Areef, 13
Mohammed Malkiyeh, 1½ years old
Ibrahim Masri, 14
Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, 4
Nidal Khalaf al-Nawasra, unreported age
Ranim Jawde Abdel Ghafour, a young girl
Though I hold Hamas responsible for this war and for the tremendous suffering they have inflicted on innocent Israelis and Palestinians, I also acknowledge that no matter how precise Israel’s strikes are, innocents will be killed as a result. Including children. Children who have the same goofy smiles, the same dreams, and the same fears as our children. Israel’s right to self defense is not free. It comes with a profound human cost that we, as a people who strive for moral grandeur, must face.
Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook asking for thoughts on the concept of being a/the Chosen People. Some respondents affirmed chosenness as a call to duty, others commented on the problematic exclusive nature of Chosenness, the superiority in it, others asserted that many peoples are chosen and one simply posted the alternative, emended language of the blessing over Torah, “Praised are You…Who chose us WITH all the nations” (“אשר בחר בנו עם כל העמים”), instead of the traditional “Who chose us FROM all the nations (“אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים”). The whole chain is on Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Facebook wall. My comments might interest Jewschoolers, so in the spirit of The Jeffersons, I’m spinning them off here.
“ברוך…אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו.”
Praised are You…Who chose us from all the nations by giving us Your Torah. (The traditional blessing over Torah study and for receiving an aliyah at public Torah reading)
[Background premise: I do not believe that, on the whole, most people do the most good through universal humanism. For the most part, people live in stories and those stories shape their ability to do specific good. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is a dystopic nightmare to my ears.] More »
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 »
For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically. It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward). Check out the other videos from the event, as well. My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters). To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign. Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.
by Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik is a PhD student in English at Berkeley and a friend of Jewschool. Check out his site for more. –aryehbernstein
I come late to the current conversation over gender and tefillin, and we have already heard plenty from other men already on the subject. That said, I thought I would share a quick reaction to R. Aryeh Klapper’s response to my teacher, R. Ethan Tucker.
I have several local disagreements with R. Klapper. For instance, when he claims the Talmud did imagine women wearing tefillin, he over-reads Bavli Eiruvin 95-96. There the idea that women are obligated in tefillin is introduced only as a dialectical, logical hypothetical. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, who analyzes the Eruvin passage very closely, concludes, “ideological concerns about gender are not responsible for the creation of a position allowing women to wear tefillin.” The position (attributed to R. Meir), which she notes had no practical ramifications, “grew [instead] out of interpretive pressures forced by the Bavli’s academic agenda.” That explains why, as Tosafot and David Weiss Halivni ad loc note, the position directly contracts an explicit anonymous Mishnah, which we usually attribute to R. Meir.
The latest, anonymous layer of the Bavli, the so-called “stamma,” collates widely disparate materials and weaves them together dialectically. The editors express many radical or fanciful ideas which reflect its aesthetic of abstract argumentation—not serious halakhic proposals. Perhaps R. Klapper is not as enamored of academic interpretations of the Bavli as I am and would prefer not to dismiss any line of the Talmud as formal dialectics. But it is telling that he later suggests that those who hold that women are obligated in tefillin “are behaving like ‘outsiders, who transgress the words of the sages and do not wish to interpret Scripture as they do.’” Apparently, R. Meir’s is now the way of outsiders. Or more likely, when push comes to shove, R. Klapper does what we all do. He discounts the Stamma’s move in Eruvin.
“Talk to strangers, when the family fails and friends lead you astray,
When Buddha laughs and Jesus weeps and it turns out God is gay,
‘Cause Angels’ and Messiahs’ love can come in many forms,
In the hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm.” — Saul Williams, “Talk to Strangers”
The Forward has published its fifth annual salary survey of leaders of American Jewish non-profit organizations. This is sure to trigger welcome and robust communal discussion about what makes for appropriate executive pay in these organizations and about the shameful, persistent gender gap in leadership and in salary. This attention to leadership, along with the general, communal, soul-searching going on post-Pew report, invite us to take a step back and ask a broader, structural question about what we should be seeking in leaders and how we should go about seeking and nurturing them. What are we talking about when we talk about leadership?
This week, Jewish communities open the book of Exodus, and with it, the story of the making of our paradigmatic leader, Moses. The Torah’s sparse narrative of Moses’s pre-leadership life highlights four characteristics that set the stage for his appointment as leader: a strong moral compass, intellectual curiosity, readiness to change direction radically based on new knowledge, and personal disinterest in being in spotlight. (My teacher, Rabbi David Bigman, has discussed these first two characteristics in his book, The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading, Geffen, 2011, in the essay on Parashat Shemot.) More »
Guest post by Aviva Richman
Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow. Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!
We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how. Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical? Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible? In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition. To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)
The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.” (40:9) The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs. What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?
This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground. Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968. This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this: Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it. Therefore, it’s ours, always. Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers. This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularly subjected.
I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar: even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael. I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages. This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.
The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan. Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim. More »
“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)
In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life. I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia. As one friend put it: “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”
Introduction: Halakhic Insights from Outsiders
I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law. They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice. Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law. It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.
I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private. My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap. Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud. More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).
That’s interesting to me. People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do. What’s going on there? More »
“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”
–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009
We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty. The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha. This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.
“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)
We live in a conflict-averse world. Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked. In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words: true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence. The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b). Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”. If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.
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 »