Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
I am proud to have submitted the following Op-Ed piece to the Providence Journal with Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, President of the Governing Board of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
Op-Ed: Keeping the Experiment Lively: The Case of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
Rabbi Amy Levin, Temple Torat Yisrael, East Greenwich.
President, The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, West Warwick
President of the Governing Board, Rhode Island State Council of Churches
“That it is much on their hearts … to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments….”
- The Rhode Island Charter, Granted by King Charles II, July 8, 1663
As a state, we should feel significant pride in our recently-passed Marriage Equality legislation which came into law this week. Years of respectful public debate, with passionate advocacy on both sides of the issue, have led to the fact that here in Rhode Island there is now officially recognized civil marriage between people of the same gender. We are thoroughly engaged in the "lively experiment" to maintain the "flourishing civil state" mandated 350 years ago in the charter granted by King Charles II.
As a state, we should feel significant pride in the explicit provision of the legislation that protects the theological discretion of every faith community in Rhode Island to create and perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples--or not. In so doing, Rhode Island's marriage equality legislation embodies the "full liberty in religious concernments" that is equally at the heart of the charter that created Rhode Island.
The commitment to experimentation in order to foster thriving civil society along with fidelity to the principle of religious liberty makes Rhode Island a stimulating and inspiring place to live.
How extraordinary that the ethos of experimentation is a foundation stone of our state. By virtue of our lively experiment, Rhode Island’s civil culture is, and has always been, diverse, inclusive, pluralistic and aspirational. Our continuing lively experiment requires openness and a sense of responsibility and imagination and a streak of practicality. That these qualities continue to shape the civil life of our state should most certainly be a source of pride.
The spiritual leaders, the clergy, of an impressively broad spectrum of faith communities in Rhode Island share in our own engaging, mutually respectful and lively community. We who serve people of Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Unitarian and Buddhist and Hindu and Bahai and Quaker faiths enjoy relationships of mutual trust and respect that are strong enough to weather the times we find ourselves on opposite sides of an intense issue like civil marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments obviate religious marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments require religious marriage for same-gender couples.
No matter where we stand on the comprehensive theological map of Rhode Island, we are all committed to sensing and cherishing the spark of the sacred in each other and in every human being.
Mazal tov, congratulations to those of us who live in this state which recognizes civil marriage for same-gender couples. May our civil experiments remain lively and our religious liberties flourish!
There is a length of retaining wall supporting the western side of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is probably the most iconic piece of real estate in the Jewish world: The Wall / The Wailing Wall / The Western Wall / The Kotel . . . there is not a bus tour of Israel that does not include a stop at this place. Every Jew around the world engaged in prayer faces north, south, east or west in order to face this spot.
Instead of serving as the focal point of tranquility and spirituality and mutual respect throughout the Jewish world, we have witnessed repeated clashes between the ultra-orthodox and almost every other segment of our people acted out on this spot. Almost twenty years ago, involved in leading the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Movment's Tisha B'av service (commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples . . . according to one tradition because of senseless hatred among Jews) I was removed from the Kotel plaza by Israeli police. Over the last several months, news reports have documented Israeli police alternately (depending on the month and the latest court ruling) either removing women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh (the new month) or restraining angry ultra-Orthodox protestors who were outraged by the women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh. The Israeli paratroopers--iconic in themselves within Israeli society--used to be inducted into their units at the kotel . . . until the ultra-orthodox succeeded in prohibiting the ceremony because female Israeli soldiers sang at the ceremony.
This seems to be one place where we do not seem able to separate religion from politics.
But I was present at one unique moment of blessing standing before the Kotel. I stood with Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Donald Anderson, and representatives of the Hindu and Confucian faiths. Ringed by quiet but curious ultra-orthodox youth, we each prayed in our own way as part of the First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage. These few moments changed forever my associations with the Kotel and set me to dreaming once again about a spiritual center of tranquility and inclusivity and universal blessing:
The Economic Progress Institute. www.economicprogressri.org
For the fifth year, I participated in the Annual Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition's conference, "Fighting Poverty With Faith."
For the fifth year, I walked out of the Conference with so much frustration, I did not know what to do with it. It is appalling to listen to the statistics and translate those numbers into the reality of people's lives:
In 2011 (the year for which we have the most recent statistics), there were 148,800 Rhode Islanders living in poverty. That means that 148,800 of our neighbors and fellow Rhode Islanders were subsisting on $11,000 a year for a single individual and around $18,000 a year for a family of three.
Those are the people who are merely "poor."
68,800 people in Rhode Island are living in "extreme poverty" with income less than half of the poverty level: $9,265 for a family of three.
It is too easy . . . and way too inaccurate . . . to label the poor as those who do not work, whose lives are tainted by addiction, as criminals or parasites on the public.
The poor could be any of us in a blink of an eye: lose a job; get a divorce; become chronically or critically ill . . . and any of us can join the ranks of those who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and need to decide any given week between heat or food.
As a congregation, we are proud of our continuing and consistent support of the Edgewood Food Closet in our old Cranston neighborhood and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry run by the Jewish Seniors Agency. We continued to collect food for both food security projects all during our interim stay in our TY house on Middle Road and we have designed built-in bins in our new TY synagogue lobby (just lift the benches under the windows!) to accommodate our donations of non-perishable food. We hear over and over again that most of the people who come to the Edgewood Food Closet for help are working . . . at minimum wage jobs . . . and are still making that heart-breaking decision between paying the electric bill or buying food.
The minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour.
In 2012, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island was $1,176.
A cost burden exists when more than 30% of a household's income is spent on housing.
A worker would have to earn $22.62 per hour and work 40 hours a week year-round to afford this rent without a cost burden (meaning without the average rent taking up less than 30% of the worker's income).
We do need to continue or unflagging support for our two beneficiary agencies: The Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry.
But I suggest we need to do more.
I think there are projects we can take on as a congregation that could help to assure a more viable future for some of our state's poorest children, young people or even adults. Can we tutor children to read? Can we offer basic information in any of the fields of endeavor in which many of us work? Can we teach someone how to use a computer? Can we show someone how cook inexpensive, nutritious meals?
We cannot do all of these things. Perhaps what we can do effectively is not even on my short brainstorming list. But our neighbor, Newport, is the fifth poorest city in our State and we can sit down with those who are involved in the specific challenges of Newport and devise a project that will help a few people out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Call me if you would like to explore ways to help: 419-5577.
Write to me if you would like to explore ways to help: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley)
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
"Young lady," he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."
"But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, "It made a difference for that one."
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
This week, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island took a leading role in making Rhode Island history. After publishing the following statement, and after have a number of Board of Rabbis members, myself included, having testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing a few weeks ago, and following up with e-mails, we have succeeded in making it clear that there is visionary, compassionate and religiously committed spiritual leadership in Rhode Island.
We stood with an impressive number of other faith leaders and organizations around the state including the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. At a meeting at Gloria Dei Church in Providence, a few weeks ago, my colleague, Rabbi Peter Stein, reported that a room full of marriage equality activists from all over the Rhode Island faith map stood and cheered at the mention of the Board of Rabbis role in this effort.
It has been a consistent principle in our statement and in interviews I have subsequently held, to emphasize that there must never be any judgment towards colleagues whose theological commitments do not include the embrace of same sex marriage. This made the testimony of Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Shalom in Providence all the more impressive. Rabbi Dolinger is also an attorney. He stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and explained that he supports the civil institution of same sex marriage precisely under the conditions of the current legislation because there is no coercion of any clergy to officiate at such unions should their theological commitments dictate otherwise.
I am proud to share with you the words of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island:
Statement in support of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, representing different movements and practices, endorses the idea that the right of civil marriage should be available to all Rhode Islanders.
Our support of full civil marriage rights for same-sex couples rests on two key principles. First, lessons from Jewish history provide us with a mandate to work for civil rights. We understand the right of same-sex couples and their families to enjoy liberty and equal justice under law as a civil right. Married couples receive many federal and state-level legal protections, benefits and responsibilities with a civil marriage. Recognition by the State of Rhode Island of the right of same-sex couples to marry would provide access to such fundamental family and financial rights.
Second, is the clear distinction American law makes between civil and religious marriage. Legal recognition of same sex civil marriage should not and will not require clergy of any faith or denomination to officiate at or recognize the religious status of same-sex marriages. This is consistent with our understanding of the separation between church and state. This liberty is in keeping with Roger Williams’ vision for religious freedom that is pivotal to our state's identity
As rabbis we believe that every human being is created in the image of God; thus, it is our obligation to defend vigorously the dignity of and respect for every human being and every loving couple. For all the reasons stated above, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island supports the legislation proposed to the Rhode Island General Assembly providing marriage equality in Rhode Island.
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
The photograph on the left is of a street sign in Jerusalem. As is the standard in that holy city, every street sign bears the name of the street in Israel's three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Only in the Hebrew does there appear a short explanation of the street name, or a short description of the person for whom the street has been named. In the case of Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem, the epitaph appears: An American Leader. A warrior for equal rights in the United States.
This past Monday, people all over the United States, and, indeed, people all over the world, came together in celebration and remembrance . . . and appreciated the confluence of . . . President Obama's second inauguration and the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. There is no question that Reverend King would have been bursting with pride had he survived to enjoy the sight of Barak Obama taking the oath of office of President of the United States. The fact that President Obama's hand rested on Reverend King's bible . . . and Abraham Lincoln's bible . . . acknowledged with humility that President Lincoln and Reverend King made it possible for his hand to rest on their bibles.
I think, though, that Reverend King would also have acknowledged that, although we have come a long way from slavery, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. For Reverend King, visionary that he was, looking into the Promised Land in which race will be a non-issue, was also a clear-eyed leader, engaged in the real-world struggles that shackled innocent people of integrity.
For Reverend King, this week's Torah reading, Beshallach, was profoundly resonant: the people may have left slavery behind, but there is a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land. There are milestones along the way: manna and water, civil rights legislation and a black President of the United States, the attack of the Amalekites and the inordinate percentage of people of color living in poverty . . . . We are still wandering.
The Jerusalem street sign standing at the corner of Emek Refa'im and Martin Luther King Street is a banner of tribute to a man of courage who drew inspiration from the text originally written in the Hebrew of the street sign, and the Jerusalem street. That Jerusalem street sign, proclaiming Martin Luther King street, in the city at the heart of the Promised Land, also stands as a warning against complacence: Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel does not mean that the journey is over. The inequities within Israeli society: economic, ethnic, educational must also be resolved before we can declare that the journey is over.
Sunday evening, our lush, colorful, joy-to-the-senses festival of Sukkot begins. We will gather in our Torat Yisrael Sukkah (erected last Sunday by a great group of three generations of TY members; to be decorated this Sunday morning by our Yeladon and Cohen School students!). With Jews all over the world, we'll recite blessings thanking God for this season of joy and for the natural world that sustains us.
While we are literally counting our blessings on Sukkot, a growing number of Rhode Islanders are struggling to do with less and less. This morning, I attended a meeting of the steering committee of The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. We were greeted with sobering statistics recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
My friends, this is a reality on our doorstep, our tradition, our God, expects us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are barely (or falling short of) providing food, shelter and health car for themselves and their families:
More than 1 in 5 (47,127 / 21.9%) of Rhode Island's children was living in poverty in 2011.
In 2008, 34,816 children in Rhode Island (15.5%) were living in poverty.
In 2010, Rhode Island's child poverty rate of 19.0% was ranked 6th in New England and 22nd nationally.
In 2011, Rhode Island ranked 6th in New England and 27th in the country for child poverty (where 1st is best).
The Providence Journal reported on Friday, September 21st that in August 2012, 175,590 Rhode Islanders used the federally financed plan, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's a nearly 6% increase from August 2011.
This is a season for compassion.
This is a season for action.
I ask you to join me in organizing ourselves as a community to explore how me might bring some small relief and modicum of hope to our struggling neighbors:
1. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to our Sunday morning Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony.
2. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to Pizza in the Hut on Tuesday evening.
3. Please contact me directly if you are interested in being part of a TY team to explore further what kind of projects we might want to pursue in the realms of food, shelter or other types of basic needs or in education and training pathways out of poverty.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read the following passage from Isaiah as part of the haftarah:
"Share you bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.
Then shall your light burst through the dawn
and your healing spring up quickly.
Then, when you call, God will answer; when you cry out, God will say: 'Here I am.'
If you banish the yoke from your midst; the menacing hand, and evil speech,
and you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature--
then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday."
Vayak'heil-P'kudei 5772: Sermon Delivered at Congregation Moreshet Israel, Jerusalem, Israel in celebration of womens' leadership in Jewish life
In a progression of verses that is in no way unusual, this week's parasha comes to remind us that at the time of the revelation at Sinai, God, Moshe, and, apparently the people, all assumed that a patriarchal societal structure was the norm: in Sh'mot 32, the people, panicking at Moshe's prolonged absence, crowd Aaron: And the people saw that Moses lagged. The people. In the next verse, Aaron responds: take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. In other words, "the people" are the men.
Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, in the introduction to her book, Reading the Women of the Bible, pointed out that the Torah does not challenge the patriarchy of the society to which it was revealed, just as the Torah does not challenge the institution of slavery. The Torah does not conceptualize such cultural revolutions as an egalitarian society or the eradication of the institution of slavery.
Biblical thinkers, as Frymer-Kensky refers to biblical authorship, were very aware of social problems, trying to emeliorate the suffering of the downtrodden, curtailing abuses, helping runaway slaves stay free, redeeming those sold into slavery, and calling for a limit to capitalist aggrandizement.
Today, we might turn to the Torah, the foundation document of our faith, and feel disappointed or embarrassed by what seems to be the biblical embrace of patriarchal structure, not to mention a sanguine acceptance of slavery.
I think we err in the reading of the Torah if we lapse into embarrassment and disappointment at these junctures. Indeed, I see in the Torah's challenging, incremental, insistent pushing back on societal assumptions the key to the deepest values of our tradition and the key to the eternal vibrancy of Judaism.
It is easy, too easy, to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that women simply do fulfill the same spectrum of roles in Jewish community as do men. It is too easy to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that a mitzvah observed by a gay guy is a mitzvah that has been observed by an obligated Jew.
In a drash on the parashah Mishpatim, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?"
The key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
These passages in Mishpatim make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters.
For certain, there are also passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in the document we embrace as revealed sacred text. All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a gift: something wrapped in the folds of a cloth. The recipient carefully opens up the folds of the cloth and a very modern-looking television remote control is revealed.. The gift is received with very understandable confusion and incomprehension.
If the Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service, toward women and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been even more profound confusion and incomprehension. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time capable of understanding and committing to such a covenant.
Even a sacred revelation rooted in the cultural assumptions of the day was ultimately responded to with the golden calf. Can you imagine what the response would have been to a Torah unilaterally and with no warning casting aside patriarchal society, abolishing slavery, prohibiting capital punishment? Crickets. Instead of a heartfelt na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do, we will obey,” our communal response to the revelation of the Torah) you would have only heard the chirping of crickets...
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture, mindset and dress were to unwrap a present and find chain mail armor. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, has always been about the lives we are leading right now. Whenever and wherever right now might be.
In this season of “nahafoch hu” (Turn things on their heads / referring to the irreverent spirit of Purim) it behooves us to remember that profound change does not happen . . . or does not happen well . . . when we begin by overturning tables and standing things on their heads.
Indeed, it is our Torah...that sacred document steeped in patriarchal and slaveholding assumptions that models for us the path to the kind of change that made this Shabbat in this place possible. We need to start where people are, not where we expect them to get to. Really, there is little that is more irritating than having someone approach from the heights of enlightenment to say: "you poor misguided thing, follow me and you'll get it right.". How much more effective, as the Torah models, to say: "here's where we are. Look what's ahead. We can figure out together how to get there!"
Profound change comes from modeling, suggesting, teaching, persevering, relying only on the eternal, sacred values that reflect profound truth. Having faith. And a little humility.
We, the Masorti community here in Israel, as well as the American Conservative community, need to do a little remembering.
Here are a few things I remember from the not-distant-enough past:
I remember being all but frog-marched out of the daily minyan at my own (pre-rabbinical school) Masorti kehillah in Jerusalem and being told that I was not welcome in the room if I was going to wear my tallit and Tefillin.
I remember members of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly standing up at meetings
and insisting that Israel was not ready for women in the rabbinate.
I remember a high-ranking member of the Machon Shechter administration informing me that women belonged in the rabbinate as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate.
I remember: here's a little back story to this memory: when I began my studies in the rabbinical program at Shechter, I was actually registered as a student of JTS while studying in the Israeli program. JTS had been ordaining women since 1983, but then, in 1991, Schechter was not yet accepting women. Therefore, I ... and a few other women ... were in the unique position of studying in a program that did not officially accept us. The other women at that time were studying at Shechter as Masters students. So...back to remembering: I remember a fellow student gave a d'var Torah one day at minyan urging the Schechter faculty and administration to change their policy and to accept women. A high-ranking member of the Schechter administration came up to him immediately and within hearing of several of us said: “atah bogeid,” you are an iconoclast, you are a traitor.
I've had a moment or two like that myself: I had been davenning in minyanim at shul and at school as the only woman in the room wearing Tefillin for close to a year before I finally walked into a minyan where there was another woman wearing Tefillin. I watched her wrap up and I remember saying to myself: Wow! That looks really weird!
All of that is to say that we need to have a little rachmonis (compassion) for those who don't quite get it yet. We need to acknowledge that the kind of change that addresses the way people engage in society and community is complicated and frightening and confusing. Obviously that does not mean we don't proceed with change, it does mean we must manage change with wisdom and compassion and allegiance to sacred values.
For all that the Torah assumes a world that marginalizes women and condones slavery, the most sacred principles which will ultimate overthrow those assumptions are embedded in that same revealed text and have served as the basis for the revolutions which overturn those institutions:
And God created the Adam in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it . . .”
Adam is male and female, a type of gendered creature, like so many others. Both genders of this Adam are created simultaneously and equally. Both genders of this Adam are blessed equally and charged equally with reproducing and with managing the rest of creation. This first relating of the creation of humanity considers both genders equally blessed, equally in partnership.
How many times have we heard that we are partners with God in completing and perfecting creation? How often are we uplifted by the concept of Tikkun Olam? The idea that God needs our collaboration to bring ultimate completion and peace, to the act of Creation?
The blueprint for our collaboration are the "first principles" of the Torah: Tikkun Olam is the enterprise of integrating these first principles of Torah into the world.
God had the chance to foster a homogeneous, uniform humanity . . . all speaking the same language, all building towards the same goal: the destruction of the Tower of Babel is the signal that God expects diversity, creativity, the exercise of our various intelligences from us. Humanity begins with one language, one set of words, and ends the passage dispersed and speaking many tongues. Yes, perhaps, as is expressed in Genesis 11, humanity would have been more formidable were we to speak one language and see one vision...but if that state of affairs reflected God's aspiration for the Adam we would, today, be speaking but one language and aspiring to one goal.
Hence the blueprint for our collaboration with God must include the embrace of diversity within the Adam / humanity.
It's rather exhausting, isn't it, to contemplate how many millennia it has taken to achieve just a few steps forward in establishing God's first principles. After all, the catalyst for this awe-inspiring Shabbat is the rejection of the equality of genders within the Adam among certain misguided groups within Israel. Really, what on earth could a little orthodox girl be wearing to school that could possibly be deemed inappropriate by anyone save a truly misguided soul?
So let us, today in this sanctuary, respond to Professor Frymer-Kensky's concerns and Rabbi Cohler-Essess' probing question with pride and reassurance: the Torah does not abandon 21st century Jews, the Torah provides us with the wisdom, perspective and inspiration to understand the scope of the challenges and to be compassionate and focussed as we pursue those first principle truths that shine through the cultural anachronisms of the text.
In this season of nahafoch hu, I suggest there are times when up-ending tables is the order of the day: most effectively when grassroots support for change wells up against an authoritarian loathing to abandon long-held assumptions.
In place of disappointment and embarrassment, let us be guided by both patience and determination. The patience to inspire those around us with the challenging and uplifting first principles of the Torah: equality, inclusivity, diversity--and the determination to up-end each table of bigotry, narrow-mindedness and intimidation in their turn.
Parashat Bamidbar Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
This past Tuesday, I participated in the second annual conference of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition: Fighting Poverty with Faith. The Coalition made a commitment two years ago to cut poverty in Rhode Island by 50% in 10 years . . . as the conference opened, Maxine Richman, Co-Chair of the Coalition representing the Jewish Federation's Community Relation's Council, challenged us with the 8 years remaining to achieve our goal.
This is some of the reality facing innumerable Rhode-Islanders today:
In 2008, over 118,000 Rhode Islanders (12% of the population) lived below the federal poverty level ($17,346 for a family of three, $21,834 for a family of four).
According to the Rhode Island Standards of Need developed by the Poverty Institute, it costs $20,280 for a single adult to meet basic needs.
In 2008, almost 35,000 children (15.5% of Rhode Island's children) lived below the federal poverty level.
The maximum monthly benefit under RI Works is $554 for a family of three. The monthly benefit has not increased in 20 years.
Between 2006 and 2008, more than one in ten Rhode Island households were food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as not always having access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
In March 2010, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island was 12.6%, up from 6.6% in March 2008 and 4.9% in March 2007.
Friends, our neighborhood Edgewood Food Closet, as well as the Jewish Senior Agency's Kosher Food Closet, provide sustenance to hundreds of our State's food insecure families. I know we are constantly reminding you to bring donations of non-perishable foods to the collection center in our Torat Yisrael lobby. Please don't let repetition dull your sensitivity to the call. Please fill our bins to overflowing with canned fish and vegetables, meats, soups, cooking oil and nutritious breakfast cereals.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.