The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

A Thought for MLK Day - King & The Jews

Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today. How willing would much of the Jewish community be to embrace his message? This day always reminds me of this passage from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (z"l)'s memoir. King asked Hertzberg, at the height of the struggle, why he cared so much. Hertzberg didn't respond with pious passages from the prophets, or the Declaration of Independence, or anything like that.

Instead, he spoke about his father. Herzberg's father was a Hasidic rabbi, a descendent of Elimelech of Lizhensk, and the leader of a shul in Nashville, Tennessee.

Here's what he wrote:

One Friday we came to synagogue for the evening service to find that an imposing black man wearing a very high yarmulke was there. He introduced himself as Rabbi Matthews and added that he was also a cantor. To prove his self-description, the visitor produced documents from a very respected rabbi in Toronto who attested to the fact that he had officiated at the conversion of Rabbi Matthews, in order to remove any doubt of his Jewishness… and that further training as cantor had been imparted to Matthews in Toronto. What all this meant was that the visitor had the right, in well-established Jewish practice, to claim the reading desk so that he might lead in the chanting of the service—and, ultimately, claim a donation for his sustenance.

My father looked at the certificate and said very quietly (when he was quiet, I knew he was at his angriest) that he was the rabbi of this synagogue and it was his duty and prerogative to decide questions of religious practice. The congregants refused. They pretended that they did not believe that the visitor was indeed a Jew, and they barred the way of this Black cantor to the reading desk.

My father put his arm around this man, whom he had met just ten minutes before, and headed for the door. He stopped and said, very quietly, that he would never come through that door again, because they had insulted a human being made in the image of God. We said prayers at home that Shabbat. My father had thrown his job away over a principle, and he did not find another for many months. I expected my mother to berate him, but she did not say one word, that day or later.

(Arthur Hertzberg, A Jew in America, 2002)

I should probably just let it sit on the page, but it triggers some other questions in me. What would happen in an Orthodox shul if the same scenario unfolded today? And as for liberal synagogues - what lines in the sand are left that would make a rabbi say, "I can never step foot in here again"? And why, fifty years on from MLK's death, do we still have to march for such obvious matters of civil rights?  

The Secret of the Seventh Light

Tonight is the seventh light of Chanukah, which is also Rosh Chodesh: the new moon in tonight’s sky heralds the start of the new month of Tevet.

(To be technical about it, this month has a two-day Rosh Chodesh, which happens occasionally; the new moon is on the second night, Monday night. Here’s more.) 

I think this night holds one of the secrets of the Chanukah.

Chanukah, ritually speaking, is very simple. For eight nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev, we light menorahs and place them so they can be seen by passers-by. We begin with one light and we increase incrementally until the final night, when the menorah is fully lit with eight flames.

This is the key symbol of Chanukah. Chanukah always falls during these eight days around the new moon that is most closely situated to the winter solstice—that is, days with the least amount of daylight (in the northern hemisphere) and most darkness: the sun is at its most distant point from earth’s axis and the moon is at its most obscured.

During that darkest time of the year—that’s precisely when we have our festival of lighting lights. And light, of course, is a pregnant symbol. It can mean justice, love, faith, peace, hope, wisdom (“enlightenment”), hidden mystical Truth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812) taught that while other festivals are celebrated with symbols that are inherently physical (matzah, sukkah, shofar, etc.), only Chanukah is celebrated with a symbol that is inherently spiritual: light.  

And Beit Hillel in the Talmud famously taught that in matters of holiness, our task is to always increase light, and never to decrease it (Shabbat 21b). 

Yet here’s the thing: during the first six nights of Chanukah, we stubbornly light the menorah—even while the world gets darker and darker. We add flames while the light of the moon keeps diminishing.

But tonight there’s a change. Tonight the moon starts to emerge and wax larger. It’s as if to say that our efforts have started to pay off:  The world is starting to follow our persistent lead, inclining towards light rather than darkness. 

Look, the world these days can seem pretty dark—no matter what darkness connotes for you. Things seem hopeless? Nations seem to be careening towards corruption and war instead of integrity and peace? People who said they care about you seem heartless? Feels like greed and materialism are winning out? I know the feeling—I’ve been there.

But the aspiration of Chanukah is that hope wins out in the long term. Keep using a spark to light more lights—and the world slowly, inevitably, will start to incline towards the light.

Of Course Jerusalem is Israel's Capital...

…but sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.

The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a cynical political maneuver—but there are plenty of good, historical reasons why Jews may feel torn. Here’s my attempt to sort through the issues and to explain why something that should seem obvious on one hand is so profoundly disturbing on the other.

Plenty of people may find themselves saying, “Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?”  And of course it is. All of Israel’s government offices are in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. So, too, are the Knesset and the Supreme Court. So is Hebrew University, the national university of Israel, founded in 1918. The office of the Chief Rabbinate, a reprehensible institution but a significant national one nonetheless, is likewise in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, spiritually speaking, there has never been any doubt in the Jewish mind about Jerusalem's status. Since the days of King David some 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the earthly capital of Jewish worship. Of no other city did the Psalmist cry:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither
Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour.
(Ps. 137:5-6)

For the Jewish soul, Jerusalem is home.

In a perfect world—of course the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, the only capital of Israel.

So what’s the controversy?

When the United Nations in November 1947 voted to partition British Mandate Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one, Jerusalem was considered too contested; it was to be internationalized. After the 33-13 U.N. vote passed, the Zionists accepted the plan and the Arab nations rejected it. (There were some enraged voices, especially from far-right nationalist corners of the Zionist movement, to reject the U.N. plan on the grounds that there could be no Jewish state without Jerusalem as its capital. David Ben Gurion sagely chose otherwise.)

When Ben Gurion and the Zionist leaders signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, it was an endorsement of the U.N. plan—the Declaration was signed in Tel Aviv, and the understanding was that Jerusalem would, indeed, be internationalized.

But the U.N.’s proposed boundaries never came to fruition. Within hours of Israel’s independence, she was attacked simultaneously by the surrounding Arab nations. When an armistice was reached the following year, Israel’s precipitous borders were somewhat expanded—and a foothold was established in Jerusalem, a lifeline to the thousands of Jews who lived there (and who were isolated, endangered, and on a few occasions, massacred during the War of Independence). Jerusalem was a divided city: the Old City and eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem were under Jordanian rule; the western part of the city was Israeli. Into those western neighborhoods, the apparatus of the government moved.

After Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967, all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control. While the Muslim holy sites were handed over to the waqf—the Jordanian-controlled Islamic religious authority—both East and West Jerusalem became one Israeli municipality. Everywhere in the Jewish world, souls were stirred. The new anthem of the Jewish people became Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim shel Zahav / "Jerusalem of Gold." 

But for most of the nations of the world, including the U.S., Jerusalem never gained its status as Israel’s capital, because they continued to cling to the 1947 U.N. Resolution 181 rather than comprehending that the status quo had irrevocably changed. 70 years later, that’s still the case.

The problem is precisely this: everything about Jerusalem causes passions to be inflamed. Even though many Jewish residents of the city have never stepped foot in the Palestinian neighborhoods such as Beit Safafa, Silwan, or Shuafat, there is a strong sense that Jerusalem can “never be divided again.”  And for Palestinians, Jerusalem is the inevitable capital of their state-in-waiting.

So there are threats. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that if the Trump Administration makes this move, it will pull the plug from the barely-on-life-support peace process. Worse, the implied threat is that the Palestinian street will go ballistic, launching, G-d forbid, a Third Intifada and new wave of violence and terror. That violence could easily spread beyond Israel.

On one hand, some supporters of Israel will understandably say—why should we allow the threat of terror to stop us from pursuing a goal that is ultimately right? Why would we cave in to that sort of blackmail?

But on the other hand—often it is better to be smart than to be right. What, really, is to be gained by this move, besides a sense of historic injustice corrected?

The danger of this spiraling out of control is real. No one’s life would be changed or improved by this symbolic U.S. recognition—but a lot of people’s lives could be devastated by the eruption of tensions. That is why one pro-Israel U.S. administration after another—Republican and Democrat alike—has put off making such a move as this. (I suspect that behind the scenes, the Israelis were nodding in assent. You really don’t hear about the Israelis making a big deal that U.S. embassy is not in Jerusalem—and for good reason.)

As scholar Micah Goodman has written in his important book Catch-67, the United States could be using its power to ease tension between Israelis and Palestinians, taking short-term incremental steps to build trust (rather than trying to force final stages of a peace process at this time). His book—a bestseller in Israel—offers concrete examples steps about how to do just that.

We should question the timing of this move:  Does it have anything to do with distracting attention from Donald Trump’s growing panic over the Justice Department investigation of possible collusion with Russia? Or with the increasing momentum in Israel of corruption charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu? And in a time of great tension between Israel and American Jews, over the Western Wall and pluralism issues in general, doesn’t the timing seem just a little self-serving for these politicians?

Whether or not the announcement is self-serving for the embattled politicos, all of us should pause to think about whether we want to be smart or right at this particular juncture.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) maintains that one aspect of King David’s leadership was that he was mavin davar mitoch davar: that he could anticipate how one thing causally leads to another. Thoughtful leaders should know that their actions have consequences, both intended and unintended.

That is what this moment calls for. Sadly, tragically, we are not currently blessed with leaders who have this sense of foresight.

Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

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First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.

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A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.

 

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Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.

 

Check ‘em out!

Bob Dylan's "Trouble No More: 1979-1981": Understanding an American Apikoros

I.  Carrying a Light Bulb

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The official release of Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Shows” is bringing a lot of people back to a time when, for them, the ‘60s counterculture really died. Here was Dylan—Hebrew name, Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham—singing songs of born again Christian faith, the glories of being saved by Christ, and condemning the unbelievers of Sodom. From 1979-1981 he released a triptych of albums of these songs—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love—and, starting in November 1979, would only perform songs in concert that reflected his newfound covenant with God.  In so doing, a lot of old fans ran for the hills.

Dylan—that is, Robert Alan Zimmerman—had a Jewish upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota. His parents were American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He trained for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Reuben Maier in the rabbi’s apartment above a local café (his father later related that Bob showed great proficiency with Hebrew). He attended Camp Herzl, a Jewish and Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin, during his teen years.

The release of these Gospel Shows (and it’s momentous; I’ve been waiting for the so-called “Bootleg Series” to get around to this era) raises again questions that dogged music fans back then: What happened to America’s greatest songwriter in the late ‘70s? How could Jewish fans listen? And as for these songs of heavenly salvation—what the hell?

I’ll offer one fan’s interpretation. I’ve never met Bob Dylan, so I may be way off base. But I’ve read many biographies and interviews of the man, and more importantly, I’ve tried to pay close attention to every note of his recorded oeuvre (and many bootlegs, which are essential for understanding Dylan’s art).

Dylan himself can be hard to trust when it comes talking about himself or his music. While there are many pearls in his autobiography Chronicles, some reviewers noted that he totally avoided writing about the moments that most people would actually be interested in. In the ‘60s, his press conferences were a hoot—because most journalists were totally clueless about his efforts to bring poetry and art to popular music, he messed with them:

Interviewer:  What is your real message?
Bob Dylan:  My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.

He tends to speak in parables, especially when he’s feeling like a trapped animal. I imagine he felt that way through much of the ‘60s, but it persisted in the subsequent decades. For instance, in 1991 he was presented with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I suspect that Dylan recognized the Grammys for what they were:  hollow trophies given out by self-congratulatory ghouls from the music business, and “lifetime achievement” is even worse—what they give you when they acknowledge that your relevance is long past, and that if you’d just hurry up and die they can start reshaping your legacy to fit their own preconceptions. So Dylan—50 years old—slithered to the podium and virtually spoke in tongues, as far as the corporate throng was concerned.

Well, um… uh, yeah. Well my daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. My daddy once said to me… [looooooong uncomfortable pause. Nervous laughter from everyone. Security puts their hands on their holsters.] Well he said so many things, y’know?  [laughter

He said, son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways. Thank you.

Add to his list of accomplishments: the best awards speech ever.

But in that speech (and its allusion to Psalm 27:10), which is a total fiction (Abe Zimmerman said no such thing) and a dodge (please get me off this godforsaken stage), there is also a great reveal: a desperate statement from a man “so defiled” who has been to hell and back, including the depths of alcoholism. And who believes in salvation—but only from an external force, a rock of ages.

II.  Apikoros

To understand Dylan’s gospel years, one has to understand that he has never been halfhearted with his art. When he commits to a guise, he dives in completely. I believe that Dylan was a true believer during these years. It proved short-lived and eventually he resumed performing non-Christian-themed songs (“Thank God,” said many old fans), but from 1979-1981 he was sincere in his devotion.

I sense that Dylan has a streak in him that makes him say, “You think you can put me in a box? Why should I be what you want me to be?” I find this orneriness to be very appealing—perhaps because I have some of  it myself. He devotes a lot of space in Chronicles to spitting with disgust when people tried to call him the “Voice of the Generation” of the ‘60’s. Who in hell, he asks, would want to be anyone’s “voice of the generation”? For a long time he was publicly putting down people who would pin a label on him—surely that’s what “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” (“You’ve got a lot of nerve / to say you are my friend…”) are about?  And in case there was any doubt, there was “Idiot Wind,” the most vicious put-down song ever:

Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe, after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady

A recap of Dylan’s career shows this bait-and-switch. He’d adopt a certain style, and throw himself into it completely. He’d write such compelling music in that mode that fans would hop on board. Then, abruptly, he would discard that mode for another one… enraging those who thought they had embraced the “real Dylan.”

In Judaism, this is called being an apikoros—as close a word to “heretic” that we have. But we have a funny relationship with our apikorsim. Some of them are some of the most important Jews in history.

So in 1961 he shows up in New York completely enamored with Woody Guthrie’s Americana: work shirt, acoustic guitar, and hokey humor (to make sophisticated points about the human condition) intact. From there was an evolution to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, hanging with Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk, and singing at the 1963 March on Washington for Martin Luther King.

The insular folk scene was so self-righteous and cocksure that to leave it was an act of blasphemy. So when Dylan showed up at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a raucous electric band, whomping out songs of surreal poetry, the self-appointed gatekeepers revolted. Pete Seeger tried to cut the electric cords with an ax. Peter Yarrow, the distressed master of ceremonies, tried to nudge “Bobby” back out for an encore… “This time with an acoustic guitar.”

That’s what Dylan left behind when he started his barnburning world tour of 1966 with his electric band The Hawks. But the folkies wouldn’t let it go. Some fans embraced this loud electric rock, but the old timers booed, and slow-clapped between songs. The zenith was in Manchester, England, when, just before the band tore into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a distressed old folkie had enough. “Judas!” he howled at the Jew standing on stage.

But the heckler was already a fossil. Dylan had recorded three electric albums that made him a hero to new rock counterculture. And we know what Dylan thinks about heroes, right?

So he retreated. After touring the world as one of the biggest and loudest rock acts… he shut up, and disappeared for 1967 and its hallucinatory Summer of Love. When he emerged, it was in a new guise: Country Bob, singing on the Johnny Cash show, and recording with Nashville session pros. Gone were the amphetamine screeds of 1965. And the counterculture was pissed. In 1971 Dylan released Self Portrait, two records of country songs and covers, and Greil Marcus opened his famous review of the album in Rolling Stone with the words, “What is this shit?”

Country music at the turn of the ‘70s was not the sterile commodity that it would become. It represented the antithesis of the ‘60s counterculture; the enemy of the hippies and all they stood for. Again, Dylan had adopted the pose of the heretic. He was saying, again, to his fans:  You really want to follow me? Well, let’s see if you’ll follow me here…

For all its integrity, this does show a rather perverse relationship with his audience, to say the least.

In the mid-70s, his star was ascendant again.  He reunited with The Band, and through 1974 performed the highest-grossing rock tour of all time. He made hugely well-received albums that reflected his mastery of the ‘70s singer-songwriter convention. By 1978 was performing a 115-date world tour with a big band, full of horns and back-up singers.  

But his was a tormented soul, and it was time for another sharp turn.


III.  Dylan & Religion

One other thing before we approach the Gospel Years. Religion—the Bible, specifically—has always been part of Dylan’s neshama.  Christopher Ricks has written an excruciating treatise on this, but I can add one or two points minus all his exegesis.

Dylan knows the Bible backwards and forwards; it pops up when you least expect it. There are moments like the “slain by a cane/Cain” line in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” for instance. But—hands up—how many people know the title of “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35” (“everybody must get stoned!”) comes from Proverbs 27:15?

An endless dripping on a rainy day
And a contentious wife are alike

But I like to think that even in his early days, Dylan was attracted to the Old-Time Religion of America, the kind that includes periodic Great Awakenings and embraces Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards, Jefferson’s Bible, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothy Day, and the apocalpyticism of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. These were all forms of a distinctly American faith.

Even a Jew like Dylan—even a Jew like me—can love Woody Guthrie’s version of Jesus Christ. For Woody, this was the true Jesus:

Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land
A hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And:

This song was made in New York City
Of rich men and preachers and slaves
If Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave. 

Amen, selah, and tell me that those lines aren’t even more prophetic in Trump’s America than they were back in Woody’s dust bowl days?

It’s not hard to imagine a young Dylan absorbing the lessons, and assimilating them into the work.

IV.  Saved

With that background, I think there are three parts to understanding Dylan’s embrace of a born-again Christianity in 1979.

First:  As we’ve seen, it follows his pattern. When his fan base becomes enormous, he suddenly takes a sharp turn, shaking off fans who feel “betrayed” by his “heretical” embrace of something new, often the polar opposite of where he’s been.

Second:  Dylan is a polyglot of American music. He’s been an authentic purveyor of Woody Guthriesque Americana, protest folk, delta blues, electric rock, straight-up country, bluegrass, and, since 2011, jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Since he’s embraced virtually every indigenous form of American music, it would be strange if he didn’t explore gospel music.

And when he explores something, he gets completely immersed in it. (In 2003 he wrote the song “’Cross the Green Mountain” for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals. They say he spent days in the New York Public Library researching the Civil War to get the lyrics just right.)

Third:  None of this is to say that his religious conversion, even though it was short-lived, wasn’t authentic. I believe that he believed.

With an increasingly jaundiced eye he surveyed the music business of the ‘70s. Drugs and decadence were everywhere. He’d been living this life for a while. And he was living in Malibu, where friends and acquaintances were receding into their own chemical hells (see under: The Band).

Furthermore, his marriage to Sara Lowndes had collapsed. They had been together since the ‘60s, and with Sara he had five kids and fled the turbulent “Judas!” years to a farmhouse in Woodstock. He wrote love songs to their family on New Morning, grieved their break-up on Blood on the Tracks, celebrated their reconciliation on Desire and its song “Sara,” and ultimately the whole thing went south. 

So picture the man’s state of mind: exhausted, divorced, cynical, burnt-out.

The story goes that several of his backing musicians were already born again, and his interest was piqued by their religious discipline during the ’78 tour. And then there’s this incident from the end of the tour, San Diego, November 17, 1979:

Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I looked down at that cross. I said, “I gotta pick that up.” So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, “Well, I need something tonight.” I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, “I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.”  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.[1] 

At 38 years old, Shabtai Zissel met Jesus.  

V.  The Music

So what about the music? 

It’s electrifying. Listening to the Gospel Shows reminds you that, at many points through his six decades of performing, Dylan is one of the greatest performers—and yes, one of our greatest singers. The opening cut was “Slow Train,” and it is amazing to hear the singer so engaged and so committed to every syllable that comes out of his mouth.

He’s also got a whip-tight band to ride this particular train. So it’s clear that finding religion was the jolt this particular artist needed at this moment in his life—the intensity of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Solid Rock” and “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” rival the power of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” from ’66, only this time no one had the chutzpah to yell “Judas!”

The quieter moments when he’s not preaching, but rather sharing his relationship with God—“Precious Angel,” “Pressing On,” “I Believe in You”—are as intimate a portrait of faith that any artist has ever shared. Even if, like me, you don’t share this specific vocabulary—Jesus is not my savior—there’s inspiration to be found in his inspiration.

My favorite song from this period is a late arrival, 1981’s “Every Grain of Sand.” Here’s a song of faith that Jew can approach without reservation: there’s no intermediary, just a very transcendent God who has ordained everything in Creation. It starts from the deepest depths of loneliness and despair:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

 And then revelation that everything is the way it is meant to be:

Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

Those words still give me chills, on the 1000th time I’ve heard them:  “…every hair is numbered…” They remind me of a story about Rav Kook that’s told in A Tzaddik in Our Time, the classic biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin:

We chatted together on themes of Torah study… He went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. [Rav Kook] was taken aback; and then he told me gently, “Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, ‘Grow!’ Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song.”

Dylan Kotel.jpg

VI. Still on the Road

When Dylan released an album in 1983 entitled Infidels, fans and ex-fans prepared for more of the same. As it turned out, there was still plenty of apocalypse to go around: “Jokerman” has dense imagery invoking the Book of Revelations, and the refrain of “Man of Peace,” is a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians (“Sometimes Satan / comes as a man of peace.”) And there was a cover photo (taken by Sara Lowndes of all people!) of Dylan crouched on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But there were respites from the fire and brimstone as well. 

In concert, he started backing off from the preaching. He started mixing in his older numbers. His faith seemed to have ebbed.

Then something funny happened: Dylan started sounding Jewish again. He was reported to be hanging out with Lubavitcher chasidim, and performed on a televised Chabad telethon (grinning, with a kippah on his head). In September 1983, he was photographed celebrating his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. In September 1987, he brought along Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn for concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Was Shabtai Zissel back?

In a 1983 interview he said:

Roots, man—we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots, I suppose.

Then he immediately qualified that search for his roots:

Am I looking for them?... I ain’t looking for them in synagogues, with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much.

So he’s never going to be what you want him to be. You might want him to be the old folkie that he was in his 20s; someone else might want him to sing “Forever Young” every night; I might wish he were more unequivocal about his Judaism. But the artist forges his own path, never tiring of wishing restless farewells to those who want to define him.

And you gotta admit, there’s a lot of integrity in that stance. He may be an apikoros, but he’s a damn righteous one.

 

[1] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades—Take Two, 2000, p.491

The Balfour Centennial—A Time of Reflection & Introspection

November 2, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. But past anniversaries of this moment have been controversial, and the centennial is proving to be no exception.

In 1917, at the height of World War I but with an eye to the new world order that would come at the war’s end, the British Foreign Office issued a proclamation to the English Zionist leadership:  “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”  With the tacit support of the U.S., Russia, France, Italy, and even the Vatican, the British offered the first international political recognition of the Zionist movement that had been catalyzed by Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress twenty years earlier.

But should we care? From a certain Zionist perspective, celebrating Balfour is the epitome of “golus mentality” (i.e., thinking like you’re still in the ghetto). In other words, why should Jews need foreign validation for their own liberation movement? Zionism was supposed to free us from that sort of thinking!

And from an anti-Zionist perspective, Balfour was cynical to say the least. Zionist opponents like MP Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet in 1917, insisted that a Jew who longed for Zion had “admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman.”  This idea, that Jews in emancipated Western Europe and America had left Exile behind for modern Promised Lands, was already passé by 1917, but it endured in many entrenched Jewish establishments.

But to understand what Balfour meant to those who celebrated Jewish peoplehood—and Zionism was, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that there were national ties that bound Jews around the world to one another—we can find a profound illustration in the books of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935).

Hirschensohn was an Orthodox rabbi, born in Safed and raised in Jerusalem. He cultivated a friendship with the fervently secular and nationalistic Eliezer ben Yehuda, the key proponent of Hebrew as a modern, living language of the Jewish nation. For his efforts—and in a dark foreshadowing of today—Hirschensohn was excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinate in Jerusalem for daring to propose that halakha and modernity could co-exist. He left Palestine in 1901, never to return. He landed in, of all places, Hoboken, New Jersey, where he spent the rest of his life.

Hirschensohn never relinquished his belief in Zionism or his dedication to the Jewish people. He composed, among other books, a multi-volume work called Malki Bakodesh, which analyzed modern questions (such as women’s suffrage) through the lens of halakha. And on the title page of Malki Bakodesh, beneath the biblical epigrams, is the date of publication. It reads :

5679 [= 1919] 
The Second Year since the recognition of the British Kingdom

to our right in the Land of Israel

In other words, Hirschensohn was embracing two timelines. 5679, in the traditional Jewish counting. And—Year 2, since the Jewish nation leapt back into history!

That is the profound meaning of Balfour. For people like Hirschensohn, watching events unfold from New Jersey with his heart in Jerusalem, time was starting anew. And Jews around the world, for whom the luster of modernity had tarnished with the devastation of World War I and the sadism of pogroms in Eastern Europe, saw themselves validated as a legitimate people with a past and a future.

Since then, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration has been marked with peaks of joy and valleys of disinterest.

On the 10th anniversary, Zionist leader Berl Katznelson was (already!) scolding the halutzim for forgetting their history. The anniversary was passing virtually unnoticed. In an editorial in Davar, in the preeminent newspaper of the Yishuv, Katznelson argued: “On this day, a day of memory and reckoning, those at the helm should stand proudly and count everything that has been done and achieved.… They will learn how to accept the days of the future, if they be difficult, with mental fortitude and courage.”

On the 25th anniversary, the Jewish world was a more sober place. Knowing full well of the Nazi atrocities that were occurring, David Ben Gurion reminded the nation that the anniversary of Balfour was not a celebration—but a solemn reminder of precisely why Jewish autonomy was a necessity.

Subsequent anniversaries of Balfour were often completely neglected, due to a variety of factors. These include the priorities of building the State—but also a considered ambivalence about the British, who subsequent to Balfour had often opposed Jewish expansion in the land.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp.jpeg

On the 50th anniversary, less than five months after the victory of the Six Day War, Israelis were ready to embrace their past—and the legitimacy that it bestowed in the community of nations. The headiness of those days promised that peace and normalization were at hand. And that was a process that had been sparked by Balfour.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp2.jpeg

So postage stamps were issued of Lord Balfour and the Declaration’s architect, Chaim Weizmann. Each stamp carried not only an image of the man, but also a biblical reference. Balfour’s portrait was enhanced by Jeremiah 31:17, translated in this way: “Your children shall come back to their own country.”  Weizmann’s picture included the word yovel, the biblical Jubilee, when ancient Israel was commanded to “proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” That is to say, Israel was the latest chapter of the ancient saga of the Jewish people—interrupted by a 2000-year exile.

Today's centennial brings out all these complexities. In 2016, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a U.N. called for the British to mark the anniversary with “an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, miseries, and injustices that it created.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, to her great credit, will ignore that call and celebrate the milestone with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London. (UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has a problem with confronting antisemitism in his party, announced that he would not be attending the celebrations.)

For the rest of us, this centennial could be a time for reflection about the meaning of Israel in our lives. We live in an extraordinary generation in Jewish history: a generation that knows a state of Israel. And the Balfour Declaration was a key moment in bringing that remarkable reality to fruition.

On the other hand, Jewish peoplehood is being torn and tattered by its leaders. The Prime Minister of Israel has proven himself to be an adversary to the unity of the Jewish people, by creating a cabinet of reactionary zealots and jettisoning large swaths of the world’s Jews for the sake of holding on to political power. The crisis at the Western Wall—in which the government forged a remarkable compromise and then abandoned it after pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties—is a symbolic illustration of this behavior. American Zionist leadership has shown itself to be unwilling or unable push the issue of religious pluralism in Israel as a fundamental priority.

There is much to be worried about in regard to Israel’s future. But milestone anniversaries such as this one—a forshpeis to the 70th anniversary celebration of Israel’s Independence next May—remind us of the incredible story that is modern Israel.

And it should compel each of us to explore our own responsibilities to make sure that Israel remains true to its founding principles, to be a democratic “national home” to every Jew.

Rain (I Don't Mind) - For Shemini Atzeret

 

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה' בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה' עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth (ha-shemini) day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering (atzeret) you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:36)


The holiday called Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the gathering on the eighth day”) is for many people the phantom, forgotten festival in Jewish life. Even Jews who determinedly spend their week in the Sukkah might be hard-pressed to say what, exactly, that eighth day is all about.

The 23rd day of the seventh month is the culmination of a three-and-half week period full of holidays: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot have all preceded it. It arrives eight days after Sukkot begins, the final punctuation mark on this festival-rich season.

This prompts the Rabbis to ruminate about how Sukkot in the autumn complements Pesach in the spring: just as Pesach is the 7-day pilgrimage festival celebrating the spring planting, Sukkot is the 7-day pilgrimage which rejoices in the fall harvest. Passover is “capped” after 50 days by a holiday that is called Atzeret (we call that early-summer holiday Shavuot). So, for the sake of symmetry, Sukkot should also be “capped” by an Atzeret.  (But why isn’t it 50 days later? The midrash answers: because winter is coming, and a pilgrimage in the middle of winter’s rain and snow would be too arduous for the Jews.) (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15)

But the special identity of this day is far from clear, and the Torah doesn’t make it much clearer when it discusses ancient Israel’s festivals. In Leviticus, the Atzeret sounds like the capstone to the seven days of Sukkot, and is a holiday in its own right (“you shall not work at your occupations”). In Numbers, a large numbers of sacrifices are made on each day of Sukkot; on the eighth day, a more modest offering is prescribed, indicating that the eighth day was connected to Sukkot, and yet separate and distinct from it (Numbers 29: 35-38). And in Deuteronomy, there is no mention of an eighth-day assembly after the seven days of Sukkot (Deut. 16:13-15)!

Later in the Bible, we read of the enormous Sukkot celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple on the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atzeret is the “one more day,” for the king (and the King of Kings) to spend together with the people of Israel; a little more time to linger together before everyone trudges home to face the approaching winter (I Kings 8:66).

Consider at what a sweet image that is. Long before rabbis griped and groaned about Jews who couldn’t be bothered to show up to synagogue more than twice a year, the Bible was imagining God, surveying the Sukkot masses in Jerusalem, saying, “This time we’ve had together during the holidays has been so special—for Me! Stay just a little longer, just one day, so we can savor it just a little more.” That was Shemini Atzeret.

By the generations of the Talmud, Shemini Atzeret (like many of the Torah’s holidays) had acquired some new features. It developed one overarching theme: water.

Shemini Atzeret became the time when the Rabbis would pray that life-giving rains would soak the land of Israel. They (as do we) begin to insert the words “you cause the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the second blessing of the Amidah on Shemini Atzeret. And one of the key features of the liturgy on this day is an elaborate piyyut called Geshem (“Rain”).

Water is a historical worry for the dwellers of the Land of Israel. Diaspora-dwellers might find this hard to understand. In North America, rain can fall pretty much any time in the calendar year. Not so for Israel; almost all the annual rainfall comes down during a five-month rainy season from November to March. An ancient farmer, dependent on winter rains for a successful sowing season in the spring, would be very much aware if the rain was even just a few weeks late. Thus we can understand their fear and trepidation when rain had yet to arrive. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Ta’anit, is devoted to the prayers and fasts that are prescribed for the community when the rain has failed to come.

The Torah testified that the Land of Israel was dependent on the rain. By contrast, the land of Egypt did not rely on rain; rather, the irrigation of Egyptian fields came from the overflowing waters of the Nile River. The 3rd-century apocalyptic prophet Zechariah knew this; as he called upon God to punish the oppressive nations of the world with drought, he acknowledged that drought will not be much of a punishment against Egypt. Don’t worry, the prophet says; Egypt will get its own special, appropriate form of discipline! (Zechariah 14:18).

But the Land of Israel is different. Israel depends on God’s mercies, expressed through rainfall:

כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם
אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק׃
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם׃

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heavens. (Deut. 11:10-11)

Worrying about water is still the case today. A visitor to the Dead Sea cannot help but notice that this marvel is rapidly dissipating; it recedes a few dozen meters each year. The water level of the Kinneret precipitously rises and falls. And the battle over control of aquifers and water-sources is part of the realpolitik between Israel and her neighbors.

Today, Israel is the world’s greatest water innovator. It has successfully deployed technology, conservation, and good management to meet the water needs of its citizens and its crops—with enough left over that it even exports water to its neighbors! (In the Boston suburbs, by contrast, it seems like every summer there is a drought and the towns rush into panic-mode, limiting the amount of water that people can use.)  The themes of water scarcity and how Israel has addressed it are discussed in the recent book Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel.

The Sages of the Talmud, as was their wont, took these themes and spiritualized them. In Babylonia, drought was less of a worry than it was in the Land of Israel. So for the Rabbis, rain became a symbol of God’s benevolence and spiritual openness. (The Beatles knew this too.)  אין מים אלא תורה says the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a); “Wherever the Torah mentions ‘water,’ read ‘Torah’ instead.”  They make a comparison: Just as rain delivers physical sustenance, Torah brings spiritual sustenance.

Shemini Atzeret, then, has a symbolic and deeply powerful meaning to those who are open to it. On Sukkot, we expressed our gratitude for the harvest of blessings with which we are surrounded. As the holiday concludes, we pray for life-giving waters that will sustain us and create a fertile environment for blessings yet to come. If this can happen, then we know that we can find the resources and strength to face the long cold winter ahead.     

How to—and How Not to—Prepare for Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a time of deep introspection and reflection. The most solemn day of the year, it is also potentially a day of great liberation: forgiveness and turning can have that effect. (There’s a reason that the Talmud, startlingly, calls Yom Kippur the “most joyful day of the year.”)

Judaism recognized long ago that for Yom Kippur to accomplish all it sets out do demands a certain amount of preparation. Thus, the Ten Days of Teshuvah that commence with Rosh HaShanah are designed to spark a careful sifting through our relationships and all the parts of life that we want to redirect in the year ahead.

Our tradition developed a handful of interesting customs to aid in this preparation. (A custom, or minhag, is to be differentiated from Jewish law, or halakha. They reflect the diverse local color of Jewish life as it has proliferated throughout the millennia across the globe.)  Some of these customs have—mercifully!—disappeared except in certain obscure corners of the Jewish world.

Here are a few interesting ones:

Makkot:  That is to say—lashes. Following the literal letter of Leviticus when it says, “You are to afflict yourselves” (16:31 and 23:27), some Jews historically went beyond fasting. Here’s Scott-Martin Kosofsky, from his Book of Customs (2004):

From this grew the customs of fasting and makkot, the act of flagellation, as a personal confession of sin… Those who do the flogging alternate with those who are flogged. Thirty-nine lashes are given, as the words of V’hu Rahum, the prayer for mercy, are recited three times very slowly by the person administering the lashes. The person who is flogged bows and recites the confession saying one word at each lashing. If specific sins come to mind, these should be mentioned quietly, below the breath.

Kapparot: The most notorious Yom Kippur custom involves taking a live fowl (a rooster for a man and a hen for a woman) and swinging it over one’s head while reciting, “This is my atonement, this is my ransom, this is my substitute.” Afterwards, the chicken is slaughtered and either it or its monetary value is donated as Tzedakah. The tradition of kapparot (better, the Yiddish kappores, since it is an Ashkenazi custom) functions similarly to the Tashlich ceremony: symbolically casting one’s sins onto a third party and sending it away.

Kappores arose in Europe and has been controversial throughout its history. The Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the 16th Century law code the Shulchan Aruch, insisted “it is a practice that should be prevented” (Orach Chayim 605:1). The Maharil, a 14th-15th century German sage, was more sympathetic, but offered an interesting caveat:

There are places where the kappores themselves are given to the poor But the custom in the Rhine district, where the price of the kappora is given to the poor, is a better one, for the poor man is not ashamed to accept the money. But when the poor man is given the fowl itself, he says to himself: First this person put his sins onto this fowl, and now he humiliates me by giving it to me!

The custom of kappores can still be found in some Chasidic communities. Chabad seems especially big on retaining and promoting it. In 2016, an activist group called United Poultry Concerns, trying to stem the practice, filed a lawsuit in California against Chabad of Irvine. The case was dismissed; it did not rise to California’s compelling state interest to infringe on religious liberty in this instance. Still, one can see why those concerned about animal rights are disturbed by the persistence of this custom.

Mikveh:  Immersion by men in a mikveh—a ritual bath for spiritual purification—is unusual but not unheard of. (Mikveh is a Mitzvah for women after their menstrual cycles, but is not commanded of men.) Immersion as a spiritual custom has had a popular reemergence in liberal communities in recent years, thanks in no small part to places like Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA.

Daniel Sperber, the preeminent scholar of regional Jewish customs around the world, has noted some interesting aspects of the practice of immersing before Yom Kippur. In his opus Minhagei Yisrael (available abridged in English as Why Jews Do What They Do, 1999), he explains that the custom arose in medieval Germany to immerse three times before Yom Kippur. This was based on numerology: in one explanation, the phrase mikveh yisrael appears in the Bible three times; in another, the Bible refers three times (Ezekiel 36:25, Leviticus 16:19 and 16:30) to God’s purification of Israel. An alternative explanation connects the three immersions to the three appearances of the word “purify” in Leviticus 16:19 and 30.

Seudat Mafseket:  A ritual meal that precedes the fast. The Talmud itself emphasizes the importance of having a good meal in preparation for fasting. Rashi, commenting on the discussion in Yoma 81b, writes:

The feasting on the ninth of Tishrei [the day before Yom Kippur] helps to emphasize the solemnity and the self-affliction due the next day. The more feasting on the eve of Yom Kippur, the more pronounced the affliction on the day itself.

It’s more than academic to look at the traditions that arose around preparing for Yom Kippur. Some of those customs are dead-ends for us (I won’t be joining you for lashing with makkot this week, and my own experiences with kappores largely have been nauseating, not redemptive).  Some—like rediscovering the mikveh and making the meal before the fast special—readily complement our spiritual condition. 

The point is that Yom Kippur, in order to “work,” demands preparation. The essential thing is not the custom per se, but the internal, spiritual result.  They are intended to catalyze the process by which we ask face deep questions:

What relationships are most precious to me, and how will I tend to them better in the year ahead?

Whom have I hurt? Who is waiting to hear my apology?

To what degree am I living up to my responsibilities—to myself, my family, my people, my world?

What makes me so angry about the world that I want to scream—and what can I, in fact, do about it?

How am I going to stop screwing up?

If we can be honest about the questions, and start to approach the answers, then all the preparations for Yom Kippur have done their jobs.

Kappores sign.jpg