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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Melave Malkeh with Joey Weisenberg at the Chestnut Hill Meeting SkySpace

Havdalah, September 26, has a lot of convergence: it is the end of the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. And it the weekend when Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia, and several million Catholic pilgrims are expected in our City of Brotherly [and Sisterly] Love. Road access to the center of Philly will be blocked.

Hence, it is a special time to gather and add our songs and prayers for peace and justice to those of Pope Francis and his flock.

Please come early. The SkySpace has limited seating. Also, since the roof literally opens up, bring a jacket.

All are welcome. Light refreshments will be served following Havdalah.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Parshat Pinchas: The Daughters of Tselophehad and the Daughters of Botswana

Wikipedia Commons
Bold, determined women are challenging these discriminatory norms. While researching my new book , I was astonished to encounter a 2013 High Court ruling in Botswana, the culmination of a five year legal battle waged by four elderly sisters, Edith Mmusi (then 80), Bakhani Moima (83), Jane Lekoko (77), and Mercy Ntsehkisang (68). These gutsy women petitioned, appealed, and ultimately triumphed in their quest to inherit their father’s property. Sound familiar?

Their nephew had attempted to evict them, claiming that he, the only surviving male descendant, was by local traditional law entitled to their family compound. Botswana High Court Justice Key Dingake upheld the sisters’ claim, writing:
“It seems to me that the time has now arisen for the justices of this court to assume the role of the judicial midwife and assist in the birth of a new world struggling to be born. Discrimination against gender has no place in our modern day society.”
These modern Daughters of Tselophehad, like the five sisters who successfully challenged Moses and the Elders of Israel (Numbers 27:1-11), petitioned legal authorities and prevailed.
In the Torah portion Pinchas read this week, Tselophehad’s daughters Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah argue they should receive their father’s land since he had no sons (Numbers 27:1-11). While this case does not give women equal land rights (had there been even one son, he would have been the heir) like the case in Botswana, it is an inspiring example of the disenfranchised identifying and protesting injustice.

Another Supreme Court Justice, our own Anthony Kennedy, recently observed, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” One wonders what gave Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah the ability to see gender injustice when others saw only the norm of the day. Not only did they discern the injustice, they protested it. This took confidence, chutzpah, and grace.

These five sisters stumped Moses with their logical legal argument and solution. Moses famously agreed, stating “The daughters of Tselophehad speak right…you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.” The text does not share the reaction of those who lost out due to their triumph, but we can assume these women had to face many who opposed their petition. In Botswana and many other countries where tribal legal systems discriminate against women, many defend these cultures’ traditions—essentially using loyalty to ethnic traditions to reinforce their privileges. Even though the proverbial arc of history bends towards justice, it does not do so without resistance.

Legal changes create new facts, but it is no easy matter for individuals, shaped by the old status quo, to change. This is one explanation for Israelites who escaped Egyptian bondage being denied entrance into the Promised Land. Their psyches were shaped by the experience of enslavement, making them unable to fully adjust to freedom. It is their children, raised as free people, who can embrace that identity.

Many of us who recall the many limitations on women’s academic and professional options are amazed to see the progress of the past few decades. But equal opportunity has not translated into parity. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain gender gaps in politics, academia, and industry. Countless forces undermine girls as they mature in our culture, diminishing their confidence and discouraging their ambition, ultimately thwarting their climb to the highest professional levels.

Even when there isn’t overt discrimination, internal forces can be self-limiting. Pressures to follow more traditional feminine scripts have huge power over most of us, and men raised with gender inequality, likewise, do not get with the program.

The same holds true for most disadvantaged groups achieving legal equality. Our country is painfully aware that the legacy of slavery and racism impacts our country through and through. Much progress has been made, but as I write this essay, many Southern Black churches are burning.

It takes great courage, self-examination, and resolve to break out of old patterns. How remarkable that these nine women, five sisters in the time of Moses and four in our own times, persisted and triumphed in their determination to be treated fairly. May they empower others by their example.

Betsy Teutsch is the author of the recently published “100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Parshat Yitro - Donald Joseph's Davar Torah

D’var Yitro
Donald K. Joseph  Feb 7 2015

This is supposed to be one of the most important parshas of the entire megilla - to use a mixed metaphor.  But I suspect it is not for the area on which I intend to focus. In this second part, the one I will not be focusing on, the dramatic bringing of the ten commandments comes after restrictions on who could go up the mountain and the need for purity for three days before -(does that mean anything more than no sex?) In addition, the Israelites accept without questioning the commandments that Moses brings them. We could examine whether a promise of future benefits if they follow Gd’s laws is really worth much if the choice was forced on them by the dramatics of Mt Sinai.  Lawyers call that a contract of adhesion.  But that is not what I propose to discuss.

As many of you know, I have been meditating in a program organized out of the Penn Medical School for more than a decade and a half.  So several weeks ago, I have just gone through a most successful day of meditation at a four day silent retreat enjoying it, especially because of a surprise: another member of Dorshei, Richard Mandel, has appeared mysteriously and for the entire four days is sitting right across the aisle from me.

The next morning with this day of celebration (today) already on my mind, and having just finished yoga for the first time in five months, I sit down to eat my breakfast in silence across from Richard, knowing it won’t really be silent.  With gestures we joke once or twice (shanda for a group of forty plus who are supposed to be silent at all times and not interacting with anyone else.)  But I do so, and while doing so I am feeling my gratitude - in a great part for my loss of anger.  I am thinking back to the events last spring where I was disappointed by the new dean’s unwillingness to draw lines between me and others at the law school nearly a decade less than I and for most of that time well into the fall, I am angry. 

And then I am not angry anymore and I remark to myself, “You try and you try and you try and then the anger is gone and you don’t know exactly when or why but the anger is gone but it is - for the most part. Forgiveness is not for most of us humans to be confused with the love of Jesus for our enemies, or even the love of MLK or Mandela.

And sitting across from Richard, I sing to myself, Shehecheyanu, for the fun of the comradeship of Richard,  and then as I rise to leave I sing lightly to myself, “Aleynu leshabaiach la’adohn hachol . . . “ [the end of the ending prayer of the service tributing the greatness of Gd] and I know I  have arrived at a wonderful place in my life and I think affectionately of my woman, she with that great heart and smile, and as I am retreating, knowing she is enjoying herself in London, in her week of vacation - paid for by two days of light work.

And what has this got to do with the Parsha.

Immediately, I return to my bare Quaker Retreat Center room, pull out my Chromebook and write my Jethro D’var that I am going to give. See there is some relevance - admittedly barely - and I think of Jethro and Moses - it took Moses to hear and accept the wisdom given him by a father no less. And maybe that is the relevance.  My father’s wisdom was wrapped-up in my anger, . . .  but no, the passage finds my interest more because of my career.

As a lawyer I especially know how directly tied that education Jethro gave to Moses was to every local, state and federal judicial system in our country.  A judge to hear the evidence and make a decision and another court to hear the appeal if the loser feels justice hasn’t been done. 

It can all be inferred from Jethro’s wisdom to Moses and Moses adopting it. 
21 You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and

22 let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

23 If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."

I am correct, am I not that one can infer appellate courts from “chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” a hierarchy of lesser to higher courts”?

Jethro thus tells Moses that doing this is too hard for him and will wear him out. Instead, he suggests, Moses should appoint judges who will be in charge of smaller groups of people, and then if those judges don't know the answers, they will go to the higher judges in charge of larger groups, and if those don't know, they'll go to the higher level judges, all the way up, until it reaches Moses. This way, Moses will only get the hardest questions, http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/347711/jewish/Yitro-Roundup.htm

Is it inadvertent that Jethro has built-in the protections of judicial review so that no one human being decides - unlike in a kingship (remember the Israelites had them too) and in our time dictatorships, where all power is dictated from the top. And again I sing, this time Joan Baez, “When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn” 

So the Brits took Moses and Jethro’s handiwork and added the jury system to eliminate the bias from the duke knowing the warring vassals and the apparent and maybe real fear that the duke would favor one, and here we are - except they and our forbearers forgot to build in the hook to take out Scalia and Thomas, or better from tv we might create the Gong show.  Scalia on civil rights, GONG.

(OPTIONAL: And isn’t that a bit much, we Jews from the shtetls of Europe thinking of Madison and Jefferson and Franklin and Washington as our forbearers.)

From this we can go in two different directions:  We can ask about the justice that Jethro’s system creates; Is there justice? Prisons, the new Jim Crow, filled with African Americans, multiples larger percentage wise than whites: a system short of resources so that it only works because prosecutors overcharge causing 95% to plead guilty; 6 million people whose only income is from food stamps - under $400 per month for a family of 4 or under $5,000 per year. 

Are our judges - as well as our politicians - “capable [people] who fear God, trustworthy [people] who spurn ill-gotten gain?

[OPTIONAL: Or what is justice for? For a community, to allow us to live together, but then what are communities and how do communities interact, and how does one understand the beauty in differing ones?]

Another way to go is to ask about this Moses guy.  What is he doing?  He has to do it all,
15  "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God.
16 When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God."
We could ask the question: what is it that makes a man think he has to do it all, resolve disputes, educate the people of the laws of God and educate them to the teaching of Gd.

And we could generalize from Moses to our own lives.  How many of us think we must do it all.  How many of us live lives as slaves to our jobs? or to our children?  Isn’t that what Jethro is asking Moses: 
14 "What is this thing that you are doing . . . ? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?"
Or from verses 17 & 18:
 17 “The thing you are doing is not right;  18  You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
Maybe this isn’t the right question for this group who so regularly honor the Shabbat.  But then do you “wear yourself out” on other ventures.  How do you keep life in perspective?

Or a perhaps deeper question I have been pondering? Do you need to work to make life work.  Sure, I experience times when all goes smoothly but how about those times when I find I need to control my frustrations, push through the “slings and arrows” or as my therapist put it, through the petty dramas of life.

I have my retreat community that meets twice a year for silent meditation and meets twice per month, but how do they support me when I am angry at the deans for their “unfairness,” actually for not treating me better than the rest.  Can’t they see I am “SPECIAL!”. 

And of course I have our DD Shabbats once a week?  And my torah group and colleagues at work and a few from that law firm that went caput.

What about you? How do you keep life in perspective so that many days if not everyone you can say or sing to yourselves: Shehecheyanu?

I have my family and friends as the greatest witnesses to my life: Mikc and Cam here and my older brother, Mark, our children, R &  S and the ultimate one, H - who knows how crazy I really am,

Or a relative who, creating his own wealth, shares so his younger bro can live his dream of continuing to teach:  yes, today I am  60 years past a fountain pen, and for this day and this time,  sometimes dreams really do come true.

My questions are many and knowing me you would not be surprised to know they are mainly personal, how to live life?  You could chose to comment on Jethro and justice, but mine are more directly personal. Who are your supports? How do you “use” them?  What are your communities? What does it mean to be a friend?  Do you say, “She never writes nor calls but she will be there if I call and need her.”  Is that really the definition of friendship. [OPTIONAL What are friendships? What makes community?]  How hard do you have to work to make life work? How do you get rid of anger? Do you work at it and then one day its gone - and you don’t know how or when or why? Do you feel you have to do it all? Are you a slave to work or any other passion or hang-up? What gets in the way of your singing Shehechianu every day? Multiple times a day?

    
CONCLUSION
 Why are we here: Einstein says it best: we are here for the smiles of those on who we depend. and hopefully we give back so they continue to smile.

[OPTIONAL Story of ESPY winner Suart Scott:
“When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.
“So live. Live. Fight like hell.”]

And remember: Do not regret growing old; it is a privilege denied many.

What shall we sing as we stand and grasp each other arm and arm? Shehechiyanu, Oh Se Shalom, or We shall overcome.

.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

CHORUS
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

2.
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand some day
CHORUS

3.
We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day
CHORUS

4.
We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid some day
CHORUS

5.
We are not alone
We are not alone
We are not alone some day
CHORUS

6.
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Jakob Friedman Slifker's Bar Mitzvah Dvar - Miketz 2014

We have watched Jakob since his early shofar-blowing
days til now - when he teaches us! mazel tov!
Jakob Friedman Slifker  Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah December 20, 2014

Shabbat Shalom.
When I first learned my Torah portion was going to be Miketz, I was really excited.  I had studied the parasha multiple times in Jewish Day School.  I knew Miketz: the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain; his being given control of the food supply in Egypt during the years of abundance and the following years of famine; Joseph’s brothers’ coming to Egypt; Joseph’s holding Shimon captive until his brothers returned with the youngest, Benjamin.  I knew the story of how Joseph had returned the gold to his brothers in their sacks of grain, making them fear they would be suspected of being thieves.  I knew there’d be a lot to talk about, and I thought I knew the story.  In studying with Rabbi Alanna, however, I found that these stories are only half the deal.  The other half is way more interesting.

First of all, Pharaoh didn’t just give Joseph control of the food supply in Egypt, he actually gave Joseph the power of a king and “only with respect to the throne [was Pharaoh] superior to” Joseph.  In addition, Pharaoh gave him this power immediately after hearing Joseph interpret his dreams.  When I read that I thought: there must be more to this.  Why would Pharaoh immediately give Joseph this power?  He’d only just met the guy, so there’s got to be something else behind his decision.  With these questions in mind, Rabbi Alanna and I went and looked at Breishit Rabba and found some fascinating midrashim (which are rabbinic interpretations of the text). 

In one midrash, we learned about what happened before Joseph’s meteoric rise to power -- in the time between Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and his being granted the power of a king.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh told Joseph, “before I can give you all this power, you need to show me that you know the fifty languages of the world because a king must know all the languages.”  (I don’t know exactly why he needed to know all these languages, but a certain 8 ½ year-old I know suggested that a king has to be able to have control over any people he might meet, and those people might speak different languages).  Our midrash teaches that that night, the angel Gabriel came down from heaven, taught Joseph the 50 languages, and told him what he needed to do to pass Pharaoh’s challenge.  The next morning, Pharaoh tested Joseph and he aced the test.  50 languages?  No problem.  Then Joseph surprised Pharaoh by saying, “but I also know another language.”  He then spoke in the language of his people, Hebrew.  At this point, Pharaoh instructed Joseph not to tell a soul that he knew this language.  Why?  Because Pharaoh did not know Hebrew, and he was concerned that his people would no longer respect him as their king and would rebel.  Joseph agreed to keep this secret.  And it seemed like that was that.  But Rabbi Eliezer wasn’t quite finished.  In the next parasha, we learn that Joseph wanted to bury his father in Canaan (Jacob’s final request) and that Pharaoh refused to let him go.  In response, according to our Midrash, Joseph threatened Pharaoh, telling him, “If you don’t let me go, then I’m going to tell everyone in Egypt that you don’t know a language that I do, which will undermine your power and allow me to usurp you.”

This Midrash brings up something that seems to contradict the stories I thought I knew so well.  In my education at Jewish Day school, I was taught to view Joseph as a hero. Yes, when he was younger, living with his family in Canaan, he shared some dreams that seemed to suggest that he thought he was better than everyone else.  But our lessons didn’t focus on Joseph’s pride, but rather on how these dreams led to his brothers’ mistreating him and selling him to the Ishmaelites.  Quite simply, his brothers were bad, and Joseph’s supposedly selfless actions in Egypt made up for any character flaws.   But I was nine; I was in fourth grade, and this was just another Torah lesson.

Now, as a thirteen year-old, who’s beginning to discover my own opinions, I see Joseph differently.  Rather than viewing him simply as a hero, as a selfless and kind leader, who distributes food to anyone who needs it, I’m left with questions.  Is Joseph really a good leader?  Or is Joseph a selfish, power-hungry man, more interested in wealth and control, than in the well being of his people?

One way of beginning to address these questions is to ask other questions:  Is Joseph really in charge of his own actions? Or is God the one in control?  If God is the one in control, then is God merely a voice in Joseph’s ear directing him or is God moving Joseph like a pawn, controlling everything Joseph says and does?  

The reason I’m asking these questions is because, in reading Miketz in preparation for my bar mitzvah, I noticed that when Joseph was interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, it’s not exactly clear who’s talking -- Joseph or God.  Joseph doesn’t just say, “Well, God told me the meaning of your dreams.”  He talks about God and Pharaoh in the third person, and it’s not clear where Joseph fits in.  Before Joseph explains that the dreams of the cows and the grain symbolize the years of abundance and famine to come, he says, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do.”  That’s pretty clear.   After explaining the dreams, however, he then repeats himself, saying, “It is just as I have told Pharaoh.  God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. [...] The matter is determined by God and God will soon carry it out.”  Here, when Joseph says “I,” it’s not clear whether he means himself or God.  Is Joseph equating himself with God, just as his brothers thought he was in his earlier dream about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him? Or, is God speaking through Joseph to tell Pharaoh what God’s intentions are?

If this lack of clarity reflects Joseph’s desire for power, then it proves my original theory: Joseph is selfish and more interested in power than in the well-being of others.  On the other hand, if God is speaking through Joseph then maybe some of Joseph’s apparent selfishness is not his fault.  His seeming desire for power is really God moving Joseph like a pawn for some greater purpose unknown to Joseph and to us.  Why is God putting Joseph in this position of power?  Why does his being in this position of power allow Joseph to forgive and to help his brothers? … Why do I keep asking questions and leaving them unanswered? 

Here’s my point -- one of the things I’ve realized in writing this D’var Torah and in studying for my bar mitzvah is that sometimes the things I thought I knew contain more layers, more complexity, and more depth than I ever realized.  I don’t yet know the answers to all the questions I’ve posed here -- although I hope they’ll lead to thoughtful discussions among all of you (at lunch).  But what I do know is not to be complacent, and to always be ready to ask questions and to be open to new answers.  As Ben Bag Bag used to say about the Torah, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it." Part of growing up for me means taking responsibility for myself and my own learning.  I know that in the Jewish community, by becoming a bar mitzvah, I take on the responsibility of myself and my own choices. I need to think about my own choices in terms of selfishness, power, and the greater good -- no matter who’s directing me. I know that I have to take this responsibility seriously because I can’t blame my parents anymore (at least according to Jewish tradition). 

My Mitzvah project grows out of my parasha.  Since Parshat Miketz deals in part with storing and distributing food for the hungry in times of need, I realized that I wanted to do something related to food and hunger relief.  As part of my project, I recently helped organize a food drive through the synagogue for Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger relief agency. In fact, the centerpieces for the luncheon later are baskets we made with the food we collected and which will be donated. For the other part of my project, I worked with the Jewish Relief Agency, or JRA, where I packed and delivered boxes of food to people in need. Why did I do these things? That’s a question that I will answer. I did these for my project for two reasons. First, because Miketz revolves around food and hunger.  But secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to use my power and choices to help others.  According to Reconstructionist Judaism, God doesn’t choose Jews to be performers of God’s commandments, rather it is when we choose to serve God (typically, through the mitzvot), that we are brought close to the Divine.

Maybe Joseph was prideful; maybe God was telling him what to do. At the same time, maybe the whole story of Joseph and God didn’t even really happen.  Maybe it’s just a story. So what really does matter?  What matters to me is that I was influenced by this story to help feed the hungry.  Maybe it’s just a story, but I think all of us should use the Torah to influence us to do good things in the world, to interpret it and to find the lessons that are waiting there for us when we’re ready to hear them.

I would like to take a few minutes to thank all of the people who have helped me on my journey to becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Thank you to all the people who have traveled long ways and in two cases overseas to be here: my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who came in from Boston, New York, and Florida. Gina from California. Gabi from Tel-Aviv. Zsuzsi from Budapest. Thanks to my friends for making me laugh and to my dog, Phineas, for giving me constant smiles. Thanks to my tutor, Rebekah, for making me not completely fail at this, Rabbi Annie and Rabbi Alanna for rehearsals and my D’var, my teachers from PJDS for teaching me pretty much all the Hebrew I know and helping teach me how to think about Torah, and to the whole Dorshei community for providing me with a wonderful Jewish home. And, finally, thanks to my amazing parents who supported me all the way, helped me through all my struggles, and kept me from going completely crazy, so that I could be here today.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Randall Miller's Profound Responses to the Har Nof Horror


I was not part of the Har Nof community. My daughter and I were immersing ourselves in the warm love of family, and “Toirah" on our final days in Eretz Yisroel. The close knit community of observant Jews worked well together, in prayer, in babysitting, in sharing a close life in the crowded but comfortable concrete apartment buildings built several decades ago. Amongst these building blossomed lovely Houses of study and prayer. While the community made do with common place if not meager personal belongings and furnishings, their holy places, and their ritual items such as prayer shawls and tefillin were the best that could be obtained. There was ongoing celebration of the sanctity of life, lifting the mundane acts of hand washing and eating into holy acts of offering and receiving. 

From the outside this had always been to me group of “black hats” with side locks, covered women with flocks of children, isolating themselves from the secular world in pursuit of the Divine who infuses everything. From the inside, I was experiencing deep love of family, of community, in the process of healing the World in the only way they knew— through prayer, through study, through acts of loving kindness— every moment of every day, from sun up to sundown from birth throughout life. 

I accompanied my cousin to the houses of worship each day, where we prayed and studied. I blessed and was blessed. I saw the love in the eyes of the young and old who welcomed me wrapped in the shawls and strappings of our faith. For a liberal Jew of the secular world this was full immersion. I felt inadequate to the task as i stumbled over my prayers, and remembered rituals. I was lovingly helped with the finer details of service to the One in humility by rabbis and students. I am loved by an unending love. I am held by a spirit that runs deep through our tradition that I have only scratched the surface of in my 60+ years of living.
Binyamin stayed home for 7am services on November 18th to see me off. I praise God that he did. The sirens went off at 7:10am. A synagogue was invaded during prayer and lives were cut short by terror and horror. Each person is an entire universe, each death signals the end of a personal world on earth, and another deep wound that spreads through the community in ways that we shudder to imagine. My personal family is safe, for the moment. Praise the One for the “coincidences” of the day, the week, the chance meetings. We are here to bear witness, to pick up the pieces, to tremble with awe, and cringe with wrenching pain in the events that have enmeshed us all. 

This in not a new scenario for Jews; it is an age old story. It is a story of many people be they Palestinians, Armenians, Tutsis, Sunnis, or Native Americans. And for our people it is a recurring horror story that unfolds through the ages. I do not place my grief above others. But I am enfolded in it. I am now part of the Har Nof community. I grew up with stories. Now I am living them. I now bear witness to the supreme tragedy of man’s hatred for man. How do I process this? How do we process this? We are told to Teach Peace, and to pursue Justice. We must find a path toward Wholeness to allow the World to be healed in all its fullness and beauty. 

For now, I am still spinning in the maelstrom of grief that I feel for the community that embraced me, and has now torn their clothes in mourning. As we reflect, as we pray, as we turn toward the light of Truth and the Miraculous One who is infused in all things, Let us find the sparks of healing and tear away the shards of hatred and pursue the Wholeness that can be our destiny.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sarah and Hagar: Mistress and Slave, Privilege and Disadvantage

Photo: Lora Reehling
Betsy Teutsch

Vayera covers a lot of territory. My focus today is on Vayera’s power dynamics and disparities, who is privileged and who disadvantaged, in the  relationship of Sarah and Hagar, mistress and slave.  The Torah later celebrates the People of Israel’s liberation from harsh enslavement as our foundational myth, but what we witness here is domestic bondage, more intimate and nuanced, and not questioned -  though commentators have noted the connection between Hagar being an Egyptian and the Jewish people’s subsequent enslavement in Egypt. 1 + 2 Since Abraham and Sarah are the parents of the Jewish people, we look at things from their viewpoint.

Last week in Parshat Lekh Lekha, Sarah invited Abraham to consort with her slave Hagar, to produce an heir for Abraham via surrogacy. Sarah’s slave’s child will become Sarah’s child, problem solved; Hagar seemingly has no agency in this transactional consorting. Hagar conceives – succeeding where her mistress has failed. The relationship between mistress and slave quickly goes south.

The conflict seems to be about Hagar’s behavior towards Sarah, not Hagar’s relationship with Abraham; the text implies little contact between Avraham and Hagar after the deed is done – recall that he is indifferent to Sarah banishing her. (And indeed, most slave-owning men did not need their wives to instruct them to consort with their slave women.)

When Hagar asserts herself and belittles her mistress, Sarah abuses Hagar--quite harshly--even though giving Hagar to Abraham was Sarah’s plan. Sarah complains to her husband; in a very histrionic ultimatum she insists he choose between her and the son.  Avraham is surprisingly passive, given that in this week’s parshah he argues for the saving of Sodom and Gomorrah’s innocents. He basically just shrugs “Whatever” and tells Sarah to do what she thinks is necessary in this matter. Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar causes her to flee. 2 An angel convinces Hagar to return, explicitly instructing her to submit to Sarah’s mistreatment; in exchange Hagar’s is promised that her son will head a great nation.

In Parshat Vayera, Isaac is born to Sarah – a story familiar to us from Rosh Hashanah. When he grows, Sarah sees his half-brother Ishmael playing with Isaac. Originally conceived to be her surrogate son, she now views him as competition for her biological son Isaacs’ inheritance rights. Sarah once again tells Abraham to cast mother and son out, and this time Abraham does so himself, albeit with some reluctance. Ishmael is referred to as HaYeled, “the boy”, though the chronology of the story suggests he is older. Hagar and Ishmael survive, but are permanently banished from the Sarah-Abraham family.

These stories display a complex of privileges conferred by class and gender; race may play a factor, but it is unclear that Hagar, an Egyptian, is a slave due to racial factors. Hagar enjoys a temporary stretch of being superior to her former superior – but then she is thrown out of the system altogether. Hagar enters the canon in large part because of her surprising and vexing assertion of her new-found advantage. She is the paradigm of uppityness. While the text humanizes Hagar and empathizes with her trials in the wilderness, it does not fault Sarah for treating Hagar harshly; it simply tells the story. The jury is out as to whether the tellers of the story think Hagar deserved punishment for not knowing her place or if they think Sarah had it coming.

We all learn our place in the world through constant – if unconscious—reinforcement, socialization, and training. If we are in the majority, and/or in a privileged position, we notice inequities less than if we are in a minority or non-privileged situation. Occasionally there are moments when we become aware of disparities. Here are a few from my relatively privileged life.

·        I am around 4 years old. Our babysitter, a retired farmwife named Mrs. Peterson, is taking care of me; my mother is off doing some volunteer work. Mrs. Peterson takes me to her friend Winifred’s apartment where they and some other old ladies play a card game called Canasta. I have never been in an apartment. Mrs. Peterson tells them that my mum is working the Rummage Sale at the Jewish Temple. They perk up and throw their cards on the table. “Jews’ rummage! Let’s go.”  My mother and her fellow Fargo Hadassah volunteers are very surprised when I appear at the Rummage Sale.

·        I am 7 or 8. My older brother’s room has a funny postcard hanging on the door, “Genius At Work”, with a lot of messy ink blotches printed on it. My sister and I have no such funny postcard on our room. We get the message: Older Brother is a genius. Clearly that is why he just sits at the table after dinner while we girls clear the dishes.
·        I am in 4th grade. Our cleaning lady, a kindly lady named Ruby Summerfeld, must have moved or retired because when I come home for the midday meal  – this is the 1950’s! - my mother is serving lunch to a new cleaning lady. Mrs. Thorstensen weighs about 300 pounds; her breathing is heavy and labored, and she is a bit scary. When I return to school, I make absolutely sure to avoid making eye contact with her son Harlan, my classmate.

·        David and I live in an Upper West Side brownstone. Our neighbors, The Reverend and Patricia Huntington, invite us to Sunday supper. I brief Patricia about our not eating meat. She asks why not, and I explain we keep kosher. She recalls that her grandparents, missionaries in Africa, often encountered people with food taboos. She also mentions that her grandparents’ were very proud to always eat whatever was served to them, even bull eyeballs. We admire a large oil painting hanging in their living room and they fill us in on its provenance. “That’s a scene from Huntington, Long Island – the town is named for some of our ancestors.”  We do not invite the Huntingtons back – ever.

·        It is 30 years later. My cleaning person asks me to recommend a summer camp for her daughters, whose uncle has offered to pay for them to attend. I am weirded out. The only not-Jewish camp I know if is for Quaker hippies and I can’t imagine her daughters socializing with the children of anyone I know.  I mention the name of the camp, Dark Waters, and – uncharacteristically for me - never ask her what happened.

·        Around the same time we are invited to a brunch with physicians, executives in the pharmaceutical industry and their highly-educated wives. In the course of discussion I mention that SAT scores correlate to family income, a fact I had recently learned and found compelling. I am roundly jumped upon. America is a meritocracy! I realize I have just committed a major faux pas.

I was born white, upper-middle class, Jewish, and female. Whiteness and upper-middle class status are both unearned, privileged positions, nationally and even more so globally. Being female is a relative disadvantage, though one can debate how much it is over-ridden by being white and affluent. Jewish is a complex identity, often – but not necessarily-- tied to class and racial privilege, since a majority of Jews are white and financially comfortable, up there with Episcopalians.  Of course we have a long history of persecution and in some places in the world experience very real anti-Semitism, but much ink has been spilled teasing out Jewishness from the other identities we all integrate.

Beneficiaries of unearned privileges typically do not notice them – a major point in the article by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. They are daily, ordinary experience. Likewise, people in the majority, in whatever situation they are in, rarely notice minorities. Those in a position of privilege are generally clueless about the experience of unprivileged people. Even the Dali Lama confesses he didn’t give a thought to his mother carrying him around on her shoulders for hours every day.

Being privileged doesn’t mean you’re bad – people don’t choose privilege and more than people chose poverty. They generally are born into it and insulated from thinking of it as incredible luck like Ann Richardson, describing George W. Bush: “born on third base and he thought he hit a triple.”

A lot of this discussion is in the framing.  When FairTrade coffee was being introduced, I described the concept to our son Zachary, always an advocate for social justice.  He responded, “Well, I guess the regular stuff is ‘unfair trade coffee’ “.  Not surprisingly, the term Unfair Trade Coffee has not caught on, nor has “unfairly advantaged” taken off as a descriptor of those who enjoy unearned privilege. According to Rav SpellCheck, “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” are words.  “Overprivileged and overadvantaged are not.

While beneficiaries of unearned privilege may be blissfully unaware of it – a privilege in itself –people who are unfairly discriminated against are well aware of it, enduring an unending barrage of undermining actions 3, both subtle and crude.  Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family4. Sarah’s plan had been that Hagar would gratefully hand Sarah the fruit of her womb and maybe be the baby’s wet nurse, not claim motherhood, agency, and higher status. Sarah seems blindsided when Hagar asserts herself and insults her; one can speculate that Hagar is mirroring the way she herself has been treated by Sarah.

In our world, privileges come in many forms. Here is a short list, and people could add many more. Some members of our community, in fact, have put a lot of work and thought into these issues. In addition to the major disparities of race and gender, there is:

Heterosexual privilege: until recently, and still in most of the world, same-sex couples cannot show off their wedding pictures in the office, talk about their sweeties, and if they kiss their partner in public, they are accused of promiscuity.  These are just a couple of the daily oppressions – there are thousands of them.
Native-born citizens have huge privileges not available to immigrants – knowing the ropes, speaking the language, having the right forms.  Unless, of course, you are a Native American.
Age is a large privilege, until it becomes a detriment. Younger children are intensely aware of the privileges received by the bigger kids. This seems to be plugged into our human nature. Birth order has enormous effects on lived experience.
Education & Literacy confer privileges, and the more affluent you are, the better the quality of education you have access to, along with the length of time you spend being educated.
Military exemption privilege: since our military system is “voluntary”, our safety and rights are defended by those who need jobs and the potential benefits the military provides, in exchange for risking their lives and having no control over where they are deployed.
Fame/Legacy privilege is pretty obvious. Hard work and achievement matter in the United States, but name recognition gets you on short lists. Many have made the observation that the truest form of affirmative action is legacy admissions of mediocre students.

A few questions for discussion:

1. Is Hagar a role model for resistance to oppression, or a cautionary tale that resisters will be punished?
2. Share a time you were aware of your own unearned privilege, or your lack of it.
3. Some of us here are activists on this issue: share ways people can work for a fairer world.
4. Does acknowledging privilege demand that people give some of it up, and is that even possible?
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Footnotes: Thanks to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for bringing them to my attention.
 1 "Drive out this slave woman and her son" - ["Drive out" appears] thrice in the Bible: "Drive out this slave woman""Drive out the scoffer" (Proverbs 22:10), "When he sends you free, it is finished - he will drive, yes, drive you out from here" (Shemot 11:1) - Drive out this slave woman and her son, and then you will have driven out the scoffer, and because Sara drove Hagar out of her home, she was punished, and her descendents were enslaved and had to be driven out of Egypt.   (Baal Haturim, Bereishit 21:10)

 2 All who have been oppressed can also oppress.
Sarah our mother oppressed her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah was barren and she wanted a child. She gave Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as a wife. When Hagar conceived and became pregnant Sarah grew lesser in her eyes. So Sarah oppressed her and Hagar ran away, as it says:
"V'ta'aneiha Sarai v'tivrach mipaneyha" (Genesis 16:6)
Pharaoh the Egyptian oppressed our people when they dwelled in Egypt.
The Israelites descended to Egypt and lived there….And the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us; they imposed hard labor on us as it says:
"Vayarei'u otanu mamitzvrim va'y'anunu va'yitnu aleinu avoda kasha." (Deuteronomy 26:6)
This you should never forget: the same word used for Hagar's oppression at the hands of Sarah is used for the Israelites' oppression at the hands of the Egyptians.
Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Mayan Haggadah (following on Nachmanides)
3  Racial Microgressions in Everyday Life – Hat-tip, Nomi Teutsch

4 Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family – Micah Weiss, Seder commentary

For Further Reading: Recommended by Dr. Andrea Jacobs:


From the NYTimes (suggested by Sue Sussman)

What ‘White Privilege’ Really Means - GEORGE YANCY and NAOMI ZACK