Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga

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Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms.  The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders.  It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.

The poster’s message was clear.  We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us.  We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations.  We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.

IMG_3375Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong.  We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.  

If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one.  A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish.  Rather, it’s especially Jewish.

This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.”  Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.

So, let’s say so.  Let’s talk about the contexts that embed “difficult texts.”  Let’s talk about this week’s Torah portion (Vayera).  Most of all, let’s talk about sex. Continue reading “Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga”

Four Building Lessons in Avram’s Lech Lecha Call

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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Building something demands a leap of faith. Proto-ancestor Avram shows us the kind of leap, and the kind of faith, that wise building requires.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

YHVH said to Avram, “Lech-lecha / Go forth from your land, and from your birth,
and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1).

When I left Colorado two years ago to return to the east coast, I experienced a Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”) moment of venturing into the unknown.  I left behind the familiarity of a legacy institution, and set out into the unknown world of the start-up rabbinate.  Though I had general outlines of the kind of community I wanted to build, my path was mostly a mystery. The leap I took felt like jumping off a tall cliff and building an airplane on the way down.  

Building something new demands this sort of leap.

Avram, who later took the name Avraham, had to take a far greater leap of faith into the unknown to build the family that would become the Israelite People. That’s why Avram is our spiritual ancestor in more ways than one: Avram is not only regarded as the first monotheist, but also he’s a spiritual entrepreneur – a builder par excellence.

God’s call to Avram begins with the phrase “lech lecha”. Many commentators remarked on the superfluous nature of this grammatical construction.  All Torah needs to say is lech (“go”).  Instead, Torah says “lech lecha” (“go to you/for you”).  Medieval commentator Rashi reads this seeming redundancy as evidence that God called Avram to go “for his own benefit, for his own good.”  Zohar (thirteenth century) went farther, understanding lech lecha to mean “for your own sake: go away from here and rectify your soul, advancing your [spiritual] level.”  

This is our first lesson that Avram’s Lech Lecha teaches about building:

  1. Builders need a clear vision of who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve.

To answer God’s call, Avram had to go deep into himself (as Rashi teaches), and do his own inner work to fix broken places in his soul (as Zohar teaches).  All who follow in his footsteps must do the same. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, we’ll reach greater clarity about the problem we want to solve — or, to use our core metaphor, we’ll have a clearer sense of what and how we’re being called to build.  

We need inner clarity so that we can see what’s outside us more clearly. Otherwise our own stuff is likely to cloud our vision, so that what we see becomes a reflection of ourselves, rather than a clear lens on the work at hand. And we need to keep doing our inner work so that we can boldly and wisely “go forth” into places we can’t yet know.

  1. Builders must question unconscious assumptions encoded in their origins.

The next part of Avram’s call instructs him to go me-artzecha (“from your land”).  We can read this phrase literally that Avram had to leave his country of origin, which was true.  We also can read it to mean that one must leave behind preconceived notions about how the world works and what’s possible.  Everyone has unconscious assumptions, and those assumptions aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but often they reflect the past (what has been) – not the potential (what can be) or the future (what will be).  To most wisely build the Jewish future, we all must notice our assumptions and their origins, and be willing to risk them. Only then can we be sure to build the future on its own terms, rather than merely replicating or responding to the past.

  1. Builders must grow beyond preconceived capacities both individually and together.

The third part of Avram’s Lech Lecha calls him mi-moladetcha – usually translated “from your birthplace” but also from one’s inherent birth-self.  Our predisposed talents and capacities are important to know for all they are: not everyone is born with native inclination or capacity to be an engineer, or designer, or craftsperson.  We’re all different and those differences are important to honor.

That said, Lech Lecha calls us beyond what we think we can do, because we often can do more than we think – and the future needs all we can give.

To best serve the future, wise builders must discern what they can learn to do better and how they can do better.  Wise builders must continually develop a broader and deeper toolkit than perhaps they think possible. Just as Avram’s journey called him to become more resourceful, more outgoing, and probably also more organized than he was before, so for everyone who seek to build new structures to house the life of spirit.

And what we truly can’t do alone, we must do together.  Avram didn’t go it alone: he brought helpers and made alliances along the way.  Anyone who builds alone is likely to build only a house for one.

  1. Builders must be ready to leave behind outdated structures, however much beloved.

God’s final Lecha Lecha direction to Avram was to leave behind beit avicha (his “father’s house”).  God encodes a building metaphor (and Bayit’s name!) to make a key point about building.

The key point is this: some structures must be left behind to build the future.

The idea of jettisoning the old may seem to contradict one of our keystone principles about backward compatibility – that when we build and innovate, most new structures shouldn’t so “break” with what came before that they lose their foundation.  But these two ideals (backward compatibility and shedding past baggage) must be in fruitful relationship and dynamic tension.

Even when we leave behind past experiences, they continue to shape us.  Indeed, when our hero wants to find a wife for his son Isaac, he sends his servant back to his country of origin, a sign that even though he “left home” long ago, he’s still shaped by where he came from.

Reb Zalman z”l, who spoke often about backward compatibility, also spoke of the need to drive using the wide view of the windshield, not only the limited perspective of a rearview mirror.  Like Avram, we must keep looking back at where we came from – hopefully lovingly. And like Avram, we also must strike out in new directions. When old ideas no longer serve, we must claim permission to rebuild them, or build anew, to meet the needs of a new time.  Often, though not always, tradition’s ancestral foundations will still serve. And we shouldn’t be afraid to re-use, remix, and re-purpose them.

Building the future is an exciting and often scary proposition.  Sometimes building the future will be incremental and relatively conservative; sometimes it’ll seem like a radical break with what came before but stand on ancient foundations or even deeper bedrock.  The Lech Lecha journey of building a new home asks clear vision, challenging assumptions, learning new tools and new ways, working together, sometimes leaving it all behind, and sometimes finding our way back.  

It’s a dynamic, holy and ongoing journey.  Just ask Avram, this week’s building teacher.

 

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by Rabbi Ben Newman; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert. 

Keystone Values for Building the Jewish Future

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בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים
כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.

“For seven days, you will dwell in booths:
All the citizens of Israel will dwell in booths.”

(Leviticus 23:42)

Master Builders who preceded us refined principles for building the Jewish future in their own days and ways.  Bayit’s keystone values evolve from theirs, much as their values evolved from their teachers, up through Jewish history’s centuries of architects, builders and decorators.

Here are some values by which we aim to align all that we’ll build together.  Fittingly for builders, we anchor these keystone values in Torah’s call to build booths and dwell in them for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

  1. We’re All Builders and Dwellers: Democratize Experience

All … will dwell in booths” (Lev. 23:42).  The upshot is clear: an authentic Jewish future worth building must be for “all.”

“All” invites everybody and excludes nobody.  “All” refuses qualifiers and disqualifiers. “All” is radically inclusive: whoever you are, you’re welcome.

“All” shouldn’t be a radical idea.  If inclusivity seems radical, it’s because inclusivity hasn’t always been so, well, inclusive.  Consider what you believe Jewish life most asks to be built.  Whatever your ideas about who isn’t part of it, or can’t or won’t be part of it, those ideas point to what’s most important to build.  The Jewish call is to include the excluded.

“All” also means that we’re “all” builders, not just dwellers.  A desert-wandering tribe (then), and a globally dispersed Jewry (now), are too large and diverse for any centralized team of sukkah builders to do the building for everyone.  Thus, the only way for “all” to heed this call to dwell is for “all” to pitch in and build – and to expand the very idea of building to include “all.”

It’s not only “do it yourself” (DIY) Judaism, but that there’s no other Judaism except DIY.  The Jewish call is the call to do.  “All” are called to “make” Shabbat (Ex. 31:16); same for tzitzit (Num. 15:38); same for a sukkah.  To Rabbi David Ingber, “We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingers.”  Essentially, we need a Judaism with builders’ hands.

That’s our first principle: we’re all builders.  In Talmud’s words, “and all Your children will be … builders” (B.T. Berakhot 64a).  Everything we do must inspire and support the universal call to build, the experience that is the foundation of Jewish life. Continue reading “Keystone Values for Building the Jewish Future”