Friday, August 21, 2015

At the Rebbe's Gay Tish



If this were a Chassidic tale, it might begin with a journey. Maybe a great rabbi in disguise as a pauper, visiting poor households and offering miraculous blessings. Or perhaps someone traveling to a great city to arrange a marriage or find a cure or sell an old wagon. And on the journey there might be an unexpected obstacle – a horse goes lame, a river floods, or Shabbes falls early.

My story begins with a journey two and a half weeks ago, from Manhattan to Albany, on my way to the foothills of the Berkshires for Nehirim Camp, a sorta-real, sorta-mock summer camp experience for gay Jewish men. My accidental seatmate on the train was an Orthodox Jewish guy, with a tractate of Talmud on his tray table. I asked what he was studying. “Talmud,” he answered.

“I know, but which volume?”

His eyes darted around nervously. “Niddah,” he whispered. This is the tractate about women’s purity and menstruation. His face reddened. “I never had the chance to study this when I was young,” he added, looking like he’d been caught with his hands in his mother’s dresser drawers.

If this were a Chassidic tale, the unexpected traveling companion would maybe be a supernatural figure, posing as flesh and blood. Maybe an angel, maybe a demon. And when I get caught up in conversation with someone who is Orthodox, I confess that I’m open to the angel, but tend to expect the demon. I expect that as he gets to know me, I will be judged and condemned, the naked-headed gay guy who talks Torah but drives on Shabbes. I would be his demon.

But I was feeling happy that morning, maybe more expansive than usual. So I took the risk of conversation, and soon we were, to my surprise, studying together, not Niddah, which stayed resolutely shut, but a project of mine. An hour in, he asked me where I was heading. “To a gay Jewish retreat,” I answered.

Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Our hearts marked time while our eyes remained riveted to the back of the seats in front of us, the Hudson Valley flying past the window.

“So you’re gay?” he asked.

“Yup.”

And I braced myself for an as-yet unformulated unpleasantness. Instead, he dropped his head, sighed and said, “It’s terrible what happened in Jerusalem last week.” Meaning the murder of a 16-year old girl by a crazed Orthodox man at the Jerusalem pride parade. I was caught off guard by his compassion and his sad tone, as if he were apologizing for both the incident and his own helplessness. My surprise was not unlike the surprise of so many Chasidim in so many stories, when the rebbe reveals unexpected magical knowledge of a joy or a tragedy that his disciples had not perceived.

“Yes. Terrible,” I replied. We sat in silence for some minutes, and then resumed our study.

Eventually I arrived at the Easton Mountain retreat center in Greenwich (“Green-Witch”) – not Greenwich (“Grennitch”) – New York. And green Greenwich certainly was. Coming from our thirsty state, the expanses of soft grass and the array of ponds and lakes seemed immodest almost to the point of vulgarity.

Once there I met the week’s other faculty members, including a rabbi, a cantor, a yoga guy, a nature-and-creativity guy, and a porn actor. We reviewed the schedule and got to work. My docket included teaching a class every day of the retreat, leading the Friday night service, and holding a late night tish, modeled on the Rebbe’s Tish of old, where I would tell stories and lead niggunim.

And then the participants began to roll in. Like Chasidim would pour into Bratzlav or Berditchev or Lublin, to spend the Jewish holiday at the shtibl and table of their favorite rebbe. Instead of Yisroels and Motls and Shmuels, we instead had Davids and Steves and Marks and Sams – several of each, in fact. Instead of gabardines and shtreimls we had shorts and tank tops and, by the pool, nothing at all.

These were guys who had all experienced struggle and exclusion in the world broadly and in the Jewish world specifically, because they were gay, and mostly of a certain generation, and they were here to do some reclaiming of Jewish turf together. Some of them live very active Jewish lives; some were returning to Judaism after long absences. Many had been instrumental in forming gay synagogues on the east coast, where they defiantly re-created the more conservative observance of their childhoods. And so I was struck at how in a group of 50 Jewish gay men, I still felt at the fringe in terms of Jewish ritual and Jewish thinking. Although I am pleased to note that I was not the only one who spent Shabbes in a skirt.

I co-led Kabbalat Shabbat with an old friend who is now a cantor and composer. As soon as I began speaking I became aware that how I do it, commonplace for us here at Ner Shalom, was completely new for most of them. I could see their surprise at the visualizations, and the punch lines, and the sexy talk, and the use of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” as our Ma’ariv Aravim prayer. I was afraid my methods might provoke resistance. Instead, hearts seemed to open up and the night got higher and higher.

And it kept getting higher and higher. After Shabbes dinner we settled in for the tish. For an hour or more, in a small room of dinner tables and folding chairs, we sang niggunim and I told stories, two from the Chassidic world and one from the trusty Chelm repertoire. One of the two Chassidic stories was about women. There are not as many of those stories, but they do exist. They are usually about rebbetzins, the wives of well-known rebbes. They typically have to do with either her generosity or her cooking, both of which are taken in this literature as expressions of piety and closeness to God, and are set out as an example for women and men alike. Beautiful, sweet, non-revolutionary stories.

I brought a rebbetzin story in because in this male-only space, in this somewhat but not completely tongue-in-cheek reenactment of a Chassidic court, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable in my chair and in my body.

I confess that I love the ecstatic singing and storytelling of the Chasidim. And as a man (well, as a man who can pass as straight; well, as a man who can pass as straight with some effort), loving that stuff is a privilege I have access too. But in my non-nostalgic waking life, it’s not so easy. I am not able or willing to pray or celebrate somewhere in which women are kept out of leadership and out of the room; in which women’s voices are considered treyf, and in which my life and my family would be considered treyf also if anyone bothered to ask about it. So I no longer pray with Chabad, for instance, no matter how good a party they throw, and no matter how much I need to say kaddish. And while it’s fine for the men and women who opt for that life to do what works for them, my participation in it would be, for me, hypocritical.

And caught between these two truths, that sometimes men-only space might be healing and sometimes it might be a danger sign, there we were, a room full of men, just men, singing.

And the singing was celestial. Because these were not just random Jewish men. These were four dozen gay Jewish men. “Artsy” men, as so many of us had been referred to euphemistically by our great aunts. Some of them were fine professional musicians; some were vocally trained. I’d guess 80% of them had been in all their high school musicals, and a good number of those have kept their chops up at piano bars up and down the eastern seaboard. These guys could sing. And they could harmonize. And the walls of the room trembled with the splendor of it. They were a heavenly choir of first and second tenors, baritones and basses. Melodies poured out; tables were pounded. And I couldn’t help but have the overwhelming sense that we were some European yeshivah, or some lively rabbinic court, the way they are described in the stories.

Now if this were a Chassidic story, there would now be a twist. The triumph of some underdog. God accepting the prayer of an outcast over the objection of the rebbe’s disciples. Or maybe the Prophet Elijah would be revealed at a key moment, in the form of a beggar at the door, and the behavior of the characters would be evaluated in a different light. I awaited the twist, the tikkun.

We sat and sang and the room rocked, and it felt impossible that fewer than 50 men could make music this big. And I suddenly had a vision of other souls fluttering into the room. Yeshivah bokhers of centuries past. The ones who spent their youths in love with their study partners. For whom the subtext of love was supplanted by the text of Talmud. For whom desire was requited only by debate. The ones for whom there was no path of fulfillment that included both spirit and body, and who did the best they could to play the roles expected of them, riddled though they might have been by despair. Or for whom, perhaps, it was enough, but for whom today, it would not be.

I felt these souls fluttering into the room to join us, a trace of worn leather and musty books in the air. I felt them taking their places on the few empty folding chairs; or perching on tables or shoulders or the very rafters. I imagined I heard their voices singing out as loudly as we were singing. And we, who had struggled to reclaim a piece of Judaism, had managed to create, for a moment, a safe place for them.

I’m not sure anyone saw this other than me, although it might be that everyone did. But in that moment, the voices of the yoga guy and the porn guy and the nature guy, the voices of men in pastel polos and men in white Shabbes shirts and men in skirts too, rose up, with the counterpoint of skilled musicians and a cry of deep longing, eventually causing the roof to crack right open, and, carrying an unspoken prayer for a more loving world, the music of all these men flew up, like a pillar of flame, straight to heaven.  

Sending much gratitude to Nehirim, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer and all the wonderful men who staffed and attended Nehirim Camp this year.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Journeys, Symbolism and Stomach Distress

Parashat Mas'ei, 5775

Temple at Delphi
Tonight I promised to reflect on my recent trip to Greece and Israel. I advertised this in the blurb for tonight's service in order to force myself to deliver something. But while I anticipated that I would return full of insight from the journey, my biggest insight is that insight is hard to find. Certainly in the moment, in the day-to-day of travel. Things happen. You notice things that invite symbolic interpretation. But then it's immediately subsumed in the dust and grit of the travel itself.

So where could I look for guidance? Why, to this week's Torah portion, of course. It is called Mas'ei and it contains the first piece of travel writing in Jewish history. It is a recap of the 42 marches of the Israelites through the wilderness, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and ending on the brink of Deuteronomy, at the edge of the Promised Land. And the author of this recap? Well, it turns out that Moshe is not only a prince, a prophet and a shepherd, but a travel writer also. Torah says Moshe wrote this, and this is in fact the first mention of writing that appears in Torah.

But Moshe is no writer of fluff. He does not do it up like a Hemispheres Magazine feature, "Forty Perfect Years in the Desert," complete with romantic spots and clever recipes for manna. Instead, he sticks to the facts, and refrains from romanticizing them:
The Israelites set out from R'amses and encamped at Sukot. They set out from Sukot and encamped at Etam. They set out from Etam and turned toward Pi-Hachirot, and encamped at Migdol.
Moshe's account is so dry, so matter-of-fact that some wonder why he bothered at all. The commentator Rashi deduces that it is for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it wasn't as bad for the Children of Israel as we might think. It wasn't 40 years of constant wandering, but rather 42 distinct journeys, many clustered together in the first year, so that there were often long years settled in one spot.

But Moshe himself offers no evaluation, no symbolism, even though we all know that journeys have a symbolic quality.

And similarly, I know that my journeys over the last six weeks are ripe for meaning-making. I even knew it at the time. But reflection is a luxury, and the journeys of our lives rarely afford us the time to indulge in it.

Still, you're here, and I can't cop out on my promise. So I'll tell you what I can, and offer as much meaning as I was able to develop in the moment.

We were first in Greece. At this point there were 8 of us - the four adults of my household, the two kids, and each of their best friends. In Athens, Elefsina, Delphi we looked at antiquities. Sites dedicated to Athena, to Poseidon, to Demeter, to Apollo, gods whose stories remain alive in our culture, even while their temples stand in ruins. Gods who could bring abundance or chaos at their whim. And while we toured these dusty portals to the past, Athenians were withdrawing their Euros from bank machines, shoring up what they could before disaster strikes. I began to wonder about the paroxysms of good and bad fortune that constitute individual lives and the life of a nation, and how every moment is a piece of history being lived, and how hard we work to create a world view that makes some sense of the senselessness of one's fortune. I was about to draw a conclusion from this, that maybe I could share with you tonight, but it was a hot day, and as we walked from the Acropolis to the Temple of Dionysus, we realized we'd taken a wrong turn, and had to retrace our steps, and our legs were tired already, and my thoughts flattened under the weight of backpack and jet lag.

Only half of our group went on to Israel: Oren and I, our 14-year old and his best friend. We four arrived in Tel Aviv and almost immediately it was Shabbat. We strolled. We took the kids to a park where they climbed a rock wall and played on bungies and trampolines. It wasn't a day of traditional shabbos. No prayers, no study, no songs around a table. Still, we rested. Tel Aviv rested. It was a day different from other days, filled with friends and fresh air and recreation. And I appreciated how Shabbat managed to disguise herself in this secular way. Shabbat, our ingenious bride, was not in her usual wedding dress but in sweats and a headband, jogging through Yarkon Park, rejoicing to be with us nonetheless. I was about to register a thought about this, but right then we saw this hilarious sign telling people to clean up after their dogs. It offered doggy cleanup bags, which it memorably called in Hebrew, sakei kaka. We laughed our heads off and whatever fancy idea I'd had about Shabbat dissolved in our Saturday afternoon mirth.

The next day we drove from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. We spontaneously decided to stop off in Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem, the museum that is the mothership of Holocaust memory. An awareness of the Shoah's shadow is important for understanding Israeli history and character, so Oren and I decided that the kids' seeing it early in the trip made sense. While there, I walked into a chilling room they call the Hall of Names. It is multi-storied and cylindrical, containing not only projected pictures and names, but also floor-to-ceiling shelves holding binders filled with Witness Sheets, which are forms filled out by survivors naming everyone they knew who perished. I entered and there was a group already there being given a tour. A teenager looked up and met my eyes. We stared for an uncomfortable moment before I realized this was someone I knew, someone from the Chicago suburbs, whose mother had been my camper and whose grandmother was my mother's best friend. We hugged in this bizarre moment of uncanniness, and I asked what kind of group he was here with. A BJBE group, he answered. That is, my childhood synagogue. And with that, the rabbi walked up to greet me and there, in this place of loss and memory, she told me how affected she'd been by my mother's death. My mind spun. How all three of us, tied to each other by memory and by our shared Old Country ended up in the same moment in this shrine to memory and to a lost Old Country. I drifted to the supernatural - what intuition brought me here today, of all days, only to stumble upon my own roots? I became lost in this thought, but suddenly we were in the Yad Vashem cafeteria, and I had to figure out if vegetarian food was available on the fleishik side so that I could sit and eat with my voraciously carnivorous 14-year old, and I got caught up in a conversation with the chef about his meatless shnitzel, and by then thoughts of kismet and divine intervention were crumbs swept away.
Ancient Synagogue, Kfar Nachum

The following week, we spent a day in the Galilee, a place with water and green fields and a history of Jewish study and mysticism. We visited the grave of Maimonides and also that of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Roman-era sage who got smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to try to appease the Roman general who was besieging the city. He failed to prevent the destruction of the Temple. But Vespasian allowed him to set up an academy in Yavneh. And there, Ben Zakkai dreamed up portable Judaism - substituting prayers for animal sacrifice as our path to God. It was a time of national calamity, yet he invented the means for keeping Jewish belief and Jewish people alive in exile.

We went on to an ancient synagogue in Kfar Nachum, where Jesus is reported to have preached. And we finished by washing off the dust of antiquity in the Kineret, the harp-shaped, freshwater Sea of Galilee.

As we began our drive back to my in-laws' home in Haifa we took a wrong turn. We ended up in a cul-de-sac in the town of Yavne'el. This place is a Bratslaver Chasidic enclave, 400 families, all followers of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who was famous for many things including comparing the world to a narrow bridge and also his beautiful if hard-to-follow watchwords: It is a great mitzvah to be happy always. And his followers do seem ecstatic much of the time, in ways that sometimes feel aggravating to the rest of us shleppers. As we circled the cul-de-sac an older man in a Bratzlaver white shirt and kippah stepped in front of the car and motioned for us to stop. I opened my window not knowing if I'd be scolded or proselytized. Instead he asked what we were looking for. The road to Afula, I answered. And he gave us directions, plain and simple, and his round, bearded face was simply radiant. I was suddenly reminded of Joseph, sent by Jacob to his brothers in the field, and getting lost. There he meets a man, in Hebrew an ish, who directs him to his brothers and to his fate, because his brothers that very day sell him into slavery whence he ultimately becomes an Egyptian vizier and the savior of his family. The sages say the ish, the man who appears for no reason but to point someone on a path, is inevitably an angel. I looked at this man outside the car window and wanted to call him tzaddik, O saint, but instead I thanked him simply and drove away, wondering what destiny this angel was pointing us toward. I was nearly certain that if I spun around the circle one more time, he'd be gone. I was filled with expectation, with a sense of fate, and magic, and a bit of contact high of Bratzlaver joy. I would have made something of this; I would have written about it for you. But then outside Afula I saw Kibbutz Mizra, famous for making pork products, and I started telling the kids about my childhood friend Ken who traveled all the way to Israel to live for six months on kibbutz and ended up assigned here, making hamburger on a Hollymatic industrial meatgrinder, ironically manufactured in his home town on the south side of Chicago. And by the time I was done with this story, the Bratslaver had, in fact, disappeared from my head.

Scrabble Shark (r.)
We had many adventures, many travels. I learned many things. I learned that 14-year olds can make dust angels on the floors of ancient chalk caves, and still have to be told to wear different clothes the next day. I learned that my role when playing Scrabble with my champion-level mother-in-law is not to try to win, which would be futile, but to provide good cheer as she reduces the rest of the players to rubble. I had many dreams, and I learned how easily the prosaic sits beside the magical within them; how in an anxiety dream about being on stage with the Kinsey Sicks, and the audience misconstruing a pause as the end of the show and beginning to file toward the exits, I still, in the dream, had the lucidity to say, "Don't forget to tip your server." Dreams come alive in Israel, and I would've made something of that fact, something beautiful, but each day, my morning cup of coffee would drive the dream from my memory.

Now here's something you might find interesting. On our final day, heading to Tel Aviv for the evening, I noticed an empty, overgrown field along the freeway with a sign on it saying, Anachnu shomrei shmitah, "we are observing the shmitah." That is, the sabbatical year, the fallow year. The owners of this field were advertising that they had not temporarily sold their field to an Arab family as a loophole around the ancient law. Instead, they were letting the field be - not tilling, not pruning, not harvesting - and trusting that it would be okay. And I wondered about this year that I've had, that I began on this bimah, suggesting that we all consider doing less, trying less hard to control everything in our environments, that in the spirit of shmitah, we let things be, just a little bit. And I noticed that I did not in fact do that this year. That my fingers remained busily engaged in every corner of my life, and the respite I'd promised myself I had failed to deliver. I wondered if it was too late to commit to letting go, at least between now and Rosh Hashanah. I began to feel that yes, this would be possible and I would have made some resolutions around it. But just then we reached Tel Aviv, and if you've ever tried to park around Dizengoff Square on a summer night, you know how fully occupying that is. The resolutions remained unresolved.

At last we were on the plane coming home. I was alone with the two boys. I looked at them next to me and I knew in that instant just how fortunate I was. To be able to have this experience. To have enough money to travel and to be able-bodied enough to do so. To be able to show my kid the Israel that I know and love. To have seen him pretend not to learn any Hebrew at all until the last night when I overheard him calling a waiter by saying, selichah. I felt myself steeped deep in blessing. I might have written a poem on the flight. I might have written a prayer. But at some point the special meal I had ordered proved more special than anticipated, and as I threw up for the fourth time in the airplane bathroom, my sense of gratitude became harder to connect to. And yet, as they rolled me off the plane in a wheelchair, through the barely open slits of my eyes I saw the two 14-year olds heroically handling our passports and customs forms and getting us through immigration and out of the airport. And I felt proud and heartened that the sullenness of teenagers turns out to be camouflage masking generous and capable people who will one day emerge like sun through a break in the clouds.

This trip was hard work. All the journeys in our lives are hard work. There are sore feet and blisters. Blazing sun and cold rain. Useless maps and cranky negotiations and food poisoning and good companions and kind strangers. Our journeys are filled with metaphor. But in the course of them, and in their immediate aftermath, our feet and sometimes our stomachs are too sore for symbolism. And in those instances, maybe reciting the map of our travels is all we can reasonably do. And so I will reel back to Moshe's very real level of detail when I tell you this: We went to Greece. From there to Israel. And now, at journey's end, I'm glad to be home.



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Okay, I did reflect a little while there. For my reflections on Jerusalem, click here: City of Stone and Flowers.

Friday, July 3, 2015

City of Stone and Flowers

A Postcard from Jerusalem.


It's less like other cities in Israel, and more like Burning Man, I explained to our 14-year old as we headed to Jerusalem on Wednesday. We had stopped for a nosh in Herzliya at a branch of a sophisticated Israeli coffee chain, our last swig of stainless-steel modernity before beginning the climb to bewilderment that the Old Jerusalem Road has come to represent.

What I mean by it being like Burning Man, I explained (since for him Burning Man is a reasonable and friendly point of reference) is that everything in Jerusalem is notched up one. People who visit here are tourists-plus. People who live here are residents-plus. Plus what? They're Seekers. Or Pilgrims. Or Professional Jews. Or Chasidim. Or Artists. Or Poets. Or Peace Workers. Or Little Old Ladies who Immigrated Against All Odds. Like at Burning Man, everything - necessarily - has intentionality. There is nothing casual. Even trying to live normally requires a romantic idea and considerable effort. A seemingly simple life in an orderly Rechavia apartment, taking the bus to concerts and sipping ice coffee in a corner cafe, is a normalcy that must be fashioned. Not making a statement here is itself a statement. See? I live in Jerusalem, and I'm not a crackpot like those others.

This city mystifies me. I arrive here each time and fail to find my way around. I lived here for a full year in college. I've had 7 other occasions to spend time in and out of Jerusalem. But each time, when I roll in, the streets rearrange themselves so that I'm always walking the long way when the most direct route is right where I'd been standing to begin with. Something I'd remembered as next door turns out to be many blocks away; something I'd remembered as prohibitively remote suddenly looms in front of me. Finally today I gave up altogether and left the map in my pocket, letting the 14-year old's best friend do the navigating, quite efficiently, using the impressive internal compass he's somehow developed in just two days.

I'm always at a loss for where I stand in Jerusalem, and not just geographically. I don't know how to represent myself. I'm an American Jewish tourist, but I mostly shy away from American Jewish tourists for internalized Anti-Semitic reasons that I have yet to fully own. My Hebrew is fluent and I have a smattering of Arabic, so I prefer to be taken for an unidentifiable foreigner when possible, an international secret agent rather than someone for whom Israel was the next logical step after summer camp.

But this is a city where people clearly represent themselves. Everyone has a specific role in the social disorder, and they wear associated uniforms so as to be easily identifiable to others and to each other. The height of the hat. The pattern on the scarf. Long coat. Short coat. Wig. White kippah. Leggings. My friend Amichai has stood with me in Jerusalem, identifying branch of Chasid, city of origin in the Old Country and specific Yeshivah based entirely on the particulars of the costume. I am not so expert, and the 14-year-olds are complete novices. I pointed out two dark-robed, bearded men to them in the Old City, and they cycled through every flavor of Chasid they'd heard of before realizing that they were actually Russian Orthodox priests.

I would like to wear a kippah here. I have a gut desire to somehow convey that like others of louder costuming, I take my place in Judaism seriously. But I don't understand the ideological iconography of kippot well enough to know and control what statement I may or may not be making in the process. (See this essay by my cousin Alden Solovy for a sense of why.)

Like many of the people in this city, I engage with Torah. But I don't know how to engage with them about Torah. I don't know the rules here and I'm afraid of being proselytized or patronized or even - my deepest unspoken fear - bullied. So, for instance, the Chasid next to me on the bus today coming from the Western Wall (long black coat, brimmed hat, pants-not-stockings), who kept dozing off and falling into me, was at first trying to study this week's Torah portion - Balak (as I could see by covertly eying his reading material). I wanted to strike up a conversation. I wanted to say, I think Balaam knew all along he was going to bless the Children of Israel; he just had some personal process and political wrinkles to work out, don't you think? Maybe he would have been surprised and delighted. But I was afraid of scorn. So despite Pirkei Avot telling us that where two people exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests, I kept silent and left a restless God hovering somewhere outside of the bus, breathing exhaust.

Maybe if I could be here longer, more than a few days every few years, I could find an entry point, a crack in the stone. This is a city of stone, after all: Jerusalem stone. An off-white limestone that every building, by custom and law, is made of, giving the city a silvery glow at night and its famed "Jerusalem of Gold" radiance by day. And out of the cracks grow scrubby, flowering things. Lantana, bougainvillea, sage. Stone and flower are how this city looks, dust and rosemary its smells.

It is also a place of blazing white heat. Not just solar heat but political heat. Ethnic heat. Religious heat. I went with the kids today to the Western Wall to tour the tunnels underneath. This excavation reveals the full western side of the Roman-era Temple Mount, of which the Western Wall where Jews pray constitutes only one eighth or so.

To do this we breezed past the compact women's prayer section and the much more spacious men's section, aware that while before the State of Israel men and women mingled freely at this holiest of spots, the division of the sexes is now zealously enforced by a politically empowered religious authority, with the bulk of rights and privileges denied to women altogether. We descended into the Jewishly characterized tunnels, which were mined under the 1400-year old Muslim Quarter, and it belatedly dawned on me how this very excavation is meant, at least in part, to undermine Muslim authority in this much too holy, much too earthly place.

You see, every stone here is claimed, and every  claim is refuted. And so it has been since Jerusalem's earliest history. Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Mamluks, Crusaders, Ottomans, British and Jews again. We tend to imagine clean lines of ownership, like a chart in a textbook looking like a layer cake. But the struggle for Jerusalem has always been stone by stone, street by street, tunnel by tunnel. Small aggressions only occasionally punctuated by outright conquest.

At the end of the tour we reversed course and retraced the entire route to the Jewish-run and heavily policed Western Wall plaza. There would be no exit today through the Muslim Quarter. The Old City was to be closed to tourists at noon, because it is the one-year anniversary of Jewish hoodlums kidnapping and killing an Arab boy in retaliation for the abduction and murder of three Jewish Yeshivah boys, and it was feared tensions would be high.

Conflict hangs in the Jerusalem air like pollen, like dust, like humidity. You feel like you are complicit in something by breathing it, but breathe you must.

But here's the thing: I still love this place. With all its intensity, with its beyond-cliche contradictions. It is a place where uncanny things happen to me. Where on my first night here, at age 16, I unexpectedly bump into my home rabbi at the Western Wall. And today, at age 54, I bump into him again at virtually the same spot. A place where I once decided to seek out the grave of the Maiden of Ludmir on the Mount of Olives and - would you ever believe me if I told you? - a bird led me to it. This place is thick with uncanny, living unremarkably alongside the prosaic: dust and noise and soldiers and vendors and bus drivers and shouting children. I can't explain how this happens. Do the overlapping dreams that thousands of people bring here somehow congeal to form some mystical field? Magic happens everywhere, perhaps. But here, like at Burning Man, everyone is looking for it all at once.

Clearly, life is simpler anywhere else than here. When I leave Jerusalem, I always feel a mixture of sadness and relief.

But right now I'm here. Welcoming Shabbat with the music-making hip Jews, both Israeli and American, down at the old train station. Walking neighborhoods that are probably quieter in my mind than they are in actuality. At some point tonight, despite a fumbled rendezvous and a botched picnic and the 14-year olds, with no real knowledge of Hebrew, managing to organize neighborhood children into what is undoubtedly a junior crime ring; at some point, this city indeed got quieter and gentler, snippets of zmirot poured out of windows, laughter could be heard, calm could be felt; at some point the Shechinah, earlier kicked off a crowded bus, now robed in purple night, settled at last on a city of flowers and stone.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pagan Day (Postcard from Greece)

On Mt. Parnassus.
There are some ideas that are best expressed in the language that gave rise to them: cognoscenti, joie de vivre, farklempt.

And once in a while, there’s a spiritual impulse that just wants to be expressed in a pagan idiom, no matter how dyed-in-the-wool a monotheist you happen to be.
And such was the progression of things for me this week, taking off for the family trip to Greece (Israel next week), reciting a tefilat haderech, the traditional travel prayer, and slowly experiencing my trusty religious touchstones falling away.
At first I didn’t see it. I’d been to Athens more than once before, so climbing the Acropolis was mostly to show this wonder to my family. And it is a wonder, somehow still managing to move and impress, despite the attention-grabbing behavior of scaffolding, cranes and thousands of tourists with selfie-sticks. Still, I was there as a tourist, not an acolyte, and my touristic needs were more than met.
But on Friday morning the feel of this ancient and densely historied place began to change. Our Athenian friend and host brought us to his hometown of Elefsina, the historical Eleusis where, as we all undoubtedly recall, Hades emerged from the Underworld to abduct the unsuspecting Persephone. Elefsina still contains the ruins of a large temple compound. Not a single pillar is standing. But the footprint is so well preserved that you can easily imagine the temple’s grandeur and the dignified movement of pilgrims and priestesses in its courtyard. It is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. In ancient times devotees would walk from the Acropolis in Athens all the way to Eleusis with gifts of grain and cakes. Now, above the ruins, there is a tiny Orthodox church. Visitors leave offerings of loaves of bread.
Elsewhere in the compound is a rock where legend places Demeter, sitting and weeping for her lost daughter, not yet having heard of her abduction to the underworld or the whole sorry pomegranate seed business. At the mouth of a shallow cave several feet away there is the foundation of a small temple of Hades, marking the spot where the cave opened up just long enough for god of the underworld’s quick incursion into the land of the living. While Demeter sat and wept, the crops refused to grow. A shrine to Hades so close to the source of what is remembered as worldwide famine is hardly surprising. It is only we who carry the illusion that somehow there will always be enough.
Our Athenian host grew up just outside the fence of the compound. While many people complain about where their upbringings, he is the only one I know who could, with some legitimacy, claim to have grown up at the Gates of Hell. But in actuality he has great fondness for this ground that was the scene of such an archetypal story. The ruins were his playground; the gods his friends. As we left I saw that in a crack at the back of the cave someone had left a pomegranate.
We took our leave of Demeter and returned to Athens. That evening, the college boy (and best friend of our 18-year old) who is traveling with us, and who has not been out of the country before, staged a coup. Waking us all from our late afternoon jetlag-induced naps, he proposed a visit to the Poseidon temple in Sounion, south of Athens, for sunset. Bleary-eyed and heavy-limbed, we agreed. By the time we got in the mini-van we knew we’d never make it by sunset, let alone by temple closing time. But somehow, once Poseidon was invoked, we didn’t want to let him down. We drove south, and when Apollo’s fiery chariot closed in on the horizon, we scrambled down to a rocky beach and watched the turquoise water darken and the sky grow golden over it.
It was now Erev Shabbat. As I sometimes do when I’m traveling on a Friday night, I imagined the Shechinah approaching in her Shabbos bride drag. But somehow she couldn’t quite compete in that moment over Poseidon, in his native land, trident gently, incessantly, stirring the opalescent waves.
The next morning we left Athens and headed west. We had a date to keep with the oracle at Delphi, and this would be our travel day to get there. It was an easy day – we drove, settled in, hung out in the sleepy village of Ar├íchova. Then the college boy got a second wind. We had spent time on the drive reading through entries in the goldmine that is the 2-volume Pelican Greek Mythology by Robert Graves. In it he not only retells the myths we learned as children, but every variant version, every tangent, every increasingly horrifying detail that had been politely omitted in school. The college boy and I speculated about the strata of history reflected in the mythology: underlying migrations, conquests, advancements and terrors. We wondered about the religious life of the ancient Greeks. We commented on how well their pantheism suited the experience of life’s random brutality. Because so much of Greek mythology is about the tension between randomness and fate. You couldn’t predict what would happen. And you could predict it all. You could, if you bothered to read the texts, foresee that no matter how many babies you left to die on hillsides or swallowed whole, they would invariably come back and cause your ruination. No matter how humble a life you led, your one moment of smugness would cause some offended deity to turn you into something ironic, and you would go from being an average Joe to a smirk-worthy example for generations to come. Even as we drove in the car I found myself starting to watch my words, lest I piss off some Olympian still haunting this epic landscape, lurking behind one of the petrol stations or unfinished housing developments that Homer could not have foreseen. I didn’t actually believe they were there, but hedging my bets felt prudent.
So as I said, the college boy was again on fire. There was a cave between our lodging and Delphi that was vaguely connected to the Delphian rite – it was the weekend time-share of the oracle or something. It was also home to Pan, the half-man, half-goat demigod of revelry, mischief, licentiousness. The cave is not far, reachable by car and a short, 500m hike. Can we go? Right now?
Yes. Of course yes.
As it turned out, the short hike was not. It lasted over an hour in the heat, up a steep mountainside rising out of a valley that was itself high up on Mount Parnassus. It was a hot evening; my lungs strained against the thin air and my t-shirt filled with sweat. The only sound accompanying us were bells worn by goats in the valley below us, goats that suddenly and mysteriously appeared on and around our path, watching us, like Pan’s vanguard.
Did you know that Pan was also the god of terror? Considered the source of unidentifiable woodland noises, his name gives us the word panic. I tried not to panic at the quivering of my muscles or the angle of the climb. I veered off course more than once (you’d think the culture that invented geometry would not use isosceles triangles as direction markers); got caught in thickets of razor-sharp holly. At last I gave up and told the others to go on without me. But as always, my husband allowed me my moment and then gently urged me on.
And then we were there. The cave opened before us. We stepped in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. We couldn’t yet see the ceiling or walls. But we could see our breath. The cave was big as an auditorium and, the college boy and I estimated, at least 60 feet tall. Small votives burned in various crevices, with roses and cherries and olives around them. Someone had made a stone circle on the dark ground. Were these things placed, were the candles lit, by Dodekatheists – modern pagans honoring the Olympian gods? Or were there others who maintained an unbroken tradition of caring for the place, dating back so many thousands of years? Like Sephardic crypto-Jews in the Americas lighting candles on Friday nights to stay true to a religion they no longer had a name for?
Pan's Cave, from the back, looking through and out.
The site was simple. There was no temple. There were no ruins. Just a dark wet cave. The college boy pointed out that it was, by definition, the most intact shrine we had or would visit. He was right. It was whole and in perfect working order.
I was nervous being there. Pan is a tricky god to like; he represents what are considered in our culture to be shadow elements in us, sexuality not the least of them. Whatever vestige of a hoofed deity existed in Judaism was already, by Torah times, a spotty memory – Azazel, a goatlike creature in the wilderness who would receive the annual offering of our sins, sent by unlikely messenger – a goat. Our folklore over the centuries went on to recast the hoofed deity as demon or imp. The Christians put the ribbon on the package by imagining Satan as Pan, all grown up.
But a part of me felt happy too. What fun to be able to reclaim one’s mischievous, irreverent, naughty nature as divinely inspired! Because in a world in which the divine is made up of uncountable gods and demigods, each with different characteristics, you can always, no matter how unusual you are, find yourself reflected somewhere in the pantheon. The pagan cosmos is refracted into infinite variety. There is male and female and fluidity between. There is warlike and peaceful. Randy and chaste. Strong, swift, studious and differently abled. If I am different from you, I can express that theologically. I can say, for example, that Apollo is my patron, with an undercurrent of Athena and Hermes, and some Pan on the side. I would visit their shrines and leave offerings.
Trying to conjure up the Pan part of me in my Jewish view of God is a taller order. And that is a built-in systemic difficulty in a one-size-fits-all view of God. In order to feel ourselves, in all our variety, as tzelem Elohim, as being in the image of God, we resort to imagining God’s many “aspects.” But the more specific we get about those aspects, the more idolatrous it feels. Maimonides denied the existence of aspects; he liked God singular, undifferentiated. Which leaves an amorphous, blobby sort of God, in which we’re all included in a kind of abstract and not-always-satisfying way.
And, I often feel, just when we’re trying to reclaim or reframe something about God in order to be personally connected, our old texts step in and mess it up. If God remained an All-Is-One singularity, one could maybe work with it with some ease. But once the One God gives a law, a hierarchy is inherently created. Some human traits are honored and others delegitimized. The places where the law speaks to you poorly or not at all because you are a woman or you are intersex or queer or disabled or intermarried – these make it hard to see yourself included in God rather than judged or dismissed by same. And so many Jews, full of Athena-like wisdom and Apollo-like talent and Pan-like mischief walk away and find their fulfillment elsewhere.
Monotheism might be our collective Jewish instinct. It might be a good one. It might offer a hope of cosmic intention that we deeply hunger for. But it also disappoints whenever we suffer. In the Greek world suffering happened because the gods were sometimes nasty pieces of work – impulsive, vindictive, unpredictable. And no one expected any better of them. But in a cosmology in which there is only one God, a God who is loving, all knowing, all powerful, but who allows the same awful stuff to happen and sometimes calls it punishment for our moral failings, there is a disconnect. This is not divinity, this is dysfunction.
So we look for our ways to work around the systemic problems of monotheism because we love our tradition, or we love God, or for some other reason we're willing to live in the mystery and the struggle. We scour our texts for ways to feel better embraced. We adopt the Shechinah as our face of God because she feels like a she and that already eases some of the tension, in a way that’s not dissimilar to many Catholics’ devotion to Mary as a more loving, compassionate portal to the godhead.
But you know? All this work to reclaim God for those of us the tradition leaves out is just that: work. Holy work, for sure. But work. And sometimes you just want a day off. And here it was: shabbos! My grandmother never, in her whole life, wrote on Shabbos. And on this one day, I decided not to do so also. I would put down my pen, and take a break from writing myself into our tradition.
So there I was, in a cave on Mt. Parnassus, smelling of moss and incense. I thought about my own panic qualities. I knew with effort, in days to come, I could find ways to describe those Jewishly. But for this moment, I allowed myself to let it sit in its native tongue.
I climbed up to one of the small Pan shrines in the back of the cave. A small votive, like a yahrzeit candle, burned there. I looked at the fruit and flower offerings left around it. I hadn’t brought an offering, not having planned on idolatry when I left the house. But being here in this sacred place, noticing my own easy affinity for this god, it felt wrong to turn and walk out ungenerously. I fished around in my backpack until I found a Ricola throat lozenge. I placed it next to the votive. I figured after a long night of reveling, it was something Pan might be able to use. And with that thought, this situational pagan once again felt very Jewish.

Friday, May 15, 2015

B'Chukotai: What Did You Just Say?

For Congregation Ner Shalom

At last night's congregational meeting, I mentioned my drash for tonight. What I said about it was that I had nothing. The only trigger I had was that on Wednesday I'd asked Siri to plot a route to Urban Adamah in Berkeley, to which Siri replied, "I'm sorry, Irwin, I cannot find any places matching Urban Octomom."


The level of misunderstanding that we all experience at this moment of the world, enhanced by our imperfect text technologies, is staggering. Even without the devices, we live in a world where communication is by nature incomplete. I am limited to the words that exist in the language, with a few Yiddishism thrown in for color. I am limited to one word at a time. Even though I might be experiencing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations simultaneously, I can only convey them sequentially, which means I have to prioritize or omit and hope that you still manage to have the sense of my experience that I want you to have.

Written words are even more deficient. I cannot convey my tone of voice, which carries a tremendous amount of information. Many of us know the famous story about a telegram from Trotsky to Stalin, following Lenin's death, as the two are jockeying for power. Stalin proudly reads the contents of the message to his supporters: "You were right. And I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize. Signed, Leon Trotsky." Stalin's followers go wild, until an old man raises his hand. "Comrade Stalin, I point out that Trotsky, like me, is a Jew. Perhaps I can clarify his message. May I read the telegram?" The paper is handed to him, and now he reads it: "You were right? And I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize? Signed, Leon Trotsky."

Words on the page give only a piece of the picture in the best of times. And then what happens if the words seem so contrary to our lived experience that they can't possibly mean what they say on the surface?

I wondered about this problem as I read the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the last one of Leviticus, called Bechukotai. It famously opens (or famously in some circles),

Im b'chukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru v'asitem otam...

"If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments and do them, then..."

Then...well, all sorts of good stuff will follow. Rain in its season. Crops. Peace. Victory. Progeny.

And some verses later, in contrast,

V'im lo tishm'u li v'lo ta'asu et kol hamitzvot ha'eleh...

If you do not obey me and do not do all these commandments, then...

Then...well, all sorts of curses will befall you. Disease. Defeat. Humiliation. Famine. Dissatisfaction.

If you're good you get good stuff. If you're bad, gevalt. The question for me is, even at the time it was set down in Torah, was there anyone who could have believed it to be true? Every human experience tells us that terrible things happen. Rain comes or doesn't come or comes in too great a quantity.

Crops some years. No crops other years. Disease and healing and disease again. Bad things happen to people who sincerely try to follow the law. And blessings accrue to those who blithely and obvously do not.

So at the time this was written, and in all the days and millenia since, how could this not come off as false? It clearly could not be heard as a statement of the nature of things. So instead it comes off as a political harangue, designed to pressure or shame people into following a law that's all-consuming, perhaps unreasonably so.

And I have to say, with a deep sigh, that this is the kind of thing that gives Judaism a bad rep. This is the kind of thing that drove a lot of people in this room out of Hebrew school and out of shul. A theology that on the surface says, "If bad stuff happens to you it is your fault."

But I am still in love with Torah, and don't feel a need for divorce just because of some bad words between us. 

So I'm going to take the time and revisit the text a few different ways. The first is along the lines of the Stalin joke. Maybe what we're missing is the proper tone of voice in this lengthy text message. For instance, when I say to my kid, "If you don't learn how to eat properly at a dinner table, it will ruin your prospects in love and business," not that I've ever said that, am I offering a curse? Follow the laws of the table or thou shalt a pariah be! Or am I expressing my own hopes and, more eloquently, my own anxieties? I can't control my child's successes or failures in a future that's beyond me; advice, enriched with ample exaggeration about the dire consequences at stake is, sometimes, all I have to offer as a vessel for my hope and my love.

So we might read the text more kindly, more forgivingly, with that idea in mind. We might imagine that God or Moses or whoever wrote this wanted so badly for people to love this law, to live inside this delicate, complex system of commandment and succeed there, that they poured out their hopes and their fears into these inadequate words. What he or she or they meant us to hear might have been something more like, "Do it! Do it! If you follow these principles, good things will happen, I just know it! And if you don't do these things, I totally fear calamity could be at hand!"

That is indeed a kinder voice. A voice that maybe we understand better in our maturity than we did in our youth when so many of us fled the authoritarian voices of home and religion.

Or - get ready to shift gears - we might re-read this opening text of Bechukotai as a kind of environmental message. That there are laws, limits, that must be obeyed if we are to thrive on the land. And if we ignore those, then disease and drought and famine will surely follow. (As if...)

For those of us in this room, in this dry, dry state, in this ever-warming era, reading the text this way requires no leap at all. Are the laws of Torah enough to save our planet? Not clear, although the principles behind many of them would help. There are laws in Leviticus about helping each other, even helping your enemy. Laws about not just taking but leaving, so that the poor and the stranger may eat. Laws about the shmitah year, the sabbatical year, like the one we're in, the law that says that at least one seventh of the time, you've got to let things be. Nature has to heal. You also have to heal from your impulse to own the earth. There is true wisdom, deep wisdom, in these Levitical laws.

Under this kind of reading, the predicted calamities are not punishments, but the consequences of shortsightedness. Of living without reflection; of ignoring our deep, collective earth wisdom.

Okay, one last re-read of the text that relates to an oddity in the opening language. Why would God say, Im bechukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru..." If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments then blah blah blah...?" Wouldn't it be enough simply to say, "If you observe my commandments?" What is the difference between "laws" - chukot - and "commandments" - mitzvot? And what is this about "walking" anyway?

While we translate the word chok or chukah as "law", it is not just any law of Torah. Laws in Torah are of three sorts. There are mishpatim, the kinds of law that serve an obvious purpose. When we are instructed not to cheat or hate or told to leave fruit and grain for the poor or to pay our workers on time, all of which are commanded in Leviticus, we can understand the benefit of the law, the reason behind it. They are the kind of ground rules we would naturally want to set for our communities.

Then there are mitzvot, things that are commanded by God that we might not have come up with, but once they're commanded, we can see the sense in them.

In contrast to these, chukim or chukot are laws that are in no way self-explanatory. Decrees that we are expected to follow simply because they were commanded, without understanding why. Our dietary laws are an example. We might chatter nowadays about the health reasons for not eating pork. But Torah offers no such justification. It offers no reason at all. We are expected, or were in history expected, to to follow chukot without knowing why. Maybe out of faith. Maybe, like kashrut often, simply because it's what we do.

So maybe chukot represent something beyond law. They represent the inexplicable. The stuff, the demands, thrown at us by God or by this Creation, that don't have any satisfying rhyme or reason. We might understand the mechanics of disease or poverty or loneliness; of earthquake or drought or depression. But even if they are understandable, they do not feel reasonable, they do not feel fair. As a bumper sticker might say, chok happens.

And if chukot represent the unpreventable, inexplicable stuff we're handed, then the challenge is really in how we respond. Torah says im bechukotai telechu... if you walk amidst my chukot.

Meaning, maybe, that there will be rain and abundance and peace if you remember to walk. In all the hardship we have to field and even the irrational good luck that we sometimes have, the important thing is to walk. Not to get stuck. Not to grind to a standstill. Keep moving. Stay limber. Don't let the burdens pin you to the earth; don't let hardship shackle your feet. We all know that tightrope walkers keep their balance by continuing forward.

So if we keep moving, spiritually I mean, not allowing trouble to immobilize us, then we still have a fighting chance of experiencing some sense of abundance, of fullness, of ripeness, of peace, even in the midst of all the crap.

One last word about this walking bit. A few verses later, at the end of all the promises of blessing, God tantalizingly says: v'hit'halachti b'toch'chem - "then I will walk around among you," or, maybe, "I will walk within you."

Our walking amidst the chukot is met by God's walking amidst us. Our spiritual nimbleness arouses a divine nimbleness. So that we dance together, Fred and Ginger in lockstep.

And maybe that is exactly how we remain nimble in those toughest of moments. We imagine God, we imagine the Shechinah, at our side, bopping along next to us on the road, maybe even dipping us on the dance floor.

This is not an article of faith. It seems to me we don't need exactly to believe it. We just need to imagine it. Not in lieu of trying to change our situations; of enlisting help as we need it; of doing the hard work. But this adds another dimension to our grit; it adds a supernal dance and good company. It adds the possibility of new direction or renewed momentum. It provides not a substitute for but an enrichment of our sometimes painful earthly experience.

So maybe this piece of Torah is about our soul journey. Or maybe it's about preserving this planet. Or maybe it's about Torah's hopes and fears for us. But I do know that when Torah says to me something that makes as much sense as "urban octomom," I must work under the presumption that somehow I heard it wrong.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Eyes of a Goat

Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot

It was two weeks ago, just before my weekly online Leviticus class, that this mouse and I found ourselves staring each other down. I had caught it in a trap under our kitchen sink. I use a live trap because, living in the woods, it feels unfair to kill mice for the crime of my having invaded their territory. But my commitment to fair play, I confess, does not extend to giving them the run of my kitchen.

So I put the mouse, trap and all, on the passenger seat of my car; threw my kid in the back. It craned its neck to look at me out of the trap's little skylight. I dropped the kid at school and drove another few miles to a park with a lagoon and grass but fewer trees and less cover than I'd remembered. I might have found a better place, but I was pressed for time.

I released the mouse. It jumped out, took a few steps, turned around and continued to look at me, as if wondering what I wanted to do next. Our eyes met, and there was a strange, unexpected rapport between us. A rapport facilitated by the fact that it was not human. I was not required to think of anything witty to say. I was not obligated to be "on" as I would have to be with a congregant. I was not having to be a parent or a partner or anything at all. I was, in that a moment, a creature. We were two creatures, checking each other out. I towered over it, yet we were on equal footing.

I can't help but wonder if the High Priest felt something similar, making confession to a goat, as the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, described in this week's portion, required. Laying hands on it and looking in its eyes, in a posture not unlike a vulcan mind meld, complete with Cohanic live-long-and-prosper hand position. To the goat, with its knowing eyes and uncanny human face -- but still clearly not a human -- the priest could, really, say anything. There would be no impediment to the truth. And if he is going to place on this animal all the sins of Israel, including his own, he needs to be honest. Exhaustive. No hedging. No whitewashing. No pride. Would such honesty ever be possible with another human being, where relationships and roles inevitably intrude?

But with a goat, the priest can speak truth. He can let go of vanity. He can list the mistakes, the missteps, the spiteful acts, the terrible crimes of the people. He can confess that as many as he is reciting there are many more he doesn't even know about. And he can say things he couldn't say to another Israelite. Like, "I hate my job." Or "the manifestation of the Divine on the doorstep is a parlor trick" or anything else too weighty, dangerous or heretical to say elsewhere. This goat won't be talking.

But then, after this unimpeded flow of confession, the priest's job was to send this now-burdened innocent into the wilderness. What is up with this? You'd think that the magic of this expurgation would come in the form of laying sins on the goat and then, frankly, doing away with it.

But another goat already did bite the dust as part of this Yom Kippur ritual. One randomly selected to have the great honor or bad luck of becoming a chataat or sin offering. You would think that the slaughter of that animal would have had the desired effect of lifting the people's collective burden of sin.

But no. That first goat, scholars would explain, wasn't meant to lift the people's sin at all. But to clear the air of the Holy of Holies, to cleanse the metaphysical landscape. Goat Number One is medicine for God, not for us.

But Goat Number Two absorbs our myriad sins. It is the perfect choice of animal for this task. As any of us who lives in the country knows, goats can digest anything, no matter how sharp the thorns, no matter how poisonous the leaves.

And so, burdened by our misdeeds, this goat is sent out to Azazel - a place in a rocky wilderness. Most of the sages say it's a mountain. Ramban reminds us that Azazel might not be a place but a being - Samael, Israel's accuser. Perhaps Azazel is a vestige of an earlier religion. Azazel, the demon or horned god - the image of whom continues to haunt our folklore and pop culture to this day. Or maybe the place name could be read as ez azal, the place where the goat is gone. Or maybe oz azal, the place where strength runs out, because truthfully, the burden of sin takes so much muscle to carry.

But here's the odd part about the ritual, a predicament. All this trouble to rid us of our sins. But somewhere out there, our sins are still wandering around, eating scrub. Our misdeeds have been moved out of the precinct, but not out of existence.

But maybe that's not a predicament. Maybe that's the point.

We can't undo what we've done. Our transgressions have affected others and us. We may atone for our sins; we may seek with whole hearts to heal the harms we've inflicted. But there's no going back to zero, either for the world or for us.

You see, I am who I am not only because of the things I'm proud of. I am who I am because of the things I'm ashamed of too. The things I wouldn't be able to bring myself to tell a friend or lover or even a therapist. Things I could probably only confide to a goat.

And those missteps, those regrets, those jealousies and angers are not all inherently evil things. They are the flipsides of my deepest longing. My longing for love or for safety or for belonging. Deep longing that, in these cases, went wrong. Or were left incomplete.

There is too much of me in my sins for my sins merely to be eradicated. I need them out there somewhere. In exile, for sure, but alive.

And so there is the goat, alive, sated with our sins, wandering the terrain.

Who doesn't feel some tenderness for it? We all root for an exile. Torah knows this. That is why when Hagar and Ishmael are exiled, we get to follow them through a similarly treacherous landscape. We see their despair and their rescue. And later we see the Children of Israel turned out from their land. We hear their lament, and then we get to witness their return, mouths full of song.

When I feel compassion for the goat, I feel it for myself too. For the parts of me in exile: the longing that I secretly do want to have return, the choices I want to revisit and maybe, this time, do something better with.

So nu? The mouse. There we were in the park, staring. It began to glance around for its next step. Upon this mouse I suddenly released a surprising flurry of emotion. My desire to be a fair person, to live harmoniously with nature; my crazy desire to pick it up and keep it as a pet. My guilt at sending it to an unknown end when it is blameless, for reasons that are, really, no more than human vanity. And somewhere there was a shameful childlike desire just to toy with it and see what would happen. All of this, the noble and the ugly, burst out of me in silent confession.

The mouse just then caught sight of a hole in a tree trunk 20 feet away. It turned tail and scampered, dove in, and was lost to view. I got in my car and drove home to put on a good face in order to get on line and greet my classmates. By then, and certainly by now, the mouse could have been picked off by cat or dog or redtail hawk. But I hope not. It carries too much of me.

_______
This drash was written as an exercise for my class, "Learning to Love Leviticus," taught by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. Some of the ideas about the exile of longing were developed with Ellen Atzilah Solot for a Storahtelling performance at Congregation Ner Shalom on a previous Yom Kippur.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

All of it: Gevurah

I was honored to offer the invocation for the Sonoma County Yom Hashoah Commemoration on April 19:

Good afternoon. Shalom aleykhem.
We meet here today, as we do every year, to remember, to reflect. To honor those we’ve lost and those we are blessed to have among us. To crack open our hearts to all who were subjected to the ordeal of the Shoah and all who have lived in its wake, trying to repair the irreparable.
This year we have been asked to give special attention to the quality of gevurah, the strength, the heroism, of our people and others who shared their fate. We will honor resistance, whether large or small, whether organized or impulsive. We will honor the non-Jews who could, perhaps, have tiptoed through, but instead risked their lives to help. All of these acts: gevurah.
But in Judaim the concept of gevurah is even broader than those descriptions. We use the word to mean strength, but it is not always an obvious kind of strength. In our mystical tradition, certain qualities are associated with particular biblical figures. And you might expect gevurah to be represented by Moses or Joshua or Deborah or even Judah Maccabee. But no. The poster child for gevurah is Isaac. Isaac, whose big moment in Torah is not the tumbling of walls or the parting of waters. It is being bound to a rock while someone more powerful raises a hand to kill him.
This story from Torah is etched into our psyches. But it is short on detail. We don’t know if Isaac struggled. If he bargained. If he strained against the fetters or quietly tried to untie them. We don’t know if Isaac prayed or planned or just made peace. Or if he simply didn’t know what to do. Still, our tradition chooses him to represent this quality that we call gevurah.
And he is a good choice for it. Because sometimes your heroism lies in strength of arms. And sometimes your hands are tied. Sometimes your endurance, your presence, is all you have to offer.
As a people we call ourselves Israel – Jacob. But in the Shoah we were, so often,  Isaac. Our hands were tied. We were bound, staring up at the knife or closing our eyes against it. Our world of options shrank to tiny choices, all of which had unspeakably grave consequences. Turn left or right. Leave by yourself now or with loved ones next week. Step to the front of the line, or hang back. Speak up for another, or play it safe today in the hope of making a difference tomorrow. ­In an impossible situation, every choice, every action, including just holding tight: gevurah.
At Chanukah time we sing Mi y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael. Who can count the g’vurot, the heroic deeds of our people? If we look deeply to the impossible world of the Shoah, a world of action and restraint and endurance, then our people’s acts of gevurah would number millions upon millions upon millions.
So today let us honor our acts and our limitations. Our strength and our fragility. Let us honor those who rebelled and those who resisted. Those who hid and those who hid them. Those who escaped and those who could not. Let us honor those whose strength was in the fight. And those whose strength was in enduring. And those whose strength was taken from them. All of them. All of it. Gevurah.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fire, and the Prairie

Parashat Shemini
For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 17, 2015


I was back on the prairie last week, visiting Chicago with the older of our family's two, who is considering going to school there. It was an extravagant couple days at the University of Chicago. Model classes offered to young people and their parents, including linguistics, economics and even one on the work of JRR Tolkien. There were talks by deans, provosts, trustees and even David Axelrod who now, seemingly, has his own department at the University called, um, the Department of Axelrod or something. I hadn't been an undergrad at the University. But I did study there as a graduate student in linguistics and then in the law school. I spent seven years in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. And then bang, there I was last week, in the middle of all of it again.

I was in pig heaven, which is a phrase I don't particularly understand, and which I'm reluctant to use on this week in which Torah first lays out our ancient dietary laws: no pigs, no camels or rabbits; locusts are fine in a pinch.

So instead let's just say I was filled with relentless, overflowing nostalgia. I knew it was a bad idea to communicate the fullness of this to the 18-year old who, in the face of such parental enthusiasm, could end up choosing the other school for no better reason than that. So I strolled the quads with my best-mustered poker face, trying to only intermittently point out where I used to sit with friends over coffee or where I used to study into the night or where we staged our protests.

It was an odd trip in some ways. My first time in Chicago not having a childhood home to stay in, it now being rented - legendary basement and all - to a set of young cousins. So I was feeling a certain displacement, a new uprootedness in my ancestral city, and maybe that's why I dug so fiercely into my connection with the university and its neighborhood. Just to try to feel at home. I strolled past former apartments. Wandered stealthily into the linguistics department office. Noticed the continuity of culture that certain coffeeshops maintained, even though no one working at or sipping tea in them was even born when they were my hangouts. I saw the Hyde Park Herald on the news rack, a neighborhood paper dating back to 1882, and thought fondly about our own Shira Hadditt, who was once its editor.

To top it off, the University's library had a special exhibit up about University of Chicago's queer history. It was startling and stimulating to see faces, names, stories from my old days. To be reunited, through plexiglass, with artifacts that I myself had donated to Chicago's LGBTQ archive years ago, including a cloth banner that I had considered - but decided against - ironing before donating, thinking who's ever going to see it, and there it was, in the display, wrinkled. And my gay pride quickly dissolved into a deep domestic shame.

The 18-year old was seemingly excited about this exhibit, maybe even proud, or I hope so, although overall I had a strong sense that if I began another sentence with "back in my day," this young, self-professed pacifist would have no choice but to slug me.

But this was my world! How could I not want to gift it all to him?

But such desires are of no use, really. It can't be done. This is the inevitable truth about launching a young person into the world. You're going along, thinking you'll get a chance to teach your kid everything you know or at least everything you wish you'd known at that age; you intend to fill them with self-confidence and hope; you expect to transmit some deep values and some street smarts. But when they're little there's so much reading and counting and shoe-tying that who has time and then they turn 13 and stop listening to anything you say anyway and you missed your chance to teach them cooking skills or gin rummy or a second language or whatever while they were still impressionable and then they turn 17 and now they're people and they start listening to you again but by now there's hardly any time left before they leave the nest and don't look back. And that's when you realize you never taught them how to balance a checkbook and you're uncertain if they can actually read an analog clock. And you fill with shock at your own failure. You certainly transmitted a lot to them, but you're just not quite sure what it was you transmitted. And what if you missed that one detail that could spell the difference between swimming and sinking, between contentment and disappointment, between safety and danger?

These thoughts and regrets must have been swimming through the High Priest Aharon's mind in this week's Torah portion, Shemini. It is a portion that contains a harrowing tale of Aharon in his first day on the job, finally beginning the priestly work after so many chapters of instructions. He stands in the presence of God in the Tabernacle doing the difficult, gory, unpleasant, earthy and unearthly work of the sacrifices. Allowing the people, through this crazy alchemy, to have a vision of God's glory on the doorstep of the Tent of Meeting and to then witness a fire coming forth from God, consuming the offerings.

Aharon finishes this work for which he has been lengthily prepared. And then, without warning, his eldest children, Nadav and Avihu, try it a different way. They offer something like incense, dropping it on the fire, and something goes terribly wrong. A flame issues from God and consumes them as it had just consumed the ox and the ram. In the moment of shock that follows this, Moshe, Aharon's brother, utters something enigmatic and moralistic and, in one of Torah's most poignant moments, Aharon stands there, mute.*1*

The sages, like most readers of Torah, hate this episode. They struggle long and hard to imagine what these two young people did that was so wrong. Why their deaths were justified. Was it the choice of incense? Was it something wrong with the fire pan? Maybe just that they didn't have God's express permission? Or maybe that they were drunk? Or maybe, as Nachmanides offers, they approached the altar with a youthful infatuation with God's power, God's gevurah, and a youthful indifference to God's kindness, God's chesed. They valued God's might and they were met with God's might. And thus the lesson for us is that whatever you choose to value above all else in the world needs to be something you're willing to risk getting back square in the jaw.

But mostly these explanations fail to satisfy us or to console Aharon. And with this episode, the ritual life of our people launches with the unanticipated sacrifice of the firstborn. An unsettling echo of Egypt.

While this plot is unhappy-making, it is not unlike a million anxiety dreams I've had, in which I am responsible for some harm to my kids, or am unable to save them from danger. Perhaps this story is meant to be like a dream, tapping into all of our fears of loss; our anxieties about the future; our feeling that if we had done better, the future would have come out differently.

In this dream, each of us is Aharon. Each of us serves a kind of priestly function. We are the priests, the Cohanim, of our own lives, orchestrating our offerings and our atonements and our petitions and trying to move our lives from sludgy states to holiness whenever possible.

And like Aharon, we are not just priests. We are parents too, some literally and all metaphorically. We all have a posterity. We have all been trying to convey to the future what we know and what we desire. To transmit what we've learned and how we've managed our journeys and how we've tended our own sacred fires. And we fear that despite our detailed instructions, the future will act in unpredictable ways, ways that could bring disaster.

Besides being Aharon, each of us is also Nadav and Avihu, his sons. Each of us has an imperfect knowledge of what came before us. Each of us longs to tend our own fire in our own way. To choose incense instead of blood or vice versa. None of us can worship at exactly the same altar as our parents or teachers or rabbis or leaders. To do so would be soul-killing. And in fact, we are told two verses later in Torah that Nadav and Avihu's cousins pulled them out of the holy chamber by their tunics, which Rashi takes to mean that their bodies were not physically consumed. The damage was to their souls.

The dream of this parashah is a dream of change. The risk it poses. And also its inevitability. There is no doubt that the future will undermine our best hopes. And it will heal some of our worst mistakes. In equal or unequal measure.

All we can do is do the best we can do. Tend our fires. And hope that when flame bursts forth from the Divine, it is not flame that consumes but flame that blazes a trail. So that the next generation can tend a fire that is different and maybe better.

At some point last week, I gave up hoping the 18-year old would worship at the altar of my Chicago days. I stopped telling my Hyde Park stories. My sentimentality and his youth made a truce. Instead we decided to do something together that neither of us had ever done, something to fuel both our flames.

We drove ten blocks south to the old Oak Woods Cemetery. We looked at its burial mound of Confederate prisoners upon which someone had scornfully (I presume) placed an empty bottle of Southern Comfort. And then we looked for graves of trailblazers who rest there. Ida B. Wells, the radical turn-of-the-century African-American journalist; Jesse Owens, the African-American runner whose prowess shamed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics; and Hyde Park's own Harold Washington*2*, Chicago's first black and first progressive mayor, whose ethos made possible gay rights in that city, and whose election so rocked the world that while I was on a 1983 visit to Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia, the mere mention that I came from Chicago, which would have once produced an Al Capone pantomime, now elicited the amused observation, Ah, Chicago. Negri Burgermeister.

These three, Ida, Jesse and Harold, like Aharon's sons, offered something new and in response they drew fire. More fire than anyone deserves. But to our lasting good fortune, they weren't consumed.

And let that be our prayer for our children and their children and for our students and our cultural heirs. Let them bring the new ideas to make the world better, to fulfill a vision of justice and glory that we can't even yet imagine. Let them draw fire if that's what it takes, but use that fire to blaze paths for those who follow. And in the process, may they bring us one generation closer to Olam Haba, to a world perfected.


*1*For a beautiful review of rabbinic interpretation of Aharon's silence, see Rabbi David Kasher's current post on his blog, ParshaNut.

*2*For a good exploration of Harold Washington and his impact, see Gary Rivlin's biography, Fire on the Prairie.