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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.
We are in pain when we are told by family, friends, peers and Jewish communal leaders that we are ‘bad Jews’, ‘fake Jews’, ‘self-hating Jews’ for supporting Palestinian calls for full freedom and equality, and opposing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
We are in pain when we are told by our fellow Jews that we have no right to cast our lot with the Jewish people, because we say ‘not in our name!’ to Israel’s brutal, unceasing oppression of the Palestinian people. We are in pain when this violent denunciation- ‘self-hating Jew!’- seems to rob us of our Jewish legitimacy, deny us our right to inherit our people’s past and stake a claim in our people’s future, cast us brutally outside the bounds of peoplehood.
We are in pain when we see our own people seemingly abandon Jewish values of justice, forget the lessons of our past, and visit unceasing oppressions upon the backs of Palestinians- and upon our backs, too. In both cases, we are in pain when we see others remain silent. We are in pain when, seemingly exiled from our people, we find it hard to weave together the strands of a new Jewish identity for ourselves, when the cultural, religious and political traditions at hand have been seemingly consumed by Israel-support.
We Jews of conscience speak out to the world, denouncing the ways in which we are shut out of Jewish communities because of our support for Palestinian rights. Yet my perception is that we rarely have the space, within our own communities, to talk openly about the trauma of our excommunication. We tell ourselves that, in the urgency of the work, and with the need to bear witness to Palestinian suffering, it is indulgent to dwell too much on our own trauma. The wounds are raw, and like many pains, are easiest shared in silence. But a wound suppressed is one that festers, one that has the danger to cloud judgment, impede clarity, and distort how we relate to others, and to ourselves.
This article is an attempt to lovingly excavate some of the pain of the Jew of conscience, to explore the often fraught, tangled ways this pain structures the way we relate to our own Jewishness, and to broader Jewish communities. When we don’t work to heal from this pain, I argue, we can become estranged from our Jewish identities, and alienated from Jewish ritual and culture. We can deepen our isolation from Jews who aren’t with us politically, and relate to them in ways that do little to change hearts and minds. To build the Jewish future we need, we must work to intentionally reconnect, with full hearts, to our Jewishness, to our trauma, and to the rest of the Jewish people.
First, a note on terminology. The term ‘Jew of conscience’ was coined by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis in the 1980s to refer to Jews who bear prophetic witness to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. I use the term ‘Jews of conscience’ here primarily to mean Jews who today publicly embrace the Palestinian call for BDS, endorse the Palestinian refugee right of return, and/or challenge Zionism. These are the ‘taboo’ positions around which Jewish communal red lines are most clearly drawn, and Jews who take these positions, therefore, face most brutally the scapegoating, excommunication and trauma I describe. Jews who publicly oppose Israel’s 50-year occupation also face plenty of opposition, and will find much to relate to in these lines. By using the term ‘Jews of conscience’ in this way, however, I do not mean to imply that pro-BDS/anti-Zionist Jews are the only Jews acting from a place of conscience around these issues; it is simply a useful term!
While my observations are formed by years organizing professionally and as a grassroots activist in Jews of conscience circles, I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. Some will find much, and some little, that resonates in these lines. I write because we Jews of conscience are visionary, and powerful. We are transforming the American Jewish community, and in the coming years, as Israel lurches further rightward, the views we hold will continue to gain broader acceptance. It is even more vital, then, that we think critically and fearlessly about the complexities, pitfalls and promises of how we relate to Jewishness, to other Jews and to ourselves. I write with the hope, at this pivotal and terrifying moment, not that we Jews of conscience may instantly overcome our pain, but that we may learn to dwell with it, with ourselves, and with the Jewish future which dwells in our midst, which erupts in real time from the work of our hands.
We hear it from our Jewish peers, who treat our support for Palestinian rights with fear, suspicion and distrust. We hear it from our families, who greet our views with disappointment, betrayal, outrage, and shame. We hear it from the institutional leaders of the Jewish world, who tell us, with unflinching certainty, that we are disturbed, monstrous, transgressive and illegitimate Jews.
We Jews of conscience hear day after day, from nearly all corners and crevices of the Jewish world, the same message: You don’t belong. You are an aberration, a traitor, an outsider. We reject you; you are no longer one of us. Some of us receive curses, hate mail, even death threats for taking a stand. We are mocked derisively from the bima, laughed at in the JCC, sneered at in Hillel. We are barred from jobs at Jewish day schools, synagogues, summer camps.
We worry we will be ostracized from social groups, passed over for Jewish leadership roles, and denied B’nai Mitzvah, burial in a Jewish cemetery, or even a warm Shabbat dinner, for being one of those ‘self-hating Jews’. The fear runs deep, and nestles into every little crevice of our Jewish lives. It is no secret that we are the scapegoat of the American Jewish community, and it hurts.
On the surface, of course, we reject that we are deficient Jews in any way. We assert our Jewishness with pride, and in many cases, we respond to the abuse we face not by shrinking from but by stepping up our Jewish engagement. We build vibrant Jewish communities, inside and outside the mainstream. Our Judaism is fierce and powerful, and we know it.
And yet, under the weight of abuse, it is easy to internalize, on some level, the message that there is something other-than, something broken, about our Jewishness. That somewhere, deep down, we must be missing ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, if we are so eager to criticize Israel so loudly. The pain runs deep, and can grip our Jewish identity-formation at its innermost point, clouding our pintele yid– that indestructible spark of Jewishness within us- with confusion and self-doubt. We might feel this pain even if we don’t seek legitimacy from, or desire to join, mainstream Jewish communities. For on the deepest level, we still yearn to recognize ourselves, and to be recognized, as a legitimate part of the Jewish people, and that is precisely what is denied to us; that is precisely where it hurts.
Our pain is magnified because we know that, when we break with Israel, we break hearts- the hearts of our elders, our family members, those in our communities for whom Israel is anchor of their Jewish identities, refuge in their time of distress, living symbol of the concrete assurance that, so soon after the traumas of the 20th century, the Jewish people will endure. We wish we could take our elders’ hands, meet their eyes, and plead to them, “I am proud and grateful to be Jewish, I promise you, please don’t worry! Even though you don’t understand why I do what I do, please understand- I am committed to the Jewish people, to inheriting the covenant you worked so hard to pass on to me- please believe me!” We cannot help but feel guilt that we have triggered these fears- and anger that history itself has put us, and them, in such an impossible position.
Owning our Jewishness
After being told, in no uncertain terms, that we will never be accepted as Jews, some of us scornfully turn away from most aspects of Jewish identity or practice entirely. The attempts we make to connect with the Jewishness of our upbringing- to inhabit the traditions, cultures, communities in which we dwelt comfortably before awakening to the truth of Palestinian dispossession- are laced with the bitterness of betrayal, the sting of anger.
If we didn’t grow up with strong Jewish identity or community, it can be very difficult to develop that identity anew for oneself, while grappling at the same time with the truth of Israel/Palestine. How fraught it can be for many of us, to feel drawn to the simple beauty of Jewish texts and traditions, while we are repelled so brutally by Israel’s occupation and our community’s support of it- and to be attacked so viciously by other Jews, for speaking out!
We are warmed by the fire of Jewish identity, drawn- as evinced by our very proclamation that we are ‘Jews for Palestinian rights’- to cleave proudly to our Jewishness, despite the trials of these times. And yet, we are repulsed by our community’s support for Israel’s crimes, pushed away by their slandering us as ‘fake Jews’, and convulsed with shame, for the oppressive stance our people is taking on the world stage. Some of us find it near impossible, at least for the time being, to fully own and embrace our Jewishness outside of circumscribed displays of solidarity. It is simply too painful.
Perhaps we fear that Jewishness itself, like the Jewish elders from whom we learned it, may lash out at us if we get too close. On a deeper level, perhaps we don’t fully trust that we, the ‘bad Jews’, are entitled to sing our peoples’ songs, light Shabbat candles, and otherwise be just like other Jews. We are so used to being told we have rejected the covenant, that it can be difficult to see ourselves up there on the bima, reciting words of Torah just like other Jews, without feeling guilty, subversive, out-of-place.
We find community in the Palestine solidarity movement- but our non-Jewish comrades often don’t know how to talk about antisemitism, and lack nuanced understanding of Jewish history and identity. We build small communities of Jews of conscience, and begin the work of healing together. But caught between a mainstream Jewish community which has abandoned us, and a Palestine movement in which we often do not feel fully at home, our isolation is magnified.
How difficult it can be, to stumble upon this terrifying juncture in Jewish history, and, with little road map to guide us, to have to parse out the false from the true, the sacred from the profane, that which we must inherit from that which we must transform or cast away! How difficult, to be called a ‘fake Jew’ just as we are discovering, for the first time or anew, how to be a real Jew! Faced with this impossibly weighty task, our Judaism is for us both a source of healing and an open wound, a place of refuge and a restless question.
For many of us, healing starts with finding and building progressive Jewish spaces that welcome our whole selves, where in laughter, song, ritual, culture and simply being Jewish together, we share the pain of our condition. We quickly find that the journey to rebuild an honest, compassionate and accountable Jewishness of conscience is a beautiful struggle- one that befits a people for whom being klal Yisrael itself is a struggle, a wrestling with G-d!
Crafting our Ritual
We are eager to create new ritual and culture, and alter existing practices, to reflect our convictions as Jews of conscience. We design Palestine solidarity Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders and more, using ritual as a tool to uplift the anguish of our tears, the gnawing of our fears, the fervency of our hopes as an offering to the fraught moment of Jewish history in which we live.
Our resolve to bear witness, through ritual and culture, to the reality facing our people, is admirable. And yet, sometimes these ritual spaces revolve around the urge to condemn Israel, express shame for its crimes, distance ourselves from its actions, signal our disgust…and little else. The ritual we create can feel like window dressing for an exercise in apologetics, a public confession of guilt, betraying a relentless quest to purify our traditions by rooting out anything deemed remotely suspicious, leaving little besides alienation in its place.
We fixate on Israel as the original sin of our people; we condemn the fallenness of our tribe. Far from a prophetic call for justice, the single-mindedness of our shame brings to mind a Christian impulse of perpetual self-flagellation, rather than a Jewish ethos of finding the spark of redemption, the wholeness within a broken heart.
It is not a mystery why, in this moment, our liturgy takes this tormented tone. We feel so betrayed and confused that our people have emblazoned such a beautiful menorah upon such ugly weapons of war, that we dig into tradition itself, anxious to locate where we went wrong, desperate to purge the original sin. With Israeli flags adorning most bimas– with Israel-support playing such a central role in the normative sense of Jewish peoplehood- we are living in unprecedented times, wading into uncharted territory, with little to guide us. Faced with this weighty contradiction, we resolve that our task is to strenuously assert the antithesis, to craft a Judaism which, at every twist and turn, uproots that which corrupts, calls out a warning, condemns the dangerous path our people are taking.
But a spirit of negation won’t, by itself, carry us through to the Jewish future. ‘The sea will not open that way’ (Aurora Levins Morales, ‘The Red Sea’). We need also to actively cultivate love of Jewishness, for its own sake; joy for our ritual and cultural traditions, in all their beauty and wisdom; gratitude that our people have survived to see these times, vexing though they be; and a vulnerable expression of mourning fueled at root not by guilt and shame, but by compassion. The door to the Jewish future will be unlocked not by the cleverness of our hot takes, nor by the burning of our anger or the fervor of our guilt, but by the positivity of our Jewish love and joy.
When we turn to our traditions, our trauma can guide us to see them as our pursuer and opponent (‘What here leads to problematic support of Israel? What must be purged and disavowed?’) or to use them as a defensive shield or an attacking spear‘ (How can we use this to critique the Jewish establishment, and bolster our self-certainty as Jews of conscience?‘) Instead, our spirit of innovation must be grounded in radical amazement and gratitude. We must seek to dwell open-hearted and empty-handed with our traditions, to bring them closer, for their own sake, into the beating hearts of our lives. When we pray or express ourselves Jewishly in other ways our sorrowful anger for Israel’s crimes must mingle with our gratitude, our gladness at simply being Jewish. The bitter and the sweet must complement each other.
Transforming our People
Many of us resolve that our principal task in this moment is to build radical spaces- shuls and havurot, communities and institutions, friendship groups and networks- on the margins, for Jews of conscience. Our task at hand, we say, is to build and strengthen these counter-hegemonic institutions and communities, so that, as the contradictions of the establishment sharpen, more Jews will grow disillusioned and join us. When the establishment finally crumbles, we tell ourselves, our communities will stand redeemed, pointing the way towards the future.
There is much of merit to these positions: for many Jews of conscience, the task at hand is indeed to build, safeguard, and strengthen alternative spaces where we can heal, learn, and envision the future. For many of us who have been deeply abused and traumatized by the mainstream, not only because we are Jews of conscience, but because of multiple marginal identities we hold, this is deeply important. And yet, this strategy alone cannot build the Jewish future.
A small siloed movement of Jews of conscience, cordoned neatly off from the rest of the Jewish people, surfacing occasionally to yell and chant slogans of liberation outside their doors before congratulating ourselves on the correctness of our analyses, and disappearing from view- this strategy alone cannot build the Jewish future. While this may be valuable in the short term, to sharpen and expose the current contradictions in the Jewish community while winning some adherents, in the long term, this strategy alone does not get anyone free.
It does not free mainstream Jews, most of whom remain trapped under the hegemonic sway of the establishment and view us, as they have been taught and as our self-isolation confirms, as untouchable outsiders. It does not free Jews of conscience, who remain in exile from the vast majority of our people. And most importantly, it does not free Palestinians, who ultimately need Jews of conscience to plant deep, lasting roots in the mainstream Jewish communities that we need to help transform.
The Jew of conscience turns to the mainstream Jewish community which has exiled us, and with a booming voice, calls on it to change. Standing outside the doors of our establishment institutions, we detail the anti-Palestinian crimes for which they are responsible or complicit, decry their grotesque lack of accountability, and throw at their feet all manner of piercing accusations. We mark them, in the pain and anger of our betrayal, as awful Zionists, disgustingly complicit in atrocities. We tell them they are racist, Islamophobic, colonialist, privileged, violent…the list goes on. ‘Shame! Shame!’, we yell. Do they listen?
When you protest an abusive boss’s complicity in exploitation at his workplace, the primary task is not to unlock his heart, but to build a consensus that he is an exploiter, and to force him, through sheer pressure, to change. But when you protest the American Jewish community’s complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you’re dealing with a traumatized people, a people still struggling, only two or so generations after surviving the most terrible genocide, and most shocking series of expulsions, in its history, to learn to trust others, to handle fears of imagined powerlessness, and to recognize and accountably deploy its actual power.
When a boss talks about his workplace, he’s talking about his greed; when mainstream American Jews talk about Israel/Palestine, they’re talking about their fear. When American Jews protest American Jews, we are negotiating our communal trauma. Without diluting the substance of our critique, which is usually correct, and without wholly stifling our rage, which is legitimate, we also need to lead with love, and deliver rebuke in a way that will unlock hearts. What would it look like to cultivate accountable compassion, in our own hearts, towards our Jewish community, and to hold them, in turn, to compassionate accountability for their complicity in Israel’s crimes? (I am grateful to Dove Kent, Cherie Brown and Helen Bennett, who in their ‘Understanding the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism’ trainings, develop further this concept of ‘compassionate accountability and accountable compassion’.)
How can we even take the first step, and extend our hand in compassion, when many mainstream Jews are likely to swat it away, and call us ‘self-hating Jews’? A vicious cycle is at play here: they demonize us and push us away, we become traumatized, and our hearts harden, we scornfully lash out at them in the rage of protest, and their hearts harden. To interrupt this cycle, it is incumbent upon allies of Jews of conscience- progressive Jews who are still accepted in mainstream Jewish spaces- to demand an end to the abuse we face.
And yet, while we are not to blame for our wounds, we Jews of conscience must resist the temptation to set ourselves apart. We must not be afraid to show up, again and again, in the institutions and communal spaces of our people, to get involved and demand to be counted. We must not leave our politics at the door, but we also must not come primarily to proselytize or to do battle. We must show up, first and foremost, simply because we want to connect, open up, share traumas, and build, upon the very fissures which separate us, the indissoluble ties which reaffirm that, in truth, we are one people. We can hope to change them not by ceaselessly distancing ourselves from them, but by diving deeper with them, really claiming them as our own.
It starts with getting in touch with our own pain, helping each other heal from it. It also starts with overcoming the knee-jerk impulse to treat fellow Jewish people or Jewish communities who support Israel with fear, scorn or condescension. Forgiving them for what they have done to us, and forgiving ourselves, embracing the powerful, embodied, joyous Jews of conscience we are, are in truth, two sides of the same coin.
The mainstream Jewish community abuses us because they are afraid. In the wake of the immense traumas of the 20th century, they clutch Israel close as the only safe space they know, and frantically push away any Jews, like us, whose dissent threatens the stability of their unsustainable solution to the Jewish question. In this way, their abusive behavior towards us- that peculiar panic and rage that wells up in the hearts of our accusers, as they denounce us as traitors- is, quite literally, the displaced pain of antisemitism, traveling, like so many pains for so many peoples, below the surface across generations, deeply felt and dimly comprehended.
Thus, in a supreme historical irony, the outcasts of the world have created, within their own ranks, a new class of outcasts. As the Jews were scapegoated by the world as traitors, disloyal, pathologically rotten, idealists and cosmopolitans, we Jews of conscience are scapegoated today, by the mainstream of our own community, with these very same tropes. Our excommunication is, in a sense, the internalized antisemitism of the Jewish people writ large, the Jewish question played out anew within the body politic of the Jews themselves, taking us as its target, rendering us the outcasts of the outcast, the Jew among the Jews.
Future historians will look upon this excommunication as a tragedy of epic proportions for the Jewish people. Under the cry of ‘self-hating Jew!’, untold thousands of Jews have been slandered and banished with a sweeping vigor unparalleled in modern Jewish history. One day, our people will look back upon this self-inflicted wound upon the body of am Yisrael with shame. And they will see it, correctly, as a lynchpin of the very structure that keeps American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation in place.
We Jews of conscience are in pain, flung out at the raw edge of the turbulent trial into which history has flung our traumatized people. We have learned many lessons from this liminal space we are forced to inhabit. In our exile, we bear witness to the prophetic voice of critique, we teach to the world the supreme importance of principled moral dissent. But in order to speak most effectively to our own people, which, after all, is our mandate and task at hand, we need to lead from a place of love, cultivating accountable compassion and holding others to compassionate accountability. And to do this, we need to work on our own trauma.
It takes deep bravery, strength, and conviction to stand bravely and speak loudly, as Jews of conscience, in these tormented times. We Jews of conscience are very good Jews, despite what our detractors say about us. It is hard work to forgive them- to forgive ourselves- indeed, to forgive history itself for putting our entire people, and us Jews of conscience in particular, in such a..
Picture a cross between Seder Night and a celebratory Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast.
That’s what my first communal Iftar—the evening meal in which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast— felt like: surprisingly Jewish. A festive blend of food, custom, ritual and prayer.
Iftar is traditionally meant to be eaten in congregation with family members and the greater collective, in mosques and in homes. In late May, my husband and I and our three tween boys went to Kids4Peace’s Neighborhood Iftar, a communal gathering of 350 Muslims, Jews and Christians, at Beit Safafa elementary school, which is in Beit Safafa, an Arab town on the green line. There I got to do something that I had never done before: gather together with Muslims to break their fast at sunset. As the muezzin recited the adhan or Call to Prayer, I watched Omar, 14, bite into a date and take a small sip of water, emulating the traditional way of breaking the fast modeled after the Prophet Muhammad.
Kids4Peace is a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem and other divided cities. Our son, Yuval, 12, is in the sixth grade group, and our whole family is part of the Kids4Peace community.
Although I’m an American-Israeli observant Jew, one of my closest friends is a Muslim Palestinian woman. Still, I have not had the chance to partake in an iftar. I keep kosher, and Ibtisam Erekat lives in Abu Dis, on the other side of the Separation Barrier. The last thing I would want to do is to burden her and her family with my kosher culinary needs after 15 hours of fasting. Ibtisam has regaled me with tales of hopping between the houses of her brothers, aunts, uncles, and her husband’s family. I’ve learned about other aspects of the holiday, such as the importance of giving charity and doing good deeds. Generosity colors the month of Ramadan.
Yet it was clear to me that I would better understand Ramadan and perhaps Islam if I had an actual place at the table. Food is not just a source of body nourishment, and meals are not just food served and eaten at one sitting; they are an entry into a different world. The Passover Seder ritual meal retells the story of Israelites being liberated from slavery in ancient Egypt, replete with symbolic components of foods and beverages, reclining, and customary text and song. A central part of the Seder is opening one’s home to others—”anyone who so desires can come and dine with us”. It is an invitation to join the table and partake in the spiritual festivities: the reliving of the exodus from Egypt and the creation of a new nation. A non-Jewish guest at a Seder gains a window into an integral component of Jewish faith and identity. I had hoped that I would feel more connected to all of my Muslim neighbors, to their traditions, and even to Ibtisam if I understood their religious practice from the inside.
“At Kids4Peace, we seek to expose each side to the reality of the other, and learning about the holidays and religions connected to Jerusalem is a huge part of that,” explained Meredith Rothbart, the Jewish Israeli co-director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem. “Having the opportunity to see, ask, taste, and observe the holiday firsthand makes the other feel more approachable and less ‘scary’. It infuses respect and mutual understanding.”
As the muezzin continued his melodious recitation of Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest), fasting Muslims around me grabbed glasses of classic Ramadan beverages: Tamar Hindi, a tangy brown-orange drink made of Tamarind, and Sharab al-kharoub, carob juice. Others got up to serve themselves soup, another common break-the-fast staple. It’s best to break the fast while he recites Call to Prayer, explained a smiling woman dressed traditionally in a hijab and an abaya (long flowing caftan).
Naturally, we let the Muslims, who had just finished fasting, eat first. Then the Christians and Jews, some even with kippot (skullcaps) on their heads, walked over to the food tables. Spread atop a red checkered tablecloth that could have been taken from a church picnic were food items laid out in sections marked halal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and kosher. (Catered kosher breaded chicken, rice and other food items had been ordered.) Muslim, Christian and Jewish Kids4Peace families had also prepared home-cooked main dishes, salads, and deserts. Traditional Palestinian foods like maqluba, a one-pot meal of layered chicken, vegetables and rice, graced the tables. But missing were katayef, sweet dumplings, and namoura, semolina cake, because they needed to be prepared fresh. An aesthetically arranged gamut of dietary options communicated a message: at Kids4peace, there is place for everyone. Having my dietary restrictions accommodated really made me feel welcome; my presence was truly wanted.
“Muslims wait all year for the holy month of Ramadan,” explained Tareq Samman, 36, the Palestinian co-director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem. “Even though you’re supposed to eat as a community, it’s hard to fit everyone in one place. For me, it’s particularly meaningful to share this important event with my Jewish and Christian friends, and with the whole Kids4Peace community.”
In the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, Ramadan is ever palpable. Street signs are decorated with strings of flashing lights that I typically associate with Christmas. Canons boom to mark the end of the fast. All night long, streets bustle with shoppers buying copious quantities of meat, produce, pastries and candy to feed their families. Some homes place a framed crescent moon glittering in the window.
But living on the Jewish Israeli side of the city, I barely see or sense the holiday. Some lectures and cultural events are held to mark the holy month, but save a small announcement in the newspaper noting the start and end of the fast just atop the weather forecast, residents hardly feel the presence of Ramadan.
For Tareq, who grew up in Wadi El Joz, the gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a heartwarming resonance of the historic days of Jerusalem. Prior to 1948, Jews and Muslims lived together in pre-state Palestine, and Jews frequented Iftar tables. “My grandmother’s best friend was Jewish, and she was always invited for iftar,” reminisced Tareq.
The greatest challenge in organizing this event is not bringing everyone together and caring for their culinary concerns. It’s that people don’t bother to RSVP! “Every year, we’re scared that nobody will show up,” acknowledged Meredith. “But it always ends up being full!”
There is a cultural component to the lack of RSVPs, explained Tareq. Communal tradition makes it hard for Muslims to commit to our event, when they get invited to family iftars at the last minute. “I don’t expect someone to blow off his brother for Kids4Peace,” he said with a smile.
The school gym, where the iftar was held, bustled with activity. In one corner, guests danced to traditional Palestinian music. In an arts and crafts nook, young children made traditional paper lanterns. On the grass, parents studied interfaith texts on fasting. Myself, I opted to tour Beit Safafa and Givat Hamatos, a Jewish neighborhood with a complicated history that hosted Ethiopian Jewish and Russian immigrants in caravans, with Kids4Peace teens, who taught me about the connections between the two communities.
My three school-age sons also got to see quotidian Muslim customs. When a group of Muslim men prostrated in prayer, my children’s faces lit up with curiosity. Oh, so that’s how you pray.
One wall of the gym was decorated with a painted picture of the Al-Aqsa mosque next to a Hebrew sign that said, “You need a little luck,” referring to the lottery that funded the building.
In honor of the spirit of giving, Kids4Peace had collected second-hand clothing, toys and school supplies from the community to deliver to Palestinian and Israeli families in need around Jerusalem.
That inclusion and caring for everyone stands as a counterpoint to the complexity of Jerusalem, which often divides Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
“Our message is that we are one city for all religions. You politicians can have your political wars. But at Kids4Peace, we’re just going to keep on going with our togetherness,” affirmed Tareq.
Now Ramadan is gone, and so Eid Al Fitr, the religious three-day holiday that marks it end. The next holiday, Eid Al-Adha, isn’t until late August. But lingering for me is a welcoming message of community and a greater connection to Islam.
July 30, 2018 — Open Hillel filed an amicus brief in Mandel v. California State University to inform the court that, unfortunately, Hillel does not represent all Jewish students. Rather, since enacting its Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities in 2010, Hillel International and its local affiliates have consistently excluded Jewish students on the basis of their political views.
Mandel v. California State University was filed by the Lawfare Project, an organization that uses lawsuits as a tactic to shut down speech that calls attention to Israel’s actions or protests Israel’s policies. The Lawfare Project relies on the claim that Hillel represents “all Jews on campus…regardless of political ideology” to argue that San Francisco State University necessarily discriminated against Jewish students by failing to ensure that Hillel was included in a campus Know Your Rights Fair.
As an organization dedicated to promoting pluralism and inclusion in the Jewish community, Open Hillel is uniquely positioned to address the specific issue of whether Hillel truly represents all Jewish students. Right now, it does not.
Open Hillel objects to Hillel’s claims to represent all Jewish students while simultaneously excluding many students from the Jewish community on campus and lobbying for political causes that students oppose. As long as Hillel’s claim remains unchallenged, Hillel will continue to misrepresent and marginalize Jewish students nationwide.
Open Hillel is a national, grassroots Jewish organization of students and community members advocating for open discourse, inclusion, and democratic accountability in the Jewish community.