This piece was originally shared as part of an interfaith story slam in Chicago, hosted by Mishkan Chicago, Gilead Church, Lincoln Park Presbyterian, and SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.
It was a night as dark and cold as this night, three years ago, the winter after Mike Brown’s murder by police officer Darren Wilson.
When the news of Officer Wilson’s non-indictment came from Missouri, organizers in Boston called a gathering. I found myself in a crowd growing throughout the night from 500 to 1500, stopping traffic, weaving between cars, looping through highways and side streets, helicopters overhead. I grew up in Boston, but I had never experienced the city like this. I’d never taken over public space without a permit; never lived out the cry of “Whose streets? Our streets” with my body, and been a part of crowd that meant it. We marched for hours. This wasn’t a rally set to a Facebook event, with a start and an end time. It would go on as long as the people in the street had deaths to mourn and grievances to bear and stories to tell about a world in which black lives matter, where nobody’s life is at risk when they’re pulled over for a traffic stop. This was a raw plea for justice and it would take as long as it would take.
At one point the protest leaders shouted out to the crowd: “We’re going to South Bay Corrections, to visit our people and let them know their lives matter too.” We marched to the prison located in the middle of downtown Boston, a huge concrete box, hundreds of people gathering outside of it. One by one the men inside the South Bay prison came to stand at the windows. They stood above us as shadows, silhouetted in the window frames by green fluorescent lights. They leaned their foreheads against the windows, held out their palms or banged against the glass, threw up fists of protest, or danced.
We stood there — concrete walls, chain link fences and razor wire between us. Standing there imagining a world in which nobody gets left behind, a world where no one is locked up and forgotten about.
I’ve just spent the past six weeks teaching in SVARA and Mishkan’s S&M Bet Midrash. We study the Talmud, a text constructed between the 1st and 8th centuries by a bunch of visionary futurists, the ancient rabbis.
In the story we studied this past session, the rabbis discuss Hanukkah. Historically, this holiday commemorates a scrappy guerilla army, the Maccabees, who take back their Temple from the oppressive Greek empire. The Maccabees fought brutally, killing Greeks and assimilated Jews. They were rebels and they were zealots. It was bloody.
But in the Talmud’s version (Shabbat 21b), compiled about 300 years after the Maccabees, the zealotry and violence are strangely missing from the story. The blood’s been mopped up. Instead, the rabbis focus on that moment when the fighters re-entered their defiled Temple, badku vlo matzu ela pach echad shel shemen, they searched and could find only one flask of oil that remained pure. Neesah bo nes, a miracle was made on this one flask, and it’s quantity of oil, sufficient for one night, burned for eight nights of holy flame.
You might recognize that light. It’s the story we most often tell about Hanukkah. The miracle is the hook on which we hang the whole holiday — the light gives us hope in the darkness. The rabbis rejected the violence from the story, removed it all together, and instead they zoomed in on something that they… completely made up. They made it up! As one of my students called it, “a magic bottle of oil.”
I’m not advocating for fake news, but I like to say that the Talmud is more sci-fi fan fiction than an accurate record of ancient societies. In it, the rabbis— powerless people living as a minority under empire— reclaim their power and envision a future they long for. They needed a story with heroes who weren’t blood shedders or Temple grabbers, because their people would not have survived if they tried again to rise up in this way. They reached back through history and told a different story because their community needed to believe in the possibility of a world without danger and violence.
I teach and learn Talmud, with many of you in this room, and I do it because I think we desperately need the chutzpah of the rabbis in these times. I’m inspired by the Talmud the way I’ve been inspired by the Movement for Black Lives, the way I felt that night standing out in the cold with hundreds of people — as an invitation to be bold in our imaginations. It is our spiritual inheritance to imagine and articulate the world we want to pass on to our grandchildren, a world we want to fight for. The fight may be in the streets, in our homes or institutions, but it’s communal, we’re in it together.
The blessing we say over Hanukkah candles is she’asah nisim lavoteinu, Blessed is the one who made miracles for our ancestors, bayamim hahem, bazman hazeh, in those days, in this time. It’s easier to tell new stories about the future. What’s so remarkable here is that the rabbis went back into the past and rewrote something that already happened, in order to open up new possibilities for who we would become. That’s the bayamim hahem part, in those days. This Hanukkah, I pray to also learn from the voices of the revolutionary, visionary people who lead me through the streets, to stand outside the prison walls, who remind us that the impossible is possible bazman hazeh, in this, our time.