The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.
I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:
In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!
Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”
Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot, 1:14
I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Isby John Scalzi. However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?
I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?
Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column. Here is my account:
Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.
Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.
It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy. Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)
Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.
If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.
However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?
In my case:
What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?
If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:
I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”
So now: what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?
As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.
If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?
If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.
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.
Yossi ben Yochanon from Jerusalem said: “Let your home be open wide to the multitudes. — Pirkei Avot 1:5
I posted last night just before Shabbat that we were going to have our first Shabbat dinner in our new home. It was wonderful! Our friend Dawn came, and we blessed and talked and had a wonderful time. The food was simple but it was eaten in the glow of Shabbat candles.
Now I grant you, having one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone I call “sister” to Shabbat dinner is hardly a wild act of hospitality. Still, it set a tone: we are not going to be hermits in that house, Linda and I. We are going to have guests at the table as often as we can. Food won’t be fancy (not with my cooking!) but it will be eaten with others.
I went looking for the source of the midrash that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides, and I found this article by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg. It seems that in the commentary on the mishnah above, Pirkei Avot 1:5, the talmudic commentary gives the example of Job, whose home was open on four sides to all guests. He is then compared unfavorably to Abraham, who actually ran out on the road to welcome his guests in Genesis 18. If Abraham was even more hospitable than Job, then his tent was also open on four sides, or so the reasoning goes. The point is that hospitality is a mitzvah, an key part of being a Jew.
So we’ve begun. I’m sure it will be better when we have chairs for everyone and the oven actually works!
Every time someone is reported to have done something racist and all his or her friends begin hollering that good ole George or Paula isn’t “a racist” as if that is the worst, worst thing in the world one person could call another, I want to bang my head on the wall.
For starters, can we quit worrying about who’s a racist and start talking about the effects of racist acts and words? I think we’ll get further in changing people’s behavior. A person who doesn’t intend anything bad can still do a bad thing. I can step on your foot without setting out to do so. The fact that I didn’t plot it with malice does not change the pain I cause when I do it, and i fact, I should look where I step. At the very least I should remove my foot from your instep immediately!
Jewish tradition has a lot to say about unintentional sin: we call such a sin a “chet,” using a term for a missed archery target. Chapter 4 of Leviticus prescribes the proper offerings for atoning for such sins when they have been committed against God. Treating another human being with disrespect or discrimination, even if we do so unintentionally, is such a sin against God, because all human beings are created in the image of God. Someone who calls our sin to our attention (because obviously we didn’t know about it, it was unintentional) is doing us a favor, giving us a chance to redeem ourselves.
These days, with no Temple available for purification or sacrifice, the remedy for sin is teshuvah. (For a description of how to go about teshuvah, check out “The Jewish Cure for Guilt.”) Defensiveness will not work: defensiveness makes these things worse, not better. When I argue that a person who is bringing an unintentional sin to my attention is hallucinating or malicious or “playing the race card” I am missing the point and compounding the error. Those who rebuke me are letting me know how my actions or words came across, and now it is up to me to correct that — with teshuvah.
Secondly, the effect of my words is not limited to the hurt feelings or sensibilities of the listener who speaks up. My words effect all the other people who hear them and who may therefore decide that speaking that way is OK. We teach others with our actions and our speech, not only our children but also other adults. We teach when we fail to speak up about offensive language – when I let something pass, I give it tacit approval. When racist behavior and attitudes are as socially unacceptable as the n-word, we’ll be making real progress.
If I did not intend for my words to teach racism, how much more important is it for someone to let me know that that’s what I communicated? My intent has been obscured by clumsy words, and the words are teaching evil – better fix them, and fast!
Full disclosure: I was born in Tennessee in the mid-1950’s. My parents are white and during my lifetime, the family has been very prosperous. The only minority experience of which I was aware in childhood was that of being a Catholic in the very Protestant-Christian Southeastern US. I knew lots of African Americans as a kid, but until I was fourteen, all of them were domestic servants or manual laborers. My parents were open about thinking segregation was a good thing back in the 1960’s. I lived in an environment where I heard the “n-word” all the time, and the only sense I had that there was anything wrong with it was that “nice women don’t say that, they say ‘colored.'” Before I started school, I was explicitly taught that people with any African ancestors were not as smart as white people, and that “civil rights” was an unAmerican movement.
Thank heavens my parents sent me to school with the Dominican Sisters who taught me, and modeled for me, that treating people of color differently was wrong because all human beings are equal before God.
However, the sisters could not flip a switch in my head so that I suddenly became enlightened and would never do another racist thing or think another racist thought. I have said and done things in my life that make me cringe to remember them. I have done what I can to make teshuvah for those words and actions. I continue to make teshuvah for mistakes I make in the present. I do not kid myself that I will ever completely unlearn what I was taught as a child, but I can make an effort to do better, and to teach differently than I was taught.
My background on the subject is very simple to unpack: I was explicitly taught racism, and I am spending my adult life learning to speak and act and think in better ways. This does not make me a bad person – if anything, it is the mark of a good person that I am trying to be better, but only as long as I continue to grow in Torah and treat other human beings with respect.
I realize that for some other whites, things may be a bit less clear. But it is my observation, with my ears that were tuned as a child to such things, that nobody in the United States is untouched by race. Not a single one of us is truly color blind except for very young children (and there have been studies that show that they learn racism early.). Defensiveness speaks volumes, whether it is a liberal insisting frantically that Clarence Thomas‘s race is not an issue or a conservative insisting the same about Trayvon Martin. The mantra of “I don’t care if they are white, black, green or purple” just underlines otherness, and it reeks of desperation. The key word in that phrase is “they,” who are not “us.”
By the way – if this discussion sends some readers to thinking about the ways in which you feel that African Americans have been racist, understand that I am not talking about those behaviors. I’m talking only about the ways that whites talk and behave towards African Americans. Switching over to the “reverse racism” discussion is the equivalent of one child on the playground hollering that another started the trouble: it’s a ploy to change the subject. I’m talking right now about OUR behavior, not anyone else’s, and yes, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Torah calls us to love the stranger, to love those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. (Leviticus 10:10) The fact that it repeats this over and over again is a mark of how difficult it is to see someone different as a beloved child of God. How much the more so, if we have been programmed to see that person as dangerous, or stupid, or exotic?
Every time we say a blessing before a mitzvah, we say, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot [commandments]…” We are given the commandments so that we may become holy. We are not required to already be holy, just to do the work that will take us towards holiness. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say (Pirkei Avot 2:21):
It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.
How will we know when we are finished with the task? When can we congratulate ourselves that we don’t need to worry about racism anymore? Not in my lifetime, for sure – I know what’s in my head. If the day comes that I don’t feel the slightest urge to change my behavior in the presence of a black male, when I don’t hear my father’s or my grandmother’s voices in my head, when I no longer notice that the new friend I made is a person of color I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m not done.
For the past six months, I’ve been helping out at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA while Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin has been on sabbatical. She and her family have been living in Israel. I filled in on a part-time basis, assisting Rabbi Andrew Straus.
I grew up as a Jew at Temple Sinai. I began the process of formal conversion to Judaism when I knocked on Rabbi Steve Chester’s door in the early 90’s, and all my first lessons in what it meant to be Jewish happened in and around that big old wedding cake of a building. Later on, they sent me out into the big Jewish world, first doing committee work for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, and then as a regional board member for what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the URJ. I went on to work at URJ, and eventually decided that I would be happiest as a rabbi. I applied to Hebrew Union College, and was ordained in 2008. All the way through, I could feel the folks back at Sinai encouraging me.
I never thought I’d be back in Oakland, much less on staff at Sinai. The hardest part of the decision to become a rabbi was the fact that it was unlikely I’d ever live here, or be a regular at Sinai again. Then in the middle of my student years, one of my sons was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it was clear to me that with or without employment, my family needed me in Oakland. I bounced back and forth between Oakland and L.A. until ordination, and then I headed home for good after ordination.
Since then I’ve worked at a variety of positions and served a lot of people in California and over in Henderson, NV. Coffee Shop Rabbi came into being in 2010 when I decided to quit “looking for a job” and do the work I saw before me, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and meeting them in convenient places near their work or home. I did that, and taught classes, and provided funerals and grief support for the unaffiliated. I found the rabbinate for which I was born, best described by Hillel in Avot 1.12: Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace. [Be] one who loves one’s fellow creatures and brings them close to the Torah.
And then last fall I got the call from Rabbi MM, and had the chance to serve for a while at the congregation I have loved for all my Jewish life. It was a joy to give back, to serve the people who had been so good to me. It has been a pleasure to work with both Rabbi Straus and Cantor Ilene Keys, and to learn with them as I did so. I have enjoyed the day-to-day company of the office staff, something that the “Coffee Shop Rabbi” doesn’t have. I got to know people at Sinai that had been there all along, but we hadn’t met; old friends trusted me with new sides of them.
But this week Rabbi MM is returning, and while I’ll miss some things, I’m glad she’s back. I kept my teaching schedule during the past six months, but the work with unaffiliated Jews had to go on hold; there just wasn’t time for it. Now I’m chomping at the bit to go back. I’ll go back to advertising my services, and Lehrhaus Judaica has expanded my teaching schedule for the fall.
Will I miss Temple Sinai? Nope – I’ll still be there as a Jew in the pew! And I’ll still be doing work that I love, teaching Torah and hanging out with the Jews.
l’shalom [towards peace],
Rabbi Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi
P.S. My son is doing very well, by the way – he’s stable now, and is an artist-fabricator running the shop at an outfit called the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. (If you are curious, follow this link and watch the video. He’s the guy in the white tee shirt.)
“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)
I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.
I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.