Posts Tagged 'Rabbi'

Let My Voice Know No Bounds: An Unorthodox Lesson in Race and Respect

I have only very fond memories of Esther Meyers z”l. She was an African American housekeeper who came to our house in the suburbs every day from her home in Southwest Philadelphia to take care of me. She was always kind, caring, and nurturing. She raised me as she raised my three siblings. And before working for my parents, she had worked for my Oma and Opa, German grandparents, raising my mother and my aunt in West Philadelphia. To the best of my memory, I believe Esther was the daughter of a sharecropper from South Carolina. But my memories are incomplete, being the youngest of my generation.

One of my earliest memories growing up is something that Esther said to me. I could not have been older than seven at the time. She had prepared egg salad on rye bread as she did throughout my childhood. I was about to eat and she called out, “Put that thing on your head. Show some respect up in here sugar.”

Today I am an Orthodox Rabbi with my requisite beard, four-cornered garment, and of course the signature head covering. I can quote you many ancient, medieval, and modern texts to explain why a Jew should wear a Kippah, a traditional head covering. But to be honest, it is not the voice of my tradition that I hear commanding me to wear a Kippah, rather it is Esther’s sweet voice calling me to “put that thing on my head”. Over 30 years has passed since Esther said these words to me, but to this day it is the proud voice of a god-fearing African American woman telling me, a white boy of privilege, how to show respect that influences how I see the world and, in turn, how the world sees me. Esther’s voice commands me to show respect by recognizing the privileges I have. I may or not be conscious of it, I have race, class, education, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, all on my side. I understand that it means I have a great deal of responsibility in our fractured society. Am I, as a German Jew – – am I white? I find the question of Jews being white or not to be largely academic. If I want, I can closet my identity to ensure that I do not lose my white privilege. But, choosing to wear a Kippah essentially problematizes the pristine racial construct of being white in America. I decide to reveal this about myself every day.

This makes me think about the biblical character of Joseph. At beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Joseph’s reconnecting with his brothers after they had sold him into slavery so many years previously. There we read:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no [Egyptian] man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he [Joseph] wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

It was not just that Joseph passed for an Egyptian, he married into the priestly class of Egypt and his brothers did not recognize him. In his closeted identity, he enjoyed every privilege in Egypt. Joseph cleared everyone out of the room, but that did not include his brothers. Despite his being the second to the king, he had internalized the xenophobia and felt that he needed to clear the room to share his hidden identity. When Joseph did find that voice, it could know no bounds. Everyone heard about it.

In all of my world travels, when I meet someone else with a Kippah I experience a filial bond. But I am not satisfied with this being a sign of my religion, group pride, or nationalism; rather I want our head coverings to reveal both the positive and negative lessons of Joseph. During the years of famine under Joseph’s administration Pharaoh sold the stockpile of food to the Egyptian people. First Joseph took their money, then their cattle, then their land, and ultimately themselves as slaves (Genesis 47:15- 26). Essentially, Joseph created a large class of Egyptian sharecroppers. Only the Israelites and the Egyptian priestly caste were spared.

We cannot be complicit with a system of oppression in order to give our brethren preferential treatment. As we learn from Joseph and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Ultimately the system of slavery that Joseph helped create came back around to enslave his descendants. I want my Kippah to remind me and others of our joint responsibilities to our people and the larger world. In wearing a Kippah I aspire to be a dreamer like a young Joseph before he experiences his own slavery. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” I wear a Kippah to create a certain kind of consciousness. I want to identify with and be identified by the holy calling “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

There is a lot of work to be done to repair the racial divide in this country. This is not a black problem. I know that I can always put my Kippah in my pocket or under a hat; Esther could never hide her skin color. Those of us with privilege need to be vigilant about standing up for those who are marginalized and oppressed. Like Joseph we need to find our hidden voice and courageously speak out for freedom and justice for all.  All I know is when I fail to cover my head with a culture of consciousness I am not showing the appropriate respect. Thank you Esther.



Passing Judgement

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read, “You shall make judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. “(Deuteronomy 16:18) We all understand the importance of law enforcement in maintaining social order. But, what is the significance of having these judges stationed at the gates?

It seems that elsewhere in the Bible we see the gate as the sight of law.  For example, Boaz took Ruth to the gate to announce their getting married (Ruth 4:1). In the world before websites, it seems that the gate was the best sight to communicate information to the masses. But, it also seems that the Israelite Philosopher Kings were charged to not only to know the law, but to administer it. In the book of Judges, the judges seem to be better warriors then jurists. In that light, they might have been stationed at the gates to protect the people inside the city walls.

Who plays the role of the judge today?All too often today’s rabbi is cast into the role of the gate-keeper. S/he is charged to serve as the keeper of the faith in a time of an ever-diminishing number of Jews who live their lives within the confines of Jewish law. Is the job of today’s judge to keep the denizens of the law safe from the outsiders? Today many Jews are outsiders, should today’s judges stand there trying to wave down passers-by and try to usher them into the law? Or maybe part of the issue is assuming that the synagogue or JCC is still the gate of the city. It is also interesting to see how many rabbis have transformed their role as a warrior into a seeker of social justice. This gate is an interesting place for  him/her to sit.  The want to pass judgement and stand for something, and not just be passed by as they sit at their gate. Can today’s judge fight for the law without seeming judgmental?


Rabbi Linzer of Peki’in

In the Talmud Bavli Hagigah 3a we learn a wonderful story of Rabbi Yehoshua at Peki’in. Once he was visited by his students Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Eleazar Hisma. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “What hidush (innovative teaching) was there at the Beit Midrash (house of study) today?” As devoted students they replied, “We are your disciples and we only drink your water.” The Rabbi said to his students, “Even so, it is impossible for there to be a session in the Beit Midrash without some hidush”.  Rabbi Yehoshua was a master Jewish educator. He was more interested in his students’ education than his pride. He not only invited them to teach him, Rabbi Yehoshua also modeled for his students the love of Torah. He was incredulous that there could be learning of Torah which was not current, relevant, and evolving.

While I might have learned this Gemara many years ago, I only truly came to understood it when learning with Rabbi Linzer. While he was clearly our Rabbi he was never shy with sharing the Beit Midrash. He was mission-driven to ensure that his students were getting the best education. He was always looking to bring the right teachers for each of his students. And he was right there with us taking part in learning from them. The only thing stronger than his crushing intellect is his unparalleled humility. It is apparent to anyone who meets Rabbi Linzer that he models an unquenchable curiosity in Torah.

While others might have pushed for conformity, especially in the early days of the yeshiva, Rabbi Linzer encouraged each of us to find our own voices. There was always an expectation that we learn from the world with an open mind, learn from people with an open heart, and always live as a Mentsch. In retrospect it is amazing to me how he entertained my out-of-the-box musings. But in doing so, Rabbi Linzer empowered me to take ownership over our tradition. With my family, my community, the larger Jewish community, and the larger world I strive to emulate Rabbi Linzer in giving others a similar sense of ownership.

When leaving the yeshiva I confessed to Rabbi Linzer that I was worried about becoming a Rabbi in that I would not be able to give his kind of shiur. He laughed, demanding that I teach my own Torah. It was as if he was forcing me to ask Leo Rosten’s question. “If I shall be like him, who shall be like me?” Open Orthodoxy endeavors to empower people to find their own voice in our tradition. It is an honor to drink of Rabbi Linzer’s water. The hidush of Open Orthodoxy flourishes in Rabbi Linzer’s Beit Midrash, because he makes room for each one of us, his students.

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