Goldberg vs. Tlaib—WUT?

On December 10 Representative Rashida Tlaib, Congresswoman from the Michigan 10th District tweeted: “I’d like to wish my Jewish neighbors a Happy Hanukkah. Hanukkah inspires me, especially during this difficult time. I hope we can all remember that even in the most unexpected moments, miracles can happen.” The Tweet seems innocuous, no different than probably hundreds of such messages which politicians send to their constituents, or to the broader public, wishing all a happy holiday. Representative Tlaib also included some sweet pablum about miracles, saying she herself draws inspiration from the holiday in this difficult time. 

Justin Amash, the Libertarian Congressman from Michigan’s 3rd District tweeted: “Wishing a blessed and happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate!” Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan’s Fifth District tweeted: “Happy #Hanukkah to everyone in mid-Michigan and around the country celebrating the first night of the Festival of Lights! Even though this holiday looks different this year, I hope happiness, love and hope fill your homes for the next eight day and many more to come.” Congressman Kildee added a Hanukkah emoji and a photograph which showed a menorah with eight candles and a present. While Flint has a few synagogues and a long Jewish presence, there are not that many Jews in the area represented by Kildee. His greeting, like those of the other politicians were not so much de riguer as the signs of civility. Before a religious holiday it is befitting for a political leader to wish those who celebrate that holiday a happy holiday. If they want to go the extra step, like Kildee, and show some understanding of the holiday (“first night” “eight days”)—great. If they want to draw some inspiration from the meaning of the holiday, even better. However, even the boilerplate greeting that Justin Amash sent is a welcome sign of civility in our civic culture. 

It was somewhat striking then that Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic, who happens to be Jewish, decided to “dunk” on Tlaib. First thing the next morning, Goldberg retweeted Tlaib’s tweet with the comment: “Just noting that the Hanukkah miracle to which she refers is the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.” The “just noting” introduction is the Twitter giveaway that the following comment is significant and cutting. It seems that Goldberg thought that Tlaib was aligning herself with Ancient Jews whom she would not align herself with had they lived today. In other words, Goldberg seems to be implying that Tlaib is mistakenly or hypocritically celebrating Jewish restoration of sovereignty over the land of Israel, while at the same time she is a supporter of Palestinian rights. 

So, first, Goldberg’s comment replaces the discourse of civility—politician wishes their constituents well—with the more common Twitter idiom of political snark and sarcasm. The Tweet also, perhaps inadvertently, placed itself in the middle of the Hanukkah controversy itself. Many Jewish Twitterati immediately replied to Goldberg that he was getting the holiday wrong, and that the miracle of Hanukkah was actually the cruz of oil which burned for eight days. Goldberg is a learned Jew and therefore he would have known this. In fact he probably knows that there are two different miracle stories which are in tension and perhaps in conflict with each other. 

There are two prayers that are unique to Hanukkah. One is said in Jewish rites, in the amidah prayer which is recited thrice daily. The second is a liturgical poem, recited in Jewish communities of European origin during the candle lighting ritual. In the first prayer, also known as al hanisim/about the miracles, the miracle that is extolled is the victory of the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. In the liturgical poem (maoz tzur translated unfortunately as “Rock of Ages”) the miracle is that when there were not enough cruses of sanctified oil, the sanctified oil that was left lasted for eight days. 

Goldberg’s choice of the military victory is not a neutral choice. The rabbis of the Talmud, the 6th century Babylonian Jewish text which expounds on Hannukah in all its legal complexity for the first time, chose the miracle of the oil and glossed over the military victory. The rabbis were not very fond of the Hasmonean house which descended from the Maccabees, so this may not be surprising. They also preserved an acute memory of the death and destruction which accompanied the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE. The rabbis of the Talmud have a strong preference for pacifism. 

However, pacifism did not serve the nascent Zionist movement well, and so when searching for militant ancestors they could find none better than the Maccabean band of zealots. The Zionist movement resurrected the fight for national sovereignty from the dust of the extracanonical books of the Maccabees. 

This Twitter scrap played out as it did because of the two registers in which everything religious plays out in today’s political realm. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, have all become fighting words. Any Tweet that a Muslim-American politician tweeted on a Jewish topic would be scrutinized for its political content. It would not and did not matter that the message was a human message not on the field of battle. Goldberg is picking up a cudgel from another fight that is obviously not yet over for him.

The call for civility is usually a call for the weak to disarm and not to use the weapons of the strong. However, there is great benefit when around the margins there is a recognition that the battleground has boundaries. There is no glory when the Jewish editor in chief of one of the magazines which sets the intellectual agenda for the public space dunks on a Muslimah Congresswoman of color on an issue which was obviously not on the field of battle. 

_______________

Dr. Annette Yoshiko Reed has a phenomenal Twitter thread with links if you want to really geek out on the history of Hanukkah.

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. 

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. 

Continue reading

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: https://dafshvui.buzzsprout.com/  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.