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Another Woman’s March: Between Purim and Chanukah

A few months ago there was a big tumult regarding the Women’s March of Washington. Three of the four lead organizers had attended events hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made a living off of making antisemitic remarks.  Perceptions that the leaders of the Women’s March had failed to condemn the rhetoric and subsequent accusations of antisemitism within the organization itself led to former co-founder Teresa Shook to call for their resignations and were followed by the disassociation of numerous state chapters. By December 2018, The New York Times reported that “charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches.”

Questions about alleged antisemitism connected to the Women’s March organizers have swirled for months in response to an article in online Jewish magazine Tablet. While the organizers had repeatedly denied all accusations of misconduct or using inappropriate speech, the issue resurfaced when two of the March’s organizers appeared on “The View”. During the show, March co-president Tamika Mallory was asked why she posted a photo of herself and Louis Farrakhan on Instagram with a caption indicating her adulation of this hatemonger. “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory responded. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.” Pressed on the issue, Mallory said, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements,” but when asked directly if she condemned them, she demurred. “I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory responded. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize … I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”

Image result for tamika on the view

What are the implications of judging a woman through the lens of a man? What is the right lens to judge a person who brings on a foe as an ally? What are the implications of a cause that I find to be just even if the allies brought together to support this cause are deplorable?

There were many voices in the Jewish community who were so triggered by the larger context of rising antisemitism that they could not see through that to the importance of the cause of the March. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity to an association with Farrakhan being too much, I am curious about those who were against the March on the merits of it not reaching their standards of a purity of allyship. It has been noted by others that it’s a pernicious privilege to demand that a group of revolutionaries trying to make change a system maintain a purity of who they ally with for their cause.

This privilege makes sense from the perspective of Chanukah. That is to say that the Hashmonaim were revolutionaries who were fighting for their lives.  After the Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. This notion of purity got expanded by the Rabbis future celebration of Chanukah. We learn:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household;  and the mehadrin- more beautiful [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the mehadrin of the mehadrin – Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced;  but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

The most beautiful expression of this ritual is when everyone shows off the purity of God’s sanctioning the Maccabees fight against the Greeks.

This paradigm of Chanukah stands juxtaposed Purim. Similar to the Maccabees with the Greeks, Esther and Mordechai were fighting the existential threat of Haman. Both holidays tell the stories of a small group of people uniting to defeat the bloodthirsty forces of a much larger and more powerful oppressor. But where Chanukah represents an aesthetic of Jewish purity over Hellenistic physical beauty, Esther represents the opposite. She only became the queen by winning a beauty pageant. Esther uses her beauty to save her people, and most importantly to our discussion here, to do this holy work she made some interesting allies. Throughout her efforts he relies on the eunuchs. For a community that has not historically looked on intermarriage so positively we are all too happy to overlook her relationship with Ahashverosh. The strangeness of who she portrays as her ally comes to head in her second banquet with Haman and Ahashverosh. There we read:

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Ahashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Esther 7:3-8)

Esther only request is the she and her people not be killed. She would not have bothered him if they were “just” enslaved. The King only acts when he perceives that Haman, who has been courted by Esther to these exclusive banquets, is trying to have sex with his wife in his palace. This seems incredibly strange that this is what provokes action and not his trusted adviser wanting to kill his queen or commit genocide. Ahashverosh is only moved to action when he sees his wife taking a strange bed-fellow.

Both Chanukah and Purim are stories of revolution and salvation. But while Chanukah is a story of purity, Esther is a story of persistence. Esther does whatever it takes to be successful, including using her beauty and not her purity to make strange bed-fellows. While people can still chose a Chanukah lens over a Purim lens to critique revolutionary activity, it should be mentioned that the Hashmonaim were roundly criticized by the Rabbis and were similar to today’s Taliban killing many brothers in name of ritual purity.  It was only after the privilege of winning that the Maccabees would claim that their fratricide was pure.

Coming back to our times we need to say clearly that women’s rights are truly in danger and we need to come together to fight this good fight. While Farrakhan and the larger rise of antisemitism is horrifying and needs to be blotted out, I think we need to be more understanding that revolutions by design get messy. Before we judge the leaders of the Women’s March too harshly in light of the Chanukah story, we need to see that their “misconduct or using inappropriate speech” might just be these women taking a chapter from Esther’s original Women’s March.

Purim Sameakh- Have a revolutionary holiday.

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Looking to See: The Blessings of Thriving

We learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Meir said, ‘A person is obligated to bless 100 blessing every day, as the Torah says: ‘Now Israel, mah– what does God ask from you, but only to fear Hashem your God, to go in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve Hashem your God, with all of your heart and with all of your soul. To guard the commands of Hashem and His statutes which I command you today, for your good.(Deut. 10:12-13)  (Menachos 43b)

Instead of Rabbi Meir reading  Mah– meaning what he reads it me’ah– meaning 100. But, why say 100 blessings every day?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Positive Judaism Summit at UPenn Hillel.  There we discussed the benefit to our wellness of having a regular gratitude practice. This seems rather intuitive. Having a gratitude practice makes us attune ourselves to good things in the world. The process of looking helps us see. 

The wisdom of Rabbi Meir got much deeper when I thought about it within the context of the theme of yesterday’s conference which was “From Survive to Thrive: A New Approach for Jewish living in the 21st Century”. What might Rabbi Meir say about Positive Psychology?

Looking at Rabbi Meir’s proof text we see something very revealing. We start with fearing God but end with loving God. We start in trying to follow an invisible God’s ways and end with leading in service. Maybe the key to moving from survival to thriving is this move from fear to love. Similarly it is critical to move from following the invisible to leading in service to others. We can make this shift daily by conditioning ourselves with the spiritual technology of 100 blessings. In so doing we habituate ourselves to thrive. 

Hosting Adar

One of my favorite stories tells of the origin story of the Besht. We read: 

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey. In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah had reached. Just as with Job the devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!” It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him.  Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal. The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat. 

Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”(adapted from  Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

This story speaks to the centrality of hachnasat orechim-hospitality in Jewish life. 

I was thinking about it today as the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni. As we learn in the Gemara:

Mi’SheNichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– One who welcomes Adar increases joy. ( Taanit 29)

Nichnas and hachnasat have the same root. This makes me translate this differently. One who hosts Adar increases joy.

This makes me go back to the story of Reb Eliezer. What does it take to really be a good host? Yes it means opening up our homes, but that is the easy part. The hard part is opening up our hearts. In Adar we need to get into the spirit of putting on the mask of being hospitable so that we can actually get to the level of Abraham and Sara If we do that we will increase joy by lighting the eyes of Israel. 

Hodesh Tov

I Love Israel: Growing Past Hope

For the past week I have had the Winona Oak and Chainsmokersearworm Hope stuck in my head.  This song tells the story of a woman’s reflection of the abusive relationship that she had with a partner when she was younger.  The chorus is particularly sticky. They sing:

You made me feel high
‘Cause you had me so low, low, low
You only seemed tall
‘Cause you stunted my grow-grow-growth
I only wanted you ’cause I couldn’t have you
Now that I know
That wasn’t love, that wasn’t love, that was just hope

The protagonist realizes that what she thought was a strong relationship was just an immature dependency. The song is catchy and worth a listen:

I really did not give it much more thought until the merger between right-wing parties Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit, whose members are supporters of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rightly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for endorsing this merger. While one should not be surprised with the rise of nationalism and xenophobia all over the world (e.g. Brexit and MAGA), but it is still saddening to see this strand of hatred and fear-mongering in Israel.

For Jews around the world, Israel represents our aspirations for a different future. We see this most clearly in Hatikvah, our national anthem. There we sing:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

In my mind Israel is the realization of thousands of years of our yearning and suffering in Diaspora. This pernicious move to the right to normalize Kahane in the name of keeping us a “free nation in our land”, is actually losing the hope itself.

Thinking about  Hatikvah in this moment I found myself singing Hope by the Chainsmokers. Normalizing racism like Kahane isn’t love, that is just hope. After over 70 years of this imperfect but majestic history of the State of Israel, we need to grow up. We need to reflect on what kind of relationships we want to have and what kind of nation we want to be. We need to be bold and say that we love Israel, and immature hope is insufficient. If we push ourselves past hope to love we will expect more from our leadership and ourselves. Netanyahu is only perceived to be high in the polls because he has kept us so “low, low, low.” We need to reflect on this moment and “grow-grow-grow.”

Year of the Earth Pig

Today marks the beginning of the twelfth of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar. In the continuous sexagenary cycle of sixty years, this is the start of the year of the Earth Pig. In the Chinese Mythology these 12 animals correspond to the 12 animals that won the Great Race. See this video:

The pig came in dead last due to its sloth. It seems that pigs get a bad rap from many cultures.

In Judaism the pig is the symbol of hypocrisy. As the midrash goes, the pig pretends to be a kosher animal. The pig sticks out its split hooves when it is resting, as if to advertise its being kosher, while internally it does not chew its cud (Bereishit Rabbah 65:1).

In a Jewish context it is also interesting to reflect that the pig is the end of the Chinese Zodiac cycle. In Hassidut we learn, “Why is the pig called [in Hebrew] chazir? Because in the future, God will return [le-hachazir] it to Israel” ( Likkutei Sichot 29:128). In the end in the messianic era the internal physiology of the pig will change so that indeed it chews its cud. ( Ohr ha-Chaim on Leviticus 11:7)  In so doing the pig will have the have both kosher signs.

To me it makes sense to take a pause on today the Chinese New Years to think about how each of us might work on being less hypocritical in our lives. What can each of us do to ensure that our insides match our outsides? In so doing I have no doubt that we will be starting a new beginning and hastening the messianic era. Happy New Year.

Bonus Question: If Jews flock to Chinese restaurants on the Gregorian New Year, do Americans head to Jewish delicatessens on the Chinese New Year?

“PAINTING OVER” BARRIERS TO JEWISH CAMP

As a person committed to social justice and accessibility, I often think about the ways in which we can be more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal professional my work tends to focus on what we can do as a Jewish community to live up to these ideals. I recently had a profound and unexpected moment of reflection, however, in a seemingly unlikely place: the parking lot of a Target. I came across the following image, and was so struck by it that I had to stop and take a picture.

This image shows a new icon signifying that the parking spot is reserved for people with disabilities, painted over an older version of the same icon. Though there are only slight differences between the two images, I found the changes – and what they signify about people with disabilities – worthy of reflection.

The older image is the current International Symbol of Access, depicting a stick figure sitting passively in a wheel chair. The new image – from the *Accessible Icon Project – also portrays a stick figure in a wheel chair, but so much more as well. We see that the figure’s head is forward, to indicate the forward motion of the person through space. The arm angle is pointing backward to suggest the dynamic mobility of a chair user. Depicting the body in motion indicates that the figure is navigating the world. Even the wheels look like they are moving.

Quite simply: the first image shows us a person sitting in a wheelchair. The second image shows us someone living their life, while using the wheelchair as a tool. The person in the second image has places to go and people to see. The wheelchair (signifying disability) is an important part of the image, but it doesn’t define it – or the human figure in it. The fact that the new image is painted over the old makes it even more powerful – it almost looks as if the figure is actively breaking free from the old image of passivity, refusing to be bound by the preconceived notions of others.

Judaism teaches us that we are all equal regardless of background, faith, gender identity, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, or level of ability. Each of us needs to play an active role in treating each other with dignity, compassion, and love. We know this. It is a cornerstone of our Jewish identity. And yet, when it comes to Jewish people with disabilities, are we doing enough to provide equal access to Jewish communal life? Despite our best intentions, are we sometimes guilty of viewing Jewish people with disabilities as passively adjacent to – but not active members of – our communities? If so, how can we “paint over” this older way of thinking to create more accessible communities in which we can meaningfully engage more Jewish people with disabilities?

In reflecting on these questions, I came to the following question which seems to contain them all: What is my responsibility to my fellow Jew? The Gemara in Sanhedrin has an answer, claiming “Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b) To prove this the Gemara cites Leviticus:

They will stumble, each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

I cannot read this without thinking of all of the times that we “stumble” as a community because we are not being “guarantors” of one another by ensuring that Jewish people with disabilities are active participants in Jewish communal life. It is only when we recognize that we all are active divine agents in our community that we can move forward without stumbling, strengthened by everyone’s innate value.

At Foundation for Jewish Camp, we take accessibility and inclusion seriously. The experience of attending Jewish camp is an important milestone for so many young Jewish people, and I’m proud of our consistent efforts to increase accessibility for Jewish campers and staff with disabilities. So many Jewish camps are doing incredible work around inclusivity. And with the recent creation of the Yashar Initiative (generously funded by a $12 million grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation), we’ll be able to partner with day and overnight camps to further increase accessibility for campers and staff with disabilities, as well as provide essential trainings for staff. We hope this support will significantly increase the number of campers and staff with disabilities who are able to participate in Jewish camp.

We know there’s still much work to be done regarding inclusion at Jewish camp, and we refuse to be passive. We will not stumble. We are committed to actively moving forward, breaking free from the status quo, and doing our part to create a more welcoming and accessible Jewish camp experience. I invite all Jewish communal professionals and institutions to join us in “painting over” any barriers to Jewish communal life. Let’s actively work together to create a more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant Jewish world, Zeh B’Zeh.

*Check out the 99% Invisible Podcast for more information on this topic.

-cross posted with FJC’s Blog

The Hard Work and Luck of Our Expedition: Today in History

Norwegian Roald Amundsen, born in Borge, near Oslo, in 1872, was one of the great figures in polar exploration. In 1897, he was first mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic. In 1903, he guided the 47-ton sloop Gjöa through the Northwest Passage and around the Canadian coast, the first navigator to accomplish the treacherous journey. Amundsen planned to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.

Image result for roald amundsen

Amundsen completed his preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where the English explorer Robert F. Scott was also headed with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off–Amundsen using sleigh dogs, and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, 107 years ago today, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad–two members perished–and a storm later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body was found later that year.

What made Amundsen succeed and Scott fail has been the subject of much analysis. I learned about them in Jim Collins’ Great By Choice. Collins points out the importance of the 20 Mile March. No matter what happened Amundsen and his team would always aim to do 20 miles every day, no more and no less. In comparison Scott and his team would not go certain days if the conditions were too tough and go too far if the conditions were good. Amundsen’s rigor and discipline ensured his success.

I think a lot about the Amundsen’s rigor and discipline when I think about our collective resilience throughout Jewish history. What has helped this small tribe of people survive let alone thrive against the harsh terrain of hardship, conquest and plagues of history?

There are surly many answers but for me one of them comes this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Yosef confront his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling.
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” ( Genesis 45:4-7)

Yosef could have been stuck being in isolation or in anger of his brothers who sold him into slavery. Instead he decided to see it as God’s plan for him. He was “supposed to be in Egypt” in order to save them. That is a nice explanation for their behavior, but not his. Yosef worked really hard every day in Egypt to get to his position. My parents used to tell me all the time when I was young, ” The Harder you work, the luckier you get.” The Jewish people, like Amundsen, have had to work pretty hard throughout our expedition through history and we are pretty lucky.

-borrowed from Today in History 

 


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