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Monday, March 24, 2014

Richard Stern's Davar - Parashat Vayikra: An Atheist Jew Comes Out of the Mishkan

The very first words of today’s parasha, Vayikra, and of the Book of Leviticus are:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר

“And [He] called to Moshe and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” And there follows for much of the Book of Leviticus, rules for the precise ways in which various sacrifices, rites, and laws, for various members of society, should be executed. A number of commentators, including Rashi and Ramban, have noted that the subject of the verb “to call” is implied; the one who is doing the calling is not explicitly stated. No speaker is specified until the second verb (“and God spoke”). In English, the literal translation is something like: “And there called to Moshe and there spoke god to him.”

The 19th century German Jewish commentator Samson Rafael Hirsch argues that the uncommon syntax of this sentence is there to specify a transcendant god – to make clear that “when God spoke with Moses, it was indeed the word of God addressed to Moses by God Himself… [not something] emanating from within Moses himself.” The Hassidic commentator Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his text Me'or Eynayim, also notes that “He called” is written “anonymously,” without explicitly declaring who is speaking. But here the text also notes that Vayikra is written with the minature aleph, because the spark of god, the cosmic aleph, is present within each of us, in a reduced and anonymous form. “When you go to commit a sin and god prevents you from doing so by some means, that is god speaking to you,” the text reads. So Reb Nachum of Chernobyl is arguing for an immanent god.

I want to encourage us today to consider the risks of believing in any god, whether transcendent or immanent.

First, a little background. I am a ritual-loving Jew. I have been a (mostly dues paying) member of this minyan and of GJC for over 20 years. I met my wife here, my son is an ECP veteran and now in the religious school here, and bsha tova he will celebrate his bar mitzvah here. Through much of my adult life we I’ve constructed with you all, in shul and in our homes, rituals drawn from the stunningly beautiful fabric of our continually evolving Jewish tradition. I love being part of that ongoing conversation, that meaning-making process with you. And as part of my Jewish practice, I have been studying in chevurta with Reb Shai Gluskin for the past 2 years about ritual and holiness in Torah, Talmud, and liturgy.

The only problem is: I don’t believe in god.

I’m coming out today, stating my beliefs and feelings in the most public way, because I am aware of the power of coming out, as a way to build genuine community, empower us, and break down shame, exclusion, and hiding. We Jews intimately know the pain of hiding, the crush of assimilation; in many ways even we identified lot operate at times as crypto-Jews. I’m coming out because I want to declare that my love (of the world and the Jewish people) is good and authentic. So I am a proud and out ritual loving Jewish atheist!

Nu, how is it that I enjoy and engage in some ritual, minhag, and mitzvot? Because it’s clear to me that we humans are deeply hardwired to operate in part on the level of emotion, archetype, and tribe. We operate on many levels at once, so I revel in that.

You might ask, “why don’t you go to the folkshul, with the other heretics?” The answer is that I belong (literally and figuratively) here at Dorshei and GJC. Having a sense of place here, walking here, in my own neighborhood, is very precious for me. I am here to be with my tribe, to engage with my people, to sing with my clan, to resonate with my friends. I love singing with you; resonating together connects us to our ancestors and to each other.

I want to be clear. I am not an agnostic, but a machmir atheist. I don’t believe in any god, whether transcendent of immanent. Though it’s technically impossible to prove a negative, the way I think about it is: I am as sure that there is no god as one can be of any negative statement, as confident as that Zeus, and Santa Claus, and ghosts do not exist -- (except in our imaginations, as archetypes, where they are very powerful). Saying Ruach Ha-Olam is better than Melech Ha-Olam, but it still wrankles.

Fortunately (?) my Hebrew is poor enough that I understand very little of the prayers and psalms I am chanting. I try not to look too hard at the translations, because they give me the willies for the most part. I am most comfortable with a niggun, or the yay day day part of any prayer.

I’m searching for a way to be honest and in integrity while reciting these god-oriented prayers with you all. And I find myself being curious about how others are praying.  I know for most of us, attending shul is a work in progress; I’m hoping our conversation today will allow any others who choose to come out a little about how we are doing shul and life.

I find myself getting a little scared raising this taboo subject. So, I remind myself that this sort of discussion about the interplay among the god of the bible, the god of prayer and the rabbis, and the god of modern times – that god-wrestling discussion -- is profoundly Jewish, and very much within our tradition. So I am calling on the spirit of Yitzchach Aveenu, Rambam, Spinoza, and Kaplan, as well as Freud and Sherwin Wine.

And I profoundly appreciate that in most congregations around the world, I’d have no standing to even discuss this blasphemy.  I am deeply moved and grateful for and proud of your listening. This is great credit to Dorshei.

So back to the risks of god. Vayikra: “He called,” -- believers and activists of various stripes say “I was called to do such and such.” Called by whom? What’s the difference between saying on the one hand: “I was called (implying by a transcendent or immanent God)”; versus on the other hand saying “I followed my gut instinct or what I thought was ethical, and I chose?” For starters, the passive voice smacks of Nixon cronies saying “mistakes were made” – instead of accepting personal responsibility for their actions. My view is: use an I (or a we) statement!

The way I see it, we converse with ourselves, or we converse with other humans – and not with any actual gods or spirits, whether external or internal. I am suggesting that believing that we are speaking to a god that exists independent of us can diminish the quality of our listening and talking to ourselves and to our peers, and ultimately make us less ethically responsible to ourselves and to one another.

In my view, we can influence some things in life, and other things we can’t; the power we small beings have is certainly limited. My worry is that saying that a transcendent “god (or a devil or angel) told me to do it,” -- offloads the limited power and responsibility we do have. Even the immanentist, god-within version of this – such as “I felt the spark of god within” or the new age versions of this, such as “I felt the spirit saying” – are betraying the thinly veiled supernaturalism that seems to be lurking, for me at least, in any god language.

I find myself worrying that admitting any god makes the world safe for Pat Robertson, and so many other fundamentalists who fail to take responsibility for their views and actions by claiming that god is on their side or within them. I think it’s more powerful and ethical of us to say, “when I do something, or interpret scripture this or that way, it is I who do it, influenced deeply by my interconnectedness with the web of life – not by “god (or a spark of god), or Yetzer Tov or Yetzer Hara.” The risk is that by empowering a non-existent entity, we disempower ourselves: we give up some of our responsibility to act justly and morally in the world.

We know that we don’t need god to be ethical. There is abundant evidence that a moral instinct is a hardwired inborn organ of the human mind. Like language, the organ must be nurtured to mature and blossoms based on the surrounding culture; but the fundamental structure – like the language instinct – is there at birth.

As contemporary scholars Baruch Levine and Everett Fox suggest, a lot of Leviticus, even much of torah as a whole, is about forming the people Israel -- partly by designating us as distinct from our ancient Near Eastern neighbors. We contrast ourselves with other groups by the god we worship; and via how that god commands us to do holiness, sacrifice, kashrut, purity, and justice. Throughout Leviticus, the Israelites are forbidden to follow the impure ways of other nations or to worship any other deity (e.g., Molech, Baal, or “ghosts and familiar spirits”).

In my view, a lot of this is about our proclaiming that “our god is better than their god!” We practice this way, and not that way like our neighbors. John Haidt, a moral psychologist in the tradition of Piaget and Kohlberg, demonstrates how our ethical, religious, and even our political beliefs, rituals, and practices bind us -- but also blind us. They bind us together in groups; they are the engine of group identity and community; but our moral stances and our group identities also blind us to the humanity of other groups.

Ultimately, the risk, I think, is that we can make an idol of even our god. In some ways, we Jews take proper credit for monotheism, for paring down the number of gods from many to one. Our ancient ancestors brilliantly saw the risks of idol worship. And Maimonedes wrote of paring down the concept of god, from the god of biblical sacrifice to the god of prayer. Likewise, many of us moderns, including reconstructionsists, have again pared down the concept of god, excluding elements here and there of the god of the bible, the white bearded man in the sky, the petitionary god, the vengeful or merciful god. Perhaps the natural evolution of the radical Jewish view of montheism is to continue paring down god until we get to zero. If we are genuinely seeking god, trying to connect with the ground of all being, the source, we have to embrace that there may not be one. Perhaps all gods, including ours, are idols.

So, with the kavanah that I’m searching for a way to be honest and in integrity while reciting these prayers with you all, let me kick off the conversation with 3 questions. And beezrat hashem (god willing), we’ll be able to listen deeply to one another:

1)      Is there a way in which we are complicit with supernaturalism simply by reciting these prayers?
2)      Are we at risk of making an idol of god?
3)      Do we need god to bind us together as a group and keep us moral?

You can click here for a longer and more in depth version of this dvar.

To respond personally to Richard: sternpsychology at gmail.com

Friday, March 21, 2014

Purim Cocktail Hour at Dorshei Derekh 5774/2014

Thanks Beto and Nina for the Queenitinis and Mordchaeritas!
Thanks to PurimMeister David Mosenkis, featured below.  Thanks Aviva for the videography.
Jester Randall kicked it off Shabbat morning:
Super Grogger!

The Mosenki do it up, and the Queen shares her stuff

Pres. Marcus checking his cellphone,
or possibly downloading a gragger app

Mr. and Mrs. Fisher

And a word from our sponor, Torah Tech:
Hat Store Models

and another word from our generous sponsor, Torah Tech, circa 1999:


Here's the Pew Shmew Report:
We want to share some interesting, potentially impact findings from the recent Pew Shmew Report.  The 377 page document is too long to read tonight, but here are 2 of our highlighted finding:

1. We have discovered vast underreporting of mixed religion households. It turns out that NJPS failed to inquire about the religions of household cats and dogs, and virtually none of them have Jewish mothers or have gone to the mikvah for conversion. Many are clearly philo-semitic, however, as evidenced by their willingness to eat hallah after the motzi on Shabbat and holidays. Many households that were reported as completely Jewish clearly are not, and this has created a particularly large scandal in the modern Orthodox community. We are now waiting for the Satmer rebbe to explain how you get a cat to immerse in a mikvah.

2Disagregated Microdata by zipcode reveals that in 19119, 18% of gluten-free intermarried Jews belong to Weavers Way. 
Is this causation or correlation?  Do gluten-free intermarried Jews belong to WW because the coop sells gluten-free products, or does shopping at the coop cause people to become gluten-intolerant? 

The impact of shopping at the coop on Jewish/Jewish couples is less, when we control for that variable, but that could be because marrying a fellow Jew raises gluten tolerance. Or is there possibly some other effect we haven't isolated at work here?  Since Jews have a higher level of lactose intolerance, perhaps intermarried Jews don't want to feel left out?

What does gluten intolerance mean for the Jewish future?  27% of gluten-free intermarried same-sex couples also belong to the coop.  What accounts for this difference?  Do gluten-free Jews tend to intermarry more because they can’t eat motzah balls?  Or is something that makes them gay also make them gluten-intolerant, some sort of genetic marker?  Does gluten tolerance increase tolerance for the opposite sex, perhaps?

A word about our methodologyWe called everyone we could think of from the minyan list and added a few people from Masorti and the Charry for a weighted randomized sample.  No one answered their landlines.  We left a lot of messages.  Some informants texted us.  We interviewed people at Weavers Way while in line on Friday afternoon, and presumed than any intermarried Jews not buying challah were gluten-intolerant. We then generalized from our findings, and there you have it.   That it for this Pew Shmew report.   

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fairtrade Kosher for Passover CHOCOLATE!

This past Shabbat at Dorshei Derekh, Michael Masch mused how appropriate and well-themed slavery-free chocolate would be for Passover enjoyment.

It seems the GJC Religious School is a step ahead of that wish, parterning with Fairtrade Judaica and T'ruah, to sell just that.

If you're out of the area, perhaps there is a way to order - check with Rabbi Alanna Sklover.
What a way to put your money where your mouth is!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Personal Journeys in Spiritual Community - Saturday February 22

Please join us on Saturday
February 22 at our regular services followed by an extended Kiddush and a panel discussion on

Personal Journeys in 
Spiritual Community

1:00 - Panelists:  Mitch Marcus, Dina Pinsky, and Wil Gafney

This is an opportunity to get to know one another better.  We share a cherished spiritual community, Minyan Dorshei Derekh and the Germantown Jewish Centre.

What are our backstories?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

David Mosenkis Davar Torah: Parashat Bo - Hearing and Responding to the Cry of the Oppressed

January 4, 2014
In this week's parashah we read about the 3 final plagues that finally convince Pharoah to let the Israelites leave. We get instructions for how to commemorate Passover, both the first Passover in Egpyt that very night, and the Passover to be celebrated by Jews throughout the generations. And the Israelites, along with a mixed multitude, leave Egypt.

I want to focus on a compelling question of justice raised by today's parashah, and its lessons for us today. Why are all Egyptians subject to the plagues, when it is Pharoah's stubbornness that spurs God to bring on the plagues? This sounds like collective punishment, punishing a whole group of people for the behavior of some in the group. 

In the case of the last plague we are told very explicitly that God struck down all first born in Egypt "from the first born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon" (12:29). Italian sage Sforno says that this verse means from the most guilty to the least guilty, seemingly accepting this as collective punishment. But other commentators avoid this collective punishment interpretation. Rashi claims that the plague of the first-born was a punishment for each Egyptian who particpated in the oppression of the Israelites, saying even Egyptian slaves "enslaved the Israelites and took joy in their suffering."

Another explanation attributes the collective punishment to collective responsibility. As the commentary in our Etz Hayyim says: 
"Non-Israelite slaves were punished because they did not make common cause with the Israelites, saying 'let us join hands and rise together against our oppressors.' Bad as their lives were, they took perverse satisfaction in knowing that there were others even worse off." 
Even if Egyptian slaves were unable to stop the oppression of the Israelites, their silence was damning. Some commentators speculate that some Egyptians did make common cause with the Israelites in taking a stand for freedom over oppression. These Egyptians threw their lot in with the Israelites by putting blood on their doors, thus saving their first-borns, and they comprised the mixed multitude who joined the Israelites in leaving Egypt.

So one way we might read the collective punishment in this parashah is to teach us about our collective responsibility to free the oppressed. The text teaches us that our responsibility extends beyond our ethnic group, and extends to all levels of power and privilege. Even Egyptians at the lowest echelons of society were viewed as responsible for the wrongs perpetrated by Pharoah, and responsible for the well-being of the minority living in their society, the Israelites.

At least 4 places in Torah, God commands you to love and not to oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Why is our experience as strangers in Egpyt used to explain or support our obligation to treat the stranger well? Is it that our experience of oppression in Egypt enables us to have empathy and compassion for the experience of the stranger? That's the way I've always looked at it, and I think this is indeed a motivating perspective. 

But I recently learned another, perhaps even more compelling perspective, from the book Justice in the City by Aryeh Cohen, a Rabbinics professor formerly at RRC and now at American Jewish University. Cohen claims that the real lesson of oppression in Egypt is not compassion, but rather an obligation to imitate God rather than imitating Pharaoh. This means engaging actively to fight against oppression, rather than ignoring and distancing ourselves from it.

How does God respond to oppression? God heard the cry of the people, took notice of them, and did something about it (Ex 2:24-25, 3:7-8). How did Pharoah respond when the people cried out to him? He turned a deaf ear and made their work harder (Ex 5:15-18).

In a few weeks, in chapter 20 of Shemot, we'll read:
"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans."

In this passage, how are we to be movivated by "you were strangers in the land of Egypt"? Following the Torah commentary of 13th century Nachmanides (Ramban), Cohen points out that merely feeling compassion for the victim ignores the 2nd half of the passage, beginning “If you do mistreat them”. Ramban points out that God always hears the cry of the oppressed and saves them from people stronger than them. The choice is to follow the example of God, who heard the cry of the Israelites, leading to redemption, or the example of Pharoah, who did not hear the cry, leading to the devastation of Egypt. Either way, the oppressed will be redeemed. But if you leave the redemption to God, you will go the way of the Egyptians.

This principle is taken up by the rabbis of the Talmud and later commentators. In a discussion over whether it's desirable to build a gatehouse for a shared courtyard, the Talmud concludes that a gatehouse is permitted only if it's easy to enter. Rashi comments that the problem with some gatehouses is that they can gate off poor people who are crying out for assistance, such that their voices are not heard. And most other commentators share this view that the potential problem with gatehouses is that they will not allow the cry of the poor to be heard. Because none of the commentators give a textual basis for this explanation, they must have considered it obvious that the ability to hear the cry of the oppressed is mandatory. Rashi uses the same word, tze'akah, for the cry of the poor, as the Torah uses for the Israelites crying out to God and to Pharoah. The rabbis seem to have internalized the mandate to act like God rather than Pharoah in hearing the cry of the oppressed.

So if we start from an obligation to hear the cry of the oppressed, what is our obligation to respond? Does our degree of connection to the oppressed matter? What about our power to help them?
The Talmud relates a story known as "Rabbi Elazar's cow". After discussing various shabbat prohibitions, the text expresses the displeasure of the sages that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's cow would go out with a strap between its horns, which violated one of the shabbat prohibitions. The ensuing discussion reveals that in fact Rabbi Elazar owned thousands of cows, and that this shabbat-violating cow in fact belonged to his neighbor. So why is it referred to as "Rabbi Elazar's cow"? Because he failed to protest with his neighbor against its violating the law, and it is therefore as if he himself is responsible. "Rabbi Elazar's cow" becomes shorthand for "one who had the opportunity to protest against a wrongdoing but did not."

The Talmud then continues:
  • All who can protest against something wrong that one of their family is doing and does not protest, is acccountable together with their family.
  • All who can protest against something wrong that one of a citizen of their city is doing and does not protest, is acccountable together with all citizens of the city.
  • All who can protest against something wrong that is being done in the whole world, is acccountable together with all the citizens of the world.

So not protesting a wrong is practically the same as doing the action. And subsequent passages show that to the rabbis of the Talmud, it didn't matter if you have the power to stop the wrongdoing or if your protest would be effective - you have a responsibility to protest even if you think your protest will not stop the transgression. The Talmud relates a striking image of Truth having an argument with God. The argument concerns whether observers of a certain wicked behavior in a story in the book of Ezekiel are themselves guilty. God initially maintains that the bystanders are righteous. Truth points out that they were able to protest and did not. God answers "It is revealed and known to me that if they had protested, they would not have accepted the protest". And Truth responds "Master of the World, though it is revealed to You, is it revealed to them?" Truth wins the argument, noting that since only God can know for sure whether a protest would be futile, mere mortals have an absolute obligation to protest.

The potential consequences of not protesting wrongdoing is illustrated in the Talmudic story of Kamtza andBar Kamtza, 2 citizens with similar names. A rich man who was friends with Kamtza but did not like Bar Kamtza threw a big party, and invited all the important people of the town except Bar Kamtza. But his servant mistakenly delivered Kamtza's invitation to Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza showed up at the party, the host was enraged, and demanded that Bar Kamtza leave. To avoid public humiliation, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his share of the food, then for half the cost of the party, then for the entire cost of the party. But the host was adamant and had Bar Kamtza physically removed. Bar Kamtza looked around, saw that all the sages of the town watched and none of them came to his support. He was so angry and humiliated, he convinced the caesar that the the Jews were rebelling, and as a result, the caeser came and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. As a result of the sages' not protesting, the Temple was destroyed.

So to recap the main lessons:
1. We are to hear and respond to the cry of the oppressed and the stranger, because we were oppressed strangers in Egypt, not only out of compassion for the oppressed, but to engage in God-like action leading to redemption, rather than Pharoah-like action leading to destruction.
2. We must protest when someone we know and have influence over transgresses, as Rabbi Elazar failed to do around his neighbor's cow.
3. We must protest the unjust actions even of those over whom we may not have influence.

1. Today, how might the positive consequences of hearing and responding to the oppressed, or the negative consequences of not hearing and responding, play out for the Jewish community or for us as individuals?
2. What does it mean today to have easily accessible "gatehouses" in our living places that allow us to hear the cry of the oppressed?
3. What if protesting wrongdoing involves costs or risks? To what extent, if any, does this affect our obligation to protest

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Israelite & Jewish Identity in Black & White: Shabbat Vayigash - Dr. Wil Gafney Davar Torah

presented by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. - 12/7/2013, Minyan Dorshei Derekh

*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)
Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.
I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?

Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.
Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.
South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)
Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.
Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:
It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:
 לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק
שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח
Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq
shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach
A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.
The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?
The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.)  “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, thekohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.
The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:
The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.
Bringing us back to today’s parshaBereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as GermaniEverywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.
Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.
Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.
My questions are about identity:
Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?
Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?
So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?
Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Barbara Breitman - Parashat Vayeshev and Climate Change

Dvar Torah:  Parashat Vayeshev   
Bobbi Breitman, Minyan Dorshei Derekh   November 23, 2013

Today’s parasha begins:  “Now Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…”  Gen 37:1.  Va yeshev Yaackov b’eretz m’gori aviv…   You might be surprised that with this narratively rich parasha, I am going to focus here….but I am. 
            From Aviva Zornberg, I learned that this short phrase was the focus of microscopic attention by the earliest midrashic commentators who offered some rather troubling interpretations of this seemingly innocuous verse. Rashi, for example, comments:  “Jacob wished to live at ease, but there leapt upon him the troubles of Joseph”.   It seems likely that Rashi noticed that Chapter 37, which begins with Va’yeshev, ends with Joseph being sold into slavery as Jacob mourns for the beloved son he believed had been ripped apart by a wild beast.  After his tumultuous life, Jacob sought, finally, to live in peace, but this desire of his old age was, at least emotionally, savaged. 
            Zornberg guides us to what she believes is the source midrash for Rashi’s commentary on this verse:  Quoting Bereshit Rabba: “When the righteous settle in peace….. (that is) seek to settle in peace in this world, Satan comes to accuse them.”  What a strange aphorism to the contemporary ear!  Isn’t peace a high value toward which the righteous should aspire?  Apparently not.  The rabbis seem to be asserting that the righteous make themselves vulnerable to Satan’s attack by their over-weaning desire to live at ease, to settle in peace, in this world.  Peace is for the world to come.  It is a grievous error, according to Chazal, to desire to see history resolved, sojourning over, in one’s lifetime, and in this world. 
            Zornberg comments further:  When Jacob tries to ‘settle in peace’, he looses vengeful furies not because his is a moral offense, but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.  The wicked may seek to gain quick release from angst; but the righteous are asked to suffer it, not to turn away from it.  “To seek peace prematurely is to beg off from reality.”  To face it, and to act wisely, is the responsibility of the righteous.
            This morning, standing on the scaffolding provided by Zornberg, I want to emphasize the second part of this short verse “to settle in the land where his father sojourned, and hear how the Torah might be addressing us today.  Standing of the shoulders of my ancestors, I interpret the verse:  When we seek to settle with ease in our current world, as if we are living in the same world where our parents lived, we loose vengeful furies on generations to come.  It is a wrong understanding of our current condition to think we are living on the same earth on which our parents sojourned.
            Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, has been warning for years:  “Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all.  It is our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways…The world as we know it has ended.  We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they’re not.  Earth is a different place.  A different planet.” (from Eaarth:  Making a Life on a Tough New Planet)  While humans have been the cause for the sudden surge in greenhouse gases and hence the rise in global temperatures, the heat we’ve caused now triggers ominous, systemic feedback effects so that the earth is changing much more rapidly on its own than scientists ever anticipated.  http://350.org/ 
            We are all aware of the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines and that Naderev Sano, representative of the Philippines to the 2013 UN Conference on Climate Change which has been meeting in Warsaw these past two weeks, put himself on a hunger strike out of desperation.  His protest came at a moment when the negotiations were at a deadlock. The world community has not been able to agree on either a timeline for cutting greenhouse gas emissions or providing financing to developing countries for loss and damage, adaptation to the severe climate impacts of climate change and the transition towards renewable energies.  As of last night, it appears there may be a bit more agreement on a few points; the US joined the EU on backing a time-table, but it is still not clear what will finally emerge.  The science is clear that we cannot wait any longer to make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. 
            For a number of years I’ve been part of a small of group who’ve been studying and discussing climate change as we support each other to make personal lifestyle changes and engage in a variety of public actions against fracking, the XL pipeline, and prepare for the possibility, even likelihood of engaging in non-violent civil disobedience if President Obama approves the XL Pipeline.  It is now emerging that we may well need to become active over the mile-long trains that have started coming through Philadelphia carrying crude oil.   Just over a year ago, the 140-year-old Sunoco refinery near the airport was on the verge of closing its doors. Now, the facility has become a key player in America’s energy boom as the single largest consumer of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. These are the same kind of trains that derailed and exploded on Friday, November 8th in Alabama, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. The train carried the same fracked fossil fuel which killed 47 people this summer when a similar train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Canada.  It is the same fracked contents in the mile-long trains that are now coming through central Philadelphia twice a day, every day. http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2013/09/19/oil-trains-rumble-into-philly-bringing-dakota-crude-jobs-and-safety-concerns/
            Over these years, I’ve learned a lot and it has become increasingly clear to me how climate change results from the interlocking systems of the earth’s ecology, our economic system, and our spiritual/religious world view.  In an act of collective insanity, I participate in a civilization that depends on non-sustainable fossil fuel extraction that works in direct defiance and opposition to the natural structure of the biosphere. 
            The radical and extreme extraction of fossil fuels through fracking, drilling deep in the ocean, and exploiting the petroleum deposits known as Tar sands are the logical outcome of the industrial growth society we live in. And though I am addicted to a life-style I’ve become accustomed to in this society, I see ever more clearly how it is based on a system of values and beliefs that I, and most people in this room, do not believe in:
·         Human beings are separate from each other and from the ecological system that we are part of, rather than part of an interconnected and fragile web of life. 
·         The earth is a storehouse of resources that can be extracted at will for human consumption with no regard for non-human life and ecosystems
·         Profit and money is valued over people and Life itself
·         Individual survival is possible when communal survival is threatened
·         It is most profitable to focus on the needs of the present and not on future generations.
·         Survival of the fittest, rather than cooperation and partnership, is the best strategy for life.
Many religious and inter-faith organizations and communities have been publically declaring an alternative vision like the
            Interreligious Eco-Justice Network  &  Connecticut Interfaith Power & Light

Who wrote
And Which has been circulated to interfaith communities around the United States .This letter states, in part:
As members of the faith community, we have a deep obligation to understand the full dimensions of this growing problem, which the scientific community has documented with overwhelming consensus in the past few decades.
  • Safeguarding all creation on earth is a sacred trust that is placed upon us – to love, to care for and to nurture. We accept this trust as a universal moral imperative, one that we share across all human societies, religious faiths and cultural traditions. 
  • Given the urgency of the current situation, we solemnly pledge to:  
    • Foster a reflective and prayerful response to the threat of global climate change.
    • Work together as people of many religions and cultures to live sustainably on planet Earth.
    • Encourage members of our faith to develop and implement energy conservation plans and to use safe, clean, renewable energy.
    • Be an authentic witness for action on climate change and environmental justice through teaching, preaching and by letting our voices be heard in the public sphere.
    • Advocate for local, state, national and international policies and regulations that enable a swift transition from dependence on fossil fuels to safe, clean, renewable energy.
As far as I know (and I humbly admit, I may well be wrong because I have not been a regular attender at this minyan), we have not, as a minyan and Shabbat community, spoken together about climate change, though I know we’ve made changes in getting rid of disposable dishes in favor of washing plastic ones.  I imagine people have been making changes on their own and in other contexts, today’s parasha called me to bring the conversation here this morning.
              Before opening up for discussion, I want to share something from an article I read recently that describes a workshop led by a complex systems researcher, named Brad Werner,  at the 2012 Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth Fucked?:  Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”.  Guiding a conference group through the advanced computer model he was using to answer this question, his bottom line was that the global industrial growth economy has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that earth-human systems have become dangerously unstable.  He explained, however, that there is one dynamic in his model that offers some hope:  ‘movements of people or groups of people’ who ‘adopt a certain set of dynamics’ that does not fit within the industrial growth culture, which could represent a source of friction to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.  Werner made his argument not as a matter of political opinion, but as a geophysical reality, by including human resistance as part of the great ecosystem that is the earth.   http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt
            Thomas Berry wrote:  “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments…when their story of the universe and the human role in the universe becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.  We live at such a moment”….. Connecticut Power and Light declared this week:
There comes a time in every generation when a matter of great urgency requires that we, who belong to a diverse faith community, express our concerns with moral clarity and with a unified voice. That pivotal moment has arrived. We can no longer ignore the plain facts of climate change.”
             I felt called by Chazal’s words….’ When the righteous settle in peace….. Satan comes to accuse them” to bring these issues to this faith community, so we might listen deeply and see where we are.  
  • How do you think about climate change?  
  • How do you hold your day to day life and the ominous realities of what is happening on our planet?  
  • Where and how do you find inspiration, support, and hope?  
  • What kinds of activism are you engaged in and what would you like others here to know about what you are doing and who you are working with? 
  • How can we as a community at GJC continue to come together around these issues?
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light is a community of congregations, faith-based organizations,and individuals of faith responding to climate change as a moral issue, through advocacy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, and the use of clean, renewable energy.