Posts

#MenschUp with Ushpizin

What qualities do you want to bring into your sukkah this year?

Here’s a download that features a classical set of Jewish values: lovingkindness, boundaries, balance, perseverance, humility, rootedness, nobility. (You might recognize those seven qualities as the “seven lower sefirot,” the qualities we share with our Creator that we cultivate each year during the Counting of the Omer.)

Print this on cardstock — hang the whole poster — cut it into cards and hang them around your sukkah — cut it into cards and have them on your table to spark discussion… the schach‘s the limit! Include these seven qualities among the ushpizin (holy guests) you invite into your sukkah this year.

We’re sharing this file as part of #MenschUp, a project aimed at promoting healthy (non-toxic) masculinity. As we build our sukkot, let’s build with Jewish values in mind. Download the file here on google drive:

Sukkot Downloads [Google drive]

There’s also a “Love Shack” downloadable flyer in that folder as well, and we’ll be adding more downloadable Sukkot resources to that google drive folder, so check back often!

Also, check out Steve Silbert’s Visual Torah artwork on RedBubble, including a poster for Sukkot (arising out of the book of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes) and a poster for Simchat Torah.

May our building be for the sake of heaven, and may the blessings of Sukkot flow into and through us all!

 

To stay up-to-date on happenings at Bayit, join our mailing list.

Mission Statement: Listen. Remember. Connect. Build.

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ha’azinu, Moses gives his final oration. At the beginning of his story he called himself a person of uncircumcised lips or impeded speech, (Ex. 6:30) but here he’s eloquent, pouring forth an impassioned mission statement for the children of Israel. Ever since the burning bush, Moses has been a figure of transcendence. He speaks face-to-face with God, he goes up to the mountaintop… In this final speech, his transcendence feels even more palpable, maybe because he knows he’s about to die. And he begins (Deut: 32:1) by connecting up to heaven. 

But leading the people has always required both connection with heaven, and rootedness on earth. Which is maybe why Moses has always had a partner. When Moses said he couldn’t go to Pharaoh because he can’t speak to people, God promised that Aaron would speak for him. And when Moses was too fiery, Aaron spoke to the people safely. Aaron was his connector, keeping him grounded. This time, it’s Joshua who is standing by his side. (Deut. 32:44)  Joshua is his new connector, his new “grounding,” balancing Moses’ heavenly energy with some earth.

Given that, it’s interesting that Moses doesn’t conclude his speech with an introduction of Joshua as the people’s new leader. That would have put the people’s focus on the person at the helm — first Moses, who’s in the process of stepping down; then Joshua, who’s in the process of stepping up — rather than on the message that Moses wants to convey. Moses wants to give over a mission statement for b’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel; the community that together wrestles with the Holy; our spiritual ancestors in Torah “back then;” all of us listening today.)

Moses says:

“Take all of this to heart. Teach it to your generations. This is not a trifling thing: it is your very life!” (Deut. 32:4647

Moses knows that his time is over. And Joshua’s time too will be temporary. Every person who serves as a leader is necessarily temporary. In this final speech, he aims to teach the people that this isn’t about us, the leaders who are privileged to serve the community. It’s not about me or him (or her or them!) or whoever comes after. This is about our core mission as human beings. This is about who we are and what we’re here for. Our mission as b’nei Yisrael is to hear, to remember, to be in relationship with the Holy, and to build mindfully from that place. 

Each of us is part of the chain of generations, the chain of tradition and transmission from our ancestors to our descendants (whether literal or metaphorical). In our place and time, each of us has building work to do: building on what came before us, and leaving good foundations for what will come next. But none of us is permanent. What’s permanent, says Moses in this week’s Torah portion, is God; heaven; earth; the whole of which each of us is a part. What’s permanent is the “Us”-ness that will continue after each of us is gone, and the mission we take on together.

Torah tells us that “God spoke to Moses in his bones on that day.” (Deut. 32:48) That verse is usually translated “on that very day,” but the use of the word עצם is striking. It can connote our bones, our essence, who we most truly are. Moses feels in his very bones that he is done. He feels in his bones that it’s time for a transition, and he consciously transfers leadership to Joshua — while making sure to focus not on them as individuals (no matter how extraordinary), but instead to focus on mission. Our mission is listening. Remembering. Relationship. Building.

May we feel that mission in our very bones… and may that somatic awareness inspire us to listen, to remember, to connect with each other and with God, and from there, to build.

By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Keystones: Great for Buildings, But Not for Relationships

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Vayeilech continues Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel, encamped on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Land of Promise. Three times over the course of the parsha, Torah instructs us to share this teaching (this whole teaching) with the community (the whole community): 

“Then Moses wrote down this Teaching… and instructed them as follows:… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community — that they may hear…” (Deut. 31:9-12)

“Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…” (Deut. 21:19)

“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)

Reading these words as this year of building Torah draws to a close, I find two lessons — and one warning! — for us as builders of the Jewish future: 

  • Read the whole plan

The Jewish mystical tradition regards Torah as a blueprint for all of creation. That poetic image may or may not resonate with us today. But even on a pshat (surface) level, Torah contains all kinds of injunctions about how to live and how to treat each other. Rules like, “remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy,” or “when you are reaping the harvest of your fields, don’t go all the way to the corners: leave food there for those who need to glean,” or “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Or, in R’ Mike Moskowitz’ translation, “Resist so that you may persist.”) 

These are Torah’s building instructions for us.  They’re the blueprint for building an ethical and spiritually conscious society. And in this week’s parsha, Torah is reminding us that we need to read (and hear) all of them. We may read these instructions through the lenses of Talmud and commentaries. (Indeed, Jews rarely read Torah on its own.) We may read these instructions through a mystical lens, or a poetic lens. But we need to keep reading them, and we need to read all of them — even the ones that may require major reinterpretation to feel live today.

If we’re building a house, we need to look at all of the blueprints: for the foundation and the plumbing, the electrical system and the walls. If we were to ignore the HVAC blueprint, for instance, we’d make some critical errors that would make the house impossible to heat or cool. Assuming that our architect is trustworthy, we need to pay attention to the whole plan. (If our architect isn’t trustworthy, we have a different problem.) Torah teaches that Moshe recited the words of this poem (meaning the Torah itself) “to the very end.” Be attentive to the whole plan.

  • Empower everyone to build

When there’s an intention to build together, we need to make sure that everyone is clear on the building plan. We can’t leave anyone out. “Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community,” says Torah. (Today we might regard “men [and] women” as shorthand for “the whole range of genders and gender expressions.”) And don’t leave out the strangers in the community, the outsiders, the immigrants, the refugees. Or maybe we understand “strangers” in a less literal way, as those already in community who aren’t yet on board with the building plan.

The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed. 

It’s not enough to merely write down “this poem” (the Torah, the blueprint, the building plan) — we need to “put it in [our] mouths.” Everyone needs to be able to take ownership of a piece of the building plan, to speak it in their own words, to articulate for themselves why this building work matters. Even as Torah shows us a top-down hierarchy (God speaks to Moshe who speaks to us), it’s instructing us to pursue empowerment and democratization. It’s instructing us to put the words of the building plan in everyone’s mouths, not just the general contractor’s.

  • Be careful…

God says to Moses, “When you die, the people will go astray.” (Deut. 31:16) This may be a warning about excessive verticality. It’s a warning about the dangers of conflating a leader — no matter how extraordinary — with the work they’re leading the community in doing. Every build team needs a leader, to dream and plan, manage and inspire. But if the members of the build team abdicate responsibility, that’s not healthy. Then — to borrow a different architectural metaphor — the leader becomes the keystone, and without them the arch will crumble.

We need to be careful about not vesting too much power in the hands of those who lead. That’s not healthy for leaders, and it’s not healthy for the community, either. Better to share leadership, share responsibility, and share vision with everyone. Empower builders to take up their tools together.  When we engage with the whole plan, from bottom to top — and when we each take ownership of the unique building that only we can do (the unique pearl of Torah that only we can teach) — then we’ll be able to build a world of justice and joy, a land of promise wherever we are.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Standing Together for What Matters

 

Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Everyone Needs a Break

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a set of instructions for when we enter the Land of Promise. Torah tells us to take our first fruits to a special place, tell a ritualized story, articulate gratitude for where we are, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest. In this ancient first-fruits ritual, I find a set of four instructions for us as builders. 

  • Take first fruits

In the Biblical paradigm, this meant the literal first fruits of the season’s harvest. Today when few of us farm (or even garden!), the first fruits are likely to be metaphorical. Maybe they’re the lessons we learned from the most recent round of building. Maybe they’re signs that we’ve completed a first step and it’s time to pause and prepare for whatever comes next. What are the fruits of your building labors this year? What have you built? Of what can you feel proud?

  • Tell a story 

Torah instructs us to go before the priest in the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name. For us, this might mean connecting with someone who’s operating in a leadership role right now. Or it might mean seeking out a trusted friend who can listen with keen attention and open heart. One way or another, go someplace that is meaningful, with someone who can listen. And then, Torah says, tell the story that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…” 

In Torah’s context, this is the story that leads to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. From that going-down flows a rising-up: that descent leads to our liberation, and to the next chapter of our communal narrative as a free people in relationship with the Holy. What might it mean for you, as a builder, to tell the story of where you came from and how you got to where you are? Can you see your descents as being for the sake of ascent, for the sake of growth and potential?

  • Articulate gratitude

Telling the story leads to bowing in gratitude before God. This may be the most useful tool in this week’s toolbox: gratitude. When we cultivate a mindset (and heart-set) of gratitude, then everything we encounter can become an opportunity to say thank You. And it’s not enough just to feel it: we have to speak it. Much like the way atonement isn’t considered real unless we speak our missteps aloud (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1), gratitude has to be named and spoken.

  • Celebrate 

Once we’ve identified the fruits of our labors, told our story, and spoken gratitude aloud, then we can join — in Torah’s paradigm, “with the Levite and with the stranger in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) — in celebration. Celebration is meant to be communal. We share our abundance with the Levite (those who have dedicated their lives to service) and with the stranger. We build the Jewish future not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those whom we don’t yet know.

These ancient instructions form the outline of the first-fruits ritual once followed in the Land of Promise and then at the Temple when it stood. I like to think that wherever we are can be a Land of Promise, if only we open ourselves to divine presence, if only we build in an upright and ethical way. Wherever we are can be holy ground. Wherever we are, that’s where we build. 

As we prepare for the end of the Jewish year, what is the building work we can lift up before God as we tell the story of how we came to be who and where we are? Let’s prime the pump of gratitude for all that we have, and all that we’ve been blessed to participate in building… and let’s celebrate as we prepare to take up our tools again in the new year to come.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Every Building Needs a Fence 

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ki Tetze, Torah says, “When you build a new house, make a railing for your upper story, so that blood-guilt not be held against your house should somebody fall from it.” (Deut. 22:8) What a powerful building instruction: whatever kinds of structures we build, we must prioritize safety.

The Hasidic rebbe known as the Maggid of Mezrich reads this as commentary on the psycho-spiritual process of building new interpretations of Torah. In his volume Ohr Torah he writes, “This [the verse about the railing] refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. Make a railing for your upper story…As it is, the upper story is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from G!d.” 

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert offers similar insight into the creative process. Her main point is the provocative notion that ideas are alive. She’s not being metaphorical: she means that ideas are literally living beings, though not made of physical material substance. This is not the way modern Western society usually thinks about the creative process! 

Rather than imagining that ideas are generated by extraordinary people (“geniuses”), Gilbert believes that ordinary people are approached by living ideas seeking a partner who will help them become manifest in the world. She roots this in the original meaning of the word “genius.” That word’s original usage held not that a particular person is a genius, but rather that a person has a genius. The term comes from the Arabic word djinn (usually rendered in English as “genie”). In this formulation, a genius is like a “muse” — a living idea that comes to a human being, wanting a partner to bring it into the world. 

Why might a modern builder choose Gilbert’s paradigm? One answer is that her outlook on building keeps the ego in check, much like the Maggid of Mezrich’s notion that an idea “comes not from you, but from G!d.” If the idea is not yours exclusively or a product of your genius but an idea you’ve partnered-with to help it enter the world, or an idea that comes from G!d, then it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfall of excessive ego and pride.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes, “But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward…’” She sounds a lot like Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l, who often said, “Ego is a great manager and a lousy boss.”

Whatever we build — whether a house, a poem, or a community — we need to remember that our ideas don’t come from us, but rather move through us. We are but partners in bringing new structures into the world. This type of “fence for our roofs” keeps our building work, and the structures we build, safe for all.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Giving is Who We Are

Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

When I was a kid, I loved watching my grandmother. After each visit to the doctor, when she got good news, she’d put a dollar in the pushkah (tzedakah box). Her joy in that ritual was contagious. I felt so good watching her do it. When the pushkah was filled, she’d donate the money. To this day, I try to continue that practice. 

In a child’s eyes, it was easier to share, to see the abundance in the world and not the lack. I had an easier time seeing the blessings the world had to offer, even if it didn’t always seem fair how those blessings were distributed. It felt simple to give as a nearly automatic response arising from gratitude. My grandparents shared with me a culture of giving and showing up for others. It’s what we did because it’s who we were.

Parashat Re’eh teaches the same thing. We must build a society based on giving. Giving must be what we do, because it’s who we’re meant to be.

If we really listen and pay attention (Deut. 11:13), hopefully we’ll love God – but Re’eh seems to care as much for what we do as how we feel. Re’eh teaches that if we really listen and pay attention, we’ll emphasize care for others in the way we build our world.

We’d tithe, so that “there will be no needy” (Deut. 15:4). We’d give naturally to those “who have no hereditary portion” (Deut. 14:27). We’d give to the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

We’d honor the flow of nature, the seven-year cycle of the land (shmita). 

We’d work actively to empower others. We’d release debts in the seventh year, so nobody would become a permanent debtor or underclass (Deut. 15:1-2).

We’d honor the fundamental dignity of people. Even in ancient days of bonded servitude, our ancestors freed servants after six years (Deut. 15:12). But freedom didn’t mean being let go empty handed and destitute (Deut. 15:13) — as the Union did with the Confederacy’s former slaves — but to make their leave-taking constructively possible by helping them learn to be self-sufficient and avoid enslavement to others out of lack of holdings and knowledge (Deut. 15:14-15).

Imagine if we treated people that way today. Imagine building a world that emphasized helping others be self-sufficient and avoid subjugation from lack of wealth or knowledge. Imagine the impacts for social policy – for migrant workers, prisoners, asylum seekers, people in recovery and more.

Why build that world? It’s not enough that we do it because we’re told to; merely being told isn’t working. Perhaps obedience had more staying power back then. Commandedness simply doesn’t hold much sway in the modern world.

A second approach also worked better then than now. Shai Held taught in The Heart of Torah that our ancestors believed that they’d deserve God’s blessing only by alleviating the suffering of others: only a society truly committed to erasing poverty was worthy of God’s blessing. That might well be true, but what a society deserves doesn’t make headlines. 

To fulfill the social vision of Re’eh, we need to confront the question that has confounded history. What can arouse us collectively to give generously to others? How can we build a community whose foundation is giving when commandedness and self-worth aren’t effective answers?

Enter neuroscience and the positive psychology of game theory.

One reason for our world of instant gratification is that social structures, things and priorities all get us hooked on dopamine hits. The rush of winning a video game (or something similar) is a potent life drug. If you’re thinking “that’s not me”, consider the buzz of your phone, the ping of an online sale and the tiny “congrats” of your digital step counter. If you’re reading this, odds are good that you’re hooked.

What if we could make giving feel as good as winning the lottery? That’s Sam Feinsmith’s question. He asks, “Have you ever had the experience where giving something away created a deeper sense of fullness or abundance in you?”

Science and history both teach that if we want to build a community in which giving is what we do because it’s who we are, we must change our insides. We must focus on the little dopamine hits of genuine altruism until the hits become our way of life, what we do, and thus who we are. 

If we’re lucky enough to live with a grandmother who teaches us by example to put a dollar in the pushkah, our insides learn by holy mimicry – from the outside in. And even if we once lived with such a person, for most of us those living examples are long gone.

But we can harness those dopamine hits and make new examples to follow. We can recreate in ourselves the routine that it feels good to give to others. If an app can ding when we buy, win, get an email or take our steps, then why not also when we give?

In ancient days, building Jewish community meant first having certain mandatory communal services – starting with a mikveh, a synagogue, a butcher (in the pre-vegan days) and the like. It’s core Judaism that a community isn’t Jewish without certain basics. One of those community basics now isn’t necessarily brick and mortar: it’s building a culture of giving.

Surround yourselves with people who give. Let them teach you by example. Get little dopamine hits from random acts of kindness, and sustained acts of giving. Build tiny reminders into your life. Put them everywhere. (And if you happen to be a bored software developer, let’s talk about building a Jewish giving app.)

Let many tiny acts of giving become what you do. It’s who we’re meant to be. That’s how we’ll build the community Re’eh envisions. That’s how we’ll build a community that truly loves God.

 

By Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

The Torah of Ikea

 

Part of a yearlong Toah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life. 

 

I’m a stereotype. Like many people (and especially some men), I have an aversion to following written instructions. I tend to believe that I can figure things out and build things all on my own instinct and intuition. Ikea furniture assembly instructions were for other people.

On my better days, my spiritual self knew how wrong I was. 

Among Jewish tradition’s many wisdom teachings is that sometimes we need instructions. Instructions don’t suggest that any of us individually lack intelligence or creativity. Rather, instructions are important because individual intelligence and creativity aren’t enough for a diverse collective to build and maintain a thriving community.

This week’s Torah portion (Eikev) records Moses telling all of Israel on God’s behalf: “You must faithfully observe all the instruction that I command you today, so that you will thrive…” (Deut. 8:1). This teaching is directed both to the individual and the community. When we follow these Divine instructions individually, the collective prospers.  This is a crucial concept of Judaism. Our individual actions should reflect our responsibility to uplift other members of the community.

Maybe this communitarian approach wasn’t obvious to our spiritual ancestors. Accordingly, Torah offered both carrots and sticks as incentive to follow God’s instructions – “blessings” of peace and prosperity if we followed those instructions, “curses” of strife and want if we didn’t.

On the “blessings” side, probably none of us can claim enough individual intelligence and creativity to promote a good life of prosperity, justice and security for all. Torah and spiritual wisdom traditions offer the time-tested expertise that our collective needs to build the most fair, safe and just world possible. On the “curses” side, we needn’t lay society’s ills at the proverbial feet of a retributive God: if only we’d followed instructions for building a fair, safe, just world! 

Torah does require observance of some rules that are beyond our comprehension. Jews merit Torah because of our willingness to naaseh v’nishmah, to do and then listen.  This reflects our faith that the objective of Torah is to construct a fair, safe and just world. 

There are times when Ikea instructions reminded me of Egyptian hieroglyphics and with, at best, an implied promise of only a slightly wobbly bedroom set. Ikea instructions didn’t explicitly lay out “blessings” of compliance and “curses” so I proceeded by building on my own intuition rather than following directions. Even so, I should have followed those instructions as best I could: it would have saved me hours of frustration.

Moses knew that we might prefer to follow our own designs rather than following instructions. He knew that we might get comfortable in our homes and lives, prideful in our capacity to pursue wealth and power on our own. In Torah’s words, we’d forget God and God’s instructions (Deut. 8:15-17).

Remember mom’s advice to hold onto the instruction manuals for kitchen appliances and home furnishings? Mom was right, and so is Torah. When things break, instruction manuals can help. When the world feels broken, the instruction manual we call Torah can help guide repairs: feed orphans, care for widows, befriend strangers, protect the land, nourish justice. Teach children these instructions so their wisdom may endure for all.

One more thing: instructions are important, but it’s about the building. We can’t sleep on an Ikea bed assembly instruction manual: we actually have to build the bed. Same with Torah. The world can’t thrive on study and spiritual aphorisms alone: we actually have to build the world that Torah’s instruction manual envisions.

Instructions don’t guarantee perfection: bad things happen to good people, and even the most dogged and diligent build-it-yourselfer might end up with a rickety bookcase. And instructions don’t ask us to ignore our intelligence and creativity: society needs more out-of-the-box thinkers and courageous people marching to the beat of their own drummers. But Torah’s tried and true spiritual designs have proved their worth over time – if only we’d follow the instructions.

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Gender… So the Neighbors Will Understand

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

We’re all in the “building” business, but often we don’t think about it. Even when we don’t try, we’re building our world and how we express key aspects of who we are in it.

Take gender. Gender is (and always has been) a cultural “construct.” Gender ideas, roles, identities and norms that we unthinkingly might experience as inherent to our lives and society around us are instead built. We receive gender constructions from the world around us, and we are not passive in this process. By our choices, we ourselves help build and perpetuate these gender constructions – or we tear them down and build new ones.

The double Torah portion of Matot-Masei is all about “constructs” – dividing land, building cities, relating between tribes, relating between enemy peoples and more. Torah’s text goes into great detail on these subjects, offering a “blueprint” for a future Israelite society in the Promised Land. 

This same text also lays a “blueprint” for gender roles in the Israelite society of 3,500 years ago. It affirms women’s autonomy to make vows, but lets fathers (for unmarried women) and husbands (for married women) annul them (Num. 30:2-17). In war between Israelites and Midianites, the text de-values Midianite women who no longer were virgins and condemns them to die, while saving virgins for absorption into Israelite society (Num. 31:15-18).

And for the daughters of Tzelofchad – who previously spoke up for their right to inherit with such directness that God changed the law to redress their exclusion – now Torah made another change. On complaint from men in their tribe, Torah limited whom these heroic women could marry, so that women’s inheritances couldn’t pass beyond the tribe (Num. 36:1-13). That’s how the Book of Numbers ends.

Of course, it was no ending. Whether Torah was diminishing women – or, as many scholars believe, slowly improving the status of women in an ancient context that had little or no sense of gender equality – we’ve been wrestling these gender-constructing words ever since.

Some 3,500 years later, one result was Yentl – the 1983 Barbra Streisand movie adapting the 1975 Broadway play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who first wrote the 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

In the opening scene, a bookseller enters the village of a young woman named Yentl passionate to learn. Trying to attract customers, the bookseller calls out, “Picture books for women, holy books for men!” When he catches Yentl reading a holy book (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of Jewish mysticism), the bookseller looks at her disapprovingly and tells her that she is in the wrong place. Not missing a beat, Yentl asks the bookseller to explain “why.” Annoyed, the bookseller quips dismissively, “Because it’s the law!”

Later at home, Yentl begs her scholarly father to study Talmud with her. The father agrees, then goes to close the window shutters – to hide the fact that he teaches his daughter. When Yentl questions him about this, her father answers, “God, I trust will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Gender constructions! Torah (“God,” for Yentl’s father) never banned women from learning or leading – but the “neighbors” were another matter. History took the tone of Matot-Masei, and its underlying societal notions of gender, and relegated women to “picture books.”

Gender constructions! A war in which the Israelites were to kill all Midianites, male and female, instead saved the “pure” (virginal) women and killed the others.

Gender constructions! The daughters of Tzelofchad – Machlah, Tirtzah, Chaglah, Milkah and Noah – weren’t inherently disqualified from inheriting but rather were treated that way by their society. The “law” purporting to state that “fact” wasn’t unchangeable: even the “law” we attribute to God could change.

All of these stories – and countless others in Jewish life – both reflect and respond to the deep truth that gender is built. We learn that we live in gender structures built by history, and we also learn that we participate in this ongoing building project whether we say so or not. 

If we too are builders, we must actively build gender ways that serve now and serve the future.

That means using today’s eyes. Dubious academics aside, we don’t fully know how women were viewed during Torah’s time. We have pieces and clues, but they’re not all clear and none of us were there. Thus, while we know what the Torah text says, we don’t fully know what the text assumes us to know of its context. We think we know what was – but we don’t.

We can’t fully see yesterday – yet often we think we can. Torah, tradition, history, myth, legend and momentum all can seem so sure, so alluring and so powerful that they convince us that we know what was. If we happen to resonate with our (right or wrong) understandings of what was, then all the easier to honor and perpetuate them. If we don’t resonate with them, then all the easier to ditch them and devalue the Jewish context in which we believe they arose. 

But there is a third way, and this third way is critical. The third way is to remember precisely that we don’t fully know what was. When we allow for this un-knowing about the whats and whys of gender constructions we received from history, our questions and critiques can stand alongside history. What’s more, they can become some of our most powerful tools for building the future.

So let’s remove all of those blind assumptions. Let’s drop ideas that don’t have truly clear foundations in spiritual history – that there are only two genders, that any gender should have diminished agency, that any role in spiritual life should be reserved or privileged for just one gender. And then let’s do the really hard work of uprooting those impure ideas from our world, our hearts, our communities – whatever the cost.

God, I trust, will understand. Now let’s work on explaining it to the neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.