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January 2024

On Town resolutions

The editors of the Williams Record asked if I would write an OpEd about last week's Williamstown Select Board meeting, the resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza that was brought to that meeting, and the views of the community I serve on that resolution. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...Before writing any kind of resolution that aims to speak for the whole Town, I think we need to listen to one another. One of the difficulties in doing so is that we’re often operating with different facts. Not because of disinformation, though there’s plenty of that, but because news from Al Jazeera will be different from news from Ha’aretz, which is different from your Tumblr feed. It can be painful to hear someone who views the conflict through a different lens and is getting their information from a different set of sources, but it’s valuable to learn how to hold multiple truths. 

As a Rabbi, I’m committed to the proposition that all of the Jews who live here belong in Jewish community, no matter what path forward we think is the best way to reach a just and lasting peace. This goal requires us to look for places where we can make common cause instead of focusing on the places where we can’t. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s vital...

Read the whole piece here: Creating a resolution that speaks for more of our Town.


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

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God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;
you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:1-8)

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, we bring gifts. Everyone brings something different, and everyone has something to bring. Maybe that’s what makes what we build together a mikdash, a holy place. In English, a sanctuary: a sacred space of protection and care. When we co-create safety, then God can dwell among us or within us. (And as always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute something that does: meaning, justice, compassion, hope.) 

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / va’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham / “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell within (or among) them.” The Hebrew שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י / shakhanti, “that I might dwell,” shares a root with the name Shekhinah – the Presence of God with us and within us. It’s the same root as the Hebrew word שְׁכוּנָה / shekhunah, neighborhood. The Hebrew אני שוכן / ani shokhein, “I dwell,” is cousin to the Arabic أنا أسكن / ‘anaeskun, “I dwell…”

Torah spends many weeks describing the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God that our ancestors built in the wilderness. The story of the mishkan is always also a story about something bigger and deeper. It’s not “just” about the lavish descriptions of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the hammered gold and copper, the linen and acacia wood. This is Torah’s sacred instruction manual on creating community. Step one: community means everybody. 

Torah reminds us that we build community together, each with our own gifts. The holy work of building community comes with some obligations. First off, we have to respect each others’ offerings and perspectives. We have to remember that together we are more than the sum of our parts. And we have to remember that the way to build a home for the Holy, for truth and justice and compassion and hope, is to all be involved in building it together.

And there’s a corollary, which is that everyone has something to give. I’m not talking about donations, though every community needs funds to keep itself going and ours is no exception. I mean the inner qualities we each bring to the table. Passion and perseverance. Kindness and steadfastness. Community-mindedness. Patience. The fire of justice and activism, and the still waters of care and calmness. The community wouldn’t be whole without all of us. 

This is an easy platitude that can be difficult to live: especially when we disagree, or when we feel afraid, or when emotions run high. This understanding of community asks us to cultivate curiosity about each others’ perspectives and hopes and dreams, and to resist stereotyping each other or writing each other off. This might sound small, but it’s hugely important. I mean, according to Torah, this is literally how we make space for God in our world. 

We make space for God – for justice, for holiness, for our highest ideals – when we all pitch in to build a community that’s broad and resilient enough to be a home for all of us. That’s our aspiration here. Our Jewish community here is for all of us. You belong here – whether you’re a fourth generation local, or you just moved here; whether you were born into Judaism or chose it yourself; whether your Jewishness focuses you inward or outward.

You belong: whether what brings you through the door is spiritual life and practice, or activism and social justice, or music, or mitzvot, or social life and connections. And you belong no matter what path you think will best bring Israel and Palestinians to a just, lasting, and safe peace. We are a tiny synagogue community. Within our fewer-than-100 members we span the gamut of opinions about Israel and Palestine. I know this because y’all have told me so.

This is an upside of smalltown life. I imagine that in a city, people might self-select to different synagogues. But in northern Berkshire, we’re it. Which means we have to find a way to be in community even when we disagree… even about the big questions, like which tune is the right one for Adon Olam. I’m joking, but I also really mean it. Torah’s whole vision of holy community assumes that we are different, and we figure out how to be there for each other anyway.

I am committed to the proposition that we all belong in Jewish community, and that we owe it to each other to make it work. I believe our diversities are the gifts we each bring to the construction of this sacred community. And I believe that in listening to each other, with openness, humility, and care, we make space for that infinite possibility of transformation that our tradition names as God. When we hold space for our differences, we make community holy.

Torah asks us each to bring our gifts if our hearts are so moved. If your heart moves you to do the work of showing up, I’m here to listen and learn. My ask of all of us, including myself, is: come with curiosity. Assume the best of others. And keep an open heart. Bring your gifts, and appreciate what others bring. That’s how holy community is built: not once, but over and over again, in every interaction. Even when it isn’t easy. Maybe especially then. 

I am so glad to be building this community with all of you.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


Bringing Repair: a d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat

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Every Monday afternoon at Jewish Journeys, there is a new Hebrew word or phrase of the day. We teach the word in each of our classrooms, and when we convene for Tefilah Time (an interlude of song and prayer between one class and the next) we talk about what each group learned. This past Monday our phrase of the day was tikkun olam, repairing the world. 

It’s an apt phrase to be focusing on this week. This week’s Torah portion is called  Mishpatim, which means Laws or Judgments. Torah speaks here about freeing slaves, and and about who’s responsible when somebody’s ox gores somebody else. Torah urges us (again) not to wrong the stranger. And here we also find a verse that shapes the Jewish view of abortion. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read (Ex. 21:22) that if two men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant person and a miscarriage ensues, the person who caused the damage is fined. Fined, not put to death. Torah does not treat the causing of a miscarriage like manslaughter or murder, which in ancient times would have demanded the death penalty. 

Later Jewish jurisprudence holds that the life of the pregnant person is paramount. Once the head has emerged and the baby draws first breath, it is considered an individual life. But a fetus begins as “mere water,” in Talmud’s terms. When there is a conflict between the needs of the fetus and the needs of the person with the womb, the person with the womb takes precedence.

(I wrote about this in greater detail and cited more textual sources last year: Reproductive Justice and the Dream of Sky.)

Since the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization SCOTUS decision, abortion has been restricted or banned in 21 states. Teen pregnancy rates are rising in Texas, which has some of the most restrictive legislation nationwide. Meanwhile, several Texans are suing the state over the trauma and danger in being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies. 

I pay particular attention to Texas because I grew up there, and because much of my family still lives there. But there are plenty of other places across the country where the same realities are playing out. Often laws that restrict or ban reproductive healthcare are written and enacted in the spirit of a particular Christian undertanding that “life begins” at conception. 

I don’t think any religion’s beliefs about when life begins should be codified in civil law. Beyond that, it’s wrong to force someone into the life-threatening process of carrying a pregnancy. (Is it surprising to hear pregnancy described that way? Here’s more from Harvard Health.) Pregnancy turns out to be really dangerous – especially for low-income folks and people of color.

It’s wrong to deny the inherent human rights and dignity of any human being. Forcing someone into pregnancy is a denial of human rights and bodily autonomy. In that sense it’s akin to our nation’s shameful history of forced sterilization. And like many injustices both historical and contemporary, it lands hardest on people who are already “on the margins.”

The burden of forced pregnancy – physical, emotional, fiscal and more – lands hardest on people who don’t have resources or power, people who may already live with illness or poverty or homelessness. I’m grateful to live in a state where the right to bodily autonomy is honored… and it pains me that so many people across the country can’t take that right for granted. 

Meanwhile, those who drove the fall of Roe want to ban abortion everywhere, and anti-choice activists are pushing lawmakers not to compromise for any reason. A national ban would mean that the autonomy we enjoy here would end. But even in the absence of a national ban, it’s intolerable that people in almost half of our country don’t have rights over their own bodies.

All week as I’ve been working on this d’var Torah, I’ve been struggling with the sense that nothing I’m saying here is new. We all know that the fall of Roe has had precipitous and terrible impacts. But it feels important to name these realities, again, and to remind ourselves that we have an opportunity and an obligation to try to help fix what has been broken.

On Monday when I was teaching my students about tikkun olam, I told them the thing I love most about this foundational Jewish idea: our tradition presumes that we have power to make things better than they are. Where the world is broken, we can bring repair… and our tradition teaches not only that we can, but that we must. This is our “job.” It’s what we’re here for. 

In the words of “A Prayer for Reproductive Freedom,” shared by the National Council of Jewish Women

May we find within ourselves the collective will 

to create a just society in which reproductive justice – 

the holy right to own the personhood of one’s own body, 

to have or not have children, 

to raise any children in safety and community – 

is foundational. 

Every time I read this prayer, these lines remind me that reproductive justice isn’t just about my body and my healthcare, though of course those are part of it. It’s also about being able to raise all children in safety and in community. Can we actually imagine a world in which all children’s needs are genuinely met? That’s what real reproductive justice would look like. 

What an amazing vision. And since our tradition teaches that learning matters because it inspires us to action, here are two short lists of actions we can take before or after Shabbat to at help protect access to reproductive healthcare for everyone. It won’t get us all the way to justice, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Shabbat shalom to all.

Action items from the NCJW:

Action items from the Religious Action Center / Women of Reform Judaism:

I wrote this d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat 2024, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women co-sponsored by Women of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires.


We Sanctify

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You who fill and surround creation, Who adorned the heavens in time before time

with the sparkling net of galaxies like gems in the sky’s expanse – 

You don't need us to make Your name great

throughout the world. It's all we can do

to hold this scant fractal 

encoded in our limbs, 

our temporary breath. 

 

We praise anyway,

through our generations –

not because You need to hear it

but because something in us shifts

whether we whisper this reminder or shout it to the skies: 

You are upwelling, indwelling, holy: the song that sings in us.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהו''ה, הָאֵל הַקָּדושׁ .Blessed are You, Holy One, God Who is holy

 


Sparkling net of galaxies. This image is an artist’s rendering of a supercluster of galaxies, from the Smithsonian magazine. Fractal / encoded in our limbs. The four-letter Name of God can be understood to map to the human body: yud is the head, heh is the arms, vav is the spine, heh is the legs. [O]ur temporary breath. R. Arthur Waskow teaches that we speak the Name every time we breathe.

 

Originally published in Holy / Kedusha, Bayit, Jan. 2024.

*

This liturgical poem is one of my contributions to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group: Holy / Kedusha. Click through to Builders Blog to see the whole thing. As always, the offering is available both as a downloadable PDF and as slides suitable for screenshare.

Also as always, what we co-created is more than the sum of its parts. Both of the pieces I drafted were inspired by something that someone else wrote or said, and I wouldn't have written either one were it not for this collaboration. This work is one of the most nourishing things I do, and I am grateful.