You are ALL standing, with Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi &Co

“You* are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water…
— Deuteronomy 29:9-10 (see note on masculine plurals below)

As we head into the new year, this week’s portion (Nitzavim, Deut 29:9-30:20) offers some dire warnings to ponder: how easily blessings turn to curses when we forget the Source of Blessing, how severe the consequences should we fail to actively choose life, how heaven and earth are called to witness against us this very day. And it all starts with that statement that we standing, all of us, together before God.

In recent decades, and over the centuries, Jews have worked hard to read that masculine language more inclusively, so that women and men can see themselves as standing together before God. We’ve got a ways to go, especially in regard to including people whose gender is not so binary or who otherwise have felt excluded. And we have a much longer way to go than some of us would like to think when it comes to ensuring that we really see people with various skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, and other variousness as truly among all those who “are standing this day” together.

With this in mind, hasten to get your hands on Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi by MaNishtana.

It’s Not So Far Away

The author is “100% Black, 100% Jewish, and 0% safe,” an African-American Orthodox Jewish writer and rabbi who takes direct aim at issues of racial and religious identity. Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi is semi-autobiographical. The work is a compelling, very funny, and extremely sharp — in many senses of this word — fictional look at the ways in which our workplaces, neighborhoods, and Jewish communities fail by making assumptions and then sticking to them, all evidence to the contrary. See Publisher’s blurb below for a brief look at the story.

Although I have not yet finished the tale, I’m told that it, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes around eventually to touch on this week’s portion. I won’t spoil the ending for myself or other readers. Instead, I’ll take us back to the portion in my own way: MaNishtana is offering a tremendously generous gift by helping to open our eyes, as individuals and — as the book is discussed amongst us, I hope — as communities in an entertaining, clear way.

An important blessing is in front of you, and failing to take advantage of this fun and thought-provoking gift is a grave mistake…. yes, I know, it’s a novel, but it’s an opportunity to choose life for ourselves and our communities. So do that.

May we all be inscribed, together, for a better year.



Publisher’s Blurb and Ordering Info

Ariel Samson is just your run of the mill anomaly: a 20-something black Orthodox Jewish rabbi looking for love, figuring out life, and floating between at least two worlds.

Luckily, it gets worse.

Finding himself the spiritual leader of a dying synagogue, and accidentally falling into viral internet fame, Ariel is suddenly catapulted into a series of increasingly ridiculous conflicts with belligerent college students, estranged families, corrupt politicians, hippophilic coworkers, vindictive clergymen, and even attempted murder. (And also Christian hegemony, racism, anti-Semitism, toxic Hotepism, and white Jewish privilege. Because today ends in “y.”)
— publisher’s blurb

Availability update: Book is now (as of 9/15/18) available at Barnes & Noble and appeared on Amazon in ebook or paperback the Friday before Rosh Hashana.

If you are in the DC area and interested in participating in bulk purchase, please contact me off-blog at ethreporter at gmail (dot) com. If you are somewhere else and interested in bulk orders, you can contact MaNishtana through his Facebook page.

*Atem is masculine plural, and most of the possessives are masculine plural, with two masculine singular. The plurals could be understood to include all, as any men in the group turns a plural masculine; the singulars might be understood in the now thoroughly old-fashioned way in which we were once taught to use masculine for any undetermined person. However, it still seems unlikely that a group including women would be addressed about “your wives.”

Malcolm X and The Power of Small Things

“The fame we get from fighting for the freedom of others creates a prison for us,” Malcolm X wrote in 1964 to Azizah al-Hibri, then a college student at the American University in Beirut. Their brief in-person connection and subsequent correspondence are still treasured by Dr. al-Hibri, now retired as chair of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, the international organization she founded. Moreover, the papers and their story illustrate some important things about leadership, race, gender, and media.

Originally posted in slightly different form on May 19, 2015.
Story published in East of the River, July 2012.

from correspondence between Dr. Azizah al-Hibri and Malcolm X
from correspondence between Dr. Azizah al-Hibri and Malcolm X

As president of the college debating society, al-Hibri arranged for Malcolm to speak on campus while he was touring and also had the opportunity to get to know him during his brief visit. A shared ice cream at the airport launched a correspondence between the two that continued until his death in February 1965. At his request, al-Hibri kept her correspondence private for over 40 years.

In 2012, al-Hibri released a few pieces of correspondence and donated other papers (still private for now) to America’s Islamic Heritage Museum. She said then, in a speech at DC’s Masjid Muhammad, that she wanted to ensure that Muslims are “proud” and “happy” about connections with the slain leader and to forge bonds between the African American Muslim community, with historical connections to the Nation of Islam, and what many call the “immigrant” Muslim community, with different historical roots.

Here’s more from the July 2012 East of the River Magazine story:

From his correspondence it is clear that he already suspected that his life and work were coming to an end. But he knew, even though al-Hibri didn’t yet, that her future as a leader was ahead of her.

It was unusual in 1964, for a woman to be president of an organization like the college debating society, al-Hibri notes. And she, like many women of that decade, had not yet envisioned for herself anything like her role today as professor of U.S. law and international human rights advocate. It was similarly odd to consider that women might be leaders of Islam. But Malcolm X saw beyond the confines of his time, says al-Hibri, pointing to words of encouragement – to her as a woman and a Muslim leader – inscribed in a book he gave her: “You have and are everything it takes to create a new world – leadership is needed among women as well as among men…”
full article here


The Power of Small Things

Of all the stories I covered for East of the River Magazine, this is one that sticks with me as most fascinating and important —

    • the young al-Hibri’s not knowing about U.S. racial dynamics, what her college dean meant about “airing the country’s dirty laundry”
    • al-Hibri’s struggle to reconcile the man she met with the picture she later saw portrayed in the U.S. media
    • the race-sensitive context of her later decision to share her experience, while keeping most of the correspondence private
    • Malcolm X’s interest in corresponding with someone outside the “prison” of his work
    • his recognition of the need for women leaders in politics and in Islam, before many saw it in 1964

I share this today, in honor of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (born Malcolm Little, 5/19/25-2/21/65). I share it in recognition of the work of Dr. al-Hibri and KARAMAH — a small, powerful organization. I share it as a shout out to the too-little-known Americas Islamic Heritage Museum. And I share it to acknowledge the hard and complex work of overcoming racism between religious brothers and sisters.

Perhaps most importantly, I return to this story again and again as an example of the power of small interactions to shape our world.

Originally posted on May 19, 2015.

Maybe: Janis Joplin, the Chantels, and Jonah

“Maybe” is not always comfortable in a world that values black and white, in or out, yes or no. But the Book of Jonah, recited on Yom Kippur afternoon, suggests that coming to terms with “maybe” is a key lesson of these days between “it is written” and “it is sealed.” And two musical approaches to “Maybe” help illuminate Jonah’s struggles with concept.
Continue reading Maybe: Janis Joplin, the Chantels, and Jonah

Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda

I’d like to tell you a story. For those of you who don’t happen to be Star Trek fans, don’t worry about the details–it’s mostly the punch-line we’re after:

Sometime in the 24th Century, Starfleet officer Benjamin Sisko encounters powerful, telepathic beings who exist in a worm-hole outside of linear time. The aliens repeatedly show Sisko a tragic image from his own past: his wife is killed during a battle, while his efforts are required elsewhere on the ship, so he can do nothing to save her. One of the worm-hole beings meets him in the middle of the battle scene, demanding: “You exist here! Why do you exist here?”

I see the Akeda as a moment similar to the image in Sisko’s memory, a moment in which each participant acts in a way that reflects something fundamental about who they are–with heartbreaking consequences. It’s the proverbial “moment of truth.” Abraham, Isaac and God exist in the moment of the Akeda, behaving as they must because of who they are. Sarah also exists there, reacting–when she learns the news–as she must. But most importantly, I think, we exist there. The Akeda is also our moment of truth.

Changing the Questions

To understand what I mean requires that you set aside the usual reactions to this story. I want to consider the Akeda as description, rather than prescription or proscription, and suspend all “should” questions. We can’t ask: Should God have demanded such a test? Should Abraham have complied without argument? Does this story prescribe unquestioning faith or proscribe human sacrifice?

I want to examine the Akeda for what it can tell us about the human condition and our relationship to God, to consider the Akeda as more of an existential tale than a moral one. So let’s not ask why Isaac doesn’t say, “Abba, we’ve got to talk,” or why Abraham doesn’t simply put down the knife. Instead, let’s ask: Why does the Akeda retain such power over us? Can it atone for us? Why do we all–Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, God, all of us here today–exist in this tragic moment?

The Akeda is a moment of transition, a turning point in Genesis, a point of terrifying uncertainty for everyone associated with it. Eden has long been empty of its promise, the ten post-Eden generations were a near failure, and now, in the tenth post-deluge generation, Sarah and Abraham are to parent a great nation. At this moment, however, it is uncertain whether their son Isaac will live out that promise or become its ashes.

The Torah only uses the expression “lekh lekha“–go-you-forth–twice: first, when Abraham is asked to give up his past and go forth to an unknown place. Here, he is asked to journey to an unknown place and give up his son, his future. Similarly, we must exist in the single moment of the present, without being able to change what has brought us to this place and without knowing for certain what will come of our actions. Getting into an airplane, strapping an infant into a car-seat or giving a teenager the car keys, visiting a Federal building after terrorism has been threatened, or, in some circumstances, simply being identifiable as a Jew or an Irish Catholic or a Kurd might lead to dire consequences.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Narratively, the Akeda is placed between the well at Beer-Sheba, a source of life in the desert, and the cave at Machpelah, a tomb. This story literally takes place between life and death. We exist in the Akeda because it’s where we are–between birth and death, with no control over the past and knowing the future hangs in the balance.

Each character in the Akeda knows this truth in a different way. Tradition has it that Sarah’s death–which is reported in the passage immediately following the one we read today–is precipitated by the news of the binding of Isaac. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg argues that it is not sorrow for the trial Isaac has been through or shock at what Abraham has nearly done that leads to her death. Nor is it grief in being told Isaac is dead or joy at hearing that he’s been saved, as various midrashim would have it.

Sarah and the Near Miss

Zornberg says that what happens to Sarah when she learns of the Akeda is similar to what happens to us in what might be called “near miss” experiences: You bend over to tie your shoe and watch a truck barrel through the red light at the crosswalk you were about to enter. You look up just as an infant you thought was sleeping reaches the top of a tall staircase. A relative misses a train that later derails. A friend of mine was walking in the woods when lightening struck just feet behind him. These near misses expose us, however briefly, to the fragility of our lives and raise questions about the limits of God’s providence.

Sarah’s perspective on the Akeda is framed by its near-miss quality. She has been the analytical one in the family, the planner, trying to ensure that God’s promise is being achieved, ever on the lookout for threats to Isaac. But after the Akeda, Sarah sees that her efforts to protect Isaac, her attempts to fulfill God’s promise–her life’s work, in fact–came a hair’s breadth away from being for nought. The 16th Century commentator Maharal says Sarah suffers from “the human reaction of panic, on realizing that only a small thing separated one from such a fate.”

According to Zornberg, “Sarah dies of this radical angst, of this radical sense of doubt about the meaning and the coherence of her life…. she didn’t manage to come through.”

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Sarah, we sometimes suffer doubt about the meaning of our lives. At least occasionally, those “near misses” illuminate the cracks and warn us that our lives may not be as coherent as they sometimes seem.

Abraham and the Moment

Abraham’s relationship with God is apparently much more solid than Sarah’s. It gives him a present solid enough to balance God’s promise of legacy with the possibilty of annihilation. Rashi and others note how often Abraham acts without knowing the outcome–where God means him to settle, where in the land of Moriah he is to bring his son, or if his son will make it back.

Abraham survives the Akeda by staying within and affirming the moment. He responds three times in the space of this terse story: “Hineini, Here I am.” Unlike Adam who answers God’s “Where are you?” with a song and dance about Eve giving him an apple, Abraham immediately responds simply “here I am.” When his son queries him about his intentions, even when he is caught with a knife to his son’s throat, he doesn’t offer explanations or excuses. He only responds, “here I am.” He doesn’t deny the contradiction between God’s promise to him and the demand to sacrifice Isaac but he doesn’t demand resolution, either.

Somehow Abraham is able to survive, at least for the space of the Akeda, within the contradictions. Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Abraham, we at least occasionally realize that it is not in our power to resolve all the contradictions in our lives, and that now is all we have.

Akeda and Atonement

As for Isaac, his single utterance on the climb up the mountain seems to indicate that he well knew his father’s tendency to lose himself in his relationship with God. There is also a midrash noting Isaac’s concern that his mother not be told about Mt. Moriah while she is near the edge of a pit or on roof-top; this seems to indicate that he understood his mother’s perspective as well. Isaac survives where his mother could not, because he has inherited Abraham’s ability to leave contradictions unresolved through trust in God. On the other hand, Isaac has also inherited enough of Sarah’s analytical sight to keep him outside of Abraham’s here-I-am; he isn’t as completely in the moment as his father, because, like Sarah, he is ever aware of how small a thing is sealing his fate.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Isaac, we’ve inherited some of Sarah’s awareness that it might all be over in a flash tempered with some of Abraham’s power to affirm the moment without resolving every contradiction it contains.

…we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

This is how the Akeda atones for us. At one moment, it immerses us in a gathering of perspectives in much the same way that a mikvah immerses us in a gathering of waters. Aryeh Kaplan says that an individual entering the mikvah “is no longer bound by either past or future, but exists in an absolute present, which is the one instant of time over which man has control.”

As we enter the Akeda, we also ask God to remember the story with us, like friends who now and then mention a particularly harrowing shared experience because it helps define our relationship. And in God, past, present, and future are gathered together, removing the barrier between past actions and current regret, today’s hopes and our fears for tomorrow. With God in the Akeda, we enter a timeless moment of truth and return to the present–new.

Let’s return briefly to Starfleet’s Benjamin Sisko. He emerges from his worm-hole experience better able to live within the contradictions of his life. He can mourn his wife, while still affirming a career choice which contributed to her death. Similarly, we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

Creative Commons License
Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Appeared in Living Words: The Best High Holiday Sermons of 5760.

Originally delivered to Fabrangen Havurah, Rosh Hashanah 5759 (9/21/98).