Posted by Robin Podolsky
(For now, the only constructive comments I can think to offer about Connecticut are an acknowledgement of the horror and an offering of prayers. Next week, after the close of this festival during which we’re forbidden to eulogize and after more facts have come to light, there may be something more to say. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall gets us off to a worthy start.)
My childhood memories of Hanukah are all happy and uncomplicated; good things to eat, games and a licensed opportunity to play with fire. Even a painless lesson in the futility of acquisitiveness. I remember an early year—I might have been in the first grade—when, at about the sixth night of presents, I received some kind of perfectly nice board game—something we might have got at the five-and-dime only wrapped in pretty paper--and was about as politely pleased as a six year old could be. Stuff was piling up that I hadn’t even played with yet. My parents and I looked at each other and acknowledged that too much surfeit makes the whole game of giving and receiving kind of dull.
The sparkling candles, however, never grew dull, nor did the story of the Maccabees. This was a story of the relatively weak beating the strong, of people standing up for their freedom and succeeding. As I grew older, the story did not lose its resonance. During my teenage years, nation after nation in the Third World fought back against colonialism, and it was easy to see in the Hanukah tale a foreshadowing of their struggles.
Later, as I matured and regained that connection to Judaism which had withered in my youth, the spiritual meaning of the holiday merged with the political. It continues to strike me as significant that the Maccabees fought to worship as they believed right—fought for the life they knew—and in order to protect that life, wound up leaving familiar far behind. They left Jerusalem for the country, where they fought a long guerilla war, only taking the city at the very last. They left their homes for the Greek soldiers to raid, hiding out in the wilderness from where they launched their attacks. It turned out that what made them who they were was not their familiar soil, but their allegiance to the One God. This is the story that we find in the Books of Maccabees—which we can read in the Catholic Apocrypha, but not in our own Tanakh.
Our Rabbis, in legislating observance of Hanukah, have nothing to say about a victory over imperialism. Instead, in Tractate Shabbat, we learn about the miracle of oil; how when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally retaken and cleansed, there was only sufficient oil for one night’s lighting of the ner tamid, but the lamp stayed lit for 8 days. Like the story of Pesach in the traditional Haggadah, this approach to Hanukah links our victory to our connection to the Holy One, refusing any disconnect between that link and the efficacy of human agency.
Eventually, I began to understand our Rabbis’ approach to the holiday as a celebration of a miraculous deliverance at the hand of God rather than as a commemoration of military might. Of course our Rabbis, under the ruthless Roman yoke in Eretz Yisrael and, later, under the relatively benign protection of the Persian Empire in Bavel, had practical reasons to demur from celebrating political rebellion.
But there’s more to it than that. Our Rabbis understood the Maccabean story less as a fight for Judean political sovereignty and more as a crucial tipping point in the construction of what would become the Judaism-as-religion that we have inherited. They incorporated the holiday into our spiritual heritage, a candle that would light our way no matter where the Diaspora might take us.
There is an historical basis for their understanding. Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who tried to impose Greek worship on the Judeans/proto-Jews, was a Seleucid, a successor to Alexander the Great. When Alexander arrived at Jerusalem, he was flattered, he was given his tribute/protection money—and he left the Temple alone. It was when the Seleucids attempted to force their way of worship onto the Hebrews that everything exploded. The discovery of this bottom line was, I believe, a key moment in Jewish self-understanding, one of those foundational events that enabled the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism out of the ashes of our Temple when it fell.
Rabbi John Rosove, a colleague on this site, argues convincingly that the Maccabean victory represents the resolution of a Jewish civil war, of traditionalists and moderates versus extreme Hellenizers. The divisions he describes are real; however, as Shaye Cohen reminds us in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (WJK, 2006) we can parse the nuances even further. All Jews in the antique period lived in a Hellenistic milieu—Greek was the language of commerce, material and intellectual, in a way not dissimilar to how English functions today. The question facing all Mediterranean and West Asian peoples was how to integrate the global culture of their day with their own unique heritage. And—crucially—all of this was happening in the context of imperial military domination.
There is nothing unique about foreign occupiers seeking and finding alliances with the upper classes of the peoples they wish to dominate. Nor is it unusual when oppression and military might are intertwined with more welcome contributions. It is true that Alexandrian emperors brought more than idols to the land of Israel. They brought international trade, great theater and art and a complex philosophical tradition with which Judaism would interact for centuries to its enrichment; philosophical material that, one might argue, even found its way into our Tanakh and that helped to shape the dialectical discourse of our rabbis, along with an urbane salon tradition on which parts of our Pesach seder are modeled in form, although certainly not in content. But they tried to tell us what to do in our own temple and that was not allowed to stand.
According to Cohen, the Maccabees were not (as it has become fashionable to portray them) a bunch of anti-urban reactionaries hiding out from progress. Neither were they romantic revolutionaries seeking a return to some former, pure way of life. They were, in my opinion, legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do—drawing on their own traditions and also appropriating material from the very culture they were fighting—declaring holidays on their own authority, fighting on Shabbat, etc.—in order to achieve independence.
Sadly but not shockingly, the Hasmonean dynasty launched by the Maccabees turned out to be as corrupt and decadent as everything it sought to replace. They even turned aggressively on their neighbors, seeking to convert others to Judaism by force, much as the Seleucids had attempted to convert the Jews. Contemporary Zionists who paint the Maccabees as entirely positive role models might want to remember this, especially in the context of current events. How is the “stubbornness” of Palestinians who insist on a sovereign state so different from that of our ancestors? How to make sure we don't switch roles in the drama?
As Rabbi Rosove observes, Hanukah has become, like Pesach, a holiday that sparks debate over its meaning and what it says about who we are. In other words, Hanukah is more Jewish than ever. Season’s blessings to all.
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November 15, 2012 | 6:45 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
No, nobody is obliged to put up with rocket barrages aimed randomly at civilians. Nobody could watch as their children are traumatized daily, or live with one’s own growing anger and anxiety when just commuting to work or going to the store becomes an act of steely resolve, and not demand concrete action to make it stop.
That bit of obviousness doesn’t license the current Israeli government to be irresponsibly callous about the loss of human life. Haaretz has reported that, before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, there was a clear opportunity for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin says, “I think that they have made a strategic mistake…which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides…This blood could have been spared. Those who made the decision must be judged by the voters, but to my regret they will get more votes because of this.”
This is something of a pattern with Likud. Their alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu, whose Avigdor Lieberman makes no secret of his racism and contempt for Arab human rights, might win them an election, but it also is a signal that they don’t take Palestinian statehood seriously and would rather play to their ultra-nationalist base. Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn reminds us that, like Operation Cast Lead which also preceded elections, choosing war among other available options is an old electoral strategy in Israel. (Sorry couldn’t find a translation, and this is beyond what I could do quickly.)
The residents of Sdorot and Tel Aviv are indeed right to call for action. But what action? If, as reports now indicate, there was a credible chance for a cease-fire to stop the rockets, and to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, then this is a war of choice. A grossly irresponsible and immoral choice. Is southern Israel secure today? Will the Gazan child injured in this bombing feel obliged to forgive as an adult? Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel teaches from Mishnah Avot 5:8, “The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret Torah.” He further teaches that, “Our task as rabbis and Israeli human rights activists must be first and foremost to hold our own government to the most basic principle in international law and in the Jewish tradition: We have a right and responsibility to defend ourselves, but we cannot harm civilians, even in the name of self-defense. As I have taught in the past, Tractate Sanhedrin 74 teaches this principle and the principle of minimum necessary force. Somebody who kills a pursuer to prevent him/her from killing when s/he could have stopped him/her by other means is seen as a murderer. The Talmudic sage Raba teaches that we can kill the person coming to kill us, but cannot kill an innocent third person even to save our own life.”
Perhaps this would be a good time to admit that, if the blockade was supposed to make Israel safe from attack, while it might mitigate the rocket fire, it’s not working as a long-term solution. It is creating generations raised in bitterness. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documents the economic devastation in Gaza—and, yes the misrule of Hamas only makes it worse, but that doesn’t lessen Israeli responsibility. Rabbi Ascherman argues, “Our message can not be to ignore the rockets on our fellow Israelis. However, when we hear "There would be no attacks on Gaza if their would be no rockets on the Western Negev,” we must both join the demand that the rockets stop and remind our fellow Israelis that we can best help ourselves if we stop using our overwhelming power to make life miserable for most Gazans. With our greater power comes greater responsibility.”
Reminders that life for most Gazans has not deteriorated into outright starvation ignore the effect of grinding hardship on bodies, hearts and minds. The situation will not change for the better until there is a truce and, in the longer term, a peace agreement. Right now, it seems as though Israel’s current government has chosen to escalate hostilities when it had other options. This means that people on both sides will die who might have lived.
November 9, 2012 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’ve been quiet lately, election-obsessed, but still trying to work out that ‘non-partisan’ thing in anticipation of becoming a rabbi. No more need for coyness now. If you’re my FB friend, you know who I supported (and if the rest of you should guess that my candidate’s name rhymes with ‘no drama,’ you would not be mistaken).
To my friends on the Left: no, I did not vote for Guantanamo or wiretapping or excessive compromises with Big Finance. I voted for the coalition that put this president into office and which has gained more space in the national conversation. To my friends on the Right: from where I sit, voting for expanded opportunity is voting for personal responsibility. To my friends worried about Israel: what is it you don’t like, Iron Dome or the sanctions on Iran? (Who cares how he and Bibi feel about each other? They’re grown ass men with jobs to do.)
I agree with what the President said in his acceptance speech: “…this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.” To me that understanding of community which involves responsibilities as well as rights echoes that which our Rabbis bequeathed us.
Also, I agree with those commentators who observe that this election was, in some ways, more historically significant than that in which President Obama won his first term. Four years ago, we elected our country’s first African-American president in the context of an economic catastrophe that came from the rank incompetence of the opposing party. This time, we re-elected that African-American President whose strengths and weaknesses we now know, in the context of an economy that improves very slowly and based on the contrast between his policies and that of the other guy. Obama is no longer a symbol, he’s Number 44. And that means our country has matured and made real progress in treating one of the biggest wounds in our democracy since our founding.
As I’ve told you before, many of the students at AJR, the Academy for Jewish Religion, where I study are old enough to have extensive resumes before ever starting rabbinical school. One of my favorite colleagues is a healthcare professional, a woman who made her own breaks and redefined her job such that she now leads and trains others. We agree about some political and social issues, disagree about others, and our talks zip past slogans to real exchanges of ideas. I learn from and respect this person.
On Election Day, as she sometimes does, my friend came into the library wearing her Republican brooch. She knows that I am decidedly to the left of her on just about every issue. And when we saw each other, without needing to say why, we exchanged a warm supportive hug. How good to know that our Jewish tradition of fervent, sometimes harsh, contention between committed friends can extend to our lives as citizens.
Later, we did talk about how lucky we are, as Jews and as Americans, to live in a country where changes in the government happen at the ballot box. We knew that, when we awoke the next day, no matter which president would run the executive branch; there would be no shooting, no state of emergency. Neither of us was afraid for what might happen to Jews on the next day. There would be no pogroms, no purges. Thank you, ancestors, for coming here! You did good.
October 19, 2012 | 2:11 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
We should all be outraged. On Tuesday, October 13, a Jew in the Middle East was arrested, shackled, stripped and roughed up for praying the Shema in public. As it happens, the Middle Eastern country in question is the State of Israel, and the Jew was Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall (WOW).
Ms. Hoffman, or Anat as I suppose I have the right to call her, since we’ve met—more on that in a minute—was leading a special service with about 200 women on this Rosh Chodesh to celebrate the centennial conference of Hadassah (which for reasons best known to themselves chose Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as the recipient for this year’s Henrietta Szold Award. Under the circumstances, they might want to ask for it back. Netanyahu, for his part, showed that he does have a sense of humor in his address to Hadassah, saying, “I will never tolerate discrimination of women.”)
Anat was leading the group in the Shema when she was arrested. The brutality with which she was treated is indefensible. She was shackled and strip searched, made to sleep on a floor, with only her tallis for covering.
I met Anat Hoffman on a trip to Israel with my synagogue. She sold me my most beautiful tallis, embroidered in red and purple and gold, with tributes to the Four Mothers at its corners. She spoke to our group about her passion for Torah and prayer, about wanting the Western Wall to be a space where all Jews can worship freely and the full range of Judaism is appreciated.
My own experiences at the wall were…complicated. I knew, of course, that we would be split up according to a male/female binary, but the experience of it was wrenching. I thought about transgender and intersexed people I know and wondered how they’d feel in my place. I imagined someone immobilized in the upper plaza as the hour grew late, trying to work out which of two lines to join; imagined trying to explain to the police who guard the Kotel why ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is an inadequate menu of choices.
Our group of provisional females made it into the women’s section, past the shnorers, to the wall where women sat in silent devotion, read t’hilim or shuckled, close to the stones. I placed the brief prayer I had written into the wall and then pressed my palm and forehead to the Kotel.
I was utterly unprepared for what happened then: I burst into tears. My conscious mind was horrified, jabbering in embarrassment, arguing frantically with whatever atavistic presence from my psyche had taken control:
“Okay, so this is a little excessive, right? Don’t you think this mystique of place is a retreat from radical monotheism? Do you think really think God can be concentrated in a bunch of material stuff? Suck it up, already. You know this wasn’t even part of the real Temple, right, just a retaining wall for Herod’s Folly, the expanded edifice of a vain unpopular king?”
“You know if you were visibly genderqueer, you couldn’t even be here without passing, right?”
“You know you only have a nice plaza to have this catharsis in because an Arab neighborhood was torn down to make room for it, right?”
“Do you even want a sacrificial Temple back?"
What’s the deal with charged space? How can one place be holier than anyplace else when God is everywhere? How much of the charge is about God and how much is the freight of human projections and needs? Even for this smarty-pants student, the Kotel is way over-determined. It gets around the rational part of people.
That can make for crazy. Since the 1967 war, there have actually been voices in Israel calling for the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a house of worship which is now situated on the Temple Mount, oblivious to the carnage such vandalism would provoke. The Documentary Praying In Her Own Voice features women rabbis who describe being spat on, attacked with chairs and prevented physically from praying out loud with the Torah at this holy site by screaming fanatics whose own sense of decorum seems more than a little skewed.
When it comes to women praying, the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the restrictions. The State has given administration of the Kotel over to the Chief Rabbinate, which considers the lower plaza an Orthodox synagogue with a mehitzeh. We wouldn’t march into just any synagogue and disrupt services would we?
No, but most active synagogues aren’t tourist destinations or national heritage sites. They don’t swear in soldiers at most synagogues or film worshippers while prayers are said. Most synagogues aren’t contested sites of messianic or apocalyptic yearnings.
If ever I’m in Israel during Rosh Chodesh, I hope to stand with WOW. They bring a reminder of Judaism’s broad range of practices and understandings, of the fierce love for Torah that drives so many women’s lives and our determination to reclaim it, and they force a discussion about the proper relationship between synagogue and state. But I see their limitations. I don’t expect WOW to address the entangled claims of two peoples to the Temple Mount and all the stories and ghosts that the place invokes.
For myself, I don’t know that I need to pray at the Kotel. I’d rather daven in tallis and tfilin with people for whom I’m just one more Jew, praying our prayers. I can’t get a handle on the slippery relationship between the nation and the people Israel; I don’t want to pray atop the ruins of someone’s house. (The abandoned Crusader castle where WOW prays sometimes would be just fine with me; on those ruins, I could pray with a clear conscience and some glee.) If I’m honored to bless the Torah, I want it to be because Torah is the center of my Jewish world, wherever my body happens to be.
September 16, 2012 | 1:48 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
First of all, Christopher Stevens sounds like a decent guy, a real mensch. May his loved ones, those of everyone killed at the US embassy in Benghazi and everyone who died in protests this weekend be comforted.
Second of all, this story is so full of weird wrinkles, it will be a while before we understand it all. A meth dealer and probable snitch decides suddenly that he is going to get his life on a different track—and, hey, how hard could it be to make a movie? A Christian supremacist who wants to alter the religious protection in our Constitution is brought in as a consultant. The bottom feeder dupes hungry actors into creating such a craptastic mélange of dreadful—really it is extraordinary that the direction and editing and acting are on the level of bad 1970s TV and that the script is a compendium of every smutty taunt that your average middle-schooler might bring into a bathroom slapfest and that all that stupid is directed at the founder of one of the world’s great faiths. One would expect that if this steaming pile went anywhere, it might achieve a small cultish buzz for its sheer volume of stunning suck.
But this deservedly inconsequential “film” was dubbed into Arabic and people throughout the Middle East responded in fury. Peaceful demonstrations against the film were pushed to the side by people who wanted to attack embassies. The strikingly naïve idea that the US government even knew about and should have used force to prevent this pathetic, evil and legal exercise of free speech is now promulgated as a talking point. All this over a movie? No, it was as much catalyst as cause.
At least two things seem to be clear: there was a well of anger and grievance with the USA among sectors within Muslim and Arab countries that is deep enough to be tapped by this clumsy provocation; and there is also a complex diversity of thought which, thanks to the Arab Spring is bursting into the public square. Witness the demonstrations in Libya against the embassy killings. Witness the differences between those who wanted to demonstrate peacefully against the stupid film and those who responded with violence. Witness the differences, even among the violent, between armed deliberation and the spontaneous rage. The entire “Arab and Muslim world” does not hate us and is in a state of generative flux. Is it possible, however, that our decades of military intervention and support for those brutal strongmen deposed in the Arab Spring is coming back to haunt?
Third, the intricacies of this story will play out for a long time, and an attitude of curious skepticism—and grief for the departed---might serve us well now. What we in the US, and in the Jewish community in particular can do, is resist any rhetoric or pressure that nudges us toward conflicts of choice—or toward election-year distractions.
The Innocence of Muslims is the latest version of what has become an election season ritual—the introduction of anti-Muslim propaganda into the mix. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, millions of unsolicited DVDs of the film Obsession were sent to homes in swing states. The film portrayed the entirety of Muslim believers as a seething mass of hate just waiting to get their hands on us. (Full disclosure: after its release, I helped to prepare an extended critique of the film, which you can read here.) The film addressed itself to likely voters, framing the election, not as a choice between two starkly different approaches to economic issues, but as a choice between potential commanders in chief during a state of global war. In 2010, Newt Gingrich produced a film called America at Risk that carried the same message and was overtly designed as an intervention in the congressional elections. These films are much more expensive and much more professionally made than The Innocence of Muslims, but they seem to draw from some of the same inspiration.
Both of those efforts, along with “The Third Jihad,” produced by the same Clarion Fund that gave us Obsession, are characterized by a bludgeoning repetition of a few common tropes: collages in which footage of ordinary Muslims at prayer and on the street are juxtaposed with horrific images of the 9/11 attacks and clips of purported religious leaders inveighing against the US. Simply being Muslim is conflated with fervent disagreement with US foreign policy is conflated with mass murder. We are warned in those films that the enemy walks among us—they are our compatriots and neighbors who worship in the Mosque down the street and who accessorize differently from the way that we do. (Not so differently on the male side—it takes an insider to tell the difference between a takiyah and a yarmulke.) Unless of course they don’t visibly do any of those things—then they are especially perfidious because they look just like us! Bad for keeping their culture, bad for assimilating—why, yes, the parallels with anti-Jewish propaganda are striking, aren’t they?
We don’t yet know what is going on overseas, but over here we appear to be confronted once again by two opposing narratives of what this election is about. Is it about economic justice or about an epic global conflict? Are we obliged to go to war with everyone who wants to be at war with us or are there some battles we get to decline? How do we engage with the rest of the world in ways that reduce conflict and don't promote it? Those are questions for all Americans. As Jews in the month of Elul, we face particular questions of our own. Are we doing everything possible to rebuke religious bigotry and stand up for all religious minorities, not just ourselves? We Americans have all seen the results of this bigotry in the murders of Sikhs at prayer and the burning of a mosque. We Jews know the worst of what can happen when categorical hatreds are inflamed, especially in hard times. Time to speak up.
September 7, 2012 | 5:32 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So what I really want to write about are the political party conventions. However, I’m trying to sort my way through the issues around clergy and politics, what it means to be ‘partisan’ and not, and what are the practical how’s, when’s and where’s of it.
So today I’ll distract myself by writing about a forbidden pleasure: the contemplative life.
This week (my first back at rabbinical school after summer break), we learned from Mishnah Avot 2:2: Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi says, “The study of Torah is beautiful (combined) with a gainful occupation; one who toils at both forgets sin. But any study of Torah which is not accompanied by work, ends in frivolity and it brings sin.”
The school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, certainly lives this ethic. All programs are structured for working adults. Our school week is short, because most students have jobs and families, and many have a very long commute. Most of us hope for gainful jobs within the Jewish community when we graduate. Of course, we also learn in Avot 4:7 not to use the Torah as a spade to dig with (as a means to enrich ourselves). Our Teacher Rabbi Eli Schochet teaches that what congregations pay for is what the rabbi doesn’t do—she is compensated for the hours she doesn’t spend earning money in the secular world. The point here is that Torah scholars and rabbis are expected to live the life of the people we serve. There are no Jewish monasteries or convents, no Jewish hermitage. Jewish wisdom is meant for everyday life. It teaches us to deal with prosaic tasks and challenges, not to run from them.
But, with regard to time and space for Torah study in particular, there is a separate luminous strand within Jewish tradition. Torah study is so important that our rabbis even exempt diligent students from certain prayers. Torah study, like prayer, puts us in direct dialogue with the Holy One and with one another—that is, with embodiments of the Holy image. We don’t just do Judaism with our kishkas. We bring in our minds along with our heart and guts. Judaism is a holistic way of way of life that offers centuries of accumulated wisdom. To practice and share it, we need to be trained.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asks, “If one plows in plowing season, and sows in sowing season, and reaps in reaping season, and threshes in threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah?” (Brachot 35b) Key tendencies in Jewish mysticism trace their intellectual and spiritual lineage to this rabbi, who gave up everything for Torah and led a fiercely ascetic life. In the Yiddish Pale, Torah study was valued so highly that it became a signal honor for Jewish families to host a Torah student at their table for regular essen teg (eating days). Today’s controversy over the stipend that Orthodox Israeli men receive for Torah study is as much about abuse—people with little aptitude or heart for study accepting the money and declining military service just because it makes their lives easier—as it is about a rejection of study as a legitimate focus for a Jew.
Jewish study takes time, not only for the reading itself, but for dialogue with friends about what the text means, for reflection, for chasing references that make the text explode into debates that cross generations. For considering how this reading might change the way we live. If immersion in the wisdom of Torah is not to devolve into a class privilege, Jewish scholars need, at minimum, ways to earn a living that do not exhaust their capacities to the point where they cannot learn. Therefore, I thank God for organizations like Jewish Vocational Services, which has helped me and others to study thoroughly so we can fulfill potential and make the contributions of which we’re capable.
This summer, I felt the tug of that tension between study, prayer and the broader communal life. After my study of the Holocaust abroad, I spent a week in retreat on some friends’ farm in upstate New York. It was green and tranquil, and my phone didn’t always work. The house is on retreat schedule: in silence most of the day, with internet access for about an hour every 48 hours or so. My hosts laid out breakfast on a sideboard in the morning and rang bells for lunch and supper. There was some visiting in the evening, one movie and then everyone retires for the night. They cook for you, they do your laundry and, God bless them, they leave you alone.
On my first full day there, I realized how tired I was. I did nothing much but sit in an Adirondack chair under the shade tree (elm, maple…? Something Eastern) and observe the complex traffic of the birds (there were redwing blackbirds, the first I’d ever seen and swallows and my red breasted namesakes). I saw a fawn on the lawn.
The next day was Shabbat, a more active kind of not-doing. A whole day and night devoted to study, praise and pleasure; Torah, food, the outdoors and good company.
On the day after that, feelings triggered by my trip to Germany and Auschwitz began to surface. I had resolved, while in Europe, not to dissolve into lugubriousness, I was there to think the Shoah. That’s a hard resolve to keep when faced with a room full of human hair. As it happens, I was a big brave girl who didn’t cry too much at Auschwitz. I did, however, break into loud immoderate laughter over a mordant joke right outside the death camp, and I did almost dissolve into tears over a seat belt that didn’t seem to work (it did) and the fear that Air Berlin had broken a piece of my luggage (they hadn’t, only misplaced it for a bit). So: rage, sorrow and a bit of shame under the blue New England sky.
On the next day, my routine emerged. Shachrit in the meditation room where I kept my tfillin, tallis and siddur. Breakfast and then a long walk up and down the twisty country roads. A shower, some journaling and then lunch. Writing on the laptop with no internet to distract me—no interruptions at all except for Minchah. I had set up the little desk in ‘my’ room the way Ii liked it. There was all the time in the world to study. A light supper, some provocative film and a little more writing before nighttime prayers.
Four days on retreat, and my world resolved into nothing but what I love—except community and home. Now I’m back to the people and city I love and back in school and earning a living. Back to the world of missed sleep and trying to move in five directions at once. My challenge, of course, is to deal; to receive back some of the spiritual calm and focus I achieved in that time of suspension and bring it to my daily life.
August 20, 2012 | 5:41 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
I don’t think the women of Pussy Riot should go to prison. With their Punk Prayer, they’ve pushed human rights issues in Russia onto the international stage in ways that ‘respectable’ NGOs could not. And they brought in some neon to break up the grey; they’re fun and kind of adorable. All of which may seem like strange sentiments for someone preparing to be a clergyperson, let alone for someone preparing to be a rabbi.
Yes, I do know how bad I’d feel if some people rushed the bima (pulpit) of a synagogue in which I was praying or leading prayer and carried on with a loud ritual of their own devising. No, I don’t think the dangerous tropes about Jews that two of them invoked in their closing statements are defensible. And, no, I don’t think that passion, sincerity and wit are good enough when it comes to activism. Strategy, content and substance are still key. But, as I’ve learned from my study of the Shoah, when religious institutions are used to enforce silence about repression, one of the worst things to do is nothing. These girls cracked a putrefying can of worms wide open.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich took the pulpit of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to chant their Punk Prayer, as an invocation: “St. Maria, Virgin/Drive away Putin….Become a feminist!” in order to protest the alliance of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church—whose spiritual leader, Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev, has called the Putin era “a miracle of God”. Amnesty International calls it a regime under which, “corruption, the abuse of power and human rights violations will continue to flourish”; a judgment based on documented attacks against journalists and peaceful demonstrators. The freedoms of press, assembly and speech protected in our Constitution have never been secure in Russia where democratic traditions are weak and imperial traditions flourish. Again, we are hearing, “‘God, Tsar and Fatherland”; and, when those things are conflated, everyone outside the magic circle becomes fair game—like those of our ancestors who were brutalized and murdered in pogroms.
Of course, Pussy Riot stands for more than a protest against corrupt elections and a Church that turns a blind eye. They stand for a female sexuality that does not apologize for itself or submit to Patriarchal discipline (that’s not rhetoric—church fathers in Russia actually are called Patriarchs). They stand for the artist’s need to pull back the skin of conventions that holds the everyday together, exposing the tangle of loss, fear, need and crazy hope underneath.Pussy Riot has been accused, not only of trampling on the very idea of the Holy, but also of invading a place where working and middle class Russians expect to find refuge, to retreat from just those issues that Pussy Riot brought to the fore. These slick kitties from the city stand for subversive cosmopolitan possibilities that the ascendant Russian right is determined to smash.I don’t know how to talk about that without confronting the self-policing aspects of working class culture. The very capacity for self-discipline and sacrifice that keeps working class families together at all can become a powerful drag on social change. A hunger for personal happiness—unwillingness to make do—an irrepressible need to make art for example, draws accusations of self-indulgence, of “elitism” from parents and friends who have rejected the torture of hope. The terrible hunger for respectability on the part of people who have precious little else to strive for can turn a holy community into a communitarian jail that preserves the status quo. Even fighting for better wages and benefits can be framed as greed in that context.
This is different from the religiosity of the prophetic tradition, exemplified by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Z”L, who wrote, ““Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.” Our contemporary Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us of Rabbi Heschel’s great insight—that prayer, while it does take us into that timeless time of greater intimacy with God, is not a mere refuge. Prayer is where we confront our soul and confront a Creator who respects our capacities enough to make great demands on them.
And it’s not like our prophets eschewed the lewd, the weird, or the scatological when it came to making their point. Ezekiel lay down in the street for days, eating bread cooked over cow dung to protest social injustice and idolatry. Hosea’s entire married life with a woman who had either been promiscuous or a sex worker can be seen as one big provocative performance. Social/spiritual emergencies call for desperate measures.
The women of Pussy Riot do have a lot to learn. In her closing statement at trial, Tolokonnikova wrote, “Passion, total honesty, and naïveté are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime.” True—-but those things are not superior to having an analysis. Those who inflect their social justice work with Romance tend to confuse tactics with principles, provocation with transformation. An aesthetic is not a strategy, nor is it wise, let alone kind, to mock potential allies or even to appear to mock them. But Pussy Riot has already apologized sincerely for that, saying that, in the way they did their intervention at church, they made an “ethical mistake”.
It saddens me that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina invoked an old and dangerous trope, that of “the Jews” oppressing Jesus, to analogize their own situation in their closing statements. They failed entirely to contextualize Jesus as a Jewish teacher and the Jews as a colonized degraded people under Roman rule. Again, that’s not just sloppy thinking; it’s especially maladroit politics, given that Jews are targets of the same forces arrayed against Pussy Riot. Let’s hope these women bring their creative intelligence to this issue as they have begun to do with regard to religion in general.
Still, it’s a very good thing that, in the face of real danger, these women spoke out. They took risks and tried something new. People have been beaten to death in Russia for less. And the women of Pussy Riot are already learning and growing, critiquing their own behavior while drawing attention back to the conditions against which they acted.
July 26, 2012 | 5:50 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So, I used to work as a flak in politics, and here’s something I learned. If a candidate wanted to get a controversial opinion out there—say a racially marked dig at an opponent—here is how they might do it: get an unpaid advisor to make the remark for print but not attribution and then deny that the advisor either got it right or even exists. (And, no, my former boss would never stoop that low. That would not reflect her values, and, besides, it wasn’t her style.) Of course, the news outlet will never trust you again, but if you care so little for their opinion that you have (impeccably non-Anglo) surrogates willing to say for attribution that the foreign press just doesn’t count, then you can deny, deny and amplify the original message at the same time.
Yes, of course I mean Romney and the Anglo-Saxon thing. And, no, I have no inside info to offer, just an educated guess as to what might have happened. I bring it up, the ensuing discussion about Romney’s comments highlights an old struggle for the meaning and soul of our country. There at least two competing visions of what the United States is and ought to be.
For some of us, our country is knit together by our Constitution, our secular brit. It offers itself as the first and last stop for people, like the ancestors of most American Jews, who seek a new start and are willing to work for it. In this USA, there is no right way to ‘look American’, bagels are as all-American as pizza and egg rolls, and the government is obliged to respect all religions while promoting none. It is a country whose first president, in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport Rhode Island, wrote that, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” This USA gains the depth of its culture from waves of immigration that revitalize our economy and our daily life. It is not an ethnic state or a religious one, but a polity bound by a social contract.
For others of our compatriots, the United States is a white Anglo-Saxon Christian country, meaning that preserving the (current) ethnic and religious majority is the same as preserving our way of life. Some people who believe that also think that ‘minorities’ ought to, while deferring culturally without making a fuss about it, be granted legal equality with regard to employment and other opportunities, and others think that such guarantees represent an intolerable intrusion of government into the marketplace. Some, like the notorious Pat Buchanan, are pretty flat-footed about their irritation at Jews and others who fail to be sufficiently grateful for “toleration”. Others won’t go that far, but they do not see our country’s astonishing diversity as a gift. They see it as a threat to what they understand the essence of the USA to be.
I adhere to the first position, but I don’t want to romanticize it. Our vision for the future requires honesty about the past.
The reason that any Anglo-Saxon ‘nativist’ vision of the United States is bound to be incoherent is that the founding of our nation rendered those Natives who survived the expansion a minority in what had been their land. (Re: the Bering Strait migration and whose bones are oldest—so not the point.) It’s also the case that those slaves from Africa whose labor was essential to building the American cotton industry were brought by force. They were always as much a part of this country as any Anglo-Saxon (or Americans of French, German, Irish or Jewish descent), but their condition was made different by law and custom. Let’s not forget that the narrative of an Anglo-Saxon country arose out of that difference. Or that it was the creative—dare I say Talmudic—reading of our Constitution by great Americans like Frederick Douglass who discerned possibilities for freedom and equality in the document that had ratified slavery—and pushed that vision into national consciousness and practice.
Jews and other willing immigrants have found great opportunity here. One reason for that is has been their willingness to earn it. Another reason is that the lowest rungs on the social ladder were always already taken. How can we not identify with those whose situation is the one our ancestors escaped? We don’t vote like Puerto Ricans (unless we are, like a significant number of us, actually from Puerto Rico). We vote like Jews. History puts us on the side of side of those who are expanding the American narrative; be they Muslims who wish to build a place of worship or students who wish only to contribute their excellence to the life we are building together.