Thursday, December 29, 2005

Friends and family have been listening to me tear my hair over writing these past few weeks. I thought I'd share one example of the things I've been working on. This is a writing I did for the "Recovering the Machzor" class.

Eleh Ezkerah ["these I will remember"] is a traditional reading for Yom Kippur afternoon. It is a long martyrology and traditionally, it is punctuated by a refrain, said by the whole congregation, suggesting that these martyrs died for the sins of the congregation. This theology is out of line with that in the services elsewhere in that day, or indeed, in most of Jewish thought.

I disliked the traditional reading, especially the way that it seemed to wallow in gruesome detail, and have attempted to write an interpretation of it that has less gratuitous gore and a theology that I think is more helpful to modern Jews. See what you think.

Numbered readings are set to be read by anyone in the congregation (by this point in the day, the sheliach [service leader] is losing his or her voice and people are restless or sleepy -- readings by congregants are a good idea.)

Sections in italics are to be read by the entire congregation, together:

1. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:
The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,
The voices of our ancestors, murdered by mobs.
I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars
who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.
Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.
Akiva His flesh was torn off with iron combs.
Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.
Hutzpit the Interpreter asked to say the Shema one more day.
Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s best-known students.
Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.
Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before his murder.
Judah ben Dama is lost to history, except as one of the Ten Martyrs.
Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2. Eleh ezkerah. These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.
“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them
chose death rather than to deny their Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.
The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.
The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.
The Jews of Blois were murdered in 1171 for the blood libel, a vicious lie.
The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower in 1190, rather than convert.
The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,
martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.
They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.
No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3. Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.
All they wanted was to live in peace, but the monarchs of Spain and
the King of Portugal offered them a cruel choice: convert, go to exile, or die.
Many fled, some were converted by force. Many remained secretly faithful
to Judaism. Vast numbers of them suffered cruelly at the hands of
the Inquisition, only to be burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great Jewish communities of Sepharad destroyed:
in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona, in Granada, in Malaga,
and in Toledo Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more.
The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy
and medicine was scattered to the four corners of the earth, driven
underground, and burnt to death in the city centers. Their neighbors
denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. No voice rose
to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4. Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:
I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:
those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre, at the hands of Cossacks.
I remember the slaughter of children, I remember the destruction of families and homes.
I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn. The cruel choice of the past –
Convert or die! – became no choice at all. The time of martyrs gave way
to an even more terrible time, when there were no choices, only death,
only murder, only annihilation. Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries
were the scourge of humanity: no choices. Not only did we suffer, but
other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.
And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.
Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.
Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched.
Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?
There are no words, no meanings, no understandings, nothing to make sense of it.
The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,
burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.
What can we say about the loss of Jewish families,
Jewish minds, Jewish learning?
What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?
And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.
Even today, there are those who deny it ever happened.

But eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

5. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:
I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.
I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save a single Jew.
I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, who went to the camps with us.

Eleh ezkerah: These, too, I will remember!

6. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember. These I cannot forget.
Never again! Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.
I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.
I may not stand by while my brother is starving.
I may not stand by while anyone is homeless.
I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!
These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!

7. Remind us of the covenant of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,
The covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel.

Remind us of the covenant of the ancestors, as You said,
“And I will remember for them the covenant of the ancestors
whom I removed from the land of Egypt in the very sight of the nations,
to be a God to them; I am the Eternal!”

Do with us as You promised us:
“Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them,
neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly
and break My covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God.”

Remind us that we are Your partners in creation and partners in redemption: we are Your People and You are our God.

Have mercy on us, Eternal our God, and help us to act on Your behalf in this world!
We who are schooled in the suffering of the oppressed,
let us remember to act on behalf of the orphan, the widow, the hungry,
the homeless, the hunted, the helpless of this world.

Eleh ezkerah! These we will remember!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This term's coursework has come together in disturbing and wonderful ways; I have spiritual and mental indigestion as a result.

The centerpiece for the term has been a course on Jewish views of Pain and Suffering with Dr. Rachel Adler. We've read widely in there, from the phenomenology of pain to the problem of theodicy, from very traditional views such as yissurim shel ahavah, "sufferings of love," which attributes the suffering of the righteous to the love of God, to the postmodern thinking of philosopher and Talmudist Emanuel Levinas, whose experiences in Europe during World War II led him to insights about good and evil too complex to attempt here. (Check on the link if you are interested. Levinas is amazing.) I'm in the midst of thinking through (again!) my own ideas on the subject. Human evil I can attribute to free will, but the agony of individual suffering is harder to fathom if I insist on a God of goodness and truth?

In Midrash with Dr. Barth, we looked at a homeletical midrash from the Pesikta de Rab Kahana, a collection of sermons from the fifth century and earlier. The specific sermon was composed for Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Comfort) that comes after Tisha B'Av, on the text from Isaiah 40, "Comfort, comfort My people." The sermon looked at the verb "comfort", which can mean to give solace, or to strengthen. What is comfort? What comforts? What is NOT helpful as comfort?

In Recovering the Machzor, (a study of the prayer books for the High Holy Days) with Rabbi Richard Levy, we've been reading texts that deal with these issues, too. Some of them have gotten under my skin so deeply that writing about them has been almost a necessity.

In the process of all these classes, I found myself returning again and again to a folder of exegesis of the Book of Job that I've been keeping ever since I attended a program on Job at the Shalom Hartman Institute my year in Jerusalem. There are a LOT of ways to read that book.

The world around me seems like a sea of pain and suffering, sometimes, between the small and large horrors on the news, and the homeless and sick people I see on the street.

In the meantime, I feel like I've had my own little (very little) tutorials in tsuris [Yiddish for "trouble"]. The burglary reeked of "why me?" especially when the burgles found nothing much to steal and decided instead to vandalize my belongings. I know, free will and all that, but my involuntary reaction to it (sleeplessness, fright, depression) seemed downright unfair. Then after my move to a more secure apartment, I had a more serious tutorial in tsuris -- the temporary blindness and severe pain from a freak eye problem.

One thing I am sure about: I agree with Rabbi Yochanan in Berachot 5a-b (in the Talmud) that I do not love suffering, and I do not love its alleged rewards! I agree with Emanuel Levinas that to talk about the sufferings of others as "instructive" is atrocious. My own experiences with suffering may serve to make me more compassionate, I think, if I choose to use them in that way.

So yeah, it's been a busy term so far.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

It's been almost a month since my last post. This fall has been pretty intense: my apartment was burglarized, I moved to a new, more secure apartment, I developed an eye injury that provided me with a week of the Helen Keller Experience: I'm hard of hearing, and losing my eyesight temporarily was educational. Thank goodness for friends and family and a good doc; I'm fine now.

All that minor tsuris notwithstanding, I've been learning a lot in the classroom, too. One class made a particularly strong impression on me. I finished a reading on the Holocaust and asked myself, what have I done about genocide lately? As a Jew who claims to say "Never Again!" --what have I done about Darfur? The answer: nothing. An entire race of people are being systematically wiped out with as much cruelty as possible, and I've done nothing in the past six months.

I'm working at changing the "nothing" to "something." One part of that effort is to let you, my friendly readers know about some online resources for Doing Something:

-- Take a look at the SleeplessInDarfur blog. A woman working with one of the aid agencies in Khartoum is keeping a diary of what she sees on the ground.

-- Check out the American Jewish World Service page on their Darfur efforts.

-- Did you know that our Congress has cut the aid it was going to give to the African Union, the organization with peacekeeping troops trying to mitigate the situation in Darfur? For recent news about Darfur, check the Save Darfur newspage, and the Humanitarian Information Centre for Darfur.

I've written the White House and all my representatives. I invite you to do the same.

Never again.