Judaism, Racism, and Converts

Image: Person immersing in water. (free-photos / pixabay)

Currently on Twitter there is an argument raging as to whether Jews are a “race.” Leaving aside the fact that race is a social construct to begin with, I am increasingly angry at arguments that insist that DNA determines Jewishness and that Judaism is a race.

Converts to Judaism are legitimate Jews, no matter their skin color or ancestry. Stop erasing us by insisting that Jews are a race. Jews are a people, and that is not the same thing.

Read the paragraph above a few times, please. Let it sink in. The gerei hatzedek, the people for whom we ask a reward in the Tzadikim section of the weekday Amidah, are real Jews, not “Jews Lite” or “Jews Sorta:”

May your compassion, O God our God, be aroused over the righteous and over the godly; over the leaders of your people, the house of Israel and over the remnant of their sages; over the true proselytes and over us. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name, and place our lot among them; may we never come to shame, for in you we trust. Blessed are you, O God, you who are the stay and trust of the righteous.

– from the Amidah in Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, pp 88-90 with adjustments for modern English. Emphasis mine.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process. We have learned, by the time we get to the mikveh, that some Jews will refuse to accept us as genuine. We embrace Torah anyway.

We have been told about anti-Semitism, and in many cases, we encounter it from old friends or even from relatives – we know what we are signing up for. We embrace Torah anyway.

We know that if we are blessed with children, we have signed those children up for the hatred of anti-Semites and the skepticism of racist Jews, and we embrace Torah anyway.

As no less an authority as Maimonides asserted in a letter to the ger Obadiah in the 12th century:

since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and usDo not consider your origin as inferior. 

Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky.  Behrman House, 1972

We are here. We are genuine. Stop erasing us with foolish racist arguments.

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Bamidbar: Connection v. Chaos

Image: The wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park (Photo: Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, “In the wilderness.” The portion talks about census-taking and the organization of the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai.

I love the contrast: the Israelites are surrounded by wilderness, and God directs them to organize themselves. It’s another version of the Creation story in Genesis. The earth is “unformed and void” (Genesis 1:1) and what does God do? God brings order out of the disorder. Similarly, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers God speaks to Moses in the wilderness, in a place of disorganization, and directs Moses to take a census and organize the Israelites.

First of all, this is a persistent vision in Torah, echoing the Creation story. Order is preferred to disorder. Life cannot be sustained and protected without some organization.

Second, “wilderness” is more than a place. The Israelites had been delivered from enslavement in Egypt – a narrow place, Mitzrayim – and now they were out in the wide world, free but disorganized. They will not survive the challenges of wilderness without organizing themselves. God provides them direction for doing that, ordering that the tribes each have a specific place to live, and assigning them specific tasks.

We Americans have a fantasy about the self-sufficient loner, or the self-sufficient family, living somewhere in the West, carving a living from the land. Bamidbar is a different vision: individuals as part of families, which in turn are related as tribes, and it is the cooperation of all that makes for survival in the midbar, the wild lands of Sinai. Alone they would be vulnerable to wild animals and raiders. In a tightly organized camp, they were safe, indeed, they were powerful.

In every life there are times when the midbar, the wilderness, is a powerful metaphor. The world feels hostile and frightening: how will we live? How will we survive challenges from people who want to steal our food, our belongings, maybe even our lives? What will we eat? How will we have enough money to live, and pay our taxes too? How will we keep our jobs, if it seems like all the jobs go to someone else? How will we be safe from crime, when it seems to be everywhere?

These worries can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to let the fear overtake us, to see everyone as an enemy, to go out into the wilderness and try to make it on our own, away from the scary people.

The truth is that survival comes in community, in relationships. The Israelites fought among themselves all the time (sometimes with terrible results) but God ordered them to stay together, to organize themselves, to learn how to get along. We are interconnected: we are social beings.

Let us resist the urge to hide in our houses, to hide behind our screens (TV screens, computer screens, tablets, smartphones) and instead, let us connect with the real people around us. Let’s get together and share food, share fears, share dreams. Let’s get together and work for a better world.

For make no mistake, we are living in times that feel like wilderness. It’s no place or time to be alone.

A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

Prayer for the Country in a Time of Division

Image: People watching the sunset from a bridge. (By Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

El Rachum v’Chanun, Merciful and Gracious God, Healer of the sick, Source of all Wisdom, we ask You for Your help in this time of trouble. Help us to see Your world as it truly is. Help us to tell the truth, and to recognize lies and half-truths. Give us discernment, and share some small measure of Your Wisdom, so that we may find our way through the present discord.

We ask that You, whom we call Erech apayim v’rov chesed, “slow to anger and abundant in kindness,” grant us the ability to look upon one another with eyes of compassion. Help us look past our anger, past our fears, past our grudges and recrimination to truly see one another in all our humanity.

Give us a thirst for true justice, instead of the poisonous drink of revenge. Open our eyes to genuine need, and open our ears to the cries of the hungry and the sick.

Make us bridge builders, instead of grave diggers. Inspire us to bind up each other’s wounds. Open our ears to each other’s stories, and soothe the defensiveness that rises like bile in our mouths. Help us listen, and truly hear.

O God, who has commanded us, “Be holy, as I your God am holy,” help us find our way to goodness.

Help us, O God, and we will try harder.

Amen.

Shabbat Sababa!

Image: Children dancing (Shutterstock / CherryMary)

Shabbat is nearly here. I’m getting excited, because I love the shift from yom chol (ordinary day) to yom kadosh (holy day.) Life doesn’t so much slow down as it shifts.

When I was a student rabbi, the first child I met in my first congregation was a little kid who would hear the word “Shabbat” and begin twirling and dancing and laughing. She was an enchanting child – and she’s off to college this coming fall. Time passes.

As a toddler, Rebekah had a deep understanding of Shabbat. She knew that whatever was going on, Shabbat was happy and good. Shabbat was something to celebrate. Her parents had taught her that by celebrating it themselves, having a special meal, singing songs, and enjoying it themselves. All I had to do was say, “Shabbat shalom!” and she would take it from there!

At the congregation I attend today, there’s a monthly children’s service they call “Shabbat Sababa.” Sababa is Arabic for “cool” and it is a common loan-word that Hebrew speakers use. The kids go to this very noisy, celebratory service and learn that Shabbat is about joy.

That’s really all one needs to know about Shabbat – joy, release, happiness. The command that we rejoice is a reminder to find something to bless in the detritus of ordinary life. We slog through the days, horrified by things in the news, depressed by other things, but on Friday afternoon, I start looking for something to bless, something to give thanks for. It is in itself a spiritual discipline, and it is simple enough that a toddler can get a grip on it.

So I say to you, as Shabbat is about to begin, “Shabbat sababah!” May your Shabbat be cool. May your Shabbat be filled with whatever blessing you can find to hang onto. If life has dealt you bad cards this week, throw them in the air for a few hours – it’s Shabbat! For those of us in pain, let’s take our meds and be grateful for whatever good they do. For those who are in mourning, reach out and touch the remaining people in your life. For those who are numb from tragedy, allow the helpers to give you whatever help they can. For those who are exhausted, let Shabbat give you permission to rest, or to ask for what you need in order to rest.

Sadness is all around. The world is a mess. There is plenty to complain about, plenty to criticize. But on Friday at sundown: it’s time to count our blessings, to celebrate that there is still oxygen to breathe, to touch the hands that will reach back to touch ours. It’s Shabbat.

Goodbye/Hello, Dream Job

Image: My first Intro class, Fall, 2009.

I’m sitting in the classroom at Congregation Beth El, and the clock says 15 minutes to 7. There are 45 minutes before class begins.

This isn’t an ordinary class. It’s the last class of the year, and we’ll talk about Jews and Food: kashrut, favorite foods, strange foods, swap recipes, and then we’ll say goodbye.

This one is a big goodbye for me, because it is my last Wednesday night Intro class. I’ve taught this class for years, and this past year I’ve realized that it is beyond my physical abilities to teach. Even with my assistant, Jessica, to help, I wind up spending the next day in bed.

I’ll still teach online, and in fact I hope to ramp up my online teaching. That process begins with Tikkun Leil Shavuot Online in just a couple of weeks. There will be more interactive text study, done in shorter series or even one-time events. I’m not done teaching, I’m just moving on to something new. Watch this space!

But this is the last night of something I have enjoyed as my dream job. My wife started pointing out to me two years ago that it was taking a lot out of me; this year I finally had to agree. We age, things change. That’s OK.

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;

A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;

A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;

A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;

A time for seeking and a time for losing, A time for keeping and a time for discarding;

A time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking;

A time for loving and a time for hating; A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

So, it’s time. In a few minutes there will be about 30 people pouring into this room, and we’ll talk about food. Then we’ll talk about ways to continue learning, and I will hand them off to their rabbis and their communities. And it will be good.

Chernobyl: The Cost of Lies

Image: Scene from the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. (HBO)

I’ve been watching the HBO series Chernobyl. Critics have been very enthusiastic. The series tells the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, but the real story is the story of the thousands of Russians who worked to limit the devastation from the explosion and radiation.

One aspect of the story that has shaken me to my core is the role of truth and facts in the process of the disaster. Two scientists pursue the “why” of the disaster from Day One. One of them is an historical figure and the other an amalgam of several historical people, but they run headlong into a wall of propaganda. While they seek the truth of what is happening – the ongoing poisoning of earth, water, and air in Ukraine – the Russian leadership cranks out propaganda to save face and to keep itself in power. For the politicians, what matters is perception. For the scientists, what matters is the dangerous mess this has made, and the potential danger in other flawed reactors.

Again and again, the politicians stymie the scientists and laborers who are trying to get the murderous radiation under control. At one point, it becomes clear that the West German robot brought in to clear radioactive graphite from the roof of the reactor failed almost immediately because the politicians lied about the severity of the radiation. When the person in charge of the cleanup finds out, he wails, “They gave the Germans the propaganda number, not the real number! The propaganda number!”

Chernobyl is a series about the cost of lies, the cost of convenient and soothing “alternative facts.” Nature does not care what we believe. Gamma radiation does not confine itself to political needs.

I am also reminded that the people who actually pay the price for disasters are rarely the politicians or the wealthy. Here in California, fires are fought by young people, many of them prisoners from the state prison system. Homeowners may or may not be sufficiently insured, but many renters wind up homeless afterwards.

“Natural” disasters fall hardest on the working class and the poor: people who have to clean up the mess, or whose lives are irreparably damaged by it. Be it tornado or hurricane, fire or earthquake, the working class will clean up the mess, and the poor will suffer.

That, too, is what happened at Chernobyl. The politicians and apparatchiks of Moscow were not affected. They continued to issue their rosy predictions and denials. The scientists warned how bad it really was, and ran headlong into a wall of “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, working class people were quietly brought in to clean up lethal messes, messes that would significantly shorten their lives.

It didn’t have to be like that. The explosion itself was the result of a political covering-up of inconvenient facts, details about the reactor that didn’t suit the political narrative.

It didn’t have to be like that. Had Gorbatchev taken the disaster seriously from the first few moments and evacuated the region, many people would not have had radiation sickness.

It didn’t have to be like that. That is the story of Chernobyl, that and the absolute heroism of the ordinary workers: firefighters, coal miners, soldiers, and scientists. In its own way, it is a very good communist story, a story about the heroism of workers.

Emet, truth, is a Jewish value. We are allowed to tell a bride that she is beautiful, even if she is not. But we are forbidden to distort the truth when it comes to anything larger. “Alternative facts” are not a Jewish value.

We are living in a time of convenient lies. Chernobyl warns us that lies are dangerous.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: On three things does the world stand: On justice, and on truth, and on peace, As it is said: “Judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates.”

Pirkei Avot 1: 18