Consequences, part 2 (beyond 26)

We passed the mid-point in the omer journey away from oppression, this week, at the same time that Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police evoked response all across the U.S., inspiring the message: #BlackSpring has begun.

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There is still much for privileged and oppressed people to learn about how the system works to keep some people down and what it will take to undo that system. And we are still weeks away from Revelation at the holiday of Shavuot. But this seems a moment of turnaround. And I think perhaps we can find a pivot point in considering language — as both a potential stumbling block before (all of us) blind and as a tool for finding a new path.

One of my favorite teachers on Jewish prayer, Max Kadushin, offers some hints for a way forward.

Larger Self, Collapsed Time

Kadushin describes Jewish prayer, particularly recitation of a blessing, as “an element in a moral experience,” one that engages an individual’s “larger self.” He notes that many Jewish prayers are in the first person plural, even though the pray-er may not, depending on time and circumstances, have the need expressed in the prayer:

How is it that the individual can regard common needs as “his needs,” even when they are not at the same time his own needs at all?

[In recitation of a blessing] not an actual experience, but the sheer knowledge of a common need of man is now the occasion for an individual’s petition and he regards the common need as his need.

The larger self allows an individual to be aware, poignantly aware, that there are others [for example] who are sick; the awareness is so strong that he associates himself with them, though at the same time retaining his self-identity….Self-identity is retained and material circumstances of the individual have not changed; nevertheless, the self has become larger, more inclusive: large enough to include indefinite others and a consciousness of their needs.
— Max Kadushin, Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism. (NY: Bloch, 1963), p.108-109

Kadushin also speaks of prayer collapsing time, so that the travails and delights of the past and a future of blessings we have not yet experienced coalesce in the present. It is in this prayer experience, heavily influenced by language, that the seeds of change are nourished.

We counted 26 on the evening of April 29. Tonight, we count…. Continue Reading

Stumbling Blocks Before Us All

“Do not put a stumbling-block before the blind.” This commandment prohibits anything that “gives the means, or prepares the way for wrong,” according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (see Carmi Wisemon’s essay at My Jewish Learning).

There are so many ways in which language can “give the means, or prepare the way for wrong.” And changes to our usage can mean big differences in the way we think and act.

Many of us have seen changes in our lifetime in some of the harmful ways language was employed in early decades. For example, we no longer use “he” to stand for “one” (of any gender) and rarely see locutions like “lady-doctor.” This has helped to address some forms of sexism. But there are many ways in which our language continues to place stumbling blocks in front of us all, including in acceptance of varieties in gender expression. And this is no mere “semantics” issue. How language views certain groups of people translates into rights, respect, and basic safety issues.

The questions raised in yesterday’s post are primarily ones of language: When does language include people and when does it elide over difference? Usage can contribute to acceptance or promote danger for various groups.

Are we experiencing an “uprising” in Baltimore, finally after decades of oppression, or are some random “thugs” rioting? (Just one piece to consider)

Was the Boston Tea Party about revolution or property damage?

Vocabulary in such cases is everything and can mean, ultimately, a difference between life and death.

[Back in 2015, when this blog was running a series counting the Omer, this post closed with the previous night’s count and exact blessing for the date of the post; in an attempt to avoid confusion, the exact info is removed, but the general sentiments about using the Omer to learn and address oppression remains.]

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