Gemara on THUG-LIFE

In Talmud studies at Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva, as at houses of Jewish text study for 1500 years or more, students are asked to recite what is written from memory. At Svara, students are celebrated for giving voice to and “owning” a recitation of a few words, the whole long passage the class has been learning, or anything in between. Many of us struggle with this practice for all kinds of reasons. This session, I’ve been struggling with whether I can voice these particular words.

Over the weekend, I learned something new about a relatively common word that appears in our passage and in one that is being taught in a different class. I think it is helping me figure out some next steps in reciting, or not reciting, my particular passage this term.

Trigger warning: this Talmud passage is about legal discussion of capital punishment and executing youth; responses travel through difficult, racist territory.

The word

R’ Bronwen Mullin said her class, which is also discussing capital punishment-related texts (in a different passage, not the class I am taking this term), talked about the tiny word “Atu.” It is commonly used to introduce a rhetorical question, like “Is it because….?” in English. But, R’ Bronwen said their class did a deep dive into the meaning “Atu” — which Jastrow’s Talmud dictionary says is an abbreviation of a word meaning “for the protection of.”

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ). Atu — an abbreviation of amtul, which means “for the protection of” and so: “for the sake of, on account of.” (A definition appears below, and here’s a link to the entry in Jastrow Talmud dictionary at Sefaria.)

So, R’ Bronwen said, the question could be asked of the passage in which it appears: “What are you/we protecting?”

The Passage

I went back to the passage where this word appears in text I’ve been struggling to recite, from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 68b.

Disclaimer: the ancient rabbis are here using the legal tools they had to make sure no one is ever declared “ben sorer umoreh [rebellious and wayward child]” (Deut 21:18-21)…their intentions don’t necessarily make the text easy to read:

אנן הכי קאמרינן אטו בן סורר ומורה על חטאו נהרג על שם סופו נהרג וכיון דעל שם סופו נהרג אפילו קטן נמי

Our class, taught by R’ Benay Lappe, came to a translation something like this: “So, we are saying it is because of his [past] sin that the wayward/rebellious son is executed? Rather: on account of his end [for an ultimate, later act] he is killed. And because he is to be killed for a later act, even a minor can be considered.”

אפילו קטן נמי — afilu katan nami [even small one also]

A Recitation

The particular wording that opens this section, “So we are saying,” was found in Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (for “אנן הכי קאמרינן”). My study partner and I were reminded of the Plastic Ono Band chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I even offered a little singsong: “So, we are saying: give kids a chance!” Then I started writing, a few days ago, thinking of Yoko and John in bed in 1969.

But I quickly landed with with Gil Scott-Heron and 2Pac instead:

So, we’re protecting this notion of executing a boy for his sin?

Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you
–2Pac, “Changes” 1998

talking blame and guilt, though he’s a minor? afilu katan nami

Or, no: We fear for his “end,” trouble he might one day cause?

“You see them?
Look at the color of their skin
That one is probably dangerous.”– 2018 Poetry Slam entry

calling him a danger, small as he is! afilu katan nami

based on a future adults (who may be strangers) imagined for him?!

“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”
–2Pac

condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami

Well, I’m new here, and I forget
Does that mean big, or small?

No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
–Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here,” 2010

talking execution when he’s a minor, though!

The Loudest Question

What are you protecting?!

It has been such a struggle, for my study partner and me, to approach this text through the roar of “Super-predator!” “Chronic behavior problem!” “Thug!!” We’ve been hearing this chorus for much of our lives used to protect property and some people, often those who are already far safer than most, from youth perceived as threats. Across the U.S., this means primarily endangering youth of color in the name of “public safety.” Where each of us lives, this is disproportionately directed toward Black children.

How does this passage reflect — maybe help create — the idea that some people have a right to protect themselves from perceived threats: our country’s “tough on crime” policies that protect some at the expense of others, all based on that chorus of “thug!”?

And it’s that “thug” that kept leading my mind back to Tupac Shakur and then to Gil Scott-Heron. Eventually, though, 2Pac’s “THUG-LIFE” led me to another question…

Another Question

That THUG-LIFE concept, and my conversations with rabbis Bronwen and Benay, led me, eventually, to ask: Who am I protecting in not reciting that piece of Talmud?

Black children are expected to leave the house every day in places that continue to view them as a dangers — “some type of demon, killers, or something like that” (see below) — meaning their every step is a risk.

Black children are expected to learn history that, especially in the current trend toward removing all context, either erases or demonizes them — meaning every page is a minefield for them.

If Black kids of all ages — and queer kids and kids with disabilities, visible and not — can show up and try to learn from flawed texts that constantly endanger them, maybe I can recite this…even if I’m simultaneously screaming?

And Questioning Questions

In her recent piece “How We Question,” R’ Bronwen wrote about naming our intentions when we question Torah and existing rabbinic discussion. Talmudic tradition, she wrote, “always invites us into the audacity” —

the audacity of naming what our intentions are in the act of questioning; of elevating the questioning itself to a radically reparative and transformative plane. When we fail to do this, our shortcomings, our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, take over a situation, and the bright light of possibility is overshadowed. Hopefully, we can continue to make our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors proud by refusing to take our questions for granted. When we examine our questions we find our deepest motivations and intentions, and through that process we bring more light into the world- the light that we need to guide us in this time of crash. How we question, as our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors intuited, might be the very torch we need.

— “How We Question,” by R’ Bronwen Mullin, from Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva (29 Adar Bet 5782, 4/1/22)

It has been hard, during this class on the rebellious child, to figure out which of my reactions to the Talmud text are really reactions to public policy discussions in my town right now and which are about one particular theological question.

There’s a sort of hidden “What/who are you protecting?” embedded in this passage. The ancient rabbis sought to reconcile their understanding of divinity with a text, apparently in God’s name, demanding the death of this wayward and rebellious child. One resolution they suggested was reading the passage in a way that protected God’s intentions — that’s how the Talmud got to the idea that the text is somehow about killing a minor for something they might someday do as an adult.

…still screaming from my place of still limited understanding: Why would anyone think it a good idea to demonize young people to “rescue God”?! And, given that the text chose that road, (how) do I voice, attempt to own, these words?

Some Additional Voices

I’mma be very honest, some adults won’t just believe in us just like that. It’s going to take them some time to believe in what we want to do and what we want to achieve in life. They think we’ll grow up and be some type of demon, killers, or something like that, but that’s not what we really are. We’re trying to build something.

Kevin Mason, 16 — “Voices of Wards 7 and 8 Youths,” DCist 3/31/22

“And, 12-year-old Isiah Jones adds, it shouldn’t be too difficult for adults to learn more about what kids need.

“’They could come find out,’ he says.”

Graphic with Torah, Deut 21:18-21, and discussion.

downloadable version with graphic and full text below


Svara teaches: The revolution will not be translated. It’s our breath and our voices that keep the ancient text alive and redeem it with our collective learning. I am not yet sure if I’m ready to “own” this particular text. It’s already been one illuminating, if incredibly difficult, journey.

…Still not resolved — and there are still four hours of class left to learn…Meanwhile: so much gratitude to Svara, R’ Benay, R’ Bronwen, all the faculty and other students, and especially my amazing chevruta. Although, of course, all the above except direct quotes from R’ Bronwen and poets, are my words and responsibility….


The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970

From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ) 1)on account of, because of, for the sake of(h. . קנסו שוגג א׳ מזיד they fined the inadvertent transgressor for the sake of the wilful one (in order to prevent wilful sin). Git. 53ᵇ; a. fr. —2) (in questions expressing surprise, indignation) is it because? do you mean to say? Ib. 7ᵃ א׳ אנא לא ידענא do I not know it myself? Ib. 30ᵇ א׳ ברשיעי עסקינן is it with wicked men we have to deal? (i.e. shall we presume deliberate sin?); a. v. fr.

Aaron and Moses, Thurgood and Sam

The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.

Marshall and Friedman

The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).

Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.

Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”

Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.

Exodus 4:14-16

Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).

These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.

Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.

Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….

I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:

God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.

“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)

TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.

Thurgood and Sam

I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.

When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:

  1. asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
  2. suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
  3. calling Sam his brother.

When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:

  1. acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
  2. recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
  3. agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.

If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.

Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.

R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.

Marshall as Midrash

Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.

Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?

R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.


**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.

For more: AP story (2017) about Sam Friedman, interviewing daughter and a piece by Friedman’s grand-nephew Paul Friedman. Writer Michael Koskoff talks about his own legal and Jewish backgrounds; obit in NYT.

RETURN

Remedy of the Bima?

Updated August 23, 2021

Gittin 55a states that an individual who experienced the theft of a beam, which was then built into a large structure, must receive the value of the beam as reparation. This ruling is מפני תקנת השבים, due to or because of…

תקנת השבים

outside (standard) translation of takanat ha-sh’vim:* a phrase meaning “[Rabbinic] Law of Penitence”

תקנת השבים

inside (word-by-word) translation: a phrase with roots תקנ “repair” [tiken] and שׁוב “return” [shuv] — something like the “repair of the returning” or the “remedy of reparation” (“Inside” translations don’t sound like smooth English.)

תקנת השבים

This is far-fetched grammar-wise, but it captures an important aspect of what’s on my mind regarding this text. Shifting focus, however grammatically fanciful: might we read בים [bim] as related to בימה “stage, platform, bima“?

…The modern Hebrew verb, “to stage” בים, biyem, was created from בימה. The Klein dictionary (c. 1983 CE) says בימה was originally a Greek loan word, but Jastrow (c. 1883) says specifically that this is NOT so, arguing that the Greek word βῆμα would be spelled with an aleph in Hebrew, rather than a hey. Either way, though, the examples Jastrow gives for בימה are all about holding forth, making announcements, hearing from distinguished speakers, etc. So, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to bima-ing as a verb meaning to hold forth from a raised position (metaphorically and physically)….

The result would be something like, “remedy of that which is bima-ed,” suggesting that those who experienced theft are entitled to reparation from a bima, for all that was taught, from positions of power, over the centuries, continuing to build up a bigger and stronger bira [large structure] of systemic racism.

How much bima-ing has continued to raise up many laudable-sounding ideas while failing to note:

  • that we sit on unceded, stolen land;
  • that our country was historically built with stolen labor;
  • that today stolen labor continues in our prisons and other inequitable systems;
  • that some among us experience relative security built at the cost of well-being, freedom, and sometimes the very lives of others, including Black, Indigenous, queer, and other people whose human rights have long been a stolen beam still built into a structure that benefits others; and
  • that Jews have often been complacently “bima-ed” around these topics for a long time?
photo intended as a random example of a bima — image details below

Heading into the Days of Awe this year, I wonder about the need to take more responsibility, from the pew, for what goes on from the bima:

If our Jewish communities are not hearing from those who teach Torah, in its many forms, about our obligations in regard to stolen beams, then do we, from the pews, have a responsibility to “remedy that which is bima‘ed”?

How do we do that?

What if we cannot (immediately) change the bima-ing? Then what?

What, exactly, is our responsibility — individually and collectively — when it comes to learning and what we are taught to act on as a community?

This is a musing prompted by this year’s Elul learning through SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. For a different musing, prompted by last year’s studies, see “About that stolen beam…

beam illustration — details below


takanat ha-sh’vim: This is a transliteration of the phrase as worked out in Beit Midrash [House of Study] of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. The Talmud gives us no vowels, and the work of the Beit Midrash is to explore possible meanings before settling on one or more. Deciding how to vocalize, or transliterating too soon, prematurely limits the meaning….but I’m including this, and other transliterations, here for convenience.

BACK

Image descriptions and credits:

Beam illustration: Stone Lintel Beam.jpg from Wikimedia Commons (4.0 Attribution-Share Alike), adapted annotations

Image description: simple drawing of a brick wall with an opening and lintel beam. Added notations read: “Stolen? Beam” and “Built into a large structure”

Bima Image: Synagogue of Villa Dominguez (Argentina): The Torah Ark and the Bimah

123- Villa Dominguez – Synagogue.JPG — Wikimedia Commons 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike.

Image description: Inclined smooth wooden reading table, covered in cloth, facing ornate wooden ark in a synagogue empty of people.

Reparations Background

New page, just posted, shares resources about reparations, from Jewish and non-Jewish or more general sources. REPARATIONS RESOURCES

RECONSTRUCTIONIST NEWS: Save the Date – Day of Learning on Reparations Join Reconstructing Judaism for a Day of Learning on the topic of reparations as we move into the month of Elul on Aug. 8 starting at 11 a.m. EDT. Stay tuned for more information and a link to register for this event! — from ReconstructingJudaism.org

REFORM NEWS: The Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution on studying the issue. The resolution itself includes some background and references. The resolution then called for Reform congregations and members to support HR40; to “take active steps to redress the destructive effects of historic and ongoing systemic racism, including through education…”; and to commit to “assessment and evaluation to strengthen our own institutions’ efforts to combat implicit and explicit bias and promote racial equity.” There must be a report somewhere on what congregations and members have done in response in the ensuing year and half; will share when found.

See also —

Toward Anti-Racism — Selichot Sources

This year, I was privileged to help Hill Havurah create some readings and prayers to help guide us through reflection around racial justice and teshuvah [repentance/return]: what more can we help transform through identifying, and seeking to make amends, alone and together, for, previously unrecognized errors of thought, word, and deed? (More on this project and to download.)

Selichot Sources: Toward Anti-Racism prepared by Rachel Conway and Virginia Spatz, for Hill Havurah, with advising from Rachel Faulkner, National Jews of Color Organizer, Dimensions Educational Consulting.

Also, in preparation for the high holidays, some sources for the double Torah portion Nitzavim-Vayeilech.

The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):

  • fear of what’s ahead,
  • a desire to go back,
  • an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
  • finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.

One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about

  • how we look ahead;
  • how we look at what’s behind us;
  • how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
  • how we organize that information into expectations.

Viewing Peril

Ten of twelve scouts in this week’s Torah reading bring back a set of terrified reports about the destination where they’re supposed to be headed:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
— Num 13:32-33

Commentary, beginning with the Talmud, notes the subjective nature of the report and the role of assumption:

The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
— Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35a

Caleb and Joshua present dissenting views, describing favorable prospects ahead, and then mourn with Moses and Aaron when the People panic at the negative reports (Num 13:30, 14:6-9). Jay Stanton, now assistant clergy at Tzedek Chicago, noted the universal nature of this particular textual “snapshot”:

These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.

He adds–

The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him.
Fear Perception and Imagination: Grasshoppers in Whose Eyes?

Stanton’s 2008 essay focuses on challenges to Queer Jews. His words also describe this moment, as the U.S. tries to envision some sort of racial justice ahead. They also resonate with words on Jews and race from many years ago and from today.

Warnings: Old and New

In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo.
— “Where Are We?” in Where do We Go from Here?

MLK’s friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel, wrote a few years before:

People are increasingly fearful of social tension and disturbance. However, so long as our society is more concerned to prevent racial strife than to prevent humiliation, the cause of strife, its moral status will be depressing, indeed.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
“Race and Religion” speech, 1963

Earlier this week, a small group of DC Jews, including me, wrote:

Right now is a critical time when the public and decision makers are finally beginning to hear the transformative demands of Black organizers. White people have the opportunity to learn from the vision and work of Black organizers and make sure our actions center their visions, words, demands, and dreams. At the same time, many across our Jewish community are struggling right now to understand what it means to defund or abolish police. Our system of policing is specifically rooted in a history of anti-Black racism. Black people, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, are the experts on what it will take to stop police brutality and end white supremacy. White people in particular need to listen, especially when political messages or proposed policy changes seem new or unfamiliar.

But we must not get stuck in our need for more learning – lest we fail to actually confront police violence and other anti-Black systems and dismantle them. Jewish tradition teaches that we must use ongoing learning and reflection as a catalyst for commitment and action.
Call to Action

An important final note most, given the disaster that resulted from panicking and arguing in the wilderness:

We refuse to be pitted against each other and lose the chance for liberation that this moment offers.

We invite white members of DC Jewish communities (and any member of our community who feels this speaks to them) to commit to this call for action, co-signing the call, and taking at least one action above. Share this call at 615DefundMPD

Wherever You Live…

Some of the specifics, in the letter above, regarding testifying to particular budget hearings are no longer pertinent. The FY21 DC Budget is still under consideration, however, and there is plenty of time to lift more voices to support demands of Black organizers in DC, in- and outside Jewish communities, around new visions of “public safety.”

And, wherever you live, the time is now to take action locally and nationally.

Also, wherever you live, the story of the scouts is a good reminder that we must learn to look more carefully at our past, present, and future. In particular, white people — in- and outside the Jewish community — must learn to face race. To that end, here are some resources on Jews and Racial Justice (soon to be updated).

In closing, a few words from one of my favorite Torah commentaries of all time:

We wander the wilderness. Can we ever remember a time when
it was not so? Always a remnant recounts the story,

The promised land really exists, it really doesn’t, are we
there yet. Borders unspecified, we will know when we’ve
arrived. Profusely fertile, agriculturally a heartland;

An impossible place, let freedom ring in it. We’ve been to
the mountain. We’ve seen the land: A terrain of the
imagination, its hills skipping for joy. How long, we say,
we know our failure in advance, nobody alive will set foot in it
— Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers. Rutgers University Press, 1994.




NOTES:
This week’s Torah reading is Shelach Lekha [send out for yourself], Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Much has been written about this famous story, but I don’t have a particular recommendation. I just discovered, in a possibly related fact, that one of the few times I’ve written about the spies for this log was in a commentary on the next portion, Korach.

The Ostriker poem, quoted above, is part of an essay called “The Nursing Father,” focusing on an image that comes up in the previous portion.
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Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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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Now What? Exploring Babylon Stage Two

I launched the “Exploring Babylon” project on this blog in October 2017. Stage One was to run for roughly 40 weeks, from Sukkot through Tisha B’av. WordPress statistics tell me that I’ve posted 40 times in the category, “Exploring Babylon,” although not entirely on the weekly schedule I’d originally planned, and Tisha B’av is fast — no pun intended — approaching (eve of July 21 through dark July 22).

Not sure yet what shape Stage Two will take. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Where Exodus Metaphors Fail

Meanwhile, a recent interview with the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics returns us to the basic challenge that impelled me into this project.

When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.

And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.

Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary.

And, of course, I found that the people actually involved in the movement in the 50s, they knew that. And they were quite clear that they were not buying into that.
— Marc Dollinger, 6/4/18 NPR interview

In the struggle for racial and other forms of social justice, might the language and history of Exile serve where Exodus metaphors sometimes fail?

And, as we move through the month of Av and on toward a new year, how might we use ideas about exile and Babylon, in particular, to inform us?

As the source of a long intertextual journey, Psalm 137 generates the poetic vocabulary of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried as we remembered Zion.” The pleonastic “there,” repeated in the third verse, calls attention to itself by its very redundancy; syntactically superfluous, “there” defines exile as the place that is always elsewhere. Being elsewhere, being far from Zion, is the pre-text for poetry….(p.9)

With the (re)territorialization of the Jewish imagination in the twentieth century, a radical shift takes place in the relative position of ends and means, of original and mimetic space, of holy and profane, of ownership and tenancy. If exile is narrative, then to historicize the end of the narrative is to invite a form of epic closure that threatens the storytelling enterprise itself–an enterprise that remained alive, like Scheherazade, by suspending endings. Conversely, to claim an absolute place for the exilic imagination is to privilege the story as the thing itself; the map for the territory, language without referent; and to regard “nomadic writing” as the inherently Jewish vocation…. (p.14)
— Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage

Again, comments and suggestions welcome.

May the mourning of the weeks ahead bring us some new light.

NOTES:
Pleonasm
Although it’s pretty clear from context, and maybe everyone else knows, I did look up “pleonasm” for my own edification. Here’s a useful and not overly ad-filled explanation of pleonasm.
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Citation
Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
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God’s Presence Accompanied Them

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.2

Deuteronomy closes with hopes, on the banks of the Jordan and declarations of Israel’s particular relationship to God:

So Israel dwelt in safety
the fountain of Jacob alone…

Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
–Deut 33:28-29

Much later, after Israel had experienced more trial and loss and exile, the idea developed that God was in exile along with the People, as much in need of rescue as the People. In particular, Sukkot prayers include a verse, “Ani va-ho” — sometimes translated as “Yourself and us!” or “Rescue me and the divine name!” — followed by another that begs:

As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia, and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.

This line of thought, which has been developing for centuries, is mean to teach that “when there is suffering in the world, God is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather God is with the oppressed and suffers with them” (from Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom; download and more at Rabbinical Assembly).

The idea that “God is with the oppressed” is too often, I fear, used as a sort of universal Coup-fourré card, a “safety” to correct any “hazard,” so as to stay on the road.

…For those who never played the old card game Mille Borne, maybe “ace in the hole” or “Get out of jail free” card will make more sense; but I find Coup-fourré — the process whereby one is able to surmount a pitfall and keep rolling along — more apt here….

It is way too easy to let “God is with the oppressed” console the already comfortable while leaving the afflicted with their travails. As we enter the new year, I think it’s time for the comfortable among us to examine our “safety” cards.

 

Following God’s Example

We must ask ourselves where we are when there is suffering and injustice in the world. It’s not enough to be concerned or write letters or even stand out in the street in protest — although all of those things are important. God went into exile with us, and something similar is required of us, if we are to make any progress on racial and ethnic justice issues.

We must take steps to remove any sense that we are somehow entitled to dwell in safety — as we find Israel at the close of Deuteronomy — when others cannot. If God could join us in exile, we can work to dismantle White Supremacy and other protections that can never be equally shared. Where there is suffering in the world, we cannot simply declare ourselves “on the freedom side.”

We’ve got to follow God’s example, to the extent we are able, and be willing to be vulnerable, explore what it’s really like in Babylon, not just our romantic ideas about it from outside. We have to look carefully at any place where oppression thrives and ask, “how we are complicit?” Really, deeply, honestly ask ourselves and our communities: “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

And then take action, even if it means compromising our own safety or sense of self.

NOTE: A version of this mini-dvar [word, sermon] was given at Fabrangen and Tikkun Leil Shabbat joint Simchat Torah celebration, 10/11/17.

“Babylon” (Bavel) means many things in Judaism and in U.S. popular culture. Join “A Song Every Day” in Exploring Babylon over the next 40 weeks.

 

Which Side Are You On?

Background on the song/chant —

Florence Reece (more here) wrote “Which side are you on?” lyrics in 1931 as part of labor organizing effort —

Freedom Singers adapted it for the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement —

A version of this is still used, as in #BlackBrunch in Oakland (above), but protestors in the Movement for Black Lives also use a combination song and chant, as in this snippet:

Chant: [Example Leader] was a Freedom Fighter
who taught us how to fight
We gonna fight all day and night
until we get it right

Sing: Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?
We’re on the freedom side!

Learning to See

Where one lives plays a crucial role in determining access to opportunity, and learning to see “opportunity” and its effects is an important part of understanding our world and how to pursue justice in it. “Opportunity mapping,” a creation of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, helps us visualize access to education, health, employment, housing, transportation, and public safety.

Students in the “Mapping Inequity in DC” class at the Maret School in the District of Columbia created an Opportunity Map, under the director of their teacher, Ayo Heinegg Maywood. The results, even for people who knew — or at least suspected — the expected outcome, are staggering. Here is what the students tell us:

This opportunity map suggests that in the 2010-14 period, opportunity (access to quality health, education, housing, public safety, and employment) is clearly concentrated geographically in the Northwest of Washington DC (particularly ward 3), an area that is disproportionately white and wealthy.
— visit “Opportunity Map for DC” for much more detail

This information is relevant to all who live, work, or worship in the District — and to those who otherwise care about the city and its residents, as well as anyone who just wants to understand how “opportunity” works. It’s of special interest to Temple Micah, a synagogue less than one mile from Maret.

The congregation, originally located in Southwest and called “Southwest Hebrew Congregation,” changed its name to “Temple Micah” — to reflect the prophet’s vision that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” — in 1968. In 1995, after a struggle to find an existing worship space for renovation or land for building near the old location, Temple Micah moved quite a distance, to the Glover Park neighborhood (Northwest DC, in Ward 3).

Social Justice efforts, including some partnerships with organizations in the “old neighborhood,” have long been central to Temple Micah. But the “new” location — that is, Temple Micah’s home for more than two decades! — brings different realities. One of them is that the congregation is now firmly situated within the area that Maret students found to be “disproportionately white and wealthy.”

The work of Maret’s “Opportunity Map” project is helping us visualize what most of us have long known, but may not have seen quite so clearly, about our own city and our place in it. Read more in this sermon — known in Hebrew as dvar [word of] Torah — which focuses on the call to keep our hands open to the poor and needy (Re’eh, Deut. 11:26-16:17):

  • How we visualize and speak about people in poverty is part of caring for the needy.
  • How we see circumstances and history contributing to poverty influences the flow of blessing; and
  • Paying attention to whom we view as brothers is part of how we train our hearts and hands and minds to respond.

Especially as we head into the season of reflection and repentance, the information in this mapping project can help us better understand our world and its needs.

 

opportunity