Tuesday, April 3, 2012

slave eyes

It strikes me that one of the things we imaginatively "remember" at the Seder is how we, as slaves, experienced *all* the Egyptians, whether or not they were rich or powerful. As Egyptians they had acess to a certain amount of power, or protection, or privilege, that the slaves did not, and so all of them were seen through the eyes of the slave as enemies. I offer: now that we are in a condition of relative power, security, privilege, this act of imaginative remembering might make us aware that there are those today who are profoundly oppressed, and make us wonder how they are looking at us.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

judaism teaches us to put on masks every day

What those of us who teach prayer tend to forget is that the prayer book is not a “book”, not in the normal sense.

When I read almost any passage in almost any text, I am being addressed by an external voice. “Yes,” you will say, “but, well, duh.” In fact, though, it is worth saying, because the knowledge that I’m being addressed, and my understanding of who is addressing me, govern the way I will try to understand the text. True, the interpretive strategies I will use will differ if I’m listening for the unified commanding voice of God, or the multiple voices of codifiers and redactors, or even for something as amorphous as the “text itself”. At least I am comfortable with the goal of interpreting what someone is trying to say to me.

For all, though, that liturgy may look like any number of other kinds of classical Jewish texts it is fundamentally different in this, that a liturgical text does not address the reader. Quite the opposite – the very definition of a prayer is that it is something the reader uses to address someone else, specifically God. This small and obvious point has far-reaching consequences especially for the educator, because it insists that the “reader” is really the “speaker”. But of course the student is not really the speaker; not yet. And so in addition to all of the questions normally invoked in learning to read a document (what do the words mean, what are the references, what are the ideas being expressed, etc.), the student is faced with a new and unfamiliar task. Understanding liturgy means finding that speaker, finding that voice, and discovering what it feels like to adopt it as one’s own.

I wanted my students to start thinking of prayers as expressions of an interior world, rather than as descriptions of the exterior one. I suggested to them that they think of a prayer as a kind of mask, much like the ones worn in religious rituals by many peoples. The job of the mask-wearer is to discover the reality on the “inside” of the mask and bring it to life.

In our class work, we had seen that classical blessings always begin with a phenomenon in the world – eating a piece of bread, say, or lighting a candle. While the blessing itself would not make reference to this piece of bread, or this candle, it did re-cast the phenomenon as a synecdoche of an attribute of God: this piece of challah is an example of God’s nature as bread-giver. In other words, a blessing expresses a different way of seeing.

With this in mind, I could ask my students to take a passage that caught their fancy and ask, “How is the author of this prayer seeing the world?” It was then a short step for them to try to imagine what kind of person it might be that would see the world (or a small part of it” in that kind of way. Thus far, the work was very similar to what might be done in a poetry class, or even a class in script analysis. But because in a Jewish religious school liturgy is a practice, not just a text, I took it a step further. “Now that you’ve imagined what the ‘inside’ of the person saying this prayer is like,” I said, “envision that person’s face.” I passed out blank white masks, which I’d picked up at a party supply store, markers, glue sticks, colored paper, various odds and ends. “You’ve picked the Sh’ma? Make a mask of ‘Sh’ma Man’. The Keddusha? Show me the face of the one who sees angels.”

Did it work? I think so. They made masks: some quite striking, some even moving., and they discovered that they were thinking about the texts in ways they never had before, hearing as though for the first time phrases they’d known since childhood. Did it transform the way they felt about prayer or the prayer book? Probably not. Maybe if we I had given them more time to work with those masks, maybe even to davven with them in a closed, safe environment. But perhaps that is asking too much of students in a high school class – too much trust, too much vulnerability. Maybe that wants to be tried with a self-selecting group, or on a retreat. Maybe mask-work should be introduced first to younger children, or maybe saved for adults. What the project did, though, was to give the students another set of tools, another set of questions, to bring to the prayer book. It helped them see, I hope, that whatever prayer is, it isn’t a book.

Monday, February 13, 2012

a seder of the liberated

Roger Cohen's piece in today's New York Times on the inability of Jews to imagine themselves as powerful reminded me of something - so a hunt through my dusty digital attic turned this up:

Usually, we think of religion in terms of faith, and to be sure there are many places in the tradition where we are commanded to believe--or even to know--something: about God, or the world, or ourselves.

At Passover, however, we are enjoined to imagine. No matter what haggadah you use, it is almost certain that you will find the passage that says that it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as though we individually had been redeemed from Egypt. I remember that I used to be suspicious of that section; I assumed that it had been inserted by some twentieth-century editor in an attempt to make this ancient text relevant. But it has been part of the Haggadah for as long as there has been a Haggadah, going at least back to the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE).

With the Hadrianic persecutions still in living memory, with the yoke of Roman imperial rule still heavy on their necks, the Jews were told that one day out of the year they were to experience themselves as liberated. Now that, if not revolutionary, was certainly subversive. For most of the following two millennia, the Seder continued to serve as an exercise in this subversive imagination. Perhaps now our bodies are in bondage, but our minds have taken us to a place where we find ourselves freed and our oppressors overthrown.

But there has been an odd development since then: Jews are not an oppressed people. It is true, of course, that anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared. And it is also certainly true that there are Jews who are victims of a variety of oppressive structures, such as racism, homophobia, and contemporary capitalism. And there is no doubt that the world as a whole is in desperate need of redemption. Still, by any useful measure, Jews as a whole (and American Jews in particular) are doing just fine, thank you.

And thank God for that development, I say. But in the process, what has happened to our Seder? What happens to a ceremony designed to comfort the afflicted when the afflicted become comfortable themselves? First, the imaginative task changes. No longer needing to conjure up a vision of freedom, we may find ourselves in an odd search for the experience of oppression. Frequently this is done through history, and many modern haggadahs refer to the Holocaust (there is even, I believe, an edition entirely devoted to it). Sometimes this is done by making connections to truly oppressed Jews; I remember the "Matzah of Hope" on our table for our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. And there are some especially progressive haggadahs which try to establish solidarity with other struggles for liberation, whether particular or global.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is important for us to remember our history, to stay connected with our brethren, to be mindful of the oppressed of all nations. But when we start imagining ourselves as in bondage we face the danger of "misusing" the Seder. For it is the task of the enslaved to seek freedom for themselves, and to do this they must see that their enslavement is not the primary determinant of who they are. But it is the task of the free to seek freedom for others, and to do this they must take full ownership of such power and position as they have. Rather, such power and position as we have.

Not once, and not twice, but over and over the Torah has God warn the freed slaves that when they come into the Land, when they are in power, they are to remember their experience in Egypt and take special care of those on the margins: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. For Jews, the price of liberty may be eternal vigilance, but it is vigilance about the condition of others. But it is mighty hard to take responsibility for others when you are imagining yourself as powerless.

How should a reasonably free, reasonably prosperous people celebrate the Exodus? By embracing that freedom, accepting that prosperity, and accepting with it God's demands that we look to the condition of those around us.

Much is at stake. The most painful part of the Exodus story for me has always been the death of the Egyptian first-born. It struck me as grotesquely unfair that the innocent, who themselves were perhaps none too free, would suffer. But perhaps it is true that in the great struggle one is either on the side of the slaves, or one is on the side of the slave-owners; there is no neutral ground.

If that is so, perhaps when we spill the wine during the recitation of the ten plagues it is more than a memory. Perhaps it is a warning. For there are those in the world who are truly oppressed, who are waiting for their own Exodus. Whether they know it or not, they look to us. Will we be innocent Egyptians? Or will we be the kind of free men and women God wants us to be?

Maybe that is the first of four new questions, questions for a Seder of the liberated.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

i ain't signing any more (or: it's not enough not to abuse your wife to be a good husband)

Update 2/10/2012. Rabbis Jack Moline and Daniel Zemet, the writers of the letter, have released a YouTube video of themselves reciting the letter (which means it's now public), and it's being posted on Facebook, asking people to "like" it. I'm not, for obvious reasons. If it comes around to you, then, well, you'll get to make your own choice.

To the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet:

Over the past year, those of us who have been paying attention have seen an increasing amount of bad, if not shocking, news from Israel. We have read of assaults – against women and girls, against non-Jewish clergy, against the sacred structures and books of Muslims – and other acts of bigotry by Jews who call themselves religious, as well as physical attacks against the IDF by Israelis who call themselves Zionist. Those of us in particular who claim or aspire to a leadership role, however modest, need to respond, and two rabbis – one of whom I know and respect and honor – have written a letter condemning in no uncertain terms these actions, J Street, an organization I affiliate with, has circulated it. It should be, as they say, a slam dunk, a no-brainer, an easy win.

I am writing to tell you why I am not going to sign.

The letter presents itself as a call for “Religious Ethical Zionism,” which certainly sounds wonderful. I would love to think of myself as part of a vanguard promoting it – it would give me that warm, righteous feeling I so rarely have. To be quite honest, I’m not always sure what people actually mean by Zionism these days, but I do have some ideas about what an ethical-religious vision might involve:

  • It could be the claim that Jewish religious practice needs to make the practitioner more open to the needs and experiences of the other;
  • It could be an insistence that any teaching that contributed to an atmosphere of dehumanization or delegitimization of one’s opponents, whether Jewish or not, could not be called Torah;
  • It could be a serious campaign to learn and respond to the experience of those who are strangers in the community and State;
  • It could be a move towards a Mussar-like approach, demanding a rigorous honesty about one’s own flaws.
It could be any number of things, things I haven’t even imagined. One thing I do know, though:

Being ethical is more than not being a creep.

Here is the core of the letter:

“We stand in solidarity with the victims of these crimes, believing that those who perpetrate them cross the line that separates righteousness from immorality. We condemn these acts as desecrations of human beings and of our sacred tradition. We call upon [the] Israeli government and legal authorities to bring these criminals to justice.

“We call upon the leaders of all branches and forms of Judaism to denounce these crimes for what they are: a denigration of the essential Jewish teaching tht honors the divine imate in which every human being is created.”

That’s it? The religious ethical vision is don’t do crime?

We can’t let ourselves off the hook that easily. To be able to call ourselves or our approach “ethical” – to wear that badge, to tell ourselves that story about ourselves as we drift off to sleep – shouldn’t we be actively trying to make the lives of others better? Or at least addressing the roots of criminal behavior in non-criminal (but still abhorrent) culture?

I have no doubt that the writers of the letter had the best of intentions – a desire to craft a statement that as broad a range of Jews as possible could sign on. That’s a noble desire. But I’m afraid that by using the language of “this constitutes an ethical response,” we send a signal to others that we think that it’s sufficient, when in fact it’s barely the beginning. Worse, I’m afraid that we will fool ourselves.

Friday, January 20, 2012

tznius and its discontents

Imagine this story in the Talmud: A woman of great physical beauty waits outside the house of study on Friday evenings, so that she would be what men would see before they went home to spend Shabbat evening with their wives. How would she be treated by the text? Possibly as a demon, undoubtedly as a temptress.

I thought of this as I saw how excited so many friends of mine were about Rabbi Dov Linzer's recent writings on tznius, both his op-ed and his longer, more technical piece. I wish I, too, could be that excited, but I can’t avoid seeing them as apologetics that ignore a number of important issues:

* Rabbinic discourse about tznius is still about the problematic of how women’s bodies are seen by men. The Talmud tells of R. Yochanan displaying his physical beauty to women on their way home from mikvah (Berakhot 20a); what would be "provocative" (at best) for a woman is left unchallenged when it is done by a man.

* The rabbinic tradition is scandalized by women having public roles. That women on occasion did have public roles (increasingly so throughout history) is not because of the Talmud, but in spite of it.

* There is no distinction made between attractive and provocative.

* There is no way provided to appreciate someone’s beauty (even sexual beauty) without objectifying that person.

* Tznius is restricted to sex. Rather than come up with an approach to modesty in general (including, perhaps displays of wealth or status or learning) which might have been an original contribution to contemporary ethical thought and a useful critique of modern culture – including Jewish culture – we’re still left with an anxiety about sexual desire.

* Finally: at best it tells people who are committed to Talmudic culture, “Don’t worry, the Talmud is not as bad as those guys make it seem.” But at the end of the day, he doesn’t tell us anything about ethics we didn’t already know, and neither (in his reading) does the Talmud. But if he hadn’t found the texts he had, or if he hadn’t read them in the way he did, would it then be ok to blame male desire on women, to lock them up or cover them in veils? Of course not. But if the best we can get from the Talmud is a confirmation of the values we already have, why bother?

This pains me enormously. I write this as someone who is committed to Talmud study both personally and professionally; in fact, I’m writing this instead of working on a dissertation on Talmud education and the moral imagination. And I’m aware that Rabbi Linzer is more learned, wise, pious and courageous than I will ever be. Still, I can’t help feeling that something important is missing here. Perhaps it’s something missing in me. Perhaps not.