TBT: Re-Revisiting The Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting this piece I posted a year ago, right before Tisha B’Av, on the mitzvah of rebuke.  I argued that one of the consequences of living in therapy culture is that we must be more confrontational and engage in more rebuke, since the Torah commands us to do so when we’re angry, and we now have the emotional technology to do so constructively.  ”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…In a culture of processing groups, conflict aversion is not piety and not even always chastened caution:  It’s reckless abandonment and sometimes it’s even mean. ”

We’re TBT’ing, because it’s still a live issue, and especially in this moment, when the Jewish community is rightly immersed in intense and urgent debate about Israel, it is all the more important not to back away from hashing out those conflicts, even as we must pursue the most constructive ways to do so.  However, I appreciate several responses I got critiquing my failure to explore the significance of power to this question.  Several respondents pointed out that when the person whom I feel violated me is someone who has power over me, it can be extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to perform rebuke; conflict-aversion may be self-protection.  Part of what makes processing groups and group therapy work is the external creation of a safe space, including the removal of the power dynamics that obtain in general.  Even if we have been trained how to speak critically and non-violently, that training is not so helpful if we don’t have control over the context.  These critiques are correct and I am grateful for them.  I also wonder whether power dynamics are actually much more prevalent in hurtful interactions than perhaps I considered a year ago.

Here is the article again.  I invite and welcome responses, especially on the question of power.

The Heroes We Won’t Hear

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.
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How A Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Restored My Faith In Humanity

As the horrific images from Gaza continue their relentless march through my newsfeed, I am haunted by the fact that many of my closest friends and family believe that Israel is justified in its latest attack. It is disturbing to see how easily these otherwise good and decent people have been manipulated into supporting what amounts to a hi-tech massacre. To be sure, lip service is often paid to the innocent victims, but this is usually little more than a rhetorical prelude to a lengthy discussion about how Hamas is really to blame for the roughly 1,000 civilian casualties.

What a breath of fresh air it was to see this Israeli news report by Tzion Nanous. Near the end, 13 year old Tome Yechezkel, who has lived her whole life under the threat of rockets, shows more empathy and common sense than all of her political leaders(and many of my adult friends) put together. Here is my translation of the report’s moving conclusion:

Tome: I’m here my whole life. I have nothing else.

Tzion Nanous: From the moment that Tome was born, Qassam rockets have been falling in Nir Am. Here she is, 8 years ago, at the age of 5 when the alarm was called ‘Red Dawn’.

‘Red Dawn! Red Dawn!’

Tzion Nanous: Having endured Qassam rockets her whole life, after being sequestered in her house yesterday morning, she maintains a firm view of the other side.

Tome: Think about the fact that all of these bombs are falling on someone. I have a bomb shelter. If I hear ‘Red’…I have a public warning system. If I hear ‘Red’ I run to my bomb shelter. Okay. So it’s not the childhood that people dream of, running to a bomb shelter when there’s a warning. But they have no public warning system…That boom? That’s Gaza without a public warning system. The residents of Gaza who are guilty of nothing. These bombs are falling on them. It’s much easier to yell ‘They should die!’ and ‘They should go to hell!’ ‘Who cares about them? They murder our people.’ But people there are also dying. They’re also being blown up. They also can’t leave…Their life is shit. Worse than mine.

Tzion Nanous: Yuli, Tome’s mother, is scared. Not from Qassam rockets and not from infiltrators, but from the reaction of people to what her daughter just said. ‘How,’ she asks ‘have we turned into a State where compassion for the other side is a position that is almost subversive, almost illegitimate?’ It is precisely the people who live here on the border and endure [Qassam rockets] their whole life who know very well: In the end, after the war, we will need to continue to live at a distance of a few solitary kilometers [from Gaza]. The army does great work, but military force alone can’t solve the problem in the long run.”

It’s difficult to be hopeful at a time like this, but Tome gives me hope for a different kind of future. A future where it’s not so easy to get us to shut off our natural capacity for compassion. A future where the slaughter of 1,000 of our fellow human beings is not met with deflections but moral outrage. A future where I have a difficult time explaining to my grandchildren how this could have ever happened in the first place.

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“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.”

(More here.)

Moral vs. Political Reasons to Oppose Hitting Gaza

Over at the Forward, I have a piece suggesting that the Israeli center left ought to oppose Gaza escalations. I argue that these regular “mowing the lawn” operations makes Lapid and Herzog’s hectoring Bibi to negotiate with Abbas during times of peace absurd. The escalations ensure there will be no negotiations, and they cement a policy of armed security—rather than the peace process.

This piece is differs from much—though not all—of the anti-escalation writing I’ve been reading recently. The Jewish left is good at drawing attention to Palestinian suffering, even in the face of an intensive campaign by the right to delegitimize and distract from that suffering. That’s commendable, and I think it effectively helps many people—even those from outside our base—start to question. Certainly, anything that opens our hearts to Gazans, who are in a horrendous situation (for which, obvious, there’s plenty of blame to spread around), probably makes us more empathetic and compassionate observers of the conflict.

But we’re less good at the dispassionate game of political analysis. We tend to take for granted that our case is fundamentally about an immediate moral vision. That’s energizing, but it makes it hard to appeal to people who don’t think in terms of immediate suffering, or for whom Palestinian suffering just isn’t a compelling argument. I try to articulate a case against the airstrikes and ground invasion that holds up even if you think they’re 100% morally okay. I appeal just to Israel’s strategic interests—admittedly, through the prism of a basically liberal belief in a negotiated, two-state deal. I think that’s important for people who (like me) a) tend to be mistrustful of emotional reactions to suffering as direct grounds for political choices b) want not just opposition and critique, but a clearly articulated strategic plan from the left and c) are inherently  suspicious of any analysis that doesn’t place at its center Israeli interests and needs. The left needs those people too, at least as fellow travelers.

I’d be curious what people think about the piece, but also about the distinction I’m drawing between “detached strategizing” and “moral-emotional appeals,” and the broader questions here of what types of arguments the left should be putting forward right now.

A Letter from Israel Right Now

Much of this is taken from an email to a good friend.

Tel Aviv Rally. July 2014. By A. Daniel Roth

I am glad that you got this conversation started. I need to be thinking this way about making a positive impact on the world as humans and as Jews. I have been working hard lately, getting the next round of “Achvat Amim” participants ready, and covering the situation from the border areas with Gaza, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv. I’m sorry it took me this long to write back. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about me and about the media. Writing and sitting in the studio gives you a chance to go through an analytical process, not a complete one – TV may not be built for thorough analysis at all – but something. Being in the field involves a lot more communication about what you see around you, what others say around you, and how it feels. It’s a strange and interesting world. The other day, I was walking to work and cool breeze, unusual for July, was blowing in from the West. It reminded me that I needed to write you back and it reminded me of all the pain and progress over where you are and the overbearing feeling of chaos over here.

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Nothing you post here will change anyone’s mind

The Forward has a short piece online about the changing nature of Social Media news coverage and its impact on the public perception of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza.  This article – like every article bemoaning the rapid fire, limited nature of the platform – notes that the speed at which information is disseminated changed the way we experience conflict.  But that isn’t it alone. The fact that both sides have these tools, I have to say I don’t think it is the platforms “fault” for the way we see this conflict.

The New Yorker published the translated Yediot Ahronot piece by Etgar Keret about the degradation of the civil discourse in Israel. In “Israel’s Other War” Keret laments the perversion of the deeply held value of true democratic (and Jewish) societies: that the voice of the minority has value. The phrase “Let the IDF Win” has again become a popular refrain in Israel during this conflict.  Keret notes this phrase has nothing to do with the external enemy but rather the subversive voices on the home-front. Lefties and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are lumped together with Hamas terrorists for simply disagreeing with their elected officials or expressing concern for the dead children in Gaza.

I encourage you all to read this piece but the thesis delineates that Israelis “are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion—especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives—is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.”

But as an American living a charmed life in California I still feel this false choice forced upon me by the Jewish world. The anonymity of the key board and safety of our curated social networks insulate us to a degree that we only see and experience this conflict in the way we want to believe that it is happening. More »

A Bunch of Jews Went to Israel during “Operation Protective Edge” Just to Have Sex (and I’m Horrified)

What kind of privilege flaunting nonsense is this: Mideast War Gets Jewish American Singles Ready to Fuck. How could anyone in their right mind go to Israel for the express purpose of getting laid (on some awkward Birthright-for-people-who-are-too-old trip, too)? What kind of insensitive program plans a fun trip to Israel and then when a war breaks out says “okay, we might have to stay in a different hotel or something, but we’re definitely still going”?

People are dying!

And don’t tell me I just don’t understand because I’m not Israeli, rockets are part of normal life in the Middle East, real Israelis just suck it up and go about their business. That’s a load of crap and you know it. Things are dangerous and not letting up, and the Iron Dome isn’t foolproof. But that’s beside the point—the point is, people are dying, and some privileged dorks are trying to get laid in the blood stained rubble. Doesn’t this strike you as horrifying? Or at the very least, gauche?

It’s like having a date in a cemetery, and even though there’s a funeral going on, you’re still going to make out, because hey, you didn’t know the dead guy, so what does it matter? It matters! It’s disrespectful!

Regardless of your Israel/Palestine politics, this is just embarrassing. Can’t these people get laid on their own effed up continent? Like, really?

There are so many layers to this horror. How out of touch could someone be to decide to go be a tourist in a war zone?

If someone had some important business in Israel, like a wedding or a mandatory rabbinical program or whatever, I could see it. If someone had some really intense research, if someone wanted to learn about the conflict in horrifying ways, if someone were a journalist, etc etc. There are so many other reasons that I could see as potentially legitimate, though not my choices. But a trip for the sole purpose of flirtation? No. Just, no.

And I get that they had already planned the trip. But still, when the rockets started flying, the people running the program should have had the decency to postpone things. Even if there were no actual threats to the safety of the participants, it’s still awful. It looks bad for J-Date, and, dare I say it, it’s bad for the Jews. It turns my stomach that no one involved with this trip had the heart to think of all the people wounded and dying and all the families grieving and think, “you know what? I’ll go some other time.”

Throwback Thursday: The last Gaza wars…

This Thursday as we look back in time through Jewschool’s archives, there is unfortunately plenty of commentary and analysis from past Gaza wars.

Like a TV rerun, we see the topics and even personalities replay before us. In 2008 during Operation Cast Lead, I wrote about the necessity of Israeli human rights monitoring, Josh Frankel wrote about how other progressives should accept the use of military force sometimes, Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote about his shock at the civilian toll in Gaza. In 2012 Adam Davis wrote about Achinoam Nini being attacked by Israeli racists for her pro-peace stances, I reported from a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv, and all too many more posts. All of these can be found again in the headlines this week.

But the post I want to feature this week is a brave opinion piece from just after the 2012 Gaza flare up, Towards a More Productive Progressive Response on Gaza, by guest author Sandy Johnston. Sandy takes issue with and rebuts some of the one-sided Facebook comments made by lefties about the conflict.

I repost this today because it is easy in these times to entrench within our ideological comfort zones and take the contrapositive of our self-perceived moral opponents. That is, to knee-jerk advocate the opposite of whatever “their side” says. Alas, as Gershom Gorenberg points out, this is a historical weakness of liberals. (His article also highlights pro-war bluster is a weakness of hawks, though clearly that shortcoming kills more people than being devil’s advocate.)

If we are to be intellectually honest leaders advancing a progressive agenda, then we must not shy away from the nuance and difficulty of this conflict. Any with an easy answer is wrong. And anyone saying otherwise is an extremist.

Read it below the fold.

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Caring Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

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 »

“Let Justice Rise Up”: On Prayer and Times of Crisis

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 »

Gawker Trolling Seems Redundant

I know. I know, Gawker was trolling with this post calling for Israel — or a Jewish state — in Germany.  I also know that if we check our bias at the door we could see some logic in this suggestion.  But you can’t ignore the complexity of history or the complicated nature of the present reality. Beyond the ignorant black-and-white ahistorical narrative of “Holocaust leads to Israel,” there are a couple of statements made as fact that are way beyond the pale.

It starts with the general intellectual argument against Zionism, which is fine if dishonest, but goes much further into the land of fantasy.

No matter where you stand in the “Israelis vs. Palestinians” political arguments—in which both sides are hopelessly entrenched and unmoving—it seems fair to acknowledge that there are some fundamental problems with the location of the nation of Israel. For one thing, it was carved out of land already occupied by someone else. Whether or not you think Israel was justified in carving itself a nation out of Palestine, you must admit that the act of doing so was bound to cause some resentment.

This ignores too much history. Of course there were people in the now state of Israel, most of them were Arabs and some were Jews. And before you jump up-and-down on me as mouth-breathing right-wing fascist, the facts are pretty clear: Zionism started its colonial exercise of Palestine in the late 19th Century in a more-or-less legal manner.

It goes on and really gets away from facts:

Let’s stipulate that [Zionist and Arab] positions, at the time of the founding of modern Israel, were reasonable:

Jewish people: We have been persecuted too long. We want our own state!

Palestinians: Okay, but don’t take my stuff to get it, please!

So the establishment of Israel, regarded by many as a towering achievement of historic justice, will forever be tainted by the fact that it was established by taking land from people who had done nothing wrong. That act laid the groundwork for the nonstop conflict that continues to this day.

If it was only that easy or simple. Or even close to the truth. There was an infrastructure in place well before WWII and in fact a number of wars (or violent uprisings) that had happened before the international establishment of the state of Israel. The Partition Plan, complete with its flaws, was the defining international legal document of the establishment of Israel. The ensuing wars against the Arabs shifted boarders but for the love of all things good, this idea that the organized Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world at that time) would have said anything like this is ludicrous.

I am all for having a real conversation about the mass populations transfers or ethnic cleansing (depending on your prospective).  I will happily discuss Zionism as the answer to historical Antisemitism or Zionism causing its nouveau rise in Europe and elsewhere. I will always go toe-to-toe with absolutists on any side of an argument because I believe that no political situation is completely black or white (and I like to argue). But what we all can’t allow is the pure distortion of the facts and history. It helps no one.

So, good job Gawker, you got me with your trolling. But next time perhaps you can take an aggressive and controversial position, perhaps you can do it based on fact.

Tribalism vs. Universalism

Moti Rieber is a rabbi, writer and activist based in Overland Park, Kansas. He serves as rabbi of the Lawrence (KS) Jewish Community Congregation.

I’m writing this with a heavy heart, as warfare between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza has broken out yet again. I believe this is the fourth time since the Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza that hostilities have broken out.

Like many who are concerned about that small piece of land that is home to two peoples, my social media pages have seen a lot of extremely emotional posts about the situation. On one hand are the pro-Israel voices, who essentially say that the Gazans brought this on themselves by electing Hamas and allowing them to shoot rockets into Israel. On the other hand are pro-Palestinian voices, who see this situation as the outcome of 60 years of Israeli occupation and (what they see as) Israel’s refusal to negotiate in good faith toward a peaceful settlement. And there are Jews in both camps.

I think this reflects a tension between two strains within Judaism: tribalism – the communal imperative to privilege Jewish peoplehood and self-defense, particularly defense of Israel and its actions; and univeralism – the call, emanating for the prophetic tradition, to live according to our best values, to treat The Other as we would wish to be treated. For the tribalist, Israel’s actions are necessary self-defense, however unfortunate; for the universalist, Israel’s actions are at best reckless and at worst an abrogation of its, and the Jewish people’s, commitment to be a “light unto the nations.” More »

Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

Earning Egalitarianism

Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating  a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.

As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?

I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.

Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.

On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?

Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.

The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.

Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

Tired of Choosing Sides

by Leah Solomon

I am so tired of sides. I am so tired of one-sidedness. Of being expected to have empathy only for my own.

There is so much pain today. So much suffering.

More and more of our soliders dying. Teenagers just beginning their lives, who will never grow into the amazing people they would have become. Devoted fathers with children and wives waiting for them at home.

Hundreds of dead in Gaza. Thousands wounded. So many people who have lost their homes and everything they own. Parents who have had to bear the unthinkable task of burying their children. Terrified children who will suffer the rest of their lives without limbs, without parents, in pain. More »

The Circles We Sit In

Rachel is a middle school teacher in the East Bay and current New Israel Fund Facilitation Fellow.  She is connected to the local Jewish community through work with NIF, Hazon bike rides, and Wilderness Torah, and will soon be a farmer at Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.

A recently published self-help book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go (Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti) describes the authors’ life lessons learned about everyday social encounters, including the seemingly simple notion that people will go, move, and interact wherever and however the chairs in a room are arranged.  Such was certainly the case several weeks ago at New Israel Fund’s “Love, Hate, and the Jewish State.” On a Wednesday night in the spunky San Francisco Public Works building, chairs were lovingly arranged in several small circles, waiting to be filled with the hopeful voices of members of the Bay Area young adult Jewish community drawn together by a desire to have meaningful, open conversations about Israel.

“Love, Hate, and the Jewish State” was an evening of conversation that drew together over 80 young adults from across the Bay Area to talk about what matters to them in relation to Israel.  Crowd-sourced topics ranging from “This Land is Whose Land?” to “Occupation / Anti-occupation:  Framing the Issue” or “Minority Rights in Israel” were on the table, as were the widely diverse perspectives and opinions in the room. More »