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Twelve years ago, Tarana Burke created a myspace page titled “me too” as a community project to give women of color a space to support and advocate for an end to sexual assault. One year ago, the New York Times and the New Yorker published reports that profiled widespread practices of harassment and cover-up within the American film industry. Six months ago, evangelical Women created the hashtag #silencenotspiritual with the goal of raising awareness around harassment and assault within the church. This week within the Jewish imagination, nine brothers sit in a circle and collude to silence the truth of their violence.
Parshat Vayeshev tells the story of the sons of Jacob stripping their brother Joseph, throwing him into a pit, and making themselves a meal. In Genesis 37:26, as they dine Judah speaks up and convinces his brothers that rather than letting Joseph die, they should sell him into slavery. When the next caravan passes by, the brothers sell Joseph.
A remarkable midrash collected in Tanchuma imagines the moments after this transaction. In the wake of their violence, the midrash describes the brother’s next move. They agree unanimously that they need to take an oath of silence, a binding agreement to never disclose what they’ve done. However, there’s a problem. An oath in the ancient near east required a minyan, ten entities to hold the pledge. With little Benjamin at home, Reuben mysteriously absent and Joseph sold away, there are only 9 brothers to seal the deal. The midrash suggests a creative and devastating solution to this numbers problem: “שִׁתְּפוּ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּאוֹתוֹ הַחֵרֶם” “[the brothers] included the blessed holy one in that same oath” (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 2:5) God becomes a witness, a party, a bystander in the brother’s vow of silence.
Seemingly, this vow holds. Jacob, devastated, accepts the testimony of his sons. Rashi suggests that God, as a result of being a party to the oath, does not assuage Jacob’s misery. Instead, Jacob is left living within divine silence. The silence is not isolated to this single revelation. Rather God’s voice is absent for the remainder of the book of Genesis.
The Tanchuma’s reading of the brothers presents a theology that at once feels deeply true and profoundly disturbing. The midrash suggests that a group of men have tremendous power; not only can they conspire to conceal violent crimes, but they can unilaterally implicate God in their actions. They can sanctify oppressive silence. This is not a liberatory theology. God does not seem to be with those who suffer. Instead, God is either utterly absent or on the side of perpetrators of violence.
Only in the next book of the bible does God’s silence break. In the second chapter of Exodus, we learn that Israel’s cries of pain in the face of Egyptian slavery have risen up to God. At the burning bush, God says to Moses, “וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו׃ וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם” “I have heard their cries [which they cry] because of their task masters, I know their pain. I come down to save them from the hands of the Egyptians” (Shemot 3:7-8). Only Israel’s cries can break the oath, can bring back God’s voice and compassion. In the story of Joseph’s brothers, God’s voice is stolen by the perpetrators of violence. In Egypt, God’s voice is restored, God’s power for mercy renewed, in response and solidarity to those suffering violence.
The #metoo movement asks those of us with privilege, particularly cis-men who aren’t regularly subject to harassment, to make a choice. To which God do we pray? With our violence, with our silence, with our unwillingness to believe the stories of victims, we can worship the God of the brothers, the God of immoral collusion, the God who does not speak. Alternatively, through humility, through teshuva, through amplifying the voices of those who suffer, we can worship and actualize a God who speaks with compassion and justice, a God who punishes the hard hearted, a God who brings the potential of healing to a wounded world.
Let’s make the right choice
Let’s demand better of our brothers
Let’s join our voices to the צעק, the great cry, of those who suffer.
Let’s demand an end to silence.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance was written by Joey Glick. Joey is a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew College.
This article is part of a collaborative series commissioned by altMuslimah and Jewschool to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Muslim and Jewish communities experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the following scenario:
Person A: [Something deeply offensive to you or other members of your ethnic, religious, national, etc. group]
Person B: Hey, that’s offensive.
Person A: FREE SPEECH
Let’s get this out of the way before going any further: The writers of this piece are pro-free speech. We believe it should be protected, and that includes hate speech. With the exception of a few categories of cases where our law says free speech is NOT protected, we think people should be able to say whatever they want.
[pullquote align=right]Protecting free speech legally does not, however, mean that hateful speech doesn’t produce harm. [/pullquote]There is a range of speech that inflicts all kinds of wounds–emotional, dignitary, etc.–and the lack of legal restrictions simply means that there are better ways to treat those wounds than getting the government involved.
Problematic (but fully legally permissible) speech exists on a continuum. Hate speech is the one we hear about the most. It’s defined by Merriam Webster as “speech that attacks someone based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, etc.” The term is fairly vague, especially since ‘hatred’ itself can be hard to define. And when we talk about the ‘hate’ in hate speech, are we referring to the hatred of the speaker, or the speaker’s desire to convince someone else to hate, or is the speaker wanting to make the targeted individual/group feel hated?
To help zero in on a particularly harmful subset of hate speech, scholars and activists have come up with the term “dangerous speech,” which they define as “any form of expression (speech, text, or images) that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of another group.”
It’s not that hate speech and dangerous speech never overlap, because they do–but dangerous speech does the specific job of incentivizing violence. Take, for example, Trump’s 2018 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in which he refers to immigrants as “snakes” who are poisonous and can only be dealt with with force. Certainly this checks all the boxes for hate speech, but the act of classifying humans as creatures who are endangering lives and stressing that the way to protect ourselves from them is through violence is on another level. In dangerous speech, the connection is a lot tighter between violence against immigrants and Trump’s rhetoric.
[pullquote align=left]Dangerous speech dehumanizes a group of people in a way aimed at legitimizing physical abuse of members of that group[/pullquote]–the message communicates to the listener that the targeted individuals are somehow not fully human and thus attacks that may otherwise be problematic are not in this scenario.
Dangerous speech also legitimizes attacks by underscoring perceived threats that a group poses to other groups with which the reader/listener is aligned. For example, a favorite tactic by dangerous speakers is to depict the targeted group as sexually aggressive towards women and girls. The speaker insists that, in order to protect vulnerable women and girls, the targeted group must be physically threatened. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy kidnapped, was mutilated and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman accused him of flirting with her. It doesn’t take much to make the connection between Till’s murder and the Klu Klux Klan’s violent rhetoric regarding black folks as sexual predators and insects, preached to white men and women.
Of course, women and girls are often themselves the target of dangerous speakers. Alex Minassian, the chief suspect in a 2018 Toronto van attack that killed primarily women, cited as his motivation the misogynistic videos and writings of murderer Elliot Rodger. in which Rodger said there must be retribution against women.
While dangerous speech is seen as distinct from hate speech, the way to deal with it is not to censor it (especially since censorship just makes the problem worse by helping these sorts of speakers thrive) but to develop social awareness and resistance to it. We can’t get rid of the speech, so we have to develop resistance to it.
In this regard, the Dangerous Speech Project offered a few examples of speech “inoculation”:
Radio La Benevolencija, an Amsterdam-based organization, was established in order to produce media projects to empower those who are/have been the target of hate. Radio La Benevolencija was invited to Rwanda in 2002 by the Rwandan government to help control violence they feared could resurface as a result of the Gacaca court, a traditional system of communal justice being utilized in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Worried that the country could once again institute a genocide, Radio La Benevolencija developed a fictional radio drama, called Musekeweya. The soap, which is still popular today, is about two villages coping with land disputes and negotiating how to deal with one another by resisting violent incitement, being an active bystander, and engaging in meaningful connection and conversation.
The Dangerous Speech Project worked with the popular Kenyan TV comedy series Vioja Mahakamani to develop special episodes prior to Kenya’s 2013 presidential election – the first held since mass violence broke out between ethnic groups during their 2007 election, the result of the the pervasive (and false) belief that election results had been modified in favor of (now former) President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Four episodes of Vioja Mahakamani were created, addressing hate speech, dangerous speech, personal responsibility, and racially inflammatory publications. And in 2012, the Dangerous Speech Project inspired Umati, a project monitoring the Kenyan online community for hate speech, and assessing its potential to incur violence. Umati then compiled a team of influential Kenyan bloggers to push back against rumors similar to those that led to violence in 2007.
In addition to inoculation, another way to resist dangerous speech is counterspeech. Counterspeech involves ‘good speech’ that undermines the effect and credibility of ‘bad speech’. Government officials do this frequently (though, unfortunately, some are better at this than others), pushing back against dehumanizing speech about refugees and religious minorities by denouncing the hatred and calling for unity. And all of us, in our everyday battles with dangerous speakers, need to pushback with positive counterspeech, too.
Chanel Dubofsky’s writing has been published in Cosmopolitan, Previously.TV, Rewire, The Billfold, Ravishly, Extra Crispy, and more. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter at@chaneldubofsky.
Two stories. Both of them in the Babylonian Talmud. The first is about R. Shimon ben Yohai, and the second about R. Aqiva. Both stories go against the grain of what popular opinion is about these two.
R. Shimon ben Yohai is most widely known for spending twelve years in a cave, with his son R. Eliezer and a magical carob tree and an equally magical spring of water, studying Torah. When they finally leave the cave, they end up killing people with their glances. They are so divorced from the world, so totally attached to Torah, and the worship of the Divine, that they cannot understand how people can harvest, and sow, and involve themselves in all the quotidian activities that are the work of the world. God, realizing that they are about to destroy all of creation because of their excessive holiness, sends them back to the cave, to cool down, as it were.
This is the story that is found in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, and Breishit Rabba, the Palestinian midrash collection on Genesis. Both of these works were composed in the 5th-6th century, and therefore earlier than the Babylonian Talmud. In the Babylonian Talmud. There is a story before the story. A story that answers the age old question: why did a father and his son end up in a cave for twelve years?
So this is the story:
R. Yehduah, R. Yosi, and R. Shimon were sitting and R. Yehudah ben Gerim was sitting amongst them. The three great Sages were sitting together speaking of important things.
R. Yehudah began by saying: “How wonderful are the deeds of this nation? They have set up marketplaces, they built bridges, and they established bathhouses.” Hearing this, R. Yosi was silent. He didn’t say anything.
R. Shimon b. Yohai, on the other hand, responded in anger: “Everything that they built, they only built for their own benefit. They set up markets to put prostitutes in them. Bathhouses to spoil themselves. Bridges in order to collect taxes from those who used them.”
When they were done, everybody went on their way and it seems that Yehudah ben Gerim told others of the conversation. Eventually, word of the conversation reached the ears of the government, and those ears were none too happy.
The representatives of the government declared that R. Yehudah who praised the accomplishments of Rome, should be elevated. R. Yosi who did not object to R. Shimon’s words should be exiled to the Galilee. R. Shimon himself, who demeaned Rome, would be executed.
R. Shimon and his son Elazar fled and hid in the bet midrash/the study hall. As the Roman decrees became more severe, hiding in the bet midrash became less and less tenable. R. Shimon was worried that the Romans would torture his wife (who was bring food to him and his son Elazar every day) in order to find out where he was hiding and then they would discover him.
At that point they left and hid in the cave with the magic carob tree and the spring.
This is a story of resistance. R. Shimon, who spent every waking hour studying Torah, would not let R. Yehudah get away with accepting the Roman accomplishments at face value. He demanded that the same critical gaze be applied to the marketplaces, the bridges, the bathhouses, to show that the Romans were engaged in both a cultural war, and an oppressive colonialism. That this understanding was subversive and dangerous to the Romans, is obvious in their reaction. If these were just the angry mutterings of an old man, they would not demand his execution.
R. Aharon Shmuel Tameres, an early 20th century rabbi, said that they worst part of the enslavement in Egypt was the intellectual enslavement. The Egyptians convinced the Jews that is was right for them, the Egyptians, to rule, and for the Jews to be enslaved. Tameres says that the beginning of redemption was understanding that this intellectual edifice which allowed for the imperial rule, and for the enslavement of human beings was built on an edifice of sand. At the first intellectual poke, it all came down.
This was the reason that the Romans wanted to silence R. Shimon bar Yohai—he was casting doubt upon the rightness of Roman rule. The accomplishments of Roman architecture, and the genius of Roman city planning, that which came from and proved the divine right of Roman rule—was nothing more than an exercise in vanity and theft. It was not something to admire.
It is not surprising that R. Shimon and his son went and hid in the bet midrash, among and with Torah. The study of Torah, the hafoch bah vahafoch bah, the turning over and over of the wisdom of the Bible and the Sages, is the way by which the fortress of resistance is built. Wrapping oneself in Torah, inures one to the bombastic claims of empire. At least that’s what Shimon and his son thought.
Lets leave R. Shimon for now.
Aqiva is popularly known for his support of bar Kokhbah, the general who led an armed insurrection against Rome, and for being martryed. Hidden amongst these stories, is a quieter story, a story that recalls and recreates a different Aqiva. That story is also found in the Babylonian Talmud.
Once the wicked Government, the Talmud tells us, issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study Torah. Pappus son of Judah came and found Rabbi Aqiva bringing gatherings together in the forum and teaching Torah.
This is an act of nonviolent resistance. Instead of hiding in a basement and studying Torah, Rabbi Aqiva organized public Torah study. The way the verbs go by in the Talmud narrative style, one might overlook the work, the persuasion, the hutzpah it took to bring crowds of people to the forum, the place of Roman power.
Pappus son of Judah came and found Rabbi Aqiva bringing gatherings together in the forum and teaching Torah. He said to him: “Aqiva, are you not afraid of the Government?”
This is the logical question.
Aqiva answers by way of a somewhat complicated parable, the upshot of which is that if Aqiva and the Jews stop teaching Torah then they are doing the Romans’ work for them. The Roman occupation is a cultural war and Aqiva refused to let the Romans win by default. If the Romans were going to stop the Jews from studying Torah, they would have to do it physically. Intimidation and threats were not going to work.
So Aqiva stood in the forum and taught Torah. And the Romans had to arrest him in order to stop him.
These two stories of resistance speak to me very strongly in this moment.
There is a mishnah in Pirkei Avot, which many of you might know.
אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני, ואם לא עכשיו אימתי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself what am I; and if not now, then when.
The first and second parts or phrases of the teaching move in opposite directions. The first phrase moves inward. If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not grounded in my culture, my texts, my people then מי לי, who will be for me? that is who is my community, who are my people? The first move is the move in which I define myself inside the four cubits of the bet midrash, the literal and the figurative bet midrash. This was R. Shimon bar Yohai, and it was from this that he drew the strength to resist the empire.
The second move is outward: If I am only for myself, that is, if my entire mission is to develop my own soul, to further my own study and practice, to know myself better and deeper—if that is it, then what am I? If I move toward a place of solipsistic comfort, מה אני, what am I? Unless I move back outwards beyond myself and my community and the four cubits of the bet midrash I cannot really define myself. This was what R. Aqiva knew and why he did not retreat into some basement to study Torah, but went into the forum to confront Rome.
Finally we are, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King “now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” אם לא עכשיו אימתי, if not now when. We are living in a moment when it seems that the institutions of civil society, the foundations of morality, and practices of democracy are all being corrupted and swept away. This is not a test.
In this moment, this עכשיו, this now, we have to look past the intellectual slavery of white supremacy, and call out the evils of this, our empire. We have to turn back the culture of racism, and sexism, and Islamophobia, and antisemitism, and sally forth into the forum with the Torah in which the Adam was created singular so that no person could claim superiority; in which everyone was created in the Divine image.
But we have to also stay grounded in the bet midrash, and not only grounded, but go deep in to the bet midrash. We must own the texts of our tradition and brandish them as the grounds of justice on which we stand. We must do this in the face of those who will doubt our claim to this tradition—who speciously state that Torah has nothing to say about justice; or even worse, say that Torah supports those who are unjust, here and in Israel/Palestine. We must do this also in the face of others who dismiss the utility of this tradition, who question why we waste time wrestling with these texts.
Because if we are to truly turn back evil, if we are to resist the triumphalist trumpets of Trumpism, we must be standing on solid ground. The solid ground that we have cultivated in the study halls, in the synagogues on shabbatot, around tables at the seder; that ground from which we loudly and unapologetically remind ourselves and all who will listen that God introduced Godself on the world stage by recounting the divine destruction of an oppressive slave state. “I am God, your God, who took you out of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” I am God, who despises cruelty and oppression.
This is followed by the prohibition against idolatry.
Make no mistake that systemic oppression is idolatry. It is a system which denies that all people were created in the divine image.
And so we are here tonight and tomorrow, recusing ourselves from the world for these 25 hours, retreating into ourselves, so that individually and communally we might reflect on the sins of omission and commission that brought us to this place. We are here standing in our vulnerability before God and each other and we aim to rededicate ourselves to the proposition that only God is God, that fallible humans are not gods, that all are created in the image of God, and that we must struggle every day to live up to that standard.
ואם לא עכשיו אימתי?
If not now, when?
This drashah was originally delivered at the Shtibl minyan after Kol Nidrei.
The first time I looked at a page of Talmud, my initial thought was, “what have I gotten myself into?”
This was the first day of my second semester of rabbinical school, not much more than a year after I learned the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, about two and a half years since I announced to my baffled parents that I intended to become a rabbi, three years after I realized that it was possible to go deeper into my Jewishness without changing anything about who I was. I was getting familiar with the feeling of “What have I gotten myself into?”
To my great good fortune, I had a teacher, who led us word by word and line by line, with unfailing patience and unmistakable love for her subject. I didn’t understand that love right away. For the first few weeks, I only saw the challenge of Talmud study, which was exciting in its own abstract way. Talmud was a puzzle, a code to which I had only fragments of the key. I believed it was amazing because people I trusted assured me it was, but I didn’t know what it had to do with me.
Then, one day, I did. It was a morning in the beit midrash—the place of study and investigation, where students at my school prepared for class—like any other. I sat across from my chevruta, my study partner, parsing the text word by word and line by line. I noticed that the task was shifting from impossibly hard to manageably hard, that I could hold enough of it in my mind at once that I was suddenly able to see what it was we were learning. I saw the way the text would shift between one genre and the next, one moment poetry, then narrative, then intricate legal debate. I saw the way conversations happened across generations of sages, creating a time-traveling fellowship of opinionated nerds. I saw the way a sugya—a chunk of Talmud text—would more often refuse easy resolution than yield a simple yes or no answer.
This text—this difficult, poetic, polyvocal text—was so undeniably queer that at first I hardly believed what I was seeing. When I say queer, I do mean queer like those whose gender and sexuality aren’t straight, aren’t binary, aren’t quite what most people expected or imagined. But that’s not all I mean. I mean the queerness that belongs to all of us on the margins. All of us who live out our truth in a world that didn’t see us coming.
I don’t mean that the Talmud is necessarily queer or feminist in content—though that does happen sometimes as well! This ancient sacred text was assembled by human hands, limited by their particular historical context and biases. But it is queer nonetheless, in the way it is weird and challenging and brave and relentlessly itself, even in the face of opposition and oppression.
Later, I would encounter the brilliant Talmud teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, who teaches that the Talmud is a work of queer resilience, an apocalypse-survival handbook. Through her teachings and the teachings of so many who study with her, my vocabulary for these facts would get much more refined.
But on the day I first truly met the Talmud, I felt what I would only later have words for. Queerness was not something Judaism tolerated or or shifted in order to accomodate. Queer people owning and creating Jewish tradition was not something that had happened in the past few years or decades. Marginal people owning and creating Jewish tradition was not new or tenuous or anything that could be stopped. What I had previously perceived as a recent innovation actually went all the way down to Judaism’s roots.
Sitting there, in the beit midrash, I felt like I was breathing air with a higher concentration of oxygen than before. Something that was true inside me was also true on the page and seeing that reflection amplified my own truth, made it more real and easier to claim.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had that feeling. In the age-old tradition of nerdy teens, I spent much of my middle school years hiding in the stacks of libraries, hands reaching for the spines of books. Hands reaching for the spines of my most reliable friends. I know grown ups around me worried sometimes. Was I missing out socially? Was I lonely?
The answer was yes, of course I was lonely—but all that reading was my way out of loneliness. I was reading with a hungry kind of hope that anyone on the margins is likely to recognize. I was seeking queerness in those pages, even a hint of it, a drop, collecting the fragments of a code that might add up to mean that I was not alone. That the truth inside me, the truth I didn’t yet have words for, was real.
It is a deep and particular kind of work to dream the truth of ourselves into being, especially for those of us whose truth is not always affirmed by the wider world. This is the work my twelve-year-old self was doing in the library stacks and my twenty-five-year old self was doing as I studied my first daf, my first page of Talmud.
And that daf told me that Rabbi Elazar said, from the day that the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were sealed, as it says—in the book of Lamentations—even when I cry out for help, the Holy One shuts out my prayer. Which is to say that Rabbi Elazar imagines a time in our history when we had a direct channel to the Source, and in the cataclysmic moment in the year seventy, when the Temple—the geographic center of Jewish practice at the time—was destroyed, that channel was closed. Even though Rabbi Elazar lived in the time of diasporic Judaism’s formation, his statement tells me he felt alone, cut off from a connection he imagines being available to previous generations.
But he continues: in spite of the fact that the gates of prayer were closed, the gates of tears are never closed, as it says—in Psalm 39—Hear my prayer, Holy One, and lend your ear; You will not be silent at my tears.” Even in a world where connection can be challenging, there is a direct line to the Source that cannot be cut off. Crying out invites accompaniment, companionship, solidarity.
The tears of this gate carry a truth that only later gets put into words. It is the truth of our innermost hopes and fears, of our very being. It is the truth of the dignity within everyone, in our particularity and unity— perhaps especially the truth of those whose humanity and dignity is too often denied in the public discourse. These are tears that cut through static. These tears are the cry of the shofar, opening the gates of the year. This cry cannot be denied. This gate cannot be sealed. When we cry out, when the gate of tears receive those cries, we are no longer alone. What this piece of Talmud teaches is exactly what I was experiencing in the beit midrash and in the library: finding myself right there on the page opened up space inside me. And when I was no longer the sole custodian of my truth, I had so much more capacity to attend to the truth in others.
This is why representation—in leadership, in literature—matters. This is why it is so critically important that we take care with the stories we tell our children, with the stories we tell each other, with the stories we tell ourselves. We owe it to our community to strive to see the truth of each other’s beings, to reflect that truth back, to amplify and affirm its realness. To help each other be less alone.
We live in a time not so different from the one depicted in the Talmud. The structures of society, the way things have been for a long time, are shifting and cracking. It’s hard to tell right now what is falling apart and what has the potential to transform into something new and unimaginably beautiful.
It might be easy to think that we’re outside of the fight, right now, in this hall. Yesterday, today, and in the coming days, indigenous leaders and other local activists are assembling in San Francisco to call for climate justice, to urge the officials meeting this week to use their power to bring about the change we so desperately need. Many in this room were part of yesterday’s massive, fabulous assembly.
Maybe you don’t feel any tension between showing up there and being here in prayer and contemplation, but maybe you do. Maybe it’s hard, at times, to see the connection between this space and the spaces of more concrete action. But what the gate of tears teaches me—what I hope it can teach us—is that turning inward, attending to our internal truths and witnessing those truths together, is every bit as much of the work of healing and change as our outward actions. When we gather to affirm what we hold true and dear, what is real in our world and in ourselves, it opens up so much space.
This is where we come together and cry out, letting the shofar blast open the gates, where we get strong and clear and grounded in our truth so that in the year to come we can do the necessary work in the streets and in our homes, in our online communities and in our local communities, in our paid and unpaid organizing, in our survival and in our growth. We can do the work that brings us towards the world we want to live in, word by word, line by line, one outstretched hand at a time.
As we gather tonight at the gates of the new year, may we be blessed to cry out our own truths and hear the cries of others. May we bear witness to what is real in each other. May we all feel a little less alone. I cannot wait to see what our witnessing and connection make possible. Shanah tovah.
This Rosh Hashanah Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Gray Myrseth. They serve as the Youth Education Director at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland.
Draw close those cast out
Rabbi Adina Allen
Rosh Hashanah 5779
In the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah Aliyah Sarah demands, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share inheritance with my son.” Hagar and her young son are cast out to the wilderness with no more than a small bit of water and bread. Forsaken in the barren desert, she and her child nearly die under the blazing desert sun.
Seen as a threat to those in power, no longer of use, without resources for recourse or self-protection, they are left to languish as refugees in no-man’s land.
This story rings all too familiar. Our hearts break this year for the ways in which we have cast out those – because of skin color, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality – we see as different. Erecting barriers rather than build bridges, we have left those like Hagar and Ishmael – most vulnerable and possessing the least power – to struggle for survival in our own country’s barren deserts: in our prisons, on our borders, within our city’s homeless encampments.
Hagar, having run out of water, realizing she and her son will likely not survive, cries tears of despair and cries out in anguish (Gen 21:16). This year may we allow ourselves to hear the cries of Hagar and Ishmael all around us.
We know that the task is big, the suffering is great, and the time is short, yet we also know that big change starts with small actions and each of us has a role to play: volunteering, marching, accompanying, advocating, supporting, donating; opening our homes, opening our hearts. As we are moved to action, may we find strength where we didn’t know we had it; time where we thought there was none; resources where we thought there was little; community where we thought we were alone; and hope where we once felt despair.
This year, may we draw close those who have been cast out so that Hagar’s cries will not have been in vain.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Rabbi Adina Allen. She is the co-founder and Creative Director of the Jewish Studio Project, where she works to activate the inherent creativity within individuals and communities to make life more meaningful, Judaism more vibrant and the world more just. She lives in Berkeley, CA.
The Binding of Isaac, or the Akeda, is a complicated story, one that raises a lot of questions about what it means to be a person of faith, about God’s goodness, and whether Abraham did the right thing. And one thing I have learned about studying some of the most difficult parts of the Torah is that the more difficult the story, the more deeply it asks us to look at ourselves and our own spiritual lives in relation to it. This story is no exception.
To begin to mine this story for its spiritual riches, let’s all get on the same page about what happened at a basic level. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham seems to acquiesce. Abraham and Isaac journey together to Mount Moriah, and just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel of God calls out to him to stop what he’s doing, and he sacrifices a nearby ram instead.
Now, you might think that the turning point of the story was the moment that Abraham hears “stop”. But there’s another, more subtle turning point in the story that is worth us paying attention to. After the angel of God tells Abraham to put down the knife, we read the following:
וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ אַבְרָהָם֙ וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־הָאַ֔יִל וַיַּעֲלֵ֥הוּ לְעֹלָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ׃ And Abraham raised his eyes and then saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son (22:13)
וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙, and Abraham raised his eyes and he saw. This phrase should strike us as strange. Why does it say both “raise his eyes”, and “see”, rather than just simply say “Abraham saw”? The Torah is often terse, so when it repeats a word or idea, it is really trying to emphasize it. You could say that repetition is the spiritual equivalent of bolding, underlining, and italicizing a word all at the same time. So what is the Torah trying to reveal to us about Abraham’s experience by focusing on the act of seeing?
Our Rabbinic tradition can help us understand this emphasis on Abraham’s seeing. The phrase וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ comes up several times in the Book of Genesis (13:10, 18:2, 22:4, 22:13) and the Rabbis help us understand this phrase in particularly interesting ways when it comes up in Genesis 18:2, when Abraham provides hospitality to three angels of God. Genesis 18 opens with the words “And the Lord appeared to [to Abraham], וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה”, and then in the next verse, three people suddenly appear before him, וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים . In trying to figure out exactly what Abraham was seeing at the opening of his tent- God or people- the Rabbis find answers in our phrase, as well as the two other terms for seeing that occur in verses 1 and 2. For example, Rabbeinu Bahya says that the repetition of the words for seeing in these verses tells us that upon first glance, Abraham mistook the three beings for people, but he later came to see that they were angels of God. Haemek Davar and the Malbim both say that this repetition tells us that at first, Avraham saw the three beings as angels of God, but later, could look at them and see God directly. And Rashi says that this repetition means that initially, Abraham simply noticed the three beings, he perceived their presence. But upon looking at them more closely, Abraham began to make what he was seeing meaningful: when he looked at them again, he realized that because they were standing outside his tent and waiting rather than trying to come in, they had no desire to harm him, and that he should go out of his tent and greet them.
In different ways, these Rabbis teach us that there are different levels of seeing. Abraham demonstrates that there is a difference between the physical, sensory experience of seeing, and the deeper, spiritual experience of looking. Whereas seeing might help us get some basic information about our surroundings, looking is a much more meaningful act. Looking is profoundly interpretive, it is about making meaning of what we perceive, it is about crafting a story about what’s happening around us.
And this is precisely what Abraham experienced right after the angel of God told him to not sacrifice Isaac. He raised his eyes to see, but he had to look to be able to see the ram. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says that the ram that Abraham sacrificed had probably been there the whole time, but he couldn’t see it because he was trapped inside his psyche and had abandoned hope that his son could be saved (Passing Life’s Tests, 29). Raising his eyes simply was not enough: he had to look more deeply within his surroundings to notice the ram.
The Mussar tradition, which is a Jewish spiritual practice dedicated to the cultivation of positive character traits, also has us think about different levels of seeing in spiritual terms. In the Mussar classic Duties of the Heart, we are instructed to contemplate God’s wisdom and one-ness by contemplating the universe at ever-deepening levels. We begin with contemplating each individual element of which the Universe is composed. Then we contemplate how these individual elements come together to create the whole. And then we contemplate the whole, now understanding that each of the elements of the Universe come together in an orderly and useful way according to a larger Divine wisdom. The author of this text, Bahya Ibn Paquda, compares this to a house: each part ultimately comes together to create an impressive, unified whole, showing the talent and wisdom of the one who built it. Ibn Paquda is saying that if we are to truly understand the universe, we can’t simply look at each part. We have to look at the deeper reality contained within the culmination of these parts if we are to truly understand the spiritual reality we live in. We may just see flowers or trees or rivers, but we need to look harder so we can see the unity and wisdom underlying our whole world.
Pushing ourselves to see a reality beyond what’s immediately discernible is both not obviously valuable and extremely difficult, which is precisely why our tradition asks us to do it. For me, this is particularly difficult in this political moment. Each morning I read the news and the story it tells is of things going from bad to worse. Our world descending deeper and deeper into climate change. Immigrants and asylum-seekers receiving worse and worse treatment, being seen with less and less compassion for the plight from which they flee. The legitimacy of Democratic institutions like the press, a crucial mechanism for transparency and accountability, eroding. And the list goes on. This narrative makes it is so easy for me to see the inevitable collapse of democracy, of reaching a point where the values of human dignity, compassion, and fairness are so undermined that they make absolutely no claims on us and those who run this country. This worst case scenario is very easy for me to see.
Yet as we have seen, our tradition asks us to look at reality much more deeply than this. It asks us to look beyond our first perceptions, and to look for a fundamentally more multi-dimensional story about our reality than our fears and the news cycle would have us tell. And it does this precisely so that we do not see destruction and suffering as the only possible future. In the Talmud, in Pesachim 116a, parents are instructed to tell their children about the Exodus story, and to tell the story about being a progression from degradation to liberation and freedom. In another part of the Talmud, in Berakhot 31a, the early Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel are lauded for having ended all of their exhortations of the Israelites with words of praise and consolation. There is a legend that when someone would tell Rebbe Nachman, one of the greatest Chassidic masters, a sad or distressing story, he would re-tell it to them as a more hopeful story, full of possibilities. Our tradition is asking us to sit with our stories of suffering and transgression, but not to let that be the end of the story. It asks us to tell the story of destruction and despair, but to lift up the possibility of redemption and salvation nonetheless.
This is the way the writer and social commentator Rebecca Solnit talks about what it means for us to have hope in our times: “Hope does not mean denying [the hard realities] around us. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heros, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now…[Hope] is an account of complexities, and uncertainties, with openings” (pg xii).
The key to holding our experiences of suffering with a sense of possibility involves both a deeper looking at the present, and complex recollection of the past. Solnit explains this way of looking at the present by comparing it to how mushrooms grow. After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth seemingly suddenly. Yet, we know that many sprout from a vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. This natural dynamic is like the long-term organizing and movement building happening right now, as well as the intellectual and cultural work of writers, scholars, scientists and activists that are starting to give rise to a better future. This includes the vast sanctuary network which provides support for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers and resists our worst immigration policies, and which is poised to use this deep cooperative network of solidarity for bigger things as our times may call for. This also includes the #MeToo movement, which relentlessly exposes instance after instance of sexual assault, demanding that we have a national conversation about sexism. And this also includes the incredible work of the scientific community, which has been at the forefront of tackling climate change, doing everything from developing renewable energy technology to working hard on climate change adaptation.
These are our present strengths, the networks growing beneath us and surfacing after the hard rain. They are part of the hopeful, insistent story we can tell about ourselves. And a nuanced recollection of the past adds to this sense of possibility. It would be possible to tell a story of the past that was nothing but defeats and injustices, but instead we can tell a story that includes the worst and the best, the grief and suffering but also the liberation and jubilation and the possibility of change. The past 50 years was a time when being queer was illegal and gay bars were raided, when rivers across the country would catch fire because corporate pollution was unregulated, when nonconsensual sex in a marriage wasn’t considered rape. But it was also a time when people organized to end apartheid, passed the Civil Rights Act, established Medicare and Medicaid, got healthcare and medicine for those suffering from AIDS, established environmental regulation on industry, and so much more. A hopeful story includes all of this.
And the more we tell of a past that was different from the present, the more we can understand that the future does not have to be like the present. Before the economic policies of the Reagan Administration, homelessness was barely a problem in the United States. Before 1986, people did not face mandatory minimum sentences for possession of a certain amount of drugs, which is one of the factors that has led to the mass incarceration of people of color in this country. We have to understand that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, did not exist 15 years ago. ICE was born from the political response to 9/11, when Congress voted to establish the Department of Homeland Security. Whereas anything to do with immigration before this was under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, now all immigration matters, including ICE, came under the jurisdiction of this new national security agency, sending the message that immigration of any kind, with or without documents, was a national threat. And with the creation of ICE came a new, aggressive policy of removal of undocumented immigrants, not only of those who have committed crimes but the removal of parents, sick kids, domestic violence victims, and younger immigrants with temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Things did not have to go this way, and therefore they do not have to stay this way in the future.
The more we cultivate the capacity to see this multidimensional reality, one of problems and suffering but with openings and possibility, the more we can cultivate hope and the capacity to keep working for the kind of world we want to live in. And the less we are either entirely pessimistic or even entirely optimistic, believing that things are doomed or things are bound to be fine, the more we can understand that our efforts to achieve a better future really matter, even if we aren’t exactly sure how the future will turn out. It is this uncertainty that can allow us to be hopeful, that can give us the motivation to keep taking action, for as long as it takes. In Solnit’s words again: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes- you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others…[Hope] is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone” (pg xiv).
We read a Talmudic story in Makkot 24b about four sages, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva who were travelling together to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. They came to Jerusalem, and beheld its desolation. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, and Rabbi Yehoshua tore their clothes and wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. “Why are you laughing?”, the sages asked Rabbi Akiva, “How could you laugh at such destruction?”. Rabbi Akiva said: “I am laughing because just I saw before my eyes the fulfillment of the terrible words of the prophet Uriah, ‘Zion is plowed over like a desolate field’, so too will I see the fulfillment of the comforting words of the prophet Zechariah, ‘Once again the aged will rest in the broad avenues of Jerusalem.’ If our worst fears can come true, so too can our greatest hopes.”
When Abraham raised his eyes, he didn’t happen to see the ram in the bushes to replace his son as a sacrifice, he was looking for it. And as he looked at the ram, he came to understand a deeper truth about reality than he had ever perceived: that we live in a world that is violent and destructive, but with the possibility of redemption, if we look for it. That in life we are constantly on the brink of destruction and salvation at the same time, and in that uncertainty, we can live a life dedicated to moving us closer and closer to salvation. And, that when we learn to truly look, a whole new well of hope and opportunity opens up to us.
This episode comes to a close with Abraham naming the mountain where he sacrificed the ram “Adonai Yireh”, “God will see”, because on this mountain, the verse says, there will be a vision of the Divine. May we be blessed with the wisdom and vision of Abraham to look deeply within our complex and uncertain reality, enabling us to dedicate our lives to the future we want to see.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Mimi Micner. She is a fifth year Rabbinical Student at Hebrew College, as well as an activist, organizer, and teacher of Torah.
Slowing down for a contemplative break during the month of Elul always sounds like a good idea. It conjures hours spent journaling about the passing year and preparing for the rigors of the high holidays.
Usually the possibility of a lull at Elul feels as far off in this month of back-to-school everything as a slow, July week at the beach. Late August is still technically summer, but it’s manic, grab-it-if-you-can summer, summer on the way out. As a result, my Elul work gets scrawled into notebooks along with ever-lengthening lists of things the kids need for school, ideas for new syllabi, and emails that have to be answered, or else.
But this year was different. My older daughter came home for a week at the start of Elul, between her summer job as a camp counselor and her departure for college. Predicting a deluge of retail accompanied by scattered emotional intensity, I cleared my schedule as much as possible.
My friend Melissa texted me: “you’re in ritual time now.” One of the least religious people I know, she called it. Just like the weeks after childbirth transform familiar routines, preparation for my daughter’s departure took us out of the everyday. The week was backlit by anticipation as well as sorrow, by our awareness of the passage we navigated.
Once Celeste was home, I found myself cancelling my remaining commitments. Instead, I sat on her bed while she sorted laundry. We spent hours cruising the aisles of Target, like explorers lost down an unfamiliar river. With her father and sister, the four of us ate family meals. Altogether, I spent more time with my daughter than I had since she started high school.
The one afternoon I found myself hunched over my laptop, sucked into a work crisis, Celeste looked at me. “What are you doing?” she asked, concern in her voice. She’s seen me in this multitasking mode since before she could talk. I took her inquiry to mean: why are you doing this now? And I didn’t have a good answer, so I folded the laptop shut.
When you are visibly pregnant with no toddler in tow, other parents nod at you knowingly. “Get some sleep while you can,” they intone. But no one tells you how babies can slow time down, the way that the repetitive actions of sleep-deprived caregiving can feel syrupy and slow, a lot like falling in love. This daughter’s arrival midwifed me into motherhood; her upcoming departure felt similarly charged.
Time is usually a river, flowing one way. But ritual time is a pause: a lull. Just before the waterfall of change, past, present and future converge, swirling together into a deep basin.
We all spent the week on the banks of that basin, sorting the other things washed up there. Amidst the piles of linens, books, and clothes, I glimpsed my almost-nineteen-year-old daughter, at four, at eleven, at twenty-seven.
That basin, that lull precede a reckoning. Ritual time ends and the river of time crashes ahead, plunging over that waterfall.
The four of us got into the car and drove across the state to her campus. With her roommate’s family, we crammed into the small dorm room, working together to put it into order.
After we wrenched the heavy bed frames into place, there was a pause. My husband nodded to me. We hugged our daughter and left her there, at the headwaters of her new life.
The three of us drove home the next day in a quiet car. Overnight, rising rivers had flooded the interstate, rerouting us miles out of the way. The trip took much longer coming home.
We’re still in the throes of ritual time: Celeste, as she awaits the start of classes on her new campus, and the three of us back home, as we both dread and welcome the start of a new year.
“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle.”
Many Jews around the world working toward the Yomim Nora’im (the Days of Awe) have some version of this sentiment — “why do I suffer,” “why do we suffer” — ringing in our ears and hearts these days. During this month of Elul and then into the holidays themselves, we go deep into our lives, our community, and our world to try to understand where we have made mistakes, where we need forgiveness, and where we can commit to a different path in the coming year.
Rather than create a whole playlist to take you through the period, as I have done here twicebefore, this post will take you through the song, FEAR., that gave us these lyrics and show how this single song can be a guidepost throughout your journey at various points during this season. It is a song by one of our great teachers of the moment — Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar — and the song’s arc contains many elements of our tradition, including prayers, Torah readings, and themes, for this season. Kendrick himself has said that the song’s verses are “completely honest” and some of his best; if you pay close enough attention, you see them taking Kendrick through his own deeply personal version of the Chagim.
Preparation/Elul: The recording opens with a voicemail from Kendrick’s cousin Carl Duckworth, who’s a leading member of a Black Israelite group and influential on Kendrick. Carl refers to Deuteronomy 28:28, which, for Jews, comes from Torah portion, Ki Tavo, read just a few weeks before the Chagim begin (and the week that this post is being published), part of a series of discourses from Moses that conclude the Torah. In this particular chapter, we learn of the many curses that flow from violations of the laws set forth in the Torah, in painful detail, following a chapter focused on the blessings.
We are constantly torn between blessings and curses during the Yomim Noraim, and the verse that Carl quotes focuses on the affliction of blindness and madness but then Carl tells Kendrick “until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way.” These are particularly harsh curses, to be sure, but this discourse sets the tone for us during the preparatory weeks leading up to the holidays by reminding us of the stakes, both in our hearts and in the world. And many of us will spend these weeks trying to “get the memo.”
Selichot: The first rapping on the track begins with a deep baritone, working both under and over the track, with these lines: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/Why God, why God do I gotta bleed?Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet/Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?/Earth is no more, why don’t you burn this m*********?” This is the refrain that will carry Kendrick through, ringing in our ears before the song really begins.
On the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, we enter the season more directly with the Selichot service. The service centers on recitation of the 13 Attributes of God, as well as our own failings and requests for mercy from God. Kendrick’s song opens with requests for answers, for a recognition of suffering, and with an acknowledgment of God’s power and strength. True, Kendrick’s words reflect a more directly personal relationship with God than we often consider in Judaism, but if there’s ever a point in our tradition when the connection feels personal, it’s during this service that opens this period.
Rosh Hashanah (especially Torah readings and Day 1 Haftorah): The bulk of FEAR. focuses on scenes from Kendrick’s life at ages 7, 17, and 27. At age 7, we hear his mother threatening that she will “beat [yo] ass” for one transgression or another, and working through — and displacing on to her son — all of the pain she is dealing with as a poor woman trying to raise her kids. The verse closes with his mom saying “N****, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else.”
The relationship between parent and child is front and center during Rosh Hashanah, especially as we read the saga of Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac from the Torah on Day 1, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac from the Torah on Day 2, and the desperation of Hannah to have a child, which eventually happens through Samuel, during the Haftorah on Day 1. Each of these stories shows us an aspect of parenting, and how the choices we make as parents can impact our children, positively or negatively, over the course of their lives. We learn throughout these stories of the power of faith, and how faith and hope can lead us to where we may need to be. But we also learn more about fear and trauma, and the marks they leave on everyone involved, just as they have caused indelible pain for Kendrick to this day. And hopefully these stories lead us to change our actions in the coming year.
Yom Kippur (especially U’Netaneh Tokef): In the second main verse, Kendrick is 17, and he is focused on how likely it is that, as a young black man growing up poor in America, he is will die. He spends most of the verse recounting all the ways he may die, with painfully honest lyrics like: “I’ll prolly die anonymous/I’ll prolly die with promises….I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments/I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’.” But his concluding line — I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17/All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things” — is the most brutal of all, as it shows a man desperately hoping to survive and gain control but who realizes how little control he really has in our society.
The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer recited on Yom Kippur is eerily similar, as are many other moments throughout the season. In the prayer, we consider the many ways a person may die or suffer during the course of the year, depending on what God chooses for us. It is cold and direct and unforgiving. But unlike Kendrick — who feels he has no control — we are given some agency in the prayer, when the text says that Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah can ease the severity of the decree. Whether this is a difference in the essence of the Jewish faith, or, at least in our current day, an indirect reflection of privilege, we must recognize that we do have agency, we have an element of control in our world that many lack, and we must use it for good where we can.
Neilah: In the final verse of the core of the song, Kendrick is 27, and he is taking stock. And he is afraid. He sings, “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ creativity/I’m talkin’ fear, fear of missin’ out on you and me/I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God.” And he feels God damning him, and himself damning God and the world: “Damn/Goddamn you/Goddamn me/Goddamn us/Goddamn we/Goddamn us all.” It is a stark conclusion, especially for someone as gifted and successful as Kendrick Lamar, but in our society and our world, it is the conclusion that many people come to.
In Neilah, the final service of the Yomim Noraim, we do our own stock-taking. We ask God to extend our days, to wipe away our sins. We want to feel that we are no longer afraid, after all we have poured out through the many services in synagogue and personal reflections. Hopefully we end up in a place more positive and hopeful than Kendrick’s, but the real lesson is that we must end somewhere honest. That we see what our work will be for the coming year and what we need to overcome. Whether that is fear, or hope, damnation, or salvation, we must understand not only the journey, but where it has left us.
Conclusion: Cousin Carl’s voicemail ends the song, channeling again the theme of blessings and curses. “So that’s why we get chastised, that’s why we’re in the position we’re in/Until we come back to these laws, statutes and commandments/And do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us/We’re gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today/In the United States of America/I love you, son, and I pray for you/God bless you, shalom” (He is a Black Israelite, after all, so of course he says “Shalom”).
May we all pray for each other in this country, in this world, and find a way to move beyond the curses and toward the blessings by coming back to the laws, the commandments, and the mercy and peace they seek to create during the Yomim Noraim. May we move past all of our FEAR. and find comfort in two other Kendrick tracks, GOD. and LOVE.
For organizer and author Paul Engler, the grassroots uprising that greeted the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 was a formative learning experience, even though he wasn’t physically present. He was fascinated by the coalitions between environmental groups and the labor movement and the diversity of tactics which shut the city down. For Generation X, the 1999 Seattle shutdown was like the Baby Boomer’s 1968 Democratic National Convention protests; it was a definitive generational event.
Paul and his brother Mark developed a set of organizing precepts from their study of the Seattle uprising and earlier social movements. They came to the conclusion that multiple strategies for social change are necessary for a movement to succeed, and used the term “movement ecology” to describe this process.
Movement ecology was developed by studying both the successes and shortcomings of nearly a century of movement history. Some examples include the success of diverse coalitions in the anti-globalization movement, the use of civil disobedience in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s, and the lessons from the dissolution of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, which splintered into different leftist political tendencies by the end of the decade. By viewing different social movements as complementary parts of an “ecosystem,” this approach to organizing is as much about fireproofing social movements from in-fighting and attacking one another as it is about successfully making change.
Paul Engler’s theories influenced the founder of the Ayni Institute, where Engler currently serves as Movement Director. He was also a co-founder of Momentum. Both organizations provide training and support for social movements and promote the movement ecology approach.
Movement ecology is currently being put to the test in one of the most complex and divisive political issues, namely Israel and Palestine. After the 1967 Israel-Arab War, some New Left groups declared their solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This decision is remembered painfully by leftist Jews whose advocacy for Jewish and Palestinian self-determination divided them from others on the left who supported the PLO’s call for one secular state in Mandatory Palestine. Similarly, today the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactic and anti-Zionist politics have divided the left as the issues have become a red line for much of the American Jewish establishment in terms of who is and isn’t allowed into the communal tent.
IfNotNow used movement ecology to understand its role in the ecosystem of other social movements. While there were currently international advocacy and nonviolent direct action movements in Palestine and Israel, they believed there was a gap when it came to organizing in the U.S. With the intention of complementing other existing anti-Occupation and peace movements, IfNotNow organizes the American Jewish community to end its support for the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory.
This ecosystem in which IfNotNow operates includes other American Jewish organizations, along with Palestinian and Israeli movements. Some examples are J Street, which lobbies for the two-state solution in Congress, and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which promotes the BDS movement. Unlike these other American Jewish groups, IfNotNow, by design, does not take a position on BDS and Zionism; it doesn’t advocate for a specific end game for the conflict. Part of its reasoning is the belief in the necessity of effectively organizing within the American Jewish community, which IfNotNow activists hold to be a necessary component of the ecology of social movements that fight the Occupation and on behalf of Palestinian justice.
IfNotNow’s non-alignment with tactics and political visions enables it to form a wide tent movement which includes young American Jews who agree that their community’s support for the Occupation has to end. This call can appeal to both liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists, to BDS supporters and two-staters. Increasingly, IfNotNow is becoming an unavoidable force to be reckoned with, featured frequently in American Jewish and Israeli media; its movement ecology-based strategy may be a key part of its rise.
IfNotNow activists are cognizant that ending the American Jewish community’s support for the Occupation is not the same as ending the Occupation itself. They believe that their movement is an important part of the ecosystem, alongside many other movements and strategies which ultimately work together.
Movement ecology as a framework is being applied to immigrant rights by Movimiento Cosecha, and in environmental justice, by the Sunrise Movement. Black Lives Matter activists have also studied Momentum and the work of Mark and Paul Engler. These groups, like IfNotNow, can be recognized for their sharp messaging and non-violent direct action protests. Instead of organizing for a totalizing revolutionary vision, these groups organize around a particular task in concert with others, as part of an ecosystem. By embracing different strategies, this new school of organizing hopes to achieve broad change.
As I stood at the intersection of 4th and Water Streets on August 12, 2018, I thought, I can’t believe I’m here again, trying to be a faithful presence in the midst of chaos.
One of the streets of this intersection in Charlottesville, Va., has been renamed “Heather Heyer Way.” It’s where one year ago a white supremacist mowed down a crowd of people, killing Heather and injuring 19 others.
But the chaos this year wasn’t caused Nazis. It was caused by police.
When I came to the area to answer a call for clergy from the local interfaith group Congregate C’ville, I saw police in riot gear, three rows deep, lining the intersection. There were two Bearcat tanks behind one of the lines, one with an officer standing on top with his finger on the trigger of the automatic weapon he carried.
White clergy decided to form a line in front of the police, on both sides, to protect the community members there — mostly people of color — and to allow them to leave without feeling threatened.
Eventually the police backed up, and then backed off to the sides of the streets. But it was really only the downpour of rain that finally defused the situation.
Ultimately, what happened to this group attempting to remember and mourn the tragedy of the car accident was shocking yet predictable.
The situation was shocking because there was absolutely no reason for a crowd of peaceful activists to be met with such overwhelming and threatening force. It was predictable because it’s what law enforcement — various forces from the Charlottesville police, Virginia State police, and National Guard — did in the city all weekend.
The student protest on the University of Virginia campus the night before was met with riot police for again, absolutely no reason at all. The Robert E. Lee statue in Market St. Park, the ostensible flashpoint for last year’s “Unite the Right” rally, was surrounded by more cops than I ever seen in one place in my life.
The Charlottesville police spokesperson made priorities clear when he announced his first two objectives for the weekend: “We are trying to maintain order and have a duty and obligation to try and make sure there is no property damage.”
I was reminded of something that Rabbi Susan Talve, a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, where I work, said shortly after the Ferguson protests of 2014: “When we’re more upset about property damage than lives, in the religious community, we call that idolatry.”
White supremacists were in short supply in Charlottesville this year. Likewise, fewer than 40 showed up at the “Unite the Right 2” rally in D.C., scared off by the thousands of counter-protestors, proving that what stops white supremacy is anti-racists showing up in overwhelming numbers to oppose it.
But important lessons from the original “Unite the Right” rally have not been learned by public officials. D.C.’s Metro arranged a private car for the white supremacists, and D.C. police escorted them to and from Lafayette Park. And this year in Charlottesville, police decided that community members were more of a threat than the Nazis were last year. They stood by when the Nazis attacked last year, and then they policed the community when it peacefully commemorated this year.
I know that it is hard for much of the white Jewish community to comprehend the widespread mistrust of police that people of color have. The presence of police to protect us and our institutions feels both friendly and normal, unremarkable. When we perceive a threat, our first response is often to call for more security, without an understanding that a police presence makes many — both in our community and in others — feel unsafe.
As Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville last year and rallied in D.C. this year, they were the ones protected by police. In contrast, historically, statistically, and anecdotally, people of color are often threatened, not protected, by police.
This weekend unfolded over the first of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah and a time of remembrance and repentance in preparation for the new year. Traditionally, we blow the shofar every day of this month as a call to this self-reflection. “T’ruah” is one of the sounds of the shofar, and as a representative of T’ruah who was in Charlottesville last year and this year, I can say that we white Jews still have much self-reflection to do to fight white supremacy effectively. We have to take our share of responsibility for the long history of structural racism in this country — including how that plays out today in policing.
Jews fight Nazis. That’s what we do.
And we have to do it with others who are targeted by white supremacy, most notably right now people of color. We will find safety in relationship with them and other marginalized communities, not with the police.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Rabbi Salem Pearce. She is the Director of Organizing for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.