Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Max Socol is an organizer and educator in North Carolina.
Moses was a murderer. How infrequently we speak of him that way. In its enormity, the decision to take the life of another person seems character-defining, yet the episode in Shemot when Moses, acting to defend an Israelite slave, kills an Egyptian slavedriver rarely comes to mind when I think of Israel’s greatest prophet.
As the turmoil over unchecked police brutality in American cities grows, I find myself confronting the raw edge of political nonviolence and political violence. I know I’m not alone. Even within the Jewish community, where so many of us (but not all of us, not by a long shot) are insulated from daily police harassment, those of us who are searching for a meaningful, moral role as allies in the struggle against racist oppression are met with competing demands that feel impossible to reconcile.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee finally released its report on torture as practiced by the CIA on terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 years, opening and re-opening much national debate about the controversial interrogation practices, such as waterboarding. During the years when revelation of these practices first came to light, Jewschool writers posted and organized passionately against these practices. For today’s Throwback Thursday, we are re-running this 2008 guest post by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of T’ruah (then RHR-NA), urging President-Elect Obama to stand by his campaign promise to ban and end torture. Her question whether people would oppose torture on moral grounds even if it were found to be effective (which it generally is not) is particularly poignant in this week’s debates. Read the post here.
Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss serves as the Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in University City, MO. She is one of the first graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities.
I didn’t know who to call.
That was the thought that kept coming back to my mind. More »
This guestpost is by Jonah Rank and is part of our Fearless Judaism series. Jonah Rank is a musician, and, as of May 2015, a rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Jonah is currently studying for an M.A. in Jewish mysticism. Jonah is the student rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel (in Amsterdam, NY) and the rabbinic intern at the United Synagogue of Hoboken (NJ) for the 2014-2015 year. Since 2006, thon has worked on new liturgical projects for the Rabbinical Assembly, most notably as the secretary to Mahzor Lev Shalem (released in 2010) and Siddur Lev Shalem (forthcoming).
Grounded in a life of learning, my affirmative Judaism centers on tikkun olam—building a universe of peace once shattered by our limited capacity to transmit chesed, loving-kindness. In order to build further the universe our Divinity only started to build, we must steep ourselves in the values of the Jewish tradition. In this affirmation of Jewish tradition, the altruism of humanity must act as a conduit for the Divine Flow that seeks to inundate the world with sacred love.
When guided by Jewish wisdom, the affirmative Jew must accept that affirmation is a process of borer—picking and choosing. For as long as there have been Jews, there have been disagreements between Jews. This requires us to learn from all teachings of the Jewish tradition and to acknowledge at least three categories of Jewish teachings. More »
In response to Naomi Adland’s incisive piece Fear, Fearlessness, and Forward Movement, we have started a series in which different writers articulate their visions for affirmative Judaisms. We very much welcome your voice to the mix and invite you to submit entries to email@example.com
Fear. It’s what stops us from imagining and building a better world. The deficit model of Judaism can no longer sustain itself. Too long we have been comfortable articulating what we seek to avoid and escape, but the time has come to embrace a Judaism with the vision and audacity to be about something worth believing and embodying.
As we know all too well from the devastating events of last week in Ferguson, fear fuels a viciously unjust legal system which perpetuates the subjugation and silencing of countless Americans. The subject of Ferguson merits its own treatment, and I look forward to hearing more progressive Jewish voices speak out against the systemic injustice and inequality.
Especially in light of the current news, part of me feels like writing about a fearless Judaism right now veers uncomfortably to the parochial. But upon further reflection, I am realizing that refining our own self-definition and collective visions will enable us both to grow internally and also to help others break from the shackles of their own limiting, stultifying, and potentially dangerous fears. For me, an affirmative Judaism has the drive and confidence to be proud and rooted in its particularism while also embracing vibrant difference and growth.
I was at the GA which Naomi describes in her post. One talk which felt a bit different than the others was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ keynote plenary address. In it, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the imperative of Jewish unity and accountability for each other. What struck me about his language was the refreshing optimism and opportunity for forward movement which he offered. I was especially excited because much of the vision of Jewish unity he advocated resonated deeply with what I wrote for the Yom Kippur sermon I delivered at Anshei Chesed of Cape Cod this past season. Below, I will share an excerpt from my sermon:
If we are killed, be it terrorism or just murder; If we are stabbed, bombed, run over, or burned to the ground where we stand; If we are cut down one of these days or all of them; If we are the victims of a person or a system
If then our ashes are turned into ammo,
That would be terror.
This originally appeared here.
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth.
by William Friedman
“This was the sin of your sister Sodom . . .”
If you’re familiar with the way the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is used in America nowadays, you’d probably complete this sentence by saying “homosexuality.” But the story, which we read this week in Parashat Vayera(Genesis 18:16-19:38), never clearly spells this out. Last week, when we read about Lot’s decision to live in Sedom (Hebrew for Sodom), the story was foreshadowed: “The people of Sedom did evil things and sinned greatly against the LORD” (Gen. 13:13). And this week we read: “The scream of Sedom and Amorah [Hebrew for Gomorrah] was great, and their sin extremely severe” (Gen. 18:20). But the Torah is pretty sparing with the details of their evil and the severity about their sins. More »
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.