Decades ago, Yehuda Amichai wrote about the diameter of a bomb — thirty centimeters, with circles of pain outward from its center. (English here). Similarly, every bullet leaves pain in circles rippling outward. We also know that kindness has a ripple effect, and many people think prayer works this way, too. The 20th Century rabbi […]
“Do not put a stumbling-block before the blind.” This commandment prohibits anything that “gives the means, or prepares the way for wrong,” according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (see Carmi Wisemon’s essay at My Jewish Learning).
There are so many ways in which language can “give the means, or prepare the way for wrong.” And changes to our usage can mean big differences in the way we think and act.
Many of us have seen changes in our lifetime in some of the harmful ways language was employed in early decades. For example, we no longer use “he” to stand for “one” (of any gender) and rarely see locutions like “lady-doctor.” This has helped to address some forms of sexism. But there are many ways in which our language continues to place stumbling blocks in front of us all, including in acceptance of varieties in gender expression. And this is no mere “semantics” issue. How language views certain groups of people translates into rights, respect, and basic safety issues.
The questions raised in yesterday’s post are primarily ones of language: When does language include people and when does it elide over difference? Usage can contribute to acceptance or promote danger for various groups.
Are we experiencing an “uprising” in Baltimore, finally after decades of oppression, or are some random “thugs” rioting? (Just one piece to consider)
Was the Boston Tea Party about revolution or property damage?
Vocabulary in such cases is everything and can mean, ultimately, a difference between life and death.
We counted 24 on the evening of April 27. Tonight, we count….
In his masterpiece of prose poetry, Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:
…All the creeds that persecution harassed out of Europe find sanctuary on this [Chicago] ground, where no racial prejudice is permitted to stand up.
We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.
The Negro is not seriously confronted here with a stand-up and head-on hatred, but with something psychologically worse: a soft and protean awareness of white superiority everywhere, in everything, the more infuriating because it is as polite as it is impalpable. Nobody even thought such a thing, my dear.
— in “Love is for Barflies,”
p.45 60th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chgo Press, 1951)
Algren’s brilliant expression — “No racial prejudice is permitted to stand up. We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.” — remains all too apt, across much of the U.S.
Does the persistence of this reality have implications for our prayers?
(This post was edited and amended after initial publication.)
Algren’s Chicago, 1951 and 1961
In 1951, Algren quotes Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown, and White” — “If you’re white, awright…if you’re black, step back” — and continues, telling Black Chicagoans to expect higher rents, and warning:
And no one will ever name the restaurants you mustn’t eat in nor the bars you mustn’t drink at….Make your own little list. Of the streets you mustn’t live on, the hotels where you can’t register, the office you can’t work in and the unions you can never join.
— ibid, p.46
Major Chicago reviewers at the time said the work exhibited a “distorted, partial, unenviable slant” and demanded “revocation of the author’s poetic license.” But ten years later Algren only marveled at others’ failure to recognize what he saw, in 1951 and 1961. In the 1961, he wrote:
One cannot help but wonder what the reaction might have been had the book cut in closer to what the lives of multitudes are really like on the city’s South and West sides. This book didn’t begin to tell that story a decade ago; and the story is fully as terrible today as then.
— ibid, pp.95-97
(Google Books offers a substantial preview)
Bilhah and Zilpah, Text and Prayer
At the start of the week (see “Beyond 21“), we began to explore the idea of including Bilhah and Zilpah, the concubines of Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes, in the opening blessing of the Standing Prayer.
Most prayer books used in non-orthodox congregations have included the four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in the blessing that calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers (and mothers),” at least as an option, for many years. But most prayer books do not include the maids at this point:
- Does listing all six mothers foster a sense of inclusion?
- Or does it serve to gloss over difference, given that backgrounds of Bilhah and Zilpah are not addressed in the biblical text?
- Does including Bilhah and Zilpah in the blessing raise their status and our awareness of their contributions?
- Or does it make their inferior legal and social status invisible?
- Is adding Bilhah and Zilpah an act against allowing prejudice to stand?
- Or is it asking it to “go at a fast crawl, the long way around”?
A few thoughts to further consideration —
Orthodox prayer books do not include any of the mothers in the Amidah, retaining ancient language and often noting that the phrase “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” is biblical (Ex. 3:6) and so not to be amended. Chabad notes, in addition, that Bilhah and Zilpah had souls “not as lofty as the Matriarchs” and act as “agents of Rachel and Leah” when they bear children.
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) is a NY community that “attracts and welcomes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer and straight individuals and families who share common values. Their Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, With All Your Heart, includes Bilhah and Zilpah, “recognizing all of our mothers, not just the ‘legally married ones.'”
The Movement for Reform Judaism (UK) points out that the addition has been controversial, adding a note from a classical source:
A powerful rabbinic midrash asks the question why the children of Israel had to endure slavery in Egypt. It answers that the sons of Rachel and Leah dismissed the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah on the grounds that they were the children of slaves and of less worth. By experiencing slavery in Egypt all the descendents of Jacob were made equal in this regard.
“Prayer Book in the Making“
What, if anything, does including Bilhah and Zilpah say about our understanding of oppression and how to move beyond it?
More to come.
We counted 23 on the evening of April 26. Tonight, we count….
Is the call “No Justice, No Peace” a threat or a prayer? “encapsulation of the lex talionis, an eye for an eye,” as Pat Buchanan says? a a statement of fact?
This commentary on the Sim Shalom, the closing blessing and prayer for peace, at the end of the Amidah [Standing Prayer] discusses the Barcheinu Avinu verse: “Bless all of us as one, through the light of Your Presence.”
teaching from Shlomo Carlebach on “Sim Shalom”
found on the Album “Songs of Peace” (recorded: 1973)
[Begins singing “Barcheinu Avinu,”
verse near the beginning of “Sim Shalom,”
then pauses for this teaching]
If I ask God: “Please give me, give me money, give me health” —
it is possible that I should be healthy,
but, God forbid, the rest of the world should not be.
I could be rich,
but the whole world, God forbid, can be poor.
But there is one precious thing I cannot ask God
just give it to me and not to the rest of the world,
and that is peace.
For it’s for the whole world or it isn’t there at all.
Because peace comes from such a high place in heaven,
it is only given to the whole world.
It’s not given to individuals, because it’s God Himself.
And now the thing is, there are a lot of lights in the world.
If I ask God: “Please put light into my soul, put light into my life,”
the question is: Where is this light coming from?
If I’m just asking for myself,
then the light comes from a very low place.
Everybody knows, everybody knows,
when we davven [pray] Shemona Esrei [“18”/Amidah]
three times a day, we ask all our needs.
But at the end we say: “Please, Almighty, Sim Shalom
– Let there be peace.”
And then we say: “Barcheinu avinu – please bless me**,”
but “kulanu ki echad – all of us like one
– b’or panecha – with Your light.”
Because the light of God is only for the whole world:
it’s the light of peace, the light of love, the light of shabbes [sabbath].
So join me….
[Returns to singing again “Barcheinu Avinu”]
** more grammatically:
“bless us, Our Father [or Parent]”
Recalling Psalms 85:11 —
חֶסֶד-וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ; צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ.
“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”
— what does Shlomo’s teaching tell us about the call “No Justice, No Peace”?
We counted 22 on the evening of April 25. Tonight, we count….
A story is the easiest, and, I hope, clearest, way for me to convey this thought to open the week of Netzach [“eternity,” also leadership] in the omer journey away from oppression. (apologies for length)
At this morning’s worship service, Temple Micah‘s Rabbi Zemel pointed participants’ attention to the following note, a kavanah [focusing intention] before the Standing Prayer:
Rabbi Ammi taught: A person’s prayer is not acceptable unless one’s heart is in one’s hands. (Taanit 8a)
— Mishkan T’filah, p.243
I attempted to approach the Amidah’s opening blessing in that spirit.
The opening blessing calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers and mothers” and “brings redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name.” Mishkan T’filah includes the matriarchs — “God of Sarah, …Rivkah, …Rachel, and God of Leah” — here. But it does not mention Bilhah and Zilpah, concubines to Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes of Israel.
A Heavy Heart
For some years, I included the names of Bilhah and Zilpah myself in an effort to honor them and the many “fathers and mothers,” Jews or non-Jews, who contribute to the community over the centuries. But a few years ago I stopped on the theory that this, however inadvertently, led to erasing the history of oppression.
Ignoring race or underdog status in an attempt at inclusiveness, I reasoned, can have a negative impact, allowing those of more powerful or privileged status to forget that the underdog/slave still carries effects of that (former?) status.
Nowadays, instead of including the six mothers as equals in the list, I’ve taken to pausing after calling on “God of Abraham…God of Leah,” to specifically call on “God of the Ancestors of all with whom we’ve traveled.”
A note from Judith Z. Abrams on the opening blessing explains
The content of this prayer has to do with the merit of our ancestors. This is traditionally conceived of as a sort of bank account into which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs deposited funds of righteousness that were so great that they covered all future generations.
— Mishkan T’filah, p.244
And, if we’re to invoke the merit of all the ancestors, there are some debts owing as well. So, this morning, I found that my heart, in hand, grew heavy as I invoked the God of all the Ancestors.
By the time I reached Sim Shalom, the closing blessing and prayer for peace, I could hear the wails of so many oppressed descendants of those Ancestors calling on God to “bless all of us as one, through the light of Your Presence” that I wondered how others seemed (apparently) unaware of the din filling the sanctuary.
In many prayerbooks (outside the Reform Movement), the prayer for peace includes the ancient priestly blessing:
May GOD bless you and keep you.
May GOD shine his face toward you and treat you graciously.
May GOD lift his face toward you and grant you peace (from Numbers 6:26).
Priests — and in some communities, all the participants — accompany this blessing with an open-fingered gesture. (See right>>>) And so I got to thinking after the service about open fingers and hearts in hand.
I decided to look up Rabbi Ammi’s teaching in the Babylonian Talmud:
R. Ammi said: A man’s prayer is only answered if he takes his heart into his hand, as it is said, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands” (Lam 3:41). [But a teaching of Samuel asks: Do we not also read] “…For their heart was not steadfast with Him, neither were they faithful in His covenant; and yet, But He being full of compassion, forgiveth iniquity etc.” (Psalms 78:36-38)? — This is no contradiction. The one refers to the individual, and the other to the community.
— Soncino translation, from Halakhah.com
[I added quotation marks for the biblical verses; see also note below]
Samuel uses Psalm 78 to suggest that a community can be answered, even when its collective heart is not steadfast — which seems a great mercy.
Loving-Kindness in Leadership
Today is the day of Chesed in Netzach, loving-kindness in eternity or leadership. And in the spirit of this day, I ask:
- What is the relationship of heart in hands and an open-fingered prayer?
- Can individuals — priests or, in some understandings, all of us — bring blessings on the whole community if our own hearts are in our own hands? Are our own hearts impediments? or an aid to opening our fingers?
- What does it mean that Rabbi Ammi’s proof-text is in the plural “lift up our heart with our hands”? Is there, somehow a collective communal heart and an individual one?
- And, finally: Who else finds the heart they bring to prayer a heavy one these days? And how can we work together to help bring blessing with, or in spite of, that weight?
We counted 21 on the evening of April 24. Tonight, we count….
Lamentations 3:41 —
נִשָּׂא לְבָבֵנוּ אֶל-כַּפָּיִם, אֶל-אֵל בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.
The bracketed material above:
[But it is not so. Surely]18 Samuel appointed an amora19 to
act for him and his exposition ran thus:
with these notes —
(18) So Bomberg ed. and inserted in cur. edd. in square brackets, p. 33 n. 1.
(19) Same as Meturgeman. V. supra p. 12, n. 4.
And the supra note on “meturgeman” —
The translator or interpreter. The function of this official in Talmudic times was to interpret to the audience in the Synagogue in a popular manner and to enlarge upon the theme of the rabbi lecturing. Rashi, feeling that in our passage no such official could be referred to, explains that here the lecturing rabbi and interpreter are one and the same person, he who lectures on the first day of Passover, and that he included in his address a prayer for rain. V. however, the commentary of R. Hananel ad loc.
Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption [“Mi Chamocha“] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b
We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
— David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.
“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)
This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”
Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”
— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)
Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.