Shabbat VaYishlakh: #Dinah Too

A phrase is making the rounds on social media: #Me Too. It refers to women who are sharing their stories of sexual harrassment and abuse. A startlingly powerful wave of reaction is carrying off prominent men, one after the next, with breathtaking rapidity. And some of us watch with an uneasy feeling, wondering:  where will it go next; how far will it go?
In the parashat hashavua, the weekly reading from the Torah this week, we find the disturbing story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter.
Jacob and his large family, along with their servants and their flocks and herds, have just arrived in an area in the outskirts of the city of Shekhem, and they have set up their tents and settled in. Among the responsibilities of a young woman of Dinah’s age would be that of going to the nearest well to draw water for the household; while this may have often been an onerous chore, one can imagine her in this case excited to go to this new watering hole, to see the local women, and to possibly make a social connection.
Probably she did not go alone, for such a large camp would need more water than she alone could draw; perhaps the young women among their servants came with her – perhaps they were even friends. But she was the only one who, according to the text, ran into trouble:

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivite – the prince of the land – saw her;
and he took her and lay with her, oppressing her.

Here’s what happened next: the man who raped her decided he wanted to keep her; her brothers and father met with him and his father to discuss her situation and whether she would marry her rapist; and her brothers, after pretending to agree to the marriage, took outsized revenge upon the people of Shekhem, catching them unaware and slaughtering all the men of the town.
No one doubted her story. The man involved was punished with death. But: so was every other man in the town.
The story is disturbing enough in its depiction of the suffering of the innocent young woman, but the outsized anger that causes so many more, who are likewise innocent, to suffer is likewise troubling. G*d forbid we should doubt the true word of one who comes forward to tell a story of sexual oppression, and G*d help the person who becomes convinced that she has suffered abuse when she has not – and even more, G*d help the accused innocent in that case. Who will believe that person?
The faster each name is publicized, the farther they fall, the more our yetzer ha’ra’ – our evil impulse – prods us to overlook due process, and to tolerate a rush to judgement that may be flawed.
In the Salem witch trials a contagious hysteria caused people to accuse their neighbors of acts for which they were punished – although they were innocent.
In the Middle Ages, European Jews were accused of the “blood libel” – using the blood of a Christian child to make matzah – and murdered.
When I lived in Ukraine I heard stories of people who denounced their neighbors – because as a reward they were given their neighbors’ apartment.
In Jewish law, two witnesses are required to convict a person of wrongdoing in a capital case. No one is allowed to indict herself. And as the Torah says, the very height of injustice is that which sweeps away the innocent with the guilty. Even HaShem expressed remorse after the Flood.
Times like this require us to review: every human being is created in the Image of G*d. Reducing anyone to a two-dimensional, single-issue soul is to do violence as great as that which we seek to abhor. While we pillory each other, what are we distracted from seeing? Powerful forces in our society seek to shred what’s left of our social contract; let our time-tested ancient Jewish ethical tradition support you as you seek to balance all the conflicting truths in the painful reality of our lives.

Shabbat Va’Era: Reveal Yourself

In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the  parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?

וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.

Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)

After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.

Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.

G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)

The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy.  A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:

Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.

We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.

We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate. 

It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help. 

Shabbat Noakh: The Fire This Time

On this Shabbat we are confronted with an intense and perplexing narrative. First, the world is overwhelmed with hamas, “lawless violence”, and then flooded unto utter destruction. The few who survive the catastrophic end of their world do not live happily ever after: a son takes advantage of his father’s vulnerability, reckless leaders gather followers for an assault on the ultimate authority – the G*d of Heaven and Earth. The parashah ends with human beings scattered over the face of the earth, driven away from the safety of the communities they have created by a new catastrophe of their own making.

The sense of relevance to us right now is terrifying. And this is not the first time. Why does it so often seem that the poem feels true, that “the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats)? 

Even the most responsible among us wishes to avert our eyes from the view: to wash our hands of the whole affair, to declare plagues on both houses, to drop out. But note that not one of those idioms for abdicating one’s responsibility as a human being is Jewish. Not one.

To repeat the message of my Kol Nidre drash: for Jews, it is only through Jewish identity that we can find our way forward in the current hamas that threatens us. One must know who and what one is before one can act; one must feel oneself grounded and secure in one’s footing as a person before one can pick one’s way forward with clarity. When one is called upon to act, one must be able to say hineni, “here I am,” and know who is speaking.

This week’s parashah offers one explanation for the diversity of human cultures on earth. Regardless of how each became so richly different, each human culture offers the human beings who grow within it a home from which to act, to react, and to find meaning. The Lakota people find great strength for a struggle that might be called merely secular and political by seeing great cultural and spiritual depth within it. The Movement for Black Lives offers those within it a rich and clear sense of purpose drawn from similar deep wells that go all the way down to the same life-giving waters.

We Jews (and the people who love them, and who walk with us, to our great gratitude) stand so close to our own deep wells of meaning and support for our lives. There is deep and rich Jewish cultural and spiritual support to help us know how be a citizen of the U.S. in these days. Don’t let the rising waters knock you off your feet; let the lifeline of Jewish knowledge and connectedness keep you grounded.

It is not in the Jewish idiom to give up, or to divorce ourselves from the common good. Parashat Noakh teaches that we must find the strength not to avert our eyes from the vulnerability of our institutions and authorities, hoping that our own little boat will protect us and those we love. It will not. We must find a way to break these cycles of catastrophe and dispersal – we, especially, who know them too well from our own past.

Justice, justice, you must pursue if you would live. (Devarim 16.20) Jewish tradition interprets this verse as follows: we must pursue justice, not wait for it to come to us. And we must do so justly. Jews also do justice by supporting organizations pursuing justice. Consider supporting these organizations in their leadership work:

Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice

Equal Justice Initiative

The Network of Spiritual Progressives

Shabbat Shoftim: You Too Are a Judge, and Must Be

The beginning of parashat Shoftim calls for us to ensure justice in the communities in which we live.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Set up judges and officers in all your gates, everywhere that you are privileged to live by G*d’s grace. The judges must judge the people righteously.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

There must no manipulation of judgment, neither by bias nor by bribe. There is no one, no matter how righteous, who can truly withstand the influence of a gift.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  {ס}

Justice, you must pursue justice, if you want to live and thrive on the earth which is a gift to you from HaShem your God.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

These verses have attracted much commentary:

1. What are “your gates”? The “gates”, and the implicit “city” to which they belong, symbolically represent the individual; your “gates” refers to your eyes and your ears. They are the gates through which all influences and information enters, and we are, each one of us, to “set up judges” (this is written in the singular) to monitor all that enters our minds and hearts.

2. What does it mean to “judge…righteously”? First, judge yourself in the same circumstances, and consider what you would do; then perhaps you will come closer to judging “righteously”. 

3. Why are we told to pursue “justice” twice? Because the means and the end must both be righteous. 

These verses are aimed at judges, but our tradition internalizes them to refer to each one of us – this is a common interpretive technique in Judaism, and it expresses a fundamental truth of our perspective: everything belongs to everything else, everyone is part of everyone else. A dishonest judge does not simply ruin the lives of those s/he condemns unjustly; that injustice scars not only the victim but everyone linked to that victim. And then everyone who hears about the dishonesty in the system who is demoralized and turns away multiplies the injustice, and then the trauma of the injustice causes the entire system to rot, a little at a time.

Many of us live in an environment in which we resist judging and being judged – who has the right to judge me, or you? But Jewish ethical teachings insist: we must all ensure that robust judgement does exist and is expressed at the highest standard – because it is, in the end, what allows us to live

“You must pursue justice if you want to live”. Here are the two sides of the interdependent balance: justice, and life. We are surrounded with examples of how the lack of one leads to the end of the other; at our peril we believe that we can turn away and enjoy life apart.

In this month of Elul we are encouraged to judge ourselves, and each other, and the world of which we are a vital part. May we come closer with each attempt to be righteous to a world where justice flourishes, and may we know ourselves to be part of the righteousness our world starves for.

Shabbat Shoftim: No Justice, No Peace

This parashat hashavua offers us so much of the guidance we need for our community relationships – the parashah begins with three perfect verses that cover so much ground.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

You must have judges and officers in all your gates which by the grace of G-d you have, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

You shall not show favoritism; you shall not respect individuals; you shall not take a gift – for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the righteous.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Justice, justice you must follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which ‘ה your G-d gives you.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

Consider these few of the centuries of interpretations of these three verses, and in how many situations of your every day life they might guide your own words and acts:

1. “Judges” – in the plural. Do not dare to judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.  –  Pirke Avot 4:8 – Get a second opinion before you make a decision about someone’s character or behavior. Maybe you’re wrong.

2. “in all your gates” – The human body is a city with seven gates, that is, seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. We must learn to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what goes in and what comes out. – Sifte Kohen – The best advice I ever got was to “put a seven-second delay” on my mouth.

3.”Bribes blind the eyes of the wise” – As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him. – Rashi – Bribes are not just money or other kinds of material gain. One can be bribed in a much more subtle way, without any malicious intent, as in this story from the Talmud:

Bribes twist the words of the righteous” – A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen – Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen by lineage and could accept such gifts). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From such-and-such a place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case]. Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe! – Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 105b

4. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice — both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just. – Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa

5. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. – Pirke Avot 1:18 – Law, truth and peace; the three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace. – Talmud Yerushalmi, Taanit 4:2

Our third verse concludes with the warning that only when justice is upheld with righteousness can we expect to “inherit the land”. That land is the place of your life and that of your family and community. The Torah is telling us that aren’t enough security systems and armies in the world to protect us from the consequences of our unethical choices. Unless we establish real justice, for all, in the land of the living, none of us will feel secure upon it.

What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the best insurance for a safe and happy life was bought by ethical insurance, and not just the homeowner’s or renter’s policy you wouldn’t dream of not having?

Ferguson, and here: What Is a Jew To Do?

It was Monday evening when the news was announced: that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson Missouri. An indictment does not assume guilt; it merely declares that there’s reason to go to trial to ascertain guilt or innocence. 

According to the path of Jewish law, we are commanded: Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deut.16.20) Why, the Sages asked, was the word “justice” repeated? Because, they answered, one must pursue justice justly. In Ferguson on Monday justice was denied, in the denial of a fair and open trial.

What are we, as Jews who are obligated to work for the prosperity of the country in which we live, to do? How shall we respond? what is the next step? We are also commanded to use our best learning to ascertain how best to fulfill a mitzvah, in this case the mitzvah of you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. (Lev. 19.16) 

For that purpose, yesterday afternoon I attended the rally downtown at the Justice Center called by the Albina Ministerial Coalition and others, to respond to the news. There I heard a call to action toward those of us “who identify as white” to “use your privilege to further justice.” As local coverage put it:

Bring in a special prosecutor when deadly officer-involved shootings happen, to keep the case unbiased. And after at least four controversial minority deaths that resulted in no charges against Portland police over the years, they want a review of the deadly force policies here, too.

“The killing of Michael Brown has also brought to light many of the unfortunate blemishes – criminal justice disparities, volatile police-community relations, unemployment and economic inequities – that tarnish our nation and that prevent us from being the best of whom we can be,” said Dr LeRoy Haynes, Chair of the AMA Coalition. “This tragedy has exposed the persistent state of emergency that grips not only Ferguson, but our city and our nation as a whole.” (see the complete report here.)

There were no Jewish speakers at the rally. It was an absence I felt painfully, for it speaks of the gap that has widened between Jews and African-Americans in the years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr Martin Luther King Jr walked hand in hand over the Selma Bridge. Much bitterness has passed under that bridge in the meantime, but we cannot let the distance fetter our efforts to fulfill the mitzvah of working for the prosperity of our country. To be Jewish is to hope, and to work, for a better world. It’s in our prayers and our ethics.

Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. (Jeremiah 29.7) For Jews, to pray is to imply action based on the prayer. 

But for those of us who identify as white, our collective white liberal guilt, as it is called, can blind us to the best way to take action. We can’t simply approach an African-American of our acquaintance or in the street and offer a hug and a statement of support. That might make us feel better, but it’s not about us. There is real anger in Portland’s minority and disenfranchised communities, as we saw demonstrated when some of the marchers last night turned violent.

Listen carefully, then, to what the leaders of the Ferguson press conference said. Watch for the small acts that we can effectively do to work toward equal justice. Most of all, as one speaker pleaded last night at the Portland rally, “don’t go back to your routine.”  

“You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.” So said Rev Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson. There is an ongoing Federal investigation; let’s stay focused. Watch for ways to be supportive. Raise your voice; write a letter; don’t go back to your routine.