Category Archives: Bible

On Shavuot, the Book of Ruth and Palestinian Exile

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On the surface, the Book of Ruth, the Biblical story traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which begins this evening), appears to be a simple parable about two women struggling to survive in the wake of a devastating famine. If we dig deeper, however, we’ll find that Ruth is actually a profound and radical story that explores themes of isolation and connection, dispossession and return, emptiness and plenty, exile and redemption.

As a Jew who views solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation to be a sacred obligation, I find these themes to be particularly powerful amidst increasing reports that the Israeli government is poised to formalize its annexation of the occupied West Bank – a move that would inevitably dispossess and disenfranchise scores of Palestinians. And so this Shavuot, I’d like to suggest three themes from the Book of Ruth that call out to me with special urgency:

One: the story of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, a childless Israelite widow and her Moabite daughter in law Ruth, who return to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, in the hopes of finding safety and security. As unmarried women, they are radically marginalized, forced to use what little power they have at their disposal to survive in a world that has disempowered them. Those of us who stand in solidarity with Palestinians – indeed, all who are oppressed – would do well to heed the moral imperative at the heart of this story.

Two: As the story opens, Naomi migrates with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab. She later crosses back with her daughter-in-law when she receives word that the famine has lifted in her home country. In its way, the Book of Ruth portrays a world in which migration was a natural social phenomenon; when border-crossing was an accepted and necessary part of life. Today, this very land is strewn with militarized borders, checkpoints and refugee camps – and Palestinians are routinely denied the most basic right of human mobility. The Book of Ruth thus calls to us with a striking vision: a land and a world in which borders pose no barrier to those seeking a better future for themselves and their families.

Finally: the driving center of the Book of Ruth is the deep and loyal relationship between an Israelite woman and her Moabite daughter-in-law. Those who are familiar with the Hebrew Bible will not help but note that the Moabite nation is typically portrayed as the arch enemy of the Israelite people. In this story, however, these national allegiances and historical enmities are nowhere to be found. Instead we are left with this simple, sacred message: the ultimate path to redemption is not to be found through power and violence – but rather through mutual love and solidarity.

“It’s Time for All-Out Freedom” A Passover Guest Post by Maya Schenwar

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Remarks delivered by Maya Schenwar (editor of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out” and the upcoming “Prison by Any Other Name”) at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 14, 2020. 

A few months ago, which feels like a few centuries ago, Brant and I discussed the idea of me saying something at this seder about the difference between reform and liberation. I’d been writing about how popular prison reforms such as electronic monitoring, drug courts, and psychiatric institutions are actually entrenching the prison-industrial complex. I thought, what better occasion than Passover to talk about how we shouldn’t be pursuing fake liberation, and how we don’t want nicer-looking reforms that are still forms of oppression? What better occasion to affirm that we have to demand all-out freedom and stick with it?

Now, in these terrifying new times, it feels even more imperative to make vast, sweeping demands—demands that rise higher than we might think we can dream. In the midst of a worldwide plague that, in one way or another, engulfs us all, it’s time for that all-out freedom call.

What do I mean by “all-out freedom”? I’m thinking about the refrain that “no one is free while others are oppressed.” I’m thinking about Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The COVID-19 crisis has deeply and horribly impacted our own communities — and communities everywhere. Marginalized people have, of course, been disproportionately impacted. (Consider that approximately 70% of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.)

Right now, we are coming to understand that none of us are healthy while others are sick. As long as anyone is in peril, more will be in peril. And liberation for only some is not liberation.

Yet, in a lot of different arenas, we’ve come to accept small offerings from our political representatives and leaders—a bailout mostly geared toward banks and corporations, a slight reduction in drug prices, a few people freed from prisons, some limits on carbon emissions. We say, “Well, something is better than nothing,” even when the something is far from enough, and when the something leaves many people to die.

Even in the face of coronavirus, the health care plan of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would leave many millions of Americans uninsured. At this moment in which all of our lives are threatened, it’s time to call for Medicare for All—and much more. We need comprehensive cost-free mental and physical health services, including treatments that go well beyond doctors and hospitals. We need to recognize that plentiful nutritious food, housing, sleep, free time, relaxation, and self-determination are also part of health and survival—and part of liberation. This is the moment to demand universal housing, universal food access, and drastically improved labor practices, which are key to building the kind of freedom that sacrifices no one.

And, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing and the climate crisis is amplifying the effects of COVID, where is our Green New Deal? Where is our jobs guarantee, our income guarantee for those who don’t work—and our guarantee that our leaders will do everything in their power to confront the climate emergency, which is on track to kill billions? These aren’t far-off dreams or hypotheticals; they are steps that it makes sense to implement now to directly address the public health and economic crises enveloping our country.

At a time when we’re witnessing a shortage of life-saving equipment – ventilators and protective gear – we can issue a pragmatic call for the end of the war industry. In fact, we can challenge the existence of the military-industrial complex as a whole. Has there ever been a clearer moment to say no to the machinery of death, and to demand a mass shift of funds away from the Pentagon and toward public health?

It’s not a time for compromise—not a time to save some and not others.

Moses abided by this philosophy in his dealings with Pharaoh. He said to Pharaoh, “Let us go into the wilderness and worship our own God!” In response, Pharaoh proposed compromises—little reforms, fake liberations.

Pharaoh’s first compromise proposal was for the Jews to stay in Egypt, but worship their own God there. Some people might have said, “Take what you can get! Stop there, Moses! It’s better than nothing.”

But Moses declined the compromise, which was a little better than nothing—but it wasn’t freedom.

So then some plagues happened, as we know, and Moses asked again. Pharaoh scrounged up another compromise: He would let the men go off into the wilderness, but the women and children would have to stay in Egypt. Of course, women and children were groups that were more vulnerable—multiply oppressed, within the oppressed group. And in this compromise, they’d be thrown under the bus.

This compromise reminds me of the “moderate” reforms we see all over the political stage right now, reforms that modestly benefit some people, while throwing other people entirely under the bus:

For example – the proposal that a few more people can have health care, but there will still be millions and millions who are uninsured. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And there are the proposals to let some people with nonviolent first-time drug offenses out of prison, while millions of others will be left in cages. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And of course, there’s the compromise that younger people with no criminal record will temporarily not be deported, while older people and people with criminal records are condemned to deportation. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

These are reforms that throw people away. Liberation refuses to throw anybody away.

Moses said no to the compromise, and we have to say no to the politics of disposability, too.

So then there were more plagues, and Pharaoh issued a final compromise: The Jews, including the women and children, could go into the wilderness – but they’d have to leave their animals behind. Basically, they’d have to be released from captivity with barely any resources.

There’s no freedom without some means to survive, and even thrive. A country where many millions are without health care in the middle of a pandemic is not a free country. A country in which people are starving because they’ve suddenly lost their jobs and have no safety net is not a free country. A country in which a few people are released from jails because of a pandemic, but are released into homelessness, is not a free country. In fact, a country in which people experience homelessness is not a free country.

My longtime pen pal and friend Lacino Hamilton, who is incarcerated in Michigan, wrote me a letter about the experience of the pandemic behind bars. He is hoping to be released soon: After 26 years in prison, his challenge to his conviction appears to be on the verge of being recognized. But, Lacino wrote, “I’m worried that I’ll leave here and materially my life will worsen.” He wrote, “Returning citizens are supposed to be happy with dead-end opportunities, the kind that offer only a ‘piece of a life.’ I want a whole life.”

Everyone should have a whole life. Without that, it’s not real liberation.

So, Moses said “no” to the no-animals compromise, because it was not freedom at all.

Eventually, after the most gruesome and horrifying plague of all, the one we hate to talk about, Pharaoh agreed to the whole package.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Pharaoh tried to prevent the actual implementation of the plan, necessitating some miracles from God to allow the Jews to truly leave.

Some miracles are probably necessary now, too, because the forces of power are never going to agree to full liberation. But I personally don’t think those miracles will be bestowed by a powerful God (who, to be honest, sometimes comes across in parts of the Torah as another angry dictator). I think we have to make those miracles ourselves.

What would it look like for us to create miracles, in the uniquely brutal time we’re currently living through? A couple of weeks ago, Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful piece about the COVID-19 crisis, in which she talked about this time as one that forces us into a kind of magic. She wrote,

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

I love that passage, and it speaks to something important. I don’t think the miracle of a full-scale societal transformation that allows for the possibility of liberation will come from above. As far as I know, God cannot unilaterally snap their fingers and provide a universal health care plan or a Green New Deal, or end white supremacy or incarceration, or provide a home for every human being. We will need to grow these things. And I believe that we can, if we remember that no one is safe and healthy until everyone is safe and healthy, and that liberation cannot mean throwing anyone away.

There are many ways to take action right now to pursue liberatory goals, from mutual aid efforts that address urgent needs and build organizing infrastructure for the world we want to live in, to critical housing and labor campaigns, to racial justice movements working to release people from jails and prisons, to environmental campaigns that are drawing connections between this moment and the looming climate emergency, to the ongoing battle for Medicare for All, and much more. Brant is going to share some links in the chat for this Zoom call that will point you toward ways to get involved. These are only a smattering of the many crucial efforts currently underway.

I don’t think we need to drop horrible plagues on our enemies in order to refuse harmful compromises. Instead, we need to unite against horrible plagues – including the plagues of injustice, inequity, and mass violence – and for mass liberation.

I believe that we can enter the portal and fight for that new world, if we are prepared to do it together.

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Action items (National and Chicago-Based):

* The People’s Bailout: a coalitional effort by environmental, economic, racial and health justice groups to advocate a transformative economic package in response to COVID-19. 

#FreeThePeoplea coalition of advocacy organizations who do work to support imprisoned community members across the state of Illinois.

Physicians for a National Health Plan’s COVID-19 and Medicare for All

•  National Nurses United’s broad-based Medicare for All effort. 

Chicago COVID-19 Help & Hardship Page:  a mutual aid effort for direct food and housing assistance.

Rogers Park Food Not Bombs: Saves food from the waste stream while highlighting the inequities of our society.

Brave Space Alliance’s Crisis Food Pantry and Trans Relief Fund.

Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Restore Justice Illinois: to help provide for someone being released from prison.

Help Love & Protect: to make masks for people in women’s prisons:

Autonomous Tenants Union​: an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left.

Lift the Ban: to advocate for lifting the ban on rent control in Chicago.

Organized Communities Against Deportations: resistance movement against deportations and the criminalization of immigrants and people of color in Chicago and surrounding areas.

When Secular Israelis Claim “God Gave This Land to Us”

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(photo: AP video)

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, created something of viral sensation last week when, during a speech in the Security Council, he dramatically brandished a Bible and declared “This is the deed to our land.”

He then continued:

From the book of Genesis; to the Jewish exodus from Egypt; to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; to the gates of Canaan; and to the realization of God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel; the Bible paints a consistent picture. The entire history of our people, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael, begins right here.

Danon’s use of an ancient religious text as justification for the State of Israel’s right to the land was likely an astonishing moment for many. What on earth was a secular Israeli doing lecturing the UN on “God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel?” For those familiar with Zionist pedagogy however, his comments were neither unusual nor unprecedented.

When I heard about Danon’s Biblical tutorial, I immediately recalled a famous story about a 1937 meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Lord Peel, who was then heading the British Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry into the potential partition of Mandate Palestine. According to the story, Lord Peel asked Ben-Gurion where he was born and Ben-Gurion replied that he was from Plonsk, Poland. Lord Peel responded that the Arab leaders with whom he had met were all born in Palestine and most of the Jewish leaders were from Eastern Europe. Peel noted that the Arab people had a kushan (Ottoman land deed) that entitled them to the land – and asked Ben-Gurion if he also had a document that proved the land belonged to him.

At that point, Ben-Gurion became aware of the Bible upon which he had just sworn as a commission witness. He grabbed it, held it up and exclaimed, “Here is your kushan. It is the world’s most highly respected book and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land!”

This phenomenon – that of otherwise secular Israeli Jews proclaiming “God gave this land to us” – is not particularly uncommon. It is actually rooted in the unique form of nationalist ideology that gave rise the state of Israel. If we are to grasp this mentality properly then, we must first understand the early ideological trends that motivated Israel’s original settlers and eventual founders.

Many scholars have pointed out that Zionists – particularly those from Russia and Poland – were markedly influenced by the ideas of European Romantic nationalism (also known as “ethnic nationalism,” “organic nationalism” or “integral nationalism”) an intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th century. The early seeds of this ideology were planted in the ideas of Rousseau, Hegel and particularly the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who posited that “each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity.”

These ideas were a powerful part of the ideological fabric of 19th century Europe from which Zionism emerged. In his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes that “Herder’s thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe” during the 19th century and that these ideas were formative for important Labor Zionists such as A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s work compellingly demonstrates how otherwise secular socialists could espouse an ideology that articulated a deeply spiritual – and at times almost mystical connection of the Jewish people to land, history, language and ritual:

A cultural-organic conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content (p. 56, emphasis mine.)

In other words, the settlers and eventual founders of the Jewish state instrumentalized religion, emphasizing its social function to unify the people under one national identity. Indeed, the idea of a “religion without God” can be clearly discerned in the words of many pivotal Zionists. Thus Gordon, the father of Labor Zionism, could in one breath excoriate traditional Judaism with incredible vehemence while claiming that “the greatness of nationalism is its cosmic dimension” (p. 62). Sternhell also describes the venerable Labor Zionist figure, Berl Katznelson, as “a kind of secular rabbi whose strength lay in a direct contact with a sect of believers” (p. 135).

As my anecdote above demonstrates, Ben-Gurion’s world view was also deeply motivated by this mindset. Decades after lifting a Bible before Lord Peel, Ben-Gurion famously convened a study group of archeologists, academics and military officers to read and discuss the Biblical book of Joshua. It was well known that Joshua, which describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan in vivid detail, was Ben-Gurion’s favorite book of the Bible. In keeping with the ways of Romantic nationalists, he considered the Bible to be the Jewish people’s “national epic,” connecting them to a glorious ancient past as well as the a justification for their contemporary settlement of the land.

As American scholar Rachel Haverlock has noted:

Similar to other national movements, Zionism appealed to the glories of an ancient past and brought biblical words and phrases into spoken Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible served as a linguistic source and literary template in the prestate Yishuv and early decades of the State of Israel…

Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past (“The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land ” p. 309.)

The use of the Bible as national epic was not the exclusive provenance of Labor Zionists. Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism (the ideology of the present-day Likud party) wrote the 1927 novel, “Samson the Nazirite,” which portrays Samson as a Jewish national hero. Though Jabotinsky was a passionate opponent of Labor Zionism, he and his socialist Zionist compatriots clearly shared a deep attachment to the trappings of Romantic nationalism.

Since the founding of the state (when the Bible was invoked in its Declaration of Independence), these romantic mythic narratives have since exerted an indelible hold over Israeli socio-political culture. Well before Danon’s UN pronouncement one could choose from a myriad of examples. To offer but one more: Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, in which invoked the Biblical book of Esther to drive home the “threat” of present day Iran to the state of Israel. (“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”)

With the political ascendency of the settler movement, it might be said that the Romantic nationalism Israel’s of socialist founders has found common cause with religious Zionists who use the Bible to make unabashedly fundamentalist claims on the land. Thus, an extreme nationalist Israeli politician like Ayelet Shaked can be accurately described as “a secular woman from left-leaning Tel Aviv (who has) become the most successful spokesperson for the religious-nationalist party and the settlement movement it strongly supports.” In a sense, we might say that the trajectory of contemporary Zionism has hopelessly conflated secular nationalism and religious ideology into one Biblically-based claim to historic Palestine.

In the end, however, whether it is used by Labor Zionists, Revisionist Zionists or right wing West Bank settlers, the use of the Bible as the “Jewish people’s deed of sale” to the land of Israel represents a radical break with Jewish history, throughout which Jews regarded this text as a religious – not a political – document. It is also a profoundly fraught enterprise, particularly when you consider that the Zionist national epic includes God’s command in the book of Joshua for the Israelites to take the land by force and dispossess its Canaanite residents.

In an era that is currently witnessing the rise of romantic/ethnic (read “white”) nationalism throughout the world once more, it is critical that nations honestly assess what it is that truly binds them together. Is it one people’s “organic right” to a particular land or a commitment to the individual rights of all who dwell upon it?

 

Our Wayward and Defiant Children

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating, “There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental shock therapy. Whether or not we find this advice “rewarding,” I do think that these Torah verses reflect every parent’s deepest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow lose control of its children.

When I think of this week’s Torah portion, I can’t help but think of our own city of Chicago, where the police’s customary response to youth violence too often, is more violence. As Tamar Manasseh, founder of the local South Side organization Mother’s Against Senseless Killings recently wrote:

Putting more police on the streets or sending in the National Guard will not solve the scourge of gun violence in our communities. There will be no reduction in crime; in reality, nothing will be reduced except the number of people who are left in these neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you eliminate schools and allow food deserts to exist: People who can afford to move will do so, and the people left behind will be over-policed.

“Seek and you shall find reward.” Or, as Tamar so wisely noted,

It’s time to invest in our public schools, in job creation and in training programs to give back hope to people who have so little of it left. Chicago’s ghettos are in dire need of repair; they can be healed only when our politicians pursue policies that will raise our communities up instead of keeping us under the heel of the police.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Passover in Gaza

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Based on Exodus 14:1 – 11

they encamped at the edge
of the buffer zone
no pillar of cloud no pillar of fire
only the burning of their hearts
and a dream of return

pharaoh said do not worry
we’ve trapped them in the land
locked them inside the desert
now let us harden our hearts
that they may truly know
who is the lord

so they harnessed their chariots
amassed along the border
snipers took their positions
while officers and generals
waited to give the command

when their sacred day came
the people began their march
lifting their eyes
they could almost see their homes
just a few kilometers and
a lifetime away

when the order came down
the angel of death was unleashed
bullets hit bodies and
a pillar of tear gas descended
on the people as they
cried out to the lord

after the sun set
we sat down to our meal
but when the time came to
open the door of redemption
we were too caught up
in the joy of our song
to hear their voices:

Is it for want of graves
that you leave us here to die
in the desert?

A Seder Supplement for Passover 5778: “The 10 Sacred Acts of Liberation”

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Here’s the introduction to my new Passover seder supplement, designed to be used alongside or instead of the 10 Plagues section. Click here for the entire text to print out and read at your seder table this year. (Click here, here, here and here for supplements I’ve written in previous years.)

In the traditional seder, we are instructed to take one drop of wine for our cups to “reduce our joy” over the pain God inflicted upon the Egyptian people through the 10 plagues. Tonight, we choose to increase our joy by taking a sip of wine as we acknowledge 10 sacred acts of liberation we learn from the Exodus story. May we heed these lessons in every generation!

Songs at the Sea

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Based on Exodus 15:1-18

As the waters parted before them
they sang their songs of praise:

Some sang to the one who
shattered Pharaoh’s army
with a mighty right hand,
some sang to the god of their ancestors
who remained faithful to them
and them alone.

Others sang to the one
who redeems the oppressed
so that the world may know of his might:
who is like you god of war,
consuming the enemy like straw
incinerated with one awesome
mighty blast from on high?

Some sang a hymn of praise
to the god of vengeance
who shamed the Egyptians
hurling them all like stones
into the heart of the churning sea;

while still others sang out with hope
that the peoples of the land
would now melt away
as god’s people went forth
to dispossess them.

As they marched on, their voices joined
into one feverish song;
a tuneless wordless howl
echoing on through the depths,
yet too laden with fear to rise
to the source of their liberation.