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.)

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)


BACK

About that stolen beam…

Trying to learn a few lines of Jewish text, about a “stolen beam,” I find myself completely confused about the basic idea of ownership. The studies are part of Svara’s Elul Extravaganza, “learning as a deep spiritual practice in service of teshuva and transformation leading up to the Days of AWE-some.” The underlying, or overarching, topic is reparations.

The text, from Gitten 55a, speaks about a “stolen beam” and what measures should be taken to compensate the owner, if the beam has been already built into a large structure. It seems pretty clear from what we’ve deciphered so far that the rabbis of the Talmud assume the beam had a legitimate owner and was taken, illegitimately, from them.

But I found myself stymied by the idea, proposed by Beit Shammai, of returning the beam to it’s “baalav” — which seems to mean, on the face of it, the beam’s “(true) owners.” But a “baal habayit” is a landlord, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some shady landlord was somehow benefiting from a loophole in the law…as too many of our big ones here in DC are wont to do…and had, by vague analogy, no right to that beam in the first place.


Encampments and Luxury Dwellings

I recently interviewed advocates for the “Vacant to Virus Reduction” (V2VR), campaign. One of the arguments of this campaign is that WE, District taxpayers, have already paid dearly for luxury housing — through tax incentives and other perfectly legal means — and so should be able to claim some of that benefit now, in this crisis involving health and housing.

Here in the District of Columbia, we have thousands of housing insecure people and several tent encampments, like these under the train tracks —

from a recent video, shared on Facebook, by Serve Your City DC
from the same video

The tent encampment shown in these two photos lines an underpass not far from the nation’s Capitol Buildings. Just around the corner, meanwhile, we see luxury developments, like this shiny new one pictured below… some of which have vacancies that the V2VR campaign would like filled by those who are currently unhoused in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

rendering is from the website of DC area developer Douglas Jemal

The DC government regularly removes and destroys the belongings and shelters of neighbors in the encampments, insisting that they have no right to live where they do. The same DC government regularly supports the building of luxury dwellings with all kinds of incentives which come from taxpayers’ pockets.


The Root of the Trouble

Svara method in Talmud study emphasizes looking up each word encountered, even if the study partners think they already know it. We learned that the Hebrew word “baal,” which is usually translated as “owner” or “master,” is based on a two-letter root, bet-ayin. And that root can mean to search out, lay bare, or ransack.

And, while I confess to some bias here before I opened the dictionary, finding this root really spoke to one of the many issues bothering me about the idea of returning the beam to its baalav. I cannot argue that either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel (whose position we will discuss next week) thought property ownership was a form of ransacking. But I will argue that people in DC — and probably in many other locales — need to be thinking about how many of our beams were obtained, what it would mean to extract them or their value, and whether someone who took a beam — or chose to shelter under one that does not technically belong to them — is really the culprit.

None of this even begins to consider the issue of reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade, for this country’s genocide and massive theft from indigenous people, or for the more recent, ongoing displacement of Black people in DC and elsewhere. But it has caused me to ponder some aspects of the work ahead…into the high holidays and far beyond.



TEXT

The lines we’re learning are from the Talmud, Gitten 55a.

Here are the two lines we have explored so far:

NOTE: Attempting to cut and paste Hebrew/Aramaic text turns it backwards here, so sharing an image; here’s a link to full text at Sefaria. And here is a translation based loosely on what’s at Sefaria and our Svara class:

And about a stolen beam that was built into a large [maybe multi-residential] building [bira], remove the value, due to an ordinance instituted for the penitent….Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners [l’baalav]

BACK

Climbing Toward Repair 5781

Yesterday was the pits. In the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’av [the 9th day of the 11th month; July 29-30 in 2020] is the lowest point of “the Three Weeks” of progressively deeper mourning and reading of prophetic chastisements. Today, we begin the slow climb up, through the seven weeks of comfort and Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year. Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, 5781, coincides with Sep 18-20, 2020 in the Gregorian calendar.

The prophetic reading from last week — known as the “Sabbath of Vision” — warns us to take heed NOW in our preparations for the coming holiday season:

Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing; [this is God speaking]
They are become a burden to Me,
And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime
I cannot endure them.
Wash you, make you clean,
put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes,
cease to do evil; learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
“Come, let us reach an understanding, —says the LORD.
Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.”
– Isaiah 1:14-18

It won’t be enough to mark the high holidays, recite the proper words, hear the shofar [ram’s horn], and skip some meals. None of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world. So, now is the time to reflect and prepare, to move from the mournful “How?!” of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av, to the “how?” of individual and collective action to repair our relationships and the world around us.

For white Jews in particular, now is the time — we have seven weeks beginning today — to redouble our efforts to face our history, our role in systems that uphold white supremacy, and the work ahead of us in dismantling those systems.

For each of the weeks and days ahead, let’s commit to learning and building toward #Repair5781.

Visit Repair5781 Page for some resources.

The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

1

When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):

  • fear of what’s ahead,
  • a desire to go back,
  • an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
  • finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.

One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about

  • how we look ahead;
  • how we look at what’s behind us;
  • how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
  • how we organize that information into expectations.

Viewing Peril

Ten of twelve scouts in this week’s Torah reading bring back a set of terrified reports about the destination where they’re supposed to be headed:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
— Num 13:32-33

Commentary, beginning with the Talmud, notes the subjective nature of the report and the role of assumption:

The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
— Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35a

Caleb and Joshua present dissenting views, describing favorable prospects ahead, and then mourn with Moses and Aaron when the People panic at the negative reports (Num 13:30, 14:6-9). Jay Stanton, now assistant clergy at Tzedek Chicago, noted the universal nature of this particular textual “snapshot”:

These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.

He adds–

The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him.
Fear Perception and Imagination: Grasshoppers in Whose Eyes?

Stanton’s 2008 essay focuses on challenges to Queer Jews. His words also describe this moment, as the U.S. tries to envision some sort of racial justice ahead. They also resonate with words on Jews and race from many years ago and from today.

Warnings: Old and New

In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo.
— “Where Are We?” in Where do We Go from Here?

MLK’s friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel, wrote a few years before:

People are increasingly fearful of social tension and disturbance. However, so long as our society is more concerned to prevent racial strife than to prevent humiliation, the cause of strife, its moral status will be depressing, indeed.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
“Race and Religion” speech, 1963

Earlier this week, a small group of DC Jews, including me, wrote:

Right now is a critical time when the public and decision makers are finally beginning to hear the transformative demands of Black organizers. White people have the opportunity to learn from the vision and work of Black organizers and make sure our actions center their visions, words, demands, and dreams. At the same time, many across our Jewish community are struggling right now to understand what it means to defund or abolish police. Our system of policing is specifically rooted in a history of anti-Black racism. Black people, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, are the experts on what it will take to stop police brutality and end white supremacy. White people in particular need to listen, especially when political messages or proposed policy changes seem new or unfamiliar.

But we must not get stuck in our need for more learning – lest we fail to actually confront police violence and other anti-Black systems and dismantle them. Jewish tradition teaches that we must use ongoing learning and reflection as a catalyst for commitment and action.
Call to Action

An important final note most, given the disaster that resulted from panicking and arguing in the wilderness:

We refuse to be pitted against each other and lose the chance for liberation that this moment offers.

We invite white members of DC Jewish communities (and any member of our community who feels this speaks to them) to commit to this call for action, co-signing the call, and taking at least one action above. Share this call at 615DefundMPD

Wherever You Live…

Some of the specifics, in the letter above, regarding testifying to particular budget hearings are no longer pertinent. The FY21 DC Budget is still under consideration, however, and there is plenty of time to lift more voices to support demands of Black organizers in DC, in- and outside Jewish communities, around new visions of “public safety.”

And, wherever you live, the time is now to take action locally and nationally.

Also, wherever you live, the story of the scouts is a good reminder that we must learn to look more carefully at our past, present, and future. In particular, white people — in- and outside the Jewish community — must learn to face race. To that end, here are some resources on Jews and Racial Justice (soon to be updated).

In closing, a few words from one of my favorite Torah commentaries of all time:

We wander the wilderness. Can we ever remember a time when
it was not so? Always a remnant recounts the story,

The promised land really exists, it really doesn’t, are we
there yet. Borders unspecified, we will know when we’ve
arrived. Profusely fertile, agriculturally a heartland;

An impossible place, let freedom ring in it. We’ve been to
the mountain. We’ve seen the land: A terrain of the
imagination, its hills skipping for joy. How long, we say,
we know our failure in advance, nobody alive will set foot in it
— Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers. Rutgers University Press, 1994.




NOTES:
This week’s Torah reading is Shelach Lekha [send out for yourself], Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Much has been written about this famous story, but I don’t have a particular recommendation. I just discovered, in a possibly related fact, that one of the few times I’ve written about the spies for this log was in a commentary on the next portion, Korach.

The Ostriker poem, quoted above, is part of an essay called “The Nursing Father,” focusing on an image that comes up in the previous portion.
BACK

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.
BACK

New Site and Podcasts

This site is already full and too closely resembling my desk in that the organization makes sense only to me and sometimes fails me too. So, I decided there is no room for a set of posts about podcasts and I am using a new site for that: Rereading4liberation.com

Please visit. Subscribe to the podcast on whichever platform you prefer — it’s posted on Anchor.fm but appears on Spotify and many other ways of getting a podcast. Listen and, if you enjoy what you hear, tell others to check it out. thanks!

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.

TOP

***
The Hebrew word “ileif” —
אִלֵּף

has the same root letters as “alef

BACK

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.

 

 

Fugitive Slave Act and Deuteronomy

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.
לֹא-תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד, אֶל-אֲדֹנָיו, אֲשֶׁר-יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ, מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו.
עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ–בַּטּוֹב לוֹ; לֹא, תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
— Deuteronomy 23:16-17 (Christian Bible number differs here*)

…any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, . . . or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, . . . shall be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months….
–Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (full text scroll down to “AN ACT TO AMEND…’An Act Respecting Fugitives from Justice…'”; see also Zinn Education Project)

September 18 marked the signing into law of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the capture and return of people who had escaped from slavery. This law meant additional danger for people who had escaped from slavery, as well as for free black people who were often misidentified, sometimes deliberately, as escapees. It also endangered those who had been aiding enslaved persons escaping to free states. Many historians note, however, that this law made it harder for people in Free States to remain “neutral” or silent in the face of mass, state-sanctioned enslavement. Forcing more citizens to recognize their complicity helped precipitate the Civil War and a formal end to legal slavery in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Jewish calendar just prompted reading of Deut. 23:16-17 last week (Parashat Ki Teitzei, 9/14/19). So this seems a good time to reflect on these verses and what they teach about our history and our future.

Scripture and Fugitive Slaves

In opposition to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Christian abolitionists regularly referenced the verses in Deuteronomy forbidding the return to slavery of someone who had escaped (a few citations).

Pro-slavery Christians argued, to the contrary: “…the immorality attributed to the fugitive slave law resolves itself into the assumed immorality of slaveholding. No man would object to restoring an apprentice to his master;…” (see Cotton is King cited below).

Some 19th Century Christians interpreted the “fugitive slave” scriptures as referencing very limited circumstances inapplicable to then-contemporary situations. Their arguments, even when sources are not cited, suggest familiarity with traditional Jewish commentary on these verses. Many Jewish teachings, from ancient times to the present, support humane treatment of all people, call on Jews to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt,” and were interpreted in ways supportive of Abolition. These particular verses, however, appear to have been interpreted in very narrow ways, none of which would be helpful to an abolitionist.

A brief review of Jewish discourse before and during the U.S. Civil War — see, e.g., this Yeshiva University site and these brief related video histories — finds that Jews in the public sphere focused on universal human rights, rather than arguing scripture with the Christian majorities.

Jews in the Public Sphere

It is worth noting, in the context of how Jews spoke publicly, that what is now considered “American Judaism” — or, perhaps more accurately: American Judaisms — did not yet exist at the close of the Civil War. There were no major Jewish organizations in the United States until the latter part of the 19th Century:

  • the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) was founded in 1873, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889;
  • the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary was established in 1886 and the associated Rabbinical Assembly in 1901; and
  • the Orthodox Union was founded in 1898;

Other organizations, such as the immigrant aid society (HIAS), were founded decades after the Civil War was over. Most organizations that help create a public Jewish voice are far newer. The time seems overdue, however, for gathering collective Jewish energies, beginning with sacred text and its interpretations, to consider current implications of Deut 23:16-17:

You shall not turn over to his master
a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose
among the settlements in your midst,
wherever he pleases;
you must not ill-treat him.

Does Deut 23:16 have implications regarding policing today?
What might Deut 23:17 mean for Reparations?

We’ve got text to study and work to do…






NOTE:
*Deuteronomy Chapter 22 has 29 verses in the Hebrew Bible, while Christian bibles have 30 verses. As a result, the same verses that Jews identify as Deut 23:16-17 are numbered 23:15-16 in Christian bibles.

Here is Fox’s translation, known for its attempt to reproduce rhythm and word-choices of the Hebrew original, to aid in discussion:

16) You are not to hand over a serf to his lord
who has sought-rescue by you from his lord.
17) Beside you let him dwell, among you,
in the place that he chooses, within one of your gates (that)
seems good for him;
you are not to maltreat him!


TOP

Some Christian References

1836. Extracts from remarks on Dr. Channing’s Slavery, with comments, by an abolitionist. Boston. Published D.K. Hitchcock 1836 (available through archive.org). More on Channing’s Slavery by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842).

1850.A sermon on Moses’ fugitive slave bill” William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898). Sermon.

1851. “The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws: A Sermon on the Fugitive Slave Law” by Charles Beecher. Newark, NJ. (free ebook).

1855. Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church

1859. The Sin of Sending Back Fugitives from Slavery. The Oberlin Evangelist

And: Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War
By David E. Swift (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1989).

BUT ALSO: 1860. Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments; comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott… (free ebook)

BACK

Jewish Commentary

When the Talmud (compiled by around 500 CE, including many far older traditions) discusses Deut 23:16, one interpretation is that the verse is speaking of someone who buys a slave in order to emancipate them; another is that it refers to a slave who escaped from outside the Land and sought refuge in Eretz Yisrael (Yeb 93b and Gittin 45a). Elaborations over the centuries add the assumption that the latter is meant to keep someone who sough refuge from a heath environment from being returned there.

Another thread of commentary suggests that, given the surrounding context in Deuteronomy, the verses originally referenced war-time, when slaves might use the confusion to escape (e.g., Chizkuni, 13th Century CE).

Ramban (Nahmanides), 1194-1270 Spain, combines above interpretations and then adds both a “moral” and a “practical” sense:

An escaped slave. During a siege of an enemy city, it is common for slaves and prisoners to try and escape to the “liberators.” The Torah commands Israel that such escapees must be give their freedom and permitted to settle wherever they wish in Eretz Yisrael. In the moral sense, for the nation that maintains the holiness of its camp — as required by the above passage — to send a man seeking his freedom back to a life of idolatry would be most unseemly. In the practical sense, people seeking asylum often become important allies of the invaders, because they reveal valuable information that will help in the conquest.

The only responsa on the fugitive slave law which I could find is actually the Reform Movement arguing that Deut. 23:16-17 “permits the reception of proselytes.” American Reform Responsa: Collected Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 1889-1893.
RETURN

Eicha for my city and maybe for yours

Alas! How lonely sits the city
Once great with joyful people!
New horrors fill horizons now
while old pain never left
Each new loss diminishes
the streets themselves bereft

Bitterly we weep all night
cheeks wet with tears unseen
If we are to join together,
we must widen this choir of woe
When some cries are background noise
what’s the meaning of “friend” and “foe”?

City in despair right here,
Can Jewish space bring rest?
Refugees are some, just some,
of misery’s many faces
Public protest spreads the nation
are we stuck in narrow places?

Down our roads, more peril
desolation, violence, fear
systems that crush and jail
separate, cage, and hate
Borders come in many shapes
Too often closed, that welcome gate

Evidence mounts. Not in our name.
Closing camps, protecting neighbors and strangers –
that is work we are all called to do
But what about mutual care?
Or must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a goal that we share?

Forging coalition is struggle, tougher in anguish.
Inside affliction, can we hear another cry?
It is painful and complex, but we must keep trying
trying to heed the whole sound
I know you can hear it, God once declared loudly:
that voice of a sibling crying up from the ground

–V. Spatz, songeveryday.org CC-BY-SA

Yes: We demonstrate publicly that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. We support vigils and protest to #CloseTheCamps. Now!!
Can we not also:

  • Recognize many ways our country has long separated families, caged and brutalized people?
  • Cry with our local, national and international communities, refugees and not, who lend different voices to the chorus of “How lonely sits this place!”?
  • Send prayer energy to our many beleaguered communities, near and far?
  • Commit to exploring, in the days to come, ways in which we are complicit in so much suffering and ways we might take up action for repair?

“It is not ours to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” — Pirkei Avot 2:16

Here’s a PDF of this post, should anyone want to print a single page.Eichah for my city maybe yours