What is Amalek?

March 14, 2014
Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a passage from Deuteronomy 25  about Amalek, a tribe who attack the Israelites as they go through the desert:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt, how he met you on the road, and struck the hindmost, all that were enfeebled at the back, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess,  you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Amalek is a frequent topic in scripture (the topic comes up again and again: in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1st Samuel, Psalms, and 1st Chronicle) and in rabbinic and later writing, right down to the present day. We have identified various characters as “Amalek” throughout our history, from Haman to Adolf Hitler.

But as modern people, as people who have been the object of genocide ourselves, how can we talk about obliterating an entire nation of people from the face of the earth? What are we to make of this?

It is tempting to identify any anti-Semite or even a group who hate Jews as Amalek. However, when we look through the Bible, we see many tribes who warred with the Israelites and later with the Jews, and only Amalek merits this “wipe them out” command. There is no tribe of people who identify themselves as Amalek today; there are no Moabites, no Canaanites, no Philistines, no Assyrians, no Babylonians. There are people who live in those lands, but the Biblical civilizations are dust.

In our time, Amalek is a lifestyle, an attitude: Amalek is the idea that it is OK to prey on the weak. Maimonides taught us, in Guide of the Perplexed, that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is not a commandment to hatred; rather it is a commandment to drive Amalek-like behavior from the world. We can see Amalek in business practices that trade on the desperation of others. We can see Amalek in schemes that prey on the sick and the ignorant. If we read Chapter 3 of Esther, we can see Amalek in those who scapegoat minorities to enhance their own power.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written, “Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence.” There have been many times in history when Jews have been weak and preyed-upon by the strong. Now in a different time in history, in many ways, we are strong. We are commanded to remember and to act: not for revenge, not for our own satisfaction, but to fulfill the commandment that Amalek shall be blotted out from under heaven.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. – Jorge Santayana

Image: LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by zeevveez


American Jerusalem

January 16, 2014
LeviStrauss

Levi Strauss & Co. on Battery St. in San Francisco

Normally I save my writing about film for the Jewish Film blog, but I want to alert readers to a new film I saw this past week.  American Jerusalem tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

If you want to see the film, you’re in luck. DVD’s are available through the film’s website, and screenings are coming up at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the National Museum of Jewish History in Phildelphia, PA, and at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival.

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org


Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

Advice from Our Uncles

December 18, 2013
In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...

Decoration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shemayah and Avtalion received the Torah from them. Shemayah said: Love work; hate domination; and do not get too chummy with the government. – Pirkei Avot 1.10

This is a quotation from Pirkei Avot (peer-KAY ah-VOTE), The Verses of the Fathers, a collection of sayings by early rabbinic teachers. Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era). My friend and colleague Rabbi Amitai Adler teaches that while most translations go heavy on the formal language, these are homespun sayings meant as advice, much of it gained in the school of life. Hence, in my translation, words like “chummy,” and my private name for this document: “Advice from Our Uncles.”

Every now and then I return to Pirkei Avot for inspiration. I love its down-to-earth point of view and its timelessness. For instance, what a commentary on the arguments swirling around 21st century America!

Love work - Contribute to society, for the sake of your own dignity and for the good of society. Don’t live forever on the work of others, whether you are the heir of plutocrats or the recipient of public assistance. Also, love those who work: don’t exploit people who work with their hands. (By the way, under the present laws of the U.S., I am not convinced that anyone is needlessly feeding on the public dole: it is extremely difficult to qualify. I include this here on the chance that a reader personally knows someone who is scamming benefits. I do not know such a person, but I know people who go hungry because they can’t get benefits and haven’t been able to get a job in years.)

Hate domination - Shemaya and Avtalion knew domination: they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire. But it is interesting that they did not limit their hatred to any specific agent of domination. My interpretation? This is both permission to hate something (domination) but a subtle warning that not all domination is from the government. They knew the domination of ideology, also – Jewish society was beginning to splinter into various conflicting ideologies, that ultimately would give rise to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Sinat chinam would destroy everything: the Temple, the society, local institutions, families, life as they knew it. Demagoguery is as destructive as any tornado.

Don’t get too chummy with the government - I can hear my libertarian friends cheering this one, but notice that it doesn’t say “get rid of the government” (in fact,  Pirkei Avot 3.2  warns us to pray for the government, because without it, people would eat one another alive!) This is about putting too much faith in “connections” – thinking that because we “know someone” the things that are wrong in the society can’t touch us. The ancient Sadducees thought that because they were noisy about being “friends of Rome” that the supporters of the Temple party would be safe from Rome.  Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Second Temple reminds us just how wrong they were.

Rabbi Meir Tamari wrote that over the centuries, apologists for various economic theories have tried to sell the idea that Torah teaches socialism, or communism, or capitalism, when it fact what it teaches is kindness and moderation in all things.

Love work, hate domination, and don’t get too chummy with the government: words to live by, I think. Work hard, and respect those who work. Love those who want to work, and don’t prevent them from getting decent work, or from getting paid for it. Hate domination in all its forms, and question anyone who wants to distract us and dominate us by pointing to scapegoats. Don’t get too chummy with the government: be skeptical, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

What do you think?

—–

If you live in the Bay Area, I am teaching two classes on Jewish texts this winter, starting in January: Beyond the Basics, Approaches for Text Study (starts January 16 in Berkeley) and Pirkei Avot: Wisdom from the Early Sages (starts January 5 in Lafayette). For more information, including registration, click on the link for the individual class.


Are You a Cultural Jew?

October 19, 2013
Roxie's Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich

Roxie’s Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich (Photo credit: GregoryH)

“I’m a cultural Jew.”

People generally say it after they find out I’m a rabbi. I know exactly what’s going on when they say it: they suspect that I will judge them a Bad Jew, because they aren’t “religious.”  And either they are cringing at the prospect of judgment or they are angry at the prospect of judgment. Either way, it’s a barrier.

I wish I could convince them that I know enough about Jewish history and Jewish scripture to withhold my judgment. Whatever the ideal of “a good Jew” one may have in mind, history offers a wild diversity of Jewish role models. Secular Jews have been active in many of the great social justice movements of our time. They have been influential philosophers, artists, scientists, musicians, lawyers, actors, writers, and economists.  Their Jewish cultural identity has informed their lives and work.

Some secular Jewish role models:

I am much more interested in what you are doing about being Jewish, than that it happens in a way approved by some particular corner of the tribe.  There are many ways to be Jewish. Let’s celebrate them all.


What is the Kotel?

September 29, 2013
Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...

Photo of the Kotel in the early 1900′s by one of the American Colony Photographers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Kotel” is one of the most famous holy places in the Jewish world.

“Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi” is Hebrew for the “Western Wall,” a retaining wall built by Herod the Great. It is all that is left of the Second Temple, built in 20 BCE (Before the Common Era) and destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman armies of Titus during their sack of Jerusalem.

Among gentiles it has sometimes been known as the “Wailing Wall” but that term has never been in common use among Jews. It got that name from the sound of the prayers of devout Jews who made pilgrimage there during the centuries of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule.

Many visitors to the Kotel write prayers on scraps of paper and press the paper into the crevices in the Wall.

Today the Kotel functions as an open-air synagogue. It has been in the news because of controversy over the norms for prayer at the site. For 25 years, the Women of the Wall have pressed for the right to pray aloud, to read aloud from the Torah, and to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) at the Kotel.  Their struggle is ongoing.

 

 


My Dinner Party

September 9, 2013
Dinner table set for dinner party

Photo credit: Toby Simkin

When Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was first exhibited in 1979, I was earning my living as a potter, making dinnerware and other stoneware goods in Tennessee. I remember poring over photographs of it in Ceramics Monthly, and wishing I could travel to see the exhibition. I loved the idea of a cross-time cross-cultural dinner party with all the great women of history sitting together.

Just now, I read a blog that reminded me of that: “Three Dinner Guests List” on the Sojourning with Jews blog. Ruth wrote about a game she plays with her family, from an issue of Bon Appetit: “If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would they be, and why?”

Of course, part of the game is limiting the list to just three, but as I tried to imagine my own dinner party, I thought about how many wonderful Jewish women I wish I could have met:

Doña Beatriz de Luna, also known as Gracia Nasi would top my list.  Her current Wikipedia entry begins: “Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi was one of the wealthiest women of Renaissance Europe,” but there was so much more to her than her wealth! Widowed in her twenties, she was left with an infant daughter and a partnership in the House of Mendes, one of the great banking houses of the time. She and her husband were Conversos, secret Jews, whose families had been forcibly converted to Christianity but who secretly maintained their commitment to Jewish life and tradition. Besides being a businesswoman, Doña Gracia also managed one of the largest refugee operations in European history, moving converso families out of Spain and Portugal into the Ottoman Empire, where they could openly practice their Judaism and where they were no longer under the threat posed by the Inquisition. At the same time, she was a high-profile refugee herself, moving from city to city as politics shifted. She eventually moved to Istanbul where she died in 1569.

Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained a rabbi in modern times, lived in Germany as Hitler rose to power. We know tantalizingly little about her, except that she had a huge determination to become a rabbi, and the scholarship to back up her desire. She graduated from the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Academy for the Science of Judaism, in Berlin. She eventually received a private ordination from Rabbi Max Dienemann, after rejection from other rabbis who deemed her request too controversial.  She served small Jewish communities in Germany, taught Torah, and in 1942, at age 40, was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she worked alongside Dr. Viktor Frankl helping people cope with their disorientation. She gave lectures at the camp on various topics of Torah. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered there.

Glückel of Hameln wrote a memoir, one of our best sources for what Jewish life in Central Europe was like during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was a businesswoman, a wife, and a mother of 14 children (and she found time to write!) Her diaries give us information about all sorts of aspects of life, from the markets of Hamburg and Hameln to the hysteria over false messiah Shabbatai Zvi.

Lillian Wald was a social worker, who founded the Henry Street Settlement House. She began work as a nurse, looking to improve the quality of life for immigrants in the tenements of New York City in the early 20th century, but she later worked to convince world leaders that children’s health and the health of nations are inextricably linked.

Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, was a rabbi’s daughter born in 1860. She was an essayist, translator, and editor, and worked both to build American Jewish culture and to support the ZIonist project. She was the first woman student at the Jewish Theological Institute, but was admitted only after she gave her word not to claim credit for her academic work there. She was a “silent partner” with Louis Ginsberg on his great work, “Legends of the Jews,” a compendium of midrash that has seen multiple editions.

… This is getting too long for a blog post!  I’d also like to invite Berurya, Imma Shalom, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir, Judith Resnickthe list goes on.  And that’s without getting into a list of wonderful women still living!

Who would you invite to your Jewish Dinner Party?


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