Parashat Shemini: Dvar Torah for the Trans Jews Are Here Convening

This convening was scheduled to coincide with the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which falls on Sunday. In recognition of this fact, I would like to talk a little bit about the issue of visibility in Jewish tradition and in our own lives. Fundamentally visibility is about the possibility of being seen, a subject which immediately raises issues of power. Everything in our society, our culture, conditions us to understand seeing as a manifestation of power over the one who is seen – simply put, sight is connected to knowledge and knowledge is a kind of power. This is why the experience of being observed by another can feel so invasive and uncomfortable – we instinctively feel that the gaze of the other puts a kind of hold on us, pins us to the wall and lays us out as an object of the other’s understanding. 

This is one way of understanding the relationship between the one who sees and the one who is seen, but it isn’t the only one. In fact our parsha for this week, parashat Shemini, contains a different approach to understanding the power dynamics of visibility. In chapter 9, verse 6 it says:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה הה תַּעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד הה׃

Translation: And Moses said, “This is what HaShem has commanded that you do, so that the presence of HaShem may become visible to you.”

This statement is somewhat confusing for two reasons: First, because we may not be in the habit of thinking of God as visible. Regarding this, it is important to remember that God’s presence appears often throughout the Torah as a visible phenomenon, most often as a “cloud” resting over or within the sanctuary. God’s visibility is also closely connected with the festival holidays. Deuteronomy 16:16 reads:  

 שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כָל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י הה אֱלֹקיךָ

Which is typically taken to mean: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before HaShem your God,” except that, given the odd use of the object marker אֶת, it seems more appropriate to read yeraeh as yireh, in other words: “Three times a year all your males shall see the face of HaShem your God.” This reading had its supporters even during the rabbinical period, as in the opening of masechet Chagigah where it is used to justify a ruling that one who is blind is exempt from the obligation of making pilgrimage during the festival. 

But there is another confusing aspect of our passage from Leviticus, and that is the way it reverses the equation when it comes to visibility and power. Here it is not the seer who gets to define the conditions of being seen, who gets to say, “This is what you must do in order to be seen.” On the contrary, it is the one seen, namely Ha Shem, who gets to define the conditions of Hir own visibility by saying, “This is what you must do in order for My presence to appear to you.” By reversing the equation, the dynamics of power between the seer and the one seen shift in surprising ways. No longer a position of command, the act of seeing here reappears in the vulnerability of desire, while God, the object of that desire, has the power to be seen or not seen according to conditions Zie Hirself lays out – in other words, the power to fulfill that desire… or to hold it in suspense. 

An important concept to consider in this context is the role of the garment. To the ordinary way of thinking, the role of clothing is to conceal the nakedness which lies beneath. Nudity is a shameful reality, clothing a means of covering up that reality. Thus, the first man, in response to God’s call, replies, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) In making this statement, Adam reveals that he has completely failed to understand the spiritual significance of the garment, which is not in fact to conceal, but rather to reveal. It is an important, if somewhat paradoxical insight of the sages of the Zohar that one phenomenon which becomes “clothed” in another is not concealed, but rather revealed by its garment. The spiritual essence in itself, denuded of its garments, is too ethereal and abstract to grab hold of. It is the “garment” which encloses and gives form to an aspect of reality which had hitherto been completely internal with no exterior existence, and thus it is precisely in the act of covering itself that the inexpressible reality lays itself bare to the other, concealing its essence but opening itself up thereby to the outside, and therefore to a new possibility, the possibility of communication.

So – in the mystical tradition garments fulfill simultaneously the apparently contradictory roles of concealing and making manifest that which is concealed. But garments have an additional function – that of transformation. In the opening pages of the Zohar Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar explore together the relationship between two different feminine aspects of God, described as Mi and Mah, “Who” and “What,” Mother and Daughter. Ordinarily separated by a vast metaphysical gulf, on the day of the festival assembly when the Divine presence is said to make itself visible, the Daughter is adorned with “her Mother’s ornaments” and then, clad in male garments, is revealed before the assembly of festival goers gathered together in the Temple’s sacred precincts. It is in this moment that the higher aspects of God’s essence are drawn down and made manifest here on Earth as a visible presence before the assembled worshipers. That this sacred moment, in which divine absence is converted suddenly into presence, rests on an act of gender transgression is, I believe, no coincidence. For what is gender transition if not the trick of taking an absent but deeply felt reality and making it manifest in this world we all share as a palpable presence? In both cases what is at stake is visibility, or to put it another way, the leap in the dark necessary to bridge the gap between an impossible interior truth and an unbearable external reality.

Given the degree of power associated with seeing in a society increasingly structured around systems of surveillance, it is valuable to consider for a moment that the reverse is also true: There is power in being able to establish our own conditions for being seen. This power, which in our tradition falls under the heading of tzniut or “modesty,” does not often register for us as a form of power because its strong associations with femininity tend to render it invisible or trivial in the context of patriarchy, which seizes hold of what could have been a source of power and leverages it as a source of oppression. Nevertheless, the power to set our own terms for visibility can be a deep wellspring of self-determination and self-affirmation for those of us who have spent so many years of our lives literally begging to be seen – by family and friends, by the healthcare professionals we rely upon to provide lifesaving care, by employers and government officials. In a world in which being seen is so often associated with vulnerability, there is something profoundly transgressive, not to mention revolutionary, about taking on the authority to dictate to others the conditions which must be met to get a glimpse of our own transcendent and ineffable presence.

The kavanah I want to leave us with this shabbat morning is that we, like God, have a presence which brings blessing to those who are privileged to look upon it, and that, like God, we are the ones who ultimately get to define the terms of our own visibility. May we all be blessed in our lives to behold the divine presence, and may we all give blessing to others by the light of our own presence in the world.

Holy Anxiety

The following was inspired by a conversation I had with my spouse Ross in the car one evening as we were driving home from visiting the kids. Ross asked me what Jewish tradition has to say on the subject of anxiety, and when I thought about it I realized that this is an extremely difficult question to answer.

The word in Hebrew which most closely approximates “anxiety” is חֲרָדָה. Derived from a verbal root which means to be excited or to tremble, the word is old enough to occur in the Babylonian Talmud, as in a passage where, discussing the derivation of the obligation to approach prayer with great solemnity, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says:

מהכא השתחוו לה׳ בהדרת קדש אל תקרי בהדרת אלא בחרדת

– bT Berachot 30b.

Translation: It is derived from here – “Bow down to the LORD in the beauty of holiness (b’hadrat kodesh).” Don’t read it as “in the beauty of holiness,” but rather “in holy anxiety” (b’cherdat kodesh).

The phrase “holy anxiety” may sound strange to our ears, since we are accustomed to think of anxiety as something bad to be avoided, while holiness is something good to embrace. Especially for those of us who have ever suffered from serious anxiety (and I include myself in this camp), the idea of holiness may seem totally irreconcilable with the overwhelming tension of a mind constantly turning over and over within itself a thousand preminitions of disaster. And yet Jewish tradition’s attitude on this matter is both complex and ambiguous – recognizing it as a great source of the pain and suffering to which we human beings are subject, but nevertheless embracing it as a source of connection with God.

If proof were needed of the Jewish people’s long collective relationship with anxiety, we need go no farther than the book of Psalms, throughout which anxiety appears frequently as an oppressive presence for which the psalmist calls out to God for relief – as for example in Psalm 6:

Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror
My whole being is stricken with terror
While you, LORD – O, how long!

– Psalms 6:3-4

At the same time, the Bible’s statements regarding our proper existential attitude toward God often make use of language evocative of fear. The most common such phrase, yirat Elohim is probably best translated “fear of God” (also yirat shamayim, “fear of Heaven”). If this phrase sounds somewhat old-fashioned to our ears, it is perhaps because, anxious ourselves at the idea of “fear” in connection with the divine, we tend to prefer somewhat milder words such as “awe.” To bowdlerize the traditional language in this way, however, may have the effect of masking something important – and paradoxically positive – about the relationship between traditional Judaism and anxiety.

Anxiety is perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of the development of spiritual consciousness. As Mordecai Kaplan put it:

The more eager we are to shape human life in accordance with some ideal pattern of justice and cooperation, the more reasons we discover for being dissatisfied with ourselves, with our limitations, and with our environment.

– Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 28

Where some traditions have attempted to deal with this issue by cultivating a sense of detachment from the world, Judaism has always tended to cultivate in its adherents an active engagement with the world and its problems. This activist orientation has necessitated a certain coming-to-terms with anxiety. The concern of religious Jews throughout the ages has generally not been with eliminating anxiety altogether, but rather with ensuring that anxiety is fixed on its proper objects, namely God and our fellow human beings.

To love God, the world, and each other, is to be concerned. To care is to recognize all the myriad varieties of harm that may befall that which is cared for – in other words to be anxious. In the face of personal anxiety – the overwhelming fear for the self which is the lot of most human beings since the dawn of time – the Torah encourages us to place our trust in God to ensure that everything will work out in the end. Not, as we might expect, to deliver us from anxiety altogether, but to elevate our anxiety from the profane to the spiritual.

This, then is the meaning of “holy anxiety”: That to each of us is issued the challenge to be more afraid of disappointing God than we are of being humiliated, harmed, or otherwise brought low by our fellow human beings. In the words of the psalmist:

In distress I called out to the LORD
The LORD answered me and brought me relief
The LORD is on my side,
I have no fear
What can man do to me?

– Psalms 118:5-6

 

Kabbalat Shabbat… With Synthesizers!

I’ve always been a musical person, and I think that comes out in the services I lead. As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t a proper Jewish prayer service unless we find a way to work some group singing in there somewhere. A lot of my rabbinic colleagues have learned to play the guitar to provide some musical accompaniment when they’re leading services, but guitar playing was never really my style.

What is my style, however, is electronic music. I’ve been into making electronic music since way back in high school, composing silly techno and pop tunes with my friend Emily Mills on an old DOS PC running FastTracker 2. A couple of years ago I started thinking about what it would be like to combine my love of electronic music with my service leading, and began working on some tunes to accompany Jewish prayer. You can hear some of my early work in that vein on an interview I did for the podcast #TrendingJewish.

A little later, I received an Auerbach Ignition grant to help make my dream of electronic davening into a reality, and after some time of tinkering to get my studio setup right and to work out my sound, that dream is starting to be realized. Here are a few of the videos I’ve posted on YouTube demonstrating some of the tunes I’ve created:

Qlippah

There is a kind of coldness, a stiffness, a certain rigidity that sets in without our even being aware it has happened. It is an effort at self defense, this hardness – a means of protecting ourselves by rendering our souls impenetrable and insensible to pain. This hardening, this shell formed around the heart, is what we mean by qlippah – the shell that hides the sparks of God, makes them inaccessible to one another, interferes with both transmission and reception. Locked inside of our own personal Faraday cage, each of us becomes cut off from the signal transmitted by all.

The dichotomy of qlippah/nitsuts (shell and spark) does not map cleanly onto the material/spiritual divide. We are not living in a gnostic universe, and there is not demiurge we can blame for our predicament. The truth is much simpler, and much sadder – that each of us is their own demiurge, weaving around ourselves a shell of falsehood, a kind of anti-cocoon that calcifies our being and makes us impervious to healthy change.

Amalek

In case it wasn’t clear enough yet, this is how Amalek works: 

The conquest of Amalek is death by circular firing squad – it gets us standing in a circle, gives us all the guns we could ever want, and then whispers in each of our ears that the one standing across from us is out to kill us.

Amalek works by convincing each of us that the others are Amalek, and so far it has been working.

I cannot begin to formulate a coherent response to the horrifying attack at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation Saturday morning except to say this: This was not an anomaly. This was not the deranged act of an aberrant individual, nor was it the regrettable outcome of mental illness (haven’t the mentally ill and neurodivergent been blamed and scapegoated enough in this country?), nor was it a “false flag” operation staged by whatever group of human beings you happened to distrust already. It happened because the perpetrator of this horrific act of terrorism had three things: He had a gun, he had an agenda, and he had a community. In retrospect, it is difficult to say which of these things proved to be more deadly.

The Kabbalistic literature teaches that evil came into this world through a corruption of the aspect of Judgment. Strictly speaking, both Mercy and Judgment are necessary components of the divine configuration, but due to its connection with the negative aspects of reality – restriction, boundary, limit, punishment of transgression – judgment is more vulnerable to corruption.

As in the spiritual realm, so too in the political realm. It is all too easy for our capacity for judgment to fail us in two important respects: First, in our tendency to allow judgment to overrun its proper bounds and judge harshly those who do not deserve it, and secondly, in our failure to exercise proper judgment in distinguishing between truth and fiction. In judgment it is appropriate to exercise restraint, acting only on the testimony of two sworn witnesses of unimpeachable character, and punishing only in appropriate measure. In this world in which we find ourselves, it is all too common to find those who act out in extreme ways on the basis of no reliable testimony at all. In kabbalistic terms this may be likened to the corruption of the aspect of judgment.

The outcome of this corruption can be seen in the tendency toward division in our society. Even as the litany of violence and injustice continues to intensify, even as the maelstrom continues to pull more and more of our communities into its swirl, we remain locked behind walls of mutual distrust, somehow convinced that we are different, that our souls are not as their souls, their pain not as our pain. The force of our judgment is corrupted and misdirected toward those who are suffering just as we suffer, and thus the reign of Amalek grows ever stronger.

It is time to let go of the ideas that are destroying us and our country.

It is time to let go of the idea that any of God’s children are more beloved than all the others.

It is time to let go of the idea that your neighbors may secretly be monsters.

It is time to let go of the idea that a government that has persecuted one group of its citizens will not eventually come for them all.

It is time to let go of the idea that there is any acceptable and appropriate amount of meaningless suffering in this world.

It is time to erase the name of Amalek from this world, in our generation and for all time.

D’var Torah for GJC Pride Shabbat – Parashat Korach

כל מחלוקת לשם שמים סופה להתקים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקים…

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, its fate is to endure, and any that is not for the sake of Heaven, its fate is note to endure.” (Mishnah Avot 5:21)

For our rabbis, the dispute recorded in parashat Korach is the very archetype of the dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven. But while the end of the dispute may be quite clear, its origins and significance are more difficult to understand. Who are the disputants, and what is the nature of their complaint?

The Torah identifies four principle members of the group – Korach, of the tribe of Levi, is the apparent leader, the one to whom most of Moses’ responses are directed and the one whose name is attached to the group as a whole – they are referred to in Num. 17:5 as Korach and “his band” (עדתו). Along with Korach appear Datan, Aviram and On, all of whom are Reubenites. The question which remains is how to identify the two hundred and fifty others who appear alongside them, and who are identified only as “Men of Israel” (אנשים מבני ישראל) without any tribal designation.

This question is more important than it may at first seem when it comes to unraveling the nature of the dispute, since the tribal makeup of the disputants will have a significant impact on how we understand their social standing within the community and the nature of their demands. The criticism they level against Moses and Aaron – “All the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” – seems to be that of a group made up of Reubenites, or perhaps a mixture of tribes, who are arguing against the attempt to endow a particular group of Israelites with a heightened level of sanctity. However, there are a number of points that make this egalitarian reading of the dispute somewhat doubtful. First, the unnamed “Israelites” are not from the ordinary rank and file – rather, they are identified in the text as “chieftains of the community” (נשיאי עדה). Second, their leader, Korach, is himself a Levite and therefore part of the system of social distinction the group is supposedly trying to protest. Finally, when Moses refers to them as a group, he addresses them not as “sons of Israel” but “sons of Levi,” suggesting that Korach’s band is comprised primarily of Levites like himself.

So what is it that has motivated this group comprised mostly, but not entirely, of Levites to rise up and oppose Moses and Aaron’s leadership? As we have said, their ostensible argument – that “all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst” – seems to be surprisingly reasonable, couched as it is in language evocative of the same values Moses himself has been trying to teach, that Israel’s role is to be “a nation of priests” and that at all times Israel should strive to be holy as God is holy. But appearances can be deceiving, and just because an argument seems to evoke values that are near and dear to our hearts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is being used in a way that ultimately supports those values. On the contrary, just as the language of religious freedom can be twisted and misused in support of bigotry and discrimination, so too can language of holiness be employed in support of a cause which in reality is anything but holy.

We should take a moment to consider how Korach’s followers are described – as “chieftains of the community” who are “called to the assembly (קראי מועד). The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra understands this last phrase to be related to the tent of assembly (אהל מועד), a central feature in the sanctuary precincts – a reference to the service the Levites were required to provide in attending to the sanctuary and supporting its regular functioning. “Men of repute” (אנשי שם) Ibn Ezra understands to be a reference to the period before the exodus from Egypt, indicating that they enjoyed a great deal of prestige within the community of Israelite slaves. What emerges then is a picture of a group of men who before Moses came along were reckoned as important people and leaders of the community, now relegated to the apparently unglamorous role of shleppers, responsible for setting up, taking down and transporting the portable sanctuary – work which, from their perspective, is considerably beneath their dignity.

Never mind that to be a shlepper among free people must be considered to be far superior to being a prince among slaves. Never mind that the labor they have been given involves transporting the literal dwelling place of God from place to place, enabling the very indwelling of the divine presence that they so cavalierly use to justify their complaints. These Levite followers of Korach are deeply resentful of the lose of privilege and prestige they used to enjoy, and they are determined to reclaim their former place of glory by usurping the priesthood from Aaron and his offspring.

Concerning this attitude, the Zohar has this to say:

בל דרדף בתר דלאו דיליה, איהו עריק מקמיה. ולא עוד אלא מה דאית ביה אתאביד מניה. קרח רדיף בתר דלאו דיליה, דיליה אביד, ואחרא לא רווח.

“Anyone who chases after what is not his, it flees from him. And not only that – what he does have is lost. Korach chased after what wasn’t his, what he had was lost, and nothing else could give him comfort.”

But what is it, precisely, that Korach has lost? What precisely has he failed to understand? To explain this, the Zohar takes us back to the creation of the world, to the very moment when Creation first looked upon the beautiful, terrifying face of the first human being and saw in hir splendor the sign of its own completion. At that moment, when the human was complete and, by extension, so too was the world, the day itself desired to be sanctified, and so it was – Shabbat was born, and with it peace and rest came into the world.

But – and here is where the authors of the Zohar are so insightful – there cannot be rest if no work remains to rest from. In that moment when the world was declared complete and Shabbat rose to sanctity, there were as yet spirits waiting to be given physical form. Owing to the sanctification of the day, this never happens, and these spirits – the Zohar calls them demons – remain as they are, merely potential rather than actual, trapped in between being and nothingness by the imposition of a definition of completeness which does not include them. And because of this, the newly completed and perfected world… remains both incomplete and imperfect.

This incompleteness can only be repaired through the holy labor of the Levites, who have the capacity to fix the gap in the world left by these uncreated spirits by transporting the holy sanctuary from place to place. But this repair can only happen if the Levites themselves are willing to give up some of the power and prestige of their old lives as chieftains among the people and accept upon themselves the new role which God has ordained for them – outwardly humble, but so deeply important for the completion of the work of creation.

Preparing these words for Germantown Jewish Centre’s first Pride Shabbat, I couldn’t help but see parallels between the metaphysical struggle depicted in the Zohar and the social and political struggles that have been going on within our own communities in the present day. In our time, too, we hear the voices of the “uncreated” calling out – those whose essential selves have gone for so long without recognition in a world whose understanding of completeness and perfection simply does not include them.For some, particularly those who have been placed in a position of privilege within the prevailing order, there may indeed seem to be something demonic about these voices. But just as in Korach’s time, it is necessary to recognize the truth that honor and privilege are worthless so long as they are granted within the context of a system which ultimately enslaves us all. It is a far greater honor to accept upon oneself the labor which has been ordained for us – the labor of repairing and remaking our communities, our nation, our world, in the name of a broader and more complete definition of perfection.