Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Torah portion

Israelite & Jewish Identity in Black & White: Shabbat Vayigash

 

*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)

Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.

I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?

 

 

Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.

Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.

South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)

Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.

Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.

Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:

It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right

Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:

 לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק

שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח

Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq

shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach

A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.

The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?

The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.)  “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, the kohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.

The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:

The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.

Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.

Bringing us back to today’s parsha, Bereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as Germani: Everywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.

Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.

Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.

My questions are about identity:

Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?

Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?

So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?

Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.


Shabbat Va’era: (Re)Writing Torah and History

‏ וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְהוָה׃ וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃

God spoke to Moshe, and said to him: I am YHWH. 
I was seen (va'era) by Avraham, by Yitzhak, and by Yaakov as God Shaddai,
but by my name YHWH I was not known to them. Exodus 6:2

The last time I drashed this parshah was the first Shabbat after the Inauguration of our forty-fourth President, Barack Hussein Obama. I thought about how his election wrote and rewrote history which led me to thinking about other radical re-writes, to the Constitution and even to some of our religious traditions. I decided to use an approach that I had assigned to my students for their mid-term examination, to read a passage, reversing elements of the narrative, I did some of this previously as well:

     In a parallel universe in Parshat Va’era, God appears to Miryam HaNeviah, preferring her company and designating her as the prototypical and archetypal prophet. In yet another universe, God appears to Miryam and Moshe together. In other universes, God appears to Aharon, and to all the people together, eliminating hierarchy.
    In one of these appearances, God declares, “I am the LADY” – as one of my students wrote in all capital letters signifying the holy four letters. GOD-WHOSE-NAME-IS-TOO-HOLY-TO-BE-PRONOUNCED – my preferred designation for the Most Holy Name – She spoke to her prophet (or prophets or people) and said:

I appeared to Hagar, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah as God who cradles and nurses the world at her breast, but by Most Holy Name, I was not known.


    God told her prophets and people, “Go and tell the Her Majesty the King of Egypt” – here I imagine the gender-bending Hatshepsut who changed her public gender from female to male – “tell her to let my people go.” And she did. And she asked, “May I go with you? Can we worship at the mountain of the One together? Can we be God’s people too?”
    In the alternate universes in my head, it’s a much shorter story. In these versions, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish and kill him for being hard-hearted. In these versions, God does not hurt or kill the Egyptians created in her image; God does not inflict pain and suffering on the animals into whom she also blew the breath of life; God does not afflict the earth that she hand-crafted.
    This alternative Torah comes with an alternative haftarah by the prophet Yechezqelet:
So says She Who Is the Sovereign GOD: “When I gather the house of Israel along with the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them all in the sight of the nations, then they all shall settle on their own soil that I gave to all of my servants, the daughters of Chava and their children, including the daughters of Hagar, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah and all of their children. They shall all live in safety in it, and shall all build houses and plant vineyards. They shall all live in safety, when I bring justice to all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt and been treated with contempt themselves in turn. And they shall all know that I am the ONE, their God.”
Can anything be learned from rewriting the Torah? What happens when folk whose story is not the story of the Torah take that story for themselves? What happens when these parallel universes are not just in my head?
In one universe, some American Christians used the stories in this torah to exterminate as many of inhabitants of this land as possible. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. In yet another universe, some German Christians, claiming allegiance to the God of this torah burned the Torahs that tell this story and the bodies of those who cherished Torah along with other undesirables. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. Some of those who have rewritten this torah in their image have wreaked havoc on this world.
But they are not the only readers with an active imagination. In another universe, there were other readers, or perhaps hearers – most were not literate – who shared African ancestry with the Egyptians, and some with the Afro-Asiatic Israelites, but they knew they were not Pharaoh. They knew that they too were Israel, not because of the supercessionist Christianity that says God has replaced the Jews with Christians, but because they knew that they were God’s children. And they were slaves. And they knew that God would deliver them from bondage. Some of them may have known that they were farther from Egypt in slavery than their ancestors were in freedom. But they knew they were in Egypt. And God sent another Moses, and oh boy, oh girl, wasn’t she a sight to see.
Their children’s children’s children, kept reading themselves into other people’s stories. “All men are created equal,” but they were valued as 3/5 of a person, and their women – like the dominant culture women – didn’t count. Feminist women and queer folk seeking justice have read themselves into this story, whether or not they had an ethnic or religious claim on the Torah. 
One more set of radical re-writes for your consideration: All women and men and children are created equal. What is rather than being counted as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution, black folk were entitled to 3/5 of the wealth generated by their ancestors? And what if we changed the haftarah for today from Yechezqelet to Yeshayahah? A text that is all the more intriguing because it is not in the lectionary or haftarah readings for any Jewish or Christian community that I could find: Isaiah 19:24-25, as it is written, “One day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the center of the earth, whom the COMMANDER of angel armies has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’” 
What’s the worst that can happen if we take this unauthorized haftarah seriously? Reconciliation between Africans and Assyrians, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Egypt? The US isn’t  part of the geography of that holy land, but we could follow or even set an holy example. Dream a little dream with me as we discuss these questions:
1) The Torah is Israel’s story, yet they are accompanied out of Egypt by a mixed multitude – whom the rabbis don’t like too much and blame for nearly everything that goes wrong. Who’s in that mixed multitude today and what are they doing in this world?
2) What texts would you add in to the reading cycle? What texts come alive for you when you read them?
3) Can midrash change the world?

Shabbat shalom שבת שלם

 

 


Shabbat Shemoth

Exodus 1:1 These are the names (shemoth) of the sons of Yisra’el who came into Egypt with Ya‘akov…

Baniym can of course mean "sons" or "children" and usually I err on the side of inclusion. But in this text, it is clear that only male progeny are indicated, demonstrated by the list of names that follow. These are the names of Israel’s sons, but what about his daughters?

5 So it was that all the souls, the ones who went out from Ya‘akov’s loin, יוצאי ירך יעקב, were seventy souls.

“The ones who exited, went out” – dare I say “squirted out”? – of Jacob’s singular loin, a euphemism for the specific male organ rather than “genitals” in general usually indicated by the plural or “thigh” when ירך is singular in other contexts, were seventy souls. There are twelve names given for those sons in v 1 and seventy souls altogether in v 5. Perhaps then,  Jacob had fifty-eight daughters with Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah – the text being clear that Rachel had only Benjamin and died giving birth to him. Who were these fifty-eight benei-or perhaps better-banoth-Ya‘akov? We know Dinah’s name. What about the other fifty-seven? Were they all daughters or were there lesser sons deemed insignificant by the authors of the text?

Today I’d like to reflect on the stories of Shemoth from the perspective of Jacob’s daughters, daughters-in-law and the other women whose stories become intertwined with those of Israel: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, an African princess, nearly invisible servant girls, Zipporah and her seven shepherding sisters – and their mother along with the daughters of Israel…

In response to this prompt the Dorshei Derekh Minyan engaged with me in some contemporary midrash – not bound to the rules of the classical schools – but allowing ourselves to retell the sacred stories in order to ask questions of and answer questions left by the Torah.

Here are some of the fruits of our sanctified imaginations (to use the language of the Black Church):

  • Were Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women or women who provided midwifery services for the Hebrew people? (The Hebrew is ambiguous.) Their names are Semitic: Shiphrah’s name is sh-ph-r, “to be beautiful” in Hebrew and “to be pleasing” in Aramaic; perhaps sapphire.  Puah’s name might be Ugaritic for “girl-child,” like Nina in Spanish and Walidah in Arabic. 
  • What does it mean that Pharoah spoke to Shiphrah and Puah in person? Did he know them? How did he know them or know of them? What did it mean for them to speak to a man who was a living god in their world?
  • Was the Egyptian princess who became Moshe's adoptive mother infertile? (Was she even married?) Did Moses grow up alone, a child among adults in a palatial home?
  • Did Yocheved, Moshe's mother, arrange for him to be taught the ways of his people aftershe weaned him? Did she recommend a tutor? Did she and the princess collaborate in raising him? Did she send Miryam in to be his teacher? Did Miryam send herself in to be Moshe's teacher? (How many years were there between Miryam and Moshe? – enough that Miryam was old enough to watch over her baby brother: 5, 10, more?)
  • How did Yocheved's experience growing up in Egypt watching things go from bad to worse after one Pharoah with whom her people had good relations was replced by one who would seek to anihilate them all affect her choices? It strikes me that Yocheved prefigures European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or recognized. Then Yocheved became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
  • Yocheved’s experience, trying to maintain family unity as a slave-woman – albeit one with a beneficent mistress – was comparable to the experiences of enslaved African women in the American south, regularly separated from spouses and children, even if they labored on the same plantation. Indeed the experience of Moshe having more than one mother has ongoing corollaries in many African diasporic contexts where mothering is not limited to women who give birth. Many black churches in the Americas celebrate birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, heart-mothers, other-mothers and single fathers on Mother’s Day.

 

  • What happened in Moshe's life in exile that prepared him for his encounter with the Burning Bush and for leadership. How did the hotheaded murderer become patient enough to observe that the Burning Bush was not being consumed?
  • What effect did Zipporah's worship of the God whose Name Moshe did not know have in preparing Moshe to fulfill his vocation? What on earth is going on when God later tries to kill Moshe – I call it a Divine Drive-By – and Zipporah has to stave God off with a penile blood offering.
  • What's going on in Moshe's family that he sends his wife Zipporah away – divorcing her – takes them back when her father brings them back to him but doesn't speak to them again in the text? Why are the biblical authors unclear about how to spell the name of Moshe's younder son? Why does their family virtually disappear from the pages of scripture?
  • When the tribes are arrayed before the Presence of God with the tents of Aaron and Moshe in the fromt, in the vanguard of the tents of Levi, where is Miryam's tent? Isn't she in the vangard with them?

Today, Shabbat Shemoth, Sabbath of the Names, we remembered that not all names are named in the scriptures. We looked for their stories if not their names in the text, behind the text and in the spaces in and between the words in the text. And when necessay, we named  them ourselves. Shabbat shalom. שבת שלם


Sabbath of Just-Laws and My Two Cents

Jean-Leon Gerome: Selling Slaves in Rome

Shabbat Mishpatim & Shabbat Shekalim 5772

On this Shabbat that we examine toroth, laws, that we hope are rooted in mishpat, justice I offer my mechatzi shekalim, my half-shekel, my two cents on this double-shabbat.

Imagine with me. We are our ancestors. We have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. There are Israelites and Nubians and Phoenicians and peoples from every nation conquered by the Egyptians, perhaps even a few Egyptians in the great Exodus. We are all looking for a new start. We have been on this journey long enough that we’re taking it for granted. We no longer wonder where we are when we wake up. The miraculous events of the past few weeks seem like a dream except the pillar of cloud is there and there is rumbling from heaven whenever Moshe goes in to the Mishkan. We have the water and food we need each day even though we are in a desert with no oasis in sight.

From time to time Moshe comes to us with Torah, words of teaching from God of Fire and Cloud who accompanies and guides us. God and Moshe are teaching us how to be a people, how to govern and conduct ourselves, how to treat others and how to revere God, so that when we get to freedom in our new home, we will know how to live, not as the Egyptians live, not as any of the other nations of earth live, but we will model a new way of living, we think, we hope. And yes, there are other nations with codes of law and we have some laws in common, but ours is special, different, singular, like our one God.

Those of us on this journey were born in slavery as were our parents and their parents before them, generation after generation. The freedom of this journey is the only freedom any of us have ever known. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have land, vines and fig trees, sheep and goats, our own homes with our families, to labor for ourselves and our community, to be free of the brutality and ravishment – but we don’t talk about that. We speak of our enslavement without ever mentioning how women and girls are treated by the slaveholders of every time and place, and sometimes boys and men as well. We tell the story of Yosef who got away from that evil woman, but we never mention those who did not escape their predators.

Today, Moshe’s words include something that we thought we’d never hear again. Some of us will be sold back into slavery. And there will be no escape, no Exodus. Lo tetze. She shall not go out. There shall be no Exodus, no liberation, no freedom for her.

Exodus 21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, lo tetze, she shall not go out as the male slaves go out. 8 If she is unacceptable in the sight of her lord, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be ransomed; he shall not sell her to a foreign people – he does not have the authority to do so because of his treachery against her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her justly as a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or intercourse of the first woman. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing – no money.

In Exodus 20-23 the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves is repeatedly addressed. The passage begins (Ex 20:10) and ends (Ex 23:12) with Shabbat rest for the Israelites, their livestock and any resident aliens within their midst; the call for Shabbat is universal. Yet there is an omission of the free women in the household.

Ex 21:7-11 speaks of unmarried women and girls who are sold into slavery by their own fathers, (or perhaps parents), setting this Torah in the middle of the Exodus journey, allowing for the literary possibility that some young women left Egypt as freedwomen but were sold off along the way or entered Canaan as slaves. Their own fathers nullified the freedom that God gave them through Moshe, for money. A critical reading of this text looks at this passage in light of its much later composition, and sees it speaking to a period of desperate poverty in Judea, perhaps after the restoration as in Neh 5:5 Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  

But this torah isn’t set in Nehemiah. It is plumb in the middle of Exodus. My first question is how are we to understand this torah in its literary context? Why would a father newly freed from slavery sell his daughter? It is striking that the text doesn’t require the family to be in debt, he can just sell her at a whim. Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this text is that it was revised in the canon, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 grants release to these enslaved women in the same circumstances as enslaved men and sens them both out with resources to help them establish themselves in the world.

Since yatza is the primary verb of the Exodus, I hear the “going out” as emancipation – but in this case, denial of emancipation, from slavery. In other words, women and girls who are sold into slavery shall not be released from bondage except as specified in this text. Yet there are some slight protections for her: The man her father sells her to cannot use her sexually and then sell her to non-Israelites. It seems he must be an Israelite himself. Her buyer cannot use her sexually if he designates her for his son’s sexual use and he cannot reduce her material provisions – food, clothing and the opportunity to conceive – if he acquires another woman. While these provisions leave much to be desired, they are clearly aimed at preventing sexual use and abandonment of vulnerable women having been sold by their fathers. I think that the very existence of this passage indicates that this is exactly what was going on, that girls were being sold, used sexually and then resold. The text refers to this as “treachery” “against” or “in” her, bevigdo-vah. The penalty – if one can call it that – for the slaveholder who does any of these things is that he forfeits all rights to the woman or girl. Verse 8 says that her enslaver shall let her be ransomed; it is not clear who will ransom her. It is hard to imagine her father buying her back.

Lastly, verse 11 says that the emancipated woman shall go out “for nothing, chinam,” “no money, ayin keseph,” that is, if someone does ransom her from slavery. She will not plunder her former enslaver as did the Israelite women plundered the Egyptians, and she will not be led to a land flowing with milk and honey. She will be on her own to make her own way in a world that may not value a formerly enslaved woman with a sexual history.

The fate of these women slaves, whether or not they are eligible for this conditional emancipation depends entirely on whether they “please” their lords or better, “if she is ra‘ah in his eyes.” So then if the woman sold by her father is not attractive to her new owner and he has sex with her anyway and then decides to get rid of her then the provisions of Ex 21:7-11 come into play. However, according to the logic of the text, if the slaveholder refrains from having sex with her, then he can sell her to a foreigner or give her to his son for his sexual and reproductive use. Then, lo tetze, she shall not go out to freedom.

My questions: How are we to understand this torah in its literary context? How does the tradition value individuals in relationship to the community? Then, reading beyond it’s context into our own, there is a belief that some people have the right to dominate and control the bodies of other people. This notion is fundamental to the scriptures but older than them even though it is sanctified by them – and by the scriptures of many if not all religions. The radical patriarchy assumed by the text is not a thing of the past. Men (and women) still sell their daughters. Some due to extreme poverty, others out of greed or addiction. Contemporary sex-trafficking and slavery keep this torah relevant. How do we fight the assumptions of this text as patriarchy continues to infect our public, religious and political discourses.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, Moshe’s promulgation of patriarchal toroth in the Divine Name, had something to do with his being barred from setting foot in the Promised Land. Perhaps. Shabbat shalom.

(The image: Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904): "Selling Slaves in Rome," Public Domain Photos)


Parshat Eqev – Neighbors and Strangers

Parshat Eqev 5771

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Ya‘aqov ben Yosef, (also known as James), the brother of Yeshua ben Miryam, (also known as Jesus), once asked a she’elah: Does the same spring pour forth bitter and sweet water? The answer to his she’elah in his writings is “no,” but that principle does not always hold true for me. The Torah is a fountain of living water and like this parshah, is in turns bitter and sweet and bittersweet to me.

The bitter: Having just returned from Yerushalayim where literal interpretations of toroth such as those appointed for today have lethal consequences, I was really disheartened to read among the opening verses of the parshah:

Deut 7:16 You shall devour all the peoples that the Holy One your God is giving over to you, showing them לא-תחס, no compassion… 

 

Frankly the world doesn’t need any less compassion. We don’t need religious texts, religious traditions and religious leaders telling us in the name of God, the ancestors or the tradition to withhold compassion from anyone for any reason. One might understand the dispossession to be that claimed in Joshua’s conquest, or the more historical Assyrian and Babylonian conquests which dispossessed Israel as well, giving birth to revisionist history and aspirations. However, even a full exploration of the context that produced this text and its entirely comprehensible xenophobia doesn’t help. At least, it doesn’t help me in this present moment.

Then the sweet: I read near the end of the parshah:

Deut 10:17 For the Holy One your God is God of gods and Sovereign of sovereigns, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

 

And I thought, I can drash this part. After all Rav Yeshua ben Miryam the infamous brother of Ya‘aqov ben Yosef offered the world a famous drash on “Who is my neighbor” whose ethical teaching transcends religious identity.

 The גר is the stranger, sometimes called a sojourner, an alien, a resident alien. The גר is a person who lives in the midst of a people who are not her own. Because the גר lives in another community, he has some obligation to the ethical standards of that community even if they, like the religion of the community, are not his own. This a Toraic – is there such a word? – definition. For the rabbis, the גרים are converts. I’d like to resist the rabbinic reading and leave the גרים וגרות with their religious and cultural otherness and distinctions in tact. The Torah describes the participation of the sojourners in the religious life of ancient Israel, from observing shabbat and celebrating Pesach to offering their own offerings. There are also limits, many of the toroth that apply to the Israelites also apply to those who live in their communities: neither Israelites nor resident aliens can eat blood, for example.

So in the spirit of Rabbi Yeshua, who is the stranger? Who are the גרים? Solomon counted 153,600 resident aliens in his day. (2 Chr 2:17) Are there any limits on who can be a גר? Are there some folk who due to one aspect of their identity or another could not be welcomed in the Israelite community? Are some folk destined to be regarded as enemies, never welcome in Israelite communities? Can sojourners come from the peoples of whom today’s text also says:

Deut 7:22 The Holy One your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the Holy One your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 God will hand their monarchs over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. 

Deut 9:5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Holy One your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Holy One made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deut 11:22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Holy One your God, walking in all God’s ways, and holding fast to God, 23 then the Holy One will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.

 

In short, what is the difference between a sojourning stranger and an enemy stranger? I’d like to suggest that there are no ethnic, national, cultural or religious differences between the people reckoned as acceptable strangers in the community and those reckoned as unacceptable strangers outside the community. The Israelites have been individually and collectively sojourners in foreign lands and there are people from virtually every known nation who live as גרים in ancient Israel. Kings tells us that even an Amalekite was a sojourner in Israel in the time of David and Saul, serving in the Israelite army. (2 Sam 1:13) And the Amalekites were the most despised of enemy nations by most accounts, with regular calls in the Torah for their annihilation, extinction, genocide, what we call today ethnic cleansing. So then, it appears that sojourners are Amalekite, Canaanite, Jebusite, Amorite, Hittite, Hivite, Perizzite and every other “-ite” you can imagine. 

So how does an individual from a people whom the Torah says are wicked, have no longer any right to their own land, are to be faulted for following their own religion and culture, can have their women and girls abducted in to Israelite forced marriages, can have their men and boys – even – infants slaughtered and exterminated become a resident alien accepted into Israelite society, protected to some degree under the shelter of the Torah-tree of life?

One at a time. Perhaps even one family at a time. One relationship at a time. The sojourners are individuals who become known to their host community, and through that knowing become a part of the community themselves. Their unknown kinfolk remain the villains in sacred and secular stories alike, literary characters to be dispensed with at will. But they  who are known occupy a liminal, fertile space between stranger and neighbor.

It strikes me that the lack of knowing on an individual basis makes it possible for the stereotypes of xenophobia to blossom into the toxic blooms of violent rhetoric and rhetoric-fueled violence. When no one knows any of “them” it is easy to believe every horror story and consent to the most inhumane practices in the name of self-preservation. But when one person knows another person from the outsider-stranger community then it’s no longer possible to talk about all of them as a collective.

Every place that I experienced hope about the future of Palestinians and Israelis living in justice and peace was a space in which individual Israelis and Palestinians were in contact and conversation – not necessarily agreement, in fact, they were often in disagreement on many issues. But those who knew each other because they saw each other and spoke to each other, cared for each other and rejected the radical cries of לא-תחס, no compassion, for them from their own communities. Likewise, the spaces in which I grieved the most for the future were the spaces in which members from each group called for the annihilation of the other beyond the wall – literal as well as metaphorical walls – the other a stranger whom they’d never met in person, whose children, lovers, elders, hopes and dreams were mythical creatures to be written out of the story. 

 

Questions:

Who is the stranger?

Are there any people to whom we as Torah-readers-and-keepers do not have any ethical obligations?

What is the sweetness of Torah to you?

What is the bitterness of Torah to you?

How and where is the Torah bittersweet to you? 

 

Finally the bittersweet from today’s parshah: 

Deut 7:12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Holy One your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that God swore to your ancestors; 13 God will love you, bless you, and multiply you; God will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that God swore to your mothers and fathers to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The Holy One will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, God will not inflict on you, but God will lay them on all who hate you.

 

This is what I call incantational religion. If you do it just right you’ll get just what you want. If you don’t get what you want, it’s because you didn’t do it right. Anyone struggling with illness or infertility or economic losses is responsible for not dotting the I’s, crossing the t’s or curling the yuds in the Torah. Yet beneath this cause-and-effect religion is an image of a God who cares for, nurtures and provides for God’s people, extending that care to the strangers within their gates. And that’s not a bad thing. Especially from where I sit in this community. שבת שלם

 

 


Shabbat Bechukotai (My Statutes)

Somehow I’m in Leviticus again. I didn’t do it on purpose. This time. I know I’ve drashed this parsha before, but according to my files it was in a year that B’har and B’chukotai were together and I scrolled to the B’har side of the Torah. Today we are plumb in B’chukotai which I would like to sum up as:

If…then…If you…then I will…If you don’t…then I won’t…

Some of you may know that in the next phase of my sabbatical sojourn I will journey “up” as the saying goes, לישראל. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place and the land and how much it means to so many and at what cost. The recent speech by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response frame (some of) the issues once again. There are passionate feelings, opinions, hopes, schemes, dreams, and demands at play on all sides.

The Torah preserves the passion for the land enflamed by despair at its loss, stoked by hopes of reentry, reoccupation and more than that, domination by those who collected, edited and preserved the Torah. And for some, the Torah shapes current conversations about the land, all of its occupants and their collective and/or separate futures. The Judean exiles spread from Egypt to Babylon, even with a re-entrenched outpost around a not-quite-Solomonic temple could have hardly expected to occupy every inch of the land they had previously claimed at the height of the golden age of David and Solomon. Surely they did not expect to murder every man and man-child with blood of other peoples in their veins living in the land. They could not have sought to rape every woman and girl-child into bearing children who would be counted as Israelites so as to eradicate their own peoples. No matter what the Torah says in some of its most troubling texts. A text without a context is a pretext. The post-exilic context of the editing of the Torah helps me with some of these texts. 

When I teach difficult texts at the seminary I invite the students to employ a number of creative writing strategies to experience the text differently: how would it read as a newscast or newspaper article, as a social worker’s report, as an infomercial? What happens when one reverses the texts: trade insiders for outsiders, favored status among the nations, with reviled ancient enemy, reverse slave and slaveholder, swap monotheism for polytheism, reverse the genders of the characters and/or God? 

I’d like to reframe Leviticus 26:3-13 by reversing the “if…then…” that frames the passage. One could read the text as, if we, or the ancient Israelites or even current day Israelis do something, God will do something else. But today let’s look at the things that the Torah says God will do and see if God has ever done them and what there might be for us to think about in the “if…then…”

Leviticus 26:3 If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, 4 I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

Well, it was raining when I wrote this. For the most part it rains when it should in Israel, and even in the United States. Sometimes we get too much, sometimes too little, but the seasons turn more or less as they should – global warming aside. The respective farm belts produce enough food to feed their peoples and arguably the rest of the world. In modernity our food scarcity problem seems to be one of distribution and, well, will. I am the Wil, but not that will. So we may conlude by the seasons of rain and other weather at the approriate time and the production of foodstuffs that Israel and even the United States are full of faithful commandment-keepers.

The rest of this should be a piece of cake.

5 Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.

And cake it is, bread and booze. No lack of carbs in the US or Israel. Check. Wait, what was that last part?

… and live securely in your land. 6 And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.

Something of a hiccup here. There are real security issues in the United States and Israel and Palestine and everywhere else that I have ever heard of. I’ve never heard of a land or country in which no one was afraid. A number of animals, including predators, have disappeared from their natural habitats, due to extinction; we tend to think of that as a bad thing. A land without swords – may we say acts of violence? Has there ever been such since Qayin murdered Hevel west of Eden?

7 You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 

Well, Israel has world-renouned military abilities. And the United States is still a super power, in spite of the changes in global and national economies. But there has never been an empire on the face of the earth that did not fall. Did the Israelites envision perpetual supremacy or that it just might be their turn again? (Egypt and Babylon each had multiple turns running the known world.)

9 I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.

Modernity has seen human reproduction and life-expectancies soar. Even in parts of the world in which women regularly die in childbirth and only a fraction of children survive into adulthood, the whole people is not endangered. 

10 You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new.

Back to the carbs. Americans have elevated storage to a hight art: basements, attics, pantries, freezers in basements and garages, storage units, and an entire industry represented by The Container Store.

11 I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

A few have claimed that God is in their midst and that they are the beloved of God. More than a few have feld abhored by God. The first of my questions for us: What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah or Tanak or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? 

13 I am the Holy One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk with straightened spines.

There is a particular rhetoric of salvation in some black churches: It is not enough to say what you are saved from – for example, slavery – but what is it that you are saved for?

 Leviticus 26:14 But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, 16 I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you…

The terror the text goes on to describe parallels accounts of the fall of Judah and   destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and includes a mention of the exile. Perhaps the “if…then…” of this parsha has already been applied.

Questions:

The book of Leviticus ends with the words: Leviticus 27:34 These are the commandments that the Holy One of Old gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Who are the Israelites? The Torah teaches that Abraham and Sarah were from the land that biblical folk would come to cla Babel, the home of Babylon, that we call Iraq. They had an incestuaous sibling marriage and their descendents inner-married nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins. And their descendents also intermarried with the peoples around them: Tamar with whom Hudah had children was not from the family. Other patriarchs also intermarried: Simeon married a Canaanite woman, and Joseph married Asenat, an Egyptian making two of the twelve tribes half Egyptian. And, an unknown number of peoples from unknown national contexts left Egypt with the Israelites and integrated to one degree or another. So then “Israelite” is more of a cultural, social and religious designation than it is an ethnic one.

What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah, Tanak, Bible or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? Is the “if…then…” of this parsha ethically or theologically binding on us or anyone else? What does God’s behavior (past and present) teach us about this covenant? What does this Torah say to you?  

Lastly, in a Jewish Bible, the last words of Leviticus or any other book in the Torah are not actually the last words. Rabbinic bibles have a refrain: חזק חזק ונתחזק. The congregational response to the end of a book of Torah, “from strength, to strength and may we be strengthened” represents the work of interpretation. When necessary, add words to the Torah herself, even if you have to write on her pages. The rabbis and volumes of interprters have modeled the ongoing work of midrash for us. חזק חזק ונתחזק!

 

17 Iyar 5771

21 May 2011

Dorshei Derekh Minyan

Germantown Jewish Center

Philadelphia PA