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Day of Atonement 2018- Ritual, Personal, and Political Atonement

Sep18

by: on September 18th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward… (Walter Benjamin, Theses on History)

Zizek notes that the pile continues to grow skyward, why is there no resolution, why isn’t the debris cleared? What is preventing the pile from dissipating? Zizek proposes that one the one hand there can be resolution, for some catastrophes there must be no attempt at “resolution”, much as trying to make sense of or come to a resolution of events like genocide or slavery. This is why at the end of the book of Job, God essentially agrees with Job and never provides an “answer”, and even if Job rebuilds and creates a new family, it is not expected that things will have “returned to normal”. On the other hand, he proposes that Benjamin meant a kind of divine “emancipatory” violence that moves history forward, a political explosion that Zizek then tries to read as a form of ultimate love.

Traditionally, on Yom Kippur, when we think of repentance, traditionally we say that the day of Yom Kippur itself heals “religious” ritual sins, Sabbath violations, improper foods, etc, however, in order to heal sins of individuals against other individuals, rituals and prayers are inadequate, but rather a face to face request for forgiveness is necessary.

Yet, the traditional texts do refer to the matter of greater catastrophes. The Sefat Emet quotes an early Midrash, the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, as linking Yom Kippur to the sin of the golden calf. If one counts the days from the sin of the golden calf and the smashing of the first Luhot (tablets of the law) on the Ninth of Av, and the second 40 days in which Moses ascends back up on Mt Sinai, then it works out that Yom Kippur is the day the second set of Luhot were brought down. The midrash states that in order to prevent the earlier mistake, the People of Israel fasted and cried all night on the final night, were appeased, and the day, which corresponds to Yom Kippur, was fixed as a day of atonement for the generations.

The Sefat Emet, in his reading of this text, notes that the Temple service as described in the Torah is done specifically by Aaron the high priest, and the reason for this is that it was Aaron who sinned with the people and thus he leads the people in repentance with him and this complete unity of leadership and people caused the healing to be engraved upon their hearts and enabled the proper reception of the tablets of the law, of the divine covenant.

Let us remember, what was the sin of the golden calf? It was, as we wrote in the essay for Ki Tissa, a crisis of leadership, with Moses gone, Aaron was afraid that in the absence of a strong symbolic leadership, the exodus project might collapse. While Aaron’s intentions were good, it was a devastating political failure to pledge allegiance to an orange-gold symbol of hedonistic deviance, an idol image that was popular among the masses, EVEN if it seemed at the time to be “good for Israel”. This “red wave” did not make the Israelites “great again” and in fact ultimately led to great destruction.

This political error was a great catastrophe that the classical texts tell us is still unresolved, and in a sense lingers on in all the communal (political) errors made throughout history. The Sefat Emet states:

… In truth, the sin of the golden calf is preserved throughout the generations, however, every Yom Kippur we can atone a bit for this sin, we can enter the gates of holiness and alter our hearts…

In other words, aside from the ritual sins requiring absolution, and the interpersonal sins that require resolution, there is an aspect of Yom Kippur that demands a rethinking of sins and errors in the political sphere. We need to consider again, whether following a gold covered but ultimately corrupt symbol, even if it appears to be “good for Israel” at the moment, must be rejected and tossed into the too-high pile of debris accumulated over the centuries, for the sake of communal healing.

…This storm is what we call progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fearless Truths, Ruthless Awareness: Into The New Year

Dec31

by: on December 31st, 2017 | Comments Off

At our Hanukkah party a couple of weeks ago, we asked our guests to each share a way in which they want to bring light into the world in the coming year. Like other festivals that kindle a blaze as the sun’s light wanes—Diwali, Christmas—Hanukkah can be understood as a collective refusal to surrender to darkness, a collective invitation to remember the light even in the darkest times.

My wish was for a pervading awareness, the kind that sees past the conventional categories that constrain thinking. I haven’t been blogging much because I’ve been giving my writing attention to a new book which treats this question as a central theme: why have we fallen so much into treating people and issues as toggle switches—#MeToo, for or against?—and what can we do to open the gates of awareness to multiple truths? My wish was for ruthless awareness, the kind that penetrates the surface of what is, allowing layer after layer to emerge and be explored, side-by-side, not always resolving to either/or.

I thought of this again yesterday. It was my task to offer the kavannot (intentions) for aliyot (Torah readings) in services yesterday morning, drawing out underlying teachings of the Torah portion assigned to this past week and inviting all who wished to connect to those energies to come take part in the blessings before each reading.

It felt like a really auspicious occasion: the last reading in the book of Genesis/Beresheit, the last Shabbat of the secular year. In the reading, Jacob prepares to die, offering parting messages to his offspring and blessings to Joseph’s sons, his grandsons. As the reading comes to a close, Joseph dies too. The Hebrew calendar only occasionally matches up with the secular year in this way. But because this is an annual cycle, because many of us have read it countless times, we know the book of Exodus/Shemot is coming next, the story of the long journey out of slavery. Everything ends, yet every ending is also a beginning.

For the second aliyah, I drew attention to the moment that Jacob offers parting words to his sons in Genesis 49:1-29. He speaks fearlessly, telling it as it he sees it, both what has been and the foundation the past has laid for what may come to pass. The passage is quite remarkable as he speaks very hard truths and very great blessings, equally without hesitation. This same capacity is my new year’s blessing for all of you, dear readers, fearless seekers after truth and wisdom, beauty and meaning, love and justice: that all may be able to see truth despite those who seek to obscure it; and speak truth despite those seeking to silence it.

Today we have new names for lies. The sleep of reason breeds monsters such as “fake news,” a club brandished by the Present Occupant of the White House to beat his critics into submission; and also by his opponents to discredit those who reprint his lies without reservation.

Eighty-three years ago, in 1935, the German writer Bertolt Brecht published his essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” To urge you on in the spirit of fearless truth, ruthless awareness, I offer a few of his words:

Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.

Here’s a live 1974 recording of Link Wray’s groundbreaking “Rumble,” first released in 1958. An essential part of living into truth these days is unearthing what has been suppressed, resurrecting buried truths. You must see Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a remarkable documentary on the Indigenous roots of rock’n'roll, released this year and now available for streaming.

This Week’s Torah Portion

Nov7

by: 2017-2018 T'ruah Israel Fellows on November 7th, 2017 | 5 Comments »

Note from Rabbi Lerner:

This week’s Torah portion to be read this Saturday in synagogues around the world tells of Abraham bargaining for a place to buy his wife Sarah. He finally succeeds in purchasing the spot which is now identified as the cave of machpelah in the center of Hebron. It became a holy site for Jews some 2200 years ago, and many Jews went on pilgramage to that site until the Roman imperialists forced Jews out of much of what the Romans named Palestine. When, some 1300 years ago, Muslims conquered the Holy Land, they constructed a mosque on top of this cave, and that became a holy site for Muslims as well who also believed that they, through Ishmael (Abraham’s first son, though not through his wife Sara but from her handmaiden Hagar) were descendents of Abraham. After the 1967 “Six Days War” Israel conquered the West Bank, a group called Gush Emunim, composed mostly of religious fanatics who believed that Jews had “the right” all of the West Bank and Gaza (and some even thinking that God had “given us” all the territory to the Euprhates river in Iraq) settled first nearby Hebron, then in Hebron next to the mosque where they could have immediate access to the supposed graves of our ancestors.They began displacing Arabs living near the cave and this caused friction between the over 100,000 Muslims who lived in this large West Bank city and the settlers. In 1994 a settler entered the mosque and murdered some 19 Muslims at prayer. In response, Israel sent in IDF (Israeli army) to protect the settlers from the anger of the (unarmed) Palestinians, and as more settler arrived and more Palestinians were displaced, anger grew, and so did the presence of the Israeli army, shutting down streets in central Hebron till it felt to many more like a prison than like the center of one of the biggest Palestinian cities.

Below is a note I received from a group of young people studying in Israel this year as the Truah Israel Fellows with the interdenominational organization Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights of which I am a member.  Please read it to understand better why Palestinians are so outraged at the Occupation.

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

 

A d’var Torah for Parashat Chayei Sarah by the 2017-2018 T’ruah Israel Fellows

 

Visiting Hebron, one of the first impressions that hits like a sucker-punch to the stomach is of a ghost town. Streets once bustling with thousands of Palestinians are now traversed almost exclusively by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Freedom of movement is squashed. Palestinian doors are welded shut and porches are caged in, ostensibly to protect them from the 800 settlers living in their midst. It’s hard to fathom what life is like when you cannot go out of your front door. This is occupation at its starkest.

But after this shock subsides, a more insidious, creeping form of occupation starts to draw one’s attention. Wherever we travel in the rest of Israel, we see street signs in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It’s a recognition of Arabic’s status as an official language and a nod to the kind of coexistence that, at least in theory, Israel strives for. But here in Hebron, a lot of work has gone into painting a different picture.

Here, the street names are in Hebrew and English. No Arabic. Road signs point to Jerusalem and the settlement of Neve Samuel but not to any of the Palestinian neighborhoods or villages. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to cloak the occupation, to erase anyone’s connection to this place but the Jews’.

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

Dec7

by: Jeffrey Lubell on December 7th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

“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 | Comments Off

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 termvayigash, from the roothagasha, (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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