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Beyond binaries: Jacob and Israel (Radical Torah repost)

Mea culpa, y'all. In all the chaos of blogging the Rabbis for Human Rights conference last week, I forgot to repost my 2006 Radical Torah d'var Torah for last week's portion, Vayishlach. Here it is; enjoy!

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.

This may be the most dramatic moment in this week's portion, Vayishlach. In many ways it's the pinnacle of this particular story: Jacob spends the night wrestling with this stranger, this divine messenger, and at the end of the night Jacob receives a new name as a blessing for having "prevailed." What does that mean to us, and what can we learn from Jacob's injury -- and what can we take away from Jacob's new name?

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"View from the prow" at the BAP blog

I've posted another poem at the Best American Poetry blog. This one's called View from the prow, and it, too, arises out of the aftermath of the ice storm -- though in (I think) an entirely different way than the others I've posted so far. It may also be the first poem I've written about a baby since my niece Emma Rose (now a freshman in high school) was born.

The poem makes use of a line donated by Ivy Alvarez, author of Mortal, a collection which knocks my socks off. (Here's one of the poems from that collection: fossil -- which you can also hear as an mp3 in Ivy's own voice.)

If the cadences at the end of "View from the prow" seem familiar, it might be because they echo the asher yatzar blessing which is part of the Jewish daily liturgy. (I blogged about that blessing a few years ago, and I've written a poem which doubles as a variation on that blessing, which you can find at the bottom of this page.)

Anyway. New poem up at BAP. Enjoy!

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One breath at a time

Every time we do taharah I have to look up how to tie the special knots.

On the whole, our procedures are simple. We gather upstairs in the funeral parlor, thank one another for coming, hug. We troop into the little downstairs room where a candle is burning and the person who has died is covered by a sheet, waiting for us. We say a prayer and ask her to forgive us any accidental offense we might cause her neshama during the process. We glove up and wash her, then de-glove and wash hands, then re-glove and enact our symbolic mikvah immersion using three buckets of water in a steady stream. Tehorah hee: she is pure, she is pure, she is pure.

And then we dress her in the simplest of white linen shrouds. Trousers, two shirts, a bonnet and a little veil, until by the end she becomes a tiny still white figurine made out of cloth. The hard part is tying the cords: around her ankles, around her waist, at the base of the bonnet to hold it on her head. Most of the cords (actually they're little strips of linen) can be tied in a pair of slip knots, but the one around the waist is supposed to be knotted in a way that represents the Hebrew letter ש (shin). Three little loops, pointing upwards. This is the first letter of Shaddai, one of God's names.

We are a small community, and a relatively fortunate one; we aren't called to perform this mitzvah often enough to become facile with the tying. (Besides, latex gloves make everything more difficult.) But with some concentration, we manage.

There's an arc to the proceedings. The energy level builds as we enter the room, begin our work, say the prayer, continue our work -- all in sacred silence, or as close to it as we can manage. It always feels to me like we need a ramp-down, too. Once she is dressed, there's nothing to do but lift her into the aron and close the lid and depart. This time one of my friends asked, "is there a prayer we say at the end?" There isn't, but we gathered and took a moment to breathe, to be aware of what we had done, to be thankful that we live in a community where we can do this work with people we care about.

And then we all went home. I wonder sometimes how the other members of our group deal with the aftermath. Whether they come away tired, or charged-up, or just taking the rest of the day one breath at a time.

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"Crystal" at the BAP blog

Ice storms are destructive but curiously beautiful. I posted a photoset of ice storm photos; feel free to click through them if that interests you.

I used one of the photos to illustrate the second poem I've posted at Best American Poetry this week; the poem is called Crystal, and it makes use of a line donated by my friend Teju Cole. You can read one of his beautiful poems in a back issue of qarrtsiluni: from the ekphrasis issue, here's his poem Traveling Mercies, which accompanies a photograph by Jean Morris of tasting rhubarb.

And now, back to beating my head against the Shulchan Aruch. (It's a little bit disheartening, how much harder I find the Shulchan Aruch than I found either Rambam or the Tur. No wonder I just want to write poems this week...)

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Guest-blogging at Best American Poetry

The editors of the Best American Poetry blog have graciously invited me to guest-blog for them again. If you'd like to read my posts there, the first one is up, a new poem called Sitting in the darkness waiting for something to burst. (Yes, that's a nod to qarrtsiluni...)

Thanks again for the invitation, y'all! I'm psyched to be blogging at BAP again.

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This week's portion: encounter

Edited to add: Typepad fixed the problem; the audio player is working again! Thanks, Typepad. Shabbat shalom, all!


When Esau saw him he came running.
They embraced and wept, each grateful
to see the profile he knew better than his own.

You didn't need to send gifts, Esau said
but Jacob introduced his wives and children,
his prosperity, and Esau acquiesced.

For one impossible moment Jacob reached out.
To see your face, he said, is like seeing
the face of God: brother, it is so good!

But when Esau replied, let us journey together
from this day forward as we have never done
and I will proceed at your pace, Jacob demurred.

The children are frail, and the flocks:
you go on ahead, he said, and I will follow
but he did not follow.

Once Esau headed out toward Seir
Jacob went the other way, to Shechem, where
his sons would slaughter an entire village.

And again the possibility
of inhabiting a different kind of story
vanished into the unforgiving air.

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares himself to meet his brother Esau again for the first time in many years. He sends his family on ahead and camps alone, during which time he has a vision or a dream or perhaps an actual experience of wrestling with an angel, who ultimately blesses him with a new name: no longer merely Jacob, now he is Israel, the Godwrestler. The next morning, still limping from his encounter, he meets his brother again.

There are voices in the tradition which read Esau's tears upon seeing Jacob, and his offer that they should travel together, as falsehoods. But the surface of the text tells us that Esau wept on his brother's neck; and "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" is a direct quote from Jacob. This year I'm reading the passage as a sign that the two brothers genuinely longed to reconcile -- but although Jacob was able to extend himself for a moment, once Esau reciprocated the outreach he withdrew, unable to follow through.

Or maybe Jacob just knew that his path lay elsewhere. Still, the direct path of the narrative leads us directly to the rape of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem...maybe the text's subtle way of hinting that turning away from one's kin inevitably has consequences which can ripple out into the world for generations.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

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New CD from Nava Tehila

This summer, while in Jerusalem, I had the pleasure of davening with Nava Tehila (the Jewish Renewal community in town) a few times: twice at their regular monthly services (followed by potluck and storytelling/singing late into the night at Reb Ruth's house) and once when they held a special service to celebrate an ALEPH group being in town. I posted here about my dips into their community: Coming Home: a Jewish Renewal erev Shabbat and Waltzing through Shabbat with Nava Tehila (second post is complete with YouTube video of the founders singing one of their original tunes in Reb Ruth's living room.)

They told us this summer that they were working on a cd, which made me incredibly happy. They use a variety of original melodies, written by the members of the trio who put the services together, many of which are now very close to my heart. So I was delighted to hear from Reb Ruth this week that the cd is now out: Nava Tehila: Dancing in the Glory - A Journey into Kabbalat Shabbat.

Nava Tehila is an emerging, inclusive spiritual Jewish community based in Jerusalem that brings together people from all backgrounds for joyous prayer. Over the last couple of years we have been blessed with an influx of many new niggunim (holy chants), that are especially suited for singing in community and bringing the presence of Shechina (God) to dwell in our midst.

Dancing in the Glory is a collection of chants that follow the magical flow of Kabbalat Shabbat. This 16th century kabbalistic ritual for welcoming in the Sabbath is built as a dance between the community and the Divine. In Nava Tehila we interpret the Kabbalat Shabbat service as a spiritual journey that can evoke new experiences every week while following the traditional prayer structure. This journey takes us, by the use of guided kavvanot (intentions), through wonder, struggle, joy, elation, dance, tranquility and eventually to peace.

We invite you to come and dance in the glory with us and all Ohavei Adonai - Lovers of God - around the world.

You can listen to snippets of the songs on the cdbaby website. Listening to them now, I'm reminded deliciously of what it felt like to sing and pray with such heart in such a wonderful, open, and generous community. I'm especially psyched that the album features their two Lecha Dodi melodies and their melody for Shalom Aleichem, which I adore! The recorded versions are more polished than the versions I experienced live; in some ways that's a good thing, in other ways I miss the immediacy of the live experience of singing and dancing and jumping up and down in prayer. For that, I guess, I'll have to find my way back to Jerusalem one of thse days.

Until then, I've put the cd on my Amazon wishlist. If you're looking for a good Chanukah (or Christmas!) gift for someone who loves Jewish music, and/or if you want to support the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, this is a good use of your $18.

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RHR 2008: Convenient list of conference posts

Didn't make it to the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights? Or maybe you were there, but want a written record of some of the material that we heard. Either way, you can immerse in the experience via the 21,000+ words I've blogged over the course of the conference. (!)

There are two easy ways to access all of this content. You can go to my RHR 2008 category page, which contains all of the conference-related posts I made; or you can click on one of the links below to go directly to information about, and impressions of, a given session or panel. Thanks again to RHR-NA for inviting me to blog for them, and to everyone who helped to bring the conference to life!

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RHR 2008: Closing reflections

In the last formal session of the day, Tom Wilner made reference to the story of Abraham arguing with God, though admitted that he doesn't know the story as well as he would like to. In response, during the closing ceremony, RHR's executive director Rabbi Brian Walt (read one of his essays: Some Hard Truths) told the story of God deciding to tell Avraham about his plans for Sodom and Gemorrah, because he wanted to develop a relationship with Avraham and his descendants so that they would grow to do what's just and right. That's the motto of Rabbis for Human Rights: "To Do What's Just and Right."

But the rule of law, he said, is not enough. Sometimes you have laws which don't make justice. God tells us: you need to do both. You need to uphold the rule of law, and also to make sure it is just. That's the mission of the Jewish people.

One of the things which struck me, over the course of the conference, was how often I heard people talking about a feeling of having come home. Rabbi Ellen Lipman said something about it in her closing benediction on the first night, and the sentiment was repeatedly echoed both in formal settings and in conversation.

It's important to have a space in which one feels at-home. I think this is especially true for those of us whose political stances may be to the left of the American mainstream. Those of us who feel strongly about issues of social justice, and whose political and ethical orientations are shaped by our religious convictions, can feel twice-marginalized: first, marginal as Jews within American culture writ large, and then marginal within mainstream Jewish community as supporters of, say, equal rights for Israelis and for Palestinians alike. Being part of a group like Rabbis for Human Rights allows us to affirm the ways in which our faith and our politics are inextricably intertwined.

And there's something delicious about coming home to a group of people with whom one shares basic orientations and passions, and about coming home to a group of old friends. It was fun for me to see how many groups of old friends clearly exist among the conference attendees; though this is only the second annual conference thrown by RHR-NA, it clearly brings together a lot of people who've been working and praying together for a long time. It had some of that tenor for me, too; over the course of the three days I spotted (and hugged, and talked with, and davened alongside) several of my teachers and friends from ALEPH and from Elat Chayyim. That's valuable in and of itself, regardless of what other good the conference can do.

The RHR conference offered me the opportunity to engage with some difficult realities. Listening to Avram Burg speak about the situation in Israel today; listening to Rabbi Brian Walt, who just led a RHR delegation to Israel, describe the racism and oppression he witnessed; listening to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub talk about torture, and then listening to Gita Gutierrez' unbelievably powerful remarks about American use of torture at Guantanamo and how we are all culpable in what our nation has done there: these were not easy. Often I came away drained. My heart hurt. It made me cry.

But the conference also offered me the opportunity for learning and for connection, which can heal the very heartsickness that the difficult material can induce. I come away strengthened in my sense that my Judaism calls me to work toward a just society, in my certainty that the prophetic call to justice still resonates in my religious community today, and in an awareness that I am not alone in caring deeply about these issues. I came away with a deeper sense of being part of a larger Jewish social justice community. And I came away inspired to find ways to do the work I need to do to help repair the world, an obligation which is incumbent on all of us.

One small thing I can do, and have already been doing, is spreading the word about the gathering we've just had. I'm delighted that these posts are being discussed at Jewschool and at Talk Islam and at JVoices; I hope that over time more folks will read these blog posts, and link to them, and share them with friends, so that the circle of people impacted by this series of panels and workshops and conversations can continue to grow.

For now...In assiyah, my body is tired from schlepping my laptop, and kinked into knots from contorting myself to type in some fairly un-ergonomic settings. In yetzirah, my emotions are brimming over. In briyah, my brain is full of new information and ideas and connections which will take a while to process. But in atzilut, the realm of essence, I know that all of these are facets of the whole, and I trust that over time I'll find myself integrating all of this material into my life and my work, my rabbinate, my poems, and my prayer.

To everyone I met at the conference: it was a pleasure! To everyone I haven't yet met, or didn't manage to meet: I look forward to next time. And to all of you who have been following along via Velveteen Rabbi, I want to thank you for listening. It's been a privilege to share this conference experience with you.

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RHR 2008: Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture

The conference's last formal session, Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture, featured Gita Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights alongside attorney Tom Wilner (read his essay A Righteous Indignation in US News and World Report.) Both of them work to defend prisoners who are imprisoned at Guantanamo. It was an unbelievable presentation, and by the end of Gita's remarks I was weeping uncontrollably. I know I've been asking you to wade through a lot of text, but even if you don't read anything else I've posted from the conference, I hope you'll read this.

Tom Wilner talked about how when he speaks alongside Gita, he speaks "as an American about what it means to me to be American." Listening to us, he said, he realizes that he needs to study how his Jewishness has shaped his commitment to the cause.

"I believe passionately in America, which is one of the reasons I've fought so hard in Guantanamo. It is said in our family, my great-great-grandfather was a rabbi in Vilna, and in the 1870s he read the Gettysburg Address and said, if there is such a country in the world, I want my children to live there."

"My father used to tell a story, how my grandfather would take them to Gettysburg and recite the address and also the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. There would be tears in his eyes. My father would say, it was like a prayer."

"Growing up in America, beliefs of freedom and liberty and rule of law were our religion. My father was one of four boys; only two of them came home from World War II. I think that put a special obligation on us." Wilner spoke about the fight to get habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. "All these cases have ever been about has been the right to a fair hearing, the right for an incarcerated person to defend themselves," he said.

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RHR 2008: Religious Jew, Seculiar Zionist: R' Art Green on Jewish Theology and Israel

The session entitled Religious Jew, Secular Zionist: Thoughts on Jewish Theology and Israel featured Rabbi Arthur Green (of Hebrew College rabbinic school; author of several books, among them Ehyeh and Seek My Face; you can learn more by reading Being Art Green.)

Note: Rabbi Green has a lot to say. He talks quickly. This is not a full transcript, but it's the best I could do; I offer it humbly with thanks to him and to you.

Edited to add: the full text of Rabbi Green's remarks is now available on the Rabbis for Human Rights website; if you want the full power of his remarks, please read the essay as he penned it!

Rabbi Arthur Green:

Sim shalom tovah uvracha...["Grant peace, goodness and blessing..."] Our ancient prayer for peace and our prayer for Israel are one and the same. We pray for peace, goodness, and blessing for us and for all Israel, Your people; we know God and address God from within that collective. That is Jewish prayer as it has existed since the earliest reaches of what can be called Judaism, back to the Second Temple era and from there linking back to the prophets.

While the pre-exilic prophets may have been speaking to a geographically-defined community, over the last two millennia we have been a trans-exilic community. The words of the prayer transport us to Mumbai, Argentina, Kishinev...and of course also Jerusalem, where many of us have most fully experienced what to is to be part of this people.

What is this Israel, the human community in which we come into God's presence? What has it to do with ethnicity, race, political reality? Can it be sacred and yet also partake in the categories of human interaction which are so problematic? Can a commitment to Israel amecha ["Israel, Your people," a reference to the Sim Shalom prayer he cited in beginning] have a place in this seemingly borderless age, one defined by a President whose identity, which we as Americans celebrate, is precisely about the breaking of borders?

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RHR 2008: The Dignity of Work and the Indignity of Slavery

Meta-note on photographs: I haven't taken many photos, in part because I'm too busy typing and in part because the only power source I can find for my laptop is at the back of the room. But Rabbi Shai Gluskin has been posted great pictures of some of the folks who've been speaking; find them here in this photo gallery.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker's study session, The Dignity of Work and the Indignity of Slavery, was rooted in article 4 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." He began:

Slavery and servitude, both words are used which suggests they're not the same thing. Servitude can have a positive valance in our tradition. The word ayin/bet/daled can mean both slave and servant, in a negative and a positive sense; it's a common play on words. It's what the whole haggadah is based on: avadim hayyinu, we were a certain kind of eved, but now we are God's avadim which is a status in which human dignity is not destroyed but upheld. Being an eved Adonai is a high title in the Bible! It's interesting to me, how religious notions of service give a different spin to this. But here, slavery and servitude are both absolutely prohibited by article 4. And talking about human forces, that's correct. But I remind you of what Bob Dylan famously said: "You have to serve somebody..."

Our study included several texts from Talmud, midrash, and the haggadah, leading up to one text in particular. "You never known when an offhand phrase is going to strike you with such power that you can't stop thinking about it," he said.

"To understand the dignity of work, you have to understand at least a little bit about the other." If one were in slavery one might fantasize about a life completely free of labor; "but one can also flip over the indignity part and the oppression part of it, and have work be a different kind of experience."

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RHR 2008: Renewing America's Commitment to Human Rights

The morning's first plenary is Renewing America's Commitment to Human Rights with Linda Gustitus, Chair, National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women; and Michael Posner, President of Human Rights First, moderated by Mary Ann Stein, President, Moriah Fund.

Mary Ann Stein begins:

What faces the new president, in terms of challenges? Thank God, he knows how to deal with more than one thing at a time! Torture is obviously going to be high on his list. In the category of undoing the damage that has been done by this administration, there are many issues of tremendous importance. Torture tops the list; also Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act which criminalizes many things which need to be decriminalized, and then there are issues of immigrants; much damage has been done recently in terms of how immigrants are treated. Issues of refugees which need to be addressed. Internally displaced persons. Privacy and reproductive rights. Children deserve more than an abstinence-only education. There's the Mexico City policy; prohibitions on funding for health services.

The U.S.' ability to be a protector of human rights in the world has practically disappeared. It's hard to exhort other countries to behave in a certain way when we have lost our way. And we're seeing this: countries committing various breaches of human rights, at the same time saying, "Well, we're fighting terrorism! If the United States does this, we can do this!" There is much that needs to be done as we assert our leadership. We need to face the issues. Many of you here have been involved in campaigns on Darfur; we labeled it genocide, and didn't do a whole lot. There's the issue of Burma. There's the issue of China. Somalia. The DRC. Zimbabwe...those are some which stand out in my mind as serious human rights issues that this country is going to need to take action on.

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RHR 2008: Boker or from RHR!

True confessions time: last night I wasn't up to attending a long awards banquet. Instead, the friend with whom I'm staying took me out for Ghanaian food near his apartment. I haven't been to Ghana in years now, but the omo tuo made me tremendously happy, and we had a nice talk with the proprietor about the Ghanaian elections (which Ethan just blogged about), which was a lovely and mellow way to end the day.

This morning I made it back to the conference on the early side for shacharit -- today a contemplative service led by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg and rabbinic student Ezra Weinberg. It was exactly what I needed: good singing, good company (I got to sit between two of my ALEPH buddies), and a skillful interweaving of liturgy and teaching. At the start of the service, we each received an index card featuring words from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and were invited to offer pearls from that document interspersed with the birchot ha-shachar (morning blessings), which worked surprisingly well.

At breakfast, I got to sit with a few folks from Congregation Beth El in Bennington, and with my ALEPH friend Ed who is the rabbi at Beth Shalom in Bozeman -- a delicious mingling of my worlds! And now it's time for the first morning session. Off we go into day three of the conference...

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RHR 2008: Torture in Jewish Laws and Values

This session -- the full title was Human Dignity, Defense of Life, and "Ticking Bombs": Torture in Jewish Law and Values; Teaching the RHR Materials on Jewish Values and the Issue of Torture -- was led by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub (one of the founders of Encounter, the group with whom I was slated to go to the West Bank this summer until the trip was canceled on account of the balagan with the bulldozer. She's totally one of my rabbinic heroes.)

The aim here, she said, was to show that Jewish values suggest a ban on torture, and to empower us to use the material available to us in order to teach effectively on this material. This kind of learning can enable us to ground our moral standing in Jewish texts. Before we can teach it, we need to be able to articulate why this matters to us. I need to know why as a religious Jew I feel the need to teach about this.

First off, we looked at An Overview of Torture and Abuse of U.S. Military Detainees. Reading about torture; about cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment at Guantanamo; about sexual humiliation throughout America's "theaters of operation; and about detention of innocents is horrifying. Torture joins slavery as the practice most unanimously condemned in internal law. The Geneva Conventions define torture as a crime against humanity. There have to be places to which we do not descend, even in the depths of war, and torture is a degree of inhumanity to which we will not descend.

Torture is any act by which severe pain and suffering are intentionally inflicted on a person. It's something carried out by an official agent of the state against someone who is at that person's mercy. Defining torture became a vexed issue in President Bush's administration; Bush said often that "we don't torture," and he was only able to say that by relying on a new definition of torture, "permanent organ failure or death," though this is not what torture means according to international law or in international precedent.

Israel banned torture categorically in 1999 -- including the same practices that are now carried out under American jurisdiction, such as hooding, loud noise, and deprivation of sleep and food and drink. (Hearing this put me in mind of the Edeet Ravel novel I reviewed this summer.) The British army used these techniques against IRA soldiers and studies have shown that the people who underwent these things were profoundly emotionally damaged; most died young. American interrogation is also known to feature beatings, forced nudity, painful shackling for long periods of time, and "waterboarding."

That was our prelude. From there, we went into studying Jewish texts (Torah, Talmud, and midrash) which offer insights into Jewish tradition's view of torture.

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RHR 2008: Something There Is That Doesn't Love A Wall

This text study session looked at texts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Torah, midrash, and Talmud, with a tiny taste of modern poetry on top. The session was led by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, from American Jewish University, and it was fantastic.

Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible." As Jews, we know the particular kind of freedom which arises through duty and obligation, but this statement has all kinds of implications, among them that the development of personality arises in and through community. This doesn't jibe with the "rugged individualism" of which Americans are so fond. (And personally I get caught on "in which alone" -- is there really only one community in which the free and full development of my personality is possible?)

In talking about this, we touched on Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay on self-reliance, in which he grouses about the guy who's shown up at his door seeking charity. And we looked at different texts which approach these conflicts in Biblical and Talmudic tradition, starting with the opening lines of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was famine in the land and a man from Bethlehem in Judea left to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons, and the man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion...

Ruth Rabbah asks the question, why do Elimelech and his sons all die? For what were they being punished (since clearly, if he were a good person, this would not have happened?) Of course, the rabbis have an answer:

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RHR 2008: Introduction to the vision and program of RHR-NA

The second full plenary session of the second full day was an Introduction to the vision and program of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, featuring Rabbi Brian Walt (the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America), Rabbi Gerry Serotta (chair), Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (a board member at the organization) and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster (director of education and outreach.)

Rabbi Brian Walt offered a brief introduction to the vision of the organization. "The intention of this session is to explain where RHR is coming from, what we are doing, and where we are going." He reiterated what Rabbi Ellen Lipman said last night, that the organizers hope we will all find ourselves "at home" in the organization.

This conference stands out from the organization's first conference, in part because it is open both to rabbis and to non-rabbis and to people of other faiths as well. "That is an expansion of our vision for RHR, part of our next step of creating the program that Rabbi Troster will talk about, Kvod ha-Briot, the Jewish Human Rights Network, dedicated to the human rights of all." Rabbis for human rights work in partnership with clergy of other faiths, and people of many faiths.

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RHR 2008: Muslim text study / conversation

A fresh movement called Wasatia -- a term which means 'centrism,' 'balance,' 'moderation,' 'justice' -- was launched in Palestine on Wednesday, March 21, 2007 a day that marks the beginning of spring... The Wasatia concept is not new. The Talmud maintains: "The Torah may be likened to two paths, one of fire, the other of snow. Turn in one direction as you will die of heat; turn to the other and you die of the cold. What should you do? Walk in the middle." -- Study sheet on Quranic texts from a morning session at RHR 2008

"This is very old, yet is new. It is as old as our three religions. All speak of moderation. Rambam spoke of the Golden Path; in Islam we call it wasatia, meaning middle ground. We use that word because it is mentioned in the Qur'an several times." So speaks Professor Munther Darjani (who spoke also in the first plenary session last night.)

"My brother Muhammad and I felt strongly that a minority group was hijacking Islam. A good Muslim is one who gives in to God. To be a good Muslim you have to believe in all the prophets. Most of our Qur'an is about Judaism, believe it or not!"

"We knew that our children would someday ask us, what did you do while Hamas was doing what it is doing, while Fatah was corrupt to the highest level? We decided to take it upon ourselves to speak to religious people of all faiths, to launch a movement which is a political forum. (We are not a political party because we are not seeking political office.)" He and his brother formed Wasatia. (Read more about Wasatia in SFGate: New Islamic party seeks the center.)

Continue reading "RHR 2008: Muslim text study / conversation" »

RHR 2008: Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

A meta-note: I hope to be able to post some more personal responses, something that synthesizes this material a little bit, later today. For now, here's another session transcript for the benefit of those who aren't able to join us in person; enjoy!

L to R: Sulayman S. Nyang, Dr. David Gushee, Dr. Arnold Eisen.

The first formal session of Day 2 is a panel called:

The Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Dr. David Gushee, founder and president of Evangelicals for Human Rights and a professor of Christian ethics; and Sulayman S. Nyang, professor and chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University and a former Gambian ambassador to the Middle East; moderated by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director, Religious Studies Program, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer begins by citing Jane Meyer's book The Dark Side. Alberto Moya was presented with information about what was going on in Guantanamo, and took it on himself to follow up on it where many others had not; he made a huge difference at great cost to himself. Afterwards somebody asked, "why did you do it?" And he said, "If I hadn't, my mother would have killed me!" Many of us are doing this work precisely for that reason.

It's a privilege to moderate an interreligious panel at a conference like this. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was 60 years ago Wednesay; it grew out of a meeting of men and women from many different faiths, and many also who were secular. "Across this great cultural divide they crafted a document which became parent of the American civil rights movement." It was something revolutionary, a vision of the rights every man and woman would have in every country regardless of their government and regardless of religion.

Eleanor Roosevelt was involved with ths process, and has written about how her faith spurred her in doing this work. She understood that people would come with diferent languages/beliefs, and in the end would create "a bridge to walk across." Today we'll hear from three individuals who represent three historic religious traditions from which they ground their understanding of sacred, unique human life. "The ideals carry no weight unless the people understand them and demand that they be lived," Roosevelt said; today these speakers will talk about the communities they live and work with and the coreligionists they try to lead to understand this.

Professor Arnold Eisen begins:

This issue is utterly urgent: universal achievement of human rights at a time when religion has such potential to do good, and to do evil, in the world.

This morning's task is impossible -- to talk about all of this material in 15 minutes! I'm going to focus on 2 particular points. The first point: It's one of the great gifts of the Torah, the foundation text of Judaism and the tree of life to which I hold fast, that Torah makes it clear from the beginning that Jews are a small portion of a much larger creation. You can lose sight of it; when you read the Torah's narratives you tend to focus on our heroes. You do Jacob and are happy to shunt Esau off to the side; you read about Isaac and are glad when Ishmael is out of the picture. You have a narrow view of things which historically has been reinforced by ghetto, persecution, which didn't incline Jews in the direction of universalism.

But Torah portrays Jews as part of a much larger creation.

Continue reading "RHR 2008: Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" »

RHR 2008: Boker tov from RHR!

I made it to the conference this morning in time for shacharit, which was lovely. I so rarely get to daven on a weekday morning in community! As soon as I entered the room and started wrapping myself in tallit and tefillin I heard the voices of dear friends and teachers, which made me beam.

I missed most of the breakfast session with last night's speakers (shacharit lasted an hour, because it's Monday and there was a Torah reading; they kindly graced me with an aliyah, which I appreciate very much) but I did get to eat half a bagel with one of my DLTI friends while we listened to the end of the morning remarks, which was great.

And now I'm in the sanctuary waiting for the first session of Day 2 to begin -- and today there's wifi, which I hope means I can post a few things over the course of the day as the conference unfolds! It turns out there is an official conference blog at Rabbis for Human Rights (Blogspot); if you're interested, feel free to follow conference-related posts there as well as here.

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