So, now you know that I spent way too much time in software development. (For the “considered harmful” bit, see here.)
But beyond that, I’m here to weigh in (surprise!) on the latest developments in Trumpland. (I won’t ever link to anyone in Trumpland directly, however. You’ve got Google or Bing or whatever; you can figure it all out.)
This episode should make it plain to those not intentionally fooling themselves that the current President of the United States is an antisemite. Exactly what kind of antisemite is up for grabs, but it is also irrelevant. He’s the sitting president, and he’s making unambiguous statements concerning the loyalty of 78% of American Jews while sitting in the Oval Office with a Romanian leader. (The Romanians were among the fiercest of the Nazi collaborator regimes.)
Loyalty/disloyalty to whom? It doesn’t matter whether he thinks it’s disloyalty to Israel, or the country, or to him personally, or the broader Jewish people. That he didn’t specify makes it worse: it provides the thinnest veneer of deniability, while signaling exactly what it means to those who would do harm to Jews.
Christian groups are entirely too quiet about all of this — and to be clear: we see you in your silence.
Christians, you need to call in your people.
So, frankly, do a few secular groups. As a Humanistic Jew and a Humanist Celebrant, I’m not terribly impressed at the moment by the silence of my fellow travelers in the secular world, as charges of disloyalty for ethnic and religious identities, or lack of them, are pretty plainly serious issues for secularists.
Responses to this from most of the Jewish community is as one would expect: Jewish organizations (too slowly, and in predictably milquetoast fashion) have made public statements condemning the President’s statement. Jewish Twitter is afire, including folks using #DisloyalJews or #DisloyalToTrump hashtags as a way of subverting the disloyalty charge.
I’m never, ever going to use one of these tags, whether they assert loyalty to the country or disloyalty to the President, because I’ll never, ever concede an inch on the loyalty claim. No one should. We should never concede the argument to anyone who seeks to harm us or others as groups. If nothing else, because the Constitution makes it plain that disloyalty is something the government has to prove, one person at a time.
Don’t concede the argument. Push back — not just for American Jews, but for all minority communities who are treated to “go back to where you came from” slurs.
This week’s Torah portion features a talking ass, a bad guy who won’t get the point, and a not-very-low-key condemnation of intermarriage.
So, it’s busy. I’m going to leave for next year the murderous intermarriage condemnation. That’s not because that theme is unimportant; it’s very important, but the Bible’s complicated interaction with the idea of Israelites marrying non-Israelites is not what grabbed my attention this week.
But the talking ass and the bad guy who won’t get the point? That’s some interesting stuff right there.
If you turned on a Top 40 radio station in 1999, you couldn’t avoid this song:
Okay, so I know lots of people don’t like that song, but tough. It’s catchy and has a pretty great hook, and makes great use of a sample of the guitar from “More More More.” And, while we’re at it, some of the lyrics are almost wildly inscrutable: “My sticky paws were into making straws out of big fat slurpy treats/An incredible eight-foot heap.”
Inscrutable lyrics, a great hook…sounds like an ancient near eastern prophecy! How’s that for a tie-in to parshat Balak, which is all about Balak trying to more or less force the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to bless his efforts to defeat the Israelites?
To expand on the recap: parshat Balak is in the book of Numbers, which, after a census, spends a whole lot of its time telling stories about a period of years in which the Israelites are said to have lived in the wilderness, moving from place to place, not entering into the land of Israel itself because of their recalcitrance. Story after story centers on Israelite complaints against Moses and Aaron. By the time the reader gets to Balak, the story has come to a point where the Israelites are said to be moving from one ancient near eastern kingdom to another. In each new territory they enter, they try to obtain passage along a road with the promise that they will not despoil the land in which they are traveling. In each territory, they are rebuffed, often leading to wars which the Israelites win.
The Israelites, as Balak begins, arrive at Moab and seek passage, promising again not to despoil the land. King Balak of Moab has, however, received word of the Israelites’ travels, has learned of their numbers, and refuses passage. Knowing the Israelites’ numbers, Balak seeks assurance that he’ll defeat the Israelites when he meets them with his army. So Balak turns to a non-Israelite prophet whose activity is even reported outside the Bible (in the Deir Alla inscription): Balaam son of Beor.
Balaam’s reputation is such that Balak recognizes that those whom Balaam blesses prosper, so Balak sends messengers to Balaam multiple times, offering Balaam fabulous wealth if he will bless Balak. Balaam insists that this is not how it works, stating that Yahweh tells him who will prosper, and refuses the first demand for him to see Balak. Balak sends another set of messengers. Balaam again wants to decline the invitation, and Yahweh appears to Balaam and tells him to do only what Yahweh commands. But Balaam gives in to Balak’s second set of messengers, saddles his ass (notably, a female donkey), and sets off.
This wasn’t what Yahweh told him to do, and so an angel appears to the donkey to frighten it and trap Balaam. Eventually Balaam starts to whip the donkey, the donkey steps on his foot, and Balaam keeps whacking away until the donkey talks — I said there was a talking ass — and explains, in essence, “Uh, dude? I’ve served you loyally, and you should trust me here — there’s a freaking angel with a sword in the middle of the path!” Balaam finally sees the angel, has a “whoops!” moment, and is told to continue on his journey but only to say what Yahweh says he should say.
This leads to a series of misadventures. Balak gives Balaam a hard time about not being willing to take his money. Balaam has Balak set up altars and offer sacrifices, and says, in essence, “I’ll talk with Yahweh and we’ll see what he says.” Yahweh causes Balaam to return as a prophecy a blessing for Israel — not Balak. This begins a series of shleps from one high place to another, with Balak setting up altars and offering sacrifices to obtain Balaam’s blessing. Each time, Balaam comes back with a blessing for Israel, not for Balak. After three go-arounds of this, Balak sends Balaam on his way, dropping his effort to get a blessing — in essence, a prophecy from the god worshipped by Israel — promising that he will triumph over Israel.
So, first: let’s remember that the Bible is often pretty weird, and this story is a great example of that.
Second: rabbinic midrashic tradition twists this story around and makes Balaam an unsympathetic character attempting curse the Israelites, but instead blessing them against his will. That’s not exactly how the plain sense of the biblical story goes: Balaam is instead portrayed as attempting to avoid Balak’s entreaties, and constantly adds provisos that he can only say what Yahweh tells him to say.
Third: this story has some interesting present-day resonances, which is what grabbed my attention when I read it this year. Of late, there has been quite a bit of outrage on the part of the Christian Right, accusing various members of the U.S. Democratic Party of antisemitism. At the same time, Christian Right and various U.S. Republican Party politicos have expressed sentiments that can safely be called antisemitic themselves.
Take, for example, this tweet from a Trump campaign official:
(This was delivered at the rally prior to a July 5, 2019, march in Washington, D.C., organized by CASA, an organization advocating for immigrant rights . The march began at Benjamin Banneker Park and continued to the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where we sat down and blocked the street in front of the building for about a half-hour before disbanding, promising to return in later weeks. I was there with Jews United for Justice, a D.C. organization that works in coalition with CASA and other organizations representing marginalized groups.)
I’m Rabbi Jeremy Kridel; I serve the Machar congregation here in D.C., and I’m a leader with Jews United for Justice.
Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Today, we remind our government — our government, all of ours — that its actions make yesterday a farce.
George Washington, quoting the prophet Micah, wrote to American Jews, expressing his hope that all Americans would be able to sit under their vine and fig tree, and that no one would make them afraid (Mic. 4:4). Yet today, a day after the Fourth of July, we see our government doing just that — making our neighbors, our family members, and our friends afraid in their homes, at school, and at work.
And so we are here to demand that our government stop making people afraid. If the Declaration of Independence meant to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if our country is to be the beacon of freedom it claims to be, its first step is clear.
It must stop rounding up our friends, families, and neighbors from their homes, jobs, and schools.
ICE must stop.
As a Jew, and as a rabbi, I know that nothing could be more clear. My people’s history shows what comes when a government — any government — starts mass round-ups of those living in its borders. What starts with mass arrests leads to camps; and from there, darker things still. We’ve seen this before, and it’s a slippery slope.
There is still time to stop this slide. There is still time to be who we believe ourselves to be, to follow the words of the prophet Isaiah: to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty, and to loose the prisoner (Is. 61:1).
And it must begin here. We call upon our entire government to proclaim true liberty: to free the captive, to raise up the fallen, and to leave our friends, family, and neighbors unafraid, no matter where they are from.
(The following was delivered at an Immigration solidarity rally hosted at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, MD, on June 23, 2019, and was organized in part by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D – MD 8th), a member of Maryland’s delegation to the U.S. Congress. Full video of the event is available here. It’s worth a watch just to hear the DC Labor Choir’s performance!)
As a Jew, I recognize that if today’s immigration system had been in place, I would not be standing here today: my great-grandparents would likely never have left the Russian Empire or Poland.
As a rabbi, I remember the statement of my predecessors nearly 1500 years ago in the Talmud: “All Israel is bound up with one another” (b. Shevuot 39a). Even more true is that we all are bound up with one another.
As a Humanist, I ask that we look to the power we all have, and all in our country share: the power of conscience.
We have come together as people who believe that the dark in our country can and must change. We believe in our responsibility to care for all of our neighbors. We believe in the possibility of a just society: one built upon equity, not pure legalism; a society built on love.
As people of conscience: may we be mindful that our fates are bound up with those of our neighbors, whatever their place of origin. May we find inspiration and common cause. May we build power to work together for justice — true justice, based on equity and the fundamental worth of each person — for our immigrant neighbors, for our refugee neighbors, for our asylum-seeking neighbors, and for all those to whom we are bound in common humanity, wherever they may be — and especially for those tramped upon by the power of our federal government’s executive branch. May we go forth and take action to protect our neighbors from cruelty, and ensure that this episode in American life is never repeated.
We come together in dark times. But in the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In this dark time, let us be the crack, so that we can let the light in.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has published an open letter to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, taking her to task for referring to the detention facilities the Trump administration is using to hold undocumented persons as concentration camps. The JCRC’s letter claims that “concentration camps” and “never again” are terms connected with and that should only be used with reference to Nazi crimes, and using it with reference to asylum seekers and others “diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis” to eradicate all Jews.
Here’s their tweet, with a scan of the letter attached to it.
DHS and (soon) Defense Department detention facilities satisfy that definition.
As a Jew, I refuse to limit the application of “never again” to only genocide. Mass displacement and mass political detention of a specific ethnic group, or of a number of people, carried out for political reasons are enough reason to apply the label.
A crime against humanity is enough.
Nothing else is credible in the presence of burning children, to follow Yitz Greenberg’s dictum.
The NY JCRC is wrong. You can tell your friends that this rabbi said so.
This was written for use as a liturgical piece. It can be read responsively, in call-and-response, or in whatever other pattern one likes.
As the title of this post notes, this was written in response to portions of A.J. Heschel’s widely-read book, The Sabbath, in order to raise up the idea that Shabbat exists — and we celebrate Shabbat — as a result of human recognition and need. This is in contrast to Heschel’s assertion, “It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. We may not know whether our understanding is correct, or whether our sentiments are noble, but the air of the day surrounds us like spring, which spreads over the land without our aid or notice.”
This poem is a response as well to Ahad Ha’am’s assertion that “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”
As a Humanistic Jew, I think there’s no inherent magic or force to Shabbat, but that Jewish celebration of Shabbat and Shabbat’s powerful hold on Jewish people is a matter of mutual reinforcement that began with human needs.
Permission is hereby given for use of this work, provided: any use must include acknowledgment of the source, and any use must be for ceremonial or educational purposes only. This work cannot be reproduced, in whole or in part, for any commercial purpose without permission of the author.
It has been said that Shabbat is a palace in time.
Places are built by human hands, time marked by human measures.
It has been said that more than the Jewish people keeping Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Shabbat has kept the Jewish people, because the Jewish people have kept Shabbat.
It has been said that Shabbat is an atmosphere, a climate.
We perceive atmosphere. We change climate.
It has been said that Shabbat is a queen.
Queens and kings have power because we yield it to them.
Let us now build the palace. Let us now note the time. And as we do, we create the atmosphere of Shabbat.
We welcome Shabbat by giving some of our power away. Let us now keep Shabbat, so that Shabbat can keep us.
NOTE: The lines above in italics are intended for use at the beginning of Shabbat. If you wish to use this poem at Havdalah, marking Shabbat’s conclusion, you can replace the italicized lines with the following:
On entering Shabbat, we may yield some power away.
Let us now reclaim the palace. Let us now note the time. And as we do, we draw Shabbat to a close.
We’re coming quickly to Purim. Yay, noisemakers and parties and costumes and drinking ad lo yada (until you can’t tell the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed by Haman), right!?
As an introvert, Purim as a big party is pretty hard for me to get into. I’m thinking about wearing a suit and saying I’m dressed like a rabbi. (Get it?!) But Esther, the book many communities read on Purim and which almost all communities at least talk about during the holiday, is an interesting read. (There’s always some way to make lemonade from lemons!)
(I delivered this text as a speech in front of the steps of the US Supreme Court on February 27, 2019.)
I’m Jeremy Kridel. I’m the rabbi at Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and I’m here representing the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
A friend of mine told me that when she first came to Maryland, nearly forty years ago, she saw the Bladensburg Peace Cross. And she thought, “Wow, these folks must be really religious around here.”
That says an awful lot about this case, doesn’t it?
The Peace Cross sits on public land, looming forty feet tall, in the middle of the road. Its backers claim that it’s just a generic symbol, neutral, non-religious.
As secular humanistic Jews, we beg to differ.
When we see a forty-foot cross standing in the center of town, as secular Jews, we know from our ancestors’ lives what that cross means. It sends a crystal-clear message: we are Christians here. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be a Christian, too.
Does that sound inclusive to you?
But we are just supposed to forget all of that. Otherwise, they’ll call us names. Only last Friday, George Will called us “cranky, persnickety, hair-splitting secularists.”
We think our government should support memorials that truly stand for all who gave their lives. Is that persnickety? Hair-splitting?
For Jews, a cross has often meant, “You’re not one of us, and we’re coming for you.” That’s what it meant in Eastern Europe, and when the KKK lit it on fire.
Is that persnickety? Is that hair-splitting?
How can a cross represent all war dead equally? More than two thousand Jewish soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only a few miles away. Were they buried under crosses, or Stars of David?
A cross erases the bravery and sacrifice of any soldier who isn’t or wasn’t a Christian.
And the Bladensburg Peace Cross is worse. It erases non-Christian soldiers’ bravery not only symbolically, but actually. It lists 49 soldiers. It left off three who happen to be Jewish. Let’s remember the ones the Bladensburg Cross kept off — the ones the government would still leave off by leaving the cross in place.
Let’s remember Sgt. Isaac Morris, Lt. Merrill Rosenfeld, and Pvt. Zadoc Morton Katz, Jewish soldiers who died for our country and were left off the Bladensburg Peace Cross.
The Peace Cross is not an inclusive, neutral monument. It’s a monument to Christian memory. No Jews need have applied.
And so, my deepest of non-apologies to you, George Will. There’s no hairsplitting here.
A cross on public land cannot represent every soldier. That is a betrayal.
The cross is a betrayal of the memories and the sacrifices of every soldier who went to war not because of the cross, but despite it.
A cross in the middle of the road is a betrayal what they fought for: true freedom of belief.
To truly honor our soldiers’ memories, we need a symbol that speaks for them all, and that excludes none of them.
Say it so the Justices can hear it: Honor. Them. All.
I’m always tempted, when the annual Torah reading cycle gets to the Joseph story, to just let my eyes glaze over. I took a seminar on the Joseph story in grad school, and read it all in Hebrew along with Rashi’s commentary, and you know when you’ve read something before and you kind of go, “Eh, I know what this says”? That’s usually what happens to me. This year, it had been long enough (twenty years!) that I remembered only the very basic outline of the story and didn’t really remember the Rashi for any of it.
My brain was finally ready to re-engage with the story, and things were quite different this time. I appreciated the family drama much more than I had before. And I thought much more about how the Torah seems to hint that being like another nation might be good but then undercuts that alternate narrative.
Prof. Susan Niditch, writing at TheTorah.com, discusses the curiosity of the Torah advancing a positive view of the Egyptians. It’s an important point, since generally the biblical authors are pretty anti-Egypt. We should also, I think, realize that this is subject to some qualifications not only within the broader biblical context — really, mostly the biblical authors are down on Egypt, with the narratives in Genesis being occasional exceptions — but also (and especially!) within the Joseph story itself.
Prof. Niditch’s article isn’t focused on events that come after Joseph reveals his identity to Judah and his brothers, so she doesn’t focus on the anti-assimilation message bundled into the Joseph story. That’s one big piece of the story that drew my attention this time around.
As some backdrop: As Prof. Niditch points out, Joseph’s success in Egypt is pretty plainly laid at the feet of the God of the Bible. Joseph explicitly attributes his dream interpretations to God, and he tells his brothers that it was a divine plan that led them to sell him into slavery in Egypt. Here’s the outline of events that comes from Joseph’s revealing himself to Judah and his brothers: with Pharaoh’s blessing, bids his brothers go back to Jacob to tell him that Joseph is still alive and wants them all to come to Egypt. On the journey to Egypt, Jacob passes through Beersheva and offers sacrifices there “to the God of his father, Isaac” (Gen. 46:1). That night, God speaks to Jacob (now called Israel) and tells Jacob not to be concerned about going to Egypt, because it is in Egypt that the nation of Israel shall become great, and because God will bring the people up from Egypt to fulfill the promise to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.
Eventually, when Jacob and the rest of the family arrive in Egypt, Joseph has them appear before Pharaoh and tells them to ask to be allowed to settle in Goshen. Why Goshen? Because Joseph’s family are shepherds, “every shepherd is an abomination to Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). (Where is Goshen? If it existed as a distinct place, it was probably between the Sinai Peninsula and the eastern delta of the Nile River.) Somehow Goshen is both part of Egypt and yet not part of Egypt: it’s sufficiently Egyptian to be under Pharaoh’s control, but not so Egyptian that Joseph’s family’s primary occupation as shepherds would end up disturbing the Egyptians.
These pieces — the narrative portraying Jacob’s reassurance and the request to settle in Goshen, some sort of place apart — serve in the broader narrative to foreshadow that things will not stay rosy for the Israelites in Egypt. Interestingly, there’s not any major problem of belief posed by the narrative: Jacob and Joseph both seemingly remain devoted to Yahweh. Later on, we’ll read in Exodus 1 that at least Hebrew midwives maintain some level of devotion to the God of Israel. And in fact there’s no real question of the Israelites denying who their god is when they’re in Egypt: Moses and Aaron act to persuade the Israelites that they are God’s messengers and that it’s time for the Israelites to act — they have to persuade the Israelites to believe in them. Yet even (on the telling of the biblical narrative) several hundred years after the movement of Jacob and his family to Goshen, the Israelites are apparently still living there: “And I will separate out on that day the land of Goshen, upon which my people stand” (Ex. 8:18).
The narrative here, then, is not quite so positive toward Egypt and the idea of seeming Egyptian as perhaps it appears on first blush. Joseph’s success in Egypt isn’t really something to be credited to the Egyptians; the credit, the story says, belongs to the god of Israel. In fact, after arriving in Egypt, the Israelites will live separately and are almost by nature unwelcome in Egyptian society, and the Torah is okay with that. That is consistent with the Torah’s (and the broader Tanakh’s) overall approach toward what today we’d likely call assimilation, and it’s consistent with the Torah’s theology generally. The story of Jacob at Beersheva is almost necessary to sustain that theology: after all, a reader is entitled to wonder, as Jacob et al. head to Egypt, “Wait, what about the promise of an inheritance in Canaan?” The text tells the reader that Egypt is a waypoint, not the final destination.
Why is all of this important? This part of the Joseph story allows us to remember that the tension between belonging to a place and belonging to a separate people is written into Judaism’s foundational texts. This isn’t a new thing; it’s not simply the post-Enlightenment West that has created opportunities for Jews to resemble the lands in which they live.
But more than that: there’s a tension in how we respond to the opportunities we find. Consider the broader narrative, just as a story: Joseph comes to Egypt and becomes in almost all respects an Egyptian (more on that later). He shaves his head, takes an Egyptian wife, and is embalmed when he dies. But when he brings his family, he warns them that what they do for a living will set them apart from the Egyptians, and so it’s necessary that they live somewhat apart.
Then we come to Exodus’s first chapter, and we read that the Joseph has died, Egypt is led by a king who doesn’t know Joseph, and the Israelites have grown so numerous that Pharaoh and the Egyptians conclude that the Israelites are a threat. But let’s back up a moment and ask: in the world of the narrative, after the passage of time, how would the Egyptians know who was who?
Looking in the text for an answer: the Torah portrays the Israelites as settling in Goshen because of their distinctiveness. By the middle of the story of the ten plagues in Exodus, the text says that the Israelites are still in Goshen. (Let’s not fight the narrative too much right now, and set to one side that 1) keeping all your slaves in one place is a really bad plan, and 2) there’s almost no way Egyptians would have allowed humans treated as property to remain culturally separate and concentrated in a single area.) The Torah’s answer to the challenge of Egypt was to resist joining the majority culture. That’s not a surprise if you’ve read elsewhere in the Torah about not behaving like other nations, about divorcing foreign wives, etc. And the Torah as a text is consistent about that: the Israelites are portrayed as remaining separate from the time they come into Egypt until the time they leave. The text portrays only Joseph as taking on Egyptian mannerisms. Even so, Joseph’s body will not remain in Egypt, according to the Torah, but will instead leave Egypt along with the Israelites (Ex. 13:19).
There are, to be sure, a few texts here and there in the Tanakh that suggest more universalist approaches. Ruth and Jonah come most readily to mind. But Ruth suggests that Israelites should be willing to open the gates to allow more people in, not so much that Israelites should look out. Jonah seems universalist in religious orientation more than national orientation — and Jewishness is more than just a religious orientation. And when zoom out a little bit more, we can understand the broader narrative arc involving Jacob as being one that’s got an anti-outsiders edge: after all, the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 is essentially a story of revenge against Shechem’s people.
So while the Joseph story suggests an openness to Egyptian culture or at least the possibility of being part of another nation’s body politic, we shouldn’t take it for more than it’s worth. Joseph’s striped coat is not a technicolor dream coat of pluralism. If we value our multiple identities and greater integration with other cultures and with the nations in which we find ourselves, we need to acknowledge that we do so because we’ve made a judgment that we don’t wish to be truly separate — not because Joseph is our model or because The Torah Says So(TM), but because that’s how we’ve judged our obligations and our places in the world as Jews and as people.
At least two organizations, PJ Library and JewBelong, are floating around memes about Hanukkah that have me…unimpressed. Basically, they tell you that your cell phone with a near-dead battery lasting for eight days is what Hanukkah is about. (I put these two memes at the bottom of this post.)
I can’t even with this idea. (And yes, here’s a preliminary “get off my lawn.”)
Let’s talk tachlis here. (“Talk tachlis” = Yiddish phrase that’s pretty equivalent to “let’s get down to brass tacks.”) These memes basically peddle the idea that modern, educated Jews should rest assured that their knowledge of the story of “the miracle of the oil” is enough to understand Hanukkah. It’s like when your cell phone is going to shut down, but somehow manages to just keep on plugging.