Blasphemy of Pharaoh’s Overreach: Theology, Context and the Trouble I’ve Seen

“Claiming the center stage, just like Pharaoh and Caesar did in their time, has always been a blasphemous overreach that actually places oneself on the margins of God’s reign,” thus writes Drew G.I. Hart in Trouble I’ve Seen. 

This new title focuses on “Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism,” but much of what Hart says needs equal attention in the Jewish thought. (Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.)

Religious Thought and Practice

Hart notes the optional or alternative status of “women’s,” “peace,” or “black” theology:

According to [teacher John Franke] white male theologians have often seen themselves as objective and neutral overseers of Christian tradition. They function as “theological referees” for everyone else, while imagining their position as neutral and unbiased in the center of all the action….Missing is that white men have a social context too.

— p. 163, Trouble I’ve Seen

TroubleA parallel situation still applies all too well in much of the Jewish world. As does his analysis of how well-intentioned attempts at diversity and inclusion often fail to create real change. Many of his recommendations for the Church are ones other faith communities should explore as well:

  1. “Share life together.”
  2.  Practice solidarity. (See, e.g., Be’chol Lashon, Jewish Multi-Racial Network, and Jews of All Hues, as well as links at “Exodus from Racism”)
  3. “See the world from below,” by changing reading habits, for example. (See “Range of Possibilities” for some suggestions.)
  4. “Subvert racial hierarchy in the [religious infrastructure].”
  5. “Soak in scripture and the Spirit for renewed social imagination.” (Explore  “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart,” e.g. and these resources from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.)
  6. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
  7. Engage in self-examination.

— from p. 176, Trouble I’ve Seen

Current and Historical Re-Examination

Hart’s exploration of “White Jesus” and related Church history may seem irrelevant to those outside the Christian faith. This is important background for every U.S. citizen, however, and worth review for those as yet unfamiliar.

Moreover, Jewish communities would do well to consider whether our members are aware of essential demographics — such as a recent study showing white men with criminal convictions more likely to get positive job-application responses than black men without a record (see p. 145) — and the individual and cumulative effect of everyday racism experienced by the author of Trouble I’ve Seen.

Most importantly, Jews must join our Christian neighbors in examining how we “resemble this remark”:

Too many in the American Church have perpetuated the myth that this land was build on Christian principle rather than on stolen land and stolen labor.

p.145, Trouble I’ve Seen

Hart’s new volume provides important food for thought as we continue to read Exodus this winter and experience it in the upcoming Passover season.

Hart

Drew G. I. Hart

More about “Anablacktivist” Drew G.I. Hart

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

What are you reading this Exodus season?

Please share your resources and your thinking.

Moral State of Emergency (Beyond 34)

“God has declared a state of moral emergency,” writes Rabbi David Kasher in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

Kasher points out that a command to care for the poor suddenly appears in the midst of a portion otherwise dedicated to ritual matters stressing holiday observances, and comments:

Mind you, everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognizes that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody actually gives to the poor.

It is a situation reminiscent of words written by another great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram he sent to President Kennedy, in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency.

Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Racism, like poverty, is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation. Heschel, too, saw religious faith as a force for compelling social action, and the worship of God as all bound up in the preservation of human dignity.
— R. David Kasher, “State of Grace”
Read the whole commentary at ParshaNUT

And we might also call to mind the way Algren closes the 1961 addendum to Chicago: City on the Make (discussed yesterday and “beyond 23”):

For the [1951] essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present revolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption.
— Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, p.105

Thanks to Rabbi Alana Suskin for sharing the link above.

We counted 34 on the evening of May 7. Tonight, we count….
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In Touch with the Source (Beyond 10)

Three days into the wilderness journey, the promise of freedom seems to fade —

וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה
כִּי מָרִים הֵם
they could not drink of the waters of Marah,
for they were bitter [the waters? or the People?]
Exodus 15:23

Despite their recent experiences of leaving bondage and the miraculous, sea-splitting escape from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites encounter bitterness and are unable to drink.

“Water,” according to Jewish tradition, is linked symbolically with “Torah.” The Israelites’ real problem, therefore, is interpreted as “growing weary” because they “went for three days without Torah.”

The ancient teachers used this story as an explanation for the public Torah reading schedule: Saturdays, Mondays, and Thursdays. In this way, the People “will never go on for three consecutive days without hearing Torah.” In addition, the minimum number of verses for a reading was set at ten, corresponding to the number of people needed to constitute a minyan [public prayer quorum]. (Babylonian Talmud: Baba Kama 82a)

At heart, the message seems to be that we must never drift too long without returning to the Source, however we understand that, and that community is essential in this process.

Nina Simone’s song, “(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be) Free,” helps me with this “return,” in general, and suggests several lessons for this particular omer journey. There are several wonderful versions, each with its own lessons.

(1) Warning: Most Basic Torah

In her “Live in Montreux 1976” version, Simone pounds out a warning, adding a line not in the usual lyrics:

I wish you could know what it means to be me
If you could see, you’d agree
everybody should be free
’cause if we ain’t we’re murderous
— Live at Montreux 1976, this quote at 2:45ff
(link to clip or whole concert)

The demands here — “see me” and “everybody should be free” — are a call to return to the Source, to the most basic Torah: “I am YHVH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

(2) I’d Sing What I Know

This 1968 version, live in Paris —

— stresses “I’d sing what I know.”

This call to learn from — and to share — the direct experiences of people who have suffered oppression is especially apt for this year’s attempt to “Make the Omer Count,” exploring the workings of oppression, and our part in them, with an aim to more effectively move toward liberation for all.

Moreover, Simone urges listeners to participate in a way that echoes for me the rabbis’ embedding of the communal number ten in the Torah reading (above): The artist wants to hear others singing “what I know,” and doesn’t give up when they don’t immediately sing out. At one point she asks band members, “Should I leave ’em alone?” — to which they answer an amused “no!” without missing a beat of their choral response. Still not hearing from enough others, Simone leaves the piano and adds additional verbal and visual cues to facilitate participation.

Finally, I am moved by her addition toward the close of “I’d be a little bit more me.” To me that about sums it up: the journey from Passover to Shavuot is one that is meant to help us each become “a little bit more me,” in our liberation, while striving for a community that honors the need for everyone else to be their own best selves.

SimoneFree

(3) An Anthem Toward…

Several years ago, Elaine Reuben suggested this song as “an appropriate anthem as we count our way toward…” to Fabrangen Havurah‘s Omer Blog). And yes, that’s “toward…” with destination unexpressed, not “forward,” regardless of spellcheck preferences.

The 1967 version, used in the posthumous compilation “The Very Best of Nina Simone” and linked in Fabrangen’s 2010 blog above, is shared without video of the artist. A straight-forward studio version, this rendition serves especially well as “an anthem” in which each of us can join.

This version and Elaine’s “as we count our way toward…” seem apt for this omer journey, with its unknown destination. Of course, we expect to reach 49 and then the holiday of Shavuot. But, our learning about oppression and its workings will be informing where we end up ultimately.

NOTE: In 2013, the Simone estate uploaded an amazing array of resources, including the clip in #2 above, the full concert linked in #1 above, interviews, and more. For more on Nina Simone, visit the website maintained by her estate.

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The Facts of Jewish Diversity (Beyond 2)

1

Continuing the theme of “not knowing” as a form of callous, insensitive “moral deficiency,” one we seek to leave behind this Passover season, let’s explore some facts about diversity in the Jewish community.

Upwards of 435,000 Jews — possibly as many as 400,000 in the New York City area alone — identify (also) as African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. (See Be’chol Lashon; Bnai Brith).

And yet, the assumption in too many of our communities remains — even if many of us believe, or would like to believe, otherwise — that Jews mostly look like a Central Casting crew of Eastern European Ashkenazim. Most of us believe our communities are inclusive and welcoming, but the experience of many Jews belies this.

Central Casting Sent the Wrong Type

Jews of lighter hues, such as those of Scandinavian or Celtic background, are regularly assumed to be “other,” addressed as visitors or called out as converts, an attitude that is specifically forbidden in the Talmud: “Do not wrong a proselyte by taunting him with being a stranger to the Jewish people seeing that ye yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” (Baba Metzia 59b)

Jews of color across the country continue to tell stories that shame every Jew:

“Many people who are Jews of color have very painful stories to tell about having not been accepted in their congregations and having the veracity of their Jewishness questioned,” says Rabbi Appell, of the URJ. “Some tell of being shown the kitchen because someone assumed that they worked there.”
— from “Jews of Color,” March 2015

A few years ago, women from Washington, DC found a photo of their Rosh Chodesh service plastered in national media with a caption reading: “A non-Jewish woman is among those at a Torah reading at Adas Israel Congregation.” (See Who is a Jew and How Would the Forward Recognize Her?“) JTA and the Forward pulled the photo after widespread complaint without ever apologizing or explaining whom they assumed was a non-Jew. But it seems that at least several pairs of editorial eyes thought it more likely that a non-Jew was wearing a kippa and tallit [ritual garb] and actively participating in the Torah service at a Conservative synagogue [something the movement does not sanction] than that a Jew might vary from the assumed “look of a Jew.”

At Jews United for Justice‘s recent community seder, Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria spoke of fellow Jews demanding to be told how he came to be there, assuming he would want to share the particulars of his spiritual journey with complete strangers. His story surprised many who assume the relative diversity in the DC area would preclude such behavior, but such stories are common to Jews of color.

Jews Have Work to Do

We have much work to do, to make even our more diversity-assuming Jewish communities welcoming to all.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md., who is also the father of two adopted African-American sons, is emphatic that this mindset must change: “We must create the norm where we assume that people belong, and never inadvertently ostracize someone whom you may think ‘doesn’t look Jewish.’ Anyone looks Jewish, potentially.”
–from “Jews of Color” (linked above)

And one step in that work is ensuring that our Jewish organizations, congregations, and schools acknowledge the experiences of all parts of the community:

Jews of color are diverse, multihued and proud of it — proud of our Jewishness and proud of our Blackness. But though our lives are joyous and full, racism forces us down a narrow treacherous path. On the one hand we experience the same oppression that afflicts all people of color in America — racism targets us, our family members, and our friends. On the other hand, the very community that we would turn to for belonging and solidarity — our Jewish community doesn’t acknowledge our experience.
— from JFREJ‘s #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement

jfrej_blm_croppedBe’chol Lashon offers Diversity Training and Community Conversations through its Race Project. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and several other organizations offer pertinent learning opportunities. How many of our communities are in need of such organized work?

One way to make this Omer count is to begin necessary conversations to ensure that all experiences within our Jewish communities are acknowledged and honored.

We counted two on the evening of April 5.
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On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression

The Passover journey is launched in “not knowing” — as when a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph (אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף, Exodus 1:8) or God (לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-יְהוָה, Exodus 5:2) — and it aims for “knowing”:

…You shall know that I am YHVH, your God…
וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Exodus 6:7).

The Exodus experiences and our travels in the wilderness are meant to increase our knowledge of the divine so that we can better serve God. (See Silber “Rereading the Plagues”).

A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.

JourneyOmer

Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

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Getting Exodus Right: Watch the Women and Learn (or: Family Travail Becomes Community Action)


A coffin in Egypt closes the Book of Genesis (Genesis 50:26), and the Exodus story is launched with a basket on the Nile (Exodus 2:3). Joseph’s death, which closely follows that of his father, Jacob (Gen 49:33), brings to an end the patriarchal stories. With Exodus, the focus shifts to the Israelite story, beginning with midwives Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Pharaoh’s daughter. Our focus is thus shifted, as one book ends and the next begins, from death to birth and from stories of individual and family struggle to a communal struggle toward liberation. So, too, in the United States today, we are moving:

  • from individual circles of mourning for black persons killed by police to a national movement against police brutality across the country, and
  • from disjoint demands addressing various forms of racial inequity to a collective struggle for racial justice.

In addition, men dominate at the close of Genesis, while Exodus opens with women in the lead; similarly, women have been primary leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Exodus story looks, on the face of it, like a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples. But there are elements — particularly evident in watching what the women do at the beginning of the Exodus story — of the tale that can help us learn respectful coexistence.

Change of Mindset

Failure to dehumanize: The Egyptian midwives model for us at Exodus 1:15-22, using Pharaoh’s racist assumptions about the baby-popping Hebrew women to protect the Israelite community. (more on this)

Vision: Moses’ mother shows immense faith in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child. And at least one Egyptian does rescue a child. Both women, thereby, refuse to dehumanize the other. (more on vision)

Passover is still months away (April 3-April 11, 2015). But Jews and Christians, along with others to whom the Exodus story speaks, can begin now to explore how we can use this ancient tale to change today’s realities, in our own communities and beyond. A few more “Passover Lessons” —

  • Crossers-Over
  • “From Privilege, Activism
  • Maybe We’re All Riff Raff
  • Rabbis, Rome and Slaves
  • “School for Freedom”

— from a 2012 crowd-sourcing.

What else can we learn?
Let’s start now to figure it out!
And let’s NOT WAIT to begin learning and acting
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Passover and Awakening

Now when a man becomes aware that he is falling asleep and begins to nod and he is afraid that a strong, heavy sleep may overcome him, the best advice for him is for him to request his friend to wake him from time to time or that he should go among people where a light shines brightly….the friend should know something of the great loss sleep brings and how necessary it is to awaken the sleeper…
— from R. Aaron Roth‘s “Agitation of the Soul” [1934] IN The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies: A unique and inspiring collection of accounts by people who have encountered God from Biblical times to the present, NY: Schocken, 1997. Louis Jacobs, translation/commentary

Passover seems to me one of the times when Jews are called upon to reflect on past awakenings and to commit to awakening themselves and others.
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Beyond Oppression: Passover Lessons

The Exodus story is not an obvious tale of oppressed and oppressor peoples learning to jointly create a more equal society. Instead the Israelites leave Egypt, taking Egyptian riches with them, and are chastised by their leader whenever they look back; the Egyptians suffer many plagues before Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go, and they endure further disaster when Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the Sea of Reeds. How can we use this violent and permanent parting as a model for overcoming a history of oppression and division to learn respectful coexistence?

I posed a Facebook query to this effect and was impressed at the range and depth of ideas in the off-the-cuff responses I received. I thought many seder tables might benefit from these suggestions for learning and discussion, and I wanted to post this before Passover in a way that others could access. Apologies for lack of citation and other sketchiness. All errors or failure to communicate friends’ brilliant thoughts are mine.
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You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.
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