Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History

UPDATED 9/3/18

We Act Radio “Sharing History” for the District and for every place where black and Jewish communities have some things to learn about one another.

Listen here —

“We Act Radio: Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History”
Audio excerpts below

Previous We Act Radio piece, “Misunderstandings are growing…”

Our “Junetenth Building Bridges” party led to further meetings between some interested community members and the launching of the “Cross River (Black and Jewish) Dialogue.” Stay tuned for more as this work develops. Our first effort was the placement of this essay on the Anniversary of Charlottesville in the Forward’s Scribe section.


Audio Excerpts:
…Jews always know, from history, that any sense of physical security or relative economic ease is a fragile thing, easily destroyed by the kind of hate speech that labels Jews as others to fear and defeat. We know it’s not a long stretch from muttered conspiracies about Jews controlling world capital to crowds chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” And we can’t forget how quickly co-existence in Europe devolved into destruction and death camps.

At the risk of sounding flip, I adapt a slogan from my youth: “Just because a Jew seems paranoid or over-reacting doesn’t mean folks aren’t out to get them.”

By the same token, if someone from east of DC’s Anacostia River sounds overly-sensitive or paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong….

…Black people know from history that any level of economic ease or sense of physical security – such as the ability to enjoy a public park, or close one’s eyes in a common college space, or meet colleagues in a coffee house, or work or vacation or walk to grandma’s house – is an extremely fragile thing. It’s not a long stretch from a few muttered remarks about people not knowing their place to a police call that can so quickly destroy one life, or many. And black communities in the U.S. today suffer disproportionate levels of incarceration, unemployment, and poverty because of centuries of anti-Black sentiment, policy, and action.

The city of DC, like much of this country, has arranged life for many White people so that the dangers and suffering black communities face today are out of sight and out of mind. Another result of our segregated lives, in DC & much of the country, is that black and Jewish communities are too often strangers, even when our communities overlap. This means we are too readily convinced to believe evil stories about the other without easy avenues of communication to correct misunderstandings or opportunities for community building.

We Act Radio, WPFW, and additional partners are working on opportunities for more bridge building, including an Election Day-Juneteenth gathering.
Juneteenth Building Bridges Election Watch Party

Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot


Exploring Babylon Chapter 18

“The Americas were far. The Americas were different. It was rabbinic exile.” This, writes Rabbi Oran Zweiter, is how European immigrant rabbis to the New World felt, beginning with Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who left Holland for Brazil in 1642. Aboab (1607-1693), the first ordained rabbi known to make such a move, served the Jewish community in Recife until after Portugal re-captured the Dutch colony in 1654.

There is much of interest for #ExploringBabylon in Zweiter’s article, published in honor of Aboab’s yahrzeit, Adar 27, (March 14 in 2018). In preparation for Passover, however, let’s direct our attention to one phrase that links the New World to Mitzraim.

Please note: this piece, first posted late on March 18, was updated slightly at 9:00 a.m. March 19.

Brazil, kur ha-barzel

Zweiter illustrates Aboab’s “personal feelings of exile” using examples from his Brazil-based writings:

Aboab’s [vidui/confessional] poem is an account of the Portuguese siege. It is also a deeply personal reflection on what it meant for him to be sent as a rabbi to the far end of the world. He used biblical words with similar pronunciation and spelling to allude to Brazil, such as kur ha-barzel, the “melting pot,” which in the Torah refers to Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20).

Similarly, Aboab referenced the new geography in which the Jews found themselves….

Brazil “represented a state of exile,” the Jewish community were “Dwellers in the shadows of the universe,” and Aboab declared: “For my sin, I have been tossed to a faraway land.”

Aboab’s sense of exile for sin makes the play on words with “Brazil” and “kur ha-barzel” a poignant one. Zweiter’s translation of the latter as “melting pot” adds another interesting layer of meaning.


R. Isaac Aboab. Image in public domain, from Brown University

Uses of “kur

My concordance lists three uses of “kur ha-barzel” in the Tanakh:

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם
מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל
מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt,
that iron blast furnace,
to be His very own people, as is now the case.
— Deuteronomy 4:20

כִּי-עַמְּךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ, הֵם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מִמִּצְרַיִם,
מִתּוֹךְ כּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל.
For they are Your very own people that You freed from Egypt,
from the midst of the iron furnace.
— 1 Kings 8:51

“Hear the terms of this covenant, and recite them to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem! And say to them, Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who will not obey the terms of this covenant,
אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הוֹצִיאִי־אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם
מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל
לֵאמֹר שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אוֹתָם כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם
which I enjoined upon your fathers when I freed them from the land of Egypt,
the iron crucible,
saying, ‘Obey Me and observe them, just as I command you, that you may be My people and I may be your God’— [11:4]
in order to fulfill the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as is now the case.” And I responded, “Amen, LORD.”
— Jeremiah 11:2-5

There are six more uses of the word “kur“: Two in Proverbs (17:3, 27:21), three in Ezekiel (22:18, 20, 22), and one in Isaiah (48:10). The word is “always metaphorically employed to describe great trouble and misery,” according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Moreover, all uses involve trial in relation to sin, and four of the six specifically reference Jews suffering God’s wrath.

Furnace, Forge, and Crucible

When Zweiter describes Aboab’s Brazil/barzel pun, he translateskur ha-barzel” as “melting pot.” Perhaps Aboab’s poem includes other clues that point to “melting pot.” The Deuteronomy verse that Zweiter cites, the first use of the expression “kur ha-barzel” for the experience of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, is not usually translated that way, however.

Instead, we find:

  • “iron blast furnace” (JPS, quoted above),
  • “iron crucible” (Artscroll),
  • “Iron Furnace” (Fox), and
  • “iron forge” (Alter).

Alter’s translation includes this note:

The argument of the sermon now moves another step back in time, from Sinai to the Exodus. The origins of Israel as a people subject to another people in whose land it dwelled, rescued from the crucible of slavery by God, are adduced as further evidence of God’s unique election of Israel.

Melting Pot

The first use of the expression “melting pot” in American English is dated to 1887 by Merriam-Webster. The term came to describe the peculiar struggles in the U.S. around immigration and assimilation. This usage was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which was first performed — and reportedly applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — in 1908.

It seems unlikely that Aboab, in Brazil in the mid-17th Century, could have envisioned the scenes of Ellis Island, in the early 20th, that inspired this speech:

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!…A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
— David Quixano to Verendal, The Melting Pot
more below

But Zweiter’s use of the expression is interesting and provocative in the context of Passover:

  • It highlights the tension between “God’s unique election of Israel” in the Exodus story and the notion of “God making the American”;
  • It raises more general questions about divine providence and civic duty, exile and learning; and
  • It reminds us that the concept of “melting pot” is no more gentle than “iron blast furnace” or some of the other translations for “kur ha-barzel.”

Zweiter concludes his piece:

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the first rabbi in the Americas, reveal challenges that would continuously confront rabbis, immigrant and native alike, in the Americas. His writing reflects the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the New World from its earliest stages. His story demonstrates that the challenges that have faced spiritual leadership in the Americas are not new. They began with the very first rabbi to settle, however shortly, in the New World.

In that sense, Aboab’s experience is precursor to that of Zangwill’s Quizano family, with the mezuzah, “Stars-and-Stripes,” mizrach, and old-world violin competing for space at the front door. And with these words, Zweiter’s piece prods us to think, as Passover approaches, about the peculiarly American aspects of the challenge in the Deuteronomy verse: “but you, the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace [or melting pot], to be God’s very own people, as is now the case.”

I have no direct access to Aboab’s writings, which I believe are extant in Portuguese and Hebrew and not widely available. Zweiter cites Hakhmei Recife Ve-Amsterdam, with a link to the National Library of Israel; here is a more direct link, for what it’s worth, to the catalog listing for rare books.

Isaiah 48:10 uses the phrase “kur oni” —

הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [sometimes: poverty].

— which calls to mind Passover’s “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. This verse is also related to an odd, and cryptic, midrash (B. Chag 9b) on poverty. More on this soon, I hope.

Closing lines of The Melting Pot:

DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east]—the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—

VERA: Jew and Gentile—

DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!

NOTE: This play, and historical notes, are available via Project Guttenberg (public domain). If you have not read it, or read it recently, check it out!


The Five Powers, part 2


Exploring Babylon 11.1

Episode 10 of #ExploringBabylon began discussing foreign powers associated with Chanukah — Egypt, Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, Babylon, Persia, and Rome — looking briefly at three of the five. Before the holiday is too distant a memory, let’s look at the remaining powers, Persia and Rome, and the holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] that includes them all.

Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge]” includes a stanza about restoration and re-dedication of the Temple followed by stanzas reflecting on rescue from each of the five foreign powers. It was composed in Hebrew in 13th Century Germany and credited to “Moredechai,” based on his acrostic “signature.”

The 19th Century song “Rock of Ages” — often confusingly called a “translation” of “Ma’oz Tzur” — adapts the piyyut’s themes of kindling lights and rescue while focusing only on the Chanukah story. The English is credited to two European-born, U.S. rabbis important in the Reform movement, based on an earlier German piece.

For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, it’s important to note differences between the 13th and 19th Century lyrics in terms of agency, tense, and ultimate aim.

Rock of Refuge, Ages

“Rock of Ages” omits any call for restoration of the Temple, of course, and there is no sense that Jews (some of whom may be “fettered”) are more in need of rescue than any other people. The 19th Century Reform song thanks God for “saving power” (past tense) and then calls on Jews (present, future) to wake and sound their message of universal freedom and an end to tyranny:

“Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

“Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering…

“Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
— Marcus Jastrow & Gustav Gottheil

The 13th Century lyrics, on the other hand, use past tense for stanzas about Egypt, Babylon, Chanukah, and Purim, but open and close with the need for God’s future rescue. The poet ascribes deliverance, past and future, to God alone and continues to beg for help for the beleaguered Jewish community:

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’ati
O Fortress,​ Rock of my salvation​​,
lecha na’eh leshabei’ach,

unto thee it is becoming to give praise:
Tikon beit tefilati
let my house of prayer be restored,​
vesham todah nezabei’ach
and I will there offer thee thanksgiv​ings
Le’eit tachin matbei’ach
when thou shalt have prepared a slaughter​
mitzar hamenabei’ach,
of the blasphemi​ng foe,
Az egmor beshir mizmor
I will complete with song and psalm
chanukat hamizbei’ach
the dedicatio​n of the altar.*

Chasof zero’a kadshecha
vekareiv keitz hayeshu’ah,

Expos​e your holy arm
and bring the end of the redemptio​n.

Nekom nikmat dam avadecha
mei’uma haresha’ah,

Aveng​e the blood of your servants
from the evil nation.

Ki archa lanu hayeshu’ah
ve’ein kaitz leyimei hara’ah,

Becau​se the salvation​​ has been a long time coming
and there is no end to the days of evil.

Dechei admon betzeil tzalmmon
hakeim lanu ro’im shiv’ah.

Push Edom into the shadows
(Others: Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death)
and bring the seven shepherds.”***
Zemirot Database
*translation from Authorize​​​d Daily Prayer Book (1890)
***Zemirot Database contributor translation

NOTE: “seven shepherds” from Micah 5:4 (more, eventually, on this verse)

Zemirot Database provides Hebrew and a public domain translation of all six stanzas of “Ma’oz Tzur.” The Milken Archives offers lyrics, without the last stanza, and a little history. Wikipedia presents lots of useful background plus Hebrew and English for both “Ma’oz Tzur” and “Rock of Ages,” and — serious kudos for this important clarification — identifies the latter as a “non-literal” translation of the former….

Rescue from the Powers

Stanzas 2-5 of “Ma’oz Tzur” thank God for rescue (past tense):

  • God “brought forth the treasured people” and Pharaoh’s army “sunk like a stone”
  • The oppressor “came and led me captive” but “through Zerubbabel I was saved after seventy years”
  • “The head of the Benjamite​ thou didst exalt, but the enemy’s name thou Midst blot out”
  • “The Grecians were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans,” towers were broken and oil defiled, “but from one of the last remaining​ flasks a miracle was wrought for thy beloved”

The final verse, quoted above, returns to the present tense; we’ll leave its call for relief from Edom (Rome) — which was missing from prayerbooks for hundreds of years and is still omitted from many versions — for another day.

We’ve previously touched on other powers described above, but we’ve yet to focus in on Persia.

Persia, Purim, and the Temple

As is common in re-tellings of the Purim story, the stress in “Ma’oz Tzur” is on the evil that Haman intended toward the Jews and the violent end he and his sons met instead; the carnage in the final chapters of Esther, when “Jews smote their enemies” (9:5), is not mentioned. And, as in other stanzas of the piyyut, the only real actor in the Purim stanza is God.

The Purim story is set sometime after the far the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BCE), when Judeans who had been exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained behind in what had been Babylonia, however. And, meanwhile, according to Ezra 4:6ff, permission to re-construct the Temple was rescinded “in the reign of Ahasuerus.”

Rebuilding had stalled during Zechariah’s prophesy. We left off our previous discussion, with the haftarah for Chanukah (Zech 2:14-4:7), as the twin leadership of Zerubbabel — also mentioned in the Babylonian stanza of “Ma’oz Tzur” above — and Joshua ben Jehozadak attempted to rally support for the restoration. Zechariah’s prophesy is specifically dated to 520-518 BCE; it is less clear how we are to understand “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1).

The Book of Esther is set far from Jerusalem, and the text does not mention the Temple. Midrash does, however. For example: Mordechai had been part of a delegation asking the king to allow rebuilding (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer). Ahasuerus rejoices at the Temple’s delay, according to Midrash Rabbah. The king calculated that the Judeans’ exile was exceeding the period prophesied by Jeremiah, and so “brought vessels of the Temple and used them” (BT Megillah 11b).

Persia and Babylon

The vessels used in the king’s feast (1:5) and Queen Vashti’s (1:9) link these festivities to earlier revelry in Babylon, when Belshazzar used the vessels the night of the “writing on the wall” (Dan 5). In this and many other ways, Midrash Rabbah accuses Ahasuerus of prolonging, and sometimes enjoying, Jews’ separation from the Temple begun with Babylonian Captivity. However, the ancient rabbis’ understanding of Babylon as God’s instrument extends to Persia.

Throughout Midrash Rabbah, God is a regular, explicit actor in the Purim story, even though God is not mentioned — except, perhaps, for Mordechai’s comment about help coming “from another place [מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר]” — in the actual text of Megillat Esther.

Early on in Midrash Rabbah, for example, the apparently superfluous “in those days” of Esther 1:2 is explained by an exchange between God and the angels. The angels complain to God, “Master of the universe! The Temple is destroyed, and this wicked person sits and engages in revelry?!” God responds by saying Redemption had been delayed due to Judeans’ failure to observe the Sabbath:

“Place days opposite days,” thus it is written: In those days I observed in Judah [people] treading on winepresses on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15)
— Esther Rabbah 1:10 (Artscroll, 2011)

Jewish thought over the centuries includes many other views of exile and oppression, but the concept of Redemption coming when God determined it was deserved, so apparent in Midrash Rabbah for Esther, seems to be shared by the writer of “Ma’oz Tzur.” This yields a further blurring of “foreign powers” — beyond Babylon, and its successor, Persia — into a sort of non-specific enemy to be defeated in God’s time. And, while “Rock of Ages” does not hint at oppression as deserved (or list as many previous oppressors), it ultimately points to a similar non-specific tyranny as enemy.

…and that leads, eventually, to the concept of “empire” in Christian commentary. (To take just one example, see Come Out My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010). More on this, with some Christian and interfaith input, to come….

But there is still “Rome” and far more work, just in clearing up the last bits of Chanukah’s wax, for #ExploringBabylon.

A number of sources, including the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (2007), and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1994), publish the 13th Century Hebrew side-by-side with the “Rock of Ages” text, calling it a “translation.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that many other educational and music sites follow suit. See, e.g., Teaching Songs, Hebrew Songs), and sadly: My Jewish Learning. “Rock of Ages” is based on an earlier German version and so, in that sense, a translation — just not of the Hebrew.

Some sources, obviously copying Wikipedia — which has enough contributors monitoring Jewish learning pages to pick at any sloppiness — now call “Rock of Ages” a “non-literal translation” of the Hebrew piyyut. A 2010 Reform presentation uses quotation marks: “an English ‘translation.'”

EDITORIALIZING NOTE: Wikipedia is very useful and, as this example indicates, very influential. Many of us make use of it without giving it much consideration, though. ‘Tis the season, however, so please consider saving on 2018 taxes by donating now to this and the other internet resources, Jewish and more general, on which we all rely.

This reflects closely the discussion in B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, which begins with “What is Chanukah?” and goes on to discuss order of candle-lighting and reciting of Hallel, with the briefest mention of the Temple being defiled. In contrast with Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which discuss the stories, including military views, of the conflict with the Hasmoneans.

Some contemporary scholars call the Book of Esther a “novella” not linked with specific historical figures; others identify Ahasuerus with Persia’s Xerxes I and its setting to 483-473 BCE (Cf My Jewish Learning) and Jewish Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this discussion, the book’s historicity is not of prime importance.

Babylon: Further Adventures #2

Exploring Babylon 6.1.2

My adventures in Bibleland continue, and, not unlike poor Alice down the rabbit hole, I have reached several points in which I feared it would be an effort simply to keep in touch with my feet. (For anyone curious who has not been following: Adventures in Bibleland, and Further Adventures #1.) Here, I’m just going to spill my plight in the hope that readers can help me find my way.

How I Got Where I am

I spend a lot of time with Jews. I study Torah, in its many forms, in the DC area where- and whenever possible. I make a serious effort to study with Jews of different backgrounds and beliefs, which I’m told is not all that common, and I am in touch with, and occasionally study and/or worship with, both Christians and Muslims who regularly engage with their texts and traditions. But my learning in the areas of text, belief, and practice is predominantly Jewish.

Until I started the #ExploringBabylon project, most of my reading around sacred text, on-line and in print, was also Jewish or from a deliberately interfaith perspective. And I read a lot.

Several decades ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and one of my current study partners and I are revisiting some of that territory via a book written by Diana Lobel, associate professor of religion at Boston University and formerly my in-person teacher, when she was active at the Jewish Study Center here in DC. (The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience. NY: Columbia, 2011)

Just for thoroughness of the story, I have graduate degrees in math and educational technology, and I worked at universities in Chicago, Boston, and DC in my youth; but I remain a stranger to bible or Jewish studies in the academic world. Until my recent visit to the Woodstock Theological Library at Georgetown University — again, grateful for the access given to non-students — it had been a very long time since I’d been in any kind of academic setting for more than an hour’s lecture.

Now, I am aware that “religion” in libraries and most bookstores means “Christian religion” while Buddhism and Judaism, for example, are elsewhere. And, of course, “bible studies” means “study of the Bible from Christian perspectives.” What I didn’t quite realize was the extent to which academia encourages discussion of Jewish sacred text, and even “Judaism,” quite apart from interaction with any Jews at all.

Back to the Books

I was heartened to read, in Reception History and Biblical Studies Theory and Practice, a call for collaboration across faith communities within the academic world and across the town-gown divide, “between the academic community and other communities with a different remit.”

Susan Gillingham‘s essay, “Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History,” specifically mentions the need for inclusive studies:

The third criticism is perhaps more justified. This concerns the “particularly’ and ‘selectivity’ of reception history studies, and hence the problem of subjectivity on the part of anyone working in this field. I certainly find that the more I work on reception history, the more I am aware that I am an interpreter ‘frozen’ in a particular time and place and culture. So my perception is that of a western, English, white, middle-aged woman who also happens to be an Anglican Lay Reader. So I try to keep my eye on Christian and Jewish traditions, not only in the West but also in the East….
— Gillingham, p. 25

But I wasn’t sure whether to cheer or cry at the italicized “and Jewish” here:

For example, the hermeneutical models proposed by Gadamer and Luz do not take into sufficient account the need to assess both Christian and Jewish receptions of the text, a task which is essential for anyone working on the Psalms.
— Gillingham, p. 23

The challenge is such an important one, but the very emphasis, “and Jewish,” speaks volumes. I cannot help wonder whether academics reading this will take it as a reminder to include a few Jewish sources here and there in their own studies or read it as a call for inclusion of views from within Judaism.

I did actually cheer (silently, in deference to the setting) when I found this in the Africana Bible:

The reception of scriptures of Israel into the Christian canon was and is marked by usurpation, colonization, anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism. Specifically, in the West and in cultures colonized by the West, the scriptures of Israel have regularly been mediated through gentilic culture and languages, particularly German, which is especially onerous in a post-Holocaust world.

…Responsible exegesis of the scriptures of Israel requires respecting the text itself, the traditions preserved in the text, and the God of the text.

[Rev. Gafney adds that “Jesus never pronounced the divine name,” and suggests more care in use of the four-letter name Jews do not use casually.]
— Wil Gafney, “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly,” p.47-8


My next trip to the library can center around call letters for Judaism instead of “bible” or “religion.” Or perhaps I can continue to struggle with how things work on the Christian side of the stacks. Maybe I should leave academia alone all together? But I’d much rather participate in some kind of collaborative studies.

I’d love to hear from anyone, in- or outside academic walls, who can point me to some joint studies, inclusive bible study societies, or even a more inclusive or collaborative section of the library or bookstore. I’d also appreciate any perspectives from those with more experience, in- and outside academia, in the study of sacred text.

Cited above:
Reception History and Biblical Studies Theory and Practice. Emma England and William John Lyons, eds. NY: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015

The Africana Bible. Hugh R. Page, Jr., general editor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010

Babylon: Further Adventures #1

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.1.1

Discussing text from this week’s Torah portion (Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9), I quoted yesterday comments about “The Isaac Complex” from Israel in Exile (Albertz). I noted my surprise at the author’s declaration that a particular verse “makes sense only” in a very specific historical context. I even created a little homage to the mouse’s “long tale” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to help explain my befuddlement and lead into my plea for comments about this on-going #ExploringBabylon series.

Today, thanks to Woodstock Theological Library at Georgetown University, and their open-stacks policy, I was finally able to do some more relevant reading. Among the interesting and useful things I encountered was a response to Israel in Exile in the 2012 volume, By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon.

More on “Only”

Ralph W. Klein’s essay, “Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” begins from the perspective of his own similarly titled work. In discussing Albertz’s book, Klein includes a substantial passage on use of the same word that had caught my notice: “only.”

Klein points out that Albertz dates biblical material based on a small number of passages and “how well they seem to fit a specific historical context, or even the claim that they only fit that context.” The first of Klein’s six examples is the one I quoted yesterday, Gen 26:1-5, about God’s command to Isaac not to go down to Egypt (Albertz, p.249). Klein continues:

In every one of these six cases, I can easily imagine other circumstances that may have been the context for these words. The condemnation of the voluntary migration to Egypt in Jeremiah is explicitly condemned for other reasons than the one labeled “only” by Albertz. Ezekiel’s condemnation of the false prophets of salvation in 13:9 fits easily, in my judgment, into his activity before the fall of Jerusalem 60 years earlier than Albertz allows. Albertz dates Gen 12:1-3 confidently to the mid-sixth century, but I remember a time when Hans Walter Wolff dated it with equal confidence to the tenth century.
— Klein, “Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” p.15


More on Exile

NOTE: I had looked for reviews of Albertz’s Israel in Exile, and expected to find additional work building on his, but clearly I was not looking in the right places. Delighted to find at least one scholar objecting to his “only” and the otherwise decisive nature of his compositional theories. Hoping to find more.

Klein’s essay goes on to stress that engaging with aspects of Israel in Exile is mean to further conversation on the work of Albertz, “from whom we all have learned so much.” Klein encouraged the Exile group within the Society of Biblical Literature to “debate which biblical voices speak to and from the biblical exile, and when we think they do so.”

He also added, in a footnote:

I recognize that other participants in this consultation want to widen the discussion to deal with the issues of landlessness or the migration of peoples at different points in Israel’s history. These are legitimate theological and historical questions. My essay, however, has sought to define what is meant by the exile in the more narrow sense of the sixth century B.C.E.
Klein, p.19

And a cursory review of SBL happenings and publications suggests that focus following this paper was, indeed, on the wider “migration” themes, rather than defining exile.
Klein Exile

Ralph W. Klein is now Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. In addition to Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1979), he has a lengthy list of publications (scroll down).

“Israel in Exile after Thirty Years,” is the opening essay IN By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile (John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas, eds. NY: T&T Clark, 2012).

Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland


Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.1

The last episode, Chapter 5.2, touched on ways the Torah stresses that Abraham comes from “there,” so he and his family remain apart from their neighbors. This week’s portion opens with a reminder that Rebecca is daughter of “Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-arm, sister of Laban the Aramean” (Gen 25:20). Much has been made, midrashically, over the centuries of this emphasis. For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, the key factor is still her origin “there.”

There and the Land

“There” — at Gen 25:20 (above) and when Jacob is sent off to Haran in Paddan-aram (27:43, 28:2-5) — brackets this portion. In between, “the land” is mentioned many times (26:1, etc.), along with the more unusual “lands” (26:3-4).

#ExploringBabylon will eventually venture into “the land,” with the help of teachers who can provide useful perspectives. At this point, the path detailed in Israel in Exile (Albertz 2003) leads in another direction.

Albertz describes much of Genesis as an “Exilic Patriarchal History,” meant to meet the needs of “an age when Israel was no longer a ‘great nation’ and no longer dwelt within secure borders” (p.250). In this context, the bulk of Isaac’s story (Genesis Chapter 26), has a particular goal:

The Isaac Complex recorded how the second patriarch, an alien in Philistia, rose with God’s help and blessing (Gen 26:12, 28, 29) from an endangered fugitive to a respected covenant partner of the Philistines. It suited admirably the conception of RPH1, who therefore elaborated it to make it the second pillar of his work.
Albertz, p.261

A footnote adds that “The Isaac Complex…may date from the end of the eight century, when Hezekiah claimed hegemony over the Philistine cities…” PH is “Patriarchal History (exilic edition),” and RPH1 is “redactor of the first exilic edition of PH.” Israel in Exile modifies “the classical Documentary Hypothesis,” with these more finely distinguished documents.

Albertz, as noted in previous posts, has been Professor of Old Testament at University of Muenster (Germany) since 1995, previously at universities of Siegen and Heidelberg. He describes Israel in Exile as a “new attempt at a comprehensive presentation of the exilic period.” Others call it a masterpiece of biblical and historical scholarship, and it is referenced by many (mostly Christian) scholars.

He concurs with an earlier scholar, Erhard Blum (Die Komposition der Vätergeschichte [Patriarchal History]), in declaring that God’s directive to Isaac to “stay” and “reside” in the land (26:1-5) represents a particular historical mind-set:

[YHVH’s] strange command to Isaac not to go down to Egypt despite the famine but to stay in Palestine instead makes sense only against the background of a time when there were large-scale migrations to Egypt that presented a survival problem for the Judeans in Palestine. The first time this situation obtained was during the exile (Jer 41:16-43:7).
— Albertz, p.249

Perhaps “makes sense only” lost something in translation. Still, this entire path — and its very decisiveness — raises a host of questions for this blog. (But see also “Further Adventures #1,” for a scholarly response to this “only.”)

“Either the well was very deep,
or she fell very slowly,
for she had plenty of time as she went down
to look about her and to wonder
what was going to happen next.”
Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 1

Rabbit Holes

Most of this #ExploringBabylon series has defaulted to the “pay no attention to the fingers behind the keyboard” style of writing encouraged in the author’s school years: share a mix of views from others, post only materials and ideas checked out with a few sources first, add personal notes largely for full-disclosure of possible prejudice, and keep things focused on the topic, not the author. But it’s time for a change, at least temporarily.

I started this series with some structure in mind and some initial research behind me. I intended to post, around the topics of Babylon and Exile, as I learned. Encountering so much new material at each step, however, meant struggling to decide which of many intriguing directions to take. I have tried to stay focused on the overall topics of oppression and exile. But there’s a fine and jagged line between something that is useful background for this project and something that is interesting – maybe even powerful Torah – but not really the point. And then there’s my tendency to meander.

….Deciding what might be useful or interesting to anyone but me is kind of a shot in the dark. I’m grateful to those who’ve already been in touch, and I hope others will chime in, via comments or by email (songeveryday at gmail), sharing your own expertise and resource suggestions as well as questions or topics you’d like to see addressed. Some just plain, “yes, I’m reading” notes would be helpful to me, as well….

As some readers of this blog already know, I have no credentials and little formal training in bible studies. I will be enlisting expert help and welcome all suggestions, resources, and tips. Meanwhile, a tale:


If the history of biblical interpretation teaches us anything, it is that there have always been many interpretations of a biblical text And, as literary theory has shown, the interpretation will depend on who is doing the interpreting and for what purpose….

…The issue is not what the text means, but who controls its interpretation; who sets the agenda, who makes the rules, who confirms the validity of the results.
— Adele Berlin, “Literary Approaches to Biblical Literature,” p.64
IN The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship

I find the souped-up Documentary Hypothesis a rabbit hole all its own. And just trying to understand the goals and premises of different branches of bible-related academia leads down an entirely different hole.

And a Looking Glass

In an effort to understand contemporary arguments about multiplicity of bible interpretation, I looked into some of the history. And I was surprised to learn that Catholicism employed a fourfold interpretive method that pre-dates the “PaRDeS” framework by several hundred years and probably influenced the quintessentially Jewish idea. I’ve also been surprised by apparent segregation, even within the academic world, between Christian and Jewish scholars and was struck by this note, opening the Jewish Studies in the Twenty-First Century series:

Meanwhile the fact that the Bible plays a significant role in several quite different communities forces those studying it (at least to the extent that they interact) to think about how it is treated in each tradition.
— preface, The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship (2008)

All of which makes it difficult to figure out where #ExploringBabylon needs to go.

…I am seeking comments about how Jewish this series should be and how it should be Jewish. This is partly a question of background and interests readers share, or don’t. It’s also a question of how to approach the specific topic of Babylon, which is one that has been influenced so strongly by Christianity. Finally, it’s an issue of how best to tackle the goal of this project — seeking out new perspectives that will help Jews interact with challenges in- and outside Jewish communities — given that neither our history nor our future is independent of the wider culture.

Four-fold Interpretation

Venerable Bede (d. 735) and Rhabanus Maurus (d. 856) both taught fourfold approaches: literal, allegorical, anagogical (mystical, “upward”), and tropological (moral). Catechism adds:
“The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Bahya ben Asher (1250-1340) introduced four interpretive paths:
1) the way of the Peshaṭ (plain sense)
2) the way of the Midrash (metaphorical, “to search”)
3) the way of Reason (exegesis),
4) the way of the Kabbalah (mystical).

The Zohar, published by Moses de Leon (1240-1305?) and credited to Shimon bar Yohai (2nd Century), includes these four:
1) Peshat
2) Remez (allegorical, “hint”)
3) Drash
4) Sod (secret, esoteric)

See Jewish Encyclopedia and Four Senses of Scripture (Catholicism). Several sources, including Jewish Encyclopedia note that Jewish scholars of Medieval Spain would have known the Catholic methods. See also James Kugel. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (NY: Free Press, 2007).

Rivers Dark

The sense of “from there” is complicated for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and there are several powerful ways in which “there” becomes part of their identity and remains an important force, even when not there.

Paul Kriwaczek (Babylon) points out that, unlike so many ancient cities and civilizations that are known only to scholars, Babylon “is still readily remembered for its pagan greatness” (p.168). He adds that this is primarily due to Jewish tradition:

To devout Christians, Babylon would always be the whore…To Rastafarians…she is the ultimate symbol of everything oppresses and crushes black people….To the world of Islam…the name of Babylon meant almost nothing….

Thus is was left to the Jews to keep the multi-faceted reality of the ancient centre of civilization alive in western cultural consciousness, waiting for the time when a new spirit of enquiry would lead European explorers to investigate…
Kriwaczek, pp.169-170

And, in honor of the first yahrzeit of Leonard Cohen (9/21/1934-11/9/2016)–

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.
— Leonard Cohen
By the Rivers Dark


Exploring Babylon: Intro

Exile: Babylon and Beyond

Exile saturates Jewish sacred text, practice, and thought. From the first couple’s banishment from Eden, early in Genesis, to the Babylonian captivity, which closes Second Chronicles, the Hebrew bible is filled with themes of loss, wandering, and desire for return. Even the Exodus, Judaism’s foundational tale of escape from human oppression and entrance into service of God, carries a strong exilic theme: “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

An arc similar to the path of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible] – from Creation, with its seeds of exile, through Revelation, toward Redemption; and then back to exile again – is repeated in practice, over the course of each Shabbat, across the annual festival cycle, and in the schedule of Torah readings.

Deuteronomy closes with the People on the banks of the Jordan, hopeful but not yet home; we never pass this point, in the annual reading cycle (an invention of Jews in exile), instead linking “Never again was there a prophet in Israel like Moses….” immediately to “In the beginning.” Before the very first portion ends, Eve and Adam have already been expelled from Eden.

Moreover, Babylonian captivity infuses centuries of Torah interpretation and Jewish philosophy: After Babylon, Jews can never un-know that, however close to the promised Land we get, exile is always just beyond the horizon….And that holding onto the “Promised Land” will be harder and require a more sustained ethical commitment than we’ve managed so far.

But Babylon has many meanings and values in- and outside Judaism.

In the Torah, Babylon [Bavel] is the site of the Tower and neighbor to town of Ur, from which Abraham’s family set off and later returned in search of spouses. Prophetically, Bavel is both a threat, a consequence for misbehavior, and the city whose welfare we are told to seek (Jer 29:7). Historically, Babylon is a foreign cultural center, the site of one of the ancient world’s longest lasting, most developed, and most diverse settlements. It is also the base of much creativity, including centuries of aggadah [lore] and halakhah [law] still central to Judaism.

For Jews, Babylon eventually becomes a crazy patchwork of motifs: distant origin, traumatic captivity, and creative center. Christians, Rastas, and others bring additional perspectives. In U.S. politics, Babylon has become a cracked mirror reflecting tyrants, colonizers, and oppressors – who, all too often, look disturbingly like us.

More on “Exploring Babylon” project at “A Song Every Day”