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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.
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 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.
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.