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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And He Called: Stop Street Harrassment

(And) he called [va-yikira]… (Lev. 1:1)

“I don’t care how she’s dressed, it’s not OK!”
“I don’t care how she’s walking, it’s not OK!”
“It’s not a compliment…It’s street harassment”

Vayikra” is a singular masculine verb (all action in Hebrew is gendered). These are the first words, and the Hebrew name, of the Bible book known in English as Leviticus. We know from context that the implicit “he” is God and that God is calling, from within the newly constructed Tabernacle, to Moses. But this year [2012], our reading of Vayikra — (Lev. 1:1-5:26) in the annual Torah cycle — coincides with “Stop Street Harassment Week,” and I’m hearing those words a little differently.
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Bechukotai: A Path to Follow

“Clearing Out the Old”

You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new. — Leviticus/Vayikra 26:10

Meant to suggest plenty lasting from one harvest to the next, perhaps to connect with the promise of a sufficiency for the sabbatical year. But also, as noted in Torah in Motion,* to suggest that the old must be cleared out before the new is used. You don’t have to have a dance troupe, or even feel like actually moving, to consider Tucker’s and Freeman’s perspective on this verse:

[Consider] garage sales (the decision to have one; preparing for one; the end result of having had one, i.e., old things gone, new things in their place, more space in the house, etc.). How does it feel to get rid of something and replace it with a new item?

Take the garage sale and make it personal. What old habits would participants “clear out”? What new habits and attitudes would replace the old ones?

Challenge: Each dancer imagines that he or she is a house. In each room of the house is an old habit or attitude which the dancer wishes to get rid of. The dancers improvise solos in which they go through each “room,” confronting the imagined old habit or attitude, and gradually “replacing” it with a new, improved one. After they complete the change in one “room,” they go on to the next (up to six or so rooms).

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Bechukotai: Something to Notice

“To the last, Parashat Bechukotai challenges us,” writes R. Elizabeth Bolton in “Mir Zaynen Do — We Are Here,” an essay in the The Women’s Torah Commentary:*

If the text excludes us when we are not named, then should we include ourselves in such passages as blessings and curses? Surely contemporary Jewish praxis would look different if we read the covenanting passages as excluding or exempting a whole class of Jews. And yet this has been the experience of many Jewish women, who have searched in vain for a reflection of themselves in Torah, particularly once thy move beyond the family narratives of Genesis and the nation-founding narratives of Exodus….

Can a feminist rereading of Bechukotai and other Torah with difficult theological implications help reconfigure a healthy relationship with brit (covenant) for girls, women, Jews by choice, lesbian and gay Jews, Jews with disabilities and all who question the notion of a Divine figure and punishes?

It can, and it must, for the simple reason that we were all there.

We were at Sinai, we witnessed the Temple’s destruction, we stood at the abyss of history and we are here. — Bolton, pp. 251-252

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Behar: A Path to Follow

“Proclaiming Liberty throughout the Land,” an essay on the portion Behar by then rabbinical students Sharon Brous and Jill Hammer,* includes a section entitled “The meaning of Ge’ulah for feminists.” (See p. 242ff in The Women’s Torah Commentary.*) They ask Jews to consider their responsibility to help free agunot, women chained to marriage by husbands who refuse them divorce; women bound by addiction; women “enslaved by society’s views of their roles and bodies”; and women forced into prostitution or sold into slavery.

“This parashah reminds us how much our kinfolk need us to further their redemption,” Brous and Hammer write.

To learn more about agunot and related advocacy, visit the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance advocacy pages.

To learn more about modern slavery and what can be done about it, visit Not for Sale and Kvod Habriot — the Jewish Human Rights network.
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Bechukotai: Great Source(s)

“…if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you…”–Leviticus/Vayikra 26:15-16

“…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations…,” an anonymous author — dated somewhere between the 9th and 11th centuries CE — replies, presenting God with 22 commandments, from aleph to tav:

Anonymous 9th-11th Century CE poem

You shall not withhold [t’acher (aleph)] Your answer from him who cries to You with all his heart. You shall not despise [t’vzeh (bet)] the afflicted wretch when he implores You for mercy. You shall not berate [tig’ar (gimmel)] the poor and downtrodden, when he appears before You. You shall not turn Your creature away from Your door empty-handed. You shall not grieve him or shame him for his sin and guilt. You shal not rebuke him in Your anger once he forsakes his ways. You shall not remember against him his early sins, buried in his bosom. You shall not take his pledge in pawn for having defiled himself with crime. You shall not banish him who strays afar, but shall draw him near when he returns…You shall not prolong Your anger with Your sorrowing people to all generations….You shall not hide Yourself [titaleim (tav)] when I beseech You: let my sighs come before You!
–translated by T. Carmi. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse*

* Please see Source Materials for full citation and additional information.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers and has continued week-by-week through the book of Leviticus.) You can zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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