Jewfem Blog

What happens when we mistake humans for God; or, an ode to editors

This week in Talmud class, we read a debate among rabbis about who has a bigger penis. Well, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the subtext. It was a debate in the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) about who had more power and authority, the rabbis of Babylon, or the rabbis of Israel. To be fair, the debate took place somewhere around the fourth century CE, during the period when Jews were still getting used to not having their own autonomous country in Israel. There were now two centers of Jewish life rather than one, and much of this segment is about adjusting to this reality, and deciding which center is the one that really counts. There is more at stake here than masculinity, although I posit that an exclusively male tug-of-war about absolute authority has a lot of Freudian dynamics beneath the surface. Still, there is actually a lot at stake in this debate over which group of Jewish leaders are really the ones in charge. You can argue that it was not so much about their own power as much as it was about the future of the Jewish people, or belief about when there would be a Third Temple – if ever. You can say that the argument is not about the rabbis themselves or the sway of their words but something deeper with more genuine integrity and concern for the People of Israel. I get that.  A less cynical view than mine is likely just as legitimate. Interestingly, this power struggle between Israeli and Diaspora leaders over who represents true Jewishness is not that different from the than the state of the Jewish people today. Today, too, the Jewish people are rife with internal debates about whether communal resources and funding around the world should go to Israel or to their own local communities, about which communities are more important and deserving, over who is living out the more authentic Judaism. And today, too, there is a lot at stake in this tug of war. The Reform movement has a very important role to play in this struggle. Representing around half of American Jews, people whose rights are trampled on with ease and a complete absence of consciousness by the State of Israel, this is a group that wears on its sleeve the power play between Jewish leaders here and Jewish leaders there. The average American Jew who likely belongs to a liberal community pays the price of this tug of war in real terms. Who is allowed to get married in Israel, who is considered Jewish, who is allowed to officially represent religion in Israel, who gets state funding, who is allowed to pray the way they want wherever they want – these are all places where liberal Jews suffer because of power games among leaders. It is about men asserting their power by trying to keep others powerless. We are all little pawns in the penis game. This week, we...

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From Weinstein to Trump to the Talmud: Lessons on being a woman in this world, then and now

Don’t embarrass important men. Don’t ruin things – for others, for yourself. And anyway, maybe what you think you experienced didn’t really happen. Maybe you’re just making it up. Let’s move on. There is important work to do, important issues to discuss. Let’s not waste time on these trivial matters. On your personal agenda. Enough with that. The sexual assault allegations against high profile men that have been coming to light – Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Trump, etc etc etc – have been shedding light on some of the many ways in which our society uses, silences, and shames women. Women are too frequently seen as sex objects or servile –  no matter how talented, smart or accomplished we are. When we speak up, we are often not believed. We need sixty other women to say the same thing before our stories are taken seriously. And when we do speak, we are often encouraged to stay silent for the sake of the project, the business, the community, the greater good, whatever. Anything but our own needs and our own well-being. But these dynamics are hardly new. I am discovering as I reopen the centuries-old Talmudic tomes that form the basis of Jewish and arguably Judeo-Christian thought, that the subsuming of women’s needs and desires is an old practice. We have been thrown under the bus for a very long time. This week, I read a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud about spirituality that I was keenly interested in. I am a lifelong student of comparative religion, and this passage, which discusses the character traits of the person deemed most fit to communicate with God, addresses topics that are often on my mind. What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What concepts of leading a good life or being a good person are universal? I suppose I am searching for an understanding of humanity that crosses cultural boundaries. This text speaks to that, so I was engaged. And then came the bit about women, and I stopped short. The passage (JT Taanit 1;4) brings a series of anecdotes about practice of fasting for rain. When there was a drought in ancient Israel, the religious leadership would call for fasting in order to speak to God – first individuals would fast, and then if things didn’t improve, the entire public would fast. So the Talmud asks the question: Who are those righteous individuals who can speak to God and get the job done? The answers are given via a series of stories with men who are deemed to have qualities of righteousness, and some of these answers are surprising. The first story is about a man who refused a request for money because the funds in question had been set aside for tithes. The rabbis were so impressed with his commitment to charity that they said, “You should pray for rain.” That is nice and makes sense. It is about generosity, honesty and integrity, considered here to be the basis of a...

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Returning to the Talmud, on my own terms

I’m studying Talmud again. It’s been a while since I learned at the full-time Drisha Talmud program (A while? Like 25 years!) It’s been even longer since I studied with Rabbi Harari at the Yeshiva of Flatbush (OMG, more like 33 years.) Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you never forget how. More likely, the way I am studying now is unlike any other way I have ever studied it.  It helps that I just finished reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, an exquisite piece of literature in which the author uses the lens of her daily Talmud study – daf yomi – to reflect on the tumult in her life. In recounting passages about the destruction of the Temple, for example, she finds comfort for the dissolution of her marriage; in the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot, she finds her strength in women’s independence; from a bizarre passage about fish, she explores the depths of sexuality. She finds charm and complexity as only a voracious reader can. She sees comparisons between the Talmud and Shakespeare, Whitman, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. These allusions seem to come naturally to her, as they would to someone with this kind of life-long addiction to reading. She often uses her morning runs – before daf yomi class – as opportunities to memorize poetry.  Or, when she had a sprained ankle and was demoted from jogging to swimming, she would keep photocopies of poems in a plastic sleeve at the edge of the pool, pop her head out of the water every time she got to the wall, and memorize one line of poetry per lap. (Yeah, I know.) Her brilliance has not only given her an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that is rare today; it has also made her an exemplary interpreter of Talmud and a rich commentator on life. And by the way, what an extraordinary pleasure it is to read a book written by someone who so deeply loves books. I thought about Ilana Kurshan as I sat in my first class in Talmud 101 with Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa at Hebrew Union College. The Talmud is not quite as charming for me as it is for Ilana. When Rabbi Lisitsa (who has a special place in my heart because she is the one who first invited me to apply to HUC rabbinical school, with the argument that it is the only place where Jews can be anything they want; evidenced by the fact that she herself completely adheres to halakha), when she went around the room asking us to describe our relationship to Talmud and what we expected from this course, I could feel my head start to spin. “I don’t like studying Talmud at all,” I admitted to my new colleagues, perhaps too honestly, suddenly realizing that I am about to reveal more about myself than perhaps I should be at this stage of Rabbinical School Year 1. Certainly, learning Talmud from Rabbi Dovid Silber and...

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