Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Torah

The Torah-Observant Virgin Mary

A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39

Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)


It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.

All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.

A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.

When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.


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.


Torah In Our Midst (Again): A New Covenant

“Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Jewish and Christian Scripture and, Chair of the Biblical Area at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: You’re fired.” Let us pray. (Click here for sermon audio.)

Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe,
who has chosen faithful prophets to speak words of truth.
Blessed are you, Faithful One, for the revelation of Torah, for your servants Miriam and Moses,
for your people Israel and for prophets of truth and righteousness. Amen.

Jer 31:33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Holy One of Sinai: I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One of Old; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer. Gafney translation

God has given me notice. And Fr. Shaw too. Every priest, pastor and professor of religion, rabbis and rabbits too – rabbis-in-training, have been informed that our service will no longer be required. One day. One day, things will be different. The world will be different. Folk will be different. Folk will act like they have sense because they will have sense; uncommon sense will be common sense because we all will have it. God will put it in us. All of us who are born into or adopted into Israel – that’s where we come in – God will put God’s Torah in our midst (again) and in our hearts. We will know everything we need to know about everything. If I were preaching this sermon in the seminary there might be a rash of book burning and class cancelling. Who needs seminary or synagogue or bible study or church if God is going to zap us with all knowledge? Who needs the Christian life if God is just going to… “Poof!” and make it all better. Why, I might as well sit down and wait… [I left the pulpit and sat down for a while waiting for God to zap me.]

Hindsight is 20/20. We are some two thousand, four hundred years from the time of Jeremiah and have figured a few things out reading the stories of our spiritual ancestors’ wait for God. And that’s why we have the scriptures, the scriptures that Paul writes to Timothy are: God-breathed and beneficial for teaching truth from error, for correction, for correcting faults and for instruction in righteousness (which is justice). You do know that Paul and Timothy were reading the OT, right? The Only Testament.

Have you ever heard people talking about the bible like there’s an old covenant that is no longer valid and a new covenant that supersedes and replaces it? That’s not how God works. That’s why we as a church read, teach, preach and pray all of the scriptures. We pray the Ten Commandments in Lent because we know they are still binding on us and a worthy and appropriate place to begin our season of self-reflection and penance. We even may do so in Advent, our little Lent as well, for when we reflect on the gift of Jesus, the Word of God – the Torah of God – made flesh, we don’t throw out any of the covenants or promises that led to him, that he still teaches, preaches and prays through the Holy Spirit.

Think about that the next time someone says we don’t need the Old Testament, that’s the old covenant, God has given us a new covenant in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant and it’s not in the back of our pews. That new covenant is a new beginning in an old relationship. It is God’s active, guiding, accompanying, leading presence on our journey but we haven’t arrived yet. We are not yet where we shall be but we are on our way. We are also not where we were. We have moved forward. And we are still on our journey.

You see God plays the long game. The revelation of God is ongoing. It is not “Zap!” or “Poof!” Jeremiah speaks of a new or perhaps better, another covenant, but the truth is there were more than two. God made a covenant with Noah and his wife and their children and their families. God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai and their children for all time. God made a covenant with the children of Israel in the wilderness; the tablets with the Ten Commandments were the notarized copy. God made a covenant with David. Through prophets like Isaiah and his disciples, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, God made new and renewed covenants with Israel and the earth and even its wild animals so that the lion would be contractually obligated to one day lie down with the lamb.

We Gentiles are also creatures of earth and God’s spirit, beneficiaries of and partners with God. Jesus brought us into the family. The child presented his friends – even his faithless friends to his parent and said they’re part of the family now, ‘kay? And God adopted us because of Jesus. We are heirs to the covenants but must never forget that we are here by grace. And we should be grateful that each of these covenants built on the one before without breaking a single promise, without canceling, nullifying of rejecting the previous covenant because God is trustworthy. God is faithful and just. So we can trust God not to abandon or reject of because God has never abandoned or rejected God’s people – even when holding them at a distance for a while – God has always returned and pursued God’s people like a broken-hearted lover.

For with each covenant God reveals and gives God’s heart, God’s self. That is what Torah is, the heart of God. To say Torah is just Law is to strip it of all its color, texture, detail and fragrance. Torah is most simply the revelation of God. It is all and everything God reveals – teaching, instruction, revelation and yes, law, are all appropriate translations; no single one encompasses all that is Torah. Some of what God reveals is law, but God also reveals relationship and riddles, story and song, genealogy and generosity. Even the first five books of the bible called capital-T Torah have more than law in them. God reveals Godself in the words and Word of Torah. That is why the Torah scroll is the holiest object in Judaism; one that human hands are not fit to touch directly.

So the new covenant and Torah God promises through Jeremiah is more than a scroll or book; it is the presence of God within us:

this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy On of Sinai; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer.

After those days… Our lesson is in the middle of a chapter made all the more complicated by the fact that the book of Jeremiah isn’t remotely in chronological order. It is a jumbled mass of emotion like Jeremiah himself. It is probably made worse by the fact that Jeremiah was illiterate and needed Baruch to write for him. Jeremiah lived through the apocalypse, not the zombie apocalypse but an apocalypse all the same. An apocalypse is devastating destruction on a world-changing, world-ending scale after which things can never be the same. “Those days” were filled with death and destruction, swords and axes, rape and murder, soldiers and mercenaries, burning and slashing. The government and its forces toppled and swept away; the temple toppled and its rubble picked through. Psalm 74 describes the looting of the temple: hatchets and axes splintering the woodwork, the stonework hacked and defaced, the chalices and censors, incense shovels – not spoons – all the vessels and vestments taken as trophies and desecrated.

Look around this sanctuary and imagine. Or remember when the city of Philadelphia bombed its own people. Imagine, remember, the devastation. See, hear, smell the flames engulfing the sanctuary and our homes and schools and businesses and the courts and the government. The police and military dead in the streets, imprisoned, deported. All the educated, literate citizens, business owners and artists and most workers in slave camps in another country. A few like Jeremiah, smuggled into Egypt, the place their ancestors prayed so long – four hundred and thirty years – for them to be delivered from. And here they are, back in Egypt, voluntarily.

After those days… Jeremiah’s prophecy is for after those days. The new covenant is a new start, a do over. It is a promise that the God who brought their ancestors to a good land delivering them from slavery is still their faithful, promise-keeping God. God makes the covenant with them in their days, that they might know that they are still God’s partners; God has not forgotten or abandoned them. God will work with them to bring them home again and restore them.

As before, their community will be governed by their covenant with God, Torah. This time God’s Torah will not be vulnerable to predation, unlike the Ark of the Covenant bearing the tablets inscribed by the finger of God which disappeared during the Babylonian conflagration. This time the Israelites would not be dependent on scrolls that could be burned, desecrated or stolen. God is preparing Israel for the world in which they would live, one which would not be free of conflict, but one in which God would always be with them and God’s word, God’s Torah would always be available to them.

And for those who were blaming themselves or others in their communities for the catastrophes, God promised forgiveness of sin, forgiveness and forgetting. No generational curses here. Even if their ancestors sinned and they did, even if they sinned and they did, God forgives and forgets. Folk like to say “God knows my heart,” usually to explain away something ungodly. But God says you shall know my heart. I will change who you are at your very heart so that you will be more like me.

God says, “I will.” But sometimes “I will” in Hebrew is really “I am.”

I am placing my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I am writing it; and I am their God, and they are my people… I do forgive their iniquity, and their sin I have already forgotten.

Jeremiah’s words are to his people in his time but they speak to us as well. Look at the devastation and destruction in our days, cities like Detroit and broken systems like the Philadelphia school system. Look at bodies lying in the street, rape and murder, theft and corruption in homes and schools and sometimes houses of worship. People keep saying we have to go back to the old ways, the old religion. Some folk want to go all the way back, to plantations, to a time when we weren’t priests and professors and presidents. Some folk want to go back to a time when women were property and men could do anything they wanted to women and children. Some want to go back to a time when black and brown folk weren’t so visible, so numerous, knew their place, when they didn’t have to hear Spanish spoken daily. But God says, that’s not the way. I am the way and I am going forward with you in a new covenant that responds to world you live in with all its complexity and promise. God has already begun writing over the brokenness in our hearts and in the world. God has already written us into the book of everlasting life. God has already written God’s name in our hearts. And God is still writing, teaching, revealing, guiding, correcting.

God didn’t stop speaking after Jeremiah’s pronouncement. God continued and continues to reveal Godself, through scripture, through Jesus Christ, in the world around us and in our own hearts. God is here, with us, in us already. We are not meant to wait around for the world to change, but like Jeremiah serve God by serving God’s people. There are communities of broken, traumatized people who need to know that they have been written into God’s story. There are devastated communities that need rebuilding. There are folk who have been driven far from home who need to be gathered in.

Father Shaw and I have not been fired just quite yet, but we have been given our notice. The time will come when God does not need us or anyone to teach anyone about God for we will all know God for ourselves because each one of God’s covenant partners, you and you and you and I will have fulfilled our contractual, covenantal obligation to walk with God, welcoming home the hurting and the hopeless, the guilty and the innocent, the wolf, the lion and the lamb, the serpent and the bear, neighbor and stranger to the family of God.

Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Rock of all creation, Righteous One of all generations,
the faithful God whose word is deed, whose every command is just and true.
For the Torah, for the privilege of worship, for the prophets: we thank and bless you.
May your Name be blessed for ever by every living being.


Are You There God? It’s Me & Habakkuk

With the prophet I say:

Habakkuk 1:2 How long, Holy One, shall I howl for help, and you will not hear?

Cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

3 Why do you make me see iniquity and compel me to look at trouble?

Destruction and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise.

4 So the Torah becomes weak and justice never emerges.

The wicked surround the righteous; that is why judgment comes out perverted.

 (Gafney Translation)

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

 [Audio file of sermon available here.]

How long Holy One? How long? How long shall I, shall we, howl for help and you will not, do not, hear us? How can you not hear? The screams of the hurting, hungry, hopeless, desperate and dying drown out my own screams of frustration, impotence and rage. The world is drowning in a sea of violence that you must hear through the choruses of angelic choirs: Syria, Chicago, Iraq, Detroit, Afghanistan, Philadelphia, Camden, Washington DC. How much longer?

Like Habakkuk and Job I cry out to God about God. That I am not alone in this is scant comfort. That God hears in spite of all evidence to the contrary is some comfort. Comfort which I grasp like a drowning woman clinging to the broken pieces of what used to be a world that made sense.

Habakkuk was likewise clinging to a frail support in a sea of violence. Hamas. That is the Hebrew word for violence in this text. Biblical hamas and its modern Arabic counterpart share the same root. Violence. The violence Habakkuk envisioned has long been presumed by many to refer to the Babylonian invasion but there is no time stamp in the book, no way to relate it to that or any other crisis. The truth is that violence is so epidemic in the broken world from the moment of the first sin, Cain’s murder of Abel – according to the text that is the first sin – violence is so epidemic in our world that it doesn’t matter whether we know what Habakkuk saw because we can all envision violence that makes us cry out to God. It’s also true that when you are surrounded by violence, whether a single act that forever changes your life or a larger conflagration whose borders you can’t even see, your experience is all-consuming and breathtaking whether on the international or individual scales.

We know next to nothing about Habakkuk, neither provenance nor patrimony, or for that matter matrimony. His prophetic identity is articulated as a matter of fact, the visions God sends him recorded in this little scroll seem not to be the first. They have a relationship and he has a vocation in the background of this brief text. Habakkuk’s cry reveals the expectations he has about God: he believes in a God who is or is supposed to be responsive. He expects God to do something about the state of the world. And he expects God to respond to his cries. He cannot fathom what is taking God so long to act. But he is sure that a response is coming.

He’s also sure that what he is seeing all around him is inconsistent with what he knows about the world. Torah, the embodiment of God in the world, God’s revelation, instruction, teaching that comes down from the heavens like the yoreh, early rain with which it shares a root, has been perverted, twisted, weakened, paralyzed, desensitized, rendered numb and insensitive. It’s hard to know how to translate tafug, the state of Torah in Habakkuk’s visionary experience; she is as stunned as Israel was upon hearing that his long lost son Joseph was still alive and practically Egyptian royalty (Gen 45:26), as crushed as David was when he realized he had a sexually transmitted infection in Ps 38:8 and the opposite of the endurance of the psalmist’s hands stretched out in prayer, refusing to weaken or yield in Ps 77:2. Something horrible has happened to God’s holy Torah: Justice has lost the battle and the judgments being rendered as Torah are crooked, perverse, perverted. Torah is Torah in name only and the justice system is unjust. How is such a thing possible and how long until God does something about it?

Are we still talking about Habakkuk’s time? Or are we talking about our own? I can no longer tell. (And yes I know I’m the one doing the talking.) Those entrusted with the work of Torah, the work of justice towards citizen and alien, neighbor and stranger have betrayed their sacred trust. Our public ethic of the social good is based on and drawn from the ideals of the very Torah Habakkuk aches for. But something has happened to those who should be its servants and guardians. Oh the words of scripture are often on their lips, but their hips and hindparts are dug into policies that are the anti-Torah as they mutter about the anti-christ of their fondest dreams. How long Holy One?

Why do you let me see things like this? No, not “let,” “make.” The verb is Hiphil, causative. The prophet couldn’t turn away even if he wanted to. And he may have wanted to. God knows I don’t want to see what I see in the world, not just on the TV and internet, but in our own city, sometimes in our own community, even in my own family. God makes the prophet look and see. See and envision. That is part of the calling. Opening our eyes and having God open them even further for you. Seeing the world as it really is in all of its ugliness and brokenness. We can’t look away. Our very gaze is prophetic.

Too many folk are caught up in prophetic performances of one sort or another. They garner attention and feedback and can launch you into the notice of the public square. But seeing the world for what it is and carrying that awareness with you is just as prophetic as giving voice to it. And let’s face it, many so-called and wannabe prophets are speaking about what they don’t know because they haven’t truly seen, they haven’t been shown by God the world behind the world. They’re just moving from one soundbyte to the next.

It is all too much. Enough! It is well past time for God to do something about the world, whether the whole world or just Habakkuk’s little corner, or even my little corner of the world. So Habakkuk demands of God, “What are you waiting for?” Habakkuk says his piece and God listens. God listens! God does hear his howls. God is right there all the time. God sees what the prophet sees and more. God has given Habakkuk a glimpse of the horror God sees all the time, from which there is no respite for the Divine.

And God tells Habakkuk that God has already responded, but that even the prophet who knows something about the ways of God would not believe it if God told him all that God has in store. It is simply incredible, incomprehensible, for a mere mortal. Now for some reason the lectionary framers leave out God’s response to Habakkuk. They present a mangled monologue, eliminating the dialogue and totally missing the point. So today’s readings restore the back and forth between the prophet and his God. Habakkuk’s conversation with God, his challenge to God, occur in the context of his relationship with God.

We are not alone in the horror engulfing the world, the waves of violence, shooting after shooting, massacre after massacre, bombing after bombing. God is active in the midst of the world’s fracture. God is here with us. God is here for us. And according to God in Habakkuk two thousand years and an unknown number of centuries ago, the healing has begun but we can’t see it yet, not even with our prophetic vision. It is beyond us but it is there.

God bless Habakkuk; he has seen too much horror to be satisfied with glib responses and clichés, even from God. Habakkuk says, ‘OK. God. I’ll trust that you are turning the world around. But I will stand on my prophetic perch and verify.’ He needs to see something from God. And God doesn’t flinch or shrink in the face of scrutiny. God can handle Habakkuk’s weary wounded caution. God says this transformation is so certain that you can write it down and check it later, adding predictive prophecy to prophetic vision, lament, and passionate invocation of God, all prophetic gifts and tools. By the end of the book he will offer a psalm as a prophetic performance. Habakkuk was no one trick pony.

In response to Habakkuk’s question “What are you waiting for?” God promises that a change is going to come. It will come, no matter how long it takes. It won’t be late, no matter how long it takes. God will heal the world. God will heal Habakkuk’s piece of the world. But God is apparently playing the long game; both traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation see in these words a prophecy of the messiah and understand that Habakkuk will not live to see the change. Those who saw the messiah in their days saw the world begin to turn towards repair and restoration, but maddeningly, that turn is not complete in our days. We, like Habakkuk, may not live to see the complete transformation of the world for which we ache and long, work and pray. Yet we will live, sometimes in full sight of the hurt and the horror. How are we to live in this reeling, sin-drunk broken world? Faithfully.

In Hab 2:4 the faithfulness of the righteous person at the end of the verse is in direct opposition to the self-inflated life of the guilty person at the beginning of the verse. The righteous person shall live in, through, her faithfulness: Amunah, the sure, the reliable, the trustworthy, the “amen” – coming from the same root is that faithfulness. Faithfulness is not “belief” in the sense of intellectual assent or creedal affirmation; those aspects will be added when Hebrew amunah is translated with Greek pistis in a context shaped by philosophical discourse. Here in Habakkuk, faithfulness is more a matter of heart and hand than head and heart. I know it’s not very Lutheran or even Pauline, but none of that exists in this text.

What does exist in the world of the text, the world of the Gospels, the world of the Epistles and in our world is the intoxicating array of opportunities to wander away from the one who has been so faithful to us. Do not be distracted by wine and wealth or even by worry. God is working a work, begun on the watch of previous generations for which I will take my turn watching and waiting, putting my frail hands to the work of faithfulness.

How long Holy One? I will keep asking until I see. Amen.


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)


Christian Zionist Messianism Run Amok: Eddie Long’s Torah Coronation

Eddie Long from the YouTube VideoI am writing this response to a YouTube video circulating widely on the Internet in in which Eddie Long, the troubled pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta GA, is apparently crowned king with the ritual use of a Jewish Torah scroll. The reader may know Long for the recent scandal in which he was accused by five young men of sexual misconduct. After initially denying the allegations, he went into settlement talks with them. A number of specious claims are made during the ritual which I would like to refute. (right: image of Eddie Long from the YouTube video)

The unidentified man represents himself as a Jew (in the YouTube video to which I had access he is identified subsequently as Ralph Messer). He may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis-)representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta – or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology. 

  1. The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objectsd’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
  2. The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.” Hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization of the Torah reduces the holy Torah to a problematic phallic symbol – God’s? or Long’s? – and categorizes the most destructive behaviors associated with New Birth ministries in recent years. Grammatically and symbolically, the Torah is feminine in Hebrew and is personified as “She,” as in “She is a Tree of Life,” in Prov. 3:18.
  3. The Temple in Jerusalem was not a synagogue or Beth Midrash, where Torah scrolls were kept and studied.
  4. The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
  5. The tree in the vision in the book of Revelation whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations,” (22:2), is a fruit tree – not a Torah scroll – and the text does not say that there are “39 leaves” as claimed in the video.
  6. The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
  7. The claim that 90% of the Jews in the world have “never seen, approached or touched” Torah scrolls is utterly without foundation. The Torah is taken out of the Ark during Shabbat and other services; it is processed through the assembly twice where people reverence it (Her!) by touching and kissing it/Her.
  8. The frequent references to significant numbers may be an attempt to mimic the Jewish mystical tradition of Gematria that elicits meanings from numbers and their contexts.  The speaker is devising his own system without reference to any of the classical texts in Judaism, frequently by simple free- and word-association.
  9. There is no verse in the scriptures where Jesus calls himself “the eternal government of God” as claimed by the speaker.
  10. The point that “these” – presumably Torah scrolls or just Holocaust Torah scrolls are only given to “cities in need of anointing” is false. Individuals, families and religious communities own and commission Torah scrolls and keep or give them as they see fit, to synagogues, Jewish seminaries and other schools and museums.
  11. Even if the speaker identifies as a Jew and has Israeli citizenship, he does not speak for “the Jewish people,” “the land of Israel” or “the state of Israel.”
  12. His address of Eddie Long as a biblical or Israelite king is without foundation in the scriptures or in reality.
  13. The notion that there is such a thing as a “king chromosome” is a fiction, as is the claim that it is kohenic, that is priestly; the Israelite and Judean monarchs – there were queens as well – were not priests.
  14. The man’s articulation of what “God wants,” is to say the least unsubstantiated outside that particular setting.
  15. The man never says how he knows that none of Long’s ancestors or relatives has ever seen a Torah scroll.
  16. While there are some traditional reflections on the human body – including DNA and chromosomes – in the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, the speaker is crafting a verbal montage without reference to the classical texts or their theologies.
  17. He attributes a quote to “Jewish doctors” stereotyping an entire community as conflating cellular biology with his Hebrew mysticism without actually naming or quoting any single “Jewish doctor” who holds such an opinion.
  18. The “crowns” in Torah scrolls stem from a particular – now-normative – calligraphy style, but other types of calligraphy have been used through the ages to produce legitimate Torah scrolls.
  19. The claim that the kings of Israel were crowned with Torah scrolls wrapping them has no foundation in the biblical text. According to the bible’s own chronology the written Torah did not come into existence until the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE (2 Kgs 22), some four hundred years after the time of David. However, the great second century rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was however wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive in his martyrdom. Perhaps he has confused or conflated the traditions.
  20. While the Torah poles are called, etzim, “trees,” they are not known as “justice and blessing.”
  21. The speaker’s claim that his speaking “life” to Eddie Long as a Jew has some meaning, is utterly without meaning.
  22. The speaker’s prediction that the ritual – his antecedent is unclear – will arouse either “death” or “life” in someone – Long? Or the congregation? – is his own Gnosticism, knowledge that is not shared by those outside that particular setting.
  23. There is no precedent for presenting anyone, even a fictitious Israelite-ish monarch with the Torah wrapper.
  24. The donning of the tallit, prayer shawl, is done by those who have completed their bar or bat mitzvah – whatever it was that just occurred, it had none of the requisite elements of a bat or bar mitzvah. In addition the tallit is donned by pulling it over one’s head and reciting the traditional prayer, which was not done. It is also not draped like a clergy stole.
  25. The elevation of Long lifted in the chair by four men seems to have been borrowed from Jewish wedding festivities and has noting to do with coronation; there is no evidence of this practice among Israelite or Judean monarchs.
  26. The Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26) is a blessing for the people and not a putative leader.

It is unfortunate that the speaker chose to plunder the sacred traditions of Judaism as he invented novel interpretations of biblical texts and imagery to affirm and elevate an individual who had admittedly broken the sacred trust between pastor and congregant.

A version of this post ran first on TheFeministWire.com. A quote appears in Anthea Butler's commentary on ReligionDispatches.com.


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