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  • The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Often times I see the “Ten Commandments” displayed on boards in synagogues, above the Parochet, on walls of praying spaces, in religious school classes- each commandment followed by an exclamation mark, for example:
    You shall not kill! ! לא תרצח
    You shall not Still! לא תגנוב!
    Even in places where the exclamation mark is not actually printed, it could be heard in the tone of the imperative form, as we are traditionally accustomed to read it.
    Could it be read differently?

    Author: Rabbi Oshrat Morag

    Placing a question mark
    In her poem “We All Stood Together” , Merle Feld describes how in Sinai, men and women have witnessed the revelation and received the Torah together. However, as the poem continues, a voice of frustration arises; due to lack of time and availability (staying home and taking care of babies) women’s interpretations throughout Jewish history were not documented. This poem represents the first stage of what feminist theologians such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow (among others) describe as the realization of inequality which leads to critic. In the second stage, feminist readings of traditional texts try to reconstruct the lost voices; as readers of texts as well as writers of texts, giving voice to women in texts along with suggesting new ways of reading texts, or listening to them.
    The first stage includes the realization that traditional texts are the product of male interpretation; reflecting their theological, social, cultural understandings. Feminist approach to those texts often places question marks on what is considered “facts” or the “truth” in order to create possibilities for different interpretations which represent women’s experiences. The interpretation of עשרת הדיברות as I would like to suggest here, puts such a question mark.
    The “Ten Commandments”, and for that matter all commandments, are named in English “commandments”- meaning, orders that come from a hierarchal status, in this case from God. In Hebrew the word מצווה comes from the root צ.ו.ה meaning to order, however the use of the word mitzvah refers explicitly to God’s orders . The notion of commandment might be expected in a patriarchal theology where God is hierarchal; He is a Ruler, a King, Lord of Hosts. A God in those images can only speak to us in orders, in commandments. The power of figures such as kings and rulers lies in the ability to put sanctions and punishments on us, should we not follow the commandments.
    Language is limiting human expressions of theological experience, as it is a representation of human experiences and knowledge and a reflection of those on the image of God. Jewish feminists, motivated to add women’s experiences and knowledge to the Jewish conversation , produced other images of God , suggesting mostly non-hierarchal ones. When viewing God as non-hierarchal I would like to place a question mark on the terminology of “commandments” and ask which word might be most fitting to replace it.

    Taking away the exclamation mark
    The “Ten Commandments” are not named “mitzvoth” in Hebrew but rather are called: דברים (in Shmot 20:1) or דיברות (for example in Bavli Shvuot 39a), meaning some form of speaking. God is speaking to all the people in Sinai and sets ten basic points to what might be considered ground rules for the affirmation of the covenant between us. These words are followed by Parashat Mishpatim, in which the words, that are very general, turn into more elaborating sentences- describing the ideal moral behavior.
    In that light, God could be imagined more as a Guide, or as an Educator who is trying to teach us how to create a just and moral society, and how to become good-doing individuals of that society, rather than a Tyrant who orders us how to behave. The image of an Educator or Guide bears somewhat of the authority that I find easier to accept, since it suggests an authority that is based on experience or knowledge that I don’t share or understand, as well as the good intention for my well-being and that of society . God sets before us many more teachings throughout the Torah, and towards the end, in Parashat Re’eh, we are given the Choice ; we have learned what is right and what is wrong, we are aware of the consequences for following each path, but at end it is our choice to make and we are held responsible for it.
    Using the terminology of “teachings” for “commandments” does not come to devalue their meaning or content. I used to say that as a religious person I feel commanded to follow God’s commandments. By changing the terminology I do not feel any less committed to follow the teachings; if anything it enhances my sense of partnership in the Covenant. Changing the terminology is simply asking to take away the exclamation marks that we supposedly have at their end. By doing so, we open new possibilities for reading the “Ten Teachings”.

    Moving toward the point
    In formal and informal education, we assume, or more accurately, hope that the seeds of values that we plant in the minds of children grow with them along the years. We sometimes see the results specifically in difficult situations; should the right choice be made we know the values have been well implemented and correctly applied.
    Viewing God’s teachings in that light, a point takes the place of the exclamation mark, which enables us to read the “Ten teachings” not as orders but rather as a prophecy of our behavior. It may be perceived as if God shares with us our future selves, as if God says to us :

    I am your God. (I took you out of Egypt as salves and now you are the People of Israel)
    If you follow my teachings (and not the teachings and values of [American] Idols)
    You will remember Shabbat. (that it is a sacred day as well as a social one).
    You will honor your parents. (they are your Guides as well and want the best for you)
    You will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Because whenever an instinct or a drive to do wrong appears, you will make the right choice).
    With a point at the end.

    We All Stood Together/ Merle Feld

    My brother and I were at Sinai
    He kept a journal
    of what he saw
    of what he heard
    of what it all meant to him

    I wish I had such a record
    of what happened to me there

    It seems like every time I want to write
    I can’t
    I’m always holding a baby
    one of my own
    or one for a friend
    always holding a baby
    so my hands are never free
    to write things down

    And then
    as time passes
    the particulars
    the hard data
    the who what when where why
    slip away from me
    and all I’m left with is
    the feeling

    But feelings are just sounds
    the vowel barking of a mute

    My brother is so sure of what he heard
    after all he’s got a record of it
    consonant after consonant after consonant
    If we remembered it together
    we could recreate holy time
    sparks flying


    Rabbi Oshrat Morag currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is pursuing a doctorate in Feminist Theology at HUC-JIR.


  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.


    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra


    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז


    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.


    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules



  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

    Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.

    The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.

    Rabbi Seth Goren

    One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.

    Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.

    We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.


  • A Consideration of Food Stamps for Shavuot

    Posted on April 30th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A grapefruit.

    Usually it is candy that is the source of friction between children and parents at the grocery checkout. This time it was a grapefruit. Not even a good looking one at that. It was a somewhat wrinkled grapefruit that had come from the seconds bin. It had been part of the basket of goods the mother had gathered, but now paying for the groceries, she had put the sad grapefruit aside.


    The child pleaded, the cashier looked pained, so did the mother. But there was no room for giving in. The family had reached capacity on their food stamps.


    This scene, which I witnessed nearly twenty years ago, has been playing on a loop in my head lately. As I prepare for Shavuot, I have been thinking about leket, peyah, and shichicha, our obligations to leave the gleanings, the corners and the forgot fruits of our fields. That grapefruit in its sad wrinkly state would definitely have fallen into the category of a forgotten fruit, and yet there it was holding out promise for this child.


    On that day, I did not know what to do. I could have easily have spared something from my own heavy basket for the child, or paid for the grapefruit. After all the Mishna on Pe’ah (1:2) says that a sixtieth of the field is the minimum amount and as a portion of my purchases it would not have much more than that. But I hesitated and did not act; worried my interference would have caused shame or embarrassment. The following Shabbat I dined at the home of friends and when the girl and her mother showed up, I was even less sure what the right course of action ought to have been.


    According to Rashi, the concept of Pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners of your field uncut, is really about placing part of your harvest in every corner of every field. Building on the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:10) Rashi stresses that we cannot choose who gets the support that is given in the form of Pe’ah, it must be available to everyone so they can reach it with ease it should be placed where it is most easily accessed on the corners.


    Food stamps, it strikes me, are our modern American form of the ancient agrarian Jewish traditions for caring for the poor. In line with Rashi’s stress on access, in recent years, policies by the Bush and Obama governments have made it easier for people to qualify for food stamps. But there is also greater need. 1 out of 7 Americans, 43 million people, rely on the program each month.


    But it is likely that the extravagance of a sad grapefruit would still be out of reach for most food stamp recipients. The average payout of the benefit is $133/month. This stands in comparison to the USDA assessment that the average family of four spends between $771 and $916/month on food. There is now talk in Washington of cutting significantly reducing the eligibility and benefits of the food stamp program. Not only would that mean the end of grapefruits, but for many the rest of the shopping basket all together.


    If there is meaning in the confluence of the two strands of Shavuot, that of the harvest holiday and the celebration of revelation, it may be found in the link between the equality of revelation and the need to share our bounty with everyone.


  • Israel in Six Words: What We Love about the Jewish State -Happy Birthday

    Posted on April 20th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 38 comments

    Volumes have been written about the State of Israel. But in honor of Israel Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut, this week we are looking for just six words about what you love about Israel, what makes it special, extraordinary!

    Add your own thoughts by replying in the comments section. The more the merrier. Send in more than one! Encourage your friends to share their own.

    Here is some of what we have so far:  - Click on comments to read more!


    Bowls of humous with warm pita – Josh Weinberg


    Feel more at home than anywhere -Lori Sagarin



    Cool water, warm people, hot neighborhood -Lori Sagarin


    Too important to leave to Israelis -Lisa Levenberg

    Nearly Zero emissions on Yom Kippur - Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem


    Like family. Not perfect, but loved. - Lisa Koppel

    My son lives in Tel Aviv. Mindy Portnoy


    להיות עם חופשי בארצינו ארץ ציון – Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem

    The Dry Bones live in Israel – Reuven Werber


    Three faiths in one holy city – Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Hebrew alive, Torah real, people real-er -Paul Kipness


    I love Israel’s flaws and aspirations – Jeremy Burton

    Israel my second home. Libi bamisrach – David Young

    Jews in every size shape color -Kari Hofmaister Tuling


    Lo yisa goy el goy herev – Laura Novak Winer


    Walking in Israel I found myself -Anonymous

    National Liberation Of The Jewish People – Mark Hurvitz

    Land, peoples, histories, emotions, hopes - Amy Greenbaum


    ההרים,החול,הירק והים במקום אחד -Lori Sagarin


    Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash. Oooh Ah. -Jason Miller


    Gave my grandparents renewed life post-war -Yonah Kliger


    (Keep it short, keep it simple. We are serious that missives of more than six words will not be included. And as it is a day for celebration we are focusing on the positive. We reserve the right not to post all entries.)


  • What Not To Say About Israel This Year

    Posted on September 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    There is a great deal in the news this season about Israel. Most of the alumni of HUC-JIR feel close to Israel but live at a physical remove.  Spanning two continents, the College-Institute is aware of how that divide can feel.  And so they are reaching out from our Jerusalem campus to help us think about what we hear and choose to say about current events. This guest post features reflections by Dr. Michael Marmur, Vice President for Academic Affairs.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Dr. Michael Marmur

    It happens every year about this time. Colleagues gearing up for their High Holyday sermons turn to me and other Israeli colleagues in the hope that we might give them some ideas. After all, a number of our Rabbinical colleagues still leave one slot open for the stirring Israel sermon, and it seems that in recent years congregants emerge from an encounter with the Israel shaken, not stirred.

    The month of Elul and the High Holydays to follow are a time of honesty, so let’s face up to the facts: many Jews on the liberal end of the spectrum feel increasingly distanced from Israel. I would hazard the guess that most HUC-JIR alumni in North America will not be teaching and preaching about Israel this year. There are a variety of reasons for this palpable distancing, ranging from ideological disapproval to despair, passing every station from disinterest to confusion to the rise of new interests and issues: spirituality, the tea party, Irene, you name it.

    I have lots of advice to give you, but I urge you to ignore it. There is a wide range of topics to fill an Israel agenda – unprecedented social protest and the struggle for greater social equality, the forthcoming declaration of a Palestinian state, the changing face of the Middle East, the rise of chauvinism and racism in Israel, the standoff with Turkey, the face and soul of contemporary Israel, and more.

    You should ignore my advice, because the only way you will stir the people you serve is to be stirred yourself. If Israel is an “ought”, brought in to the discussion like an aging relative who has to be mentioned to avoid a tantrum, nothing good can come of the encounter. So I want to encourage each of you to find the intersection between your own passions and the debates which rage here in Israel every day.

    Take my advice and don’t take my advice. Instead, find friends and partners here in Israel and tell them what is on your mind, what matters to you. Then, take a deep breath and listen to their response. If you come away from that encounter unsettled, dismayed, challenged, energized, even occasionally inspired, that is what you may bring to those who look to you for guidance.

    There are over 60 alumni of HUC-JIR’s Israel program, and now some 25 graduates of our specialization in pluralistic Jewish education. There are graduates of a program on pastoral care and spiritual guidance. In our congregations, there are professors and proctologists and plumbers, members of many professional cohorts. Outside our movement there are seven million people to speak to. If you are engaged in community dialogue across ethnic divides, find people doing similar work here. If you are an economic conservative, seek out your kindred spirits. If you own a Che Guevara beret, look for the other one in the matching set. If you are a surfer, come to the beach, and if you surf the web, find a blog buddy.

    I am not telling you to agree with everything your Israeli counterpart says – that’s not the way we do it around here. I am suggesting that guilt-tripping is the worst form of tourism, and that an ounce of real engagement is better than a ton of platitudes.

    I believe that what is playing out in this little country matters a great deal to just about anyone with a sense of Jewish identity and historical perspective. The fact that more and more are tuning out is not because Israel stopped being a crazy and extraordinary place. It may have something to do with the fact that wagging our fingers and telling our Jews what they ought to care about doesn’t work. If it matters to you, jump in and show it. If it doesn’t – you probably didn’t get this far in my article.

    If you want the College-Institute to help you find a shidduch here in Israel to share your angst with, we’re keen to be involved. To face up to the folks you serve this year and talk about Israel, the prerequisite is not that you can drop names of generals and government ministers. That can be quite boring. The prerequisite is that you find a way in to deep engagement with Israel, and that you model it to those around you.

    But that’s just my view, and I already told you how you should relate to my advice!

    Shanah Tovah


  • Ancient Exodus, Modern Democracy: Lessons from Egypt at Passover

    Posted on April 12th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 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.

    Rabbi Ruth Sohn

    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.




  • Confronting Family Stress at Passover

    Posted on April 8th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of  how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.

    In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.

    1.     Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.

    2.     We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.

    3.     Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.

    4.     There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.

    There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.



  • Violence and Joy: Purim Unmasked

    Posted on March 14th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    The story of Purim tells of a people, about to be annihilated but rescued from the brink by the wiles of a beautiful Jewish woman. Most popular tellings leave it at that. But this back story only sets the stage for the final celebration. The feast of Purim, as we are told in the unvarnished biblical version, commemorates the victory in battle of the Jews over armed forces set into motion to kill the Jews. At the end of the story, not only is the villain hanged for his crimes, but his ten sons not obviously guilty are hanged too. Recalling this military victory, Jews do what armies have always done at the conclusion of battle, gather together, gorge on food and drink, trash talk the enemy and glorify their own actions.

    Repulsive? I certainly hope so.

    It seems to me that part of the strength of Purim lies in its attempts to confront violence. The Italian rabbi and later Professor of Hebrew Bible, Moshe David Cassuto, identified the theme of physical survival as the central theme of the Purim holiday. In crafting the story of Hanukkah, the rabbis of old pasted over the story of the violent Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks with the story of the occupation and retaking of the spiritual home of God in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In Cassuto’s eyes, the rabbinic version of Hanukkah tells the story of spiritual survival. But with Purim there is no white wash, the biblical telling is unvarnished and gritty, frightening and unsavory. And whereas the rituals of Hanukkah are glad to gloss over the killings and conflicts that were part of the historical Maccabean revolt, the rituals of Purim demand that we engage with both the challenges and joys of survival.

    One of the four ritual obligations at Purim is to read Megillat Ester, the scroll of Ester. We are obligated to listen to the whole story, start to finish. Despite what one might think from sitting in a contemporary synagogue with noisemakers, we are obligated to hear every word of the story. We cannot gloss over the challenging parts. We need to pay attention to the frivolity of the King, his excess of food and drink, and it’s consequences for those in his immediate family and those over whom he reigns. The Jewish people are both the victim and the beneficiaries of the King’s tendency to indulge. His lack of involvement allows for his advisor Haman to pursue a personal vendetta against the Jews. But his fondness for food and drink (and beautiful ladies) draws him to Ester’s feast where he is persuaded to save the Jews. We learn by watching Haman, how single-minded evil and anger can lead to your own undoing. Listening closely, we come to understand that physical survival is fraught with challenges. For Hadas, who becomes Ester, surviving means giving up her name and her community, going into hiding and being sexually compromised. And while Mordechai is able to escape with little physical harm, he has to give up his ability to protect his ward. While he does survive, he has to rely on the largess and protection of others to do so.

    According to many biblical scholars, the story is a farce. It cannot be reconciled with historical facts and even as a literary telling it has elements of the ridiculous. It would be easy to distance ourselves from this story, to minimize its meaning. Yet our customs demand that we engage with text actively. After reading this story for a second time, the customs of Purim dictate that we ourselves engage in excessive eating and drinking. Having read of the folly of the King, aware of the dangers that can ensue from such gluttony we emulate his behavior. If Ahashverosh was a fool, we dare not think ourselves much better. We too are capable, even eager, of entering into self absorbed indulgence.

    And whereas on Shabbat or Passover the drinking is directly tied to ritual acts, every cup with a blessing of its own, the instructions on Purim are to drink until one cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. The rabbis quibble over how much this really means but the metaphoric measure is instructive, no matter the real amount. Immoderate drinking blurs the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong that emerges from a straight forward reading of the scroll of Ester.

    Ultimately, we ourselves are not so far from the folly, or the evil, or the violence. From a physiological point of view, we may see in the Purim story, the multiple aspects of our own personalities. We each have the capacity to be wise like Mordechai, to conceal elements of our true selves like Ester, and to be fools like Achashverosh. Even the darkest elements of Haman lurk inside. We have the potential to be destructive to ourselves and those closest to us. And there are times that each of us must come to realize that the line between our inner Haman and our inner Mordechai is not as clear as we might hope it to be.

    For two thousand years, the Jewish people as a people were always at the mercy of the host communities in which they found themselves situated. Often they were not permitted to take up arms even in self defense. The holiday of Purim allowed Jews to imagine for a day that they were empowered, able to control their own physical destiny. Yet even as Jews engaged in imaginative play with the ideas of physical power and violence, the story of Purim reminded them of the potential dangers of being powerful. As we enter into celebration of victory we are reminded that the hero is not all that distinct from the villain.

    It is not surprising then that Purim is a carnival holiday. Confronting the seamier side of ourselves, whether individually or as a collective, is never easy. The masquerade, the satire, the silliness, all allow us to get closer to that which is difficult to look in the face. Just as Halloween allows us to confront our fears about that which lurks in the darkness of the fall nights and comforts us with a lighthearted pranks so that we may both experience and survive fear, Purim too allows us safe entrance into the darkness of our own and national psyche.

    The fun and the frivolity are not meant to be unfettered. In addition to the obligation to listen to the story of Ester and have a large meal, we are also exhorted to give gifts of food and make donations to the poor. In the midst of our self indulgence and internal focus, we are commanded to open our pantries and share of our own riches both with our friends and with those in need.

    The conception of Purim as a children’s holiday overlooks the deeper challenges concealed in the story. Children see black and white, good and evil. Given healthy homes and basic necessities, children imagine fairytale endings where everyone gets along. Emotional and moral development opens us to see a more complex landscape, where happiness is an ongoing construction living side by side with difficult choices and disappointment. Even adults, can be uncomfortable with embracing this textured understanding of reality. The Purim story and customs are a lighter context and means to remember that power and folly often go hand in hand, and the lines between those who are wise and those who are evil, those who win and those who lose are often blurry indeed. Nonetheless, the customs of mishloach manot and gifts to the poor remind us that while physical survival might demand self sacrifice and even a willingness to turn to violence being single minded is never enough. Ultimately, whether we celebrate Haman or Mordechai we must reach into our own stores to share with and care for others. Living in a world where power often goes hand in had with destruction, I am left wishing that Purim might come more than once a year.