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Can a New Form of Midrash Help Bridge our National Divides?

Dec7

by: Jeffrey Lubell on December 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 3:10).

Trump and Clinton. As the 2016 Presidential Election reminds us, we are a deeply divided country. Consider the razor thin margin of the election. A shift of fewer than 55,000 votes across three states (PA, MI, and WI) would have flipped the outcome, and a shift to Clinton of only one out of every 100 Trump voters would have given her an Electoral College victory similar in size to that experienced by Trump. As Nate Silver reminds us, these shifts would have led to a different narrative, but the deep divisions within this country would of course have remained fundamentally the same.

We saw these divisions over the summer when we mourned the heartbreaking deaths in July of African-American men, killed by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, and police officers, killed by African-American men in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We’ve seen them in the competing narratives around Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues.

Many are viewing the election as a call to arms – to fight for what we believe to be right. This is consistent with the long and honorable history of Jewish activism in support of civil and economic rights and our fundamental commitment to making the world a better place. This is surely part of the solution.

But while activism may help address the symptoms of our divisions, it will not help us transcend them. So it is not a complete solution.

There is no magic elixir that can quickly heal our fault lines of race, ethnicity, class, and political party, and our urban/rural and north/south divides. But I do believe there are lessons we can we draw from our Jewish tradition and heritage that may help us make progress in improving our understanding of one another, which is a critical first step in bridging our many divides. My suggestion is to repurpose tools from the Jewish tradition of midrash to increase our understanding of the diverse perspectives held by Americans across the U.S.


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Review of After One-Hundred-and-Twenty by Hillel Halkin

Nov10

by: Paige Foreman on November 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Photo by Tom Hilton. Source: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).

Berkeley recently decided to take a break from the drought – it rained all day on Friday, and I remembered asking my father why the rain falls when I was a little girl.

“The angels are crying – someone just died,” my father replied.

“Really?”

“I don’t know,” my father shrugged. “But it sure is a nice idea.”

In the final chapter of After One-Hundred-and-Twenty, Hillel Halkin describes a long midrash about the death of Moses. The Torah is silent about how Moses reacts to his death, but the Rabbinic commentary fleshes out Moses’ humanity. The way Moses reacts to his impending death is not all that different from how most humans react to death. Moses argues with God, evades angels, and begs to live on as an animal. In the end though, Moses’ life is taken by God with a kiss and within sight of the Promised Land that Moses never reaches. After the death of Moses, God wept, and I wondered if it rained that day.

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The King is the Field – Chabad Insights on the Divinity of Creation

Sep29

by: David Seidenberg on September 29th, 2016 | Comments Off

During the High Holidays, we strive to fashion our heart to become a dwelling place for God in the physical, earthly realm – a dirah batachtonim. However, the earliest aggadic (storytelling) midrash, Genesis Rabbah (fourth or fifth century), taught that “the root/essence of God’s presence was in the lower creatures /`iqar Shekhinah batachtonim haytah.” (19:7)

If the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, was essentially in all creatures, how did we arrive at the idea that the primary dwelling place of God was within the human heart? This is the journey I would like to share below.

According to Genesis Rabbah, even though the Shekhinah was interwoven with the physical world from the beginning, human sin drove the presence of God further and further away from the world. This alienation was “put into practice,” so to speak, in later midrashic texts. Midrash Y’lamdeinu, in opposition to Genesis Rabbah, taught in the sixth or seventh century that humanity was supposed to be the locus of God’s presence in this world, and that this is what it means for us to be “rulers batachtonim.” (Batey Midrashot 1, B’reishit 9) If Genesis Rabbah describes how sin generated the flight of Shekhinah from a world that was once full of God’s presence, Y’lamdeinu describes instead a world which was never the home of Shekhinah.


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Bal Taschit: What’s Wrong With the Jewish Law Against Destruction and Waste — and How to Fix It

Sep8

by: David Seidenberg on September 8th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

[Managing Editor's note: The spirit of David Seidenberg's insightful Torah commentary (below) is directly related to The Environmental & Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a call by The Network of Spiritual Progressives for a radical change in policy about how corporations interact with the environment. Join us at www.spiritualprogressives.org.]

Commentary on this week’s Torah portion – Shoftim

In Deuteronomy, we encounter one of the deepest principles in Jewish law: “When you lead a siege against a city many days … you may not destroy any tree of hers, to hew an ax against it, for from it you will eat, and you may not cut it off! Is the tree of the field a person, to come before you in the siege? Only a tree that you know is not a tree for food, that one you may destroy and cut off, and build siegeworks …” (20:19-20)

For the rabbis and later codes, the rule not to destroy fruit trees in war became an overarching principle, “do not destroy,” bal tashchit. If even in a time of war one could not destroy fruit trees, all the more should one not destroy or waste anything under normal circumstances.

Mainstream Jewish environmentalism in the early days began and ended as a paean to bal tashchit, the prohibition against destroying anything. How far have we come in Jewish environmentalism and ecotheology in the past forty-plus years? How we interpret the prohibition of bal tashchit is a good litmus test. Here’s why:


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Unrighteous Anger – Queen Vashti and the Erasure of Transgender Women

May13

by: Mischa Haider and Penina Weinberg on May 13th, 2016 | 8 Comments »

Queen Vashti Refuses To Obey Ahasuerus' Command by Gustave Dore

The night after Purim the two of us sat feasting – a queer Hebrew bible scholar and a trans woman activist. The book of Esther was on our minds, as we read Esther every year on Purim, the festival when we celebrate the brave Jewish queen who saves her people from annihilation in Persia. Also on our minds was the “bathroom panic” gripping the nation over the perilous prospect of transgender women using women’s restrooms. To address the threat, state legislatures are being flooded with proposed measures to deny transgender people access to restrooms and facilities in accordance with their authentic gender identity, instead forcing them to use the restroom matching the inaccurate gender assigned to them at birth. To those who may have missed the news, the rallying cry of these bills is “no men in women’s restrooms.” Since the trope that transwomen are actually men is patently absurd, we sought to delve into the mental plumbing of the cisgender men who craft these “bathroom panic” laws. What is it that compels them to enact such draconian measures? What is the source of their unrighteous anger?

There are many parallels in the story of Queen Vashti, as related in Esther. The lesser-known Queen Vashti, who enters the story prior to Queen Esther, is a proud and determined woman. Her strong-willed independence prompts the men in power to erase her existence, much as the enactors of the bathroom bills seek to erase transgender women. Perhaps in exploring Queen Vashti’s defiance and subsequent disappearance, we may illuminate the motivations of the cisgender men legislatively erasing transgender women, and get to the root of their anger.

As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a farcical extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver divans; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, banquets the women in her quarters – the women’s area of the royal house. On a certain day, the king sends his seven eunuchs – sarisim – to bring Vashti before him. Note that the word in the text, sarasim, is often translated as chamberlains, owing to their function at court. However, it is their status as eunuchs that enables them to be admitted to the women’s quarters.

Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. A preliminary clue to the ideology of those who seek to obliterate transgender womanhood may be found in the reaction of the court to this insubordination. In a masterful engraving, the French artist Gustave Doré perfectly illustrates both the refusal and the reaction.

In the engraving, the figure of Vashti stands in the spotlight in an unbowed posture. The expressions and carriage of the men around her suggest fear and anger – arguably arising from their inability to control her. Visualize Doré’s interpretation as we explore the interactions between Vashti’s independence and the enactments of King Ahasuerus and his princes in the text. We will argue that the forced erasure-by-legislation, which certain cisgender men in power today enact against transgender women, is rooted in the same feelings as those illustrated by Doré: the perceived loss of ownership and domination of the women in their intimate circles.

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Torah Commentary- Ki Tissa: “Strong Leaders” and the Golden Calf

Feb25

by: on February 25th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

I. “Strong Leadership” as Communal Failure

These days, much of the world is surprised by the ascendance of extreme demagoguery within the US political process. We are shocked by the ascendance of a disruptive “strong leader” who wishes to make “America great again” through force, violence, and hate speech. It seems like another age, the return of a malevolence that we thought was suppressed many decades ago. In contemplating this week’s texts, which deal with the flawed demands of the recently liberated people for a new form of leadership (in this case a golden calf), we can see parallels to the current situation and a response.

When dealing with the repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. In his discussion of these texts, R. Zadok Hacohen makes the following comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22b)

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set ofLuhot (tablets received by Moses at Sinai) not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we were given the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies.

Had this episode of the golden calf not occurred, our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden tree in Eden was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the tree of ‘life’, which Maimonides saw as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, which included theology).

According to the biblical text, Moses’s absence is taken to mean that he is dead and the people demand a new leadership, this time in the form of a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Our thematic question is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what kind of leadership were they looking for, and why would that error lead to a divine recognition that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate, and that supplementation with a vast commentary is necessary?

The Meor V’shemesh has difficulty comprehending how a generation that experienced what it experienced could lapse so crudely into idolatry of the most primitive sort. What was it that the people wanted from this idol? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” they were looking for at all, but rather a “strong leader”, an authority figure.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

Dec18

by: on December 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

 

In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

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View from the Ladder

Dec3

by: Irwin Keller on December 3rd, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Eighty years ago, the United States debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. It did not. And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I’m sure it was not lost on Jews throughout this country.

These have been weeks of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath, by sadness, fear, and anger. What happened on a Friday evening – the Shabbos! – in mid-November in Paris captures our imagination and won’t let go. And the attacks last week on the tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.

All of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn’t possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.

So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?

We dream a ladder. That’s what we do. It’s what Jacob did, in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob’s moment was not so dissimilar to ours.

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee

Nov20

by: on November 20th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.

The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.

A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.

It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed.

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Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness

Oct16

by: on October 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.

My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?

Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?

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