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On Avram, and Sarai, and #MeToo

This d’var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week’s Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God’s command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth — or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I’ve always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, “You’re beautiful, and if they think you’re my wife they’ll kill me and take you — so pretend to be my sister instead.” And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.” Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!”

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh’s court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don’t want this to be in our Torah — our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women’s rights and women’s bodies and women’s integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity’s part, and arguably even on God’s part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word “patriarchal” comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren’t always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram’s sake. We don’t know; Torah doesn’t say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don’t do anything; I’ve never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don’t walk alone. I don’t go out at night. I don’t park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don’t wear certain clothes. I don’t make eye contact with men…

Most of us don’t even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don’t want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That’s the assumption when women’s bodies are property.

Guess what: it’s still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men’s need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here’s a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn’t have a voice in this story: don’t replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her.

Don’t say “but men get raped too.” Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don’t derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that.

If you’re sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone’s not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no — or “not right now” — even if they say it through body language instead of words — then don’t do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else’s body.

Understand that men feeling entitled to women’s bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, “but I don’t do those things!” I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It’s in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It’s shaped the way I think about my own body, and there’s a lot that I’m working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here’s the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can’t.

I wish this story weren’t in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren’t such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory — seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited — is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week’s Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go.

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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Shemini Atzeret with Yizkor: Coming Soon (10/12/17 at 10am)

126872_pcDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Thursday, October 12 at 10am I will lead a service at CBI which will be the formal close, the “seal,” on our holiday season. Thursday is the festival known as Shemini Atzeret. Shemini means “Eighth” — this holiday is the eighth day, coming right on the heels of the seventh day of Sukkot. But what is an atzeret?

The word atzeret means something like “holy pause.” There’s one other day in our tradition described with this word: Shavuot, which comes as the 50th day after 49 days of Counting the Omer. Shavuot is an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, the culmination of seven weeks of spiritual work. And Thursday October 12 — Shemini Atzeret — is also a day of pausing, the culmination of the seven weeks of spiritual work we’ve done since Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the lunar month leading up to the Days of Awe.

Thursday morning’s service will feature some morning prayers of gratitude and awareness, a guided meditation which will give us the opportunity to remember the last seven weeks of intensive holiday time, and the prayers of Yizkor, the memorial service which we recite four times a year. (I wrote more about that a few years ago.) We’ll also dip into a special prayer for rain.

Our service will be intentionally spacious and uncluttered — in recognition of this special day which is like the silence following the song, the white space on the page which follows all of our holiday season’s many, many words.

Hope to see you on Thursday morning, October 12, at 10am for Shemini Atzeret.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Seeking your feedback on the Days of Awe

Dear all,

We’ve put together a very short survey to solicit your feedback about the Days of Awe this year. If you don’t see the form embedded below, it is online here.

Your feedback is entirely anonymous. Please tell us what worked for you and what could have been better.

Wishing you joy as Sukkot approaches,

Rabbi Rachel and Hazzan Randall

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Sukkot!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Friday night for our Shabbat / Sukkot Potluck where we will honor Bob and Barbara Bashevkin for their years of dedication to our community. Please RSVP to cbinadams@gmail.com so we know how many chairs to set up.

Please join us also on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat Sukkot. We’ll be reading the Torah portion for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot (the Shabbat that falls on the intermediate days of the festival.) If you’d like to read some Torah commentaries this week, here you go:

And here are commentaries from the Union for Reform Judaism: Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot.

Sukkot begins on Wednesday night; all are welcome to use our synagogue sukkah anytime during the week of the festival!

Wishing you joy as we approach this festival of rejoicing,

Rabbi Rachel

A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Before he died, Reb Zalman — the teacher of my teachers — made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community’s tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of “dress rehearsal” for your own death?

I’ve got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your own death. Does that sound strange? It’s a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it’s not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we’re “doing it wrong.”) Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying. Continue reading

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Yom Kippur!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

This Friday evening we’ll ring in not only Shabbat but also Yom Kippur, sometimes called “Shabbat Shabbatot” (“The Shabbat of Shabbats”). Here’s our  schedule for the Days of Awe, which contains a listing for all of the services of Yom Kippur; the services are also listed at the end of this note.

If you’d like to do some Yom Kippur reading in advance of the holiday, here are a couple of links to things I’ve said from the bimah in years past:

This year, weather permitting, we’ll have a meditation labyrinth behind the synagogue on Yom Kippur (printed on canvas and rolled out on the lawn.)  Feel free to hang out after morning services, walk the labyrinth and contemplate life’s twists and turns, and spend as much of the day at shul as you wish.

I’m also enclosing below some information about Yom Kippur that I send out every year; I hope it’s helpful to you.

I can’t wait to be with you to experience this very special day together.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

 

I’m writing today to share with you explanations of a few of the customs of Yom Kippur. A schedule of our Yom Kippur observances can be found at the end of this note.

vivie_white-tallit_closeWhy do we wear white on Yom Kippur?

Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality and our equality in the eyes of God. On Yom Kippur, wearing white garments which remind us of the garments we will wear when we die can serve as a reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.

Others teach that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. White is a color of holiness and celebration — that’s why we only have white kippot / yarmulkes available during the holiday season.

shoes_for_yom_kippur_largeWhy do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?

There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes.

Another interpretation is that we substitute soft shoes for leather on this day because we want to remove what protects us. The physical act of wearing soft shoes evokes the emotional / spiritual act of removing the covering from our hearts, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable on this day.

And, of course, you will also see others for whom these interpretations are not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation includes people with many different relationships to halakha (the “way of walking” sometimes translated as “Jewish law”) and to minhag (custom) — and we bring with us many different minhagim (customs) from our communities of origin, too.

tallisWhy do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.

There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun”) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.

For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are sometimes buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.

Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.

A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to create a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.

Yom Kippur at CBI

Our observance at CBI will begin at 5:30pm on Friday evening with beautiful music to stir the soul, followed by Kol Nidre at 6pm.

On Yom Kippur morning we’ll gather to daven (pray) the morning service at 9:30am. Yizkor (the memorial service) will take place at the end of morning services. Then we’ll regroup at 3pm for an introduction to Jewish contemplative practice (no experience required), 4pm for Avodah and Mincha services, and 6pm for Ne’ilah (the closing service of the day), with our Break-the-Fast scheduled for 7pm.

Join us in wearing white; join us in song and prayer; join us in whatever ways will most speak to your heart and soul this year as Yom Kippur unfolds.

Wishing everyone a g’mar chatimah tovah — may we be sealed for goodness in the year to come.

 

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Returning. Like last year, this will be a contemplative service, allowing us to go deep into our own internal landscape of repentance and return.

Of course, before we get to Shabbat, join us for High Holiday services! (Here’s our schedule for the Days of Awe if you need it. And here’s a link to a recent post containing some high holiday melodies.)

This week we’re reading Ha’azinu (when we’re not reading the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings!) If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the Union for Reform Judaism:  Ha’azinu at the URJ.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll be reading from the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael; on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll experience a contemplative Torah journey into the akedah, the Binding of Isaac. If you’d like to read some reflections on those stories, here are a few:

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel