The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

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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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Jews: Ditch “stay safe and healthy”

Dear Fellow Jews:

Please stop telling one another to “stay safe and health,” without acknowledging the immense privilege of a roof, space to physically distance, and access to personal protective equipment, like clean masks; resources and a network able to support you in time of need; historic access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare; and, if you’re so fortunate: an environment where gun violence, domestic violence, and other “epidemics” were not already at work before Covid-19 arrived.

Maybe start saying, instead: “Stay concerned and compassionate.”

Perhaps add:

“We are in a wilderness [bemidbar] — every day of this pandemic and in our Torah reading cycle, and we are out here to learn something new about being in a diverse community thriving in challenging circumstances.”

Start acknowledging every day, in some new way, the deep inequities that accompany us on this journey, the disparities in the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 depending on where we live, the color of our skin, our immigration status, our gender expression, our physical abilities, and many other factors.

“Wherever you are, it’s probably Mitzrayim [“The Narrow Place,” biblical Egypt]” has been a catch-phrase for many of us since Michael Walzer published Exodus and Revolution in 1986. We have found inspiration in the image Walzer presented of a disparate group “joining together and marching” toward something better. But that image has, for far too long, tricked the comfortable among us into thinking we are marching toward equality and justice, when we’re, in reality, dragging the whole of that Narrow Place along with us.

In this pandemic, that fantasy “marching together” obscures deep, dangerous differences in how our various communities are faring. In DC compare, for example, the number of Covid-19 cases per 1000 people, in these locations:

Woodley Park: 3.5
Adas Israel Congregation, National Zoo
Historic Anacostia: 11.3
Big Chair, We Act Radio/Charnice Milton Community Bookstore (my work)

Cathedral Heights: 3.1
near Temple Micah, Washington National Cathedral
Fort Lincoln: 21.0
Prince Georges county line, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Shepherd Park: 15.8
Ohev Sholom, Tifereth Israel, and Fabrangen
Petworth: 14.8
New Synagogue Project
Brightwood/Brightwood Park: 19.1/22.6
southeast of Shepherd Park, northwest of Petworth

Capitol Hill: 2.6
Hill Havurah
Hill East: 4.5
Mount Moriah Baptist Church (interfaith partner of Hill Havurah), my home
Stadium Armory: 69.0
includes DC Jail, Harriet Tubman women’s shelter

For these and more data, review this interactive map of Washington DC Corona Virus Positives as of 5/15/20.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 8.44.58 AM

If you live elsewhere, to paraphrase Michael Walzer: it’s likely no different in essence.

Stop saying “we’re all in this together”
and start working to create a world
where that might be just a tiny bit more accurate.

 

Let us keep in mind some teachings of the oft-cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the prophet Amos whom they both studied and often quoted:

God does not reveal [Godself] in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.

The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God.

All men care for the world; the prophet cares for God’s care….Sympathy opens man to the living God. Unless we share [God’s] concern, we know nothing about the living God.
The Prophets, vol. II (1962), p.3, 11, 284

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.
– “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)

Because you trample on the poor…
I know how manifold are your transgressions
Hate the evil,
and love the good,
and establish justice in the gate;
Let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
– Amos 5:10, 12, 15, 24



To learn more about what’s going on in the DC area, visit Black Coalition Against Covid and Many Languages One Voice. And here is a brief overview of Jewish congregational offerings to learn more and/or get involved.

See also see related text and podcasts at Rereading Exodus.

And please share this.



The current weekly reading in the annual Torah cycle is “Bedmidbar,” usually translated as “in the wilderness,” or, sometimes: “desert.” The Book of Numbers 1:1-4:20.
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There’s Glory for You! — Part 2

In “The Spirit of Prayer,” Abraham Joshua Heschel warned:

It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English; it is not enough to have met a word in the dictionary and to have experienced unpleasant adventures with it in the study of grammar. A word has soul and we must learn how to attain insight into its life.
— see previous post for citation

Translation alone may not be enough, but it can give us some insight into the life of a word or a phrase.

In the previous look at “kavod” in Psalm 30, we saw the word translated in Jewish versions as “glory,” “depths,” “soul,” “whole being,” and just plain “I.” Here, for additional perspectives, are some Christian translations and notes for verse 13 (or 12 — NOTE: Christian scholars generally do not count superscriptions as verses in psalms, so the numbering differs by one from Jewish sources) of the psalm.

More Translations

The book of psalms from the original Hebrew with various readings and notes by the late Alexander Geddes, LL. D (1807):

Therefore I will praise thee, my glory!
Never will I be silent in thy praise
[“f” — as in “filent in thy praife” — changed to “s” for readability]

The Greek interpreters read another word, the English of which is honour; as if the psalmist had said, thou hadst so firmly established mine honour; and this reading by some late translators. The other I think more poetical and expressive – Ver. 12. I will praise thee, my glory!

The present Hebrew runs thus: Glory will praise thee, and will not be silent. But the Syriac translator read both verbs in the first person; and I have no doubt of his being the original lection.

— Geddes, p.46 (London: printed for J. Johnson in St. Paul’s Courtyard by Richard Taylor & Co, Shoe-Lane)

Bay Psalm Book being the earliest New England Version (1862):

That sing to thee my glory may
and may not silent be
Lord my God I will give thanks
evermore to thee

The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary offers two readings:

  • many, with the Septuagint (LXXX), “my glory” for “that my glory should make music to you and not be silent,” taken as a reference to “his soul restored in royal glory.”
  • others “change the vowels to give ‘my liver’ and then render ‘my heart,’”
    — J.H. Eaton, The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary
    (T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint 2003), p.143

NIV Study Bible (1985) gives us, “that my heart may sing to you and not be silent,” with the following footnotes:

[30:12] heart. Lit. “glory (see note on 7:5)

[7:5] me. Lit. “my glory,” a way of referring to the core of one’s being (see 16:9; 30:12; 57:8; 108:1 and notes).

Most of the 50+ translations available through “Bible Gateway” similarly use “heart” or “soul,” a few “glory” or “whole being.” But there are also more interpretive offerings:

  • To the end that my tongue and my heart and everything glorious within me may sing praise to You and not be silent.
    Amplified Bible (1965-1987)
  • You have restored my honor. My heart is ready to explode, erupt in new songs! It’s impossible to keep quiet!
    The VOICE (2012)
  • How could I be silent when it’s time to praise you?
    Now my heart sings out loud, bursting with joy—
    a bliss inside that keeps me singing,
    “I can never thank you enough!”
    Passion Translation (2017)


Beyond Translation

“…There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you….”
more on “glory” Through the Looking Glass

Whatever English is chosen to translate “kavod,” or however we relate to the Hebrew directly, one aspect of its life seems to be that it is antithetical to silence. All the tribulations in the psalm — enemy triumph, the underworld or the pit, God’s anger and hiding of God’s face, mourning and sackcloth — cannot keep it from singing.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches a practice to help in “finding the glory inside and pouring it out to God.” She asks us to “examine what it is that silences that glory,” and then “look beneath the obstacle” for the “glory that wants to be acknowledged and celebrated.” Here’s her chanting practice for this verse.

In that sense, we’re all part Alice, waiting for Humpty Dumpty to tell us what “kavod” means in the context of the psalm, and part Humpty Dumpty, knowing that it’s up to us to identify whatever obstacles are blocking our own glory in this particular instance.


16 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. apologies to anyone who finds multiple-post days too much.

There’s Glory for You! – Part 1

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Rabbi Diane Elliot noted, a few posts back, her practice of taking “the time to work with a word or a phrase” from the prayers and then using that “backstory” when returning to the same prayer in other settings (“Wordless Verses“). Abraham Joshua Heschel also wrote, addressing fellow rabbis in 1953, about the importance of spending time with individual words in the prayers:

We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayerbook….A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life….We forgot how to find the way to the word, how to be on intimate terms with a few passages in the prayerbook. Familiar with all the words, we are intimate with none.
— “The Spirit of Prayer” (citation)

One of the many words and phrases worth pausing to consider in Psalm 30 is “glory” —

לְמַעַן, יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד– וְלֹא יִדֹּם
יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי, לְעוֹלָם אוֹדֶךָּ
So that my glory may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent;
O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto Thee for ever.
— Ps. 30:13 (1917 JPS translation; others below)

 

Translating “Glory,” Part 1

To begin, it is usually instructive to notice where translators vary in rendering a particular phrase. Verse 13 yields a lot of variety. Here is a selection of Jewish translations, offered in reverse chronological order:

  1. that I might sing of Your glory and not be silent:
    ADONAI my God, I thank You, always
    — Rabbinical Assembly, Siddur Lev Shalem, 2016
  2. that my soul may sing Your praises and never cease.
    I will acknowledge You forever, LORD my God.
    — R. Eli Cashdan, Koren Tehillim, 2015
  3. So that my depths might sing out to you and never be stilled,
    God, my Help, I will spill out gratitude to you forever.
    — Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms, 2010
  4. Therefore my glory will sing praise to You, and will not be silent.
    O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to You forever.
    The Jerusalem Commentary, Mosad Harav Kook, 2003 (see note)
  5. that I might sing praise to You. I will not be silent!
    Adonai my God, I will laud you forever!
    My People’s Prayer Book, Lawrence Hoffman (ed) 2001
  6. That I might sing Your praises unceasingly,
    that I might thank You, Adonai my God, forever
    — R. Jules Harlow 1985 trans, adapted for Or Hadash 1998
  7. that [my] whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly;
    O LORD my God, I will praise You forever.
    — JPS 1985 (via Sefaria); 1917 JPS (via Mechon-Mamre) is above

NOTES from The Jerusalem Commentary (source #4 above):
“The expression ‘glory will sing, praise to You, and will not be silent,’ implies that the silence of grief will be turned into a song of gladness, and thus this verse is a continuation of what was stated in the previous verse, ‘You loosened my sackcloth…’

“Some commentaries explain the word כָּבוֹד, kavod, to mean ‘I myself,’ like כְּבוֹדִי, k’vodi.” [cf. commentary on 7:6 where note explains that “my glory” or “my honor,” like “my soul,” means just plain, “me.”]

So, we have kavod translated as:

  • glory,
  • depths,
  • soul,
  • whole being, and
  • just plain “I.”

More soon…


15 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. apologies to anyone who finds multiple-post days too much.

NOTE:
“The Spirit of Prayer” was published in the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America [Conservative], Vol. XVII, 1953, and reprinted as a pamphlet. Eventually (1996), the lecture was included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (See Source Materials)
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Mishpatim: Racism and Idolatry

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim ([Laws], Exodus 21:1-24:18), warns us severely and often about evils of racism. The bible knew no such word, of course, and, ironically, this portion also contains material that appears to accept “bondage” as a normal part of [ancient] life. But messages about racial justice and related concepts are nonetheless there, and quite strong, if we look carefully.

“God’s wrath” and “idolatry”

The biblical expression “divine wrath” is reserved for cases of idolatry on the part of the whole Nation, according to Maimonides and later scholars. And this understanding calls us to avoid afflicting “widows and orphans”:

In our case [Exodus 22:23: “My wrath will burn (וְחָרָה אַפִּי)”], the same expression is deliberately used in order to equate the affliction of the orphan and the widow to idolatry, teaching us that there is no crime greater than this.
New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz, p.395

Many teachers understand “widows and orphans” as a biblical expression meaning “the most vulnerable among us,” which surely includes victims of hundreds of years of racism in the U.S. From a somewhat more literal perspective, black communities today include too many widows and orphans, as well as grieving mothers and traumatized communities.

Moreover, idolatry and racism are directly connected:

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.

“Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man” (Reinhold Niebuhr), a treacherous denial of the existence of God.

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Conference on “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)

Both Heschel and Leibowitz stress, based on ancient tradition, that being silent in the face of oppression is as serious as committing the crime ourselves. (No time to explore this further right now — Shabbat is almost upon us — but will return to this theme.)

Strangers

This portion is also one in which we are warned about not oppressing a stranger, reminded again and again that we were once strangers in Egypt.

In addition, we are warned against “false reports” and “running with the multitude,” both of which seem obviously connected to racism. (Again, time has run out for now. More later.)
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“Church Synagogue Have Failed. They Must Repent.”

“Church synagogue have failed. They must repent….We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel telegraphed to President John F. Kennedy on July 16, 1963. Heschel called on the president to declare a “state of moral emergency.”

Heschel told Kennedy that race problems were “like the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” He then asks the president to issue a variety of demands:

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 synagogue 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 state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
— telegram can be found here, along with additional study resources on related topics from the American Jewish World Service’s “on1foot” pages.

Fifty years later, some of Heschel’s suggestions may sound odd. Do we ever speak of “national repentance,” for example? But his call for declaring a “moral emergency” in this country seems all too appropriate:

  • police brutality is a both a legal and a moral emergency;
  • suppression of the press is a constitutional emergency;
  • and the underlying racism is an emergency on every level.

Is any Jewish, or other faith, leader making a similar call at this time? (Please share any such.)

Perhaps individual faith community members must call out to their leaders. And I think we can start by asking our faith communities to ensure that Ferguson MO — and every other police department in this country — gets the message: “The whole world is watching.”

 

Some “actions” and study materials

Amnesty International’s call for investigation of police brutality

Change.Org petition to U.S. Atty Genl for national action on police brutality

ACLU materials on key issues, including racial profiling, the right to protest, and police practices

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice Campaign Against Police Brutality

Showing up for racial justice and their Police Brutality Action Kit

See also, high schoolers’ new mobile app to rate law enforcement

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Something Borrowed, Something Blue: prayer shawls and fringes

Rami bar Tamri, a traveler from another town, engaged in behavior contrary to local custom and apparently contrary to Jewish law. He was brought before R. Hisda. After inquiring into several other matters, R. Hisda asked Rami bar Tamri why his coat was missing tzitzit [required ritual fringes].

[Rami] replied. ‘The coat is borrowed, and Rab Judah has said. A borrowed coat is, for the first thirty days, exempt from the zizith.’ While this was going on a man was brought in [to the court] for not honouring his father and mother. They bound him [to have him flogged], whereupon [Rami] said to them. ‘Leave him alone, for it has been taught. Every commandment which carries its reward by its side does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court below.’** Said [R. Hisda] to him. ‘I see that you are very sharp.’ He replied. ‘If only you would come to Rab Judah’s school I would show you how sharp I am!’
— Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 110a-110b

**The commandment to honor parents is listed with its reward “by its side”: “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12)

Leaving for another day’s discussion the relationship of tzitzit, commandment and reward…
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