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.

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.

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

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading

Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Seventh Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.חנוכיה

The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.

The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.

The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)