Friday, December 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Brotherhood: Facing Homegrown Misanthropy

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | VaYechi 2015

For a few weeks now I’ve been meaning to write about my ancestor, Levi. The mythical father of my own tribe of Levites, he’s been rearing his head a lot lately. Together with his brother, Shimon, Levi is the first Child of Monotheism who unsheathed the indiscriminate sword of vengeance. In the killing of all the men of Shechem, Levi is the mascot of twisting the demand for justice and security into an isolationist and vengeful approach. He trademarked the claim, in avenging the rape of his sister Dina, that deceit and butchery are justified in the name of brotherly solidarity (“Should our sister then be treated like a whore?”). Together, Levi and Shimon hold the patent on turning Abraham’s covenant into a veil for violence.
And they’ve been accruing quite a lot of royalties lately. Each week Levi’s fingerprints appear on more and more news stories: in the religiously justified violence and extremism from various children of Abraham, but also in the increasingly isolationist approach of populist politicians. You know it’s a Levite isolationism when it condones butchering in distant camps while keeping the home camp closed and pure… Finally, for those following the latest wedding fashions in extreme-right-wing Israel, in the appalling – but not unfamiliar – call for revenge and violence from my own relatives.

As I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do amid this tidal wave, I’ve been thinking about Levi’s father, Jacob. Grandpa Jack’s weak response to his children’s misconducts is infamous. First, his lack of response upon Dina’s rape by Shechem, then his tacit approval of Levi and Shimon’s request that all of Shechem’s town circumcise themselves, and finally his repudiation of their actions, which is focused on the political ramifications with would-be allies and neighbors (“You make me reek among the settled-folk of this land!”), and not confronting the actual violence and lying involved.

At the end of his life, from the safety of his deathbed, he returns to Levi and Shimon’s actions. In the midst of this week’s Torah portions blessings to all his other children, Jacob issues the following curse:

Shimon and Levi - such brothers.
  Wronging weapons are their ties-of-kinship!
To their council may my being never come,
  In their intimacy may my person never unite!
For in their anger they kill men,
  In their self-will they maim bulls.
Damned be their anger, that it is so fierce!
  Their fury, that is so harsh!
I will split them up among Jacob,
  I will scatter them throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי – אַחִים! כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי. כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז! וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה! אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

A Star of David and the Hebrew word ‘Revenge’ are spray-painted on the walls of a Palestinian home which was burned down by arsonists on July 31, 2015 in the Palestinian village of Duma, near Nablus (Zacahria Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights)
Nachmanides explains that Jacob’s resounding curse functionally cuts them out of Abraham’s inheritance, giving Shimon and Levi no independent share in the land of Israel (probably reflecting the fact that neither tribe had their own land in Biblical Israel). They are to be kept scattered among their brothers due to their “fierce anger”, “harsh fury”, and their “Hamas”-like ways (“Hamas” חמס in Hebrew, “deceitful wronging”, is the same verb used to describe the crimes of the generation of the Flood). For they “caused the name of God himself to be desecrated as people will claim that a prophet of God caused such hamas and robbery”.
But Nachmanides also zeroes in on the first word of the curse: Brothers. אחים:
Simon and Levi – Brothers” – Some understood this as Jacob at first seemingly giving them credit, describing them as brothers to the core, believers in fraternity. For their hearts were passionate over the fate of their sister.
I imagine Shimon and Levi’s ears perking up as they hear their father honor them with the title which they self-identify with so strongly. “Yes, we are brothers indeed. In a family where solidarity fell apart time and again – we were the loyal ones, weren’t we?” But then his compliment turns into repudiation: if that is brotherhood, may my legacy have nothing to do with it; may my being never become associated with this version of fraternal intimacy.
Today, I hear Jacob’s curse as a desperate plea. Please, may these powers that I have unleashed into the world not take over what the name of Jacob/Israel will become. May the family that I fathered not become smothered in brotherly fundamentalism. May such “Brotherhood” (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, GOP, DNC) not become synonymous with the project of Abraham. Jacob’s curse is not a prescribed destiny, it is a charge to the rest of his children: make sure that Levi and Shimon’s ways do not come to define what being a Child of Israel means. In a twist, he turns the fraternal charge from one of violent protectionism and vengeance into one of watchful moderation, engaged repudiation, brotherly intervention to mediate the fury and anger when they arise.
Why do I return to Levi in confronting these dangerous, disgusting and disheartening trends? Precisely because Levi is my relative, he’s my backyard, the symbol of homegrown extremism. Framing this violence as coming from my own family is a way of taking responsibility for it. Not liability, but responsibility. Levi symbolizes the challenge of confronting homegrown hatred and homegrown violence.

I do so in repudiation of the fact that so much of the discourse in response to recent events has focused on othering those we disagree with, distancing ourselves from any relationship with those who take the name of our religion/nation/story in vain and desecration, and ignoring the fact that there are values at the core of this hatred that must be engaged and countered. Hiding behind words such as “radicalization”, “fundamentalism” or “populism” is a way of creating a chasm between ourselves and those “others”, and in so doing washing our own hands from any association. Levi reminds me that what we must repudiate while engaging. Study the motivations and implications, then truly rival their ideology, from up close and personal. Not let them claim the values, dreams and names which are actually our inheritance. Not let them define what Jacob’s path is in our eyes.

As one Bronfman Fellow said to me this week at the end of our joint Mifgash Shabbaton of Israeli and American Bronfmanim: This weekend I understood how  for my parents and grandparents the mission statement of the Jewish People was “I am seeking for my brothers”. In response to the Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the insecurity of Israel, they felt that fraternity called upon them to fight for Jews against their joint enemies. But today we live in the opposite reality, not of Jewish disempowerment, but in deep Jewish privilege and power. For me, she said, “I am seeking my brothers” means that I must not be silent - for my brothers faces have changed. I must seek them out and call them out – and I must do it first, for they are my brothers. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for My Portion: Thoughts on Entering, Exiting and the portion of the Bronfmanim Community

Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah would pray when he entered the Beit Midrash (=House of Study) and when he left, a brief prayer.They said to him: What is the nature of this prayer?He answered: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion. (Mishna Berakhot 4:2)

Rabbi Nehunya has been on my mind. In the last three weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of entering and exiting and everywhere I went, I taught this text. Three weeks ago at our Ten Hour Israeli alumni seminar in Tel Aviv. Two weeks ago with our North American Alumni Board members in Boston. Last week in Arizona, Becky and I got to study it with Adam Bronfman (and our tireless board president, Dana Raucher). Last night – already back in Jerusalem – it was with my virtual journal group of 2015 Bronfmanim. In each place, the teaching resonated differently, but the questions were the same. I feel so thankful to be a part of this varied and spread out community and to be able to study Torah with people united by their thirst for learning, for intentionality and for community.
As a Thanksgiving gift, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about this text (here it is in a sourcesheet format, in case you dare share it at your table). And as my own personal moment of Thanksgiving, I want to share some unabashedly promotional snapshots from the Bronfmanim community which have inspired me these last few weeks. As Paris and Brussels, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, New Haven and Chicago, become ever more complicated places, I return to the power of the Bronfman community to serve as an antidote to polarization, a breath of inspiration amid cynicism, a model for a community of nuance amid disagreement.

On any given day, we find ourselves entering and exiting a variety of locations and contexts. In each place we have a different role to play, a specific responsibility, a different amount of power we can wield. We might even hold different names in each context (friend, father, boss, student, employee, client, daughter…). We move between these contexts constantly, and sometimes - like a whisper only we can hear - the context is switched and our role becomes entirely different than the one before it. In this decade of smartphones, our contexts keep switching and overlapping in faster and faster succession. We are constantly entering and exiting.
But then Nehunia ben haKanah stands at the doorway, and pauses for a brief prayer. “What is the nature of your prayer?” they challenge him. “Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion.”
I’d suggest Nehunia’s prayer is a call to intentionality as we enter and exit our various contexts. He’s warning us about the detriments of not noticing the context that we’re in, not being aware of the role, responsibility, and power that we wield; of the name we must answer to. His solution for himself was to create short moments of intentionality, kavana, and tefilla. He allows his hands to shake a bit, before entering a role of power and responsibility. Let no mishap happen because of me. Then, upon exiting, he brings his hands together in thanksgiving and appreciation, ensuring that next time he enters, he recalls the goodness and not just the trepidation.
Nehunia’s personal prayer is metonymic of the entire project of Mishna Berakhot, the tractate from which this aphorism is taken. Berakhot is a calling to live intentionally in the world, and it offers a unique formula, which one could call “The Secret Structure of Jewish prayer”, but I prefer to call it: The Art of Sandwich making.
 Berakhot encourages us to sandwich our experiences, trials and tribulations with brief prayers. “Before one enters a city, say one prayer. As you leave the city, say one prayer”. We are called to say a blessing before eating, and four blessings after. So too with waking and sleeping, with learning, with seeing an old friend. We even say blessings before we say blessings, and say blessings after we’ve said blessings. Sandwich upon sandwich upon sandwich.
Yet before it became a ritual murmuring, it was a call to intentionality. A note to self: be wary of the power you wield. A reminder: be thankful for our portion. I’d like to enter all my contexts the way Nehunia enters the Beit Midrash.

Learning, Service and Reciprocal Kindness
The last two words of Nehunia’s prayer deserve an extra focus. He gives thanks, acknowledgement – a noble and universal sentiment – but not for his destiny, or calling. Rather, for his portion. As he leaves, he demarcates an area which is “his portion”. The language is interesting: “portion” acknowledges that what he has is part of something larger than himself, that he is simply a part, a portion, of a grander scheme. Yet on the other hand, it is undoubtedly his. “My portion”. May my portion be among those that are thankful for their portion. merely my portion, yet it is mine nontheless. Even if I never get to see the whole.
This past month I’ve been lucky to experience many such moments of thanksgiving; of seeing that portion that we at the Bronfman Fellowships have received in the world. They are the outcome of the hard work of our amazing team; of the trust, thirst and care that you - our community - invest in it, and of the fruition of Edgar's vision which Becky and I have been lucky to call our portion. And it feels both entirely new and as old as the most cliched Mishna in our tradition.  Our portion stands on three things. 
When eighty busy Israeli Bronfmanim in their twenties and thirties take two days out of their lives to re-immerse in deep face to face conversations, or when fifty college students cram into a room at ten o’clock on a Friday night because of a thirst to engage in a kind of study too rare on their campuses – our portion is one of true learning, Torah Lishma.
When ten friends drive three hours in the desert to console a Bronfman alum they hadn’t seen in years as she buries her estranged father surrounded by strangers – our portion is one of Gemillut Hasadim, reciprocal kindness and support.
When Israeli and North American alumni board members come together across time zones and language barriers to discuss with seriousness and enthusiasm how to allocate money that you entrusted in their hands, and to discuss whether to support projects in communities distant from them geographically and ideologically, yet that they care about deeply, our portion is one of Avodah, service and social responsibility.
As I exit this month of Bronfman busyness, I pray that these moments illuminate something on your end as they have in mine. In a world of many mishaps, I give thanks for a community that helps me regain faith in learning, service and communal support. As clichéd as that sounds, sometimes faith in clichés is what the world needs more of. 
Happy Thanksgiving

רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא בֶּן הַקָּנֶה הָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מַה מָקוֹם לִתְפִלָּה זוֹ?
אָמַר לָהֶם:בִּכְנִיסָתִי - אֲנִי מִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁלֹּא תְּאַרַע תַּקָּלָה עַל יָדִיוּבִיצִיאָתִי - אֲנִי נוֹתֵן הוֹדָאָה עַל חֶלְקִי.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Being Abraham’s Child in a time of Human Darkness

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Lech Lecha 2015

“Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / the Father of Multitudes

Shined forth like a star / to illuminate the darkness.
You deferred Your anger / When you surveyed his deeds."
(Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century)

As the children of Abraham continue to find themselves killing eachother this week, from his birth place in Ur Kasdim, through his chosen home Beer Sheva and all the way to his final rest place in Hevron; as droves of his children are forced leave their homeland, making their way to Europe in tents and encountering his other children in their steady homes; I’m asking myself what it means to be a child of Abraham in our generation.

Meir Pichadze, Georgia-Israel
Many Abrahams
Tell me who your Abraham is and I’ll tell you what kind of Jew you are. Or Christian, or Muslim…

Is your Abraham the knight of faith, who binds rationality and morality on the altar of God’s love? Is your Abraham (and Sarah!) the generous host of a tent open to all four corners of the world, or the aged traveler who has taken upon himself to wash the feet of all weary travelers? Perhaps your Abraham is Maimonides’ Socratic philosopher, seeking the truth until he finds the One God? Or is he the moral prophetic voice who was chosen in order to “teach his children… paths of justice and compassion”? Is your Abraham the blinded visionary, manipulated by competing loves to wives, God and children? Or is Abraham the meticulous Halakhic man, who intuited Jewish law long before the Torah was given at Sinai?
Like Alexander the Great’s empire, Abraham’s legacy is too great to be inherited by any one person or position. It is forever divvied up into competing lands. God’s name for him has proven true: Abraham is not just Av-Ram (Great Father), but Av-RaHam - אב המון גויים – the father of a multitude of nations. Indeed, in his personality and lore he himself is multitudes. The gift of the Hebrew vowel, ה"א, in his name is the gift of multitudity (new word?). Perhaps we all are multitudes, we simply haven’t been given as many tests (opportunities) as Grandpe Abe to allow our multitudes to shine.
In Me’a Shearim one can buy children’s books about Abraham according to your Ultra Orthodox sect. In one Abraham is dressed as a Lithuanian yeshiva student, in another he dons the garb of a devout Hassid. In the PJ Library version he looks somewhat suburban (somewhat less popular in Me’a Shearim). One can scoff at the anachronisms of Abraham’s portrayal, but I believe being Jewish means telling about myself a story that begins with Abraham, and that portrays my life values and dilemmas as illuminated by Abraham and Sarah’s lives (and, like real family, without covering their blemishes either). Retelling our parent’s stories as a way of uncovering our own.
The great thing about Abraham’s story is, it has no clear beginning. No one knows what caused God to appear to him one day and command: Lech Lecha, “go forth”, or “go to yourself” as the Zohar reads literally. Is this proof that God’s grace is random, falling on a person without prior warning, as Paul described it. Or is there a backstory that the Torah leaves out, leaving us to imagine, retell, fabricate – and through the work of midrash to weave ourselves into the fabric of Torah.

Human Darkness
Thank God, the Torah does not begin with Abraham. Our story begins with the birth of the world, and of humanity, and while this week we begin zooming in to the narrow story of Abraham’s family, a Jewish posture in the world must always be rooted in the larger human story. The sad news is the early chapters of Genesis reveal humanity in our bleakest vulnerability and violence.
In this reading, I’ll be following a 7th century Hebrew poem, called “You Established,” אתה כוננת. The poem, which is included at the bottom, is repeated today in the Sephardic Avodah service for Yom Kippur.
You established the world
from the beginningYou founded the earth
and formed creatures. […]But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.
From Adam to Cain, from Nimrod to Noah’s generation, humanity breaks away from God and his word, breaking the yoke and yelling: “Go away!” I used to read this as a moralistic tale telling me that I as a Son of Adam am weak and insubordinate – and must therefore bend my will to my teacher and whatever book of religious law she was making me feel guilty for not keeping. But hidden among the lines of the narrative is an opposite reading of the story. Yes, human beings ARE prone to violence and insubordination, but God was complicit here. When they yelled “Go away!, he indeed left them. You took away your hand / and they withered instantly like grass.”

Human and Soil: Adam and Adamah
For ten generation, from Adam to Noah, the soil is damned and infertile. Apres deluge God declares: “I will never curse the soil again on humankind’s account; since what the human heart forms is evil from its youth.” The soil is freed from paying the price for Humanity’s mistakes (until the industrial revolution, I guess) and Noah becomes the “first man of the soil”. Grapes grow for the first time since Eden, but God does not return to humanity. Like a parent livid with his children’s behavior, God decides to stop tearing the house down on their account, but never calls them again. No one really expects human beings to behave otherwise, so what good would consequences have. “Go away, you say? Fine!” And so for another ten generation, a god-less world.
It could have remained that way forever, until –

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / The Father of multitudes

Shined forth like a star/ to illuminate in the darkness.
יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב  
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ
כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ  בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
What did Avraham do that was so sudden, so illuminating? How was this star born, and what light did he bring forth? The Torah never tells us. We’re left to our own midrashic devices – smashing idols, philosophizing in the marketplace, generously hosting, fervently believing, building a powerful couplehood with Sarah despite barrenness, or perhaps going on the journey even before being called to do so.
Whatever it is, it got God to pay attention. You deferred Your anger when you surveyed his deeds. We don’t know if Avraham was even trying to get God’s attention. I’d like to believe he was just doing it in order to illuminate the darkness he found himself living in. That’s how starts usually begin to glow. Whatever it was, it soothed God’s anger. It allowed God to believe in human beings once again.
Here then is a vision for Abrahamic religion: shaping people and communities that inspire God to believe in human beings anew. How far we are from this vision. Being a child of Avraham is acting in a way that gets God to believe in us again. Being Avraham’s child is acting in a way that gets human beings to believe in themselves again. Not waiting for God’s cues, or anyone else’s for that matter. Simply taking action and alleviating the darkness, the dryness. From Ur Kasdim to Beer Sheva, from Jerusalem to California.
Shabbat Shalom,

You established the world from the beginning
You founded the earth and formed creatures.

When you surveyed the world of chaos and confusion
You banished gloom and put light in its place.

You formed from the earth a lump of soil in Your image
And commanded him concerning the tree of life

He forsook Your word and he was forsaked from Eden
But You did not destroy him for the sake of the work of Your hands.

You increased his fruit and blessed his seed
And let them flourish in Your goodness and live in quiet.

But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”
Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.

You remembered your covenant
With the one who was blamesless in his generation (Noah)
And as a reward You made him a remanant forever.

You made a permanent covenant of the rainbow for his sake
And in Your love for his fragrant offering You blessed his children.

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim
The Father of multitudes
Shined forth like a star
to illuminate in the darkness.

You deferred Your anger
When you surveyed his deeds.
And when he was old
You looked into his heart.

(אתה כוננת, “You Established” Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century, translation Swartz and Yahalom edition, pg 70)
אַתָּה כּוֹנַנְתָּ עוֹלָם מֵרֹאשׁ
יָסַדְתָּ תֵבֵל וּבְרִיּוֹת יָצַרְתָּ

בְּשׁוּרְךָ עוֹלָם תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ
גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹפֶל וְהִצַּבְתָּ נֹגַהּ

גֹּלֶם תַּבְנִיתְךָ מִן הָאֲדָמָה יָצַרְתָּ
וְעַל עֵץ הַדַּעַת אוֹתוֹ הִפְקַדְתָּ

דְּבָרְךָ זָנַח וְנִזְנַח מֵעֵדֶן
וְלֹא כִלִּיתוֹ לְמַעַן יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ

הִגְדַּלְתָּ פִרְיוֹ וּבֵרַכְתָּ זַרְעוֹ
וְהִפְרִיתָם בְּטוּבְךָ וְהוֹשַׁבְתָּם שָׁקֶט

וַיִּפְרְקוּ עֹל וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָאֵל סוּר מִמֶּנּוּ
וַהֲסִירוֹתָ יָד כְּרֶגַע כֶּחָצִיר אֻמְלָלוּ

זָכַרְתָּ בְרִית לְתָמִים בְּדוֹרוֹ
וּבִזְכוּתוֹ שַׂמְתָּ לְעוֹלָם שְׁאֵרִית

חֹק בְּרִית קֶשֶׁת לְמַעֲנוֹ כָרַתָּ
וּבְאַהֲבַת נִיחֹחוֹ בָּנָיו בֵּרַכְתָּ

טָעוּ בְעָשְׁרָם וּבָנוּ מִגְדָּל
וַיֹּאמְרוּ נַבְקִיעַ הָרָקִיעַ לְהִלָּחֶם בּוֹ

יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ

כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
וּלְעֵת שֵׂבָתוֹ לְבָבוֹ חָקַרְתָּ

Monday, September 21, 2015

Returning to our Senses #3: Ears

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Shabbat Teshuva 2015

This High Holiday season I am exploring texts and inspirations about our sensory organs, as a path to approaching Teshuva. Returning to our senses. This piece reflects on the ears. (Check out previous installments: the Eyes and the Mouth).

You have heard my voice:
Do not hide your ear at my breathing,
at my cry. (Lamentations 3:56)
קוֹלִי שָׁמָעְתָּ, אַל תַּעְלֵם אָזְנְךָ לְרַוְחָתִי לְשַׁוְעָתִי (איכה ג:נו)

Yom Kippur is the time of  the ear. On the day in which we refrain from putting food in our mouths, keep our hands to ourselves, and direct our eyes inwards - our ears perk up, ready to do some work.

The first day of Rabbinical School. My teacher in pastoral counseling (and life) Dr. Michelle Friedman tells us sharply: “You might think you’re here to learn what to say to people, to acquire the Halakhic answers, the teshuvot. In fact you are here to learn how to listen. When people turn to Rabbis, they are rarely actually seeking advice. They are seeking to be heard. You are here to learn how to listen to people. You’re here to grow a pair of ears.”

Ears are quite awkward. Protruding, strangely shaped, and – unlike the ears and mouth – lacking a proper cover. What is the spiritual work of the ear?
The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: Why is the ear made of stiff parts, but the ear lobe soft? So that if a person hears something improper, they can fold the lobe into the ear. (Talmud Bavli Ketubot 5a)
Before a trend of folded-lobes becomes a big thing, it is worth giving some depth to this idea. At first glance it is yet another knee jerk moralism, blocking out what the world has to offer in an act of self-ghettoization. But for Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in his 16th century ethical-anatomical treatise “The Palm of Devorah”, it is about learning to hear the universe the way God does:
One ears should be ever open to hear only the good. Evil speech and ugly rumor should be barred from entering the ears, just as the Divine ears do not allow any cry of criticism or evil talk enter them. So too, a person should listen for the good and useful things; and anything which is angering - should receive no hearing whatsoever. (Tomer Devorah Chapter Two)
Yet filtering out the bad and hearing only the good is just the first level. Psychologists and Philosophers of Language have taught us just how hard it is to truly hear the other, to hear beyond hearing. This begins with differentiating between what I am hearing and what is being said to me. Our auditory input is experienced through veils of our own projections and interpretations, anxieties and concerns. Can we ever hear beyond all the veils?
Hearing beyond hearing begins with being attuned to oneself – so that all of my projections and anxieties can be set aside, in a pile of their own. Next, we seek to listen beyond the speaker’s own projections towards us, their reactions and messiness, to that which is at the heart of the matter. I am continuously jealous of a good therapist’s ability to say: “Here is what they are actually asking when they are saying this…”
Hearing beyond hearing should not be misconstrued as a dismissal of the express content of the statement. I still vividly remember my frustration when – as a child – I would have a tantrum and my parents would say: “You’re not angry about X, you’re simply tired”. If I wasn’t angry until then, I became angry once that was said (I now clumsily make the same mistakes with my children…).
Similar to the way every musical frequency creates multiple overtones without negating the fundamental tone, thus refining our hearing involves being able to hear and differentiate the various fundamental tones, overtones and harmonies created within what is being said – and registering each of them independently.

Hearing the Overtones
The ability to hear the overtones of all people is how Rabbi David Cohen, the Nazirite Rabbi, understands Avraham. He interprets Avraham’s name – Av Hamon Goyim – the father of many (hamon) nations, to derive from the Hebrew word המייה (hem-ya) which means song or harmony. Thus Avraham: Father who understands the harmonies of people. Abraham could hear both the individual tones and the overtones, truly hearing the yearning of the heart of each person and nation. And it is in the overtones where people who seem to be singing different notes are actually aligned and harmonious. To be Jewish, a child of Abraham, is to hear the music surging forth from every human being.
R. David Cohen, The "Nazirite"
For Cohen, Judaism is all about ears. His masterpiece, titled “The Hebraic Auditory Logic”, claims that while Western logic is based on the primacy of the visual, that which can be seen and contemplated, Judaism is all about the auditory. Just as the English language continues to encode the assumption that eyesight is the path to truth (“Seeing is believing”, “seeing the light”, “world-view”, “I see” refers to comprehension, etc.) thus Judaism espouses an “auditory logic”: truth is achieved through the ears. Hear O Israel is much more central than See. God cannot be seen, but is achieved by hearing. To hear God means to obey him, thus the centrality of Halakha and actions in Judaism. According to Talmudic Damages, if one deafens the other, they must pays damages as if they took their entire life away. Functional ears are what make life worth living.

Between Hearing and Obeying

I am in synagogue, the Yom Kippur prior to my Bar Mitzva, reciting the viduy confessional of sins. Apparently beating my chest quite enthusiastically in the process. A compassionate face turns around and says: “You know, beating on the chest is not a form of self-punishment. We are simply knocking on our hearts. Hopefully it will hear the knocking and open up.”
At first glance, Yom Kippur is a day in which we account for whether we heard God in the past year. We confess – sounding to our ears all the ways in which we failed to fulfill Gods word, lishmoa be’kolo, to follow his voice. But keeping Yom Kippur as a test of obedience is missing the point. To obey refers to a power dynamic, while to hear is first and foremost a relational category. Perhaps we didn’t always obey – but did we hear God nevertheless?
Not that hearing is any easier. Obeying can be done from a distance. Hearing God assumes proximity. It is a much scarier affair. Adam and Eve, having failed to fulfill God’s commandments, reflect this first:
“God called to the human and said to him: Where are you? Ayekah?
He answered: I heard the sound of You in the garden,
and I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:9-10)

According to the Midrash, God’s voice continues to call out, asking humans “Where are you? Ayekah?” Avraham was not the first human that God spoke to. He was simply the first who heard… and didn’t run the other way. He heard… and fulfilled.
During Mussaf of Yom Kippur, we retell the story of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies. At the experiential center of the retelling is the moment in which the High Priest, as part of his confession on our behalf, recites God’s explicit name, the shem hameforash. When the Israelites in the Temple, and respectively when we in synagogue, hear this recitation, we fall to the ground. The ripples of hearing God’s explicitness in this world is such a visceral auditory experience that it makes us become embryonic once more. We turn hearing from a passive experience into a full body dance, repeated multiple times.
Yom Kippur is the day in which we reflect on our hearing God in the world. The externalities of it refer to obeying, but the internality relates to the ability to hear God’s call to humanity. We knock on our heart and ask: Where are you?
To hear the question - and not hide.

God, Hear Us

Neillah at the small and crazy Yom Kippur minyan I pray at in Jerusalem. The fast is all but over, most other synagogues breaking out the refreshments, the supernal gate about to be locked. But we’re still singing: we’ve got our foot in the door, preventing the gate from closing. We cry out: “Hear our voice, God. Don’t let your ear ignore our call, our cry. We ain’t leaving until you do…”
Like good Jews, we answer God’s Yom Kippur question with a question. Time and again on this day, we open the ark and ask: Can you hear us? We demand:  שמע קולנו, Hear our voice! We cajole: You have heard my voice: Do not hide your ear!
The ark becomes God’s ear, and we rise to meet it and to call out: Hear our voice. Make our lives matter. Don’t ignore us.
At the end of the day, the sharp sound of the Shofar clears our ears - and God’s. In the newborn year, may our ears be open – to God’s question, to our own, to others.

Gmar Hatima Tova,

Friday, September 11, 2015

Returning to our Senses #2: Mouth

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Rosh haShana 2015
Exploring texts and inspirations about our sensory organs, as a path to approaching Teshuva. This second piece reflects on the mouth. (Check out #1: Eyes).
Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)

מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן, וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ יֹאכַל פִּרְיה. (משלי יח:כא)

Our mouth is a most curious anatomical beast: a vacancy, a receptacle holding lips, teeth and tongue. It is rare among our organs in being both an input and an output mechanism. Eat-speak-interiorize, as Derrida puts it. It is the gatekeeper of the body, the primary organ through which foreign objects are allowed to become part of our selves. From the baby’s initial cry, to its subsequent suck, mammals experience the world through mouth before anything else. As the locus of eat-speak-interiorize Psychoanalysts saw the mouth as metonymic of the ego. As Jean Luc Nancy put it:
There is – there once was – a mouth that opens and says: I write, I mask myself, I fabulate, I am my body, I am a man – always inextricably uttering: I take refuge in myself or I distinguish myself. The ego says: neither the presence nor the absence; neither the structure, not the feign of the subject – but the utterly singular experience of the mouth that opens and closes [itself] at once. A tongue moves there. (Jean Luc Nancy, Ego Sum)

The Talmud placed enormous on the mouth, as one would expect from the creators of the “Torah on the Mouth”, תורה שבעל פה. Often the tongue is described as an uncontrollable fiend, a loose and ferocious dagger which needs to be encased behind tooth and lip, lock and key:
R. Yohanan said: The Blessed Holy One said to the Tongue:
All members of the human body are tense, while you lie loosely;
all members of the human body are outside, while you are guarded inside;
not only that, but I surrounded you with two walls, one of bone and one of flesh; thus it says:
“What shall I do to you, and what more can I give you, O deceitful tongue?”
 (Talmud Arakhin 16 quoting Psalms 120:3)

While the midrash focuses on speech, this could easily be said of eating too. The eating is by definition insatiable – for while the stomach that can be satiated, but never the mouth or tongue. The mouth is the locus of consumption, and on its own knows no limits. Indeed, as we’ve lost the effort that procuring and creating food once required - and with it all but lost the rituals of mindful eating – the mouth can easily be framed as the symbol of our consumerist selves.
But the claim that the body, mouth or tongue is inherently the enemy of the good doesn’t hold in most corners of Jewish tradition. Rather, the mouth is the primary site through which the self will show whether it chooses good or bad, life or death. As Rava puts it: When we seeks life – we do it with our mouth. When we seek death – we do it with our mouth. (Talmud Arakhin 15b).
Fittingly, Rosh haShana offers us many rituals of the mouth. Through eating, speech and sound, the mouth is placed at the center, inviting us to return to this most primal of organs, where our selfhood, indeed our very humanity, are epitomized.

Simanim: Rituals of Mindful Eating

In the documentary film “Unknown White Male,” the protagonist loses his memory while on the subway, waking up in Coney Island without any recollections. In one scene two friends take him out to dinner, to eat all the things he never knew existed. Cheesecake, strawberries, sushi and steak ensue. Mango – who knew! I’ve always been jealous of the concept of being reintroduced to taste in such a manner.
Sitting around the Rosh haShana table, we place symbolic foods ripe with blessings for the new year. In a deliberate process, we taste the foods and bless the new year in their symbolism. Traditionally the site of numerous Hebrew puns, our family tradition has become to have guests bring an object – edible or not – with which to bless the new year. But beyond punning carrots and honey coated toddlers, there is an opportunity here to allow the first eating of the new year to help us reset the way we will eat this year. Hitting the reset button on ourselves begins with hitting the reset button on our mouths. Returning to the primacy of taste – sweet, sour, bitter – we make the tongue alive again, as if it was created anew today. Hopefully our own renewal will ensure.

Creation: Bridging the Chasm Between Speech and Action
Before creation, there was speech. God, in the Biblical story created the world through speech: “And God said let there be Light – and there was light”. This aspect was intensified by the Rabbis, becoming a key characteristic of God’s praiseworthiness: “Blessed is he who said – and the world was created” ברוך שאמר – והיה העולם. For the Rabbis the world was described as constructed of strings of words and letters, God’s speech projected eternally out into the cosmos, keeping all of creation in place.
If God is God in the aspect that his speech is his action, and his action is speech, what does that say about us? While we humans are differentiated from the animal kingdom thanks to our ability to speak, the fact that we are not yet Gods emanates from the all-too-human chasm between our speech and our action.
As we pour mountains of words about the new year we hope to enter, we are invited to ponder the gap between our statements and our actions. Seeking to walk in God’s path includes trying to better bridge the chasm between our speech and our actions. As creation by speech becomes renewed this Rosh haShana, we can pray to become renewed ourselves in the way our speech and our action correlate.

Shofar: Returning to the first voice

Before speech, there was voice. Speech is defined, but voice, like the cry of the newborn baby, says it all without reducing it to specifics. Returning to who we really are means trying to reach back to a place before words and vowels. Rosh haShana is called Yom Truah, יום תרועה, the day of Wail – usually understood as the wail of the Shofar. But the Torah also strangely calls it a day of Zichron Truah, זכרון תרועה – the memory of a wail. What is the wail stored in our memory above all? Perhaps it is that moment in which we were all mouth, emitting the vulnerable wail, full of potential. Zichron Truah, the moment in which we became an ego, yet also so dependent on mother (parent!) and world that we were truly “part of” more than autonomous egos. One hundred voices, one hundred wails. Will it be enough to bring us back to that initial moment, full of promise? Will it be enough for us to see others from that perspective, as creations who were once just mouth, a vulnerable wail? Will it be enough to remind the Creator that at our core, we are but vulnerable wailers, mouths calling out to reconnect to the source of good? As we lift the shofar to our mouths, lets pray it is.

Shana Tova,