Gemara on THUG-LIFE

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

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

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

The word

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

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

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

The Passage

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

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

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

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

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

A Recitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami

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

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

talking execution when he’s a minor, though!

The Loudest Question

What are you protecting?!

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

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

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

Another Question

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

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

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

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

And Questioning Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Additional Voices

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

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

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

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

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

downloadable version with graphic and full text below


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

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


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

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

From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary

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

Hallelu Avdei Adonai

UPDATE 9/22/21: Friends of Cantor Richard Kaplan share with sadness the news of his death on the first day of Sukkot 5782, 9/21/21.

This chant, which comes from Iraqi Jewish tradition, uses the phrase “Praise God, Servants of God” from Psalm 113:1 as a chorus and acrostic verses highlighting attributes of God: Mightiest of the mighty, Blessed among blessed, Greatest of the great…Guardian among guardians, Sustainer among sustainers. Here is a captioned version of the chant as presented in the 2000 “Tuning the Soul: Worlds of Jewish Sacred Music,” from Richard Kaplan & Michael Ziegler.

This video adapts, with permission, the one found on Kaplan’s YouTube channel by adding the lyrics with no other changes.

A note on teachers and transmission: I first learned the chant from Amy Smith and Bill Savedoff who taught it to Fabrangen Havurah for the high holidays years ago. Members of Fabrangen reported hearing the tune from a nearby synagogue when they were living in Jerusalem and helped our son share it during the service when he was bar mitzvah….again, years back. This video was prepared to share with Hill Havurah, 5781/2021. But a video with the fast-paced lyrics might be of use to many.

Sukkot and Babylon

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.1

“As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.” — from “Ani Va-ho,” a Sukkot prayer

Prayers begging for rescue and mercy often take the format, “You helped them; help us.” The unusual aspect of this prayer, recited each day of Sukkot in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish liturgies, is its implication that God needs saving, too. Long before Eleazar Kallir (c.570–c.640 CE) developed this poem, however, Jews were teaching that God follows the People into exile.

“These bold interpretations are a way of saying that when there is suffering in the world, God is not to be found on the side of the oppressors” (Or Hadash festival supplement; link below. Click here for basics on ancient Sukkot practices).

Fragility and Sukkot

Many centuries of prayers linked the fragility of Sukkot with exile. For example:

…In the merit of the Mitzvah of Sukkah, redeem us from exile,
protect us, that our enemies not reign over us.
And gather us from the four corners of the earth
and rescue us from captivity and from false imprisonment.
Let no evil eye rule over us ever.
Rebuild Your Holy Temple and restore your presence to Jerusalem….
– from Machzor Rav Peninim (R. Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh c1508-1600)

A different perspective appeared with Haskalah [“Enlightenment”]:


For thousands of years
Israel has been a wandering people.
Our houses are but fragile huts –
And these huts have been torn asunder too many times
By unrest and the hatred of others.
We have only your mercy to thank
That we have not perished from the earth.
Your compassion has held us and carried us
Through storm and flood, over every abyss
That has threatened to devour us,
And now, after generations of wandering,
You have allowed us to taste the sweetness of home.
Thanks to you, we have found a homeland –
A beautiful, wonderful country
That recognizes us as its children.
Safe and free, like ancient Israel
In the shade of its palm and fig trees,
We rest beneath the tent of peace
Provided to us by the law,
Along with all our brothers and sisters in this land….
– “On the first days of Sukkot”
in Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion (1855)

The “homeland” Neuda had in mind was her native Moravia. The first edition of Hours of Devotion was published in German and included a blessing specifically naming Emperor Franz Joseph. Neuda’s family supported Haskalah, promoting the limited citizenship then allowed to Jews as well as sermons in the vernacular, modernizations of of prayers, and other religious adaptations that led to the Reform Movement. The prayerbook was later translated into Yiddish and was being reprinted in both languages up through the early part of the 20th Century.

Some Questions for Consideration

  • Where does the fragility of your personal Sukkot experience take you?
  • In what ways do you feel protected by a “tent of peace, provided to us by law”?
  • In what ways does your experience reflect exile, as expressed by Machzor Rav Peninim?
  • What about the fragility of the Jewish community, locally and worldwide?
  • And what about the wider world?
  • Are there lessons to be drawn from identifying ourselves and God as together in need of rescue?


sukkah78
Spatz-O’Brien sukkah, Oct. 2017

NOTES

In Temple days, hoshanot were recited while circling the altar on Sukkot; some denominations still recite them, while circling the bima — once on the first six days of the Sukkot and seven times on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabba. Hoshana is a contraction of hosha [save] and na [please]. Eleazar Kallir’s hoshana poem is known by its first line: “ani va-ho.”

ani va-ho hoshi’a na” from Mishnah Sukkah 4:5 is variously translated as “Save Yourself and us,” “I and You, may You deliver us both,” or “Please rescue me and the divine name.” Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 104a) explains that “ho” is one of God’s names.

See commentaries on this prayer in Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem and Orthodox The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur. Or Hadash: A commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom‘s festival supplement is (available for download here).
See also pages 110-111 in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah (more here).

Many Jews, including the Reform movement, do not observe Hoshana Rabba — or perform the hoshanot prayers during the rest of Sukkot.

BACK

Roads, Birds, and Distance: Amichai, Goldberg, and the Rambam

“Touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] is a word-of-the-week, as my study partner and I plow slowly through Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. This common verb, as it happens, is central to a Yehuda Amichai piece Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group discussed this past Shabbat. The two explorations of touch shed a little extra light on one another — and on the Leah Goldberg poem, “Journeying Birds,” which our group also considered. (more on Amichai and the Hebrew Poetry group) Note: this post updated slightly 5/18/17.

Highway to Heaven

Maimonides’ non-stop stress on God’s non-corporeal nature might seem, for contemporary readers, like way too much attention on the obvious. Until very recently, I confess, I thought The Guide for the Perplexed was engaged in page after page of beating a horse long-dead, if ever it lived: After all, who among us, in this day (or in 1200 CE, for that matter), is convinced that the God of the Jews has literal feet? But I’ve come to appreciate a subtle truth in The Guide that shares a lot with Amichai’s use of playful irony and with Leah Goldberg’s God-approaching themes.

In Chapter XVIII of The Guide, the Rambam discusses the verb “touch” [נָגַע] and two others:

The three words karab, “to come near,” naga’, “to touch,” and nagash, “to approach,” sometimes signify “contact” or “nearness in space,” sometimes the approach of man’s knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another.

…Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in the latter sense.
— Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed
(M. Friedlander, trans., pp.50-51)

The path “nearer” to God is a “spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space,” Maimonides explains, citing these texts:

The LORD is near [קָרוֹב] to all who call Him,
to all who call Him with sincerity
קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו– לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
— Psalms 145:18

Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh [קְרֹבִים] unto them, as the LORD our God is whensoever we call upon Him?
And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
— Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (The Guide cites 4:7)

But as for me, the nearness of God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים] is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
— Psalms 73:28

Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים יֶחְפָּצוּ].
— Isaiah 58:2 (Yom Kippur’s “Is this the fast I require?” passage)

—-“spiritual approach” citations from The Guide, chapter XVIII

While the philosopher often speaks of “knowledge” as essential in “spiritual approach,” his illustrative texts here suggest that the real requirement is intention or focus.

Bow Thy Heavens

Maimonides closes his chapter on “contact by comprehension,” with a return to the verb “touch.”

In the passage “Touch (ga’) the mountains, and they shall smoke” [Ps. 144:5], the verb “touch” is used in a figurative sense, viz., “Let my word touch them”….as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.
The Guide, p.51

The verse Rambam cites —

יְהוָה, הַט-שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד; גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ
O LORD, bow Thy heavens, and come down;
touch [גַּע — ga’] the mountains, that they may smoke.

— is often linked with Exodus 19:18 with its smokey revelation: “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.”

Maimonides has already gone to great pains to explain that God is no nearer “whether a person stand at the center of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible.” But he doesn’t argue that asking God to “touch the mountains” or “bow the heaves” is meaningless. To the contrary, he takes the verse’s extreme imagery as a comment on the power of God’s “touch,” understood as comprehending a “subject which had been distant.”

For Maimonides, any biblical images of God “approaching,” “nearing,” or “touching” serve to emphasize change of human cognition. In a similar literary move, Amichai gives agency to a paved road in order to emphasize a human couple’s state of mind.

Highway Decision-making

While most of his later works use free verse, some of Amichai’s earlier pieces, including “Pinecones on the Tree Above,” rhyme. This long piece begins with a few verses about a highway and two lovers:

[It] reached (הגיע) almost here — but thinking of
The bit of eternity that a lover and his love

Found here, close to their everyday drone
Made a detour and left them alone.
— Amichai, “Pinecones on the Tree Above”

IN Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry, 1948-1994
Benjamin & Barbara Harshav, translators (NY: Harper Collins, 1994).

The highway’s apparent consciousness — making the decision not to touch the couple — is happily accepted within the context of the verses: The playful image only enhances the reader’s understanding that it’s the couple who feel that the road, and world beyond, cannot touch them for the moment.

My contemporary Bilingual Learners Dictionary notes that the Hebrew verb naga’ — nun-gimmel-ayin — means “touch,” “concern,” and “connection.” A more prosaic description of Amichai’s scene might have said the road “didn’t concern them” or that the couple’s intimate connection dis-connected them from the nearby road. The couple’s state of mind, their lack of connection/concern with the road, is only emphasized by poetically giving (their) agency to the highway.

Should a reader object to the playful granting of decision-making ability to the highway, the poetry would cease to function. The poetry would equally fail for a reader who somehow believed that roads do, in fact, make choices. In a similar vein: Should a budding philosopher object to a God capable of sky-bending and mountain-smoking, Psalms 144:5 would lose its power. The verse also fails when such extraordinary imagery is taken as even potentially factual.

God Approaches

I’m still at start of The Guide, and remain pretty seriously perplexed, but I am increasingly sympathetic to Maimonides’ approach and find it oddly poetic — or, perhaps, oddly “Amichai-ish.” In approach, that is, not in content. (Although Amichai’s themes sometimes involve God and the distance between man and God, I don’t think “Pinecones on the Tree Above” is intended to explore this territory.) Leah Goldberg’s “Journeying Bird,” on the other hand, shares some of the philosopher’s quest for understanding how humans and God might approach one another. [Next post]

Unlikely Answers: At the Burning Bush with Durante, Mamie Smith, and Sherman Alexie


“Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust,” Sherman Alexie writes in a poem that finds Moses at the Burning Bush. Alexie reaches this mountaintop via a circuitous path that touches on roller coasters, obsessive worry about failing to turn off the stove, Jimmy Durante, Dante Alighieri, and another poet‘s obsession with the fact that “Dante” is, in reality, short for “Durante.” (More on Dante/Durante)

Do you think, after Moses talked to the Burning Bush, that he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the bush was still burning, and presented a clear and present danger? Do you think Moses hiked back up the mountain to make sure? If I claim that, in Hebrew, Moses is spelled Mos Eisley, will you look it up? Of course, you must. Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust.
— “Hell,” IN What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
(Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2014), p.51

Of course, I looked it up.

'Star Wars' image (property of LucasFilms)
“Star Wars” image: Mos Eisley Cantina musicians (property of LucasFilms)

Wookieepedia explains that Mos Eisley (pronounced “Moss Ize-lee”) is an important location in the Star Wars universe: a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where wise visitors are cautious, it’s the site of the cantina (right) where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca….Not, as this ignorant Star Trek fan guessed, some odd conflation of Mos Def and the Isley Brothers.

Perhaps Alexie is hinting at some kind of parallel between Luke Skywalker and Moses (spelled “מֹשֶׁה” [Moe-SHEH] in Hebrew, BTW, and thought to come from a verb meaning “to draw out”). If so, I know too little about Star Wars to catch it. Instead, my minimal wiki-knowledge sets me on a different path.

Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band (image: RedHotJazz.com)
Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band (RedHotJazz.com)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)
ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

I imagine Durante, in his jazz years and his later comic persona, with gigs at that alien cantina. Could Alexie have had this in mind, I wonder, when he came up with the inventive spelling for Moses?
Continue reading Unlikely Answers: At the Burning Bush with Durante, Mamie Smith, and Sherman Alexie

Surrounded by Big Things: Jonah, Harvey, and Yom Kippur

One of the things we might notice about Jonah is that he’s a little hard to follow: one minute, minding his own business, in his own land, and next thing he’s on the way to Joppa, on the ship, in the hold, tossed out into the sea, in the fish’s belly; then in Nineveh; and finally sitting outside the city arguing with God about a gourd. In honor of Jonah and his varied travels, these remarks go a number of different places, and, in an even deeper homage to Jonah, I can’t really promise that we’ll understand the point in the end. But I do hope it will be an interesting ride.
Continue reading Surrounded by Big Things: Jonah, Harvey, and Yom Kippur

Traveling With Jonah: Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts

By the time we approach minchah on Yom Kippur afternoon, we have been through the month of Elul, Selichot prayers, Rosh Hashanah, and a substantial portion of the Day of Atonement. The role that the Book of Jonah plays at that point is one thing. But I’ve been wondering if it might not be of some use to reflect on Jonah’s travels earlier in the season as well.

Having recently read Yehuda Amichai’s brilliant and funny “Conferences, Conferences: Malignant Words, Benign Speech”* – in which one conference session explores, e.g., “ceramacists on the type of potsherd Job used to scratch himself” – I found myself imagining a similar conference on Jonah.

What began as silly free-association turned to slightly more serious exploration of some themes raised by the Book of Jonah. I thought sharing this BEFORE Yom Kippur afternoon, might be of some help.

Here, in the form of a “Conference Program” PDF, is the result of my musings. (Please note: the Creative Common license for this work has been updated.)

Offered with wishes for a good and sweet year!
Traveling_with_Jonah
Continue reading Traveling With Jonah: Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts

Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Murkiness does not persist for long in biblical narrative. For only one verse, “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” After that, God begins a program of dividing [“va-yavdilוַיַּבְדֵּל]: light from darkness, waters above from waters below, water from dry land,….six days of work from the hallowed seventh. The theme of division continues throughout Genesis, in the stories of Noah, Babel, Abraham and descendants. Exodus and Leviticus stress divisions relating to food, sex, and other topics: this is kosher; this is not.

The biblical concept of “holiness” is all about separations; and the ancient Rabbis further pursued divisions and borders, beginning with the first words of the Mishnah: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?”

Murkiness is studiously avoided in Jewish tradition. And deceptive or confusing characteristics are particularly reviled, as when a pig “pretends” to be kosher by showing its split hooves (a characteristic necessary for a kosher animal) while hiding the fact that it does not chew the cud (also required).

How, in such a worldview, can an individual who is “neither one nor the other” — like the title character of the I.B. Singer’s 1962 Yentl the Yeshiva Boy — function?

And how is Judaism, with its separations and borders, to respond to the murkiness of gender-fluidity?

Photos: Stan Barouh
Photos: Stan Barouh

Yentl, in referencing Jewish sacred text, becomes part of the age-old conversation on those texts, their interpretations and implementations. Like commentary in every age, Theater J’s Yentl brings contemporary perspectives, needs, and questions into dialogue with centuries of existing material. This happens partly as the tale — set in late 19th Century Poland — interacts with music aware that the shtetl is no longer the only model for Jewish gender roles. In addition, the set, designed by Robbie Hayes as an open book, urges us into the dialogue as well.

Theater J‘s presentation combines the 1975 play, co-written by Singer and Leah Napolin, with newer music from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. This “play with music” (not “musical” for legal reasons), directed by Shirley Serotsky, differs substantially from the 1983 film created by Barbra Streisand. And, while it comes closer to the original story in many ways, it differs from that, too, in interesting ways.
Continue reading Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God


This post was updated, 8/28/18, correcting an error in the section on Aramaic names for God. HaMakom [The Place] and Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] are Hebrew. (Thanks to Norman Shore for pointing out the mistake; only took me 18 months to make the correction!)

יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא

In a previous post, I mentioned that kaddish is not filled with God’s names, as are many of Jewish prayers, but about God’s name. Consider, e.g., the Amidah — Judaism’s central tefilah [prayer], which speaks directly to God, using the four-letter name [YHVH] and second-person address [masc. sing. “you”]; it begs, for instance, “May YOUR greatness and YOUR holiness be realized… [תתגדל ותתקדש].” In contrast, the kaddish speaks in the third-person, and asks, as it’s often translated, “May HIS great name be magnified and sanctified [יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא].”

In trying to make this point, I accidentally gave the impression that I meant that Aramaic, as a language and/or as employed by the Rabbis, had no name for God. This is far from the truth (see below) and not what I meant. But the misunderstanding led to an interesting discussion at Temple Micah’s recent Siddur Study session.

In many translations of kaddish, “רבא (rabba),” which appears in the first line and in the congregational response, is rendered “great,” as in “[God’s] great name.” But one participant argued that “rabba” could be read as a noun, rather than an adjective.

Here is the way that “rab” is translated in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon:

rb, rbˀ (raḇ, rabbā) n.m.
chief; teacher
rb (raḇ, rabbā) adj.
great, big

The final aleph makes “rab” (“chief” or “teacher,” here) into “the chief” or “the teacher.” So, if rabba is read, not as “great” but as “The Teacher” or “The Chief,” this could be a name of God. It would parallel, he argues, “Rab” as “Lord” in Arabic.

Here, as one of many examples, is the first appearance of Rab, usually rendered “Lord,” in the Quran:

1_2

Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen
[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds
— Sura 1:2, from this great interactive study tool

This change of reading of “Rabba” does not alter the pervasive third-person nature of the kaddish. But it does provide food for thought and reminds us of the close associations, or entanglements, in neighboring conceptions of God.

Continue reading Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God

Juxtaposing Redemption and Prayer

Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption [“Mi Chamocha“] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b

We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
— David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.

Continue reading Juxtaposing Redemption and Prayer