Saturday, 15 January 2011

Velveteen Rabbi

For several years now I have been inspired by the Jewish-American wisdom coming from the pen of Rachel Barenblat, who writes a blog under the title of "The Velveteen Rabbi", whose blog motto has been "When can I run and play with the real rabbis?". Having received ordination from ALEPH - the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Rachel is now Rabbi Barenblat, and has changed her motto to "Now running and playing with the real rabbis!" At the same time, this talented woman has also just seen publication of "70 Faces",  poems written in response to the Torah in the longstanding tradition of midrash. (1)

Rachel Barenblat is also a believer in ecumenism participation. In June 2007, the Rev. Mark Lewis, rector of Church of our Saviour, Secaucus, N.J., presided over the interfaith baptism of twin boys in which rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat and Islamic scholar Hussein Rashin participated by offering Jewish and Muslim prayers during the service.

She is also notable recently for acting to improve Jewish-Muslim relations. The New York Times reported this story:

On August 26 2010, a drunk man barged into a mosque in Queens, NY, urinated on the carpets [in the entrance] and yelled anti-Muslim slurs at the worshippers. When she learned of the incident, ALEPH Rabbinic Student Rachel Barenblat was appalled. She wanted the mosque's community to know there are many Americans who haven't given in to the wave of anti-Muslim hatred washing over the nation. Rachel put out a call via Twitter and on her "Velveteen Rabbi" blog, passing a "virtual hat" to help the mosque steam-clean the rugs. Many of the first contributions were from friends, but soon donations began to roll in from others - from across the religious spectrum. Many contributors said things like, "Thank you for giving me something I can do." Within 48 hours, Rachel had raised $1,180, mostly in small contributions of $5, $10, $18 and $20. She observed on her blog - "I'm sitting back and marveling at the awesome things we can accomplish when we pull together.A few people mentioned being low income; many people said they wished they could give more. But small donations add up, and there's something incredibly moving for me in the fact that we raised over a thousand dollars in one weekend in this way. I hope we've been able to show our Muslim friends and neighbors (offline and online) that despite the recent rise in Islamophobia, those who are preaching fear and hatred do not represent all of us. Within a few days of initiating the appeal, Rachel sent off the check, which mosque administrators have told her will go toward buying a new prayer rug.

The entries on her blog are too numerous to pick the best. But here are a few to give a flavour of her writing.

On "The entrance to the tent", she looks at the story of Abraham (Avraham), and transforms it into a reflection on our own encounters. In this story Abraham meeting with God takes the form of meeting three strangers. She writes:

The Hasidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk says that the word ohel, "tent," hints at holiness. (Probably because later in Torah, when the Israelites are carrying the portable mishkan / dwelling-place-for-God through the desert, it's referred to sometimes as ha-ohel, "the tent.") Avraham is sitting at the petach, the entrance or opening, of holiness. That reading transforms this line: it's not just about Avraham sitting in the doorway of his tent on a hot day, but rather, he's sitting in an existential state of openness to holy encounter. No matter where we are, we can strive to be like Avraham. We can know ourselves to be at the opening of holiness, the doorway to a meeting with God. Avraham's meeting with God takes the form of a meeting with three strangers; if R' Elimelech's teaching holds true, then he challenges me to see the strangers I meet as faces of God. Try this on for size: "I am sitting at the entrance of holiness, and the people who appear to me are divine messengers." The people at the coffee shop; the guy behind the counter at the post office; even the person online who's giving me a hard time -- all come from God. How does it feel to aim, even for a moment, to emulate Avraham in this way?

On "This week's portion: hatch", she reflects on the story of Jacob, when he leaves Laban, and his wife Rachel steals from her father the household gods to take with her. She asks:

But what does it mean to steal the household gods? This question came up in our Torah Journeys class last week, and we had a fabulous conversation about the poetic imagery of Rachel sitting on the idols as though they were eggs she intended to hatch. That's the idea which gave rise to this week's Torah poem. We don't tend to think in terms of household gods anymore -- the term puts me in mind of Aeneas taking the Lares and Penates, wrapped in his toga, as he flees from burning Troy -- but I like the idea that there is something each of us takes from our household of origin when we set off on our own to create our own homes and families. What from my parents' household has come with me the long way from south Texas to western Massachusetts? What did I bring with me, knowingly and unknowingly? How do the talismans and the stories of my childhood continue to shape me and my house, and what will they mean to my son as he grows? Does any of this resonate for you?

These comments certainly resonate for me. It is not just possessions, although still have an wooden ship that was my grandfathers, and a framed picture of an old seaman smoking a pipe that was my great-aunts. There are also the formative influences of childhood; my mothers determination to always be fair with myself and my sister and not play favourites, and learning that her parents played favourites with her elder sister, and that influenced her to act in the opposite manner. The pleasure of beach combing, and being soaked by a spring tide as it splashed over the sea wall (and trying to dodge it). Learning about the Jewish faith from my parents generous and tolerant friends, and being thus appalled by the ignorance of anti-Semitic attitudes at school. My love of books, from being taken to the library. Science from being given as various birthday presents, chemistry sets, and the joy in trying out experiments. Gathering limpets for the cat to eat. Helping out at charity events because my mother believed we should learn to do our bit, even as children. My physics teacher lending me a copy of E.F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful", and how this book profoundly reshaped my thinking. These are some of the memories, and these feed into attitudes, into ways of looking at the world. It's not so much the physical possessions that shape who we are, and which we want to share with our own children; it is the patterns that have shaped our lives.

And here is the lovely poem Rachel writes as a reflection on Rachel pondering what she brought with her when she left her home with Jacob:

The question no one asked:
what did I want to bring with me

from the old hacienda, every rock
and bush familiar as my own palm?

What talismans of my childhood
could I sequester in the saddlebags

and sit on like a mother hen
brooding over her speckled eggs?

Even my husband doesn't understand
how these old beliefs shaped me

how my curves and corners fit
snug against what I've rejected

and what I embrace, even him,
even here in this goatskin tent

where my father's household is only
a memory clouded with distant dust.

Rachel's blog, however, also draws upon Jewish traditions to reflect on the need for social justice. She comments as follows about Rabbi Daniel Brenner, and she says that "he notes that immediately following one instance of the Torah's most oft-repeated verse (about loving the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt), there is an injunction about honest weights and measures. He writes:"

Why is a law about strangers followed by a law about honest measurement in the marketplace? Because in order to create a society which treats the alien as the natives are treated, we must begin by creating a just, transparent, economic system. One which does not cheat immigrants, one that does not create a second class of citizens who must hide in the shadows for fear of imprisonment and deportation...

And she brings that into a reflection on the Passover Seder meal, which involves eating "the bread of affliction", and challenges the idea that it should just be a symbolic act, and no more:

So when we raise our matzah in a couple of weeks and intone, "this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt," we need to ask ourselves, who's eating the bread of affliction now, not because it's a symbolic Passover gesture but because it's the only bread they have? And what can we do about it, once we open our eyes? (3)

Lastly an extract from her "Haggadah of Pesach". The Haggadah (Hebrew:  "telling") is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Jewish Passover Seder. She put together her own version, and has worked and reworked it over the years. It is Judaic, but within the Jewish renewal movement. To understand it, this example is a reflection on the plagues of Egypt, and how we can take it up and look at the plagues afflicting today's world:

Midrash teaches that, while watching the Egyptians succumb to the ten plagues, the angels broke into songs of jubilation. God rebuked them, saying "My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?" As we recite each plague, we spill a drop of wine-symbol of joy-from our cups. Our joy in our liberation will always be tarnished by the pain visited upon the Egyptians.

Insect swarms
Cattle plague
Death of the First-Born

These plagues are in the past, but today's world holds plagues as well. Let us spill drops of wine as we recite: these ten new plagues.

Apathy in the face of evil
Brutal torture of the helpless
Cruel mockery of the old and the weak
Despair of human goodness
Envy of the joy of others
Falsehood and deception corroding our faith
Greedy theft of earth's resources
Hatred of learning and culture
Instigation of war and aggression
Justice delayed, justice denied, justice mocked...

Shekhinah, soften our hearts and the hearts of our enemies. Help us to dream new paths to freedom, so that the next sea-opening is not also a drowning; so that our singing is never again their wailing. So that our freedom leaves no one orphaned, childless, gasping for air. (3)

For following up on social justice, she blogged on the Rabbis for Human Rights - North American Conference, which covered the following observations:

Gordon Tucker text study on the dignity of work and the indignity of slavery
Renewing America's commitment to human rights panel
Torture in Jewish Law and Values led by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub
Text study on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights led by Rabbi Miryam Glazer
Vision for the RHR-NA led by the RHR-NA staff
Muslim text study/conversation with Munther Darjani
Abrahamic Religions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Arnie Eisen, David Gushee and Sulayman S. Nyang
Zionism, Israel and Human Rights with Avrum Berg, Munthar Dajani and Paula Hymen
Opening Ceremonies of conference
Religious Jew, Secular Zionist: R. Art Green on Jewish Theology and Israel
Beyond Guantanamo, Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture, with two lawyers from the Guantanamo defense team.
Rachel Barenblat's closing reflections on the conference (4)

The link below gives the summary page, for anyone interesting in following up and seeing what was discussed at this conference.

And from her closing reflections, she writes:

It's important to have a space in which one feels at-home. I think this is especially true for those of us whose political stances may be to the left of the American mainstream. Those of us who feel strongly about issues of social justice, and whose political and ethical orientations are shaped by our religious convictions, can feel twice-marginalized: first, marginal as Jews within American culture writ large, and then marginal within mainstream Jewish community as supporters of, say, equal rights for Israelis and for Palestinians alike. Being part of a group like Rabbis for Human Rights allows us to affirm the ways in which our faith and our politics are inextricably intertwined.

The RHR conference offered me the opportunity to engage with some difficult realities. Listening to Avram Burg speak about the situation in Israel today; listening to Rabbi Brian Walt, who just led a RHR delegation to Israel, describe the racism and oppression he witnessed; listening to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub talk about torture, and then listening to Gita Gutierrez' unbelievably powerful remarks about American use of torture at Guantanamo and how we are all culpable in what our nation has done there: these were not easy. Often I came away drained. My heart hurt. It made me cry.

But the conference also offered me the opportunity for learning and for connection, which can heal the very heartsickness that the difficult material can induce. I come away strengthened in my sense that my Judaism calls me to work toward a just society, in my certainty that the prophetic call to justice still resonates in my religious community today, and in an awareness that I am not alone in caring deeply about these issues. I came away with a deeper sense of being part of a larger Jewish social justice community. And I came away inspired to find ways to do the work I need to do to help repair the world, an obligation which is incumbent on all of us. (5)
I think it is equally important for those of us who are working towards and regarding matters of social justice in Jersey should also meet; I would like to see a conference, not with a narrow minded "Imagine Jersey", which puts management (and fixes the available options) at the heart of government, but looking at how fairness and a just society come first, and draw upon our own traditional roots, and consider what needs to be done to improve matters, and only after see how such a change might be managed. There are times when politics should take a back seat, and principles should be considered first.


1 comment:

rbarenblat said...

Dear Tony! Thank you so much for this gracious and generous post. I'm honored that you read my blog so avidly. Thank you for the kind words about the blog, about 70 Faces, about my recent happy events, and about the work I'm trying to do in the world! Many blessings to you.