Moreynu Rabbeynu Byron Sherwin זכרונו לברכה

On Erev Shabbat BaMidbar, my teacher Byron Sherwin became an echo of Eternity.

I first met Byron over the phone in 2000. I had heard about doctoral studies at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and hoped that this would be a way into more spiritual growth. At the time, I felt stymied: an associate Rabbi at a large congregation, I was so busy helping others that I could see no way of furthering my own spiritual journey. Doctoral studies seemed a perfect way out, or forward, or …. something.

Dr. Sherwin wasn’t so sure that I was right for the program. I remember our conversation, remember being somewhat surprised; I had been an honor student in college, did just fine in Rabbinical school. What was his question? Was it that I didn’t quite know what I wanted? It frustrated me. It made me think.

Byron, who became my teacher and my mentor, was just that kind of provocative, insightful spirit. There must have been something in my voice of the chip on my shoulder – a half-baked feminist, reactionary reformist, mostly thoughtless sloganeer. What Byron heard in my voice, I now know, was indicative of a very green apprentice. Perhaps just considering what it would take to gentle me out of my ill-considered anger, to help me settle down to listen to the Still Small Voice, was exhausting.

Whatever – he let me into the program. I thanked him with an excoriating evaluation after my first learning seminar in Chicago.

Later, much later, he would explain to me that he had been quite ill at the time, more than he had known. And, in truth, all the later years of my learning at Spertus were better than that first one. And, in truth, the first one wasn’t bad. I have the notes. His reach, and his grasp, of the material was extraordinary.

Thank G-d, and thank Byron, I am no longer half-baked, half-thoughtless, half-reactionary. Here are some of his teachings:

1. Feminists don’t have to go outside of Jewish tradition to make their case. They just have to become learned enough in the tradition to find their ammunition there.

2. Corporations are golems. Just you wait and see.

3. Some day a person will have two, or three, or maybe four parents. Halakhah can make sense of this.

4. Life is lived below as well as above the neck. Try to unify yourself.

Byron Sherwin was a brilliant mind in a quirky psychology in a body that let him down too soon. He took care to supply all of us, his students, with voluminous resources on the topics we studied, “so that for the rest of your career, you’ll have what you need to teach.” He spent careful time reading final exams that numbered in the hundreds of pages, and didn’t grade on a curve. He cared about our personal lives  no less, following the role modeling of his own masters, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others, Rabbis in the Hasidic tradition:

One day the Rabbi asked the student, how is your study partner?

the student replied, I don’t know.

The Rabbi shouted, what do you mean, you don’t know? you study together, you eat together, you work together – how can you not know if your study partner is happy or sad, content or in need?

Byron cared about our personal lives and took us in as far as we needed. I only wish I did not have the feeling that we were not, really, able to give him what he himself needed from us, his students.

It is said in the Talmud that a faithful student does not speak a word contrary to the master’s teachings in his lifetime. I confess I can’t imagine why I would, now.

ברוך דיין האמת

 

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Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Is the Torah Misogynistic?

This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:

  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)

This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.

Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.

I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.

As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.

That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”

One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?

Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.

And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)

Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.

There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.

May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.

Shabbat VaYetze: Rediscovering the Power of Leah and Rachel

 In this week’s parashah we read about the “baby wars” between Leah and Rachel as each try to outdo each other in giving their shared husband sons. It’s easy to dismiss as a misogynistic satire of two women fighting for their husband’s attention, but that’s only the top layer of this fascinating story. A closer look offers deeper insights.

 

Consider: Jacob was a follower of his father’s and grandfather’s G-d. But what was the focus of Rachel’s and Leah’s reverence? Note Leah’s words upon the birth of her second son. She exclaims b’oshri! which has been explained as a form of ashrey, “joy”. Leah names her son Asher (Gen. 30.13), and some scholars see a note of thanks to the Goddess Asherah in both the exclamation and the name.

 

Leah and Rachel name their children when they are born. (So does Eve.) When the world is created, G-d brings all the animals to Adam, and he names them. The power of naming is akin to the power of creating; to name something is to bring it fully into existence. When it comes to new human beings, the power of their names in is the mouths of their mothers. 

 

What other powers did our Matriarchs wield, of which no hint has remained in the final redaction of our Torah text? And what else is buried in our Torah text, between the lines, half-hidden, covered over by later re-shapings of meaning and context?

 

My teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, taught me that everything a feminist needs to argue against Jewish patriarchy is already there in our ancient sources. One need only know how to look. So let’s look at words and their power in Judaism.

 

As the Psalmist has noted, clumsy human language is not suited to G-d’s praise; yet we, described in Jewish medieval philosophy as “the creature that speaks,” keep trying to name our sense of kedushah, holiness, and its Source. By definition, the One G-d is not defined by borders, by tribal ethnicity, by age or politics or nature; the irony of arrogating kedushah to an exclusive group is that it empties the term of meaning. Here the case of gender is enlightening.  As feminist theologians have pointed out, naming G-d “he” at the expense of the use of the word “she” defines G-d as less than All: and this is the basic definition of idolatry, i.e. revering something less than G-d as G-d.

 

Restriction of kedushah by gender, or by any other means, is not a religious statement; rather, it is an example in antiquity as in modernity of a social expression, or even political use, of the concept of the holiness of G-d. Such definition suits limited purposes. To the extent that feminism stands as a corrective to patriarchy, and leads us toward the equal cherishing of all aspects of creation, it re-captures an ancient cultural weighting of the feminine. Life brings change; cultural perspectives come and go;  each time, we must bring careful thinking about texts we respect and so expect to contain more than meets the eye. Each new challenge, met thoughtfully, can help us find a new balance between opposites that need each other to exist at all. Only the embrace of opposites brings one closer to the One Source of All Being.