Spanish Lessons

Sitting at my Shabbes dinner table on a Friday night during the plague, I learned that Spanish had two words for assassin. The first was asesino and the second was sicario. According to the dictionary, sicario is more of a hitman, while asesino is an assassin. A distinction without a real difference. Our houseguest, Darwin Ramos used them interchangeably. A Honduran asylum seeker, he knew about assassins and hitmen from personal experience. Darwin was an environmental activist who fled Honduras, having to leave behind his wife and children, because his name was on a hit list. He was number eleven. (A police officer had shown him the list at a demonstration to intimidate him.) After nine of his friends and fellow activists were killed, he fled. 

My Spanish was almost non-existent before Darwin came to live with us. I had a sprinkling of activist chant Spanish (Amazon escucha la la la en la lucha!) so our early conversations were conducted with the help of Google translate. Darwin had studied religion, and we spoke about religion and theology. He was very interested in belief in God, and Judaism, and whether I thought the Bible was literally true. These were topics about which he also had strong opinions (except Judaism, about which he was eager to learn and supplement the very superficial knowledge he had). I started to hear about what life had been for him in Honduras. On Shabbes, when we did not use electricity, and Darwin would join Andrea (my partner) and I for dinner, conversations were enabled by Andrea’s translations. Her Spanish is okay, though sometimes we fell back on charades. (Yes, we could have bought a dictionary.) Over time my Spanish has gone from nonexistent to poor. So, my ears perked up when Darwin, in the middle of telling his story used the word sicario. I knew I was not mistaken because he raised his two hands, as if firing a gun, when he said the word. 

I am a Talmudist by training and have a basic reading knowledge of Greek. Sikarios in Greek, is a bandit. It is (mis)transliterated to the Hebrew of the Mishnah as sikrikon. Josephus speaks of the sikarios, the highwaymen,in the Galilee. The Mishnah’s memory of the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel led to the enactment of the law of sikrikon which governed whether or not a property bought from an agent of the Empire (soldier of other) was a valid purchase, and whether the original owner could sue the purchaser for restitution. 

None of this, of course had anything to do with Honduras and the cartels and the narco-traffickers that, as Darwin said, had “big control” over every aspect of the government of Honduras. The way that language travels, however, brought me a little closer to the story that Darwin was telling us. 

That story was almost unbelievable. Unbelievable yet excruciatingly true. 

Darwin lived in a small village in southern Honduras called Catacamas. It is part of the Olancho Department which is more or less in the Western part of Honduras. He was part of an environmental movement which was trying to stop the clear cutting of the jungle which bordered Olancho. As he understood it at first, the clear cutting was done in order to sell the timber and to grow livestock illegally. One night when he and his comrades were out taking pictures of the clearcutting, a plane landed on what became clear was not a makeshift ranch but an improvised airstrip. The plane was loaded with cocaine bound for the US. When Darwin and his fellow activists reported this activity to the police, they fell into the web of the “big control.” The police were being paid by the narco-traffickers and they tipped them off. (pagar is payoff; mucho dinero is exactly that) Darwin and his friends were kidnapped and tortured (tortura) and forced to work offloading drugs from the planes. 

When Darwin was released but continued to organize and demonstrate against the destruction of the jungle, the police came to the demonstrations (manifestaciónes), took pictures of the activists and gave them to the cartels (carteles). This is how Darwin came to the attention of the death squads (escuadrones de la muerte), and why he used the word sicario. Apparently, the carteles outsourced the assassinations to the mafia whose main job was killing people. 

(I was having a bit of a moment at this point. When we took to the street in Los Angeles to demonstrate, the police often roughed people up, the police would take pictures of us and with the aid of face recognition software might want to make legal trouble for us. When Darwin and his fellow activists went to demonstrations, the police took pictures of them, made a list, and a hit squad assassinated them.)

This was when Darwin realized that he had to leave Honduras. He spent a bit of time in safe houses but then joined one of the caravans traveling north. He was one of the people that the President sent the army to the southern border to stop. Darwin, however, did not intend on going to the United States (Estados Unidos). He was going to seek asylum in Mexico. 

Arriving in Tijuana, Darwin found a room in a hostel and started working in a restaurant. One afternoon, after he finished work, he noticed a van parked outside. As he was walking home, as if out of a bad B movie, the van started following him, and then the people in the van jumped out and tried to grab him. They tore his clothes off but he got away. They chased him through the streets. Running through back alleys and climbing fences and walls he made it to the hostel. In a hotel near where he was staying some human rights lawyers (abogados de derechos humanos) and activists (activistas) who were helping asylum seekers trying to get to United States, were staying. Luckily the lawyers and activists were at his hostel helping other asylum seekers. They saw him, found out was going on, jumped into a car and headed north for the border. They drove around all night so as not to be caught. Fortunately, an urgent call to a congressperson convinced the Border Patrol to open up a crossing and take Darwin into custody. He was greeted with open arms by officials of the United States Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Just kidding. I wish that were true. Actually he was detained. In two different states for nine months in execrable conditions before being released. 

Like I said the story is unbelievable. However, some parts of its have been indirectly supported by indictments introduced in the Southern District of New York against the brother of the President of Honudras, known as El Tigre, or the tiger. He was, according to the allegations, as Chief of Police, in charge of the escuadrones de la muerte, the Death Squads. He is in custody on charges of narco-trafficking.

Darwin has been staying with us for eight months. When COVID hit, the courts closed and his hearing has been pushed off until December. He speaks to his family often. It is not good news. He still speaks out on environmental issues. We still have dinners together on Shabbes. We bought a dictionary. 


To find out how to comment on the government’s new asylum regulations go to HIAS.

Moral Outrage in the time of COVID

The other day I was talking to a colleague who is a medical ethicist. This woman who is also an Orthodox Rabbi, consults with hospitals in the Northeast. In this time, in this moment, the conversation that is happening is about triage and scarce resources. Four people come into the Emergency Room presenting COVID symptoms and in respiratory distress. There are only three respirators. Who gets the respirators? Who lives and who dies? These are decisions that are made by doctors and nurse practitioners and ethicists constantly.

My colleague told me that the term they are using for the resulting emotional tumult that the medical personell experience is moral anguish. The anguish that comes from having to make impossible choices on a regular basis, day in and day out. 

In thinking about our conversation I was very bothered. I was, of course, pained by the impossible choices that have to be made, and grateful that someone else was making them, and overwhelmed by the anguish that making those choices would cause. However, I was bothered by something else. I though of it as moral rage. The rabbis called it taromet, a Hebrew word which comes from the same root as the word ra’am which means thunder. 

In the Mishnah, the 3rd century text which is the cornerstone of the Jewish legal tradition, in discussing labor law, the following is found: 

If one hired workers and they deceived each other, they have no legally valid complaint but only cause for taromet/outrage.

There is a lot that is ambiguous about this text. It is those ambiguities—the use of pronouns, i.e. “they deceived each other”—that keeps me employed as a Talmud professor. However, the Babylonian Talmud, the major commentary on the mishnah explains that the type case we are talking about is when an employer or their agent deceives workers into hiring on at a lower salary than the employer would have been willing to pay. When this deception comes to light, it is, for the rabbis, obviously a moral lapse, an injustice. However, since the workers agreed to the lower wage, it is not a violation of the law and therefore the only avenue that is left open is taromet/moral rage. 

The moral decisions that front line clinical medical workers have to make are built upon a much wider foundation of unjust and immoral decisions that have been made over the past many years. The moral anguish distracts, in a sense, from the necessary moral outrage. We don’t have enough ventilators or PPE or other vital equipment because of the way the supply chain was created. The supply chain was created such that everything would be produced “Just in Time” in order to be more “efficient”. What efficient means is that it cuts down on “waste” in labor and materials. It also means that there are no stockpiles because there is no profit and there is no governmental leadership to value lives over that profit. 

At this moment we have to honor all those who are suffering moral anguish from having to make truly impossible decisions. But it is incumbent upon us to also tap into out moral outrage, our taromet. This virus has only made obvious, and exacerbated, systemic inequities that already existed—in our carceral and justice system, in our immigration system, and our housing systems. Now that they are obvious we must try to fix them to save lives now and create a more just society in which we can live after the plague. 

Why are we so mean?

On Thursday April 23, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter granted a motion brought by the ACLU representing several detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center. The judge ordered that Adelanto not accept any new detainees; that they immediately reduce the immigrant population so that detainees can practice social distancing; that the facility complete the reduction in immigrant detainees within a week. This is, of course, happening in the context of the novel Coronavirus and the fear that any infection in the facility would sweep through the whole institution like a wildfire.

The judge in a prior ruling recognizing the detainees as a class, said that the detainees were being held in conditions that are ‘inconsistent with contemporary standards of human decency.’ He found that there is neither enough soap nor cleaning products, and it is impossible for detainees to maintain the recommended distance of six feet with another person. 

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Big News about Daf Shvui

You may have noticed that daf shvui has not made its appearance on this platform in a couple of weeks. I have moved that project off and it is now a podcast. You can access it here:  and in all the places (Apple, Spotify, Stitcher). I hope you listen to it and subscribe and tell me what you think about it. (Latest episode here.) My intention now is to resume using Justice in the City for discussions of Judaism and Social Justice like it says on the home page. Thanks for sticking around.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so / Baba bathra 10b-11b

Another week, another story of the Queen Mother. (Not that Queen Mother, Ifra Hormiz the mother of Shapur II of course.) More charity, then the perennial question: how do we divide up this courtyard? It’s almost unbelievable that no one has written a folk song about it. Please stop watching the impeachment trial for a beat (spoiler: he’s guilty, he’ll be find not guilty) and join us in the Sea of Talmud. No experience necessary.

As always, my deepest gratitude to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so / Baba bathra 10a-10b

WE’RE BACK! And so is daf shvu’i. I hope you had a restful rejuvenating break over the various holidays. Now its time to forget all that and dive into the sea of Talmud. This week we continue the discussion of poverty relief beginning with a confrontation between Rabbi Aqiva and Turnus Rufus, the guy who is at times “credited” with destroying the Temple. Their theological debate leads into a longish disquisition on the merits of giving charity.

This weeks daf is longer than usual, so forty minutes is more like fifty minutes. So, get your beverage of choice, your talmud edition of choice and come on in!

Thanks, as always, to Eli Ungar Sargon for the sound editing.

Daf shvu’i: Give me forty minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so

This week we dive into Baba Bathra 8b-9b. We discuss the integrity of the poverty relief system, the textual grounding of unions, the need or not to verify the claims of impoverished people seeking help. And, how could we not, a story of a Rabbi who drove his mother crazy.

As always, deepest thanks to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf Shvu’i: Give me 40 minutes or so and I’ll give you a daf or so

This week we get into the longest extended discussion of poverty relief in the Babylonian Talmud. Along with the serious business of assessing, collecting, and distributing taxes for infrastructure and poverty relief, there is the serious business of meeting Elijah the Prophet, and watching Rabbi Judah the Prince deal with famine. Also, should Sages pay taxes?

As always, deepest gratitude to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.

Daf Shvu’i: Give me 40 minutes or so and I’ll teach you a daf or so…

After a hiatus as a result of the sukkot holidays and a sojourn to DC to attend the JStreet conference (which will make some of you think I’m a leftie, and some think I’ve gone over to the right), Daf Shvu’i returns. The simple premise is that we learn a page of talmud every week. We started at the beginning of Tractate Baba Bathra and this week finish page 5b and study 6a and most of 6b. If you want to follow along, the daf is here or here.

As always, deepest thanks go to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.