[updated 8/15] At the invitation of Temple Micah‘s Lunch and Learn program (8/10/16), I shared some thoughts about Jews and Racial Justice. I appreciate the opportunity. As promised, I offer the references cited for anyone who wants to explore further: Jews and Racial Justice reference page. I also include below a link to the SongRiseDC […]

I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and […]

With the new week, we begin a third leg in our journey away from oppression, and so shift focus to a new aspect of divinity. The first week focused on Chesed [“loving-kindness”]. The second, on Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries,” sometimes “judgement”]. The third, “Tiferet” [“beauty”], is said to combine the first two. On its own chesed and gevurah are each untenable: in individual lives and in the universe as a whole a non-stop flow of loving-kindness leaves no room for boundaries; unmitigated strength leaves no room for compassion. The third attribute of God, and this third week of the Omer count, represent a balancing of forces.

In the early days of this omer journey, we focused on knowing as an act of loving-kindness, moving away from the moral deficiency of not-knowing — as when Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph (his country’s past) — in the early Exodus story. In the second week, we focused on strength required to persevere in the face of oppression and complex boundaries of gender and race.

To launch the third week, here are two potentially “balancing” thoughts —

one from bell hooks on Black women and feminism:

Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
— bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981.) p.6

and one from Avivah Zornberg on subjectivity and post-slavery views of a “good Land”:

bewildermentsThe world cannot be seen without ‘interference.’ According to a classic Talmudic description, Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

[Moses sees the land as “good.”] But the people are driven by fantasies and anxieties that make goodness an issue of love and hate; the Land represents other questions about themselves, the world, and God. No demonstration of lush fruit can ever lay rest the efes [however] coiled within them. Moses’ dream of vindication cannot address their need. For them, a journey will have proved necessary, if they are to find a way of speaking of the good Land with all their heart.
— Avivah Zornberg. Bewilderments. (NY: Schocken, 2015), p.134, 146

We counted 14 on the evening of April 17. Tonight, we count….
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With the final days of Passover, we come to the end of the omer’s first week, focusing on God’s attribute of Chesed [loving-kindness]. We began this week considering the “not-knowing” at the start of the Exodus story, what David Silber called “callousness and a lack of sensitivity,” a “moral deficiency.” We explored Moses’ “capacity to twist his neck,” to see what others missed, as an impetus for redemption. Meanwhile, the news conspired to graphically illustrate — for all to see in ways that seem impossible to refute — how easy it has been for police to create, and much of the population to acquiesce in believing, an oppression-affirming view that is the opposite of the “trouble to see” with which redemption begins.

An Old Pattern Caught

For some, the story of Walter Scott — a Black man apparently gunned down in cold blood by police and then vilified in police and subsequent media reports — is a shock. For some, however, it’s an old pattern that just happened to be caught by video this time:

[A piece of fiction:]
Earlier today DC police fatally shot a mentally ill man in Petworth after a brief stand-off in front of the man’s home….

…Witnesses say that police stopped the recent transplant from the South-Side of Chicago for unknown reasons. “The dude was clearly nervous. From across the street it looked like he was scared of police and was wearing a dark hoodie,” says neighbor and eye witness Mark St. Claire….

*update: post originally said that victim was armed….
*update: post originally identified the victim as only 3/5ths of a person.
*update: post was originally titled “Another Dead Nigger.”
— from “Mentally ill man fatally shot in Petworth,” by Aaron Goggans
on the Well-Examined Life, December 2014

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‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ (Exodus 3:3) …this “turning” is a torsion of the neck, a deliberate motion out of the straight, the stiff: Moses said, Let me turn aside to see…Rabbi Jonathan said, “He took three steps;” Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said, “He […]


Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” plays a big role in Exodus, providing a framework for the ten plagues, the eventual freeing of the Israelites from bondage, and serious disaster for biblical Egypt. Policies like “zero tolerance” in schools and mandatory sentences in the United States today are a kind of judicial “hardened heart.” It’s our job to find a way to “let the people go.”
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The story of Exodus opens with state-mandated oppression and violence against a rapidly growing minority population, increasingly feared by the ruling majority (brief summary). Women of different communities and classes engage in resistance, separately and jointly, that eventually leads to toppling of the entire system.

From Violence to Resistance

Today, many in the U.S. are calling for acknowledgement of “the structural violence and institutional discrimination that continues to imprison our communities either in a life of poverty and/or one behind bars,” and recognition of “the full spectrum of our human rights and its obligations under international law.” Black Lives Matter addresses

…a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise….an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression….we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.

Midwives Shifrah and Puah act against the state, we are told, because “they feared God,” prompting them to act in preservation of life. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg elaborates:

…the very extremity of the edict forces a new moral vision upon the midwives, a radical choice between life and death. Disobedience to Pharaoh becomes more than merely a refusal to kill, it becomes a total dedication to nourishing life.
— Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p.23 (full citation)

Similarly, I think, the Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter exhorts us:

…when Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state, we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.

Pledging Resistance?

Ferguson Action is asking individuals to declare 2015 their “year of resistance.”

I pledge to make 2015 my year of resistance to state violence against Black lives.

I challenge myself and those in my community to take risks as we confront the many ways that Black lives are diminished and taken from us….

This year, I will declare boldly and loudly through my words and actions, that #BlackLivesMatter.
Ferguson Action Pledge

Does Exodus — with its powerful examples of resistance — call us to anything less?
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