Categories
Healing Holiday member support mental health News Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis spirituality

The World as It Is: Passover 5780

The World as It Is: [1]: Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.

The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.

In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment. 

Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”

While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.

Passover asks us to do exactly that.

Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage [2]. Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt [3]. After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.

When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.

The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.

Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.

We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.

Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.

I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.

Amen.


[1] I am grateful to Alan Goodis, whose song, Shekacha lo ba-olamo, inspired this reflection.
[2] Exodus 12:39
[3] The Passover Haggadah


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.

Categories
Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
News Social Justice

The Beauty of a Southern Jewish Heritage

The front desk clerk at my Montgomery, Alabama hotel cheerfully told me, “I have a river-view room for you.” Night had fallen; but the next morning, when I opened the blinds, there it was: The Alabama River makes an exquisite horseshoe in downtown Montgomery. It’s surrounded by lush woods and is fronted by an historic railway station. A beautiful sight to behold!

Only hours later, though, the loveliness of the scene became more complicated. I was among fifty Reform rabbis participating in “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: A Central Conference of American Rabbis Pre-High Holy Day Seminar” this past August. As soon as the program began, I learned of the critical role that gorgeous river played when Montgomery grew and prospered as the center of a robust domestic slave trade. That river was the conduit, bringing enslaved human beings north from Mobile Bay into the interior, where families were cruelly separated, small children ripped from their parents’ arms, and spouses forever separated, enriching white Alabama slave traders.

We entered The Legacy Museum, a powerful testament to the horrors that white supremacy has wrought on African Americans for 400 years. In the museum’s first exhibit, only feet from the door, I was hit hard by a declaration I should’ve always known to be true: Many of the same families who were enriched by the slave trade continue to be prosperous citizens of Montgomery today. Their wealth, inherited down the generations, cannot be separated from the enslaved human beings their ancestors oppressed to earn their generous living.

Why, you might ask, was I so bothered by these particular words, among all the museum’s horrors?

I have long proclaimed, “In my family, the ‘old country’ is the Mississippi Delta.” All of my grandparents and four of my great-grandparents were born in the American South. I treasure my great-great grandparents’ family Bible from Trinity, Louisiana. When Reform Judaism’s detractors assert the libel—that the children of Orthodox Jews become Conservative; their children, Reform; and their children leave Judaism altogether—I take out my great-great grandfather’s Minhag America for Yom Kippur, a prayer book written by American Reform founder Isaac Mayer Wise. If that’s not enough, I produce my paternal great-grandfather’s Union Prayer Book—alongside three more in direct succession, which my mother, her mother, and her grandmother each received at her Confirmation, each name embossed in gold on the cover. When I was 18, my beloved paternal grandmother gave me her mother’s Hours of Devotion: A Book of Prayers and Meditations for the Use of the Daughters of Israel, which her mother had given to her when she was 18. That great-grandmother was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1871, but that prayer book was published in 1868, so I presume that it belonged to her mother before her.

I was raised in the warm embrace of this family, with a strong Jewish identity and a confidence about the place of Jews in America.

As I got older, I became aware that my mother’s family had known financial security for more generations than we know. And my paternal grandmother told of her father’s tremendous success, reversed in a financial crisis in the early 20th century.

I seriously doubt that any of my ancestors were slave traders. Most who immigrated before the Civil War came to this country only shortly before it. I learned that two of my great-great-grandfathers had fought in the Civil War only because I asked, not because my grandparents boasted of Confederate glory or yearned for its return. Still, that Montgomery exhibit got to me.

As I continued through the museum, I saw stark reminders that slavery didn’t end in much more than name with the Civil War. Sharecropping, convict leasing, and racial terror lynching kept Black southerners in shackles, albeit of a different kind, until World War II, with Jim Crow persisting until the mid 1960s. During that period, all of my ancestors lived in the South. Again, I have no reason to believe that any were outwardly racist. Instead, I heard stories of kindnesses to Black customers and domestic employees. I never heard my grandparents use racial epithets. At the same time, I was never told that any of my family were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, for example. We Jews know, though, that bystanders have enabled the greatest evil perpetrated against us. Before the Civil Rights era, and often during it, southern Jews were bystanders at best.

After the museum, our group went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known as “the lynching memorial.” There, I found memorials indicting every county where my family lived during that period: Adams County, Mississippi. Attala County, Mississippi. Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Harris County, Texas. Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. My ancestors’ Black neighbors were terrorized by lynching in each place that they lived.

The organizers of our rabbinical group provided the words to “Strange Fruit,” a poem written and set to music by Abel Meeropol and popularized by Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

 

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The Alabama River in downtown Montgomery is indeed beautiful, and I continue to treasure my southern Jewish roots. I particularly honor the memories of my grandparents, who were consistently present, positive influences throughout my childhood and beyond it.

Still, at this season, I cannot help but ask what repentance is required of the grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson of bystanders who prospered while their Black neighbors bled?

T’shuvah, ut’filah, utz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zeirah, “Repentance, prayer, and charity,” we learn, temper judgment’s severe degree. I now regard my own commitment to racial justice as an act of t’shuvah, of repentance. I will do what my ancestors did not, and perhaps could not, given their insecurity as Jews in what was still a new land for them. During Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon, I will pray that God forgive them their sins, even if those sins were mostly of silence. And I will continue to direct tzedakah to redress racial inequality that persists to this day, with a thought toward returning some of the prosperity they enjoyed between the end of the Civil War and World War II.

And yes, I will continue to celebrate the beauty of my southern Jewish heritage, bringing me to where I am today.

Categories
Books

Written in “Just Five Minutes”

A reflection by Rabbi Barry H. Block on working through Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, by Rabbi Debra Robbins, CCAR Press, 2019.

Debbie Robbins says:
“Just five minutes.”
Set aside five minutes,
No more,
To write my Elul reflections each day.
Much to my surprise,
I’ve disciplined myself to do it,
Just five minutes,
Every day.
Some days, I really need it,
Like the day that a traumatic pastoral need
Led me to extreme anxiety,
And I needed to figure out why.
Every day, I really need it.
As a rabbi,
My Elul preparation
Is all about writing sermons,
Musical cues,
Selecting reading,
Doling out honors,
All “work.”
I’m liable to ignore the inner, spiritual work of Elul;
There’s so much “rabbi work” to do.
And so I’ve resolved:
Take those five minutes a day,
And actually prepare my soul
For 5780.
Psalm 27 has opened my heart.
Funny thing:
For the first time,
Ever in my 29th year,
And that’s only since ordination,
All of my sermons are drafted—
Not “finished,” but fully drafted—
More than two weeks before Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Can that be a coincidence?


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is now available from CCAR Press.

Categories
Israel

Reform Judaism in Israel: Great Strides, Great Challenges

Last month, I had the great privilege of worshiping and sharing Shabbat dinner with friends at Congregation Bavat Ayin in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and in the home of Rabbi Ayala and Avi Miron.

This visit was not my first. In the fall of 2016, ARZA World-Daat arranged for members of Congregation B’nai Israel to worship at Bavat Ayin, and enjoy home hospitality for Shabbat dinner, during our congregation’s Israel trip in the fall of 2016. We have continued our relationship in a program called Domim, which means, “similar,” a pairing of Reform congregations in Israel and North America. In the fall of 2017, on the first anniversary of our visit, donors from our congregation sponsored Bavat Ayin’s Selichot program; and I returned to Bavat Ayin in the summers of 2017 and 2018.

In the coming spring, I plan to make a grant from my discretionary fund to sponsor the congregation’s Jerusalem Day celebration, featuring the art of Michal Memit Vorka, who “immigrated to Israel at the tender age of two through Operation Moses.” On Jerusalem Day at Bavat Ayin, “She will introduce her art as well as her story, relate to her Jewish-Ethiopian traditions and discuss the challenges that Ethiopian-Jews are meeting in their encounter with Israeli society. Since 2004[,] Jerusalem Day has also been recognized as a Memorial Day for around 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who tragically perished on their way to Israel, while striving to fulfill their decades long dream to reach [Jerusalem].”[i]

I share these details because we in North America can get the impression that Reform Judaism in Israel consumes all of its energy fighting for its rights in the face of ultra-Orthodox, government-supported discrimination. Those struggles are important. However, the truth about our Israeli Reform partners is much more complex and inspiring. Despite all the challenges they face, the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism has been growing by leaps and bounds. Just as important, my Israeli colleagues and their partners in lay leadership are laser-focused on creativity and deep meaning. For example, this year, I was privileged to worship from a pilot edition of our Israel Movement’s next prayer book, edited by Professor Dalia Marx and Dr. Alona Lisitsa of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. This prayer book is informed by the deep spirituality of our Movement in Israel and even by some of the stylistic innovations of our own American Reform prayer books.

While many people will tell you that Israeli Jews are either “religious,” meaning Orthodox, or “secular,” the reality is that “[Rabbi Gilad] Kariv, who heads the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism,] likes to cite recent surveys that show as many as 12 to 13 percent of Israelis Jews identifying as either Reform or Conservative.”[ii] Perhaps more importantly, “In 2013 36% of Israeli Jews, or nearly 2 million individuals, reported that they had participated in one or more Reform or Conservative events.”[iii] While our Movement hoped to establish fifty congregations in Israel by 2020, its leader, Rabbi Gilad Gariv, celebrates that the goal was accomplished several years earlier.”[iv] Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has ordained more than 100 rabbis at its Jerusalem campus, by far the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in the Jewish State.

Laurence Wolf, who has studied the Reform Movement in Israel, has described participation in ways that will sound familiar to us: “While average attendance for Shabbat evening services is usually modest, … attendance for holidays…is high, as secular [sic] Jews seek more meaningful spiritual experiences. For example, in 2013 over 1000 people participated in Yom Kippur services at Yotzma in Modi’in, [a Jerusalem suburb,] many of them standing outside the small synagogue and participating in the service through loudspeakers in an expansive meadow.”[v]

While we most often hear about the struggle for egalitarian worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which is important, marriage is a more significant flash-point for Israelis. Wolf writes, “Young people are increasingly resisting marriage ceremonies led by Orthodox rabbis. A 2015 survey found that 49% of all Jews (and 80% of secular Jews) did not want Orthodox marriage…17% [wanted] a Reform or Conservative marriage.”[vi] Despite the fact that Israeli law does not recognize the weddings they officiate, Reform rabbis were already officiating at more than 1000 weddings per year in Israel by 2013.[vii]

Funerals in military cemeteries were also at issue until a recent development. Imagine a grieving family, not at all Orthodox, being told that only an Orthodox rabbi may officiate at their loved one’s funeral. Often, these rabbis will not permit women and men to stand together at the funeral as families, allow women to offer a eulogy or even to say Kaddish for an immediate family member. And remember, we’re talking about military funerals, often for young people who have given their lives in the service of the country. Only last month did the Israel Defense Force relent and announce that Reform rabbis may officiate at funerals in Israel’s military cemeteries, a change precipitated by pressure from Israel’s High Court of Justice, thanks to Hiddush, an organization that agitates for religious liberty in the Jewish state.[viii]

As the Israeli Reform Movement’s reach and popularity have grown, its detractors have become more threatened by it. The Orthodox establishment is working harder than ever to curtail our Movement’s rights. The greatest damage would be done by diminishing the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, as proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox parties.

American Jews can make a difference. The representatives of our largest American Jewish organizations – Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and AIPAC – can, often do, and must continue to insist on equal rights for all Israelis. This winter, we shall all have the opportunity to make our voices heard in World Zionist Organization elections, in which each and every adult Jew worldwide has the right to vote.

My synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas celebrates that we are domim, similar, and partners of Congregation Bavat Ayin – like us, an isolated, middle-sized Reform congregation – and continue to contribute to that partnership. We can, and we must, remain strong, strengthening one another, across oceans, but very close to our hearts.


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Kehillat Bavat Ayin, “Recreating Torah: A Program for Jewish-cultural study,” undated document transmitted from Rabbi Ayala Miron to Rabbi Barry Block via email, July 15, 2019.
[ii] Judy Maltz, “The Reform Leader Running to Be Israel’s First non-Orthodox Rabbi in the Knesset,” Ha-aretz, August 8, 2019.
[iii] Laurence Wolf, “The Reform Movement in Israel: Past Present and Future,” The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, July 6, 2015, p. 4.
[iv] Rabbi Gilad Kariv, speaking at CCAR-MARAM Yom Iyyun, July 8, 2019.
[v] Wolf, p. 5.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Anna Ahronheim and Ilanit Chernick, “IDF to Allow Reofrm Rabbis to Officiate at Military Funerals,” The Jerusalem Post, July 4, 2019.

Categories
News

How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

A decade ago, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, now the Provost of HUC-JIR, taught me a new term: “gender-accurate translation.”

No, I was not new to ridding our liturgy and sacred texts of gender-based language. However, I had always thought of that process as changing the language of sacred texts, which would be more intrusive than correcting an error of the past.

Rabbi Weiss explained that our new Torah translations – in that case, in the Women’s Torah Commentary – would replace gendered language when the original text doesn’t specifically refer to a person or persons of one particular gender. God, for example, is explicitly without gender in our Jewish tradition; and yet, the inherently gendered Hebrew language refers to God exclusively as “He.”

Gender accuracy, done right, needn’t be noticeable, let alone jarring. None of our current CCAR prayer books refers to God with gendered language, and the English flows seamlessly.

At this season of sfirat ha-omer, counting the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to at Sinai, we read Pirkei Avot.

Many of us are familiar with Pirkei Avot, or at least some of its most famous aphorisms. For example: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who is strong? Those who conquer their impulses. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their lot.”[i] Did you notice that this translation is gender-accurate? Other translations render: “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men,”[ii] and so forth. Clearly, though, the lesson is valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, there’s no reason to believe that even the ancient rabbis intended their teaching to refer only to men.

In his new book on Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that the title of the book “[l]iterally … means The Chapters of the Fathers[iii] The word avot may indeed mean “fathers.” However, the way a gendered language works, avot can also mean “ancestors.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz writes that we might understand the word even more broadly: “The Hebrew word avah (of which avot is plural) is found in Proverbs 1:30, meaning, ‘to lead through advice.’ Therefore, another way to understand the title of this work is The Chapters of Advice.”[iv] That latter title is descriptive of the book, chock full of Jewish wisdom but without halachah, which characterizes the larger work in which it’s found, the Mishnah.

I have often taught, surely not originally, that every translation is an interpretation. Since other options are available, those who translate the title “Ethics of the Fathers” are choosing to emphasize the gender of its authors. I typically refer to Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Sages.”

Why does it matter?

  1.  Honesty. All of Pirkei Avot is articulated in the names of rabbis – that is, men of a certain class and education. However, Pirkei Avot is likely replete with mansplaining, that is, women’s ideas repeated by and credited to men. No generation is without its wise women and men, but women of the Mishnaic period would not have been credited with their own ideas. Moreover, all the rabbis quoted in Pirkei Avot had mothers, and almost all had wives, who had doubtless imparted significant insight to them. We must shed any doubt that women’s words and ideas are included in Pirkei Avot. Therefore, the suggestion that the book includes only “Ethics of the Fathers” is simply false.
  2. Respect. In a patriarchal society, such as one that gives voice only to men, women are undervalued. While our own culture is blessedly less patriarchal as that of Second Century Palestine, we would be wrong to insist that patriarchal influence has disappeared. When we unnecessarily and inaccurately credit only men’s wisdom in the past, we imply that men are the exclusive source of insight, even today. When we translate, we should open up the possibility that a sage could be a person of any gender. Doing so, we indicate that every person’s wisdom is equally valuable.
  3. Inspiration. Women who are rabbis of my generation often speak of the first time they saw or even just heard about a female rabbi. Previously, they had never internalized the fact that they could become rabbis or religious authorities of any kind, even if they knew that regular ordination of women as rabbis had begun in 1972. While we cannot name women who were sages during the Mishnaic period, by translating Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Fathers,” we close the possibility that a woman could be a sage. Using an accurate English name of the book that isn’t gender-bound, young women and girls may see themselves as they should, fully included in the chain of Jewish tradition that stretches from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to this very day.

When I was ordained, half of my classmates were women. However, at that time, only twenty-eight years ago this month, the HUC-JIR faculty did not include even one tenured professor who wasn’t male. This month, new rabbis are being ordained by a long-tenured rabbinic scholar who is the College’s Provost, and she’s a woman. For the next generation of rabbis – and, more broadly, of the Jewish people, increasingly even in some corners of the Orthodox world – the term “sage” may finally include women.

As we count the days from Egypt to Sinai, reading Pirkei Avot this year, let us assure that our language is honest, accurately reflecting the past rather than the way that the past presented itself. Let our words convey respect for every person, regardless of gender, as we continue to dismantle the patriarchy. And let us inspire every Jew, of every gender and of every coming generation, to lead us into a future filled with wisdom.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Avot 4.1.
[ii] Ibid., Sefaria translation.
[iii] Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2018, p. xi.
[iv] Ibid.

Categories
Passover Pesach

Opening the Door, Eyes Wide Open

On Friday night, we will send the youngest among us to open our doors to the promise of perfect redemption. This year, though, that promise feels more distant than ever, even unattainable: Humans, far from being God’s partners in bringing salvation, continue to destroy the world.

We are taught, by the ancient rabbis in the Mishnah and also in the holy Quran: “One who kills a single human being is compared to one who destroys the entire world.”[i]

Hatred has annihilated God’s creation repeatedly.

On March 15, 2019, fifty human lives were snuffed out. Their crime? Being Muslims at prayer.

On October 27, 2018, eleven precious souls were taken from this Earth. Their crime? Being Jews at prayer.

On June 12, 2016, forty-nine human beings were executed. Their crime? Being gay men, or in the presence of gay men, at a night club.

On June 17, 2015, nine of God’s children were shot to death. Their crime? Being Black people at a Bible Study.

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3000 lives were taken. Their crime? Being Americans, or among Americans, at work or on an airplane.

And I have listed only a small fraction of these horrors in the current century.

In the last century, Pastor Martin Niemoller, in the wake of the Nazi genocide, initially imagined himself to have been among those who had resisted Hitler and his homicidal hatred. Then, he visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. At the crematorium, he saw the dates throughout which a quarter million victims had been incinerated there, 1933-1945. Niemoller recognized his culpability. He had not begun standing up to Hitler until 1937. Only then, Pastor Niemoller began to hold himself to account for the slaughter, in words that later became a famous poem:[ii]

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

If we are to send our children to the door with integrity, we must declare that we will never be silent in the face of hatred.

When they come for Muslims, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for African Americans, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for queer folks, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for immigrants, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for Republicans or Democrats, for Americans or Asians, for Christians or Jews, for country folk or city dwellers, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

Speaking out is powerful. The rabbis taught, in words also inscribed in the holy Quran: One who saves a single life is credited with saving the entire world.[iii]

As our young ones open the doors on Friday night, we pray that they do so with eyes that shine with the promise of a bright future. We who are adults, while smiling for our little ones, must open our eyes wide both to all that plagues God’s creation and to our power and responsibility to be God’s partners in salvation.


[i] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32.

[ii] Joseph Coohill, ”Martin Niemoller, ‘First They Came…’ – Quote or No Quote,”  Professor Buzzkill, November 6, 2018.

[iii] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Categories
Immigration

Tornillo: “Shut It Down!” And the Commentary Is Important.

I was privileged to join a bold and visionary group of midwestern Reform rabbis — led by Rabbis Bruce Elder, Miriam Terlinchamp, Joshua Whinston, Jonah Zinn, and Todd Zinn — on a November pilgrimage  to the U.S.-Mexican border in and near El Paso, Texas. The centerpiece of that visit was at Tornillo, a tent-city detention facility for immigrant teenagers. A rally outside the Tornillo camp prominently featured the chant, “Shut It Down!”

I participated in the pilgrimage as the CCAR Board’s representative. I am not at all new to immigration activism — In June, for example, I was arrested, in a civil disobedience action related to immigration at the Arkansas Capitol as part of the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign. However, in mid-November, I didn’t yet feel fully comfortable as I joined the chants, “Shut It Down.”

Today, after further research, I am.

First, some words about my reluctance. Several years ago, URJ Greene Family Camp, one of my two cherished camp homes, had served as a facility where unaccompanied minor immigrants were housed. The nonprofit provider inside the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was also the provider at our camp. Moreover, our colleague, Rabbi Ben Zeidman, who is deeply committed to immigration justice, had visited inside the Tornillo camp with an interfaith clergy delegation which had found conditions to be acceptable. For a moving piece about the important work of Greene Family Camp in those days, please read these words by my friend and fellow Greene alum, Mandy Karp Golman.

The more I learned, though, the more I became convinced that the situation has changed. The facility at Tornillo must be promptly closed, the children detained there must be united with U.S. sponsors without delay, and we must strongly advocate against the establishment of  similar facilities.

During the summer, massive public outcry forced the Trump Administration to back down on its policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from the children who accompanied them. What most Americans still do not know is that teenage immigrants continue to be separated from responsible non-parental adults with whom they arrive at the border — most often older siblings, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. We must protest all family separations, absent evidence of abuse or significant felony charges. These separations have massively increased the numbers of supposedly “unaccompanied” minors now in U.S. detention.

Back in the days when URJ Greene Family Camp was partnering with BCFS, that nonprofit provider actively sought U.S. sponsors for the truly unaccompanied minors who were in federal custody. Today, government policy has dramatically curtailed BCFS efforts in this regard, putting teens and potential sponsors at great risk. Potential sponsors reasonably fear coming forward in the current environment, exposing them to potential deportation. In fact, the process of seeking sponsors often serves as “bait” to lure family members into processes that may result in their deportation.

The result is a massive multiplication in the numbers of incarcerated teens — and the length, perhaps indefinite, or until they turn eighteen and are eligible for deportation — whose only crime is arriving at our border, seeking freedom in the Land of the Free.

Torah is clear: “You must not oppress strangers, nor harm them” (Exodus 22:21). Our government is perpetrating grave, even permanent, damage, upon a massive and increasing number of young people at our border. For that reason, I am delighted that our Reform Movement has officially joined the Close Tornillo Coalition.

Now, you have the commentary. Let us all raise our voices to demand that our government “Shut It Down!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Categories
Conversion Genealogy

Genes Don’t Constitute the Covenant; People Do

I have never submitted my DNA for analysis of my ethnic identity, and I am determined not to do so. I suspect that the findings would be unsurprising: My family has been traced back to each ancestor’s immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, all as Jews.

This week, though, we read about an older lineage, dating back to Abraham and Sarah, biblical ancestors whose historicity cannot be attested. For millennia, Jews have seen themselves as descendants of those first men and women who set off from hearth and home to serve one God.[i] We who live the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah today are their descendants, whether or not our genealogy could be traced back to them, and even if such people never lived. The patriarchal/matriarchal “history” is true, whether it happened or not.

I have often pointed to my own skin color and asked, “Does anybody believe that this pigmentation is naturally occurring in the middle east?” My question is as facile as it is rhetorical, and is meant to illustrate that each Jew – including those like me, with a “purely Jewish” known lineage; and those unlike me, people who entered the Covenant in their own lifetimes – enjoys an equal claim as an heir of our Jewish heritage. Even though the origin of skin pigmentations is more complex than I let on,[ii] a careful study of Jewish history indicates periods of significant conversion and/or intermarriage that brought people of diverse origins into the Covenant.[iii]

Modern rabbis face the “Jewish lineage” issue frequently. With some regularity, people present themselves to us as Jews on the basis of a DNA test, despite having never known that some of their ancestors were Jewish. Christians with an ancestor who might have been Jewish at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition may come to us understanding themselves to be conversos, Jews who have merely pretended to be Christians, albeit for five centuries or longer. Others come to us because they have recently learned a previously deep, dark family secret that a grandmother or great—grandmother was Jewish. When the claimed lineage is direct in the maternal line, we may be faced with an assertion that the person is already Jewish, not requiring conversion. Indeed, if that lineage can be proven, some rabbis would agree with that claim.[iv]

American Reform Judaism, from its outset, downplayed Jewish genetics, and even peoplehood, emphasizing religiosity instead. In 1885, our Reform forbears wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As time went on, the matter became more complicated. In 1937, particularly mindful of European persecutions, Reform rabbis wrote in the Columbus Platform: “Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by a heritage of faith.” They further emphasized, “The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community.”

In our own age, too many people, groups, and nations hang on to disappearing notions of their genetic purity. Israel’s nation-state law and the rise of white nationalism in the United States are particularly pernicious examples. Liberal Jews must not participate in racial purity tests, however well intentioned.

Ever eager to work with candidates for conversion, I welcome each one with open arms. When a conversion inquiry comes from a person with a Jewish partner, I do not assume that their motivation for seeking conversion is purely “for the sake of the relationship.” When a person comes with no familial connection to the Jewish community, I am confident that, with time, the ger tzedek, righteous convert, can become an heir to the Jewish heritage no less than those who have been Jewish all their lives. When greeting people who approach my office with claims to Jewish ancestry, but no Jewish upbringing or education, I am eager to help that person explore whether or not Jewish faith and community are right for them.

Then, if and when the time comes, when the person emerges from the mikvah, after a long and comprehensive process, that person is a Jew for all purposes[v] a lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

 

[i] Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, and also Rebekah in Genesis 24 and
[ii] Ann Gibbons, “How Europeans evolved white skin,” Science, April 2, 2015.
[iii] See, for example, the statement in Exodus 12:38 that the Children of Israel left Egyptian bondage with a “mixed multitude;” or modern scholarship, for example: James Xue, Todd Lencz, Ariel Darvasi, Itsik Pe’er, Shai Carmi, “The time and place of European admixture in Ashkenazi Jewish history,” Plos, April 4, 2017.
[iv] Traditionally interpreted Jewish Law, loosely based on Mishnah Kiddush 3:12.
[v] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b.
Categories
gender equality News Social Justice

King David, Bill Clinton, and Progressives’ Culpability for Sexual Misconduct

This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.

While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]

Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.

Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.

We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.

Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.

[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/opinion/pope-francis-catholic-church-resign.html?rref=%2Fbyline%Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.