Lights for Liberty: An Intention

Rabbi Yose son of Judah taught: Two ministering angels, one good and one evil, accompany a person home on the Sabbath eve. If a lamp is burning, table set, and seating arranged, the good angel says, “May it be thus on the next Sabbath,” and the evil angel unwillingly answers “amen.” If not, the evil angel says, “May it be thus on the next Sabbath,” and the good angel unwillingly answers “amen.” (based on B. Shabbat 119b)

For too many Sabbaths, our national home has been devoid of safety, nourishment, and comfort for those seeking refuge and asylum, and for many others in our midst. Each week of these conditions reinforces toleration of the same next week, with our good angels, however unwillingly, answering “amen.” This Friday, we gather for a turning point, calling forth new and better angels.

In the spirit of “Lights for Liberty,” in Washington DC and beyond, a prayer:

Holy One, wherever lamps are burning,
tables set, and seating arranged on Sabbath Eve,
nurture those gatherings;
inspire all who experience this sanctuary in time
to renewed effort toward safety, nourishment, and comfort for all.

Hear this, too, Holy One —
wherever light is lacking,
food sparse, and conditions rough this week,
accept no prayer — angel or human — on our behalf for a continuation of suffering.
Let no appearance of indifference, helplessness, or political confusion
be understood as a plea in our name for the perpetuation of evil.

Holy One, we welcome the Sabbath
in gratitude for its peace and blessing
and we dedicate ourselves, and beg Your help,
to extend that peace and blessing to those most in need.
Help us, as we work to end the horrors perpetuated in our name.
May this week’s lamps and tables and seating persist and multiply. And we all say: Amen

For study passages and another prayer, visit Jews United for Justice resource page. Here is a PDF of this kavanah with Talmudic introduction (not shared on the JUFJ website).

Visit http://www.lightsforliberty.org for details of July 12 anti-Concentration Camp gatherings around the country.

Visit https://jufj.org for details about DC- and Baltimore-area Jewish justice efforts.

Visit https://www.neveragainaction.com/ for national Jewish responses.

Is Our Blood Redder? Synagogue Security and Police Alliance

Thoughts, fears, and tears following a recent class on “How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

The June 5 panel included presentations from several local congregations on issues faced in deciding on security measures, as well as comments from a community security advisor. Brief notes on their initial presentations appear below. The main points included ensuring that Jewish values are considered in decision-making (Garfinkel, Fabrangen), attempting to protect diversity of all kinds within a congregation (Zeilinger, Tifereth Israel), and “acknowledging that other people in the country who want to do you harm” (Apostolou, Ohev Sholom). Some of the discussion included attempts to make congregations welcoming spaces across difference, but each presentation included the importance of creating a close alliance with police.

I had the opportunity to query what it means to ask Jews to enter into an alliance with police, when we know police do not necessarily ensure the safety of Black people, queer people and others or enhance feelings of safety for many. Responses to this query are below within each panelists remarks. While two of the three congregational responses included some level of concern about alliance with police, one panelist actively dismissed the concern, repeating, “Who else are you going to call?”

For anyone concerned about privacy: The class was video-taped, and a Washington Jewish Week reporter was present throughout.


The Unasked Question

Throughout the class, and especially throughout responses to my query about alliance with police, I could not shake the question: “Is your blood redder?” But no one on the panel or in the class asked it aloud, and no one but me raised objections or even questioned an alliance with police…. Instead, most people laughed when heavily armed MPD officers entered the room and someone said, “well, now this is the safest class in the city.”

I began to wonder if perhaps I had remember the Talmud passage incorrectly or had its basic meaning wrong. Here, for anyone who isn’t familiar or just wants to refresh, is the basic quotation:

…[An individual] came before Raba and said to him: “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill So-and-so, if not, I will kill you.’” Raba answered him: ‘Let him kill you rather than that you should commit murder; what [reason] do you see [for thinking] that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.’ — Talmud (Pesachim 23b, Sanhedrin 74a)

And here is one teaching that puts it in more context:

[Previous discussion points out that a Jew must accept martyrdom rather than engage in three behaviors: idol worship, forbidden sexual practices, and murder. (This is the text Jerry Garfinkel referenced in his remarks about Jewish values.)]

Two out of the three of these demands for martyrdom — the demand that one forfeit one’s life rather than worship idols or engage in forbidden sexual practices — are contested. In each, a biblical grounding is sought and presented. However, the demand that one allow oneself to be killed rather than murder another is based purely on s’vara, in argument rather than biblical precept:

And from where do we know [the prohibition concerning] the murderer himself? It is common sense. It is as the one who came before Rabbah and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘God and kill so and so; if not, I will kill you.” He said to him, “He should kill you and you should not kill; who would say that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.”

Turning the question around (“who is to say that your blood is redder,” rather than “who is to say his blood is redder”) essentially answers the question for Rabbah. If you are to actively take someone else’s life, then you have to be able to articulate an argument that shows that your life is more important than that of the other person. In order for you to claim the right to tip the balance in your favor, when you are on one side and another person is on the other, you have to have a substantial–or even overriding–reason. The instinct of self-preservation is not enough.

— Aryeh Cohen, “And Give You Peace” IN David Birnbaum & Martin S. Cohen Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly Blessing. NY: New Paradigm Matrix, 2016.

And here is another perspective, one that assumes we will likely never have to make such a life-and-death decision:

God willing, none of us will ever have to face so horrible a situation. Still, the Talmud’s insistence that other people’s blood is as important as our own should affect our daily behavior, even in non-life threatening situations. For example, those who push ahead of others in lines are likewise guilty of thinking that their blood is redder than others and that they need not wait their turn. Therefore, before you push your own interests at the expense of others, and assert that your time is more valuable, as yourself the question Rava posed to this man, “Do think that your blood is redder than his?”

— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Book of Values. NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2000, p.429.

I do appreciate that each congregation represented is endeavoring to, as Chris Zeilinger said, “doing the best we can.” I understand the struggles, fears, and hard realities that congregational security must face. I am deeply troubled, however, that the question of whose blood is redder does not seem to be taken as relevant.

Is this because the people involved do not believe that police are a threat to any within their congregations? to others in the city?

Is this because the people involved have simply resigned themselves to “who else are you going to call?” and refuse to consider other alternatives?

Can we, please, at least ask the question?

More Reading

For consideration, a few op-eds on related issues:

“Opinion: It’s Time For Jewish Communities To Stop Investing In The Police” from Lara Haft, 3/23/18.

“Op-Ed: On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism” by Brant Rosen, 12/2/18.

After Pittsburgh, Jewish Communities Need Community Defense, not Cops” by Lara Haft, 11/3/18

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice “Community Safety Pledge


How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

Jewish Study Center course announcement: Wednesday, June 5: Voices From the Community. Community security leaders discuss their practical experience balancing sacredness and security, especially in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting and rising concerns about anti-Semitism. Panel members: Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust who is Security Coordinator at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue. Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel is a retired mathematician who is Treasurer of the Jewish Study Center and Security Coordinator at the Fabrangen Havurah. Vera Krimnus is the DC Area Regional Manager of the Community Security Service (CSS) that provides security services to the Jewish Community, including training, physical security and raising public awareness about security issues. Chris Zeilinger is a US government transportation executive, a former president of Tifereth Israel Congregation and its Security Coordinator. If you have grappled with this issue in your own community, or felt its effects, come join the conversation!



Chris Zeilinger, from Tifereth Israel, shared in his initial presentation his own thoughts, and some from congregants, including how some members feel safer around a visible security presence and others find it “unwelcoming and scary.” He spoke about the congregation’s efforts to ensure welcome for Jews of color and Jews with different identities and expressions of Judaism. Zeilinger also addressed mental illness issues, both in families within the congregation and in individuals who might be seeking to visit or find succor in the congregation.

In response to my query about alliance with police, Zeilinger added that alleged perpetrators in synagogue shootings have “looked like me,” reiterating that they endeavor to make all Jews and visitors welcome, not to screen people out, and, ultimately “do the best we can.”

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Andrew Apostolou, of Ohev Sholom, says he does not consider the U.S. “his country,” and spoke about living in London. His original presentation warned that “security in the US is always considered secondary to something else,” including class expectations (people with “fancy degrees” shouldn’t have their Shabbat ruined by security worries) and younger generations having less focus on communal endeavors. He believes Jews, and the country at large, do not want to acknowledge potential threats.

Apostolou insisted: “If I don’t stand out front of my synagogue ready to call police, I don’t care about the community,” adding that “the ultimate line of defense is deadly force.”

In response to my query about police alliance, Apostolou argued that skin color and appearance are “irrelevant” in security and argued that issues around policing in the US are “domestic political issues” and not practical problems for someone providing synagogue security. He dismissed community solidarity safety efforts as “fodder” for automatic weapons, and repeated several times: “Who else are you going to call?”

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Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel, of Fabrangen Havurah, spoke in his initial remarks about life being paramount in Jewish values, citing the tradition that only three commandments are subordinate to preserving one’s own life: sexual immorality, idolatry, and murdering someone else (B. Sanhedrin 74a). He talked about working jointly with Muslims and other groups using the same building with Fabrangen in ensuring safety and said the goal was to “protect ourselves and others in the community.”

Garfinkel mentioned that Secure Communities Network , which oversees security for Jewish Federations, warned at a recent conference that arming citizens does not solve problems but causes more. He also stressed that the goal of security, as he understands it, is to prevent someone who means harm from entering the space.

In response to my police alliance query, Garfinkel stressed that all police involved in security for Fabrangen are minorities.

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Vera Krimnus, local representative of the Community Security Service, discussed how her organization works with congregations to arrange security. She argued that security is part of a welcoming environment, saying: “If I’m sitting there, worrying about the safety of my kids, is that really welcoming for me?”

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel, taught the first session of the two-part class (which I was unable to attend). Jerry Garfinkel very briefly summarized the class as follows: The community is responsible for security, and should provide it, taxing to do so if need be; however, this “must be done right,” without impeding people who need to use the space.

R. Alexander’s sources for the first session include texts focusing on why we build walls, who is responsible for them, and what to do when a wall blocks out poor people crying for help; whether weapons can be carried into sacred space, under what conditions; and responsibility for activity that may be dangerous to others.

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Some Say 400 Cubits: Slow Dancing with Talmud

I first learned the story of “The Oven of Akhnai” (B. Baba Metzia 59a-59b) in the context of Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, and her teaching about “the gate of wounded feelings.” I learned more about Rabbi Eliezer’s life, post-Akhnai, from a class on one of the Nine Talmudic Readings of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition, I’ve seen and heard the text referenced in many a commentary emphasizing that “Torah is not in heaven.” (See notes below on Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Levinas.) For the first time, however, I am now reading the story in a small community of learners grappling directly with the text as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud…

…word by word,
sometimes syllable by syllable,
through Aramaic and Hebrew,
without relying on previous translation,
until we’ve discerned, at least tentatively,
each word’s root and tense,
gender, number, and possible meanings.
We learn how the words work with one another,
how “technical” expressions like “it is taught,” add clues,
how we, together with our study partners,
and then as a group with our teacher,
can work together to explore
what the text might be saying
and what that says about Jewish thought….

For this “Contemplative Bet Midrash,” taught by SVARA Fellow Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, we are asked to set aside any previous meetings and encounter the text as though for the first time. (For more on SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, visit their website.)

We are encouraged to look up every word, even ones we (think we) know, in order to consider a variety of possible definitions.

SVARA-Inspired Slow Dance

The opening line of our text, for example, tells us “they cut it into pieces,” without explaining who cut what or why. So, we test out “circle” and “dance” and “everyday” before settling on “sand” as the best definition for “חול (chol),” the substance between these unexplained pieces.

We learn that these pieces and sand are “the oven of Akhnai,” and then ask, right along with the voice of the Gemara: “What is this, Akhnai?”

We experience as passing strange the introduction of a carob tree as a point of proof in this argument. Our studies paused this past week right after “they” tell Rabbi Eliezer, “we don’t take evidence from carob trees.” And from this cliff-hanging perspective, I notice things I previously missed.

I’ve never noticed before how this story begins with an image of brokenness — “they cut it into pieces” — and then introduces Rabbi Eliezer already in opposition to the Hakhamim (“Wise Ones,” that is, scholars holding the majority opinion in this case). Previous passes through this material made clear there was a dispute of some magnitude, but I never noticed the extremes of response here, even before we reach the carob tree and what follows:

  • Rabbi Eliezer does not just argue but brings “all the responses (or refutations or arguments) in the world [כל תשובות שבעולם (khol teshuvot sh’ba-olam)],” while
  • the Hakhamim refuse to accept (any) arguments from him, [ולא קיבלו הימנו (v’lo kivalu heimenu)],” rather than simply disagreeing.

“They refused to accept (anything) from him.”

When our learning for one week paused at this point, that phrase just seemed so stark. (Despite attempts to meet the text anew, I’m sure my reaction is influenced to some extent by previous encounters. Still.)

BabaMetzia1

You are There

Along with feeling the starkness of Rabbi Eliezer’s rejection, I understood the frustration of a community that had made a decision and still heard “all the refutations in the world” from one individual. After all, I’ve been there often enough: watching participants in a community meeting come to a difficult decision while one person — for better or worse in the long run — just cannot get on board….

…Some readers might remember when Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) did those “You Are There” reports, like this one when he speaks from the midst of the Chicago Fire on October 18, 1871. There is a big difference between such a “report,” however contrived, and more distant approaches to history….

One of the effects of the SVARA-inspired slow pace through the material, I’m realizing, is a little like those Cronkite reports: I am there in a way I had not been before.

Learning unfamiliar jargon — or “technical terms” — of the Talmud, as SVARA-inspired spaces encourage, also promotes the “you are there” experience. Some other Talmud studies have included such terms, but I’ve never before been in a group where the practice is to stick with one bit of text until we all have the basics of how it arrived. I now know, for example, that “we learned there” [t’nan hatam] doesn’t reference something taught elsewhere in Babylon or in Jerusalem: instead, it means “elsewhere in the text” (and I am now able to locate the citations on the page). Rabbi Tuchman teaches us to recognize shifts from Mishnah to Gemara and back and make sure we know who is speaking to whom and when. Being asked to constantly orient ourselves within the text makes for a different experience of it.

When the carob tree gets up and moves 100 cubits for Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, the rabbinical report includes the expression, “but some tell it” [v’amri lah], and the alternative recollection: “400 cubits.” In the past, I’ve read this, without giving it much weight, as two variants of a fantastic tale. But, in this word-by-word, step-by-step shuffle with the text I hear two sets of witnesses telling me that they were there. Now, so am I.

Another Cliff-Hanger

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s Contemplative Bet Midrash left us all, at the end of our last session, in the midst of a dispute about cooking that has spiraled into strange realms. A group of Hakhamim have made their decision, while Rabbi Eliezer, so convinced of his own point of view, moves from verbal arguments to calling on supernatural “proof.” Witnesses saw the carob tree move 100 cubits, though some say it was 400 cubits. But the Hakhamim don’t accept that as “evidence” in this oven dispute.

Where will the frustration, anger, pride, arguments and magic lead? How will community kashrut standards be effected? What will be the result of those decisions in terms of holiness? What will be the effect on the community?

I confess to an inclination to read ahead or binge watch to the conclusion. But one of the things this slow dance teaches is that any such conclusion would be meaningless. The real goal is not to “finish” the story, maybe choosing to be #TeamEliezer or #TeamHakhamim along the way. The goal — at least as I understand things this week — is to consider the story together with others, sharing insights and concerns, and to experience together real fears for how this will all turn out for the individuals and the community involved. And that includes us.

It’s uncomfortable, even a little scary, up here on this cliff. But we won’t get down on our own.




NOTES on the Oven of Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Women in the Talmud NOTES:

  • Akhnai
  • Imma Shalom
  • Levinas and The Akhnai Story
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Annette Aronowicz, trans. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. Lectures 1963-1975 in French
    • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism, offered a series of classes on the Levinas chapters at National Havurah Committee Summer Institute
    • The chapter, “Desacralization and Disenchantment,” looks at Sanhedrin 67a-68a, which describes the end of Rabbi Eliezer’s life. (It was this chapter I had the opportunity to explore in a long-ago week-long class at the Institute.)

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Coalition and Redemption

What does change taste like?

How do we know whether we’re really getting out of that narrow place of servitude or just dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us but calling it change? This year, approach Passover with some new imagery, focusing on how we build coalition and move together toward redemption. It starts, this short book suggests, in being honest about how the “millstone that is Egypt” affects different populations differently: In the fight for racial justice in the U.S., we are NOT all marching together from the same starting point — that millstone has been weighing differently on Black and brown and white populations for many decades.

Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption focuses on what it means to leave a place, people, or ideas behind and head out toward something that works better for everyone. It is meant to prompt some new thinking, particularly around racial justice issues.

A PDF download is available here, free of charge. UPDATE: Print copies are now available (See below). If you are able to contribute to the cost of this project, please consider doing so through the “A Song Every Day” Support link.

The book will be challenging to some for different reasons. It was challenging to me for many reasons, too. I am still considering this a BETA version with the hope that a fuller work, including additional perspectives, will develop in time. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Some Essential Connections and Thanks

Thanks to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, director of the Interfaith Council of Greater Washington, for much support and teaching over the years and, in particular, for encouragement and ideas that helped shape this project. Thanks to Norman Shore, independent teacher of Torah in the DC area, for his support and teaching over many years and, in particular, for encouragement and corrections as my thinking evolved on the blog, “A Song Every Day.” Thanks to Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah, for her enthusiasm and detailed comments on an earlier version.

Thanks also to Barbara Green, Bob Rovinksy, Norman Shore, and others who have supported “A Song Every Day” financially. And thanks to readers of earlier versions for comments and corrections and to those who contributed thoughts over the years, on the blog and via Facebook or other platform, on related topics.

I am also deeply appreciative of the work of every author quoted here, living or not. I am in particular dept to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Trible, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Rabbi Shais Rishon (MaNishtana), and Marc Dollinger. I am also grateful to DC’s Cross-River (Black-Jewish) Dialogue for helping hone my thinking.

All errors of interpretation, spelling or grammar, or any other kind are mine.

ORDERING AND DOWNLOAD

Download Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption. (PDF HERE)

Print copies are available for a contribution of $6 or more, to help defray printing and other hard costs. Please use Support link and be sure to include your postal address. If your synagogue or other group would like multiple copies, please contact me — songeveryday (at) gmail(dot)com.

Also look for adapted excerpts at Open Siddur.

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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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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Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

At several points in the Megillah reading, the chant for the Book of Esther shifts to the Lamentations chant. The lament behind some verses seems clear: Mordecai’s introduction as a descendant of Babylonian exiles (2:6) and the decree telling all provinces to destroy the Jews (3:15), for example. It’s less obvious what is lamentable about three words — the whole verse does not change trope, just the three words — describing how banquet guests were served wine:

…וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים…
“…the vessels being diverse one from another…” OR
“…beakers of varied design…”
— Esther 1:7

An explanation based on Esther Rabbah 2:11 brings us back to Babylon — although the spirit of Purim seems to cry out for a brief detour to consider the heartbreak of mismatched glassware. (See also note on publication schedule.)

Vessels at the Feast

The Megillah describes the decorations in the palace, the ornate couches, and “vessels of gold” used at the king’s seven-day feast. The text then adds: “Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:8).

There is no mention of the vessels’ origin, beyond the enigmatic “shonim” [“different” or “diverse”]. (Many other explanations have been offered, over the centuries, to explain how the vessels were “different” — a topic, perhaps, for another day.) But Esther Rabbah says the vessels are “different” from ordinary ones in that those used at this feast are the same ones that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing along of the Temple vessels is also linked in midrash to Queen Vashti.

The Megillah includes nothing about Queen Vashti’s background, although midrash has much to say about her. In terms of lineage, she is described midrashically as Babylonian royalty. She is sometimes identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (B. Megillah 10b). In one account, she is married to Ahashverus, who was her father’s steward (Esther Rabbah 3:14). Alternatively, she was the daughter of Belshazzar, and Darius married her to his son, Ahashverus, after her father was killed (Esther Rabbah 3:5). The latter story also provides a direct link between Vashti and the vessels in her palace, on the one hand, and, on the other, Belshazzar and the vessels at the “writing on the wall” feast (Daniel 5).

Daniel 5 opens with Belshazzar calling for “the golden and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem.” It is clear, from the text (and midrash) that the party is meant to show contempt for Hebrews and all they hold sacred. The Megillah, in contrast, describes the feasting at the palace of Ahashverus in more neutral terms, while more negative connotations have been added by layers of midrash.

Offspring of Babylon

A strong thread in the negative midrash related to the Megillah stems from identification of Vashti as the “offspring” of Babylon:

וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד–נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.
— Isaiah 14:22.

R. Jonathan prefaced his discourse on this section (Book of Esther) with the text, And I will rise against them… (Isa 14:22) [which he expounded as follows]: ‘Name’ means script; ‘remnant’ is language; ‘offshoot’ is kingdom, and ‘offspring’ is Vashti.
— B. Megillah 10b

R. Jonathan’s interpretation of the Isaiah verse can also be linked to the decree about households using the husband’s language (Esther 1:22 — midrash citation to come). Meanwhile, however, Vashti’s brief appearance and then exile have a powerful influence on the rest of the story. (See, for just one example, “The Role of Vashti in the Purim Story,” by Deena Rabinovich — PDF here.) At least one midrash suggests that the language decree, a response to suspicion about Vashti, set up opposition to Ahashverus, resulting, ultimately, in preservation of the Jews (again, citation to come). So perhaps Vashti, as offspring of Babylon, comes to tell us that the past is not so easy to eradicate, and that we are strengthened by preserving lessons — and cultural diversity — brought to us by the past.

Lamentable Banquet Service

This is based very loosely on the “Poetry Game,” created by Zahara Hecksher (9/12/64-2/24/18; her memory for a blessing), and offered in her honor and memory.

Vessels
Instructions:

  • Something in your poem occurs in an alley
  • Refer to a problem in a factory
  • Include the phrase “I remember ____” in your poem

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

Goblets special ordered.
The king wants his display.
“It is time for us to host
A palace feast awash with wine
fine vessels for a toast.”

The queen cannot shake misgivings.
“I remember,” she explains,
“that writing on the wall.
A lavish party, I suspect,
may not end well at all.”

As the date grows near
workshop staff reports the order gone awry.
It appears that no two goblets match.
And not just one odd barrel,
batch after hodgepodge batch.

Palace staff is in the alley
unpacking mismatched wares.
Amid his duties the steward fears.
Royal wrath is a grave concern
as are faux-pas-related tears.

Royal banquet time is nigh.
Guests arriving at the gates.
Will history this night malign?
In trepidation the palace serves
with beakers of varied design.


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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Toward a Jewish Bible Reader’s Self-Inventory

Most of us are aware that our individual backgrounds strongly influence how we read anything. But how often do we fall into the trap of thinking that wherever we stand is normal, with other views somehow divergent or marginal?

When it comes to the Bible, we are all reading and interpreting through many layers of influence — personal, family, communal, political, etc. How often, however, do we pause to examine our own filters and those of familiar commentaries and background sources?

Fortress Press Self-Inventories

I recently ran across the Bible Readers’ Self-Inventory in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible:

The point of the following self-inventory is that none of us comes to the Bible as a “blank slate.” Its goal is to assist you in identifying and reflecting on some of the factors at work in the way you read or hear the Bible and to gain a stronger sense of your own voice as an interpreter of the Bible.
— p. xxix

Working through the inventory helped me articulate choices I regularly make when selecting Bible commentaries to study and cite. It also helped me better understand many of the factors at work in my reading. The self-inventory also prompted me to re-consider some habits that are not necessarily serving my own, newly articulated, reading and interpretation goals.

The self-inventory was also instructive in ways the authors probably did not intend. The Fortress Press inventories were explicitly designed for students in Christian bible or seminary studies. Some of the questions were, as a consequence, a little awkward for an older, non-student. More importantly, answering questions as a Jew required a fair amount of mental gymnastics to translate Christian assumptions about Bible and Bible-reading influences into something that reflected Jewish experience.

In the end, I found the experience worthwhile, and I recommend the basic practice. I’m also grateful to those who designed the inventories and encouraged students to consider factors at work in their Bible reading. But I think we need, for Jewish readers of the Bible, a self-inventory more in tune with Judaism and Jewish community dynamics.

Jews’ Bible Self-Inventory

Here is the PDF: Jews’ Self Inventory for Bible Readers. Jews and other interested Bible readers willing to test-drive this instrument are invited to use it, comment on it, and share results.

A copy is also posted at Academia.edu, and anyone who uses that forum is encouraged to share and/or comment there.

This DRAFT is based – sometimes closely, more often loosely – on the inventories in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible and Reading from This Place (full citations below). The self-inventory shared here, while indebted to the Fortress Press versions, centers common Jewish encounters with Tanakh [Torah, Prophets and Writings].

If anyone knows of an existing self-inventory aimed at Jewish Bible readers, please advise.

CITATIONS:
“A Self-Inventory for [Christian] Bible Readers” appears in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible (DeYoung, Gafney, etal., eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, xxix-xxxii.) Find related resources and a link to download “Introduction,” which includes the self-inventory, at this Fortress Press product page.

An earlier version appears in “Framing [Christian] Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics,” by N.K. Gottwald. (Reading from This Place, Vol. 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. F. F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. 256-261.)

Find links to both versions and some additional information on this resource page.