Three Black and Jewish Poets

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A few recent additions to the poetry pages:

Raphael (Hebro) Fulcher

Rhys Langston Podell

Aaron Levy Samuels

Three very different approaches, poetically and musically. Three very different explorations of Black and Jewish history and culture. And three very different perspectives on being Black and Jewish to entertain and illuminate as Black History Month comes to a close.

Gathering Sources: Mishpatim

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Something to Notice: Torn foodstuff

Great Source(s): Wandering Asses

Language and Translation: What should not be done to a ger

A path to follow: Do and Say

See also
One Woman’s Conclusion
Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

Mishpatim is next read in the Diaspora minchah Feb 15 through Shabbat February 22.

Mishpatim: Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank….the cloud covered the mountain….Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
–Exodus 24:9-18, parashat Mishpatim

ZachLynch_Mishpatim

Multi-media work by Zachary L. Very Special Arts-DC ARTiculate Program. June 2011. NOTE: viewers can see themselves in the reflective surface atop the mountain.

Zachary L. was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Mishpatim 5771 (Jan 29, 2011). His Torah reading included the verses above. A skilled artist, Zach extended his learning by using images from the Torah portion to complete a multi-media work, “Mt. Sinai.” This new visual midrash, commissioned by and installed at Temple Micah (DC), was created through the ARTiculate Studio of Very Special Arts-DC.

ARTiculate

VSA Washington D.C. was launched in 1981 and forced to close, due to financial difficulties, in 2011. It was a community-based non-profit developing, implementing and supporting arts-integrated education and employment programs for youth and adults with special needs. VSA-DC was a local affiliate of “Very Special Arts: the International Organization on Arts and Disability,” founded 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

Along with a gallery, an arts-based charter school and other programs, VSA-DC offered “ARTiculate,” designed to help individuals with disabilities or other disadvantages develop vocational, social and life-management skills. ARTiculate worked to increase participants’ independence, productivity and inclusion into their communities through creative learning activities that integrate adult education with art experiences.

Gathering Sources: Yitro

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23. Alternative spellings include Yithro and Yisro. (Wikipedia also lists “Yisroi” and “Yisrau” as possibilities.)

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Something to Notice: Witnessing thunder

Great Source(s): Sefer Ha-Aggadah

Language and Translation: Pronoun scope

A Path to Follow: Zipporah

See also Yitro, for something completely different

Yitro is next read in the Diaspora, minchah Feb 8 through Shabbat Feb 15.

433px-Jacob_Jordaens_-_Moses_and_his_Ethiopian_wife_Sephora

Moses and his Ethiopian wife Sephora (Mozes en zijn Ethiopische vrouw Sippora). Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650. Public Domain

Painting: Jacob Jordaens, ca 1650. Public Domain

Until Oppression Stays Behind

Getting out of biblical Egypt is the climax of an epic drama full of promises, plagues, and politics. And we sometimes think of escape from Mitzraim as definitive and final:

Oppression behind us;
freedom ahead;
halleluyah!
(On Passover: “Let’s eat.”)

Leaving Mitzraim, however, isn’t just moments of triumph and release: It’s a long, messy, frequently discouraging process.


—– SPOILER ALERT:
After the initial drama, the people spend 27 more chapters of Exodus, followed by Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in the wilderness; the Torah closes, forty years on, with an entire generation having perished on the journey and a river still to cross. —–


Truly seeing ourselves, individually, as “personally coming forth from Egypt” (Pes 116b) means embracing the whole story. Engaging with its complexities can also help us in communal and public approaches.

Leaving Mitzraim

Exodus, and the Passover experience, can appear as modeling a violent parting of oppressor and oppressed peoples. Centuries of commentary offer additional, sometimes quite different, perspectives, however. Shifting our views can serve us in many ways.

The Exodus is defining for Jews. It’s crucial in other faith traditions, including Christianity and Rastafari, and an important literary theme, in- and outside religious contexts. Exodus has also played key roles in U.S. political philosophy, from early colonial ideas to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement and beyond. In particular, the Exodus story is regularly employed to highlight shared values and promote coalition across Jewish and Black communities.

Some uses of the Exodus story have become frozen and no longer serve us well. Shifting some of these conversations is imperative if we are to escape today’s Mitzraim. This book seeks to highlight views of Exodus that can inspire fresh community and coalition building for our day.

Michael Walzer’s 1986 Exodus and Revolution concludes with this now oft-quoted adage about the three-fold Exodus message:

First, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt.
Second, that there is a better place,
a world more attractive, a promised land;
and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there
except by joining together and marching.

The image of “joining together and marching” toward that “better place” has inspired and comforted many. But that imagery can also lull us into thinking that we are marching toward equality and justice, when, instead, we’re dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us.

A more apt characterization, at this point, might be that we are a conflicted people with a history of marching, sometimes ineffectively, toward a liberation that hasn’t yet materialized for all concerned. It’s time we re-examined our basic assumptions and listened more carefully to others on this journey.

As SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva teaches, we can abandon a foundational story that is no longer working for us, we can deny there is any problem, or we can dig deeper and transform the old story.

This book represents an attempt to look deeper into the Exodus story, seeking a shift of perspective that will help us tell a story in which, finally, we’re all free — or at least headed together, respectfully, in a positive direction.


After Mitzraim

Following the tenth plague, hurried departure preparations, and the break in narrative to describe the Passover ritual, we read in this week’s Torah portion:

When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them by the nearer route, for God said: “Lest the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people round-about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds….
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had extracted a vow from the Children of Israel, saying: “God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones with you.”
— Exodus 13:17-19

Here we are, embarking on our journey into new-found freedom….

…And we’re on a roundabout route to avoid fear of potential conflict which might tempt us to turn back.

…We’re carting along old bones, honoring a vow made generations earlier, back when the old Pharoah still knew our ancestor Joseph, then a highly-placed administrator in Egyptian government (Gen 50:24-26 and Ex 1:8).

…And then, as if to underscore the illusory nature of our escape, we are once again trapped in a deadly power struggle, Mitzraim’s army behind us and the Sea of Reeds ahead (Ex 14:1ff).

The portion continues, of course, with God helping Moses to part the waters, the escaping people marching “into the sea on dry ground,” the sea “coming back upon” the pursuing chariots and riders, and, finally, the celebratory dance and Song of the Sea (Exodus 14 and 15).

The Song of the Sea has long been part of Jewish liturgy, as have psalms that celebrate coming out of Mitzraim (Ps. 113-118, sometimes called “Egyptian Hallel”). Celebratory Exodus themes are part of many other moments in the daily, Shabbat and Festival prayers, as well as Passover. But Jewish tradition has always included the bitter along with the sweet and asked us to incorporate alternative understandings into our readings and practice.

  • What can we learn by pausing to explore this precarious spot at the start of our freedom journey?
  • Whose old bones are we carrying? which historical relationships continue to influence our decisions? can acknowledging what we carry help us move forward?
  • Is fear of conflict warping our path? are there (still) good reasons for avoiding the more direct route?

Rereading Exodus

This post is the new introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. Until Oppression Stays Behind is the promised redraft of last year’s “Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption,” released as a sort of beta-test publication before Passover 2019. See “Coalition and Redemption” for details and to download or order a print copy.

Comments on the beta publication are most welcome.
Also seeking essays, sermons, or other thoughts — from Jews and non-Jews — for Until Oppression Stays Behind.
Contact songeveryday at gmail.

NOTES

מצרים/Mitzraim is biblical Egypt. Using “Mitzraim” to distinguish
the place of biblical story from any actual country, ancient or contemporary.

צַר — The Hebrew “tzar” means “narrow.” The plural “tzarim” = “narrow straits.” The Zohar (mystical work, 13th Century Spain) thus suggests that Exodus is about God bringing us out of our own “narrow places” including constricted opportunities and narrow-mindedness.

See, e.g., “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness,” by Lesli Koppelman Ross at My Jewish Learning
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בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
שנאמר והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה׳ לי בצאתי ממצרים

In each and every generation, a person must see themself as personally coming forth from Mitzraim. As it is said: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what YHVH did for me when I came forth out of Mitzraim.
— Mishnah Pesachim 10:5-6/Pes 116b
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Gathering Sources: Beshalach

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the portion Beshalach — also spelled Beshalah or Beshallach — Exodus 13:17-17:16. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Language and Translation: shift of numbers
Something to Notice: Water and Complaint
A Path to Follow: Endings and Beginnings
Great Source(s): Shabbat Shirah and the Birds

See also Beshalach and Bobby McGee

Beshalach is next read in the Diaspora, mincha Feb 1 through Shabbat, February 8.

Doorkeepers and Ash Jugs: Berakhot 28

The story about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel continues in today’s Daf Yomi reading (B. Ber. 28). Big changes in the academy, following his removal, include dismissing the “doorkeeper (shomer ha-petach, [שׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח])”:

תָּנָא אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם, סִלְּקוּהוּ לְשׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח וְנִתְּנָה לָהֶם רְשׁוּת לַתַּלְמִידִים לִיכָּנֵס
On that day, the doorkeeper was removed and permission granted to the students to enter.
שֶׁהָיָה רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל מַכְרִיז וְאוֹמֵר
Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed:
כׇּל תַּלְמִיד שֶׁאֵין תּוֹכוֹ כְּבָרוֹ, לֹא יִכָּנֵס לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ
Any student whose inside is not like his exterior will not enter the study hall.

Once the doorkeeper, along with this test (of character or purity), was removed, so many new students arrived that 400 (or maybe 700) new benches were required. On that day, there was no halakhah not fully explained, and even Rabban Gamliel was not absent.

But when Gamliel saw all the new students, he became alarmed:

דִּלְמָא חַס וְשָׁלוֹם מָנַעְתִּי תּוֹרָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל
He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Yisrael from engaging in Torah study.
אַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ בְּחֶלְמֵיהּ חַצְבֵי חִיוָּרֵי דְּמַלְיִין קִטְמָא
He’s shown in a dream white jugs filled with ashes.
וְלָא הִיא, הַהִיא לְיַתּוֹבֵי דַּעְתֵּיהּ, הוּא דְּאַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ
That is not the case, he was shown this to appease him.

This vision is explained by many teachers as Gamliel suspecting that the newcomers to the Beit Midrash were ones whose insides did not match their outsides (white jugs containing ashes). But the editorial voice tells us this is not true but intended to make Gamliel feel better…

…pursuing Daf Yomi means leaving such powerful points for discussion some other time. Before we speed on to the next day’s page, however, it might be worth asking ourselves:

When we notice that we have been excluding people or their perspectives and concerns from our understanding, are we tempted to diminish those perspectives or people, as a way of protecting ourselves and our worldviews?


Inside and Outside

Yesterday’s post mentioned Rabban Gamliel telling a student to wait until the “shield masters (ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין])” arrive before raising a point of contention. These ba’alei terisin are variously understood as those who battle over Torah, scholars who protect Torah from being forgotten, or some sort of officers who work in conjunction with the Romans.

Very near the end of Ber. 27, Roman rule is mentioned explicitly. Among the reasons given for choosing R. Elazar ben Azarya (Eleazar b. Azariah) as a leader is that he is rich and so can “if need be, pay homage to Caesar’s court.” Commentaries suggest this could involve travel expense, taxes, bribes, and other costs of appearing in front of Caesar, lobbying and negotiating.

Through the filter of Roman rule, the doorkeeper in today’s reading might look something like a contemporary security guard or a bouncer tasked with keeping out informants. But Rabban Gamliel’s entrance exam, so to speak, appears to function in other ways.

Rabban Gamliel seems to be demanding that students look and/or behave in certain ways in order to testify that their “insides” deserve to be included. This suggests that he, or his doorkeeper, can see character or intention. But then Gamliel visits Rabbi Yehoshua and apparently notices for the first time that Yehoshua works hard for a living.

R. Yehoshua responds: “Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, their struggles to support and sustain themselves!”

This returns to the inside/outside test Rabban Gamliel proclaimed, but turns it on its head:

You don’t even know what’s going on — It’s interesting, right? He said you have to be [inside matching outside], but he wasn’t looking on the inside of people. He had no idea what was going with the people….
— Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, Hadran
Daf Yomi: Berakhot 28

 

Shields, Their Masters, and the Community: Berakhot 27

Today’s reading in the Daf Yomi cycle is Berakhot 27, and My Jewish Learning’s commentary focuses on a famous incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua. The essay highlights how the learning community stopped Gamliel’s attempt to publicly bully Yehoshua:

First they take away Gamliel’s microphone, instructing Hutzpit the translator, tasked with repeating and amplifying Gamliel’s words, to stop his repetition. Then they remove him from his post. Their goal isn’t to silence Gamliel, but to break his grip on the debate. The beauty of the Talmud is its many voices — reflecting the conflicting and complex views we hold as individuals and encouraging minority voices that may have fallen silent. Acting to protect that must have required considerable bravery on the part of the rabbis. But their actions were essential to preserving the multivocal, multilayered text we have today.
— “Berakhot 27,” Elaina Marshalek

The essay asks us to imagine “what might have happened to the Talmud if the rabbis had yielded to Gamliel’s culture of authority, devoid of argument and protest,” and concludes that “deposing Gamliel has the effect not only of removing a teacher who had abused his authority, but of changing the entire culture of the study hall.”

This incident includes important material relevant to how the ancient Sages make decisions. Within this story is an interesting expression, “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” which translates literally as “masters of the shields.” And just prior to this incident are a few words which lead to a less dramatic, but powerful, method of decision-making by the community.

Obligatory Option

Two important pairs of teachers disagree about whether the evening prayer is obligatory or optional: In 1st Century Palestine, Rabbi Yehoshua, in opposition to Rabban Gamliel, rules that it is optional; in 3rd/4th Century Babylon, Rava, in opposition to Abaye, also ruled optional (B. Ber 27b). By the 11th Century CE, however, the North African teacher Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen Alfasi (Rabbi Isaac of Fez or “RIF“) wrote that Maariv was obligatory based on widespread adoption of the optional practice.

Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, of Hadran, explains this as a “hazakah,” something the community voluntarily takes on as an obligation. (The Daf Yomi lesson for Hadran,” lesson for Berakhot 27; more about Hadran.) This process is not nearly so dramatic as the conflict that leads to Rabban Gamliel being deposed. But it is a powerful example of Jewish communities determining, through simple repetition, what is and is not accepted practice.

Shield Masters

As the story of the public dispute unfolds, Rabban Gamliel tells the student who inquired about the evening prayer’s status to bring the matter before “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” “masters of the shields”:

אָמַר לוֹ: הַמְתֵּן עַד שֶׁיִּכָּנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ.
He said to him: Wait until the “masters of the shields” enter the study hall

כְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין עָמַד הַשּׁוֹאֵל וְשָׁאַל: תְּפִלַּת עַרְבִית רְשׁוּת אוֹ חוֹבָה
When the masters of the shields entered, the questioner stood before everyone present and asked: Is the evening prayer optional or obligatory?

“תָּרִיס taris” is a shield, and ba’alei terisin is translated as “shield-bearers, i.e., great debaters [Jastrow dictionary]” or “champions, i.e., great scholars (NOTE: The Rabbis often applied warlike terms to halachic discussion) [Soncino Talmud].” Cohen Farber (see Hadran above) stresses the alternative suggestion that ba’alei terisin are “shield holders” in the sense of “protecting the Torah from being forgotten, which was exactly their concern in those days.”

An 11th Century Italian teacher, known as the Arukh, reads ba’alei terisin as “soldiers or police officers who were appointed by the government to support the Jewish leadership” [Steinsaltz.org] or “tough officers appointed by the Romans to give the Nasi the power to enforce their decrees [DafYomi.co.il]. This translation suggests that Rabban Gamliel did not want to pursue his dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua until security was in place.

…Although no security guards are evident in this GodCast version of the incident in Ber 27b, the overall dynamic and the mood of the “faculty meeting” seems not inconsistent with the Arukh’s reading —



Enforcement

Prior to exploring this day’s Daf Yomi, I do not think I ever considered physical enforcement of Sanhedrin decrees. And I know very little about the history of collaboration between the Sages and occupying forces. Moreover, I suspect that the Arukh’s translation of ba’alei terisin may be more about Jewish life in 11th Century Rome than in 1st Century Palestine. But the mere hint of a suggestion of policing as part of this story adds new perspectives to ponder.

Here, just by the way, is a Baal Terisin “image was taken from the Hebrew edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot, page 163” found in Aleph Society glossary.

BaalTeresin

from Aleph Society

Earning Merit: Berakhot 17, 20

Lehrhaus posted a series of essays on Daf Yomi celebrations over the decades, including one on the shift in the latter part of the 20th Century from rabbinical participants alone to inclusion of “balabatim, laymen.” The essay does not focus on women’s learning (others in the series did), but it does discuss how “wives also felt invested in Daf Yomi” in 1982:

If there are men who spend time away from their homes and families learning Torah, then there are women who sit [at] home and take care of that home and of the children to ensure that the men can learn. Whether the limud of the daf takes place early in the morning (when it is then the sole job of the woman to dress, feed, and send all the children off to school) or whether the learning is in the evening (when it is then the sole job of the woman to do homework and send all the children off to bed) a tremendous share of that learning goes to the woman.
— 1982 letter to the editor of the Agudah monthly magazine, from Libby Schwartz, quoted in “The Balabatish Daf Yomi Revolution

This writer’s words reflect the spirit of a passage in Daf Yomi a few days back:

Rab said to R. Hiyya: Whereby do women earn merit? By making their children go to synagogue to learn Scripture and their husbands to the Beth Hamidrash to learn Mishnah, and waiting for their husbands til they return from the Beth Hamidrash.
— B. Ber. 17a

Women’s merit through enabling of men’s learning was, as suggested by Ber. 17a and the letter above, accepted in some circles for at least 2000 years. In recent decades, however, Jews in many circles have been challenging assumptions about women and gender more generally and otherwise changing the conversation in many ways.

My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi email on Berakhot 20 speaks of women, time-bound commandments, and “conversation in traditional Jewish circles influenced by the feminist movement.” The post and the additional links provided don’t mention conversations in many Jewish circles (nor does it define “traditional” — whose tradition?!). Of course, each email can only include so much, but this does seem an odd, unnecessary, and serious omission:


Non-linear Learning, Circles

As someone who travels within several Jewish circles, I am struggling with the ways in which these circles do and do not overlap when it comes to approaching Daf Yomi — particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality issues. As a person who is both excluded and included because of my gender — women are not consulted or expected to fully participate in the Talmudic project (or, more generally rabbinic Judaism as the Sages understood it), while my gender IS acknowledged — I am finding myself trying to read from within another complex Venn Diagram. Moreover, as someone new to Daf Yomi learning, I am struggling with how to keep moving when I’m still grappling with or reveling in or just musing on something from a previous page….

…As it happens, I missed the above Lehrhaus commentary when it was published on January 14. By the time I opened it (1/23/20), Daf Yomi had already reviewed and moved on from Berakhot 17, with its teaching about women gaining study merit only through their assistance to menfolk. And we are meant to be even further on from Berakhot 15, which highlights who is not consulted in the Sages’ methodology. But that doesn’t mean I, myself, had moved on….

If anyone has this stuff figured out, or even a few more clues, please share.

Hearing: Berakhot 15

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It seems important to recognize who is heard and not heard in the discussion of reciting and hearing.

Berakhot 15a (a few days back, in the Daf Yomi cycle) includes much discussion of the physicality involved in reciting the Shema: how should activities such as relieving oneself, washing, and donning tefillin be conducted in preparation; what roll do the voice and the ears play in reciting.

The latter raises the question of whether a deaf person who recites Shema but cannot hear the words fulfilled the commandment or not:

הַקּוֹרֵא אֶת ״שְׁמַע״ וְלֹא הִשְׁמִיעַ לְאׇזְנוֹ — יָצָא, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר: לֹא יָצָא
One who recites Shema and did not recite it so it was audible to his own ear, he fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yosei says: He did not fulfill his obligation.
— B. Ber 15a

In compiling a list of methods used by the Sages in their decision-making, it is worth noting what their methods do not include. Here, for example, they do not mention consulting deaf people about their perspectives. And, while we have seen stories about scholars and their slaves (and wives and neighbors) enter the record, as part of the decision-making process, we don’t even get, “Rabbi Hearing Guy once met a deaf man, and…”

So, just a few resources for connecting with Deaf Jews and advocates:

Jewish Resources for the Deaf — New York and Maryland
Center for Jewish Education — Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education
Yachad/Our Way — Because Everyone Belongs
Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel

signing

from Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel website