A Little Twitter Trick

Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.

I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag.  Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!

This works better the closer we get to Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!

Shimon Says: Listen!

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. – Pirkei Avot 1:17

Here I am on the Internet, multiplying words – the irony does not escape me.  We live in talky times. Nothing goes uncommented: Bruce Jenner, Nepal, Supreme Court, Hillary, Iran, Syria, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore.  The news is rarely merely reported; it is interpreted, commented upon, analyzed. Multiplying words.

We talk, but we rarely listen. When we listen, we wish to comment. We want our news to be interactive, because we all have something to say.

But Shimon tells us, “Listen.” Be quiet and just listen, really listen.

Listening without comment is hard work. Listening and just taking it all in will exhaust most people. Listening and imagining the world of the person talking will make a strong woman want to lie down for a while.

Talk is, as they say, cheap. It is easy to have opinions. It is easy to tell others what they should do, ought to do, need to do. It is hard just to listen.

And yet recall the time someone listened, really listened, to you. Recall what a gift it is, just to listen.

If this post inspires you to listen, here’s a project for listening.

Does Leviticus 18 Forbid Same Sex Marriage?

You shall not lie with man as with woman. It is a toh-eh-vah. – Leviticus 18:22

We read this verse in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. It is usually quoted and interpreted out of its context. When LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage are in the news, we tend to hear it quoted often and unwisely.

The context was set in verse 3-4:

You will not do according to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you will not do according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I will bring you, nor shall you walk in their laws. You will do my doings, and you will keep my laws to walk in them. I am the Eternal your God.

Verses 6-19 then go through a long list of people whose nakedness should not be uncovered, some discussions of defiling (including land and beasts.) Something to note: the verb l’da-at, “to know,” does not appear in this chapter. Instead we get a series of other verbs, “uncover nakedness,” “lie with,” “defile.”

And yet l’da-at is the verb the Bible generally uses for loving sex. Adam “knows” Eve in Genesis 4:1. Sometimes, as with Jacob and his wives, the verb is “he went in,” vayavo elecha. But the verbs from Chapter 18 of Leviticus, the verbs “uncover nakedness”  or “lie with” are used. What do they denote, precisely? We see them elsewhere in Torah  in the descriptions of Lot’s daughters having sex with Lot, and in the rape of Dinah, to name just two examples.

The practices forbidden in chapter 18 of Leviticus may be sexual on the surface, but they are not what goes on between two consenting people. The verbs used are the verbs used elsewhere to denote rape and incest. Even in translation, they are different: “uncovered his nakedness” and “lie with.”

Chapter 18 of Leviticus is saying that it is forbidden to copy the religious practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Then it gets specific, listing sexual practices that, judging from the way the verbs are used elsewhere in the text, suggest incest and/or rape.

Just because a thirteen year old might read all of these translated verbs as euphemisms for sex doesn’t mean that they are the same thing as sex between a happy couple. If the parallels to Dinah and Lot apply, those apparent euphemisms may have more to do with rape, or incest, or ignorance or foreign religious practices, or some combination of them.

And as for the word toh-eh-vah, which has often been translated as “abomination,” it’s the word Torah applies to the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. (Apparently one or the other group was fond of shellfish: eating it is toh-eh-vah, too.)  The word denotes a particular type of transgression – anything else is an addition in the translation.

The moral of this story is that there is more to understanding a text than simply matching the words up with literal meanings. Also, that a poorly interpreted text can cause profound hurt. I am glad that newer editions of Plaut and other commentaries have seen fit to drop the “abomination” translation.

(P.S. – And seriously, folks, if you are going to scarf down shrimp cocktail, I don’t want to hear this nonsense about abominations in the Bible. Enough, already.)

Transformation

The news today has been depressing: Baltimore. Iran. Chernobyl. Nepal. Drought. Most of these stories involve human failure to listen, to think, to care, or to act. Some of them are also natural disasters, infinitely complicated by human failures. It’s so, so sad.

So it lifted my heart today to see something new in my garden: a brand-new monarch butterfly drying out his wings. This creature just emerged from his chrysalis and was taking advantage of the noontime sun, getting his wings ready for flight:

NewMonarchWeb

He is sitting on a grape leaf, the leaf under which his chrysalis hung for the last little while:

Chrysalis

“Well, how nice, rabbi,” some of you may be thinking. “But what does a butterfly have to do with all the grief in the world today? How can people change enough to make any difference at all?”

Change is hard. Ask the butterfly – he had to struggle to get out of that jade box! For him, transformation was inevitable: nature had hard-wired it into his system. For human beings, change is harder. We are stubborn, and sure of our own ideas.

In Jewish tradition, this is where prayer comes into the picture. Human beings rarely change on their own in Torah: they change when they come into contact with the Divine, with that which is greater than themselves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it so much better than I ever will, so I will finish with a quote from the introduction to his Siddur:

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

That’s why I pray, today and every day, for a world in which justice is available to every person, a world in which wisdom and goodness win out over foolishness and meanness. I pray for change, beginning with me.

More Diverse Than You Think: Blogs by Jews of Color

In this part of my series, More Diverse Than You Think, I’d like to introduce you to the voices of Jews of color via some excellent blogs. I’m a regular reader of most of these, and I discovered some new ones in the process of researching this post. Some of these folks are well-known outside the blogosphere; most are not. All are well worth your click and your time reading.

If you are thinking, “Who is a Jew of color?” you aren’t the first person to ask that question. I recommend you check out Erika Davis’ post Who Is A Jew of Color?

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve left off some people whose blogs seem to be dormant right now, and I am absolutely certain there are blogs that I’m yet to discover. If you are aware of a currently-active blog I’ve missed, I hope you will share it with a link in the comments.

Individual Bloggers:

black, gay, and jewish: a gay black woman’s discovery of her jewish self is a blog by Erika Davis, who also writes for the JMN blog. To learn more about her, check out the About page on her blog. I like reading her because she challenges my assumptions and makes me think.

Afroculinaria is the blog home for Michael Twitty, a food writer and culinary historian. He works to preserve the food heritage of the South, and to holding up the culinary contributions of Africans and African-Americans to the American menu.  He’s a feeder and a healer, and quite a writer, too.

Manishtana is one of the longest-running blogs in this group, at various addresses since 2009. It’s tag line is “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe.” The blogger describes himself as “Born Jewish, Frum From Birth.” He’s an interesting man with a lot to say; be sure to check out the extensive archive.

Sandra Lawson blogs at My Musings. She bills herself as “Sociologist, Personal Trainer, Food Activist, Weight Lifter, Vegan, Writer, Public Speaker & I’m Queer.”   She’s also the first African-American student accepted into the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Rabbinical Program. I had the pleasure of meeting Sandra at a retreat for LGBTQI Jewish clergy last winter and I can vouch for the fact that she has lots of interesting things to say.

PopChassid is the blogchild of Elad Nehorai, whose tweets I have admired for some time, although I only discovered his blog today. I learned about the blog reading Who Is A Jew of Color? on Black, Gay and Jewish. I am looking forward to reading his longer-form work, since I already enjoy what he writes in 140 characters. Elad describes himself as “wacky secular turned religious Jew who’s just trying to make the world a better place.”

Institutional Blogs:

The Jewish Multiracial Network sponsors the JMN Blog. It features a group of bloggers who are in themselves a diverse group, including a college student, a psychiatrist, adoptive parents, and a labor doula. They address a wide variety of topics.

Be’chol Lashon, the topic of yesterday’s post, also staffs Jewish&, an excellent blog on the My Jewish Learning website.  One thing I’ve noticed about Jewish& is its rich “Comments” sections – discussions there are remarkably civil and pertinent.

Check out these blogs and expand your Jewish world. I hope that readers who know of other blogs that should have been on this list will add them via the comments!

More Diverse Than You Think: Meet Be’chol Lashon

Be’chol Lashon is Hebrew for “In Every Tongue.” It’s also the name of an organization that fosters “an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.” They’re very serious about it, sponsoring research, community projects, grants, and not least a remarkable website full of resources for education about the wild variety of Jews in the world.

Here in the United States, we have a tendency to think that most Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. In fact, even here in the US roughly 20% of the Jewish population is something else: Sephardic, Persian, African-American, Asian, Mizrahi – and there I’m talking solely about born Jews.  There are also a lot of us who don’t look Ashkenazi because we converted to Judaism, and our ancestors are Irish, Dutch, German, or from somewhere else, like the Pacific Islands.

Be’chol Lashon seeks to stand on our common ground of Torah while celebrating the differences among Jews worldwide. It’s an ambitious project but one that I find inspiring.

Some critics may ask if this vision of Judaism is authentic: will such an embrace of diversity loosen our grip on Torah? Is this a fad? It’s a fair question. For an answer, I look to the stated goals of Be’chol Lashon:

  1. Build networks of global Jewish leaders
  2. Strengthen diverse Jewish communities around the world
  3. Educate Jews and the general public about Jewish diversity
  4. Increase the Jewish population by encouraging those who would like to be part of the Jewish people

It seems to me that these goals address a core value of Torah, the love of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. They strive for an ingathering of the exiles, in this case, not a physical ingathering to the Land, but an ingathering of neshamot, of spirits. Too many Jews have been exiled from the larger Jewish community on account of superficial matters (“You don’t look Jewish!”) and in this generation after the Holocaust, it’s time we got over such trivial things.

If you are interested in expanding your own Jewish horizons, or if this dream of a larger, vibrant Jewish community speaks to you, check out their website, especially the educational resources.

The Jewish world is both larger and smaller than most of us imagine. It’s time we embraced our whole mishpocha [family.]

More Diverse Than You Think: Meet JIMENA

Jewish Population in the United States 2013 estimated the US Jewish population at just over 6.72 million, with more than 80% of US Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. That means that their ancestors hail from Eastern Europe and likely spoke some form of Yiddish. When someone talks about a person “looking Jewish” they are referring to this majority group.

However, the remaining 20% (more or less) of the Jewish population is quite diverse. The two next largest groups are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors hail from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.

If all you know about American Jewry is Ashkenazim and Fiddler on the Roof, you’re missing out. There’s a wonderful online resource for learning more about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews: the website of an organization called JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. There you can read history, sample video, find recipes, and listen to music. JIMENA also has a speakers bureau and sponsors programming to raise the profile of these often-forgotten communities.

It’s a great big Jewish world out there, and a very diverse one here on our continent. Check out JIMENA and begin to get a taste of it!