Shabbat Mishpatim: One Woman’s Conclusion

“Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then, but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank.” — From One Woman’s Conclusion (A Haftarah): Exodus 24:1-11 AKA “Lunch with God”

This midrash, written in the year 2000, I think, is based on the last verses of Parashat Mishpatim. So I share it again for this Shabbat.

Dedication of THIS House

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mezuzah
Spending extra time with Psalm 30 over these last few weeks, inspires me to suggest that I want my house to reflect many of its sentiments.

Regardless of which house was originally meant by the psalmist or how the words were used and understood over the centuries, this, is my prayer, today:

Thank you, God, for lifting me out of depths of my own making,
for helping me over self-criticism and abdication of dreams,
for keeping me from adopting an enemy’s eye view of my life.

This house has seen some tranquility
and it’s seen days that seemed too much like the pit.
We’re grateful to have reached this point,
and ask Your help through the future ups and downs.

With Your help, let this house be
a place that hears crying,
welcoming expressions of truth from those who suffer,
a place of healing, working through the struggle,
and a place of joy.

This house, built and maintained by humans,
can seem pretty shaky,
but if it’s a place where the Name is recognized,
in all the varied ways God comes through the door,
maybe that mountain of strength won’t seem so far off.
— V. Spatz, 2018, based on Psalm 30
copy left (copy left: share with attribution)

I stress that this is my prayer, today, because, while this isn’t exactly a first draft, it doesn’t yet entirely capturing what I meant to say.

9 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)

…For anyone wondering: I am writing each day in November but not necessarily posting every day. Sorry if this is confusing anyone and hope days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes, are not too annoying.

Rosetta, Miami Temple, and the Winter Jews

As a child singing in front of a choir, Rosetta Nubin was forbidden by her mother to bend over and pick up coins tossed at her by white visitors to the church. She discovered by accident, however, that a large brimmed hat could collect coins without her bending or her mother’s knowledge. This particular recollection, shared in the play, Marie and Rosetta, by George Brant, may be fictional. But the history behind it is quite real:

“The Jews from Miami Beach would come to our church every Sunday night to hear [Rosetta] sing. It would be packed with winter Jews [vacationers from up north]…. They came in droves to our church. Buses and limousines. They didn’t mind parking in the ghetto for that. They weren’t afraid.
When the saints would shout they would throw money down at them. It was, let’s go see these niggers. It was amusement to them.”
— Zeola Cohen Jones, member of Miami Temple and cousin of its founder,
quoted in Shout, Sister, Shout! (more below)

In the 1930s, Reverend Amaziah Cohen, founder of Miami Temple Church of God (now A.M. Cohen Temple), had begun broadcasting services featuring singing and guitar playing of Rosetta Tharpe.

The people at night would come from all areas; sometimes we had more whites than blacks,” recalls Isaac Cohen. The visitors, including many Jews, sat in a horseshoe balcony, while church members gathered on the main floor, up front. Eventually, Elder Cohen says, the church established a policy for mandatory offering, “because we didn’t have room for everyone.”

Moreover, Wald writes, when the church started charging admission to take advantage of all of the outsiders who came on Sundays, “the poor people couldn’t attend.” On the other hand, Zeola Jones goes on to explain, some people would come just for the Sunday night broadcasts and jump for the money. The fact that these same visitors were also funding church renovations and a college fund, the reminiscence continues, did nothing in her view to “compensate for the ugliness.”


More on Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, including musical clips. “Marie and Rosetta” runs at Mosaic Theater Company of DC through September 30.
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Back at Beer Lahai Roi

The character of Rosetta, in “Marie and Rosetta” as performed at Mosaic Theater, does not mention Jews when she tells of white people and their coins.** For people like Zeola Jones, however, these scenes are part of their picture of Jews. This and so many scenes like it — with charitable behavior never quite making up for the egregious disrespect shown in other ways — are a part of the history that Jewish and Black communities today share, whether we acknowledge this or not.

There are wider and deeper issues highlighted by this story and some other aspects of “Marie and Rosetta,” too: how outsiders — Jews and non-Jews — visit black communities to view entertainment and cultural expressions, for example. How pain specific to Jewish and Black communities is expressed in art, if/how it can be shared, and what we can learn from singing and performing together and apart. If we are to use the model of Isaac and Ishmael, living side-by-side at Beer Lahoi Roi, as a model of Black and Jewish communities “renewing cousinship,” we have a lot to explore on this score.


Shout, Sister, Shout! and Book Event

For more on this, read Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

Gayle F. Wald is a professor at George Washington University and the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV. She was a consultant for the film “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” Wald lives in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylewald.

If in the DC area, stop by event at Solid State Books, cosponsored by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Free and public (event link):

Solid State Books
600 H Street NE
7 – 8 p.m. Sunday September 16.

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NOTE:
**I have not see the play in print, and it is possible I missed this reference in performance; if someone knows different, please advise.
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The Well of Sight, Seeing, Seen

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins” raised questions about what it means for Isaac to settle at Beer Lahai Roi, the wellspring that is already home to Ishmael, after the brothers have buried their father, Abraham. The Shalom Center proposes bringing this story (Gen 25:7-11) into the Days of Awe to suggest “turning and healing” of the painful Torah passages read at Rosh Hashanah. And in the context of the high holidays, the wellspring’s history seems particularly powerful.

On the run from ill-treatment by Sarah, Hagar has a divine encounter in the wilderness. An angel finds her at a wellspring on the road and demands: Where have you come from and where are you going? (Gen 16:8). An essential question for individuals at the season of repentance and return. Also key for “renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews, another relationship in need of “turning and healing.”

At the conclusion of Hagar’s wilderness encounter, we read:

וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם-יְהוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ, אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי: כִּי אָמְרָה, הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי–אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא לַבְּאֵר, בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי–הִנֵּה בֵין-קָדֵשׁ, וּבֵין בָּרֶד
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me!”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.—
— Gen 16:13-14

In her 1984 Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible pointed out extraordinary aspects of this story, including the fact that Hagar names God — the only biblical character to do so (more here). And the name she uses has a lot to tell us.

El-roi” is translated in a variety of ways and sometimes, as in the 1985 JPS (above), not translated. But all the renderings revolve around sight: God of vision, God of my seeing, God who sees me. This, I think, points to one meaning of Isaac moving to this place: Reconciliation in unlikely if estranged parties cannot see and feel seen, so the brothers both settling in a place of seeing bodes well.

“Renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews requires a lot of seeing. Coming to a place with a powerful history of seeing by/of oppressed and traumatized people could be a great beginning.

SeesMe_graphic

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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A Song of Reward and Punishment

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 22

Here is further response to a long-ago comment of Max Ticktin (z”l), based on the words of Jeremiah and in a sort of homage to Leonard Cohen.

“Has this song gone on too long?
A song of reward and punishment
for exiles in Babylon and elsewhere”

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
Is our pain fault or accident?
The heart is indeed most devious!

You say that we’ll be cursed if we
trust in folks whose strength is flesh
that we’ll lose heart,
turn our thoughts away

We’ll feel just like a desert bush,
parched, alone, and unaware
that good might come
that water could be flowing

And then You say that we’ll be blessed
if we trust You
and You alone
We’ll be like trees that will not lack for water

You promise we’ll not think of drought,
our leaves will be forever fresh
we’ll have strong roots and bear more fruit
But is it wise to pretend no heat is coming?

The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
What could it harm, I’m bound to ask,
if I were just a wealthy fool?

Saved or doomed? God only knows!
You’re refuge, you’re chastisement
Probe my heart and heal me now
Or has this song gone on too long?

Who gets justice in this world?
I’m a shepherd who has lost the way
The theme repeats again and long
this song of punishment and reward
— V. Spatz, 2018
from Jeremiah 17:5-8 and surrounding verses



NOTE

As noted in previous post, “A Song of Reward and Punishment,” which is what Max called Jeremiah 17:5-8, just seems like something Leonard Cohen would have written. I imagine something that sounds somewhere between “Darkness” (“Old Ideas,” 2012) and “You Want It Darker” (eponymous album, 2016).


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Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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