Doubled Sacred Space

Sacredness is a tricky concept, made more complicated when a single place or story, concept or ritual is prominent in more than one belief system. Throughout history, conflict around sacred visions has led to much violence. An example is unfolding today in the U.S. capital.

For months now, the District has been home to an informal memorial to individuals killed by police, as well as related artwork and signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Names and pictures of those lost had been posted with loving care over the last five months, and many thousands made pilgrimages, some regularly, over the months.

The weekend of Nov. 13-16, protesters with the #MillionMAGAMarch and related demonstrations destroyed the memorial, while actively disparaging those it honors. This was accomplished with the acquiescence, and sometimes assistance, of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). And this destruction, and MPD’s participation, has been met with silence on the part of DC leaders….and, so far, most of our faith communities as well.

The memorial is under reconstruction….meanwhile, here is (STILL DRAFT) background of the fence, pictures of what happened over Nov. 13-16, and a call to attention and action.

Multiple Folds on BLM Plaza

Conflict over sacred space appears in the story of Abraham, in the Hebrew Bible, seeking a tomb for his deceased wife, Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). The spot he chooses is “Me’arat Ha-machpelah.” Me’arah is a cave (or den). The root — כפל [kaphal] — in Hebrew means “fold” or “double.” Traditional etymology suggests that the cave’s name reflects the burying of couples (Biblically, Sarah and Abraham; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah, with Rachel buried elsewhere; Talmud and later text includes Adam and Eve) or that it was composed of two chambers, either side-by-side or an upper and a lower. The doubling, or folding, also appears in other aspects of this story and sheds some light on the BLM memorial conflict.

In the process of negotiating, Abraham declares himself “גר־וְתוֹשב [ger-v’toshav] — “stranger” and “resident” — which is a kind of folding in this one individual’s status. Likewise, DC folks might be residents, on the one hand, and simultaneously strangers in public spaces where we are excluded from full representation; some visitors here for the MAGA events, on the other hand, might be strangers in DC neighborhoods, while simultaneously appearing to feel at home, even proprietary, in public spaces.

Abraham negotiates to purchase the cave and the surrounding land and trees. Eventually, the field and cave are confirmed as Abraham’s, “from the children of Heth.” This transfer results in a kind of double identity: It’s Abraham’s and it’s former Hittite property. A similar pattern shows up in many layers at BLM Plaza: On one level, it’s part of the L’Enfant plan for the U.S. government seat and it’s Anacostan/Piscataway land. On another, it’s District property and a response to the White House. It’s both a mayoral action and the people’s response to that action. The horizontal stripes are part of a DC flag and remnants of an equal sign, simultaneously a city-sanctioned design and a reminder of the guerilla “DEFUND THE POLICE” briefly equated with “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE,” lasted a single day before the city repainted.)

Another “doubling” can be seen in the dual nature of the historical Machpelah site (in the city of Hebron): known simultaneously as “Tomb of the Patriarchs” and as “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the site is recognized as sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In a somewhat similar vein, we see several “doublings” of meaning for BLM Plaza and Memorial Fence.

The yellow paint has one meaning for the movement for Black lives and another for DC’s mayor; trying to honor both at once results in serious conflict and insult to one vision or the other: On the one hand, consider again how the predominantly white Nov. 7 celebration was experienced as erasure by BLM supporters; on the other hand, protesters have faced months of police violence, suggesting that the mayor’s vision for BLM Plaza must be something quite different from BLM-led action.

Mayor Bowser has been sued for allowing a “cult for secular humanism” by plaintiffs who argue that the BLM Plaza “equates to endorsing a religion.” Brought by a small group, the suit represents a larger movement, in- and outside of DC, believing the yellow paint a provocation for those who “Back the Blue.” Other “Back the Blue” supporters declare no value in the lives memorialized on the fence, seek to actively erase anything associated with them, and join the current president in treating Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They are actively trying to reclaim the space for their vision of the United States.

Abraham negotiates in front of a gathering at the city’s gate. Do we have a “city gate” for considering the BLM Plaza conflict?

Abraham never has to argue for Sarah’s humanity. What does it say about DC and the nation, if we are silent while memorials are dismantled amid calls of “time to take out the trash”?


PS — this was written (and I thought, posted) a few days back; must have failed to hit “publish.” Sorry for delay.

For those so inclined “Protect the Fence” gofundme.

Dear Jews Who Say Black Lives Matter

in this final week of Elul 5780 —

Dear Jewish Organizations and Synagogues who Say Black Lives Matter,

In June, hundreds of Jewish organizations and congregations signed a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. That statement focused on addressing deliberate attempts to divide us:

There are politicians and political movements in this country who build power by deliberately manufacturing fear to divide us against each other….

…We’ll show up for each other every time one of us is targeted because of our differences, and reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.

The statement also declared sacred the work of pursuing justice, affirming Jewish support for Black-led organizing toward accountability and transparency from officials and police:

We support the Black-led movement in this country that is calling for accountability and transparency from the government and law enforcement. We know that freedom and safety for any of us depends on the freedom and safety of all of us.

…Jewish tradition teaches us that justice is not something that will be bestowed upon us, it is something that we need to pursue, and that the pursuit is itself sacred work. (Emphasis in original.)

Despite this public commitment, Jewish groups have been remarkably silent in the face of DC police shooting a youth, just barely 18, to death on a District street, September 2, 2020. Despite promises to do so, Jewish organizations and congregations have not been actively joining Stop Police Terror DC and Black Lives Matter DC in calling for accountability and transparency from government and from police. (See joint statement; more below.)

Signatories to the June letter should be prepared to stand behind our words with commitment to teshuvah [repentance] for this killing. The killing should be of national concern. At minimum, we need a greater response from signatories who live, work, and worship within DC.

The June letter is signed (on quick review) by at least 12 congregations located inside DC, more outside the city with members living and working in DC, and national organizations with offices in DC. With a few exceptions — Jews United for Justice forwarded the joint statement of Stop Police Terror/BLM DC, for example — Jewish groups have been far too silent in response to this trauma within our city and to the abject failure of our government in terms of that stated goal: “freedom and safety for all of us.

At the very least, those who have declared “we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter” must object to the normalizing of young Black death, in our nation’s capital and around the country, and demand re-examination of “gun recovery” policy and practice that regularly leads to Black people being harassed and hunted, even to death. (See DC Justice Lab proposals. See also Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense call for transparency.)

Those of us who are white and/or living in relative safety must stop accepting a system that funds infrastructure to our benefit while we regularly avoid consequences of uneven funding and the uneven presence and impact of police.

Jewish silence has long contributed to the conditions that led to the September 2nd killing, and Jews — whether part of groups which signed in June or not — have much teshuvah to do for this. We add to our sins if we do not mention the name, Deon Kay, and commit to seeking better conditions as 5781 begins.

[Signed]
Virginia Avniel Spatz
long-time resident of DC
active, over the years, in many Jewish congregations/organizations, including BLM support signatories

SHARE HERE: If you would like to add your name to THIS letter and/or report on Jewish response to the killing of Deon Kay, use this contact form. This blog will endeavor to update as quickly as possible, so we can all see how Jews are following through on the Black Lives Matter declaration.

from DC Justice Lab

See also statements of DC Police Reform Commission, an official body of the DC Council, and these from ACLU of DC and DC Action for Children.

News: Washington Informer and Washington City Paper (solid local reporting, with no paywall). Also: Washington City Paper “What Deon Kay’s Mentors Want You to Know…”

Demands

  • Fire MPD Chief Peter Newsham
  • Launch a fully independent investigation into the death of Deon Kay
  • Fire MPD Officer Alexander Alvarez
  • Defund the DC Metropolitan Police Department and fully invest in community-led resources
…amend “Comprehensive Justice and Policing Reform Act” to:
  • Require that all released videos include audit trails that show who accessed the video and how and if it was edited, so that transparency can reduce the risk that the videos are doctored.
  • Require that MPD explicitly clarify why officers’ faces in released footage are redacted, define who are considered “officers involved” before releasing footage, and include those officers’ names and faces in the footage.
  • Require that MPD state explicitly when naming “officers involved” which officer committed the act (rather than officers who were on the scene)


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Jews: Ditch “stay safe and healthy”

Dear Fellow Jews:

Please stop telling one another to “stay safe and health,” without acknowledging the immense privilege of a roof, space to physically distance, and access to personal protective equipment, like clean masks; resources and a network able to support you in time of need; historic access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare; and, if you’re so fortunate: an environment where gun violence, domestic violence, and other “epidemics” were not already at work before Covid-19 arrived.

Maybe start saying, instead: “Stay concerned and compassionate.”

Perhaps add:

“We are in a wilderness [bemidbar] — every day of this pandemic and in our Torah reading cycle, and we are out here to learn something new about being in a diverse community thriving in challenging circumstances.”

Start acknowledging every day, in some new way, the deep inequities that accompany us on this journey, the disparities in the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 depending on where we live, the color of our skin, our immigration status, our gender expression, our physical abilities, and many other factors.

“Wherever you are, it’s probably Mitzrayim [“The Narrow Place,” biblical Egypt]” has been a catch-phrase for many of us since Michael Walzer published Exodus and Revolution in 1986. We have found inspiration in the image Walzer presented of a disparate group “joining together and marching” toward something better. But that image has, for far too long, tricked the comfortable among us into thinking we are marching toward equality and justice, when we’re, in reality, dragging the whole of that Narrow Place along with us.

In this pandemic, that fantasy “marching together” obscures deep, dangerous differences in how our various communities are faring. In DC compare, for example, the number of Covid-19 cases per 1000 people, in these locations:

Woodley Park: 3.5
Adas Israel Congregation, National Zoo
Historic Anacostia: 11.3
Big Chair, We Act Radio/Charnice Milton Community Bookstore (my work)

Cathedral Heights: 3.1
near Temple Micah, Washington National Cathedral
Fort Lincoln: 21.0
Prince Georges county line, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Shepherd Park: 15.8
Ohev Sholom, Tifereth Israel, and Fabrangen
Petworth: 14.8
New Synagogue Project
Brightwood/Brightwood Park: 19.1/22.6
southeast of Shepherd Park, northwest of Petworth

Capitol Hill: 2.6
Hill Havurah
Hill East: 4.5
Mount Moriah Baptist Church (interfaith partner of Hill Havurah), my home
Stadium Armory: 69.0
includes DC Jail, Harriet Tubman women’s shelter

For these and more data, review this interactive map of Washington DC Corona Virus Positives as of 5/15/20.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 8.44.58 AM

If you live elsewhere, to paraphrase Michael Walzer: it’s likely no different in essence.

Stop saying “we’re all in this together”
and start working to create a world
where that might be just a tiny bit more accurate.

 

Let us keep in mind some teachings of the oft-cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the prophet Amos whom they both studied and often quoted:

God does not reveal [Godself] in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.

The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God.

All men care for the world; the prophet cares for God’s care….Sympathy opens man to the living God. Unless we share [God’s] concern, we know nothing about the living God.
The Prophets, vol. II (1962), p.3, 11, 284

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.
– “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)

Because you trample on the poor…
I know how manifold are your transgressions
Hate the evil,
and love the good,
and establish justice in the gate;
Let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
– Amos 5:10, 12, 15, 24



To learn more about what’s going on in the DC area, visit Black Coalition Against Covid and Many Languages One Voice. And here is a brief overview of Jewish congregational offerings to learn more and/or get involved.

See also see related text and podcasts at Rereading Exodus.

And please share this.



The current weekly reading in the annual Torah cycle is “Bedmidbar,” usually translated as “in the wilderness,” or, sometimes: “desert.” The Book of Numbers 1:1-4:20.
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DC Jews’ and Rona Responses

Here are some ways that Jewish congregations in DC are helping members help one another as well as those outside their congregations in greater need:

Adas Israel Congregation offers a thorough, annotated list of ways to volunteer and donate.

Included among their recommendations is supporting TraRon Center and projects addressing DC’s digital divide. Check out this interview with TraRon founder/director Ryane Nickens and some of those working on the digital project.

Kesher Israel also offers a thorough set of recommendations for supporting community in- and outside the congregation.

Included in their recommendations is DC-Mutual Aid Network and Serve Your City DC, interviewed here.

New Synagogue Project invites community members to receive Daily Action Alerts with concrete actions you can take for justice in the wider community (in DC and beyond).

Shirat Hanefesh offers a weekly action suggestion — look for “Tzedakah in the time of Covid.”

Temple Sinai has a page dedicated to “Aiding the Most Vulnerable”

Washington Hebrew Congregation‘s homepage offers a story about congregants’ involvement in relief efforts.

Hill Havurah has been engaging in an “interfaith virtual gathering” on Race, Inequity, and Pandemic. This is part of the congregation’s partnership with nearby Mount Moriah Baptist Church. The rabbi’s regular messages focus, from spiritual and practical perspectives. on the Rona and the disparities in our city.

Temple Micah has offered a series of discussions of Covid-19 and the press. The latest, “underserved in quarantine,” but does not appear to be encouraging Rona-specific volunteer or donation efforts.

Other congregations may be hard at work on related issues, but their websites — the main portals we have these days — do not reflect such (or I didn’t find a way in).

By way of background: I have lived in DC for over three decades and have been active in a number of Jewish congregations and interdenominational efforts for more than 20 years. I currently belong to Hill Havurah and used to be quite active at Temple Micah and Fabrangen, as well as (longer ago) the Kesher Israel women’s prayer/study group. I visit — and worship and/or learn with — every other congregation listed here and more. If I missed important and useful resources for Jews seeking to address the Rona and related disparities, let me know and I’ll add them.

Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation

Update: please visit Rereading4liberation.com where you will find conversations with around related issues and daily podcasts on Rethinking Exodus.

This is an invitation — to Jews, non-Jews, Bible readers and not — to explore some ideas about liberation and join together in figuring out how we are going to get ourselves out of the Narrow Place we’re stuck this year in such a way that we don’t leave our neighbors behind.

Some of us are facing a seriously changed Passover in just a few days and are maybe hearing the story we’re repeated so many times in a new way this year. Some of us only recognize the Exodus story from the movies or general popular culture. Either way, we know that we need a new approach.

This year, more than ever, we have to stop talking in vague terms about joining hands and marching and instead consider

  • Are we prepared to head toward something truly different?
  • Will we let go of what we have in order to get there?
  • With whom have we joined hands?
  • Whom have we left behind?
  • Have we been marching toward a liberation that never seems to materialize for so long that we now wonder if it’s worth the upheaval?

To help us explore these topics, together and individually, please join me in Rereading Exodus for a New Sense of Liberation — a book in progress offered here — and in a new podcast, “Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation.” Both resources focus on how the realities in the District of Columbia and the Exodus tale inform one another.

Rethinking Exodus podcast

Brand new, today (March 30): the first episode — about who survives the plagues and how we can try to help each other through this, as well as a few more light-hearted topics — is available now at Rereading4Liberation.com. [This is an update as of April 15. Moving material OFF the former Anchor and podcasting sites for now.]

Rereading Exodus book

This book in progress, delayed by the Rona and other issues, builds on last year’s Exodus and Coalition. Part 2 expected late April.

If reading on laptop or larger device, try two pages side-by-side, as it was laid out for print viewing. If reading on phone, try one page horizontal view.

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (interactive).

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (print) — easier to print.

still working on an epub.

Vayikra, The Rona/COVID-19, and Mutual Aid

We can learn several important things about this time of coronavirus pandemic, and related upheaval, from the start of this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:6).

Honoring Prior Collective Work

The Book of Exodus closes with completion of the mobile worship center, the “Tabernacle,” constructed by the People in the wilderness. This construction takes place over the course of many chapters in Exodus and involves all whose hearts move them” contributing their talents, their time, and their resources (See, e.g., Exodus 25:1ff). It is from within that collectively created Tabernacle that God calls to Moses at the start of the Book Leviticus.**

Similarly, the Torah is calling to us this week (5780/2010) to notice and make use of collectively created structures within our communities, including our Mutual Aid Networks.

Throughout the United States, communities have their own structures and local leaders. Many efforts at dealing with crises do not work within these community structures, however, instead making use of top-down, charity-driven models. Mutual aid, on the other hand, is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by needs expressed by community members. (See e.g., “What is Mutual Aid.”) Joining up with your area’s Mutual Aid Network, if one exists, is a crucial way to help your area get through this serious upheaval in a way that respects all concerned.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggests that God calls to Moses out of the Tabernacle to emphasize that the structure had been built to benefit the People, not to exclude them (Artscroll Chumash, citing “Ramban, etal” — Ramban is a teacher from 13th Century Spain). In this spirit, we must endeavor to ensure that actions we take around this crisis benefit, rather than exclude, and do not undermine collectively created community structures.

Calling, Learning, and Being Small

Over the centuries, many have noted the oddly tiny final letter (alef) in the first word of the Torah portion —
Vayikra

Teachings around this oddity emphasize the connection between humility – making oneself “small” — and learning.*** In addition, some suggest, we can look at the relative size of the letters, imagining that God’s voice is loud and powerful enough to be heard everywhere but Moses played an important role in conveying it to the People.

In this spirit, the Torah is reminding us to be small enough to listen carefully when called.

That means paying attention to experienced organizers who have direct contact with the communities most affected by this crisis and working with those already in the struggle. This might mean joining a Mutual Aid Network or lending one your support. Or it might mean listening and responding in another way. But it will require listening

A More Specific Call

Many of us have favorite charities and crisis-relief organizations we regularly support. Some would like to offer direct support but know they cannot give to everyone who asks, fear that donations may not be used in an efficient and accountable way, and feel at sea about giving in time of such overwhelming need. This is another area in which using and honoring our existing community structures is crucial.

As a long-time resident of southeast DC, I know the captains of the ward units for Wards 6 and 7/8 within DC’s Mutual Aid Network; I also know the captain for Ward 2 in Northwest and have met the others. I can personally recommend giving these people your time, money, and trust. Probably someone somewhere in your personal contacts knows the people running other units in DC or near where you live. And, if not, I believe Vayikra is telling us, in this specific time, to trust the organizers most closely tied to those most vulnerable in this crisis.

Moreover, in DC government and other institutions are sending those who request help to the Mutual Aid Networks. So, these home-grown efforts need our support right now.

This blog is not set up to provide information on Mutual Aid Networks everywhere. But it is set up to suggest that Jews, and others interested in a text- and action-based view of Bible study, look at what Vayikra is telling us about seeking out and supporting existing community structures.

Just one Example

Mutual Aid Networks are growing in many areas, and, as noted, this blog is not set up to keep on top of them all. Please seek out your local area MAN. As an example for readers anywhere, and for readers local to DC, here are some direct requests from local organizers.

Needs identified include the usual: fruit and vegetables, bread, toilet paper, sandwich meat, snacks, bottled water, frozen meats, potatoes, rice, hot dogs, buns, diapers, pull-ups, wipes, bleach, rubbing alcohol, gloves — basically, every item that you purchased for yourself and your household.

In addition, community members in the District express needs for

  • computers
  • materials needed by children and teens for their educations.

These resources are taken for granted in some areas but sorely lacking in others. Accessible and free access to the internet is also needed — and financial contributions toward that goal are welcome.

In or near DC’s Ward 6, drop items off at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, 9am-9pm. Additional sites are in the works.

Financial donations can be made earmarked for “Mutual Aid Network” to Serve Your City DC.

Contact ward6mutualaid@gmail.com or 202-683-9962 with questions or for updates on sites in other areas of Ward 6.

NOTES
**

And he called to Moses, and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
— Lev 1:1

It is clear that the “he” (in “(and) he called”) is God calling from inside the Tent of Meeting, which was just completed at the end of the Book of Exodus. The verse is usually rendered something like “And the LORD called to Moses.” The portion, the first in Leviticus, is comprised of Leviticus 1:1-5:6.

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***
The Hebrew word “ileif” —
אִלֵּף

has the same root letters as “alef

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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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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

What Needs Prooftext? Daf Yomi #5

In their essay on today’s reading, Berakhot 6a-6b, Laynie Solomon of SVARA outlines the radical nature of prooftexts, the ancient rabbinic practice of creatively interpreting sacred text so that it speaks to post-biblical conditions. In this case the situation involves participating in synagogue services:

…the assumption that the answer will be positive is baked into the question: Where in the Torah is it shown that God is found in the synagogue?

…The rabbis, through the creative and sacred word-play and interpretation of midrash, imagine a theology in which God is fully present with them — and therefore also with us. What if we felt this same invitation? What practices would you seek to find prooftexts for?
— the whole essay on My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi archive

In partial response, I suggest seeking out prooftexts for deepening equity, inclusion, and coalition:

How do we know that we must seriously heed when told a course of action of speech is hurtful or dangerous to others?

“’I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’ [חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃]”
(Numbers 22:34).

How do we know that our coalitions must be more inclusive?

It is written: “Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man. [וּמָ֣צָא בָ֗הּ אִ֤ישׁ מִסְכֵּן֙ חָכָ֔ם וּמִלַּט־ה֥וּא אֶת־הָעִ֖יר בְּחָכְמָת֑וֹ וְאָדָם֙ לֹ֣א זָכַ֔ר אֶת־הָאִ֥ישׁ הַמִּסְכֵּ֖ן הַהּֽוּא׃ ]” (Ecclesiastes 9:15).

Where do we learn to take trusted outsider’s advice?

As Jethro told Moses: “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you [עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ]” (Exodus 18:19).

Where do we learn to walk difficult paths with others?

From “And the two went on [וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶ֔ם]” (Ruth 1:19).

And how do we know that not all journeys are shared? 

“And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.’ [ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יִתְר֛וֹ לְמֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְשָׁלֽוֹם]” (Exodus 4:18).

More on Daf Yomi

For Shelter Protecting ALL of Us

Meditation I wrote today contemplating the sukkah and the state of our shelters: the temporary ones Jews put up this week and the longer term ones that the state pretends to offer to all.

For Shelter Protecting All_Sukkot5780 (PDF) contains meditation for sitting in the sukkah while conscious of the lack of shelter available to Black people when police are around as well as a meditation for waving the lulav on a related theme. Some of the latter is based on an earlier meditation created for Occupy Judaism in 2011.