The Erotics of Liberation: More Thoughts about Passover

There is an interesting little argument about the meaning of one of the more popular symbols on the seder plate. The “seder plate” holds symbolic foods which tell the story of Passover. There are bitter herbs which are reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery, there is a shank bone which is symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, there are green vegetables or herbs which are resonant with the Spring in which the Exodus took place. Then there is haroset. If you have ever taken part in a seder, or learned about one, you know that while haroset is supposed to play a supporting role—it is eaten together with the bitter herbs to sweeten the experience—it takes a more central role as a respite from the matzohs and the bitter herbs. There are many recipes for the sweet haroset paste which vary based on country of origin, family traditions, and personal taste. Even Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and jurist, published his haroset recipe in his commentary on the Mishnah. 

As children, many of us were taught that the haroset is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves were forced to use to build bricks (cf. Exodus Chapter 5). Many recipes do yield a reddish brown colored paste which might look brick-like. However, the sweetness of the haroset, for me, always stood in stark contrast to its symbolic function—remembering bitter hardship. 

The Talmud however is unsettled about the symbolic meaning. In Tractate Pesachim (116a) the question is asked: what is the meaning of haroset. Two answers are given. The first is the one that is commonly known: “In memory of the mortar.” However, the second answer is a bit more cryptic: “In memory of the apple tree.” Which apple tree?

The medieval commentator Rashi cites a verse from Song of Songs: “Under the apple tree I roused you.” This is not a total explanation but rather a signpost. If we follow the sign we get to Tractate Sotah 11a where there is an extended midrashic reading of that verse from Song of Songs (8:5). “Who is this that comes up from the desert? / Leaning upon her beloved? / Under the apple tree I roused you; / It was there your mother conceived you, / There she who bore you conceived you.” The midrashic interpretation takes this scene of arousal and places it historically in Egypt during the time of the Israelite enslavement. 

The narrative that is read into and out of this verse is presented by Rav Avira under the title: “In the merit of righteous women that lived in that generation, was Israel redeemed from Egypt.” The rhetorical question “who is this that comes up from the desert” is answered. It was the righteous women. As the men toiled under the sun in the desert, the women were troubled by Pharoah’s decree of infanticide which might ultimately destroy the Jewish people. The men stayed away from the women for fear that a child would be conceived and, when born, killed by Pharaoh and his henchmen. The women thought that this was doing Pharaoh’s work for him and so, the women would go out to the fields and bring the men food and drink and seduce them under the apple trees. (Don’t try fact-checking, this is the stuff of rabbinic fantasy.) When the women gave birth heavenly creatures descended to make sure that the babies could breathe and that they were healthy. The women would then hide the babies in the ground and plow them over so they weren’t discovered. The earth nursed and nurtured the babies so that they grew until they burst through the ground and came marching back to their families. This then is the story that is alluded to by the haroset according to the opinion of Rabbi Levi, the Palestinian Sage who said that it is a symbol for the apple tree. (Rabbi Yohanan authored the opinion that it was a memorial for the mortar.)

Rabbi Levi’s opinion introduces two things to the seder plate which are vitally important. First is the notion of resistance. The Israelites were not mere passive victims until Moses with the help of God came and redeemed them. There were ways in which the Israelites resisted. This was one. Second, it was the women who refused to allow Pharaoh to deprive them and the Israelite men of both sexual pleasure and children. As Rabbi Avira said, it was by the merit of these righteous women who seduced their husbands that Israel was redeemed. 

When we eat the haroset we are then called to remember the following: Oppressed and even enslaved people are not passive. They are active agents in their own liberation and we should follow their lead. Resistance can be joyous and we should exult in moments of pleasure. Finally, women have always been central to movements of resistance and liberation.

Haroset may just be the symbolic antidote we need in this moment when the possibility of multiracial democracy seems so far off, and horrible things are happening daily in our prisons, on our borders in our streets.

Let us be joyful warriors for everyone’s liberation. 

_______________

For one take on Maimonides’ haroset recipe, see here.

For Passover: 3 thoughts about liberation


I. One of the interesting though less well known customs of Passover is to leave the doors of one’s house unlocked all night. The custom is tied to the fact that the night of the liberation is referred to as leil shimurim/night of vigil or watch in Exodus (12:42): “It is a night of watch [leil shimurim] for the Lord, for taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the Lord’s, a watch [shimurim] for all the Israelites through their generations.” (Robert Alter’s translation.) The word shimurim, whose only biblical appearance is in this verse, can be understood in the sense of preserving, or waiting for; or in the sense of guarding or being guarded. The custom of leaving the doors unlocked is tied to this latter sense of being guarded. The night of Passover is a night that is guarded or protected for all the children of Israel, and therefore the security of a locked door is superfluous.

This custom reflects and ties together some of the major themes of the holiday. 

The final plague which God inflicted upon the Egyptians was the killing of the first born sons. Prior to this plague, God had ordered the Israelites: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.” (Exodus 12:22) Then “in the middle of the night” God killed all the Egyptian first borns. Why were the Israelites forbidden to leave their houses during the hour of destruction? Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) says that the reason is so that the Israelites would not be involved in the cycle of violence. Only God, Godself would put an end to the structures of an oppressive society. God would extract vengeance but Israel would not. The cycle of violence—first oppression and then vengeance—would be disrupted. Israel would be free to live outside of this cycle, with no need of vengeance. This was the dream.

Understanding violence, whether offensive or defensive, as a net evil, forces one to forge alliances with others so that one’s security is not bound up in either a false sense of precariousness or an outsized sense of safety. On the night of Passover we dream of liberation, and one version of that dream is living in a world in which safety is not based on violence which deters violence, but, rather a world in which alliances and solidarity are safety’s guarantors.

II. One of the obligations of the seder ritual on Passover is for a parent to teach their child the narrative of liberation which “begins in shame and ends in praise.” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4) There is a debate in the Talmud between two of the great Babylonian Sages of the 4th century, Rav and Shmuel, concerning what exactly this narrative of liberation was. Rav claimed that it was the story of moving from idolatry to monotheism. Shmuel claimed it was the tale of liberation from the oppressive slavery of Pharoah and Egypt. In our seder rituals, and in seder rituals for the last fifteen hundred years or so, we include both options. We tell the story of liberation “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and God took us out….” Then we tell the story of liberation again “In the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols and God brought us close to the Divine worship.” 

Rav’s understanding of liberation is primarily intellectual and spiritual. Unless we free our minds we will never be free. This, of course goes hand in hand with physical liberation—which is why we include both in the Haggadah that we read at the seder. However, the intellectual liberation is not as easy as it may seem. To move from idol worship to worshiping one God, is also a way of moving from the idea that one people has the right to enslave another people, to the idea that no one is subservient by nature to anyone, except God. 

For this reason the introduction to the Ten Commandments, the statement of the covenant at which God revealed Godself to Israel and the world, is “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” God’s first act was to crush the violent oppression which was represented by the slave system of Egypt. Only then could the commandments themselves make sense. The first commandments are the prohibitions against idolatry. 

This, however, is a constant struggle. 

There is a story in the Talmud which follows immediately upon the debate between Rav and Shmuel. It concerns Rav Nachman, who was a Sage, his slave Daru, and what happened at their seder. 

Rav Nachman said to Daru, his slave: “A slave, whose master freed him, and gave him gold and silver; what should the slave do?”

[Daru] replied: “He must thank him and praise him.”

[Rav Nachman] began reciting [the rest of the Haggadah.]

(Bavli Pesachim 116a)

Rav Nachman was able to recognize that his slave’s experience were similar enough to his own ancestor’s experiences that hearing them would fulfill the obligation of telling the story of liberation “from slavery to freedom.” However, he was still intellectually embedded in a slave culture and could not see that that experience of having been freed from slavery entailed an obligation to free his own slave, Daru. Rav Nachman saw the liberation from Egypt as our God liberating us from a cruel oppression. He did not understand that God’s liberatory act was intended to show that systemic oppression itself, of any kind, is unjust.

As we sit at our seders this year, we have to realize that the purpose of the seder is not to retell the story of our slavery, but to understand liberation. The point is to interrupt the narrative of enslavement which teaches that one group has the right to oppress another. This is the justification behind all systemic oppression. 

If we are to truly understand the revolutionary power of the seder, it will only be in disrupting the narrative of oppression; of relearning the basic teaching of Sinai — there is one God who is the God of everybody. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: A god who cares for me but not for you is an idol. The backbone of all systemic oppression is the mistaken thought that God cares for me but not for you. The path to liberation is understanding that we are all created in the image of God, that we are all worthy of God’s love, that the opposite of that is violent oppression. 

III. I’ll give Marge Piercy the last word. 

We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes

under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours

raining down. We honor only those Jews who changed

tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage,

who walked into the strange and became strangers

and gave birth to children who could look down

on them standing on their shoulders for having

been slaves. We honor those who let go of every-

thing but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,

who became other by saving themselves.

(from Magid )

Purim, Proximity, and Radical Love

Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults. That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.

If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat party route there are two adult choices.

On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the Jews and the king will give him the ring.

The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim story as happening just after the Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler. We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.

The other choice is found in a little remarked comment in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud. Sometimes there is a comment which offers a blinding insight after which you are never able to see the same way again. In Tractate Sanhedrin, a list of the worst enemies of the Jewish people is cited (those who destroyed both Temples, those who exiled the people and killed them, and so on). In the middle of the list we find this: “Haman’s descendants taught Torah in Bnei Brak.” In order to understand this statement we have to know that Bnei Brak was one of the main centers of Torah study in Palestine. So teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is being in the heart of the heart of the rabbinic enterprise. We also have to know that Haman was descended from Agag, the king of Amalek. There is a biblical command to destroy Amalek, to literally blot the nation of Amalek from the face of the planet because they attacked the Israelites when they were in a weakened state as they were leaving Egypt (Deut. 25:17-19). So rather than being physically destroyed, according to this rabbinic text, the descendants of Haman were teaching Torah at one of the most important centers for rabbinic learning. How are we to resolve this paradox?

There is a hasidic teaching which says that Haman’s descendants’ teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is the fulfillment of mehiyat Amalek, wiping out Amalek. Sit with that. At some point, rather than killing them, some visionary brought Haman’s children into the bet midrash, the study hall to learn Torah. What was he thinking? Well, perhaps he was thinking that if these haters were able to be in proximity with the object of their hate, and they were given access to the treasures of Jewish culture, then, maybe, they wouldn’t hate anymore. The ideology of Amalek—attacking those who are different (Esther 3:8), those who are weak and marginalized (Deut. 25:18)—would be blotted out because it could be replaced with an ideology of welcome and love. This changes the system. This gives us hope that there is no next scene in which the king gives the ring to Haman—because Haman has been welcomed and is teaching Torah.

In the fierce urgency of now; in this moment of growing antisemitism and racism and xenophobia; it is our urgent task to undo the system and not try to patch it by gaining favor with the powerful. We must be in proximity with other impacted communities, and, yes, also with the haters. However, first we must recognize the system for what it is. The system of white supremacy, the ideology which claims that whites are, and deserve to be, superior to other people, is the cause of myriad evils. Jews are perhaps the main demons of the white supremacy conspiracy theory, since we are seen to be manipulating people of color to replace Europeans (“Jews will not replace us”). Therefore anitsemitism and other forms of racism often sound very different.

The way we defeat white supremacy is first, to be in proximity with other impacted communities. To, in essence, welcome them into our bet midrash/study hall, and go to their batei midrash/study halls. We are each others’ allies in this struggle.

After that, we must also bring the haters, the antisemites and the racists into the bet midrash and wipe out their ideology—”this is the blotting out of Amalek.” I want to be very clear that this second stage can only come once we have secured our primary alliances. However, it must happen.

The rituals of Purim do what rituals do. They perform a possible future. The four rituals are 1. Reading the megillah (the Esther Scroll), 2. Giving gifts to the poor, 3. Giving gifts to our friends, 4. Having a Purim feast.

Giving gifts to the poor brings us outside of our comfort zone and into proximity with the most marginalized populations. (My community usually goes down to Skid Row.) This is not a delusional effort to say that “we are helping the poor/solving the problem of poverty.” This is a reminder that the poor, the homeless, are part of our community and with the scope of our responsibility.

Giving gifts to our friends is a way to reinforce our organizing. This is us. We are all committed to this together. Finally, we have a feast. We create community. We celebrate. We are joyous warriors who are armed with Torah, love, welcome and copious amounts of alchohol. In this moment of transcendence we can say that a different world is possible. Hopefully, it is that moment that we take with us to the streets on the days after Purim.

On Humanity and the Rule of Law

On Tuesday, twenty three faith leaders were arrested on Spring St. in Downtown Los Angeles. They were sitting in a line in the street stretching from the former federal court house where the Attorney General has an office, to the Hall of Justice which houses the District Attorney and the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. As the sun rose high over the Hall of Justice and began baking the streets, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department began the process of putting zip ties on the hands of the faithful and transporting them to Parker Center. I was among those faith leaders.

We were disrupting morning traffic during rush hour because Jeff Sessions was disrupting, or rather, destroying the lives of thousands of refugee families seeking asylum in our country—families who fled violence and oppression in their own countries and ended up in a nightmare in ours. Children taken from their parents. Parents not knowing where their children were anymore. The Attorney General had come to Los Angeles to go to court to reinforce the separation and incarceration (by having the court overturn the Flores decision) and we had had enough. Twenty three clergy sat down to say, at a time when Jeff Sessions claims that it is lawful to incarcerate children, we too should be incarcerated.

But this is not a story about one demonstration and the civil disobedience that followed it. Continue reading

What is citizenship? (Things I said at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally)

I was asked to speak today at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally and march, representing Bend the Arc: Jewish Action which started at the Japanese American National Museum, the place where, in December 1942, Japanese Americans were gathered and sent to concentration camps in various places in the Southwest. This is what I said:

One of the most profound questions that is facing our country today is this: What does it mean to be a citizen? Is citizenship merely the result of an accident of birth? the grant of a certificate? the culmination of a bureaucratic odyssey? Or is citizenship a commitment to certain bonds of mutual responsibility and care? Is citizenship perhaps the promise and practice of upholding the ideals of creating a more perfect union? Are the commitments of citizenship actually those commitments to supporting family and community? To working hard and creating human happiness for self and others?

The Jewish tradition teaches us that it is these latter commitments and obligations: the commitments to mutual care and supporting the weakest among us; to creating a more just and prosperous community and society which defines what a citizen is. And so it is time that we changed the conversation. It is beyond time that we recognize that the dreamers, and their families and all immigrants—documented and undocumented, who are in this city and this country to create a life, to find security or refuge, to enjoy and proliferate the benefits of justice and democracy, are already citizens. We just have to work out how to get them their papers. Continue reading

Jonah and Justice: Its Complicated

Why do we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?

This is not a new question. There is a mini library of scholarship ancient and modern on this question. However, there is also a previous question to be asked, upon which there is another library of scholarship: What is the book of Jonah?

The Book of Jonah was summed up nicely by the Veggie Tales folks: Jonah was a prophet, oooh oooh/ But he never really got it, sad but true. and if you watch it you can spot it, a-doodley-doo!/ he did not get the point! 

However, this brings in its wake the further question: Why are all the human characters vegetables, and yet the animal characters are still animals?

So there is still room for us to ask the question: What is the book of Jonah? Is it a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah? Is it a narrative like Samuel or Kings? Is it something else? Continue reading

A Conversation About Justice; The Case for Nonviolence; A Lecture on Radical T’shuvah

1. At T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbinic Convening, I sat down for a conversation with the T’ruah’s ED Rabbi Jill Jacobs, moderated by Rabbi Mark Soloway for his podcast A Dash of Drash.

2. I also published a piece at the Forward called The Case For Nonviolent Resistance: It’s Right And It Works.

The question I have been pondering is this: does this week of White Nationalist racist violence give credence to the argument of the antifa that the only logical, rational and ethical response to these people is to beat them down? Cornell West, a student of nonviolence, said that the antifa and the anarchists at the demonstration in the Park in Charlottesville saved his life, and the lives of the other clergy who were under threat of violence from the racist thugs. Continue reading

Three Thoughts about Peace

1. This past week’s Torah portion included the so-called “Priestly Blessing.” This short text, only four verses long, is one of the oldest parts of the Torah. It has gained liturgical significance through its synagogue use as the priestly blessing, and through its home use as the way parents bless their children. The blessing ends with the following verse: “May God raise God’s countenance to you and give you peace.” The last phrase might be literally translated as “place upon you peace.” Its a very odd locution. It points to the extraordinariness of peace.

Priestly blessing from the time of the First Temple.

The rabbis expound this extraordinary type of peace by saying things like: “Great is peace for God’s name is peace.” This is a peace which is almost not of this world. It is a Divine peace. The problem with elevating peace to this transcendent level is that it is beyond reach. A peace that can only be granted by God is not a peace that can be achieved by human effort. A peace which is the name of God, is a peace which orders the heavens, and the heavenly beings; it lets the lion and the lamb lie down next to each other and not be afraid. This is not a peace which people can hope to accomplish. There is no road map which leads from here to there, when there is hunter and prey in the animal world striking up a friendship. If peace is so far beyond us, we then have nothing to do. We might as well go on about our business, and in the fullness of time, God will flip a switch and peace will reign. Continue reading