Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)

NOTE

The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”
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Death by Disrespect (Beyond 31)


How can we end the plague of disrespect around race-related topics that threatens our country with disaster? Perhaps the Omer journey shows us a way to begin.

Rabbi Akiva, a key player in the story of four who visited Paradise (see yesterday’s post), is also central to a narrative linked with the Omer period. The Talmud relates how 24,000 of Akiva’s students “died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

Later tradition identifies the “same time” as the first 32 days of the Omer and the proximate cause as a divine plague. (More below on Akiva and the Omer.)

Rampant, Unacknowledged Disrespect: Then…


The Talmud speaks of plague victims as “twelve thousand pairs of students,” referencing the practice of learning with a partner. Among the many questions this brief, symbolic tale raises is one of awareness: Did Rabbi Akiva realize his students were disrespecting one another and fail to intervene? Or did he somehow not notice the disaster brewing among ALL 12,000 pairs of students? How could anyone be that oblivious?

One explanation is that Akiva’s students outwardly gave the impression that all was well, pretending to respect one another’s opinions and learning.

Are we behaving any differently in this country today?

…and Now

How many of us have been vaguely aware that we live in a nation divided by White privilege but failed — whether through indifference, despair, or confusion — to address it, opting instead to go along to get along? And when an uprising occurs in Ferguson or Baltimore, how many of us find the whole thing too painful to consider in any serious way?

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

How many of us have engaged, however unconsciously, in the variety of mental gymnastics that help maintain the “all is well” impression, with any suggestion to the contrary attributed to isolated incidents and (usually “outside”) individual agitators?

How often have perspectives of people of color been dismissed as “extreme” by media, and individual consumers of it, instead of taken seriously?

And how often have we dismissed every perspective but our own, often using labeling — “liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Right,” “Left” — to define others as unworthy of consideration?

Ending the Plague

According to legend, there are 32 days of plague followed by 17 more days in the Omer. The Hebrew numbers “32” and “17” can be read as equivalent to the Hebrew words “lev [heart]” and “tov [good].”**

It is the “good heart” that seems to have been missing from Akiva’s learning community and that is all too often missing from discourse in our country today.

Perhaps we can begin to turn this around by consciously chipping away at the veneer of “all well” and pursuing real respect in its place.

What if each one of us committed to having one difficult, but honest and respectful, conversation about race?

Suppose 12,000 of us engaged in such a conversation, yielding 24,000 people with a slightly broader understanding! And if each of those 24,000 engaged someone else….

Imagine our experience of Revelation, at the end of the omer period, encompassing the many new perspectives gained during this journey. If we approach Sinai this year with hearts each a tiny bit more attuned to the neighbors surrounding us, what more might be revealed?

**lamed + bet = lev/heart (32) and tet + vav + bet = tov/good(17).


Who’s ready? And how might we share our commitments to this effort?

We counted 31 on the evening of May 4. Tonight, we count….

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The Most Dangerous of Dualisms (Beyond 30)

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No one knows for certain what the ancient rabbi meant when warned his fellow mystical travelers against saying “Water! Water!”:

When you reach the stones of pure marble, don’t say, “Water! Water!” As it states, “One who speaks falsehood shall not endure before My eyes” [Psalms 101:7]
— Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b

The speaker, Rabbi Akiba, is one of four who “entered Pardes [Paradise],” the only one who “entered in peace and departed in peace.” His instructions are understood as pre-trip warnings to other other three.

Some explanations for Akiba’s words liken pure marble to the place where upper (divine) and lower (mundane) waters meet, arguing against attempting to divide divine and mundane. Many teachings focus on dualisms, warning against dividing God into Light/Dark, Good/Evil, etc.

But Michelle Obama spoke, back in April 2013, to what I consider the most dangerous dualism of all: allowing some of our citizens to grow up “consumed with watching their backs” while others grow up enjoying a city’s riches.

Boundless Promise Lost

I wrote then:

Accepting such a state of affairs implies two sets of rules or, worse, two sets of expectations for human beings. This is tantamount to bowing to two gods.

At the “place of pure marble” — where the Torah tells us all humans are in God’s image — we must acknowledge that “every single child in [Chicago or any city] has boundless promise no matter where they live.” Failing to do so is blasphemy of the deepest kind, it “speaks falsehood” that cannot endure before God’s eyes.
— from Fabrangen Havurah‘s omer-counting blog, 2013

Meanwhile, Chicago, my first hometown, has lost so many to street and police violence, as has DC, my adopted hometown of 27 years. Losses across the country mount at a rate so high as to be numbing.

And this does not even begin to address suffering of, and long-term affects in, communities experiencing grief upon grief. Nor does it approach the dual reality Mrs. Obama described in our mutual hometown:

Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few El stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.
— Michelle Obama, April 10, 2013

BlackSpring-HiRes-476x500
As discussed previously, this week’s attribute, Hod, is associated with empathy.

But the literal meaning of the word is “Glory.”

May the energy of this attribute impel us, finally, this week, to see that this dual existence is incompatible with God’s glory and “shall not endure before [God’s] eyes.”

The war on Black people in Baltimore is the same war on Black people across America. Decades of poverty, unemployment, under-funded schools and police terrorism have reached a boiling point in Baltimore and cities around the country.

This past winter our people were presented with hollow reforms. This spring we present to the world our visionary demands. Demands that speak to a world where all Black Lives Matter.

This will be our #BlackSpring.
Ferguson Action

We counted 30 on the evening of May 3. 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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Is this 1959 or 2014? Prayers for a Change

BarbieDC4MBDC Tefillin Barbie would love to focus on her passions of Jewish text and gender studies. But — don’t let that frozen smile fool you — she’s got other pressing concerns as well.

She finds, in fact, that concern for the racial tensions exploding in Ferguson, MO, and around the country dominate her prayers.

For example, upon donning tefillin in the morning (Koren Saks translation; Barbie’s own meditations):

From Your wisdom, God most high, grant me [wisdom], and from Your understanding, give me understanding.
Help me understand how our country remains so divided and how to help promote a better vision and a more just reality.

May Your loving-kindness be greatly upon me, and in Your might may my enemies and those who rise against me be subdued.
I pray in the spirit of the Talmudic great, Beruriah, who scolded her husband, Rabbi Meir for praying that “sinners be no more,” insisting instead that he should instead pray that the sins that should be no more. (See Berakhot 10a; Midrash Psalms 118)

Pour Your godly oil on the seven branches of the menora so that Your good flows down upon Your creatures.
There are so many areas of the globe in need of attention, but may our collective actions bring more divine flow to Ferguson, MO, and other spots in need of extra oiling.

You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with Your favor.
May these straps, donned in prayer, remind me to keep my hands on productive, positive work for a better world and keep my mind away from panic, hatred, or despair.

Tefillin Barbie Tries a New Siddur

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Soferet [scribe] Jen Taylor Friedman uses her scribal arts to create a variety of ritual items: ketubot [marriage certificates]; scrolls of the Book of Esther; scrolls to be used in mezuzot [doorpost markers] and tefillin [ritual boxes bound to arm and head]; as well as complete sets of tefillin. In 2007, she became the first woman we know to have completed a full Torah scroll. (More about female scribes)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog listed vegetarian tefillin among HaSoferet offerings. This was in error. Apologies. See discussion and comments below.

Barbie_ArrivedSince 2006, Taylor Friedman has also been providing mini-tallitot [prayer shawls] and tiny tefillin for Barbie® dolls.

One of these “Tefillin Barbies” recently traveled from Montreal to Washington, DC.

DC Tefillin Barbie arrived with a volume of the Babylonian Talmud in her hand. Seems she was studying something in Yebamot. This tractate focuses on marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law, but I believe Barbie may have been exploring passages, which appear near the beginning of the volume (4b, 5b), about tying of tzitzit, ritual fringes.

Study vs. Prayer

Early critics of Tefillin Barbie argued that, because tefillin are donned for prayer, Barbie ought to have a prayerbook in her hand, not a Talmud volume; some also criticized the particular edition of the Talmud she uses. (See, e.g., DovBear; more below).

In response, Taylor Friedman’s website now explains that Barbie is engaged in “daf-yomi” [page a day] study of the Talmud. (This practice requires seven years of daily discipline to complete. Some women in Israel and in the U.S. engage in this study, but it is usually considered a male enterprise; in addition it’s usually considered an orthodox practice, although non-Orthodox Jews also participate.) She adds:

Barbie is hardcore, see? She’s taking daf-yomi shiur before minyan starts, telling you that she’s sorry you don’t get that Tosafot but we don’t have time to get into it right now and she’ll go through it with you if you can stay afterwards.

Perhaps a real hardcore Barbie fan might get a whole set of mini-Talmud volumes, so she is carrying the right volume for any particular day of the seven-year Daf-Yomi cycle: For example, she’d be starting Moed Katan/Hagiga [Minor Feast/Festival Offerings] today (8/13/14). But I’m pretty sure DC Tefillin Barbie downloads her learning off the internet or uses a local library volume.

Meanwhile, having been warned “that tallit and tefillin are not designed to come off, and that this is a collector Barbie, not a toy suitable for small children,” I assumed Barbie might be pretty set in her ways. But when she arrived, I realized that she was, in fact, a Barbie doll…

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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.

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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.

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“Because of this…” (Blessing and attitude, continued)

A (very) previous post discussed the idea of being too grumpy for gratitude, with a focus on one humility-prompting passage from the morning blessings:

…Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel]….

Because of this, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…
— See “Is thanks ever simple? – part 2”

In that post, Ellen Frankel and Estelle Frankel (no relation as far as I know) are quoted on the concepts of “bittul/self-surrender” and a “healthy sense of entitlement.”

Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
— Ellen Frankel, My Peoples Prayerbook
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“You Didn’t Build That” Ben Zoma Style

“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)

This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”

Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”

— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)

Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.
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