Doubled Sacred Space

Sacredness is a tricky concept, made more complicated when a single place or story, concept or ritual is prominent in more than one belief system. Throughout history, conflict around sacred visions has led to much violence. An example is unfolding today in the U.S. capital.

For months now, the District has been home to an informal memorial to individuals killed by police, as well as related artwork and signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Names and pictures of those lost had been posted with loving care over the last five months, and many thousands made pilgrimages, some regularly, over the months.

The weekend of Nov. 13-16, protesters with the #MillionMAGAMarch and related demonstrations destroyed the memorial, while actively disparaging those it honors. This was accomplished with the acquiescence, and sometimes assistance, of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). And this destruction, and MPD’s participation, has been met with silence on the part of DC leaders….and, so far, most of our faith communities as well.

The memorial is under reconstruction….meanwhile, here is (STILL DRAFT) background of the fence, pictures of what happened over Nov. 13-16, and a call to attention and action.

Multiple Folds on BLM Plaza

Conflict over sacred space appears in the story of Abraham, in the Hebrew Bible, seeking a tomb for his deceased wife, Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). The spot he chooses is “Me’arat Ha-machpelah.” Me’arah is a cave (or den). The root — כפל [kaphal] — in Hebrew means “fold” or “double.” Traditional etymology suggests that the cave’s name reflects the burying of couples (Biblically, Sarah and Abraham; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah, with Rachel buried elsewhere; Talmud and later text includes Adam and Eve) or that it was composed of two chambers, either side-by-side or an upper and a lower. The doubling, or folding, also appears in other aspects of this story and sheds some light on the BLM memorial conflict.

In the process of negotiating, Abraham declares himself “גר־וְתוֹשב [ger-v’toshav] — “stranger” and “resident” — which is a kind of folding in this one individual’s status. Likewise, DC folks might be residents, on the one hand, and simultaneously strangers in public spaces where we are excluded from full representation; some visitors here for the MAGA events, on the other hand, might be strangers in DC neighborhoods, while simultaneously appearing to feel at home, even proprietary, in public spaces.

Abraham negotiates to purchase the cave and the surrounding land and trees. Eventually, the field and cave are confirmed as Abraham’s, “from the children of Heth.” This transfer results in a kind of double identity: It’s Abraham’s and it’s former Hittite property. A similar pattern shows up in many layers at BLM Plaza: On one level, it’s part of the L’Enfant plan for the U.S. government seat and it’s Anacostan/Piscataway land. On another, it’s District property and a response to the White House. It’s both a mayoral action and the people’s response to that action. The horizontal stripes are part of a DC flag and remnants of an equal sign, simultaneously a city-sanctioned design and a reminder of the guerilla “DEFUND THE POLICE” briefly equated with “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE,” lasted a single day before the city repainted.)

Another “doubling” can be seen in the dual nature of the historical Machpelah site (in the city of Hebron): known simultaneously as “Tomb of the Patriarchs” and as “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the site is recognized as sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In a somewhat similar vein, we see several “doublings” of meaning for BLM Plaza and Memorial Fence.

The yellow paint has one meaning for the movement for Black lives and another for DC’s mayor; trying to honor both at once results in serious conflict and insult to one vision or the other: On the one hand, consider again how the predominantly white Nov. 7 celebration was experienced as erasure by BLM supporters; on the other hand, protesters have faced months of police violence, suggesting that the mayor’s vision for BLM Plaza must be something quite different from BLM-led action.

Mayor Bowser has been sued for allowing a “cult for secular humanism” by plaintiffs who argue that the BLM Plaza “equates to endorsing a religion.” Brought by a small group, the suit represents a larger movement, in- and outside of DC, believing the yellow paint a provocation for those who “Back the Blue.” Other “Back the Blue” supporters declare no value in the lives memorialized on the fence, seek to actively erase anything associated with them, and join the current president in treating Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They are actively trying to reclaim the space for their vision of the United States.

Abraham negotiates in front of a gathering at the city’s gate. Do we have a “city gate” for considering the BLM Plaza conflict?

Abraham never has to argue for Sarah’s humanity. What does it say about DC and the nation, if we are silent while memorials are dismantled amid calls of “time to take out the trash”?


PS — this was written (and I thought, posted) a few days back; must have failed to hit “publish.” Sorry for delay.

For those so inclined “Protect the Fence” gofundme.

Gathering Sources: Vayechi

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Vayechi — also spelled Vaychi and Vayhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26, the final reading in the book of Genesis. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Vows, Oaths, and Testament
Language and Translation: Pakod Yifkod
Something to Notice: Blessings and harsh words

See also: Flour and Torah
Leaving Genesis: Departing Women
Getting Exodus Right
Amichai, Zelda, and the Pit

Vayechi is next read in the Diaspora, minchah Jan 4 through Shabbat Jan 11.

blue and brown egyptian coffin

“And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” –Gen 50:26.  Egyptian coffin photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

 

 

Gathering Sources: Vayigash

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Vayigash, Gen 44:18 – 47:27. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-10 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Serah, daughter of Asher

Something to Notice: Dinah

Great Source(s): Joseph in Medieval poetry

Language and Translation: Souls in Suspense

Vayigash is next read in the Diaspora, minchah Dec 28 through Shabbat Jan 4.

Image is in public domain, from Owen Jones’ Old Book Art, details.

Gathering Sources: Mikeitz

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Mikeitz (sometimes spelled Miketz), Gen 41:1-44:17. Mikeitz is next read in the Diaspora minchah 12/21 through Shabbat 12/28.

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-10 series called “Opening the Book.”

Great Source(s)): the blame forever

Language and Translation: forgetting and fruitfulness

A Path to Follow: dreams in the Talmud and later

Something to Notice: women and the Joseph story

See Also

Leaving Genesis: Departing Women

Chanukah and the Five Powers

The Pits and the Lights

Gathering Sources: Vayeishev

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Vayeishev — also spelled Vayeshev or Vayesheb — Gen 37:1 – 40:23. Vayeishev is next read in the Diaspora minchah 12/14 through Shabbat 12/21.

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Tamar/Judah and Joseph

Language and Translation: Lie with Me

Great Source(s): Two sets of twins

Something to Notice: Was and Was Not

See also:
Power, Language and Settling: Questions from Joseph’s Story

Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Gathering Sources: Vayishlach

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Vayishlach (sometimes “Vayishlah”), Genesis 32:4-36:43. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-10 series called “Opening the Book.” Vayishlach is next read in the Diaspora minchah December 7 through Shabbat December 14.

Something to Notice: God-Wrestling and Fabrangen

A Path to Follow: Jacob and Yisrael

Language and Translation: What Dinah and Hamor Experienced

Great Source(s): The Biography of Ancient Israel

See also:
Leaving Genesis: Departing Women

The Babylon Road. The biblical Rachel’s life and death link her to the Babylon of the past and future and to the precarious nature of Israel’s future on the land.

Babylon and Rachel’s Offering. This midrash offers lessons for people struggling to function with integrity and flexibility in a diverse, often contradictory, world.

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Babylon and 929

Babylon — in fact, “The Three ‘Bavels'” — is featured this past week on the English portal for “929,” chapter-a-day study in the Hebrew Bible:

The place name, בבל, bavel can refer to: Babel, Babylon, or Babylonia. Each of these ancient “Bavels” suggests a model for the 21st century….

The rise of Bavel/Babylonia was a rejection of Ps 137: it moved Judaism itself from a circle, with the Holy Land at its center, to an ellipse, with two centers defining its orbit. And in creating a second vibrant center, Babylonian Judaism opened up the way for many more “centers” to come, throughout Jewish diasporic history.

These three models – Babel, Babylon, Babylonia – represent three numerical possibilities for sacred centers in our lives…

— “The Three ‘Bavels’: Babel, Babylon, Babylonia” full post

929 is in its second three-year cycle in Hebrew and just launched its first English cycle on July 15, with the help of Drisha Institute in New York. 929 “invites Jews everywhere to read Tanakh, one chapter a day, together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, including audio and video, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, and more.” (More at The Forward.)

Follow the English site on Facebook and/or by email. If you land on a page that is all Hebrew and want English instead, look for “EN” at the top left to switch.

Teachers from many corners of the global Jewish community are participating. DC area people might notice that Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, one of the founders of DC Beit Midrash (2002-?), is a contributing author.

Chanukah and the Five Powers

Exploring Babylon Chapter 10

This week in the Jewish calendar, we meet the major foreign powers with which ancient Judaism struggled:

  • In the Torah-reading cycle, Joseph is already in Egypt, setting the stage for the whole clan of Yisrael to move, and eventually become enslaved, there.
  • Chanukah (in 2017: 12/12-12/20), reminds us of events in the Seleucid (“Syrian-Greek“) Empire.
  • The haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah, from Zechariah, is set just after the Babylonian Captivity, during Persian rule.
  • In addition, the game of dreidel is sometimes explained with reference to Roman soldiers, and other aspects of the holiday relate to this later empire.

Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Persia, and Rome. That’s a lot of foreign powers converging on any one week.

And there are aspects of Chanukah that tend to equate or conflate oppressors and different experiences of exile. For example, all five of the foreign powers show up in one of the post popular Chanukah songs, based on the 13th Century piyyut, “Ma’oz Tzur.” (More on this soon.) So, there’s an impulse, on the one hand, to roll all the opponents into one enormous, amorphous threat to scrappy, little Yisrael. On the other hand, there’s a tradition of aiming to universalize the Chanukah story, making it into everyman’s battle against tyranny everywhere. Insights can be gleaned by comparing and combining the foreign powers that turn up together this week. But it’s worth examining each of these empires, and its particular arc through Jewish history and thought, to see what light it sheds — on its own and in conjunction with the others.

Doing a thorough exploration is an enormous job, but perhaps we can start where we are, on this day of the third candle of Chanukah.

One Candle: Mikeitz (Egypt)

Egypt has a lot to say about exile and the challenges of a non-homogeneous society, in this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1 – 44:17) alone:

  • Joseph’s precarious status and employment situation, here taking an upswing (Gen 41:41-46) after slavery, a rise to power and fall into incarceration (and, before the pharaoh who doesn’t know Joseph and enslaves all his descendants);
  • New clothes for a new position;
  • A new, foreign name for Joseph;
  • A new, foreign spouse, read alternatively as Asenath joining Yisrael or as Joseph’s acceptance into Egyptian society;
  • Names for Joseph’s children that reflect experience in exile; and
  • Food issues.

Joseph, “the Hebrews,” and the Egyptians each eat separately, “because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians [כִּי־תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם]” (Gen 43:32). What was abhorrent? The possibilities are many, including, from various commentators: extremely different customs and manners , snobbery on the part of the Egyptians, and religious taboo (one theory: Egyptians revered animals, like the cow, while Hebrews ate beef).

Two Candles: Mikeitz and Chanukah

The story of the Maccabees is multi-layered, and many scholars point to the twin layers of internal strife within Yisrael and the precipitating Greek pressure:

The power the Greeks sought and the threat they posed was not just military, and so it could not be resolved by military means alone; their threat was as much to the identity, faith, and practice of the Jews. What is more, the threat came not just from the Greeks but from the Jews themselves, many of whom, according to the sources, had opted voluntarily to assimilate or gave in rather than resist Greek orders….
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day” (2013)
from JOFA’s Shema Bekolah [her her voice] series

This dynamic has never yet ceased to be relevant to Jewish communities, in- or outside Israel. When this candle’s light is burned side-by-side with the one from Mikeitz, the combine light raises a host of new questions about Joseph’s story.

Three Candles: Mikeitz, Chanukah, and Zechariah

The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. The first eight chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy are dated to 520-518 BCE, during the reign of Darius I of Persia. This is just after the conquest of Babylon, when Judeans were permitted to return and rebuild in Jerusalem. Work on the Temple had stalled “when the leadership refused to allow local population to join in the labor…, and this group interfered with the building down to the second year of Darius 1” (M. Fishbane, JPS Haftarah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002, p.163).

Zechariah’s prophecy, which includes several visions, supports a leadership duo for the effort ahead: Joshua ben Jehozadak, heir to the priesthood, and Zerubbabel ben Sheathiel, royal heir. Chapter 4 relates a vision in which Zechariah is shown a complex candelabra of seven lamps, “with a bowl on top of it,” and an olive tree on each side. The prophet asks for the meaning of this, and the angel responds in verses 4:6-14 — beginning with “prologue” (4:6-7) and then interpreting the lamps and trees.

In between, the prophecy includes a comforting declaration: “Zerubbabel’s hands have founded this House and Zerubbabel’s hands shall complete it….Does anyone scorn a day of small beginnings?” (4:9-10).

All of this is part of God’s promise to return from exile along with the people (Zech 1). And the JPS commentary also includes a midrash around the word “gullah [bowl],” that is at the head of the candelabrum (Zech 4:2). One of the themes of Zechariah is that God is at the “head,” but God and the people are united in both “exile (golah)” and “redemption (ge’ulah).”

That’s one aspect of Zechariah, taken on its own. And it can surely lend further light the whole topic of foreign powers. But the Chanukah haftarah stops at what Fishbane called “prologue” above:

Then he explained to me as follows: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the LORD of Hosts.
וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר
לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ–כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת:

Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground!
For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’”
מִי-אַתָּה הַר-הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל, לְמִישֹׁר;
וְהוֹצִיא, אֶת-הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה–תְּשֻׁאוֹת, חֵן חֵן לָהּ
— Zechariah 4:6-7

In doing so, Fishbane says, the Rabbis not only emphasize that Zerubbabel’s success will be through God’s spirit alone but “transformed the text into a divine warning. Groups wishing to ‘force the end’ through military might, or support projects promising restoration of the Temple, are given divine notice of the futility of their plans” (p.165).

It’s this appearance of Zechariah that shows up this week, with Mikeitz and the story of Chanukah. And taken together, the three candles shed a different light.



NOTES
Note 1:
To avoid confusion, I’m using “Yisrael,” as both the name given to Jacob after his divine wrestling match (Gen 32:22-32) and the name of the ancient people, as distinguished from the contemporary nation of “Israel.”
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Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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