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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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.

Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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MiShebeirach for Circles of Pain

bullet_hole

photo: Treona Kelty

Introduction: Every bullet leaves pain in circles rippling outward, like the diameter of the bomb the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once described. Amichai’s bomb extends from 30 centimeters to the immediate range of dead and wounded, out to a solitary mourner “far across the sea,” finally encompassing “the entire world in the circle.” (Chana Bloch’s translation.)

Monday’s shooting on Benning Road killed Ayana McAllister, 18, home from college on spring break, and injured her roommate, Aqueelah Brown, 19, who was visiting. It traumatized Ayana’s sister, N’Daja, 19, who was also present. Friends and acquaintances suffer in ripples outward from two family circles that will never be the same, from school communities forever changed, and from Fort Chaplin Apartments, where such shootings are too commonplace. And somewhere in that web of sorrow and confusion are neighboring toddlers who experience, without knowing in any conscious way, the calculations their caregivers make every time they leave the house.

Note: In Jewish tradition, “Mi Shebeirach” [“May the one who blessed…”] prayers use a formula that calls on memory and relationship, a personal-divine history of sorts, to make a request of God. Traditions vary today and have varied throughout history regarding timing and content of such prayers, but requests for healing are a common use in most traditions. There are many articles on the topic. Here’s one interesting piece from Sh’ma written not long after the death of Debbie Friedman (February 23, 1951 – January 9, 2011). Friedman, singer/song-writer and faculty member of the Hebrew Union College, created a musical “Mi Shebeirach” that was extremely popular in the late 20th Century and had a strong influence on how the prayer is perceived and used.

See also related prayers and meditations

Mi Shebeirach for Circles of Pain

May the one who blessed our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,
and our extended family,
Lot and his kin, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau, Bilhah and Zilpah
– a clan that knew its share of trauma and grief –
bless and heal those recovering from violence, loss, and terror.
May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion
for all those experiencing ripples of violence.
May God swiftly send all who need it a renewal of body and spirit.
May our community health be restored
and our collective strength revived.
And let us say, Amen.

Maintaining Self and Struggle

1

A meditation linking God’s four-letter name – YHVH (yud-hey-vav-hey) – with the human body/soul can help focus on God’s presence and power in our lives. I have relied on this meditation since Rabbi David Shneyer taught it to me some years ago.

yhvhgraphic
The variation presented here, incorporates a teaching from the prophet Micah on what God requires of us —

הִהִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ,
כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
You have been told, human, what is good,
that is, the traits that God expects from you:
acting justly, a passion for loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.
– Micah 6:8 (translation from Siddur Eit Ratzon)

It is offered as support for social justice work in difficult times.

Shared here are the bones of the practice, so to speak, along with a PDF with additional graphics, 4-part Meditation, for easy carrying in a pocket or bag. Originally intended for use at the start of the day, this brief practice also serves throughout the day, especially when circumstances threaten to pull us off center, to realign with divine connection and our own strength and flexibility.

Fabrangen West tried a group chant based on this practice at the December 2016 gathering. Several participants more knowledgeable about renewal hasidus and kabbalah found connections between the sefirot and the words of the Micah verse. Further thoughts on this meditation — or on other Jewish practices for times of challenge — are welcome.

As always, “A Song Every Day” seeks comments or guest posts.

(1) Begin

Begin with meditation or chant using the four-letter name to focus on God’s presence before and within:

 

(2) “You’ve been told, human…”

Cycle through first half of verse, Y-H-V-H, head to legs, several times. At each reflection stage, try to release any barriers to embodying those attributes God expects; where appropriate, note areas in need of further attention:

  • (Y) Consider your humanity and connection to God. If you are feeling depleted, this is a moment to be open to the spiritual support you need.
  • (H) Is anything – distraction, anger, injury, e.g. – impeding your ability to reach for “what is good”? If so, can you release the barrier now? Or,should you set aside more time for this, to keep your reach from straying?
  • (V) Are you centered, with YHVH as backbone? What might pull you away? How are you working to stay upright?
  • (H) Are you prepared to pursue what God seeks of you? Does body or soul require attention first? Ready for more instruction? (Or ↑)

 

(3) “…acting justly, a passion for loving kindness,
and walking humbly with your God.”

Cycle through second half of verse, Y-H-V-H, head to legs, several times. Again, at each reflection stage, release barriers if you can and make note of areas where further attention, including assistance from others, would be helpful:

  • (Y) Are you committed to embodying the traits we are told to share with God?
  • (H) Do you join hands with others, or just push your own ideas, in acting justly? Do you need more partners, assistance? To whom can you reach out?
  • (V) Is your spine ready to stand and bend in loving kindness? Do you need help – maybe learning or rest – to avoid damage to yourself or others?
  • (H) Ready to take steps in the world, humbly with your God, and in healthy company with others, in the struggle? (Or ↑)

Brief journaling – either at this point, before closing out the meditation, or shortly afterward – can be helpful.

(4) Close

Return to a chant of the four-letter Name, preparing to bring your newly-aligned self into the outside world and the on-going struggle.

verseandgraphic

 

Map Your Heart Out, part 1

“Pursuing Racial Justice: The Jewish Underpinnings of Anti-Racism Work,” held recently at Adas Israel (DC) and featuring Yavilah McCoy of Visions-Inc and Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend the Arc, offered many insights and challenges. I plan to share some of what I gained in readable portions over the course of the next few days. I begin — as Pirkei Avot (5:9) tells us sages should do — with “first things first [al rishon rishon].”

Asked how to avoid burnout in social justice work, especially in these trying times, McCoy said “first, you need a practice.” She stressed the importance of a daily practice for centering the self and for awareness. Failing to take time each day to check in with ourselves and understand where we are usually results in whatever we haven’t paused to address spilling out into the work. In addition, both McCoy and Kimelman-Block said, a daily pause/practice offers an opportunity to notice signs of burnout and arrange rest and healing measures.

heart Some of us rely on the Jewish liturgy for daily practice. Earlier this month, I shared a “heart map” focusing on some of the Jewish prayers most central to me and to my understanding of how prayer helps Judaism to work in the world. (See “Covenant and Liturgy.”)

My map was created in adaptation of one of the projects in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry. Some readers may be interested in creating their own prayer maps, in some kind of graphic form, in outline, or in prose.

I found the exploration behind my map helpful in understanding which prayers I find essential and why. I recommend the process.

A bit more on cordiform maps here.

More on the texts I chose for my own map coming soon.

Teapots in Babylon

“This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey.” This week, I’ve been hearing Psalm 137 among these lines from Cynthia Osick’s “The Shock of Teapots” (Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1989). The result sounds like this:

How is that we have a teapot,
symbol of normalcy, and even comfort,
amidst all this confusion and fear?
Are we to enjoy and share
cups of tea here
in this strange, oppressive land?

The opening lines of Psalm 137 are primarily about the challenge of expressing joy, and making music in particular, distant from Zion, mocked and alienated from oppressors. But I think we also hear something like the “shock of teapots” — normalcy, even comfort, or celebration here!?

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There, upon the willows, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us words of song,
and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
–Ps. 137:1-4, translation sort of a mishmash based on Old JPS
Complete Old JPS and Hebrew here

MicahNext12Of course, many people, in the US and elsewhere, have long been conscious of living in Babylon. So the puzzlement and shock expressed by so many in this past week is a little surreal to some.**

My personal connection to the language of “Babylon” has been growing for some time as the central liberation story of Judaism — being freed from Egypt — seems unsuited to circumstances where Jews, as individuals often profiting from White privilege, and as a people are too often Pharaoh. See, e.g., “April 22: 1968 and 2016” (Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?). The “Trouble to See” series from which graphic at right is taken, was published over the summer. And a few years back, “A Mountain Called Zion,” offered thoughts on “Zion” and how close/distant it is, as well as a nice link to Jimmy Cliff’s “Waters of Babylon.”

Most importantly for further exploration, this blog welcomes comments and guest blogs from Jews and non-Jews.

Normalcy on Good Hope Road

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:

OK, so I’m walking down Good Hope Road in Southeast DC and there’s this guy standing on the sidewalk with his car doors open blaring that song “FDT” — the one which goes, “…I like white folks, but I don’t like you…” with a chorus of “[expletive deleted] [president elect].” Cheered me right up.
#AnacostiaUnmapped #LoveDC #NotmyPresident

One friend, not a DC resident, asked “why?” and it took me some time to come up with a response other than “maybe you had to be there.” What warmed my heart, I now think, was the normalcy of the scene for Good Hope Road, although the place is undergoing gentrification. Moreover, the song was not something written in a flurry on election night. Folks had been playing the piece, from the rapper/writer YG, for some time:

“You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours.”

They were playing it on November 7 and they were playing it on November 10.  The sentiments — which are to the point, if crude (“FDT“) — hadn’t changed with election results. It was a little like discovering a teapot at the end of a journey.

Time to Go!

In one common cycle of Torah readings, this is the week of Lekh Lekha [“Go!” or “Go (to/for yourself),” often transliterated Lech Lecha]. And so, whether this week was a shock to, or a confirmation of, your reality, events are calling us to embark on a new journey, toward better individual and collective selves…maybe even out of Babylon.

**NOTE

Many posts on this blog are “political” in plenty of ways, but direct attention to electoral politics is a rarity. There is no getting around it this week, though. And, here is a powerful and cogent exploration of what was meant by “surreal” above:

 For a lot of people of color, this election was really about trying to find the lesser of two evils. America asked us: “How do you prefer your racism — blatant or systemic?”

— “On ‘Woke’ White People advertising their shock that racism just won a presidency

BACK

Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage

Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC)
Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014)

Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”

Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.

While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.

Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).

In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.

Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.

May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.