The Life and Death and Life of Books

As a congregational rabbi, I am used to the ebbs and flows of time and ritual. Shabbat comes every week, the holidays cycle every year, there will always be births and deaths, weddings and b’nai mitzvah. But every so often an opportunity arises that a rabbi will participate in only once (maybe twice) in a career.

One is the dedication of a new synagogue, which I had the honor to plan and participate in during my first year at TBH, and my first year as a rabbi. That was an amazing experience to think about ritual and ceremony for something that happens very rarely in the life of a congregation, and to do it so early in my tenure was truly an emotional experience, and one that from the beginning deepened my relationship with the congregation.

Another was this past Thursday, as we gathered to bury our sacred texts. Jewish tradition dictates that sacred texts and ritual objects—prayerbooks, Torah books, tallits, etc.—that are no longer of use or in good condition should be set aside and buried. In this way we show honor to the divine, as many of these sacred texts have the name of God written in Hebrew, the sacred language. And we show honor to our tradition, as these books are the repositories of our sacred literature.

Since it is not an easy thing to open a gravesite to deposit books, we at TBH, as is common, stored our old books in a closet until there was enough to warrant a burial. (The Hebrew term for such a repository is a geniza.) This year it became clear that we had enough to bury. Over the years we had collected older editions of multiple prayerbooks we no longer used as a congregation, as well as books that were donated by individuals.

When we gathered for the burial, we had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that these sacred books carry both the traditions of our people the traditions of individuals and families. Some people contributed personal books that had been a part of their family history, or had individual meaning for them, and sharing stories and reading inscriptions.

I too contributed a personal copy of a prayerbook. During a break-in at TBH over a decade ago we experienced vandalism when books and pews in the sanctuary were overturned. One of the books was my personal copy of the siddur that I used on the bimah; it was tossed to the ground and its spine was broken. I had put it aside for eventual burial, and reflected on it as my first “rabbinic” prayerbook.

And some people reflected on how the books collected told a communal story as well. For one, the variety of prayerbooks collected tell the story of the Jewish people, as multiple denominations and generations of prayerbooks were represented, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, from this country and from the Old World. And, as was commented on, the collection of books represented the history of this congregation, harking back to a time in which we had rotating styles of service using different prayerbooks each week on Shabbat.

The date on which we gathered was chosen for practical reasons—we wanted to wait until spring when we had a greater chance at better weather—but also to tie it into the Jewish calendar we did it on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the beginning of the new month of Tammuz. During the summer month of Tammuz, we mark the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz. In the Torah, in the story of Sinai, we read how when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of the 10 Commandments, he discovered the Israelites worshipping an idol. In his anger, he smashed the tablets on the ground. Later, after all was resolved, he returned to God to receive a new set of tablets. Tradition records that the day of the smashing of the tablets was the 17th of Tammuz.

Jewish tradition also teaches that both the older broken set of tablets and the newer whole set of tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings. Thus the Israelites carried with them both brokenness and wholeness, death and life, the past and the future.

So we took the time at the beginning of the month to lovingly bury our broken tablets—the books that in physical form do not serve us anymore. But we still carry them with us, the words live in other forms (sometimes even electronically now!) and will continue to guide us.

We treat our books who have come to the end of their life as we treat people when they reach the end of their lives: with respect, care, and love, graciously guiding them to a final resting place. When a loved one dies, we commit ourselves to keep their memory alive and incorporate the lessons they taught us into our lives. As we bury these books, we too recommit ourselves to Judaism and our sacred texts, incorporating Jewish traditions and teachings into our lives.

Burying our geniza reminds us that books have a lifespan, but the words themselves do not.


Remembering to Remember

On this week in which we commemorate the Holocaust, a disturbing report came out: memory of the events of the Holocaust are fading, and fewer people in younger generations know basic facts about the destruction of European Jewry and Nazi Germany.

It is disturbing, and on one level not surprising—the more we temporally move away from important events, the less we feel a connection to them. And in the case of the Holocaust, as with each passing year more survivors die, there are fewer and fewer people to serve as witnesses and share first-hand accounts.

Which is why we can not accept this fading memory as a fait accompli. For us as Jews, who are connected to these events both physically and emotionally, remembering the events of the Holocaust comes naturally. Our concern must be with others outside the Jewish community, who aren’t directly connected to these events, so that it doesn’t fade from the general collective consciousness.

I wonder at times, if my child was not connected to these events, if he did not get Holocaust memory handed down to him as part of our family transmission of Jewish identity, what exposure would he have had? What would he have gotten at school? What would he know?

I can guess anecdotally that the surveys and reports are true. My father, who in his retirement has spent much time as a volunteer and docent at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, has noted to me that many on his tours lack basic knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. There is comfort in the fact that by visiting the museum they are seeking it out, but without that visit, there is a chance that they would continue on with limited exposure.

And yet, now more than ever, as memory of the Holocaust is reportedly fading, is memory of the Holocaust vital. Hitler’s rise to power and the institution of the Nuremberg Laws remind us what can happen when democratic institutions fall to the whim of a person bent on power. The story of the St. Louis, the ship from Germany turned away at U. S. shores, remind us of the perilous journey of refugees in search of safe haven. The fact of Auschwitz and Dachau remind us of what can happen when we dehumanize and scapegoat a group of people that is perceived to be the “other” and the “enemy.”

So we commit to keep the memory alive. In our spiritual practice, we read the story of the Torah every week of every year—an ancient text that in many ways embodies a time from which we are so far removed. Yet by continuing to read it, it continues to be relevant, and thus stays a part of our collective memory. We read of the events of the Torah, but more importantly we read of their meaning.

As we continue to move farther away from the actual events of the Holocaust, we continue to tell the stories so that they too become part of our collective memory. And we will remember not only the events, but more importantly their meaning, both for us as a Jewish people and as a world community.

Community Before Self

A late post this week as I have been distracted, as we all have been, by the events in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman last week killed 17 people in a high school. And while this is not the first time this has happened, this one has hit me particularly hard for a variety of reasons: it is a location I am familiar with, as my grandparents lived in the general vicinity; the impact on the local Jewish community feels greater than in other mass shootings; and with a son in high school, I could relate to the community, the students and the parents.

With this latest school shooting, we also return to the familiar cycles of civic ritual: mourning and grief, vigils and memorials. We also return to the familiar cycles of sound bytes and platitudes: politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” followed by a chorus proclaiming that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. And the dance by many lawmakers around any other reason for the shooting other than the most obvious, the accessibility and ease of procuring guns themselves.

I don’t have much more to add to the overall conversation. I too mourn the loss of life. I mourn too the inability of our society to do anything about it. I’ll just repeat that we need to recognize that one of the biggest deterrents to mass shooting accidents is gun responsibility legislation.

There will still be violent people, of course, who seek to hurt others. But if they do not have access to lethal means to hurt others, then fewer people will be victimized. One can still do damage with a knife, or a club, but the damage will be much less than a semi-automatic rifle. People still die in car accidents, that is not an argument to stop wearing seatbelts.

While limiting and qualifying gun ownership is the biggest need to stop similar incidents, there may be some truth to the statement that it is not just guns that are the problem. While the right likes to defer to “mental illness,” and there are those on the left who point to “toxic masculinity,” I think that the real underlying factor is “radical individualism.” We suffer at times under a society that values the self over the community, rights over responsibility, the one over the many. Governments, authorities, societal structures are suspect.

We are always in need of improving our communal institutions, but we can not live separate from them. The Torah portion this week is a object lesson; parasha terumah describes the building of the ancient mishkan, or Tabernacle, the central institution of the Israelites. It is to be the gathering place of the people, the center for worship, the place where God dwells among the people.

The fact of the Tabernacle in and of itself is a lesson–we need communal norms and structures, and we can not exist independently. This is made more explicit in the description of how the Tabernacle is to be built. While a few people were selected as the craftspeople, everyone contributes the raw materials. At the beginning of the parasha we read: “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.'” (Exodus 25:1-2)

In other words, everyone contributes to the building of the mishkan. It can not be built in isolation, everyone has something to give. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are dependent on, and responsible for, each other.

In this case, our own “right” to own a firearm does not outweigh the need to protect fellow citizens and preserve public safety. This goes beyond distinguishing between “law abiding” and “not law abiding.” In some cases, those categories should not even exist. The key should be to restrict and limit guns, not just ownership.

To do so in our country, we need to recognize that “rights” are not absolute. People wrote the Constitution, and they can rewrite it. But more than just the technical aspects of legislation or amendments, we need to embrace the value that community sometimes comes before self. Too many lives have been lost already because we have failed to see this. Let it be that our hearts so move us to make a change.

Good Translations. Or, Another Reason Not to Fast on the 10th of Tevet

Thursday was a minor fast day on the Jewish calendar: the 10th of Tevet. Minor in this case means that it is a sunrise to sunset fast, as opposed to the major fast of Yom Kippur, which is a full 25-hour fast. The themes, though, are not minor: it is a fast day because it commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, a siege which resulted in the eventual destruction of the Temple and the Exile of the Israelite people in 586 BCE.

The 10th of Tevet is part of a cycle of fasts which also includes the 17th of Tammuz, in which the walls were breached, and the 9th of Av, another major fast, in which the Temple was destroyed.

This cycle of fasts is meant for us to recall the devastation that was the destruction of the Temple. The central institution of the Jewish community was destroyed, the people separated from their Land, the community put into disarray.

And it is for these reasons that I do not observe these fasts.

Now, I admit, I’m not a hardliner against them. While I do not observe the minor fasts, I do observe Tisha B’Av—the 9th of Av. There is a place for mourning when we remember communal destruction, and Jewish tradition has associated other calamities that befell the Jewish people with that day. Also, the ancient rabbinic commentators, in trying to determine a reason for the Temple’s destruction, point to the ethical failings (both real and imagined) of the community at the time. When we mourn and fast on Tisha B’Av, we acknowledge the loss that comes when our important institutions are undermined, and we uphold the importance of interpersonal ethical behavior.

At the same time, as devastating as it may be, it was this series of events that gave us the Torah and the beginnings of Judaism as we know it. It was during the Babylonian Exile that the Torah reached its final form; a people without a land or central institution instead based their communal identity on text. And separation from the “old way” of doing things necessitated the development of new ideas and practices. Judaism as we know it today is a religion of the Diaspora, and so with loss comes new opportunity and growth.

In reading about the 10th of Tevet specifically this year, I came across another reason for the fast that can then be turned around into a reason not to fast. Tradition holds that it was on the 8th of Tevet that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Torah, was written.

According to legend, King Ptolemy called together 70 scholars and locked them each in a room individually, without telling them why. He then went to them one by one and told him of his assignment, to translate the sacred text into the vernacular. The miracle of the story is that each one emerged with exact same translations. While the story of its origins is legend, the translation is fact.

So why was this seen as a reason for mourning, that the tradition links it to the fast of Tevet two days later? Because, as we read in the minor Talmudic tractate Soferim 1:7: “the day that the translation was made was as hard for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf, because the Torah could not be translated accurately.”

In other words, a translation is a moving away from the original text, and meanings contained within the original are lost or obscured with a translation. So much so that it could be compared to the Golden Calf, the idol the Israelites created in the desert after fleeing Egypt, a story understood to be the paradigm of sinful behavior. An idol too is an obscuration of what is real, a reflection of the whole. To the authors of the Talmud passage, the Golden Calf was a turning away from God, and the Septuagint was a turning away from God’s word.

We can understand this point. A translation is an interpretation and a moving away from the original, no matter how accurate. But a basis for mourning? A translation is also a gift to those who do not know the original language, and therefore makes the sacred text that much more accessible. It opens up the wisdom and teaching of Jewish text and tradition to more people. This is a reason for celebration, not mourning.

The two reasons for fasting on the 10th of Tevet are thus related. The beginning of the end of the Temple and the first translation of the Torah are both seen as a severing of a direct connection between God and the people. And these two reasons for the fast can also provide their obverse, the reasons not to fast, for they allowed for new connections between God and the people to form.



Hearing Dinah’s Silence

The news has been a cascade of allegations, resignations and firings. Men, mostly in the media, have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, and have lost their positions: Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose and others. Political figures have also been accused, though their removal is more difficult.

And following all these accusations have been the statements: denials, apologies, contriteness, acknowledgement of pain, commitment to change. The New York Times even ran an in-depth analysis of all of the apologies and the language used, reading between the lines to get at the real meaning of the statements.

And yet, even as we pore over these statements, we are still only paying attention to the voices of men, of the accused. And that perpetuates the problem.

This week in the Torah portion we have our own story of sexuality and power. Jacob and his family are living in in Canaan on land purchased from the family of Hamor, the leader of the local tribe. Dinah, the one daughter among Jacob’s twelve sons, goes out to visit with the other women of the area. When she does so, Shechem, the son of Hamor, sees her and, as the Torah says, “lays with her and degraded her.” Shechem then realized he had feelings for her, and wanted to marry her.

When they heard the news, Jacob and his sons were furious, and so when Hamor approached Jacob about Shechem marrying Dinah, the sons reply that they can not give her over to marry someone who is not circumcised. If everyone in the tribe is circumcised, then they will agree that Shechem can marry Dinah. They agree, and all the males in the tribe are circumcised. As they are recovering, Simeon and Levi, two of the brothers, entered the city and killed all the men, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dinah. The other sons then go and plunder the whole city, stealing all of the flocks and wealth, and even the women and children.

When Jacob learns what his sons have done he is upset for he now believes that he will be a target, and that the other residents of the area will turn against him. Simeon and Levi reply, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

It’s a powerful and deeply troubling story. There are multiple layers to this story and it has been read in multiple ways. It is unclear what has even happened at the beginning of the story: was this a case of forcible rape? Or is the source of the “degradation” something else? Are the brothers upset because they feel their sister was sexually violated in general, or because she had sex with someone from outside the tribe, or because they are viewing her as property and that her value has decreased?

All of these are problematic, and yet perhaps the most problematic element of the story is that we can only speculate because the only voice that is not heard is Dinah’s.

What was Dinah’s experience of her relationship with Shechem? What did Dinah want? How did she feel when she was “taken” from Shechem’s house by her brothers (an act which also has overtones of force)? We do not know. All we have is the voices of the men: of Shechem and Hamor, of Simeon and Levi, of Jacob, and of the “objective narrator,” which we can presume to be a man or men.

From the beginning, the perpetrators Shechem and Hamor objectify and characterize Dinah’s experience in a way that suits their frame and their needs. This is to be expected. But the words and actions of Simeon and Levi prove also that even Dinah’s “protectors”—her brothers—act out of their own interest and frame her experience on their terms. It is in their mind that she is “treated like a whore,” Dinah is not given the chance to express her own views of the matter. She is treated as an object by both sides.

That fact reminds us today that all of these apologies issued by these recently accused men, which, even in an attempt to rectify the situations, have the effect of turning the attention away from the women who were harassed and assaulted and puts it squarely back on the men themselves.

With all of these recent stories, it’s quite possible that we have reached a new level in how we as a society talk of sexual assault and the general harassment of women. This week’s Torah portion both reminds us that this is an ancient challenge, and also gives us a means of approaching it in new ways. Dinah’s story reminds us of the need to make space for women to raise up their own voices, and to end—in word and deed—the objectification of women from both the offenders and the defenders.

Torah tl;dr: “Ki Tavo” and “Nitzavim-Vayeilech”

Two this week, since I forgot to post last week. It’s been a busy Elul!

Ki Tavo: Carrot or the Stick?

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Ground Yourself.

60 SECONDS TO WISDOM. Short Teachings on the Weekly Torah Portion. Suitable for All Who Seek.