Friday, May 27, 2016

Would you Unfollow Jeremiah?: Thoughts on Haftarah Behar


If the prophet Jeremiah were alive today, would you unfollow him on Facebook? Would you stop picking up his calls and ignore his texts? One of the few true prophets during the reign of the foolish, young King Zedekiah, Jeremiah was the bearer of difficult news. This week’s haftarah deals with the difficult relationship between Jeremiah and the final king of Israel who did unspeakable damage to the Jewish people by refusing to acknowledge difficult realities. Not only did Zedekiah initially ignore Jeremiah, but eventually imprisoned him for continuing to relay his message: the Jewish people would be in exile for many years to come. In order to survive, the King should submit to the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, and the exiles should create permanent homes in exile. This was news that no one wanted to hear, even though it came directly from G-D. Zedekiah tried to defeat Nebuchadnezzar with a failed revolt, and the people Israel held out false hope and lost important opportunities to protect themselves and plan for their future.
  The term “jeremiad” in English has a negative connotation; it is a word that is synonymous with an exaggerated report of future tragedy. However, Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. He assures the people Israel that they will return to their land, but not immediately, and not through a military revolt. Their sin has brought them into exile and only their repentance will usher in their return. It is possible to go home again, but only through hard work and a circuitous path. In the meantime, it benefits everyone in the community to accept their new surroundings, plant strong and healthy roots for their families, adapt, and do the hard spiritual work necessary for redemption. Listening to Jeremiah is not meant to be an unmitigated, depressing downer.  He provides a wakeup call to a people that are lost and deluded. Hope is possible, but only by acknowledging our difficult realities and preparing ourselves for the world we wish to inhabit.
Let us listen to the true prophets in our midst, who usually have difficult messages for us to digest. However, as a good friend once taught me, “the only way out is through.” Let us have the courage and strength to accept difficult truths and prepare ourselves for the journey home -- and all the travail it will undoubtedly require.  

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Colby College Hillel Winter 2016 Newsletter!

The Winter 2016 Hillel Newsletter is out!  Click here to download a copy!

Friday, April 8, 2016

When Judaism Makes You Furious and then It Doesn't: Childbirth and Parashat Tazria

I love her, and she exhausts me.
Thank goodness for maternity leave.
             If you come to the Torah with a feminist lens, then at least sometimes, probably, it will make you furious.  In Genesis, Eve is condemned for her curiosity and Adam is treated as a victim, Dinah's rape is turned into a tale of the injured honor of her fathers and brothers, Tamar needs to dress up a like a prostitute in order to receive the care she is due, and so on and so forth.  Even with the most ornate and developed apologetics, there are times when the the Torah, or Judaism more generally can make you furious.  
              In this week's portion, Tazria, there were always elements that angered me.  The parasha opens with the laws of ritual purity related to a woman who has just given birth.  We learn in the opening verses that 1) a woman becomes ritually impure after child birth and 2) the period of impurity is twice as long for a girl child than it is for a male child: (Leviticus 12:2-5)

2Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.בדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּו‍ֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא:
3And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.גוּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ:
4And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary, until the days of her purification have been completed.דוּשְׁלשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָֽהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽהּ:
5And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks, like her menstruation [period]. And for sixty six days, she shall remain in the blood of purity.הוְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָֽמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽה:

Why should a woman be impure after giving birth, and why should that status last twice as long for a female child?  Isn't this the ultimate expression of a deep seeded misogyny in the Bible that extends through the Jewish tradition?  Like any question in Judaism, it depends who you ask and when you ask the question.  It also depends when in your life you read this portion.
        The Kli Yakar gives an interpretation that I would expect from a male reader in early modernity. Pulling upon traditional sources, he claims that both menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth are punishments for the chet hakadum, the first sin of Eve described in the opening chapters of Genesis. According to him, the double days of impurity for a girl child are required because a girl will eventually carry this sin as well when her period begins.  In the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 31b), the rabbis posit that a woman needs to be in a state of impurity and provide a sin offering because she will undoubtedly curse her husband for having had sex with her during delivery.  The period for a girl child will be twice as long because she will forgive her husband more quickly for cursing him if she gives birth to a male, the more cherished kind of child. The Kli Yakar and the Talmud clearly articulate interpretations of the text that perpetuate the worst attitudes towards women in the Jewish tradition, and affirms for me my initial anger at this text.
       However, there are always different ways to read classical texts, especially when the Torah itself doesn't provide reasoning for the laws it lays out.  In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, a wonderful resource from the URJ press, we are provided with other possible reasons for these laws.  Beth Alpert Nakhai points out that though the period of impurity differs for boys and girls, the purification rituals are identical.  The Torah conveys a discomfort with all oozing fluids of life and death, and the experience of childbirth is the same in this respect. Blood, according to the Torah, is a life force that needs to be treated with reverence.  (It is for this reason that we cannot eat blood if we keep kosher.)  She writes, "The priestly authors of Leviticus believe that blood, whether menstrual or post-partum, is so powerful as a source of life that only purification rituals allow those who come into contact with it to rejoin their community."  (pg. 650)
       The authors of the Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, write in a similar vein, "We might postulate that there are two types of holiness in life, two ways of encountering the divine.  There is a natural holiness found in the miracles of pregnancy, birth, and recovery from illness. And there is a stipulated holiness - the arbitrary designation of certain times, places, and activities, as sacred.  One meets God in the experiences of birth and death, sickness and health.  But they are not everyday occurrences.  The person who years for contact with God on a regular basis must rely on sanctuaries, worship services, and prescribed rituals, all of which are holy only because we have chosen to designate them as holy.  Israelite society may have seen the two types of holiness as being mutually exclusive, so that it would not be appropriate for the woman or man who encountered the vital holiness of childbirth, menstruation, or contact with a dead body to seek the designated holiness of the sanctuary. A woman who had just given birth might feel the presence of God so strongly in that experience that she would feel no need to go to the sanctuary to find God..." (pg. 649)
      Additionally, we can read these laws as a form of protection for mother and child, and especially female babies.  During a period of ritual impurity (whether it is from menstruation or childbirth), a husband cannot touch his wife.  After giving birth to a child, a woman doesn't want to be approached sexually or bothered to take care of anyone other than her child and herself.  By separating a woman from her communal responsibilities and her family, she can heal and take care of her child.  Why should this period of time be longer for a baby girl?  According to Nakhai, the rabbis possibly wanted to make doubly sure that the mother would take care of her baby girl despite the fact that female life was valued so much less, and therefore, was all the more precarious.  She writes, "...girls were sometimes thought of as expendable.  In times of need, famine, and war, baby girls might suffer hunger and neglect, or even be abandoned and left to die.  The priestly authors seem to be concerned about this situation and try to avert such tragedies by ensure that baby girls stay in the mothers' protect care for an extended period of time.  This not only allows mother and daughter to bond tightly, but also ensures that the child is nursed and cared for." (650)
    I do not know the original intent of the priestly authors of Leviticus.  None of us can.  The way in which we read and relate to the text says just as much about our values and context as it does about the text itself.  I know that after giving birth to a baby girl, this portion feels extremely different.  I had no idea how physically weak I would feel, how much I would bleed and for how long, and how much I would desire to simply be left alone to sleep and feed my baby.  The idea of forced isolation and distance from communal life feels more like a necessary protection than a punishment. Moreover, I had no idea that baby girls can have something resembling a period in their first couple of weeks of life.  It could be that the priestly authors knew that mother and baby girl could be menstruating at the same time, and hence, developed the idea of double impurity.  These laws feel far more wise and fair to me now than they ever did as an adolescent, and I could have never seen their value before giving birth myself.
      As we grow, the Torah grows with us.  It could be that in 10 to 20 years this portion will go back to infuriating me, or I will come to peace with laws that provide real benefit to new mothers, intentionally or unintentionally.  There is some wisdom that can only come from experience, and the Torah waits for us as we gain this knowledge and eventually come to understand its laws and stories better.  In reading Tazria, I am reminded not to abandon Torah when it is difficult or hurtful. While sometimes I can never reconcile myself to its viewpoint, other times it is valuable to let it sit until I am the person I need to be to learn from it and find its wisdom.  This is what it means to live a life of Torah -- and what an incredible gift that is.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A New Heart, a New Spirit: Haftarat Shemini

       When we think of hard heart, who does this image most likely evoke?  If we are in a Biblical state of mind, we are most likely to think about Pharaoh.  Even when Pharaoh is inclined to let the Israelites go from slavery, God hardens his heart and he keeps them in captivity.  As we approach Passover, we often focus on the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the merit of the Israelites, and the saving power of God.  However, this weeks' haftarah from the Book of Ezekiel reminds us that the Egyptian monarch is not the only one to suffer from the spiritual affliction of a hard heart.  In Ezekiel 36:26, we learn about what God will do for us during the time of our ultimate redemption:

26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.כווְנָתַתִּ֚י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַֽהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֚ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָֽתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר:
This haftarah follows the structure and themes of most prophetic texts. The Jewish people have sinned and have been punished through exile.  In the time of our ultimate redemption, God decides to bring us back to Israel from the four corners of the earth, not because we have sufficiently repented, but because God is good and cannot stand to hear His people mocked by the nations of the world. When we return, God will purify us with clean water, give us a new heart, and imbue us with a new spirit. Our collective heart of stone will be replaced with a supple and open heart of flesh.
      What does it mean to have a heart of flesh?  According to Rashi, it means "An inclination that has been renewed for the better."  A heart of flesh is not a perfect heart, but one that inclines us to make better decisions.  The Messianic era is not one where everything is perfect and we don't need to do any spiritual work -- rather we are inclined to make better, more holy, more kind decisions. According to the Radak, we are renewed thusly: החידוש יהיה בכך שהקב"ה יעשה בתוכנו שינוי שנהיה מוכנים יותר להקשיב לקב"ה ולשוב בתשובה ולתקן את עצמינו" -- our hearts will be better prepared to listen to God, repent, and repair ourselves."  A heart of flesh is a heart that is open, listening, compassionate, and ready to fix what is broken within the self.  Even in the time of ultimate redemption, we are not without work. Rather, we are more open, willing, and prepared to repair what is ruptured within us.  We are open enough to follow God's will and act in a way consummate with our title of am segulah, an exalted people.
     As Jews, we often refer to ourselves as am nivchar, or the "chosen people."  It is one of the most misunderstood concepts in how we perceive ourselves and others see us as well. To be a chosen people does not make Jews inherently better than anyone else.  In Ezekiel we learn that our hearts can be as hard as Pharaoh's (and unlike in the case of Pharaoh, our hearts weren't hardened against our will by God-- we have hardened our own hearts through sin!)  We learn elsewhere that we are not even the only people redeemed by God through a great exodus.  We have been chosen only for a specific task: to embody and enact Torah law and values.  When we forget or neglect our unique mission, our heart turns to stone, unable and unwilling to heed the guiding voice of the Divine.
     When we pray for the ultimate redemption, we not only orient our hearts toward resettlement in the Land of Israel, but also toward a new heart that is soft, open, purified, and ready for service.  It is a heart that hears the commanding voice of Torah and the cry of the orphan, stranger, and widow.  It is not a heart at rest in a world perfected by Another, but a heart ready for the hard and holy work of healing ourselves and the world around us.  It is a heart that is animated by a fresh spirit that is not weighed down by cynicism, greed, or solipsism, but rather is imbued with the hope of a brighter and more cooperative future.
    As we approach the holy time of Passover, let us pray not only for freedom from outside oppression, but also for the gift of a new heart.  Let us be redeemed not only from external pressure, but from the stubbornness within us that keeps us from being agents of God's will on earth.  In order to truly be a free people within our land, we must not only possess the physical force to protect our bodies, but also an openness and compassion to God's message and to the needs of those around us. May we all know what it is to be truly free in the time to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lipman Lecture: Ori Gersht March 3, 2016

Ori Gersht at Colby College
Thursday, March 3, 2016
7:15 pm at the Colby Museum of Art

Seeing and believing

Through the ages, the invention of new optical devices has shaped human perceptions of reality and redefined the physical as well as metaphysical boundaries of the world in which we live in.  Ori Gersht will contextualize his own practice in relation to technology, history, and art history.  He will locate the medium of photography within the context of art history and will discuss the relationships of photography with subjective memories, which are deeply inspired by his Israeli upbringing and his Jewish heritage. Gersht will discuss these ideas in relation to the notion of truth, and the fundamental human desire to anchor our existence in something that can be defined as objective.
Ori Gersht is an Israeli fine art photographer who works and teaches in London.  His photography has been the subject of dozens of museum exhibitions around the world.  Check out a review of his work in the New York Times.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Default Settings: Parashat Mishpatim

      Default settings are a powerful thing.  We know, for example, that if our computers are set to print double-sided as a default setting, we will save pounds of paper over the course of the year.  If we make arrangements for our retirement savings to be automatically deducted from our paychecks, we are far more likely to save sufficient funds than if we need to think about it each month.  Default settings can help us habituate ourselves to positive behaviors, but they can also be quite dangerous.  In Parashat Mishpatim, we see the dangers of being unable or unwilling to change entrenched modes of thought and behavior.
      Here we are deep in the narrative of Exodus, having been redeemed from slavery in Egypt and having just received the Torah at Sinai.  And yet, we are immediately confronted with laws concerning an individual who wants to remain a slave.  These laws are both surprising and somewhat predictable.  We know from midrashim that fourth-fifths of the Israelites were not redeemed from Egypt because they preferred the familiarity of slavery to the radical newness of freedom.  Even the one fifth that did cross the Sea of Reeds would whine bitterly to Moses about preferring the creature comforts (real or imagined) of Egypt to the barrenness of Sinai.  There is a part of the human condition that relies strongly on default settings, even when our default settings are frustrating, injurious, and even dehumanizing.
       One of the interesting elements of the laws pertaining to “voluntary” slavery is that a person must have their ear pierced on the doorpost of their master’s house if he chooses to remain in servitude.  Doorposts are imbued with deep meaning in the Bible.  We put the blood of the Pascal offering on doorposts so that the angel of death would know to pass over our homes in Egypt.  It is also the place where we affix mizuzot, reminding us of G-D’s laws every time we enter or leave our homes.  The doorpost is at once one of the most stable parts of our homes, but also the quintessentially liminal space where private and public spaces are created and delineated.
Why does the man who chooses to remain a slave need to pierce his ear on the doorpost?  According to Rabbi Shimon in the Gemara (Kiddushin 22b, cited in Rashi’s commentary), “...why were the door and the doorpost singled out from all the fixtures in the house? The Holy One, blessed is God, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said, ‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me; they are My slaves,’ but [they are] not slaves to slaves, and [yet] this one went and acquired for himself a master-[his ear] shall be bored before them [for everyone to see].”  The doorpost plays a dual role:  1) it reminds the man choosing to remain a slave that God redeemed him from slavery and intended for him only to be a servant unto God and not another human being 2) publicizes this man’s choice along with its painful consequences.
Most of us are not publicly shamed for our self-harming default settings, nor do we engage in rituals that make us aware of the negative implications of our repeated choices.  However, this week’s portion reminds us that retaining the status quo is not always in our best interest.  In many way the voluntary slave is lucky to have this ritual that makes him think more deeply about his choice, and will hopefully encourage him to liberate himself once the Jubilee year arrives.  We have just celebrated Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees and the celebration of life renewed after hibernation and death.  Let us employ this Rosh HaShanah as a time to reevaluate our default settings, keeping the ones that help us stay on the right path, and breaking with the habits that keep us enslaved to behaviors and mindsets that hold us back, depress us, and keep us from being the people we want to be.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Intersectionality is the Not the Enemy: Reflections on the Creating Change Conference

              Even though it has been five years since I was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I often still field questions about what it was like to be one of the first openly queer rabbinical students studying there. When describing my experience, I often like to begin with this story: when one of my gay male classmates expressed concern to a JTS administrator that he would not be viewed as authentic out in the pulpit, the administrator responded, "you should consider growing a beard."  Obviously, I could not have received the same advice, and this story shows how my challenges as a woman and a queer person should not be viewed independently if you want to understand my experience in the world, the complicated nature of solidarity, and how to best be a source of support in the challenges that I face. It may not be impossible to speak about my identity as a queer rabbi without discussing my gender, but it certainly impoverishes the conversation and obscures an honest portrayal of the full essence of my experiences. My identity is not simply an amalgam of unrelated labels, but is the product of how all the aspects of my identity intersect and interact.  This story is a very simple example of how appreciating intersectionality can lead to a more nuanced and helpful understanding of reality, and in particular, how various compounded forms of oppression can express themselves in ways far more complicated than the sum of their individual parts.  In my experience, few people would view this theory (or lens of understanding) negatively or as a danger to the Jewish people.  
        Very few theories are inherently dangerous or always lead to negative outcomes. Most powerful and enduring political theories rise to prominence because they amplify previously hidden or excluded voices and enrich our understanding of how the world works. Rather, problems arise when those theories are overused, manipulated, or caricatured, either by their supposed proponents or opponents.  In the case of many on the the far left's hatred of Israel, and its activists' movements to silence all voices that humanize the varied experiences of Israelis, the theory of intersectionality is not being used as a way to further clarify the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, queer Palestinian or Israeli identities, or the occupation. Rather, many of these activists are seeking to advance an approach that I would call "bundled politics."  This form of thinking does not bring greater nuance to the conversation, but coercively requires an automatic allegiance to a certain set of political positions in order to carry the badges of a "progressive, intelligent, ethical, aware person." It not only pressures individuals to abandon critical, balanced thought in regard to a particular issue (in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but also to succumb to group-think in regard to a wide variety of political and ethical issues. And only if you adopt all of the politics in this bundle, they assert, do you deserve a seat at the table in universities, conferences, or progressive politics.  Obviously, it is much easier to claim the validity and inclusion of the political positions in the bundle if you drown or force out all opposing points of view from the outset of a conversation.  Bundled politics not only elevates the stature of identity politics, but also seeks to formulate an identity based on political unanimity.  
         As we've seen with BDS fights within highly ideological and politicized academic disciplines, only one side of the conflict is ever presented, opposing voices are expunged and excluded, and only one tale of oppression in a complicated conflict is ever given voice or validated. While proponents of bundled politics might use the language of intersectionality in order to provide a veneer of nuance and academic grounding for their assertions, they are in fact abusing the theory and its original intentions.  They are calling for an automatic solidarity with one side of a deeply complex conflict based on a highly curated, partial, and overly simplistic portrayal of Zionism and Israeli identity that is reinforced through (often violent) abuses of power in classrooms and political settings.  In this respect, the greatest self-described proponents of intersectionality are the ones who pervert its original intentions the most flagrantly: flattening and simplifying conversations that need to be understood in their full complexity in order to be addressed effectively, ethically, empathetically, and with intellectual integrity.  
        In response to this trend, there have been a few writers in the Jewish press blaming intersectionality for an outbreak in anti-Israel activism that poses a threat to the Jewish community. I think that this critique is misguided. Understanding the ways in which various forms of oppression operate in concert, whether in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the US, threatens no one.  In fact, when used as one lens among many, and in conjunction with rich, complicated, and rigorous understandings of history and politics, it helps us better empathize, understand, and act.  To claim that all of these theories make us "stupid," does not advance the discourse or our standing within it.  Rather, it evidences a paucity of understanding, a diminished sense of empathy, and a lack of intellectual generosity in appreciating theories that have emerged in particular from women and scholars of color. Moreover, we need to lead conversations about Israel and the conflict that do not obscure the darker elements of Zionism's history or current troubling trends in Israeli society if we want to claim the mantle of intellectual honesty and ethical superiority.  I think that certain elements of the mainstream Jewish community have gotten the message and have adapted accordingly, but there are still too many corners of the Jewish leadership who seek to limit conversations in ways that are intellectually dishonest and unhelpful.  
     I share the outrage of Jews and Zionists who recognize how antisemitism has infiltrated the academy and progressive politics in multiple and worrying ways. Even though these activists may vigorously deny the label of antisemitism, at the very least they benefit from deeply ingrained antisemitic attitudes that assume Jews (or the Jew-writ-large of the State of Israel) are inherently powerful, wealthy, aggressive, shadowy, clannish, and untrustworthy. With little of the intellectual honesty and empathy they claim to embody, many anti-Israel activists advance their cause with the aid of these dangerous tropes, and have enjoyed unparalleled success in singling out Israel for rebuke as a result.  As a consequence, not only are Israelis dehumanized in deeply repulsive ways by a supposedly humane academy/progressive political class, but BDS activism in the far left has become one of the most effective vehicles for reifying and spreading calumnies and discrimination against Jews.  This state of affairs has already led to violence against Jewish students on campus and the exclusion of valuable Jewish voices in progressive causes that have no clear, obvious link to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
     As a Jew, a Zionist, a progressive, a professor, and a campus rabbi, I am deeply worried about these trends and what they mean for my students.  I neither want to see them abandon solidarity with other oppressed groups that the Torah and our history demand, nor do I want them to internalize the antisemitism and simplistic narratives about Israel that are so pervasive on campus and in progressive political circles. Ultimately, we must have the self-respect and the self-confidence to both stand up for ourselves and for others.  We must refuse to be terrorized and silenced.  Nor can we afford to turn inward and abandon other causes for justice and freedom.  I anticipate that this will be a lonely road for the progressive Jewish community (even those who actively struggle on behalf of Palestinians) but hope that some of the language and spirit of solidarity can be extended even to us in the years to come.