Posted on May 31st, 2012 No comments
When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.
According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.
Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.
Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.
But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.
By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.
In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.
As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.
Posted on April 12th, 2011 No comments
This year, the story of liberation from Egypt is being told on the back drop of a contemporary story of liberation in that same country. In 2006, Rabbi Ruth Sohn who is the Director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Programas well as the Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, spent 6 months living in Egypt with her husband Reuven Firestone. Sohn is currently working on a book about that experience and took some time to share some thoughts on how the ancient story and the modern reality come together. -Ruth Abusch-Magder
The bitter and the sweet
Everyone loves charoset and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.
While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope, that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt, ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse, to stand up and say No More.
Freedom from… Freedom for…?
In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.
And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward? For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.
Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu?) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?
So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from? What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation? We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.
Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.
Chag Pesach sameach.
Posted on January 17th, 2011 No comments
My piece What the Bible Teaches About Modern Media sparked some interest at Hebrew Union College. Joel Duman, Ed.D. Lecturer on Bible, Biblical History and Jewish Educational Technology at HUC Year in Israel Program,is an expert on both the Bible and technology. In addition to the work he does at HUC, he teaches at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and JTS, New York. Coordinator and writer of Visual Midrash, a website on “Biblical Art.” What follows is his response to my piece.
I’m about to finish the teaching of a course in Biblical History at HUC Jerusalem. One of the issues that has come up is literacy in ancient Israel – we’ve talked about the Lachish letters, where a rural army commander writes in a huff that he is “of course” quite able to read and understand written communiqués; we’ve mentioned an ostracon found several years ago in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere,
apparently from the 10th century BCE (Khirbet Kaifeh) – writing about matters of societal morality; we’ve talked about the writing and rewriting of history in the Bible, etc. Both in this course and in my other bible courses, for Americans and for Israelis, we often come up against the seriousness and depth with which the written text has been treated in the Jewish tradition.
Although the small bytes of information characteristic of the new social media might look similar to the laconic style of the Bible, there’s also something essentially different, in how we deal with these texts. I don’t think anyone would bother to give a long, hard read to the type of communication found on Twitter, etc. – like the piece I am writing now, not a lot of thought is put into this type of writing; the Bible, on the other hand, shows clearly that it’s formulations have been carefully considered, reworked, edited, changed and that each phrase and each word (each letter sometimes) is fraught with meaning.
It occurs to me that what we can learn from the Bible about the new media derives from the difference between the use of writing in these two contexts, rather than in the similarity. I don’t mean this as a rejection of the new media – although not a big fan of much of it, I am an avid e-mailer, although I was never a good letter-writer. But I think such a comparison offers us an opportunity to notice what’s special, different, eccentric (in the literal and figurative meaning of this word) about our culture and to see how our tradition to offer alternatives to general tendencies of our contemporary world