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, 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. 
            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.
            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.
            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.