Speak Up for Althea Bernstein

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This tweet from Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sums up the story pretty well: a young Black Jewish woman was attacked and set afire by a group of men in a car in Madison, WI, on June 24, 2020.

From the Madison Police Department’s incident report:

The MPD is investigating an assault on an 18-year-old bi-racial woman as a hate crime after she was burned with lighter fluid early Wednesday morning.

     The victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St. Her driver’s side window was down and she heard someone yell out a racial epithet. She looked and saw four men, all white. She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite.

     She drove forward, patted out the flames, and eventually drove home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital.

     Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid. She was treated for burns, and will need to make follow-up visits to access additional medical care.

      Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera.

https://www.cityofmadison.com/police/newsroom/incidentreports/incident.cfm?id=26640 accessed 6/29/2020.

While several “go fund me” funds have been set up, I have not been able to ascertain whether any of them will actually go to her (always, always check!). If any readers learn of a proper fund for her, please let us know in the Comments.

Change.org has a petition seeking justice for Ms. Bernstein, and you can sign it at this address.

Rachel Mankowitz on Jews of Color

I’ve got three or four half-finished attempts at an article about the situation of Jews of Color in the present time. Rachel Mankowitz says in this article what I wanted to say, and says it so much better!

Rachel Mankowitz is a writer and blogger and social worker in New York state. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog and her novel, “Yeshiva Girl” I recommend them both.

rachelmankowitz

            The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might…

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Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart – New Class Starts 7/9/2020

Image: King David with his harp, mosaic from the Gaza Synagogue, 6th c. CE. (Alexander Siviridov, Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The Book of Psalms is a treasury of poetry that expresses the full range of human emotion, from despair to ecstasy. Many traditional translations obscure the richness in the Psalms with flowery or euphemistic language, but the original psalms themselves are muscular, even raw, as they express the deepest truths of the heart.

I would like to study this 2500-year-old collection of human expression with you. Each week we will explore another Psalm in English; I will offer some insights from the Hebrew, and from various commentaries. Students bring their own insights to the mix. No Hebrew is required, although students who read Hebrew are welcome. 

Registrants will receive a Zoom link from me the day before the start of the course.

Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart will meet Thursday, July 9, 2020 thru Thursday, August 20, 2020, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM Pacific Time. For more information, and to register, please visit the course’s page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog. Sliding scale for tuition, and financial aid is available.

News! Intro to the Jewish Experience starts 7/19/2020

Image: Quilt by Barbara Kadden RJE, z”l, Genesis 12:1: YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.Photo by Ruth Adar.

Do you identify as Jewish, but feel like an outsider to Jewish community? Have you been assigned to take an “Intro” class? Would you like to explore Judaism as an adult, with adult topics and choices? 

This summer I am teaching Part A of “Introduction to the Jewish Experience,” a class designed to equip students for full participation in Jewish community. No Hebrew is required, although students will acquire some basic Hebrew or Yiddish vocabulary they are likely to encounter in Jewish settings.

The full course consists of three terms of eight sessions each. The terms may be taken in any order. This summer we will be offering Jewish Holidays and Life CycleThis term consists of a basic introduction to Jewish theology, the cycle of the Jewish year, and to the Jewish life cycle from cradle to grave.

I shall offer “Part B: Israel and Texts”  in Fall 2020 and “Part C: Jewish Diversity: A Big Jewish World,” in Winter 2020.

The course includes:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. God, Covenant, Mitzvah
  3. Fall Holiday Cycle: High Holy Days, Sukkot, Simchat Torah
  4. Spring Holiday Cycle: Purim, Passover, Shavuot
  5. National Holidays: Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, The Yoms, Tisha B’Av
  6. Death and Mourning in Jewish Communities
  7. Birth and Conversion – Welcoming New Jews
  8. Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Jewish Weddings

Classes will meet via Zoom on Sunday afternoons, Sunday, July 19, 2020 thru Sunday, September 6, 2020, 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM Pacific Time. For information about tuition (which is on a sliding scale) and registration, please visit the course page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog.

Shelach L’cha – Joshua’s Name

Summary of the portion:

  • Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Joshua and Caleb give a good report, but the rest of the spies say the land is too dangerous and the people are frightened.
  • God is furious, and threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel. Moses intercedes on the behalf of the people. God announces that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land – all others who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel.
  • Moses teaches the Israelites about taking challah, the observance of Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of fringes.

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change.

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hosea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yud, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save “Hoshia” you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

I gave this d’var Torah for the Tuesday Morning Minyan at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, in celebration of the beginning of my 26th year as a Jew. A quarter century ago I entered the mikveh and became a Jew; a wandering soul found her way home at last.

Prayer for a Change of Heart

Ribbono shel Olam, Ruler of all, my heart is broken.

A disease is ravaging my country,

A virus that seems utterly vicious in its attacks on the body.

Some who get it don’t even know they have it,

And others succumb after weeks of suffering.

This plague does not make all suffer equally.

It has turned a spotlight

On the cruelties in America:

The poor suffer more,

The homeless suffer more,

And people of color are especially hard hit,

Because the other disease, the one we have had for 400 years,

Has turned too many hearts to stone,

And has ruined too many lives to count.

We therefore repent of our sins:

The sin of systemic racism,

The sin of extreme income inequality,

And the sins of selfishness and unbounded ego.

You have told us, through your prophet Isaiah:

“Your hands are stained with crime—

“Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil;

“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

O Holy One, we are listening.

We will cease to do evil and learn to do good, so that

Our hearts of stone will turn back into flesh and blood.

For Your sake — for our own sakes — for the sake of the world —

We can do better, with Your help.

We will devote ourselves to justice.

We will not stand for murder.

We will uphold the rights of poor children and their families,

We will give aid to the wronged.

We make this effort in the knowledge

That we are Your hands in this world and

We can be the instruments of Your love.

Bless this effort, O God: give us the wisdom and strength

To own what is wrong and change it to right.

Then those who sowed with tears shall reap in joy.

Blessed is the one who lifts up the fallen,

who heals the sick,

the Love at the heart of the world.

Amen.

The Bloods of Your Brother: A Study from Mishnah Sanhedrin

Image: Drawing of the Council of the Sanhedrin in Solomon’s temple, by Gerhard Schott, circa 1723-1729. (Image courtesy of the Henry Wilson Coil Library & Museum of Freemasonry.)

In the United States, multiple people have been killed without benefit of a trial by the authorities (police.) In Israel, we have just seen the killing of an unarmed autistic man, Eyal Hallaq, by Israeli police officers. It seems a good time to reflect on the Jewish teachings regarding the value of a single life.

Mishnah Sanhedrin includes discussions among the rabbis on the rules governing the workings of rabbinical courts. It was written down in 200 CE, but had been transmitted from rabbi to student as Oral Torah for as many as 400 years before that. The customs and laws described go back even further, although we do not know exactly how far.

This particular section of the mishnah has to do with instructions to the witnesses in capital cases, cases in which the accused will be executed if found guilty. As you will see, the instructions remind witnesses of the seriousness of taking a life – in this case, the life of the accused. When the passage cites a passage in Torah, I will stop to give you that passage.

I thought about writing a summary, but the words of the mishnah are so powerful in and of themselves, and so pertinent to the killings we have seen lately, that I think anything I add will diminish them.

Here’s what the rabbis said to witnesses in a capital trial. As you read it, imagine that you are in the rabbinical court, listening as the presiding judge admonishes the witnesses:

How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man. Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry? Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases: in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.” For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

Then [God] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!”

Genesis 4:10 (from the Cain and Abel story)

Resuming Mishnah Sanhedrin :

It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones. Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”. Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.” And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

And now the cited passage from Leviticus:

If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment

Leviticus 5:1

Back to Mishnah Sanhedrin:

And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]

Which says:

When the righteous prosper the city exults; When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.

Proverbs 11:10

A little later on in the mishnah, it requires that if the accused in a capital case is convicted and has to be executed, then the first and if needed, the second blow must be given by the witnesses, for in testifying they take on responsibility for the death of this person.

Some questions for study:

  1. What are the rabbis saying to the witnesses? Can you restate it in your own words?
  2. It makes sense that a murderer is responsible for the blood of the murdered person. Why is a murderer also responsible for the descendants who will never be born?
  3. Why is a witness in a murder trial responsible for the blood of the convicted murderer, and for the descendants who will never be born?
  4. What are our responsibilities as Jews, when we are witnesses to violence?
  5. What do you imagine the rabbis would have to say about viral videos that make millions of us witnesses to violence and killings? By watching the video, do we become witnesses? What are our responsibilities as witnesses?

If anyone wants to take a crack at these questions in the comments, I welcome you!

I owe the inspiration for this post to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler.

Vidui – Because #BlackLivesMatter

Image: Black Lives Matter mural. (Betty Martin / Pixabay)

vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy. A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members. Some Jewish prayers include acrostics as a hidden message within the prayer. For a vidui, making an acrostic of the entire alphabet is a way of saying that our sins go from aleph to taf, or from A to Z – we confess to an entire library of sin. I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have done something to deserve it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Holy One forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young people who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness about speaking up when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the pain of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that failed to take responsibility for harm we have done

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our principles

For the sin of Presuming on the basis of skin color

May the Holy One forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking Offense when another points out that our words or actions were racist in effect, if not in intent

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Holy One forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology:

May the Holy One forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will bring change to our nation: the rule of fairness, justice and peace. May our hearts grow, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.


This is an updated version of a prayer I wrote and published on this blog a few years ago.

The Rabbi Who Juggled Fire

Image: Rabban Gamliel was famous for juggling lit torches during the Sukkot celebrations in the Temple. (Sukkah 53b) (Vagengeim / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I was a little child, I would read history and think enviously, “That must have been exciting – I wish I had a time machine!” Now that I’m older, and I’ve lived through a few such times, I know better. It is frightening and draining to hang on as the world seems to spin out of control. We in the United States are living through a simultaneous replay of 1918, 1929, and 1968, with a few added extras.

For me, study has been a refuge. I’ve been teaching and preparing classes nonstop, working harder and longer hours than I have done in years. I’m learning new material in order to be able to teach it. I’m co-teaching two other classes, and find comfort in the partnership with colleagues. I think of the generations of rabbis who have served the Jewish people during terrible times, and I know in my kishkes (Yiddish for guts) that Torah sustained them too.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

Shimon ben Gamaliel (10 BCE – 70 CE) lived during the run-up to the First Jewish Revolt. He was the president of the Great Sanhedrin during his last years, and he died when the Romans beheaded him, along with the High Priest, Ishmael ben Elisha. Rabban Shimon saw his world disintegrate through terrible divisions in Jewish society and under the cruel rule of Rome.

It is interesting that this, likely his most famous quotation, is a drash on a verse from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived in a very different time, a time of rebuilding. He wrote after the Exile in Babylon was over, after Cyrus of Persia authorized a return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah did not live in an idyllic time (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for details) but it was a time of building, not of destruction.

What I learn from this is that one way to survive terrible times is to remember that history is full of cycles: some live in troubled times and some live in times of rebuilding. We can use the memory of better times to guide us forward towards better times in the future.

I’m not talking about “the good old days,” some idealized past. I’m talking about looking back for the values that brought out the best in us. Shimon ben Gamaliel looked back to a time when the guiding values were justice, truth, and peace:

  • Justice: that none should be treated as less than others.
  • Truth: that there is such a thing as truth.
  • Peace: not the absence of disagreement, but the presence of justice and truth, so that the world can be built instead of torn down.

We are living in a time like Shimon’s time, in a society polarized to its limit and beyond. The federal government of the United States is pursuing policies that bring out the worst in people, and that prey upon the weakest among us. The line between facts and opinion seems to have disappeared for many people. Peace is nowhere to be found.

I cannot guarantee that things will improve. I can’t promise that they won’t get worse. What I can say for sure is that the Jewish people have been through bad times in the past, and that the sages of the past can offer us guidance. Shimon suggests that justice and truth make peace possible, even in the darkest of times.

May we work for justice.

May we tell the truth.

May the world – our world – know a true peace, a peace based on justice and truth.

And let us say, Amen.

How to Judge a Prophet

Image: President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Lately there have been a lot of people making predictions about the future: that the country will open back up over the next month or so, that if we do open up it will be a disaster, that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, that the U.S. is on its way to being the pariah among first-world nations, this one will will the next election, no that one will….etc., etc.

Torah teaches us to be wary of people who claim to know the future. There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which lays out the Rules for Prophets.

First of all, it sets out what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters with ghosts. They were not necromancers or magicians. All those jobs are described as “abominations.” (Deut. 18:12)

Next the passage lays out a discussion about the reasons for, and requirements for prophets. A Hebrew prophet was an ordinary Hebrew whose life was taken over by God, God used that person as a mouthpiece whenever there was an important message to convey, which could be hazardous for the prophet. The role did not guarantee honor or even respect: Jeremiah suffered horribly for his prophecies, and died in a deep pit in Egypt for his trouble.

Just after that, the Torah asks an interesting question: how do you tell a false prophet from a true one? The answer it gives is slippery: if they speak in the name of God and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine (Deut. 18:22) If their words don’t come true, then they are false prophets and we shouldn’t listen to them.

For Jews, the Age of Prophecy is closed, but we still sometimes have to decide whom to believe when it comes to predictions about the future. That has been a sharp issue when it comes to the current pandemic: there is a lot of variation in the predictions, and the information seems to change every day. The disarray in information is extremely stressful, a state that also isn’t good for our immune systems.

Worse yet, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating, and accusations about who is hoaxing whom.

Torah cuts through all of that with a simple question: what sort of track record does the speaker have? Has he expertise in this matter? What level of expertise? Do they have a track record managing pandemics? Or if not a medical expert, on what basis is this person making their claims to expertise? And what about past prognostications: is this just the latest sensational click-bait theory or have they been right about things in the past?

Torah encourages us to ask for credentials and a track record, whether we are questioning a prophet or the modern-day variations on that theme. As they say in Missouri, “Show me!”