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Gemara on THUG-LIFE

In Talmud studies at Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva, as at houses of Jewish text study for 1500 years or more, students are asked to recite what is written from memory. At Svara, students are celebrated for giving voice to and “owning” a recitation of a few words, the whole long passage the class has been learning, or anything in between. Many of us struggle with this practice for all kinds of reasons. This session, I’ve been struggling with whether I can voice these particular words.

Over the weekend, I learned something new about a relatively common word that appears in our passage and in one that is being taught in a different class. I think it is helping me figure out some next steps in reciting, or not reciting, my particular passage this term.

Trigger warning: this Talmud passage is about legal discussion of capital punishment and executing youth; responses travel through difficult, racist territory.

The word

R’ Bronwen Mullin said her class, which is also discussing capital punishment-related texts (in a different passage, not the class I am taking this term), talked about the tiny word “Atu.” It is commonly used to introduce a rhetorical question, like “Is it because….?” in English. But, R’ Bronwen said their class did a deep dive into the meaning “Atu” — which Jastrow’s Talmud dictionary says is an abbreviation of a word meaning “for the protection of.”

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ). Atu — an abbreviation of amtul, which means “for the protection of” and so: “for the sake of, on account of.” (A definition appears below, and here’s a link to the entry in Jastrow Talmud dictionary at Sefaria.)

So, R’ Bronwen said, the question could be asked of the passage in which it appears: “What are you/we protecting?”

The Passage

I went back to the passage where this word appears in text I’ve been struggling to recite, from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 68b.

Disclaimer: the ancient rabbis are here using the legal tools they had to make sure no one is ever declared “ben sorer umoreh [rebellious and wayward child]” (Deut 21:18-21)…their intentions don’t necessarily make the text easy to read:

אנן הכי קאמרינן אטו בן סורר ומורה על חטאו נהרג על שם סופו נהרג וכיון דעל שם סופו נהרג אפילו קטן נמי

Our class, taught by R’ Benay Lappe, came to a translation something like this: “So, we are saying it is because of his [past] sin that the wayward/rebellious son is executed? Rather: on account of his end [for an ultimate, later act] he is killed. And because he is to be killed for a later act, even a minor can be considered.”

אפילו קטן נמי — afilu katan nami [even small one also]

A Recitation

The particular wording that opens this section, “So we are saying,” was found in Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (for “אנן הכי קאמרינן”). My study partner and I were reminded of the Plastic Ono Band chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I even offered a little singsong: “So, we are saying: give kids a chance!” Then I started writing, a few days ago, thinking of Yoko and John in bed in 1969.

But I quickly landed with with Gil Scott-Heron and 2Pac instead:

So, we’re protecting this notion of executing a boy for his sin?

Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you
–2Pac, “Changes” 1998

talking blame and guilt, though he’s a minor? afilu katan nami

Or, no: We fear for his “end,” trouble he might one day cause?

“You see them?
Look at the color of their skin
That one is probably dangerous.”– 2018 Poetry Slam entry

calling him a danger, small as he is! afilu katan nami

based on a future adults (who may be strangers) imagined for him?!

“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”
–2Pac

condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami

Well, I’m new here, and I forget
Does that mean big, or small?

No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
–Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here,” 2010

talking execution when he’s a minor, though!

The Loudest Question

What are you protecting?!

It has been such a struggle, for my study partner and me, to approach this text through the roar of “Super-predator!” “Chronic behavior problem!” “Thug!!” We’ve been hearing this chorus for much of our lives used to protect property and some people, often those who are already far safer than most, from youth perceived as threats. Across the U.S., this means primarily endangering youth of color in the name of “public safety.” Where each of us lives, this is disproportionately directed toward Black children.

How does this passage reflect — maybe help create — the idea that some people have a right to protect themselves from perceived threats: our country’s “tough on crime” policies that protect some at the expense of others, all based on that chorus of “thug!”?

And it’s that “thug” that kept leading my mind back to Tupac Shakur and then to Gil Scott-Heron. Eventually, though, 2Pac’s “THUG-LIFE” led me to another question…

Another Question

That THUG-LIFE concept, and my conversations with rabbis Bronwen and Benay, led me, eventually, to ask: Who am I protecting in not reciting that piece of Talmud?

Black children are expected to leave the house every day in places that continue to view them as a dangers — “some type of demon, killers, or something like that” (see below) — meaning their every step is a risk.

Black children are expected to learn history that, especially in the current trend toward removing all context, either erases or demonizes them — meaning every page is a minefield for them.

If Black kids of all ages — and queer kids and kids with disabilities, visible and not — can show up and try to learn from flawed texts that constantly endanger them, maybe I can recite this…even if I’m simultaneously screaming?

And Questioning Questions

In her recent piece “How We Question,” R’ Bronwen wrote about naming our intentions when we question Torah and existing rabbinic discussion. Talmudic tradition, she wrote, “always invites us into the audacity” —

the audacity of naming what our intentions are in the act of questioning; of elevating the questioning itself to a radically reparative and transformative plane. When we fail to do this, our shortcomings, our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, take over a situation, and the bright light of possibility is overshadowed. Hopefully, we can continue to make our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors proud by refusing to take our questions for granted. When we examine our questions we find our deepest motivations and intentions, and through that process we bring more light into the world- the light that we need to guide us in this time of crash. How we question, as our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors intuited, might be the very torch we need.

— “How We Question,” by R’ Bronwen Mullin, from Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva (29 Adar Bet 5782, 4/1/22)

It has been hard, during this class on the rebellious child, to figure out which of my reactions to the Talmud text are really reactions to public policy discussions in my town right now and which are about one particular theological question.

There’s a sort of hidden “What/who are you protecting?” embedded in this passage. The ancient rabbis sought to reconcile their understanding of divinity with a text, apparently in God’s name, demanding the death of this wayward and rebellious child. One resolution they suggested was reading the passage in a way that protected God’s intentions — that’s how the Talmud got to the idea that the text is somehow about killing a minor for something they might someday do as an adult.

…still screaming from my place of still limited understanding: Why would anyone think it a good idea to demonize young people to “rescue God”?! And, given that the text chose that road, (how) do I voice, attempt to own, these words?

Some Additional Voices

I’mma be very honest, some adults won’t just believe in us just like that. It’s going to take them some time to believe in what we want to do and what we want to achieve in life. They think we’ll grow up and be some type of demon, killers, or something like that, but that’s not what we really are. We’re trying to build something.

Kevin Mason, 16 — “Voices of Wards 7 and 8 Youths,” DCist 3/31/22

“And, 12-year-old Isiah Jones adds, it shouldn’t be too difficult for adults to learn more about what kids need.

“’They could come find out,’ he says.”

Graphic with Torah, Deut 21:18-21, and discussion.

downloadable version with graphic and full text below


Svara teaches: The revolution will not be translated. It’s our breath and our voices that keep the ancient text alive and redeem it with our collective learning. I am not yet sure if I’m ready to “own” this particular text. It’s already been one illuminating, if incredibly difficult, journey.

…Still not resolved — and there are still four hours of class left to learn…Meanwhile: so much gratitude to Svara, R’ Benay, R’ Bronwen, all the faculty and other students, and especially my amazing chevruta. Although, of course, all the above except direct quotes from R’ Bronwen and poets, are my words and responsibility….


The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970

From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ) 1)on account of, because of, for the sake of(h. . קנסו שוגג א׳ מזיד they fined the inadvertent transgressor for the sake of the wilful one (in order to prevent wilful sin). Git. 53ᵇ; a. fr. —2) (in questions expressing surprise, indignation) is it because? do you mean to say? Ib. 7ᵃ א׳ אנא לא ידענא do I not know it myself? Ib. 30ᵇ א׳ ברשיעי עסקינן is it with wicked men we have to deal? (i.e. shall we presume deliberate sin?); a. v. fr.

Same Season, Same Pain

Ask those who survived before us. During the year I produced “Community through Covid,” I spent a lot of time exploring outdoor schooling and architectural encouragement for air-circulation current 100 years ago. Seeking new perspective on current, hyper-local grief, I settled into study of a mid-20th Century work by a Chicago Hebrew poet.

…I’ve written before about how much I was moved by reading about Lake Michigan in Hebrew. And I have enjoyed getting to know the — very different — work of the two poets featured in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). I’ve also been quite fortunate to have brief, very helpful correspondence with both translators — Adriana X. Jacobs and Yosefa Raz. Dr. Raz also put me in touch with Anne Kleiman’s daughter, Adina….

Last week, as I struggled with a number of deeply sad local issues, I realized that the looming J6 anniversary — which means something quite different for neighbors of the site — was bringing up more deep feelings, some of which I’d half forgotten I still carried and had no idea how to resolve. In the process, I found myself drawn into this stanza from Anne Kleiman:

Now, just as last year,
same season, same melody,
same pain…
and the day still shrouded in fog
and the hand still groping…

— untitled stanza, translated by Yosefa Raz

I looked more closely at the eight untitled stanzas that follow a poem called “To the Musician,” and found myself more and more engaged with the journey the poet describes of loss and grief, through change and compassion, toward acceptance, maybe hope.

“Still Groping”

To explore the Hebrew, I used a Biblical Concordance instead of a dictionary. I was led to verses I know well and verses that were new to me. Along the way, I developed more of an appreciation for how and why Anne Kleiman expressed herself in Hebrew. And I returned again and again to the words that spoke so powerfully to me on the anniversary of J6 — “Now, just as last year, same season…” — each time with the words resonating with more and more biblical background.

While I don’t know when the poem was actually written, I also poked around in a variety of sources to refresh my memory of events and circumstances that would have been current for a Chicago resident around 1947. A few minutes with history can be a reminder that we’re not the first generation to face crises with no easy fix and pressures from many directions. And reading the words of those who struggled under burdens of the past, and still managed to share a few thoughts, can be lightening.

Eventually, I created a page to share sections of Kleiman’s poetry, with Raz’s translations and notes, along with my own annotations. Check out “Hebrew Humpty Dumpty Vision.”

I love the work of Anne Kleiman and the quite different work of Annabelle Farmelant and regularly find myself grateful to them and to their translators. I’m also grateful to Wayne State University Press for making available this and many other important titles. The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, e.g.

Few More Days to Save on Books, BTW

As it happens, there are, as of this writing, a few days left in the annual WSU Press 45% off promotion; academic books are still pricey, but it’s a substantial discount….until Jan 14.

Aaron and Moses, Thurgood and Sam

The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.

Marshall and Friedman

The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).

Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.

Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”

Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.

Exodus 4:14-16

Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).

These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.

Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.

Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….

I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:

God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.

“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)

TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.

Thurgood and Sam

I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.

When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:

  1. asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
  2. suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
  3. calling Sam his brother.

When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:

  1. acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
  2. recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
  3. agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.

If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.

Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.

R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.

Marshall as Midrash

Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.

Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?

R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.


**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.

For more: AP story (2017) about Sam Friedman, interviewing daughter and a piece by Friedman’s grand-nephew Paul Friedman. Writer Michael Koskoff talks about his own legal and Jewish backgrounds; obit in NYT.

RETURN

Jewish Mourning and Pets

I have rarely lived with a pet and had no idea how to respond to the question of how to grieve Jewishly. I am grateful to those who shared these resources:

From Coffee Shop Rabbi — “May I Say Kaddish for My Pet?” — this post includes links to other resources.

Another rabbi answers “Is It Appropriate…?”

From Ritual Well: Grieving the Loss of a Pet

When a Beloved Pet Dies (PDF from Hebrew Union College)

A Conservative denominational response

Another friend suggested, “speaking as a pet parent who has lost pets,” that an appropriate response is a donation to a pet shelter.

Still another said that kaddish is a “public affirmation of belief in the power and sovereignty of the Almighty, even in times of grief,” so why not? It should be noted, however, that this suggestion is contrary to a number of prominent views about the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish. See also this general post on Jews and Pets from My Jewish Learning.

General Resources on Kaddish

Many search results at My Jewish Learning

Audio lessons from Elie Kanfer at Hadar: “A New Interpretation”

An English-language kaddish for a not-necessarily-Jewish “minyan”

DS9 for Bava Metzia 58b

This document — “Bava Metzia 58b with DS9 and related background” — was prepared in my own wrestling with text on ona’at devarim, “harmful speech,” explored at SVARA this season. Thanks to all in, and supporting, Mixed-Level Bet Midrash fall 2021/5782: teacher R’ Bronwen Mullin, Fairies Sarit Cantor and Annie Kaufman, fellow bet midrash students. Special thanks to my chevruta who was a wonderful partner in exploration.

Responsibility for this document and anything not directly attributed to someone else, is, for better or worse, mine alone. (Bava Metzia 58b can be found at Sefaria.)

Bava Metzia with Deep Space Nine

What Have You Done!?

Here is a different form of exploration around some of the same ideas, particularly the concept of blood being shed by humiliating someone… or draining away at their identity, drop by drop….and yes, I know, there are mixed metaphors in the whole “becoming white” thing.

I believe readers without sight can manage PDFs. If anyone prefers a different format, happy to try to provide.

Teraphim and Elohim, Calvin & Hobbes

In the Book of Genesis, Rachel steals the teraphim that were her father’s (31:19). Meanwhile, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing “my gods [elohai]”; Jacob responds, speaking of “elohekha” [your gods], using Laban’s term; and a tent-by-tent search is conducted (Gen 31:30-33). Rachel and the teraphim then re-appear in Gen 31:34-35. Why “elohim” when it’s Jacob and Laban, and teraphim only when Rachel is around?

…The word “teraphim” is used three times in Rachel’s presence, and then never again in the Torah. In the prophetic books, there are a dozen more mentions of teraphim (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah). “Elohim” is grammatically plural and means both (plural) gods or judges and (singular) name of God of Israel….

Many would attribute the shift in language to different source texts. Perhaps, though, vocabulary change indicates fundamental differences in experience. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us what the elohim/teraphim meant to any of the individuals or the households involved. But, we do find a few clues in the text.

Two relationships

After the search fails, Jacob and Laban do not again mention the elohai, which remain abstract, another element in a larger argument over possessions and twenty years of grievances. There is intensity between Jacob and Laban, but other family members recede into the men’s power struggle: Women and children become inanimate or invisible, while households gods seem to disappear. One moment, Jacob is declaring theft of elohim worthy of death-penalty; the next, they’re well and truly forgotten.

Meanwhile, whatever the teraphim were to anyone else, they do seem important to Rachel. She had no idea, when they were leaving home, that Jacob would later make a death-pronouncement about the theft. But she does seem willing to take substantial risk in stealing them. And her method of keeping them hidden is tied to her own body and “the ways of women.” Rachel’s life seems intimately attached to these teraphim.

Maybe, the switch of vocabulary indicates that Rachel relates to the teraphim differently than her (male) kin folk.

Two word-scenes

For Jacob and Laban the household gods seem abstract, maybe a little like this set of featureless, static images —

“Why have you stolen my gods?”
Image: a monochrome set of featureless human-shape models — the pose-able kind artists use to aid in sculpture or sketching — with the words “why have you stolen my gods [לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ, אֶת-אֱלֹהָי]” in Hebrew across them. Artist dummy images are public domain, via Pixabay.

When Rachel’s around, though, the household gods seem more animated and personal, maybe a little like this set of images with real, lifelike features and sense of movement —

“And he didn’t find the teraphim.”
Image: two more monochrome artist’s models, this time in animated poses, around an ancient Canaanite figure, with the words “and he didn’t find the teraphim [וְלֹא מָצָא אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים]” superimposed. Canaanite image from LookandLearn.com. Dummy images are public domain, no attribution from Pixabay.

The vocabulary switch strikes me as something like the shifts from panel to panel in Bill Watterston’s “Calvin & Hobbes.” When Calvin was with Hobbes, Hobbes was an animated companion; but when another human entered the picture, Hobbes was an ordinary, inanimate stuffed toy. I am not suggesting teraphim are anything like stuffed animals to Rachel or anyone else in the story. Just fascinated by a sort of parallel shift in scene from one of animated connection to one of subject-object.

Sources, Paths, Prayers and More Notes in the Weekly Portion

Once upon a time, this blog offered a series of posts on portion of the week, sharing notes about interesting sources and paths to follow. At a later stage, I included some posts about links to prayers found in the weekly portion. Here is a new landing page with most of these links in order.

“One of Me” and Genesis 2

There is no “man” or “woman” in the early part of Genesis, even after “the human” is created (twice). The first Torah portion, Breishit (Gen 1:1-6:8), read this week as the cycle begins again for the new year, gives two versions of humanity’s genesis. Neither one includes the word “ish” at the outset:

  • We are introduced to the earthling or the human in 1:26-27, and told ha-adam is in God’s image and male [zachar] and female [nekevah]. (Here are a few additional notes and translations for comparison.)
  • God crafts ha-adam from ha-adamah [“the earth” or maybe “arable land”] in Gen 2:7 (and ha-adam gets singular masculine grammar treatment).

We do not see the word “ish [man]” until after isha [woman] is created and recognized by ha-adam as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Subsequently, we read of ha-adam and ha-isha or ishto, usually translated as “the man” and “the woman” or “his wife [literally: his woman].”

Just prior to this, God introduces the human to all the other creates that have been created, but —

…no fitting helper was found.

Gen 2:20

There was no helper appropriate, or corresponding or opposite, [k’negdo] to the human — what the King James Version called a “help-meet.”

Not sure the Genesis text actually supports this reading, but this week I am seeing Elton John as “ezer k’negdo” for Lil Nas X.

…There has been a great deal written, ancient and current and in between, about what these verses might imply about gender and about relationships of various kinds. And there are so many layers of gender and sexuality to be explored in discussing Lil Nas X or Elton John or Dolly Parton. But it’s almost Shabbat, and that’s not my area of expertise/primary experience, and this is meant to be just a short thought…

One of Me

Recently Lil Nas X released “One of Me.” It’s an important work on its own (full lyrics), and it’s important that Elton John is featured on the song. In addition, the two of them appear together in a video advertisement. (Usually my inclination is to suspect advertisers of capitalizing on pain, but in this case I applaud Uber Eats for providing this urgently needed creative space, whatever their motives. Video “One of Me” for Uber Eats.)

Watching the elder (b. 1947) stand so publicly with the younger (b. 1999) has an enormous power. (Especially for someone raised in a home where “shush” was the only permitted, and the most polite, thing to say about Elton John’s sexuality, and anyone who remembers when the public was not kind to him.)

Without making any claims as to how the actual individuals involved — Montero Lamar Hill and Reginald Dwight or their public alter egos — feel about this, I see Elton John as ezer k’negdo, that corresponding-helper, for Lil Nas X, an elder appearing “opposite” in a way that allows the younger to appear more clearly as himself…to the world at large, if not to himself. Seems especially poignant in relation to a song about how so many want him to be something else.

Could something like that be meant when ha-adam says —

At last! This time! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”

Gen 2:23

after first seeing ha-isha?

Not sure the text supports this, but also not sure in this instance how much I care about being exact: Is is possible that we all have the power to serve as ezer k’negdo to others? to use our own selves in positive ways to help others see themselves more fully?


Elton John in a Lil Nas X cowboy get up and Lil Nas X in Elton’s feathers. More than that would be very hard to describe. But if requested, I’ll search out a video description.

Full official video from Lil Nas X below

not going to try to provide a video description, but if requested will try to find one

Full album — https://lilnasx.lnk.to/MonteroAlbum

Charity associated with this album — Central Alabama Alliance Resource & Advocacy Center — if you click through from the YouTube link there is a matching grant.

Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

BACK

There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


RETURN

Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

Miriam, Amalek, Memory, and Mouths

This dvar torah is about remembering and how Jewish memory is built with the help of our prayerbooks. Some of what I learned in preparing today’s remarks can be found in this handout.

The end of the handout is the result of the earlier parts of my studies, a brief exploration into Mishkan T’filah and earlier drafts of the siddur, mostly focusing on one pair of pages where we find: “Six Torah episodes are to be remembered each day, to refine our direction.”

The “Six Torah episodes” section can be found on pages 43 and 205 in the actual Mishkan T’filah, on page 12 in the handout, shared here.

full text version can be found here

In similar passages (more on this later) in other prayer books, “What God did to Miriam” is included here. I turned to older drafts of Mishkan T’filah, hoping they might clue me into why Miriam is not on this page.

Endnote Deadend

An endnote in the published siddur says the Six Torah episodes were “adapted from a Sephardic siddur.” But it doesn’t specify which or say what was adapted. I could find no example anywhere, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, in another siddur which changes the verses so as to omit Miriam, as Mishkan T’filah does. Every other example over the last 1000 years seems to focus on the same six incidents, all of which include a Torah verse demanding that we “remember” and/or “not forget.” Only Mishkan T’filah uses a different list. Only Mishkan T’filah leaves out specific Torah verses. And only Mishkan T’filah adds in Korach — about whom we have no memory admonition in the Torah.

These seem significant differences, and I thought it a little odd that so much changed over the course of the drafts, while this passage remained static through five years or more of edits. (See the handout for some notes on changes that did occur over the drafts.) No one I asked — including some Temple Micah clergy, current and past, and other people I thought might know — had an explanation. Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who served as interim rabbi some years ago, sent a query on my behalf to the siddur’s chief editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and to Rabbi David Ellenson. If we hear back, I’ll let you know.

Improvement by Removal?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerry and I guessed that removing Miriam had been an attempt to respond to feminist criticism about how Miriam is usually remembered: 1) focusing on her case of tzaraat, a skin condition, rather than on anything she actually did or who she was; 2) remembering “What God did to Miriam” in a way that accuses her of lashon hara [evil speech], although that is unclear in the text; and 3) blames Miriam alone, while the text clearly states that both Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff).

If it’s true that the change was made due to feminist sensibilities, it seems ironic — and oddly instructive — that, as a result, Miriam is… just gone.


Acquiring Memory

In my travels through older prayerbook drafts, I was intrigued by the adage, attributed to David Ellenson: “Acquire the memory of what it means to be a Jew.”

This prompted me to wonder:

  • What did the siddur editors want us to remember with this set of episodes?
  • What does it mean that Miriam is not on the page?
  • What would it mean if she were there?
  • What does it mean that Mishkan T’filah made this change without explanation?
  • Would the passage land differently, had an explanation been included?

From there I followed many other branches of wondering, more generally, about how memory, and Jewish identity, are formed by our practice and our prayerbooks. That brings me to older material I found relating to the Six Remembrances.

On page three of the handout is a Talmudic source arguing why the verb “remember” should be understood to mean “repeat it with your mouth.” The link between speech and remembering is an old one in Jewish thought. The passage from Sifra discusses four of the verses in the Six or Ten Remembrances.

full text version can be found here

In addition to these four, the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are included. Here, page 6 of handout, is a typical example of how the Six Remembrances appear in contemporary prayerbooks —

full text version can be found here

Intentions and Remembering

In addition to Mishkan T’filah’s “to refine our direction,” other intentions introduce these remembrances: from a simple “some say,” to “for the sake of unification of the divine name…” and “those who recite these are assured a place in the world to come.” (See page 2 of the handout for these various intentions and page 6 for details of how the Six and Remembrances and the “Six Torah episodes” differ.)

The Sifra passage also includes an expression that really caught my attention — the idea of “heart-forgetfulness,” apparently something that can be fixed with thought, while speech is required in other cases…..

This might be a good thing to keep in mind during Elul, thinking about what can be repaired by thought and memory and what requires speaking aloud.

Back to Miriam

Now, back to Miriam, who is not on the Mishkan T’filah pages but IS in this week’s Torah portion (now last week’s, Ki Teitzei, Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 — pages 7 and 8 of the handout). Deuteronomy 24:9 is one of only 12 times her name appears in the Torah.

Rabbinic imagination saw Miriam’s Well in the white space between her death and the lack of water in the next verse. And many other stories and lessons surround Miriam. But she appears in four incidents in the Torah — named three times and “his sister” in another — and is mentioned twice more. That’s it. That’s all she wrote about Miriam.

full text version can be found here

There is a lot of commentary about the two verses in this week’s portion– the one telling the listener to heed the priests in matters of tzaraat (Deut 24:8) and the following one telling us to remember what God did to Miriam.

What God did to Miriam is related in Numbers 12. The demand that we remember what God did to Miriam is usually understood as a warning to guard the tongue, due to links in commentary between tzaraat and sins of the tongue. But it’s crucial to note that there is no direct link — either in this week’s portion or in Numbers 12 or elsewhere in Torah text — between Miriam and evil speech.

What and How We Remember

The story in Numbers 12 is full of obscure imagery, and Miriam’s tzaraat is the same condition Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, where it was part of his recognition as a prophet, and not understood as punishment at all. Early Jewish teachers chose to make Miriam an object lesson rather than following another set of interpretations with a different set of lessons.

None of the other Six or Ten Remembrances involve an individual, so — regardless of initial intention — Jewish thought and law were greatly influenced by the linkage that developed between Miriam, and women in general, and evil speech.

  • But, is that a good reason to remove the text from recitation?
  • Does that facilitate forgetting of a helpful kind?
  • What is gained and what is lost in removing a passage with difficult associations?
  • Might it be better to keep it in and work to understand and re-interpret?

Theologian Judith Plaskow discusses this in a piece on this week’s portion, “Tzaraat and Memory.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing — either in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, in print, or on My Jewish Learning.

Writing in 2008, Plaskow raises the issue of how progress can actually be a challenge to memory and to further progress. I’ll add that her conclusion can also apply to the appearance of progress, as when a problematic text is removed from regular recitation or consideration, or when we make changes that don’t always benefit the most harmed or vulnerable.

She writes, referencing the other important “memory” verses in this week’s portion:

We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.


What We Remember, What We Fix

I’ve been watching a series of mysteries focusing on women in the mid-1960s. (For fellow mystery fans: Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964-65 Melbourne, Australia, a delightful set of sequels to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in the same area in the late 1920s.) And I’ve noticed that I am remembering, quite viscerally, how it FELT, as a girl and young woman, to have limited rights, opportunities, and expectations. And also of how dangerous it could be back then, in physical, legal, and psychic ways, for women and also for queer people and for many others….And I’m on the young side for these experiences; others have longer histories with inequality.

This exploration also reminded me of, on the one hand, how grateful I was to have to explain such things to our children as they were growing up. So many conversations that centered around: Queer people were forbidden from expressing their identity or acting on their sexuality, let alone getting married?! Women weren’t allowed to what?! US law defined whiteness as property and prevented Black people from what?!

On the other hand, I remember the desire to let them go on asking questions like “Do you have to be a mommy to lead services?” without ever realizing how impossible that question would have been in my youth and how painful it was for all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in leadership roles…or at all.

There is a strong tension between wanting to build a world with more equity and inclusivity, on the one hand, and the responsibility to never forget that we are sitting in a place built by damage; with many wounds still present, often unhealed, and so much work still to do. Continuing to REMEMBER, and recite, difficult passages can cause harm. But failing to remember carries it’s own risk.

The same applies in many ways to teshuva: When might it be appropriate to forget or not mention old harm, and when must we work to remember and confront? In other words, maybe, when are we dealing with heart-forgetfulness and when with something that requires us to use our mouths?

As I tried to figure out what happened with Miriam and the Six Torah episodes, I kept remembering these lines, from a song about memory and loss —

If you hear that same sweet song again,
will you know why?

— “Bird Song,” by Robert Hunter (1941-2019) & Jerry Garcia, z”l (1942-1995)
first performed Feb 19, 1971. “for Janis [Janis Joplin (1943-1970)]”

How much do we lose, and what do we gain, when we forget to remember why we chose to remember or forget?

This dvar Torah was originally prepared, and offered in a slightly different form, for Temple Micah (DC), 5781.


Handout in PDF and text versions

Full text version of handout for anyone who cannot easily do graphics is posted here.

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