Monday, June 13, 2016

Jacob Staub's Op-Ed: Spirituality Contributes to Contented, Meaningful Life

Enjoy Jacob Staub's op-ed "Spirituality Contributes to Contented, Meaningful Life" in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

'Humans plan, and God laughs."
This Yiddish proverb is not as impious as it might seem at first glance. It declares succinctly an undeniable truth of the human condition: We are not in control. No matter how meticulously we plan, there are innumerable variables for which we can't fully account.
Often enough, we plan, and things turn out the way we want. And then we are tempted to believe that we are in control after all.
Our behavior certainly affects outcomes. If I consistently consume fewer calories, there is an excellent chance that I will lose weight. If you treat another person with kindness and compassion, you are far more likely to make a friend than if you are cruel. If your work performance is skillful and conscientious, your job security is likely to increase.
But not necessarily.
My sister-in-law was a lifelong vegan who ran marathons and never smoked a cigarette. She died of lung cancer at age 47. You just never know. We are all mortal. We get sick. If we are fortunate, we grow old.
Spiritual practice does not alter these realities. Nevertheless, mental-health professionals - and anyone concerned with the well-being of himself or others - should keep this in mind: Spiritual practice does help us come to terms with them. It can increase our equanimity, our inner peace. It can lessen our bitterness and disappointment.
I'm defining spirituality as an awareness of the mystery that underlies all of existence and as a sense that all things are interconnected. It does not require a belief in a god who hears our prayers and intervenes supernaturally to alter the course of events. It does not require a belief in any kind of god. Buddhists are spiritual, and so are humanists.
A primary spiritual truth is that I am not in control. People in substance-abuse recovery programs know this as a cornerstone, but it is true for everyone, whether or not one is struggling with an addiction. I and any of my loved ones could die in an auto crash or a criminal assault at any moment. At first, that thought may be too frightening to hold for any length of time. But with practice, as I integrate the reality of impermanence, I take fewer things for granted. Blessings large and small are to be treasured. Saying "I place myself in God's hands" does not require that I believe that God literally pulls all the strings. It can mean that I live my life as well as I can, not knowing what tomorrow brings.
One insight that often follows this line of thinking is the sense that I don't deserve my good fortune. Why was I born in mid-20th-century America rather than in 2016 Aleppo or 1938 Warsaw? What did I do to earn my access to Novocain or penicillin or statins? Or to two loving parents?
So much of our lives consists of unearned blessings, also called grace. Our lives rarely reveal to us the answers to these questions - if there are any answers - but when we notice these blessings, we are grateful.
In a culture that prizes autonomy and independence, we shy away from acknowledging that we need help. Whether to others or even to ourselves, admitting our fears and inability to control and navigate our feelings often feels immature, even childish. Adults, we have been taught, are the captains of their own ships. And so we seek to resolve problems for which there is no resolution and punish ourselves when we fail.
Parents, for example, constantly fear for the safety and well-being of their children. I have yet to meet a parent who is not upset when her child is in trouble. Yet life's uncertainties confound us all: When our job applications are rejected, we are hurt and angered. When our hearts are broken by lovers, we are sad. All of these emotions are natural, healthy responses of the heart.
What spiritual practices cultivate is an ability to offer ourselves compassion and to recognize that we cannot do it alone. One of the most precious teachings of the Jewish Hasidic tradition is that asking for help is itself the answer to our prayer. When I acknowledge that I cannot cope alone, I am no longer alone.
I am not suggesting that spiritual practice should replace psychotherapy nor that it alone can alleviate serious mental illness or eliminate the need for medications. But too often, spiritual practice is undervalued by mental-health professionals and all of us seeking to live the most contented, meaningful lives we can.
Finally, spiritual practice includes a cultivation of trust - not a trust that I will be protected from all evil if I chant correctly or pray openheartedly. Rather, a trust that whatever comes my way, I will be able to move through it without being destroyed. I don't know how things will turn out, but I journey into the unknown with a faithful heart.
Spiritual practice does not lead to a denial of unpleasant realities. Rather, it can equip us to face the darker parts of our lives without aversion or terror.
Rabbi Jacob J. Staub is a professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. To join his class "Spirituality and Mental Health Care" on Wednesday, email or visit .

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bechukotai - Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner on Inherited Fears and Trauma

Mazel tov to newly ordained Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner. Here is the davar torah she presented on the shabbat preceding her ordinationat RRC, connecting the curses of the parshah - being fearful even when threats are not there - with her experience as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
Parshat Bechukotai opens with a statement of conditional love. God announces:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְו‍ֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם

“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them: I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. And I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten [you]… I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people.”

BUT, God then says:
“If you do not listen to Me and do not perform these commandments,

then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases of hopeless longing and depression. I will break the pride of your strength and make your skies like iron and your land like copper. I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you, and they will utterly destroy your livestock and diminish you. Your roads will become desolate. I will bring upon you an army, and you will be delivered into the enemy's hands.”

This ancient litany of curses, known as the Tochecha, encompasses physical and mental illness, natural disaster and war. These plagues exist in our own time, of course, and I think that’s partly why the curses of Bechukotai speak real fear into our modern ears. But for me, what’s most poignant in the Tochecha is a more subtle threat that appears towards the end of the list, when God announces:
“And those of you who survive I will bring fear into your hearts… the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue you; you will flee as one flees the sword, but there will be no pursuer.”

The feeling of being pursued in the absence of a pursuer – fear unrooted in fact – is something I’ve been reflecting on lately, as I’ve begun to pay closer attention to my own experiences of fear and fearfulness.

For me, fear lives in the belly, a lump of low-level dread. And sometimes, when I am particularly frightened of some imagined future, it radiates up into my throat.

When I first began examining this fear in therapy a couple years ago, my therapist asked me: “What are you afraid of?” And, without planning on it, without any conscious thought behind my answer, I opened my mouth, and I said: “I’m worried everyone I love will be taken away from me and killed.”
To be clear: My fear is utterly irrational, ungrounded in my actual experiences of life and loss. I grew up loved in a safe, middle-class home in Toronto, never persecuted for my religion, never experiencing war or trauma. But, but: I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors.
In recent years, researchers have been working on better understanding something called epigenetic inheritance: the fact that an individual’s lived experiences can leave genetic alterations in their DNA that can get passed on to subsequent generations. 
In one surprising study that confirmed the existence of epigenetic inheritance, researchers gave male lab mice electric shocks every time the mice were exposed to the smell of orange blossoms. The Pavlovian result was that the mice eventually grew to shudder at even a hint of the smell. This was predictable. The surprise, however, was that the children and grandchildren of these traumatized mice also instinctively feared the smell of orange blossoms, even though they had never received any shocks, any sort of negative conditioning.
Only last year, another study analyzed the genes of 32 Jews who had either been interned in a concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture, or who had had to hide during the Holocaust. It then analyzed the genes of their children and grandchildren, and found identical increased mutations for stress disorders in the survivors and their offspring.
It seems likely, then, that I didn’t only inherit my straight hair from my mother, or my light eyes from my mother’s father. I also inherited the memories of a trauma that I can never claim as my own. In the words of Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet, “I wasn’t one of the six million who died in the Shoah, I wasn’t even among the survivors. No, I was not in that number, though I still have the fire and the smoke within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me by night and by day.”
So: it seems I bear the bodily wounds of a trauma I never lived, always anticipating, on some level, an enemy who is not there.

And this is why Bechukotai is so heartbreaking for me –because curses– even curses that come true -are one thing. But to live in a fear that is rooted in belly and bone – a fear that does not protect us, precisely because there is nothing to be protected from – is a burden that no one should have to know, but so many of us do.

In reflecting on the nature of fear – how it lives inside, how it feels in the body – I’ve noticed that fear can act like a horse’s blinders – preventing us from looking up, looking around, noticing the blessings of our lives. When we do not feel safe – when we are curled into ourselves like an involute – we can lose the ability to feel that we are blessed, even if our lives are awash in blessing.
So what is the way forward? How do we honour inheritance, without allowing ourselves to dwell indefinitely in fear?

I want to bring you back to the parsha – because I think it offers us two possible ways out of the darkness of ungrounded fear.

Bechukotai opens with a list of blessings. But being blessed is not enough. To counteract fear, we also need gratitude – but not facile gratitude, not running through the streets lobbing thank-yous like bouquets of flowers. True gratitude requires and invites us to stop, look up, and notice blessing – to not be so focused on the imagined fears of the present, on the future we are so frightened of. If we can get out of the fear long enough to be present, to notice that we are, actually, all right, we can unclench. And breathe.

So that’s one way out of fear – through seeing blessing, through light.

The other way is to engage with the dark.
In Hebrew, the word for curse is klala. But the root of this word – kuf lamed lamed, kalal – is also the Hebrew verb to burnish - to polish to a shine.

If we allow tragedy to touch us – to not always live in fear of rustling leaf and the imagined blow, but rather to unclench and let the sting and the sweetness wash over us as they come – we have the opportunity to be slowly transformed.

Loss and grief and sadness are the effects of our modern curses, and the cost that comes with loving people. But loss and grief and sadness offer us the opportunity to let life rub against us, wearing down our rough edges, our spikes that we pushed out in anticipation of pain. Life, if we let it, can polish us to a sheen. From the beauty of our burnished selves, we can shine and reflect light to others. And see ourselves more clearly, the darkness and the light that surrounds us.

~Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner, June 4, 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fair Trade Shabbat - Parshat Kedoshim: Expanding Mitzvot in the Supply Chain

Kippah Crocheter Angelica Marta works 
with MayanHands, supporting herself and 
her family. Photo: Dina Tanners
Kedoshim: A Favorite Pick-and-Choose Parshah
May 14, 2016 - Betsy Teutsch

This shabbat is designated Fair Trade Shabbat, coinciding with World Fair Trade Day. Some of you know I am on the Fair Trade Judaica Advisory Board, so I was eager to take on linking today's Parshah, Kedoshim, with Fair Trade Principles. And of course I provided slave-free Equal Exchange Kosher Fair Trade Chocolate to amplify my teaching. [IF you're reading this rather than hearing it in person... go shopping!]

Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) is about an elusive topic, holiness. We sense holiness, but it is hard to define. Social justice advocates love this parshah because of its justice-promoting chestnuts, but there are also opaque and baffling instructions, as well as some we moderns find offensive.

First, some easy ones:

  • Peah – Leave the corners of your field for the poor. There is no upward limit. You could harvest a chevron shape, where the corners are the same size as the field, making it 50/50
  • No gathering of fallen fruits, they are for the poor and the stranger
  • No defrauding
  • No withholding of wages.
  • You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old
  • No falsifying of weights
  • You shall not wrong a stranger that resides in your land
Some less obvious paths to holiness:

  • You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed (though it does not forbid companion-planting, where one pairs two different kinds of plants, a beneficial practice , a standard in permaculture and sustainable agriculture)
  • You shall not mix two kinds of cloth (shatnez)
  • You shall not destroy the sidegrowth of your beard
And then the ones that are 180 from where we are today: inappropriate prohibitions, such as the one against male-male unions. In our world they are not only legal, but a celebrated source of holiness for those in loving unions, in many Jewish communities.

The text does not define holiness; we are to be holy, set apart, for God.

I would submit that holiness is , l’havdil, like pornography. You know it when you see it. You feel it.

Clearly achieving this holiness requires a lot of every day, ordinary attention to behavior in the material world. It is woven into our interactions with others. If we were to make up a list of ways to achieve holiness as we live our daily lives, some of these Levitical principles would likely make our list; others would disappear.

Here we are 2500 years later in a complex globalized world of 7 billion people. We can’t leave the corners of our fields for the poor, since we mostly don’t raise our own food, and the world's poorest people, many of whom do raise our food, concentrate in the Global South.

The Fair Trade movement seeks to utilize our everyday market transactions to help the poor improve their lives, according them dignity and ensuring they can meet their basic needs. The opposite? Said Zach Teutsch, when I first described fair trade coffee a decade or so ago, must be unfair trade.

Initially the movement has been known for coffee production,  Fair Trade products include many others kinds of consumable food, flowers, clothing, housewares, crafts, and even Judaica like Fair Trade Judaica's Bar/Bat Mitzvah Collection, kippot and tallitot.

There are ten basic principles of Fair Trade. They expand the holiness in our daily consumption – creating more kedushah and allow us to help people help themselves out of extreme deprivation, Rambam's highest level of tsedakah. Here are a few examples:

Transparency throughout the supply chain. It is easy to take advantage of people who are unaware of the retail value of their products. Asymmetrical information is a form of exploitation, the opposite of fair.

No child labor. This is not prohibited by Torah, it was the pre-industrial norm. It is illegal, now, but not uncommon. Likewise no slave labor. Fair Trade certification is an extension of kashrut supervision, which applies to food.

Safe work conditions, setting forth goals which co-ops can work to attain. Cheap clothes et al are produced in factories that cut every possible corner. (Contrast that with leaving the corners open for the needy….)

FT guarantees equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, HIV status. This is a much higher standard than Torah or secular law.

Environmental standards are integrated into FT, unlike the conventional food supply chain where workers, the land and water and ultimate consumers are exposed to pesticides. This too is a higher standard, and missing from conventional kashrut supervision.

Q) How might we integrate Fair Trade standards, a sort of “consumption kashrut”, into our personal and household lives? Does having worker justice, environmental protection, and gender equity guarantees feel like holiness? Is this a spiritual practice, or just a form of consumption tax? Or tsedakah?

Q) How to we integrate fairly traded products into Dorshei Derekh and our shul?
Sometimes FairTrade is costly – it cuts out the middle-men so can be competitive, but products are usually higher quality, ergo costlier.

Q) How to we resolve conflicting Value Based Decision Making – local vs. buying a fair trade product from far away, or cost, or kashrut labeling? Organic, for example, does not equal Fair Trade. Or a FT product might not have kosher certification. My husband David loves his Starbucks French Roast. It's kosher, but not Fair Trade. 

PS - Elite Chocolate has no supervision of its supply chain. You can help a recent Ashira Abramowitz, a recent Bat Mitzvah girl in Israel, petition Elite to raise its standards, 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Purim's GJC Tsedakah Collective 2016 - Please Participate!

This Purim, GJC and Minyan Dorshei Derekh will once again run our Mishloah Manot tzedakah collective project, continuing a tradition of over a decade. It allows us all to fulfill two of the important mitzvot of Purim: mishloah manot (giving treats to our friends) and matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor).

Here’s how it works:
  • You donate to the project – suggested minimum, $18, no maximum!
  • Donations can be made via PayPal or by sending a check made out to “Germantown Jewish Centre, earmarked for the Purim Tsedakah Project, to the office
  • The bulk of the proceeds is donated as tzedakah to three local organizations providing direct support to the needy.
  • A small percentage of the proceeds will be used to provide aFair Trade Equal Exchange Chocolate bar + clementine  each household attending the Charry Megillah Reading and/or the Dorshei Derekh evening Purim celebration Wednesday night, March 23.
  • We are dispensing with the tradition of clementine cartons filled with goodies; families have been reluctant to take them. Rather than waste food, we are “minimizing the waste and maximizing the mitzvah“. By purchasing Fair Trade chocolate, the mitzvah of helping the poor support themselves is integrated into the ritual of mishloach manot!
1. We will once again be supporting a Weavers WaWWCP Websitey Community Program, the community garden at Stenton Family Manor, a homeless shelter in Germantown.  The grant  helps a farm educator teach residents how to raise food.  The produce raised is used directly in the kitchen to feed residents.
2. We will be contributing to refugee resettlement, via the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS-PAhias-logo

3. We will also support The Center For Returning Citizens, whose head Jondhi Harrell spoImage result for center for returning citizenske at the Stefan Presser Social Justice Shabbat this past January.
The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) assists returning citizens in the transition from incarceration to society by providing job training, housing assistance, counseling services, legal aid, and referrals. TCRC helps individuals, families and communities with the adverse impacts of incarceration.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mass Incarceration: Injustice in America, a Jewish Response

Dorshei Derekh hosts an annual Shabbat focused on social justice in memory of Stefan Presser, a minyan member committed to social justice and proud head of the ACLU. Stefan passed away at age 52, from a brain tumor, in 2005. We have picked a topic each year to learn more about, spurring individual and collective action.

This year's event was very well-attended with both of our speakers providing both inspring as well as deeply distrubing presentations - there is a lot of work to be done. 

Below, Rabbi Malka Binah Klein has provided links for further information.

Kudos and thanks to our chair, Donald Joseph, and the committee - Rabbi Michele Greenfield, Rabbi Malka Binah Klein, David Mosenkis, and Betsy Teutsch.

Jondhi Harrell's organization is The Center for ReturningCitizens, Philadelphia  

Miriam Grossman is an intern at T'ruah: The Rabbinic Callfor Human Rights.  You can sign up for action alerts at

To sign up at The Marshall Project to receive news reports about the criminal justice system

Learn about ways to get involved in the campaign to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania at DecarceratePA.into 

Learn about prisoner advocacy at Prison Society.

Abigail Weinberg taught a wonderful Linda Hirschorn chant, Circle Round for Freedom. Naomi Hirsch has supplied the lyrics and a YouTube.
Circle round for freedom,
Circle round for peace.
For all of us imprisoned,
Circle for release.
Circle for the planet,
Circle for each soul.
For the children of our children,
Keep the circle whole.

Click to hear Linda Hirschhorn singing her composition:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rabbi Robert Tabak on Jonah: Endings to the Story

Minyan Dorshei Derekh, Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia
Mincha Yom Kippur, 2015
Rabbi Robert Tabak

Jonah: Endings to the Story

This dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my father, Sol Tabak z”l who for many years read the Jonah story in English at his congregation, Adat Shalom, in San Diego.

Rabbi Gail Diamond, quoting Uriel Simon asks, if teshuvah (repentance) is at the center of the book of Jonah, where is it in first 2 chapters – the prophet fleeing , the boat, great fish, etc.?  The sailors are presented as good, moral people. Jonah is fleeing God and also declares his awe of God.  But no one is called on to repent.
However, teshuvah is at the center of the story, and at the center of Jonah’s anger in the last two chapters.
The Rabbis teach that teshuvah is one of seven things created prior to creation – (BT  Nedarim 39b/Pesachim 54b)
  שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם, ואלו הן תורה
 תשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא
הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח.  
   - *תשובה - 
   "**בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים יֻלָּדוּ...  וַתֹּאמֶר 'שׁוּבוּ בְנֵי אָדָם!'*".
Seven things were created before the world, viz., The Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah….Repentance, for it is written, Before the mountains came into being [yuladu-were born], before you formed the earth and the world . . . You return humans to dust, you decreed “Return [shuvu] you mortals.” (Ps 90:2-3, “Tefila l’moshe ish ha-elohim”)

In this list of seven things – one of them is not like the others – only teshuvah is a quality, or potential quality, of human life, for all people.

At the end of chapter 4, why is Jonah angry? He says, I knew you were El rahum (A merciful God) , using the same language as Exodus 33-34 after the Golden Calf.
Again: Why did Jonah leave the city? (4:1-4) the text says, because he sees that God is forgiving . Jonah wants a God of absolute justice, of din (at least for gentiles).” Please take my life from me” (twice!)– God  asks (as Rabbi David Steinberg notes, seemingly with sarcasm) “Are you that deeply grieved”? and again after the plant dies.
Ruth Loew asked me a great question:  What happened to Jonah next?  The biblical story ends with the people of Nineveh changing and God telling Jonah about God’s compassion . We don’t hear anything of Jonah’s life after his mission to Nineveh.  Is there a capacity for Jonah to change as well?
Our interactions with others change us – something that I learned in many years working as a chaplain.
The rabbis taught in Leviticus Rabbah (34:8) It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua:  The poor person does more for the householder (who gives tzedakah) than the householder does for the poor person. (trans from Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol 1, no.53) Sometimes we think we are “helping” others, and we will be helped, or changed, more by that interaction than the other person will be.
Once when I was a chaplain, I met a minister and a rabbi who were both hospital patients on a transplant floor.  Both were from South Jersey, but they had hardly known each other – meeting only once or twice at clergy meetings.  The minister heard that the rabbi was getting sicker and sicker and needed a kidney donor.  She said to herself, maybe I can do this.  She was tested, they matched, and both were in the hospital for the transplant. (They also told their story to the newspapers, so it is not confidential).  I don’t know if my visits as a chaplain to each of them helped them or not.  But these visits affected me and made me see how deeply hesed (lovingkindness) can affect people who hardly knew one another.  We may all not be able to be organ donors, but we can show kindness even to those we do not know.
The story of Jonah as written ends with God admonishing Jonah, with teshuvah possible, even for the evil deeds (hamas –  violence or theft) of the city of Nineveh.  At the end of the book we just read this afternoon, the sukkah is gone. The plant is dead.  The king and people have changed.
And presumably Jonah makes the long journey back from Nineveh to the land of Israel.  What is in an imaginary Chapter 5?
I don’t want to give a single answer, but will share a few possibilities for Jonah, Chapter 5
1)      Jonah returns home, and is still resentful of the hesed (lovingkindness) of God, which overruled strict justice.  He goes around grumbling, and saying “Nineveh, its king and citizens were probably faking.  They didn’t mean it—they just wanted to save their necks.  The first chance they get they will cheat and will probably attack Israel, too.”
Jonah was a messenger who still did not believe in the message he had carried.

2)      Version 2.  Jonah returns home, deeply affected by his encounter with human transformation.  He is overwhelmed, even smitten, by hesed/lovingkindness.  The people of Nineveh, he realizes, did not repent because of his great oratory or skills (he spoke in a foreign accent) but because somehow the content reached their hearts.     On the long, hot road home, Jonah thinks about the dead plant he had been willing to die about, and realizes that all of God’s creatures – human and beast, Israel and gentiles, and even plants that die in a day are somehow connected to a wider reality.  Even the thief who steals his donkey and backpack one night is one of God’s beloved creatures.
3)      Version 3.  Jonah returns home.  He realizes that people can change, and that God can forgive. He also knows that not all the people of Israel, not all the people of Nineveh, not all the beasts are kind and loving.  He knows some are capable of great evil. But people are also capable of good, and more significantly, capable of transformation.  Jonah realizes that he is not the center of the story.  At most, he is a messenger.  Jonah has to confront his own anger that God is el rachum v’hanun  (a God merciful and forgiving), that God who somehow forgave the Golden Calf and the Ninevites might forgive him, and might forgive Israel, if they truly change.

I  want to conclude by sharing a midrash that connects three essential qualities (tzedakah, teshuvah, tefillah ) of the Days of Awe to one verse that we don’t often read, from Second Chronicles when King Solomon dedicates the First Temple in Jerusalem :  (Pesikta d’rav Kahana, BaYom HaShemini Atzeret 28:3).

Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar:
Three things-
prayer, Tzedakah, and turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
eliminate [unfavorable heavenly] decrees. (shelosha hen she-matbilin et ha-gezerah).
and all three can be derived from a single verse:
“When My people, who bear My name,
humble themselves, pray,
seek out My face,
and turn from their evil ways,
I will hear in My heavens,
and will forgive their sins,
and heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)
“pray” (va’yitpallelu)- this refers to prayer
“seek out My face”—this refers to Tzedakah
as it is written elsewhere “I through Tzedakah (tzedek) shall see your face.” (Psalm 17:15)
and “turn from their evil ways”—this is turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
And what is the conclusion of the verse?
“I will hear in My heavens
and forgive their sins…”
[R.Tabak adds the final words of the verse, not quoted in the midrash: “And I will heal their land.” (v’arapeh et artzam)]
trans:  Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol. 3, no.38) 
I can’t tell you the ending of the Jonah story.  We have to try to write our own endings, with our life stories, as best we can, with help from one another.

Song:  K’chu imachem d’varim  v’shuvu el-hashem (Hosea 14 – haftarah for Shabbat Shuva)– Take words with you and return to Hashem.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rabbi Tamara Cohen Rosh Hashanah 2015: The Binding of Isaac and Black Lives Matter

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5766
Rabbi Tamara Cohen

This Dvar Torah was born a few times over this year.

I think the first place it was born was in the powerful experience of giving birth to a beautiful baby, who among many other things is a white Jewish boy with blond hair and blue eyes in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new level, in a moment when the stories of parents mourning the deaths of their children of color due to police violence were all around me. We took Kliel to a Hanukkah Black Lives Matter protest for his first outing. He was barely a month old. Why? In part because I wanted to be there and in part because I was struggling with how to allow myself the joy of this new baby knowing that all around America and Philadelphia and even Mt Airy other parents were also celebrating new babies, babies with all different colors of eyes and skin and hair, and that all of us lovestruck parents, wanting to do everything for our children, feeling acutely aware of their vulnerability, also had different relationships to the vulnerability of our kids because of the systemic racism in the America in which these babies were being born.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to nurse and realizing that this waking in the night was core my current spiritual work. It was a way to teach my baby's little body and deepest self: yes, it's true, there is nothing I won't do to care for you. You are safe in this world and can take root. You are loved and cared for. Each time you cry out, or murmur, or show me your need, I will respond. And then it occurred to me that the difference between my parental instinctual hearing and spiritual instinctual hearing was this: I wanted to be and to raise my children to be, people who wake in the night when they hear not only the cries of their own babies but the cries of every and any baby.  The kind of people who can respond with love and surrender each time they hear a cry of human being in need, even in the dark of night, even when we would rather sleep.

Another moment when this D’var was born was on a phone call with my friend Y. after Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. Y. was saying something like “What’s going on? What’s going on? This is America.” And there was an urgency in her voice, a terror. I had read a headline or two about the case but I hadn't yet taken the time to read more. I was busy, planned to get to it soon. But something in my friend’s voice, something said to me in a starkness, painful and real, that the difference between being a good white friend and ally and being a black mother in that moment was the difference between my upset at the story and her terror. And I saw it clearly. I saw her daughter, 17, headed to Princeton after graduating as the only black Jewish girl from her yeshiva high school. I saw her suddenly, briefly through her mother’s eyes. I saw the terror of having to release one’s child, one’s black child, to an unknown world, the terror of having to allow one’s baby to drive on a street through Princeton. Anywhere really. And I felt shaken awake in a new way to the difference in my reality and in the reality of my dear friend, both of us Jewish mothers who love our kids and would do anything to protect them, one of us white and one of us black.
            I tasted for a moment the physical terror in her voice. And then I went into my house to have dinner with my family and she went into her house to have dinner with hers. But before we got off the phone I made a promise to her, yes, we would do something, no I wouldn't forget the moment, no I wouldn't let this fear and anger and horror all sit solely on her shoulders.

            The third place this dvar Torah was born was in my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazingly beautiful, powerful and heart-wrenching book Between the World and Me, which I read this summer, thanks to the fact that the GJC Racism group decided it would be a good thing to do together. For those of you who have not yet read this book, and I strongly commend you to read it, what you need to know for now is that the book is written by a black father to his fifteen year old black son. The book tells the story of how Ta-Nehisi, in his words, has made the struggle to live free in his black body in America the central meaning making struggle of his life. He writes about his childhood on the harsh streets of inner city Baltimore, his struggles with school, his period of valorizing and learning from Black Power and Malcom X, his awakenings at Howard University to the deeper complexities of race and racism and blackness, and about becoming parent. He shares the story of the loss of a peer to police violence and of his intense visit with the mother of this murdered son, a professor and dean, who had raised her son in the suburbs, sent him to private schools and given him so much, none of which protected him from being murdered by a police officer in the prime of his life.

            These three experiences led me to feel compelled, if still somewhat anxious about, giving this dvar torah. So here’s the essence of what I want to say:
            For me, this year, the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is so terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him that he almost kills him himself.
            This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.
            Isaac and Abraham are both afraid. Fear is something they live with and know. Indeed fear becomes part of Isaac's name (as Gideon Ephrat points out in a blog post on the use of the phrase Pachad Yitzchak after the Akeida).

            I want to briefly read you a few quotes from Between the World and Me that may help you see how I have arrived at this reading of Akeidat Yitzchak.

Coates writes: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” He continues, “That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mothers hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.” - p. 82

            So, what happens when we read these two texts, Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Genesis 22 together? A few things happen.

            One of the most difficult and important things that Ta-Nehisi Coates asks his son and his readers to do is to accept a radically different and more violent narrative of America than the one we generally believe in. He asks us, as does the Black Lives Matter movement more broadly, to recognize that what has gone on this year have not been the acts of some bad cops, but instead a reflection of and carrying out of a policy of systemic racism consistent with the basic tenets of the American Dream in which the of safety and prosperity of people who get to claim the identity of “white” get that through the plunder, ownership, and terrorizing of Black bodies.

            I hear in this two calls to us as a community of primarily white Jews.

            The first is that we recognize how much we have benefited from the process of mostly losing, at least in the United States, the marker of having Jewish bodies, and of being accepted as having white bodies. But we can’t stop there. We must also take the step of deciding to stop believing in the whiteness of our bodies, while still fully acknowledging white privilege, and of no longer acquiescing to the system that gives us advantages because of our supposed whiteness on the backs of those whose skin is black.

            Another equally hard and important move that I invite us to make is for us to be willing to look at the Torah and at Israelite civilization with the same hard scrutiny with which Coates looks at America, and also, through the course of the book, at blackness.

            He writes, "The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own” (p.53) and also, "Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it."

            I think its important for us as Jews to be ready to admit that indeed our beloved Torah is not exempt as a story in which some great power is elevated through the violent exploitation of other human bodies. Despite the power of the Exodus narrative, in the Torah, in the end, Israelites bodies are the chosen bodies. It is the bodies of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan who are plundered and destroyed in order to pave the way for our Dream, for the conquest of the Promised Land. This is a very troubling way to look at the Torah, just as Coates presents us with a very difficult read of America. But the fact that it makes us uncomfortable doesn't make it not true.

            And if we can tell the truth, tell the truth about America, and tell the truth about the Bible, and tell a more whole truth about our changing and evolving position as American Jews in the civil rights struggle, not just about Heschel in Selma, and Andrew Goodman, and the stories we are proud of, we will be moving closer to being able to make necessary radical change.

            Let’s return to Isaac, bound and trembling with the knife raised above him. On the one hand I am seeing him and asking you to see him as an American boy with a black body. I am doing this because black bodies are the bodies in America today that hold the position of Yitzchak, the position of fear, of lack of freedom, of being struck, bound between the promise of a grand and fruitful future and the very real possibility of immanent unexplained and incomprehensible death.

            But at the same time that I want us to hold the image of Yitzchak as a black child, I also want to hold him as every child.

            The binding of Isaac is a story that reveals that actually we all have bodies. And that actually every one of our bodies is vulnerable. Every one of our bodies would cry out "I can't breathe" if it was put into a chokehold and we had asthma. Every one of our bodies would be destroyed if it was bound and driven around in the back of a police van.

            Isaac is our reminder that really race is a construct that creates an unnatural line between those bodies that are vulnerable and destructible and those that are strong and invincible.
            Our narrative does not end with Yishmael cast out and Yitzchak  protected as the chosen one. Yitzchak ends up vulnerable in today’s Torah reading just as Yishmael did in yesterday’s. Isaac's body lies there bound and afraid, just as Yishmael sat in the desert thirsty and in danger of dying. Both of them together remind all us that all of our bodies could be taken from us for reasons we don't understand and will never understand. Each is dependent on an angel shifting their parents vision in order to enable their survival.

            So on the one hand I am saying that some bodies are more vulnerable than others and on the other hand I am saying that all bodies are equally vulnerable. Yes.

            Racism and the American Dream's dependence on it makes it true that black bodies are far more vulnerable in America than white bodies. But this is not an inherent truth. This is the result of a system built to protect and construct white bodies and to control and destroy black bodies, families, and communities.

            When we recognize that whiteness is a construct, that blackness is a construct, that race is a construct, we take one important step. We then need to take another. We need to take the step of saying that we want to exchange of our sense of distance from the reality of the vulnerability of the body for a society in which all bodies are equally vulnerable and equally free.
            We don't yet live in that society. The Torah doesn't live in that reality either. But Isaac's bound body and the rabbis choice to force us to look at it every year is perhaps a way in to that worldview.

            That's where we want to go. To the worldview where the color of Isaac's skin doesn't make him more or less likely to be bound or unbound, where the color of his skin doesn't make him more or less likely to live with a constant underlying sense of fear.

            As Jews we often read this story in a way that focuses us more on the intellectual, spiritual, philosophical questions raised by the Akeida. I have felt compelled this year to stay with the body. With the embodied terror of Isaac and of Abraham. And beyond them of Hagar and Yishmael. And even Sarah.

            I have felt compelled to stay with the deep experience of bodily fear that is not right now equally shared in this country. But which perhaps we can begin to more deeply understand through our bodies than through our minds.

            Racism can only partially be unlearned through the mind. The racist’s fear, the fear that the supposedly white body carries of the black body is also a bodily fear. And so perhaps we can get more to the root of racism if we go to this body place. And perhaps this year that is where Isaac is inviting us to go.
            At least it is where his body invited me to go this year. His body and a mother’s terror, and the crazy sad fact of Sandra Bland's death, and all the lives taken this year because of police violence and the powerful gift of Ta-nehesi Coates’s words to his fifteen year old son — his act of father to son truth telling that somehow calls out to me across time and space as an answer to Abraham's deafening silence during his three day walk with his son.

            Towards the end of the book, Coates addresses his son: ”Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact... I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” (pp.107-8)

            May we keep learning, may we keep struggling, may we raise our next generation — all of them, to be conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world. May the shofar keep blasting and shaking all of us awake.