This was an interesting week for me: challenging, exhilarating, nourishing, disturbing, all at once.
Last Sunday, I have started a week long Jewish Professionals Institute at Mechon Hadar. My reasoning was mostly financial – since I wouldn’t be able to afford going to Jerusalem this year to study at Pardes, I decided I would take what’s available, closest and not overly expensive for me. Spending a week on the Upper West Side of New York as opposed to my crowded area of Midtown sounded nice too.
About 50 people working at different Jewish organization, mostly Day schools and Hillels met to learn together. In my initial excitement for a week long Torah learning, I completely overlooked the overall topic of the week – Social Justice. I am not even sure I would have decided to delve into this scary for me, territory had I paid attention to what exactly I am about to learn. However, it is not in my practice to back off once I am in the water.
So, I have decided to come every day with an open mind and “pure heart” לב טהור.
In the morning, we were, mainly, learning verses from Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah pages 58a to 59b that talk about אונאה – technically “fraud”, but the concept leads to public shaming, one of the sins that is not forgiven at all and is equal, or even worse than murder. We looked at the word and the context from every angle discovering new meanings and new applications of the law.
This, of course, is my favorite past-time – learning the actual text, comparing it with other pieces, deconstructing it into different layers, and listening to your havruta partner offering understanding that you didn’t think about at all. This time, my havruta partner, being a school principal, was able to find real-life application to every other verse or moral of the story. Pretty amazing!
I was almost trembling coming to a class on racial justice. It was led by a CEO of an educational consulting company. A Jewish woman of color, she never went to the road that I usually feel I need to run away from – never used the word “entitled”, never meant to say (at least I didn’t hear it) that every non-white person need to be pushed up just because of color of their skin. Very educated herself, she took a piece of text from the Torah, and with us dissected it from different points of view. This exercise really opens you not to an overall accepting of the sort of an affirmative action position, but to acknowledging things that you might not have wanted to see before, without necessarily moving your position anywhere. I was truly impressed. So much that I am hoping to invite her to speak at Limmud FSU next year.
There were two other sessions that I would have gotten out from had I had a chance. But I didn’t. And, therefore, had to sit though and participate in the discussions around LGBTQ+ (got it right?!) issues. I have to say that the majority of definitions on the subject were new to me. My view on the person is never better or worse than the merit of this person based on their identity, whether racial, sexual, or any other. At the same time, I do hold from “Torah mi Sinai”, meaning I take the commandments at their face value. On the other hand, I do not presume to be the judge of others. I judge them on their behavior with me and their merit – knowledge, willingness, kindness, etc. This is exactly the view I expressed in class that had more than one person of a different identity than was assigned to them at birth. While everyone seemed to appreciate my points, the general remark that I heard was that my view of the world is Utopian. We are not (yet?) at the stage where people appreciate each other and communicate with each other based only on their merit and personal perception of an individual as opposed to a group. And, they are right. As a society, we are not there in any respect, not only with regards to these issues. But to talk about all that basing the conversation on the verse of tehilim stating that:
יְהוָה מָלָךְ, גֵּאוּת לָבֵשׁ The LORD reigneth; He is clothed in majesty (93:1)
puts the conversation in another dimension – dimension of the honor of Gd and reverence and desire to learn His ways.
Most of all, out of this week, I am pleased to say I took something that was said by Rabbi Shai Held – I am quoting from memory – it is much easier to help someone across the continent with money than to hold the door for a person behind you.
Now this is a sentiment I am totally in sync with and try to live by.
The only thing that I really missed this week were the words like “Israel” and “Jerusalem”spoken with love. There was no mention of Israel throughout the week, at least in the rooms where I was.
I know I am obsessed, but I think the connection between the Jews of any country and Israel should be much more obvious at any Jewish event. But that’s just me.
Buzz of the Beit Midrash
Opinions swinging by
Bouncing off the walls
Cutting through you and me
This could be my blessed life
But one thing is missing:
Since this week I couldn’t possibly think of writing on the Parshah (I should, actually), I am leaving you with the words of a much more knowledgeable person, Rabbi Alex Israel