Celebrating the Sarisim: My Teshuvah for Purim

3 03 2015

Purim 5768 (2008). Tucson, Arizona. We took turns reading the Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther) in English, while others acted out the story in pantomime. Full of alcohol and levity, the actors gesticulated wildly and crudely. The readers narrated the story with zany voices and inflections, inserting innuendo and comedy wherever possible. I was tasked with reading chapter seven of the Megillah, including the narrative climax of the story: the discovery of Haman’s plot against the Jews and his subsequent execution. I came to Esther 7:9:

Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “What is more, a stake is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai—the man whose words saved the king.” [Note 1]

I read Harbonah’s words in a high falsetto, more Mickey Mouse than man. He was a eunuch after all, so what better way to signal his castration—and to win some laughs in the process—than to read his speech in an exaggerated, emasculated voice?


Whenever I think about the episode described above, I feel deep guilt and shame. Guilt, because my thoughtless actions might have made one of our friends and guests feel embarrassed, unwelcome or threatened. Shame, because I should have known better than to draw on the stereotype of the high-voiced, effeminate eunuch—a stereotype grounded in both homophobia and transphobia—in the pursuit of cheap laughs. After all, ours was a community of “refugees,” whose gender, sexuality, politics, and status as patrilineal Jews or children of interfaith families had made us feel unwelcome in the mainstream Jewish community. Our association was unofficial, but if there was an unspoken covenant, I surely broke it.

I don’t remember when I first realized how problematic and offensive my “joke” had been. Nobody voiced an objection at the time (which, of course, does not mean that it hadn’t bothered anyone). I suspect that the spark of recognition and self-awareness arose during a subsequent consideration of the derision, abuse and violence to which trans people are subjected, but I can’t point to a single moment of insight. I just know that such a moment occurred, and when it did, I knew I needed to acknowledge what I had done and make public teshuvah.

The problem with transphobia, as with any kind of prejudice or bigotry, is that it reduces a human being—a complex, nuanced subject replete with unique characteristics and experiences—to a set of finite, generalized qualities that can be easily objectified, dismissed, abused or annihilated. Yet this is not so in the Book of Esther, in which many of the “eunuchs” are referred to by name and occupation:

  • Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigthan, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus” (1:10);
  • Hege [aka Hegai], the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women” (2:3);
  • Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the concubines” (2:14);
  • Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold” (2:21);
  • Hathach, one of the eunuchs whom the king had appointed to serve [Esther]” (4:5); and
  • Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king” (7:9).

Although not the main characters of the narrative, these individuals do compose the supporting cast of the Book of Esther and consequently participate in many of the narrative’s key scenes. Hege, for example, “treated [Esther] and her maids with special kindness in the harem” (2:9), and he successfully coaches Esther on what she must do to win King Ahasuerus’s favor. For his part, Hathach delivers covert messages between Esther and her cousin Mordecai, performing a critical role in exposing and averting Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews (4:5–16). And as mentioned previously, it is Harbonah who informs King Ahasuerus of Haman’s plan to murder Mordecai and, in doing so, sets the stage for Haman’s execution (7:9).

"Queen Esther" (1878), by Edwin Long (1829–1891). Oil on canvas. 213.5 x 170.3 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1879. © Public Domain.

“Queen Esther” (1878), by Edwin Long (1829–1891). Oil on canvas. 213.5 x 170.3 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1879. © Public Domain.

If it seems strange that eunuchs would enjoy such a degree of access to and prominence in Persian courtly life, the explanation (as it so often does) lies in the original Hebrew. “Eunuch” and (the more euphemistic) “chamberlain” are the two most common English translations of the Hebrew saris (סריס), which in turn is derived from the Akkadian/Assyrian term ša reši, meaning “the one at the head.” [Note 2] Both “eunuch” and “chamberlain” are accurate translations, since the term saris apparently refers to a particular figure who was common in the ancient Near East: a castrated male who performed high-level service in the palace, government bureaucracy or even military. [Note 3] Thus, the title of saris is a mark of both biological difference and occupational status, with the former serving as a precondition for the latter. As we know from both the Book of Esther and other surviving records from the ancient Near East, the queen and the royal harem were often entrusted to the care of eunuchs, whose lack of reproductive capacity—and real or perceived lack of sexual interest—was understood as guaranteeing the security of the royal bloodline, if not the king’s exclusive sexual license to the queen and the royal harem.

It is by virtue of this special status that the sarisim in the Book of Esther are able to move effortlessly between segregated spheres of activity: between the queen’s chambers and king’s, between the palace and the city. [Note 4] Without agents who could render such fixed divisions permeable, Esther would not know how best to appeal to King Ahasuerus and win his favor. Mordecai and Esther would not be able to share information about Haman’s plot and to devise a method of defeating him. King Ahasuerus would not know of the gallows that Haman is building outside the palace for Mordecai’s execution. Indeed, it could be argued that King Ahasuerus knows little of what occurs in his kingdom—and even his own palace—save whatever his observant, intelligent and not-so-neutral sarisim report to him.

As they so often do, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud take this humanization process even further by imagining character traits, dialogues and events beyond what the (often vague and concise) biblical text reports. Thus BT Megillah 16a builds a little midrash aggada (interpretive story) around Esther 7:9—the verse that I had read aloud so offensively:

Elazar said: Harbonah too was wicked in that counsel [i.e., he was originally a participant in Haman’s plot]. But when he saw that his counsel would not be fulfilled, he immediately defected.

Whereas the Harbonah of the Megillah is a bit part with a single line of expository dialogue, the Harbonah of BT Megillah is a co-conspirator who sells out his boss: the Brutus to Haman’s Caesar.

Similarly, in BT Megillah 13b, we learn the backstory of Bigthan and Teresh, the sarisim who guard the threshold and who scheme to kill King Ahasuerus:

Yochanan said: Bigthan and Teresh were two Tarsian, and they were conversing in the Tarsian language and saying: “From the day this [woman Esther] came, our eyes haven’t seen any sleep. Come, let us put poison in the [king’s] bowl so that he will die.” But they did not know that Mordecai was one of those who sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and he knew the [world’s] seventy languages.

Bigthan and Teresh are not particularly noble characters, but at least the Talmud provides us with a deeper understanding of their background and their motive for seeking to assassinate the king—information that is glaringly absent from the Book of Esther, which is only interested in the circumstances of Mordecai’s ascension.

Perhaps the most fascinating midrash about the Book of Esther’s sarisim occurs in BT Megillah 15a, which shines a new light on the covert communications between Esther and Mordecai in Esther 4:5–16:

Rav said: Hathach [a saris in Esther’s service] was Daniel. But why was he given the name Hathach [התך]? Because they had cut him [חתך] down from his greatness. And Shmuel said: [Daniel was called Hathach] because all affairs of state were decided [נחתכין, also from the root חתך] by him.

In typical fashion, the rabbis imagine this episode as a cameo appearance by the protagonist of the Book of Daniel, another Jewish hero exiled to a foreign court and committed to deliverance through divine intervention. Rabbinic traditions suggest that Daniel was also castrated and transformed into a saris by his Babylonian captors, creating a further connection between these two books. While the ArtScroll edition of BT Megillah understands “they had cut him down from his greatness” as referring to a demotion in status, I do wonder if perhaps the line is a reference to this act of castration. Are we to understand Daniel’s new name as a mockery of his subjugation or castration? If so, what better way to exact revenge than to serve as an instrument of his people’s salvation?

If the rabbis could look upon lowly servants and see humans, dreamers and agents of redemption motivated by sparks of the divine, how much more tragic is it to make jokes at their expense?


1. All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jewish Publication Society translation.

2. See Brown, Driver and Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, s.v. סריס; and Koehler and Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2nd ed., s.v. סריס.

3. The Hebrew Bible records the presence of sarisim in Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian society. Sarisim appear rarely in Israelite and Judaean society, and only in cases where foreign powers have exerted influence (often negative) on domestic affairs.

4. I cannot recall who first brought this interpretation to my attention, but I’m pretty sure it was Alex Weissman. Thanks!


Sukkot at Occupy Philadephia: The Radical Symbolism of the Lulav

18 10 2011

On Sukkot morning, I was one of several members of the RRC community who journeyed to City Hall, to daven (pray) shacharit in the sukkah erected at the site of Occupy Philadelphia. There, in a sea of tents and other temporary structures erected by local activists and homeless Philadelphians, we waved the lulav in accordance with the mitzvah (commandment) and sang hoshanot for social justice (including this excellent prayer written by Rabbi Ezra Weinberg). While assembling, we encountered Rabbi Mordechai Liebling dressed in a white suit and bearing a lulav. He was on his way to a meeting at City Hall, during which he would shake the lulav before officials to warn them against the dangers of hydrofracking, a hazardous method of fossil-fuel extraction.

The sukkah at Occupy Philadelphia (photo courtesy Rachel Playe)

While these may seem like strange or inappropriate applications of the mitzvah to wave the lulav, I would argue that they are consistent with the teaching of Rabbi David Abudirham, a Spanish rishon of the 14th century. He contends that the lulav serves as the flag of the Jewish people; to wave it is to declare a symbolic victory over oppression and to claim territory as our own. By this logic, Rabbi Liebling’s decision to incorporate the lulav into his expression of dissent at City Hall makes perfect sense. Likewise, by waving the lulav in the sukkah at Occupy Philadelphia, we were reiterating our collective claim to the city’s public spaces. At Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere, the call-and-response refrain of “Whose streets? Our streets!” has served as a rallying cry with which the disenfranchised and disaffected can express their demands for ownership of the commons and access to the systems of government. In this way, our lulavim were silent yet salient statements of solidarity with the occupation.

Of course, Rabbi Abudirham’s is not the only explanation of the lulav‘s significance. The midrash offers several interpretations of the arba’ah minim, the Four Species. Notably, in Vayikra Rabbah, the Sages relate each of the species to a particular type of Jewish personality: The etrog (citron), which has both taste and fragrance, represents the ideal Jew who both possesses a knowledge of Torah and practices good deeds. The lulav (date palm frond), which has taste but no fragrance, is akin to the Jew who knows Torah but lacks good deeds. Conversely, the hadas (myrtle bough) has fragrance but no taste, like the Jew who practices good deeds but lacks a knowledge of Torah. Finally the aravah (willow branch), which offers neither fragrance nor taste, embodies the unfortunate Jew who eschews both Torah study and good deeds.

The Arba'ah Minim (Four Species)

By binding the arba’ah minim to one another we express our refusal to reject those among us who lack Jewish knowledge or meaningful practice. We are committed to the belief that by increasing the contact between different types of Jews—and by extension all people—a richer combination of tastes and fragrances will result, imbuing each individual with a hint of another’s finest features. The midrash seems to suggest that the best way to educate others and cultivate meaningful practice is simply through contact with individuals of different types and backgrounds. Just as each of the arba’ah minim is said to represent a different ecological region of the Land of Israel, so too does the mingling of individuals from different backgrounds enrich the collective good. In the words of the midrash, one who fulfills the mitzvah of the lulav with this proper intention “brings about peace and harmony among Jews, as well as a greater nearness between God and Israel.” I would expand the frame of reference to include all people.

The lulav is special in that it manages to unify diverse species into a cohesive unit, without stripping them of their unique identities and distinguishing features. The lulav is an ideal balance between one and many, between the individual and the collective. Contrast this with the fascis, which means “bundle” in Latin. Consisting of uniformly sized and shaped birch rods that were tied together along with an axe blade, the fascis served as a symbol of power and authority in ancient Rome. The lictors who attended Roman magistrates carried fasces not merely for show but to execute criminals. In time, the fascis came to symbolize the Roman Republic in much the same way that flags represent countries today.

Emblem of the Italian National Fascist Party, featuring the fascis

One stick may be weak, but a bundle of identical sticks cannot be broken. The clear message embedded in the fascis is that power depends upon unity, and unity emerges from uniformity. It should come as no surprise that the Latin fascis is the root of the word “fascism.” Indeed, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (1921-1943) adopted the fascis and displayed it prominently on its flag and emblem. In short, the fascis can be seen as the opposite of the lulav, just as it symbolizes everything that Occupy Philadelphia has vowed to combat and defeat.

This understanding of the fascis and its connection with authoritarian ideologies and movements only underscores the beautiful message encoded in the lulav. Each time we wave the lulav this Sukkot, may we reflect on the beauty that emerges from diversity and dialogue. As we enter the final days of the festival, may we appreciate that we, like the arba’ah minim, have come together from a variety of locations and backgrounds, with different degrees and styles of knowledge and practice. In binding ourselves together, may we learn from, support and enrich one another without ever losing our own unique attributes. And by fulfilling the mitzvah of the lulav—both real and symbolic—may we help bring about peace and harmony among all people, and closeness between the Divine and humankind.

Why “Circle Aleph”? A Symbol for Jewish Anarchism

20 12 2010

A few people have asked me to explain the name of this blog, “Circle Aleph,” and why I chose it. Here is my answer.

“Circle Aleph” is a play on “Circle A,” a common way of referring to the classic anarchist symbol of a letter A enclosed in a circle. This letter A stands for “anarchy,” which is derived from the Greek ἀναρχίᾱ (anarchia), meaning “without ruler/authority.” The circle is actually a letter O for “order.” This relation of anarchy and order originated in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon‘s What Is Property? (1840): “As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.” As Cindy Milstein notes in Anarchism and Its Aspirations (2010), the Circle A

symbolizes anarchism as a dual project: the abolition of domination and hierarchical forms of social organization, or power-over social relations, and their replacement with horizontal versions, or power-together and in common—again, a free society of free individuals.

Circle A

The notion of anarchism being inseparable from order is confusing for many, given that “anarchy” is often used as a synonym for “chaos” and “disorder.” This usage is a pejorative one, coined and popularized by anarchism’s opponents. Any anarchist who has ever sat through a five-hour long meeting that operates by consensus is well aware of the validity behind Proudhon’s equation of anarchy and order.

Nonetheless, the term “order” has negative connotations for many anarchists, who likely associate it with the State’s incessant calls for “law and order“: a rigid, formalized and inhumane structure imposed from above by those in power to maintain the coercive and repressive systems of control from which they benefit. Anarchism requires a different sort of order and provides the tools necessary for visualizing and enacting it.

In calling this blog “Circle Aleph” and designing a corresponding logo, I have sought to present a convenient way of referring to a uniquely Jewish variety of anarchism (or perhaps a uniquely anarchist brand of Judaism?). The letter aleph in Hebrew roughly corresponds to the letter A in English. In Hebrew, “anarchy” is rendered as אנרכיה (anarkhiah), which begins with the letter aleph.

The circle in “Circle Aleph” represents the Hebrew letter samekh, which is written as a circle in Hebrew cursive. It just so happens that the Hebrew word for “order” is סדר (seder), which begins with the letter samekh. Another Hebrew word for “order” is משטר (mishtar), but this means “order” in the sense of “regime” or “authority.” In fact, the term’s feminine corollary, משטרה (mishtarah), is the Hebrew word for “police.” Clearly, mishtar and mishtarah are incompatible with anarchism.

Seder, however, conveys order in the sense of a particular and intentional sequence, a method of organizing something so that it functions more effectively. The communal meal served during Passover is called a seder for this very reason, because it is organized according to a very specific and meaningful order. Seder can also refer to the particular sequence of prayers during a service. Thus, the “Circle Aleph”—the unity of anarkhiah with seder—suggests the potential for Jewish communities to explore meaningful and novel forms of prayer and ritual that are embedded in tradition yet responsive to the communities’ unique needs. It suggests that there is an anarchist way of practicing Judaism, as well as a Jewish way of being anarchist.

Like “order,” seder does have its share of difficult associations with law and control. Each of the six major divisions of the Mishnah—and by extension the Talmud—is known as a seder. For instance, the division of the Talmud that establishes the rules that govern women (e.g., marriage, divorce, widowhood and adultery) is called Seder Nashim, “Order of Women/Wives.” Here too an anarchist mode of relation is sorely needed as a corrective for a rabbinic Judaism that, at its worst, has grown rigid and conservative. It must not be forgotten that at the core of the Talmud—beneath the frustrating and unimaginative culture of blind allegiance that has often sprung up around it—lies the Mishnah, which reflects an early rabbinic culture that valued dialogue and debate. The very structure of the Mishnah is predicated upon the premise that even dissenting opinions deserve to be recorded, that the lone voice from the margins still contains the potential for insight and thus deserves inclusion in the canon, where it awaits its time of usefulness.

Circle Aleph

Nor must it be forgotten that the standard mode of studying Talmud is in a pair known as a chavruta, which shares a root with chaver or “friend.” The precious fellowship and equality that characterize so much of Jewish history must not be obscured by the Jewish mishtarah (“police”), who would wield Talmud as a weapon to impose mishtar (“authority”) when a measure of seder (“organization”) is all that is required. On “Circle Aleph,” I want to suggest that there is a way of engaging with Judaism’s sacred textual and legal traditions that is both faithful to anarchism and authentically Jewish.

Finally, I have created another logo (as seen on the Circle Aleph Facebook page!) that combines the “Circle Aleph” symbol with four colors that typically appear on anarchist banners: Red stands for classical labor anarchism (anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism. Green represents green anarchism and anarcho-primitivism. Purple symbolizes anarcha-feminism. And pink stands for queer anarchism. All of these strains are crucial components of anarchist efforts and have something vital to contribute to—as well as gain from—Jewish anarchism and anarchist Judaism.

Blaming the Victim: On Avigdor Lieberman’s Colonialist Logic

3 12 2010

I have mixed feelings about branding Israel as a classical European colonial state. While this comparison is apt and instructive in many valuable ways, I have found that it is often wielded as a blunt instrument that obscures critical details and undermines productive discussions about Zionist history and Palestinian liberation. Nevertheless, I have to admit that the Israeli Right’s racist treatment of Palestinians and its expansionist commitment to settling Jews on Palestinian land are so classically colonialist (in both conception and execution) that to avoid describing them as such would be nothing short of disingenuous and harmful to healthy dialogue. Case in point:

Avigdor Lieberman (courtesy Israel MFA)

On December 2, Haaretz reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had blamed Arabs for the fact that a significant number of Israeli Jews advocate the undemocratic treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens. Speaking on Israel Radio, Lieberman claimed:

The ones responsible for these [poll] results are the people demonstrating, in 2010, inside Israel, holding portraits of [current Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah and chanting support for Hezbollah, those people who support Hamas and stand with Hamas against Israel—like [Palestinian Knesset Member] Hanin Zoabi, who joined that [Gaza flotilla] ship with the most anti-Israeli activists we know.

Lieberman was referring to the 2010 Israeli Democracy Index, an annual poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute that was released this week. According to this sobering report [emphasis added]:

54% of Jewish Israelis support full equality of rights between Jews and Arabs. As in 2009, however, 53% of Jews agree with the statement that the government should encourage Arab emigration from Israel…. What is more, 70% of Israeli Jews are opposed to having Arab parties join the government.… Similarly, 86% of Jewish Israelis agree with the statement that a Jewish majority should be required for crucial decisions affecting the fate of the country. In other words, a sizeable portion of the Jewish public does not consider the right to influence government decisions as an integral part of the civil rights to which Arab citizens are entitled.


the scales tilt even further in the direction of civil inequality when national security enters the picture…. Nearly two thirds of the Jewish respondents (62%) also maintain that as long as Israel is in a state of conflict with the Palestinians, the views of Arab citizens of Israel should not be taken into account on security issues.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the prevailing view among the Jewish public (50%) is that Israel should not follow in the footsteps of the United States (which during World War II placed its Japanese citizens in internment camps for fear that they would assist the enemy) and detain Arab citizens in the event of war or a grave security crisis. One third (33%), however, actually favor such a step in wartime (the remainder had no clear opinion on the subject).

The fear of upsetting the advantage of the Jewish majority is also reflected in the distribution of responses to the question of whether first-degree relatives of Arab citizens of Israel should be allowed entry into the state under the rubric of family reunification—something that many states recognize as a basic human right. More than two thirds (67%) of the Jewish public are opposed.

Jewish respondents were also asked to what extent they agreed with the statement: “It is acceptable to me that Israel, as a Jewish state, direct more funds to Jewish communities than to Arab ones.” The greater part of the respondents (55%) expressed agreement, while only a minority—albeit a considerable one (42%)—disagreed.

Lieberman’s defense of these disturbing views is not surprising. His Yisrael Beitenu party (Israel Is Our Home) is notorious for its hard-line stance on Israel’s Arab citizens. The party has been the driving force behind recent efforts to require new, non-Jewish citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Yisrael Beitenu was also responsible for introducing legislation in 2009 that would have criminalized the observance of Nakba Day by Israeli Arabs.

With the ample help of Lieberman and other anti-Arab politicians, Israel has consistently pushed the Palestinians (within Israel and in the Occupied Territories) to the breaking point. Yet to Lieberman, even simple acts of dissent—including civil disobedience and even free speech—are tantamount to sedition and terrorism. He views Palestinian resistance as the cause of racism, not its inevitable effect. The implication is that only by acquiescing to the irrational and inhumane demands of the Israeli state can Palestinians demonstrate that they deserve to be treated as human beings. Only by admitting they are unequal will Palestinians be included in Israel’s proud democracy.

President Andrew Jackson as the Great Father of the Indians (courtesy UC Irvine)

This is a classic case of blaming the victim. The tone and tenor of Lieberman’s comments about the recent poll results are strikingly reminiscent of numerous public statements made by white American politicians and commentators about Native Americans during the height of Indian Removal (i.e., ethnic cleansing). For instance, Judge Elbert Herring—whom President Andrew Jackson appointed the first commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1832—argued that the southern tribes’ “safety from persecution is to be found only in emigration. The remedy is in their own hands.” In Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, Michael Paul Rogin writes:

Herring would not admit that Indians responded to real grievances. He and [Secretary of War Lewis] Cass blamed the [Second Creek War of 1836-1840] neither on frauds nor on white seizure of Indian lands and violence against Indian families. They recognized that Indian starvation had played a role, but only in order to blame the Indian character. Improvident Indians had immediately spent the money they received for their allotments, wrote Herring. Faced with starvation, they committed depredations. Improvidence, combined with “those sudden impulses to which the Indians are liable,” led them to violence. Other Creeks might join the hostilities, in Cass’ words, because “of the predisposition of the Indian to war.”

Even the liberal social reformer and newspaper editor Horace Greeley expressed a paternalistic disdain for Native Americans. In 1860, Greeley wrote:

I have learned to appreciate better than hitherto, and to make more allowance for, the dislike, aversion, contempt wherewith Indians are usually regarded by their white neighbors, and have been since the days of the Puritans. It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines to convince anyone that the poetic Indian—the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow—is only visible to the poet’s eye.

Herring, Cass, Greeley and their ilk argued that the total subjugation and enculturation of the First Nations were the only ways to ensure the safety and survival of American citizens, especially the settlers who served as the vanguard of American territorial expansion. If whites harbored contempt for the Indians or molested them in any way, this was seen as an inevitable result of (and appropriate response to) the Indians’ own pathological degeneracy and barbarism. The tortured and racist logic that underlies Lieberman’s foreign policy is more than reminiscent of these justifications for Indian Removal.

To be clear, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the United States’ treatment of Native Americans are not perfect parallels. Nevertheless, at the very least, this comparison is instructive to the extent that it helps to illustrate an important point: Historical injustices and atrocities that are now almost universally acknowledged as such were, at one time, easily and widely excused through rhetorical manipulations that both appealed to and reinforced the status quo‘s chauvinistic disdain for its victims. I can only hope that, one day, the same clarity will prevail in Israel/Palestine.

What I Learned About Tzitzit by Watching SNL

29 11 2010

A few days ago, I was looking to procrastinate. So, I decided to watch the November 11 episode of Saturday Night Live, guest starring Anne Hathaway. I was two minutes into a particularly unfunny sketch about the travails of an aging news reporter, Herb Welch (played by Bill Hader), as he attempts to interview witnesses of a recent shooting. (You can watch the sketch here, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s pretty bad.) Suddenly, a familiar sight snapped me out of my malaise. It was a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) hanging on the wall behind Herb, one of its corners dangling haphazardly with tzitzit (fringes) still intact.

The tallit is clearly visible behind Herb Welch's outstretched arm.

Wearing a tallit is a mitzvah (commandment), and thus the tallit itself is imbued with special significance. The tzitzit are sacred, and the garment as a whole must be treated with respect. When tzitzit become excessively damaged or worn out, the entire tallit becomes invalid for use in prayer until the tzitzit are replaced. After removal, the damaged tzitzit must be disposed of properly. Many people bury them along with sifrei torah (torah scrolls) and other sacred objects. According to the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (Abbreviated Code of Jewish Law):

Even tzitzit that fall off and are removed from the tallit must not be thrown into a rubbish heap, because we slight thereby a Divine Command [mitzvah]. Some people are strict about discarded tzitzit and place them in a book to serve as a bookmark, because, since they have once been used for the performance of a [mitzvah], let another [mitzvah] be performed with them. Nor must one make any unworthy use of an old tallit which is no longer used for the performance of a religious duty. (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 9:19)

As far as I could tell, this particular tallit was still kosher (valid), so the rules against misuse were even more applicable.

The B'nei Or Tallit with matching bag and kippah.

My first reaction was disbelief, but a review of the video proved that it was indeed a tallit. Its white wool, dark bands, tzitzit and atarah (lit. “crown”; in this case, a decorative neckband) were unmistakeably and delightfully unique. I would recognize that tallit anywhere. You see, it is my tallit. I have one of the very same design: the B’nei Or (Children of Light) tallit created by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the 1950s. Whereas most tallitot have black or blue stripes, this tallit uses a variety of colors. In addition to being beautiful, it is also intricately symbolic. Each color corresponds to a different day of Creation, as well as to one of the sephirot (attributes of Hashem attested in Kabbalah).

Yes, that was my tallit hanging on the stained and crumbling wall of a messy apartment. Never mind that it was just being used as a prop on the set of a network comedy program. Some prop master or set decorator, almost certainly without realizing what it was, thought my colorful tallit looked ethnic enough (Anne Hathaway’s character is named Maria DeSalvo and is wearing a crucifix) to belong on the wall of this poor family’s dirty, inner-city apartment. That person placed it there and assured that it was drooping, as if ready to fall from the wall, in order to convey neglect and disrepair. So there my tallit hung, exposed and disrespected, behind a tableau of cheap buffoonery, with millions of Americans seeing it, yet not knowing what it was or what it means to me—what it means to so many of us. I felt personally wounded in a deep and intangible way, as if I was witnessing something that I loved being degraded in public, without anyone else even realizing it and with no way to make it stop.

It occurred to me then that perhaps this was all an overreaction on my part. After all, in the end, a tallit is just an object made of wool, thread and dye. This was merely an accidental, albeit inappropriate, usage of a cultural garment by someone who clearly did not know better, not an intentional gesture of antisemitism. With so many atrocities in the world being committed against Jews—and by Jews, for that matter—is it really appropriate for me to waste my time and energy on this? What is SNL‘s misuse of a tallit compared to the hateful mistreatment and vandalism of siddurim (prayer books) and tallitot? How can hanging a tallit on a wall insult my Jewish faith and betray my Jewish values more than the Jewish settlers in the West Bank who are declaring wells to be tourist sites and barring Palestinians access to these crucial water sources? What is more of an affront to Hashem: SNL using a tallit as a prop in a comedy sketch or Israeli agents abusing and dehumanizing Palestinian detainees? The answer should be obvious.

I am grateful for this healthy perspective, but the tallit on the wall still bothers me. This is the very garment that I wrap around myself when I pray, that encloses and shelters me like the wings of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence), that places its unmistakable weight on my shoulders and carries me beyond time and space to a sacred realm unlike any other. I hate that my tallit is being misused to reinforce bigoted stereotypes of ethnicity, poverty and violence, to help people laugh at a senile reporter asking children about a shooting they had witnessed. In real life, this sort of thing happens every day, with children serving as victims as well as witnesses.

Since I started writing this, I have come to realize that the presence of the tallit made me more attentive to the injustices lingering just below the surface of this sketch. Like a lightning rod, it served to focus my sense of justice and to clarify precisely what is so troubling about this sketch and society at large. Certainly, there is something quite appropriate and appealing about this interpretation. As the Torah says, “Look at [the tzitzit], and remember all the mitzvot of Adonai, and do them, so that you do not follow your hearts and eyes toward your lustful urges. Thus you will remember and perform all my mitzvot, and you will be holy to your God” (Numbers 15:39-40). According to Rashi‘s commentary on this verse, the word “tzitzit” has a numerical value of 600. If you add this number to the five knots and eight strings on each tzitzit, the result is 613: the number of mitzvot in the Torah.

In short, tzitzit are meant to function as potent visual reminders for us to live righteously, to embody the very best of what Judaism has to offer. This is their sacred purpose, and it’s far more precious that the tzitzit themselves. And so I have to admit, misused though they were, the tzitzit hanging on Maria DeSalvo’s wall nevertheless performed their intended function: they took me out of my normal life, caused me look at the world with renewed clarity, and made me think twice about laughing at poverty and violence. Who would’ve thought that Saturday Night Live would help to deepen my appreciation of tzitzit? SNL, I forgive you.

On the other hand, Justin Timberlake still has a lot of explaining to do…

"Chanukah? Dick in a Box."

Shavuot: Reb Zalman on the Book of Ruth

18 05 2010

Wednesday, May 19 is Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of “Weeks,” that traditionally marked the end of the seven-week grain harvest that began at Pesach (Passover). As such, it was one of the three traditional pilgrimage festivals (including Pesach and Sukkot, which also have agricultural significance). But even more importantly, Shavuot is also the anniversary of G-d’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

One tradition observed on Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. Why Ruth? There are three reasons. First, the book takes place during the grain harvest. Second, it discusses Ruth’s process of becoming a Jew (in other words, one who accepts G-d’s gift of the Torah). Third, Ruth is identified as the great-grandmother of King David, who died on Shavuot (according to the Talmud).

Ruth and Naomi, by Arthur Szyk (www.szyk.org)

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful story that depicts the love and devotion between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, as well as Boaz’s selfless charity. The Book of Ruth shows how love, loyalty and compassion—whether between family members or complete strangers—can create a sacred community that insulates its members from loss, suffering and deprivation. This simple and unassuming story provides one of the Tanakh‘s great models for how to live in the world.

One of my favorite ways to celebrate Shavuot is by watching Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi read the Book of Ruth. Reb Zalman translates the text into English from the original Hebrew as he goes, while adding his own unique and captivating commentary. Reb Zalman’s retelling is flavored with meaningful observations about Hebrew linguistic features, connections with subsequent rabbinic law, the rigorous nature of stoop labor (drawn from Reb Zalman’s work with Chicano labor leader César Chávez) and more. Throughout, Reb Zalman infuses the story with his own playful sense of humor, while also emphasizing—and, even more importantly, personally manifesting—the admirable quality of chesed (loving-kindness) exhibited by the characters.

The result is a remarkably original, insightful and moving version of the Book of Ruth that is also a journey through (Ashkenazic) Jewish history: from Yiddish humor and Jewish participation in the civil rights struggles in the US, through the hasidic communities and yeshivot of Ashkenaz, through the compilation of the Talmud in Palestine and Babylonia, all the way back to Judaism’s roots in the Israelite tribal consciousness, with its keen focus on G-d, family and the natural world. Honestly, this video never gets old for me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

There are seven parts to this video. All together, it runs about 35 minutes. You can find all seven parts here. Here is part one:

This video was filmed on Shavuot 5768 (2008) at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard great things from friends who’ve worked there. I’ll have to check it out. So should you.

(Thanks to Velveteen Rabbi for introducing me to this video last year!)

Remembering the Nakba: 62 Years Later

15 05 2010

Today is May 15: Nakba Day. Today, Palestians and their allies around the world will commemorate the Nakba (“Catastrophe”): the forcible expulsion and dispossession of roughly 700,000 Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Today, the UN reports that there are more than 4.75 million registered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Of these, nearly 1.4 million live in 58 UN-operated refugee camps. The total number of Palestinian refugees worldwide is estimated to be 5.5 million—the largest population of refugees in the world. Yet Israel has consistently refused to recognize the Palestinians’ right of return, as expressed in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Article 11. Moreover, Israel’s expulsion and internal displacement of Palestinians continues to this day, albeit on a much smaller scale than in 1948. In a very real sense, the Nakba never really ended.

Facts and figures such as these reflect the enormity of the refugee crisis, but they can hardly convey the intensity and brutality of the Nakba itself. Statistics cannot illustrate the extent to which the Nakba persists as an agonizing and oppressive trauma in the lives of the Palestinians who experienced it, as well as their descendants. Nor can numbers reflect the Nakba‘s incredible influence on modern Palestinian social, political, cultural and intellectual identity. It seems that there is simply no aspect of Palestinian life that remains untouched by the Nakba.

For a more intimate appreciation of the Palestinian experience of the Nakba, I would recommend Al Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe 1948 (1997), an hour-long documentary directed by Benny Brunner and Alexandra Jansse. Featuring interviews with Palestinian survivors of the Nakba, as well as Israelis who participated in the expulsion operations, the film humanizes the Nakba in a way that statistics never can.

This film is based on The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 by Israeli “New Historian” Benny Morris, who appears frequently in the film to provide historical context. In this book, Morris challenges the official version of Israeli history, which presents the Palestinian exodus as an overwhelmingly voluntary affair initiated after Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, at the urging of the neighboring Arab countries. On the contrary, Morris reveals that the Palestinian exodus began months earlier in December 1947, and that it was driven by a combination of attacks on Palestinians, fear of additional attacks and forced expulsions.

Unfortunately, the film exhibits many of the same flaws as Morris’ work, namely his insistence that there was no coordinated plan of expulsion devised by the Zionist leadership and carried out by its military forces. However, Ilan Pappé refutes this claim in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which argues that the expulsion of Palestinians was an intentional campaign, sanctioned (if not always explicitly ordered) from the top down. As such, the Nakba represents not an accidental side effect of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (as was long asserted) but rather a classic example of ethnic cleansing, which Pappé defines as “an effort to render an ethnically mixed country homogeneous by expelling a particular group of people and turning them into refugees while demolishing the homes they were driven from…. Later on, the expelled are then erased from the country’s official and popular history and excised from its collective memory.”

Another problem is that the film makes only passing reference to the Deir Yassin massacre: the murder of roughly 100 Palestinians villagers by Zionist paramilitaries on April 9, 1948. The film never describes the massacre in any detail or addresses its significance—a severe and surprising oversight. As Morris writes in Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001:

Deir Yassin is remembered not as a military operation, but rather for the atrocities committed by the IZL and LHI troops during and immediately after the drawn-out battle: Whole families were riddled with bullets and grenade fragments and buried when houses were blown up on top of them; men, women, and children were mowed down as they emerged from houses; individuals were taken aside and shot. At the end of the battle, groups of old men, women, and children were trucked through West Jerusalem’s streets in a kind of “victory parade” and then dumped in (Arab) East Jerusalem.

According to Jerusalem Shai commander Levy (reporting on April 12), “the conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. Whole families—women, old people, children—were killed, and there were piles  of dead [in various places]. Some of the prisoners [who had been] moved to places of incarceration, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors.” In a report the following day, he added: “LHI members tell of the barbaric behavior… of the IZL toward the prisoners and the dead. They also relate that the IZL men raped a number of Arab girls and murdered them afterward (we don’t know if this is true).”

Morris notes that reports of the massacre had a “profoundly demoralizing effect on the Palestinian Arabs and was a major factor in their massive flight during the following weeks and months. The IDF Intelligence Service called Deir Yassin ‘a decisive accelerating factor’ in the general Arab exodus.”

Deir Yassin, and other massacres like it, cannot be divorced from the general process of expulsion. As the quotations above indicate, the Deir Yassin massacre was part of a deliberate effort to liquidate the village’s inhabitants and, more generally, to spread terror throughout the Palestinian populace in order to coerce them to abandon their homes. Not surprisingly, Deir Yassin remains a powerful symbol of the Nakba in Palestinian memory and discourse.

To learn more about the Deir Yassin massacre and its role in the Nakba, I’d recommend this excellent 30-minute documentary produced by Deir Yassin Remembered in 2006:

Given all this, it should be clear why Palestinians wish to memorialize the Nakba. However, the truth of the Nakba is frequently denied by many Israelis, and attempts to publicly commemorate Nakba Day are met with harsh resistance. In May 2009, for instance, the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party proposed a bill that would ban the observance of Nakba Day and authorize prison terms of up to three years for violators. This controversial bill was watered down (now, groups that receive government funding can have that funding cut if they observe Nakba Day) and was subsequently approved by the Knesset in March 2010. Arab Israeli Knesset Member Taleb El-Sana stated:

[The bill] proves the failure of Zionism, which needs to legislate a law in order to force the Zionist narrative and to rewrite history during which the Zionist movement committed crimes against humanity on the Palestinian people….  The Palestinian people will continue to unify around [this] disaster, which is identical to the destruction of the First and Second Temples for the Jews, and will hold marches in full force until the Zionist movement recognizes its responsibility for the Nakba, until the Palestinian people realize their aspirations for liberty and independence, and until the refugees return to their towns.

Many American Jews are also resistant to formal acknowledgement of the Nakba. On his blog, Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, University of Chicago student Sami Kishawi reports that Hillels Around Chicago began circulating a memo around DePaul University last week, warning of Students for Justice in Palestine’s plans to host a die-in on May 13 in remembrance of the Nakba. The memo states, “In light of the upcoming Palestinian ‘Die-In’ protest tomorrow, it is critical that you be aware of the disturbing events scheduled to take place… in an effort to delegitimize the state of Israel. For many of you, this event may be offensive, upsetting or hurtful as there will be inflammatory language and literature on display. Please know that we are available to provide you with factual information about the history of and current situation in Israel.”

How is it possible that so many American Jews and Israelis could be so desperately opposed to any public recognition of the expulsion of three quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948? Why do public displays of mourning and resilience pose such a threat? Ilan Pappé eloquently captures precisely what is at stake:

The inability of Israelis to acknowledge the trauma the Palestinians suffered stands out even more sharply against the way the Palestinian national narrative tells the story of the Nakba, a trauma they continue to live with to the present…. [W]hat the Palestinians are demanding, and what, for many of them, has become a sine qua non, is that they be recognized as the victims of an ongoing evil, consciously perpetrated against them by Israel. For Israeli Jews to accept this would naturally mean undermining their own status of victimhood. This would have political implications on an international scale, but also—perhaps far more critically—would trigger moral and existential repercussions for the Israeli Jewish psyche: Israeli Jews would have to recognize that they have become the mirror image of their own worst nightmare.

The Keys, by Anne Paq (www.annepaq.com)

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