Us, God and Challah

touching the challah

“Everyone touch someone who is touching the challah!”

by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

It’s hard for me to resist an easy pun, so when I decided to teach a Shavuot session on challah and how this seemingly innocuous bread is rooted in a fraught relationship between the Jewish people and God, I couldn’t help myself; I named the session, “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and Challah.”

We began our tikkun leil session by each sharing a memory of challah from our childhoods. We then asked and attempted to answer the question: Why do we eat challah on Shabbat?

Looking through Numbers 15 (click here to access the entire source sheet/study guide), we learned that the mitzvah of challah comes from a commandment in the Torah to set aside a loaf of bread for God “as a gift.” And why 2 gift-loaves, and not just one? Because as the Israelites wandered in the desert, God “rained down bread” for them from the sky – aka manna – and on Fridays, two portions of manna fell, so that the Israelites would not have to gather food on Shabbat.

As we read through the manna story, it became clear that manna was 1. Given by God quite begrudgingly, and 2. That the Israelites mistrusted that God would continuously and consistently provide them with food. The episode of the manna quickly became a test of Israelite faith; the Israelites were ordered by Moses to gather only as much manna as they could eat each day; any manna stored for the following day would rot and become infested with maggots.

The rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras had a field day with this enmeshed relationship as the Israelites sought safety and comfort in sustenance and God used food to teach them a lesson. The rabbis considered a variety of lenses through which to understand the relationship:

Rabbi Tarfon imagined God gently extending a hand each morning to deliver the manna like dew, and he imagined that at the same time, God collected Israelite prayers and returned with them to heaven.

Rabbi Shimon wondered why the manna didn’t simply descend once a year, and suggested alternately that 1. God wanted closeness with the Israelites, and thought that their reliance on daily deliveries of manna would reinforce the bond; 2. God wanted to reassure the hungry Israelites that they would consistently be provided for; or 3. God didn’t want to burden the Israelites by making them carry a year’s worth of manna as they trekked through the desert.

So: what are your earliest memories of biting into this sweet and complicated bread? How does challah keep you anchored to God, your ancestors, or tradition?

Belonging in America

By Etta Heisler

I was delighted to dive back into Jewish education at this year’s Shavuot celebration. For five years I worked at the Jewish Women’s Archive writing curricula and supporting Jewish educators as they incorporated contemporary Jewish texts and women’s voices into their work. Upon returning to my roots here in Ann Arbor (and quite literally as a program director at a nature center), I had no idea how much I was missing getting to dissect, share, and explore Jewish texts in this setting.

A quick note: this Shavuot, it was particularly meaningful for me to do some teaching as I continue to mourn the recent death of my Savta, my grandmother Dr. Diane Averbach King. My Savta was a passionate educator and respected scholar, in addition to being a doting and committed grandparent. While much of her work focused on Hebrew and Israel education, she is one of the few people I could always call to talk through ideas, struggles, or interesting new sources. I greatly appreciate the AARC community for inviting me to participate in this way–I cannot say enough how meaningful it was to connect with her memory at this time.

In my session, we explored our own experiences belonging–or not–in Jewish community before diving into four non-traditional “Jewish texts” that depict Jewish life in America: a photograph, a page from a newsletter, an excerpt of letter from a daughter to her parents, and a screen shot of a social media post. I have included the text study packet via Google Drive–feel free to use it or share it, just make sure you give credit where credit is due!

Thinking about the current political state of our country, and of the Jewish community both in the US and globally, there were several ideas that rose to the front of my mind as I looked through sources on jwa.org for this session:

  1. What is the relationship between personal identity and community identity?
  2. What makes, or who defines, a community?
  3. How does one know if one is “in” or “out” of a given community? In other words, how does one know if one belongs in a community or not?
  4. What is the relationship between inclusion (saying who is in) and exclusion (saying who is out) in creating community?

As we looked at each source, we started first with observation (I do, after all, work in science education, so we followed the scientific method). I like to use some standard questions adapted from the method of Visual Thinking Strategies: “What is going on in this source? What do we see/read that makes us say that? What information is missing or confusing?” After we explored, looked for evidence, and hypothesized, I provided some additional historical context and we asked “What more can we see or understand? What more do we want to know?”

In the end, our conversation barely got started before time was up (perhaps next year, we’ll have an all-night session?!). However, our wide-ranging discussion did leave me with a few observations that I think we might be able to use to draw some generalities around the idea of “Belonging,” our theme for the night:

  1. There are many forces that create belonging, some are experienced internally in individuals, and some are experienced externally in groups.
  2. One does not have to feel that one belongs in order for others to see them as part of a community.
  3. Search for belonging can sometimes lead to cohesion and sometimes to separation, or even bigotry.

I encourage you to take one, some, or all of these sources and explore them on your own, with friends at a Shabbat dinner or lunch, or a chevruta learning partner either face-to-face or virtually. What questions do these sources raise for you? What lessons can they teach us, or what insight can they provide about our contemporary communities? How do they help us understand our own sense of belonging–or exclusion?

Thank you again for this tremendous opportunity. Looking forward to learning more!

 

Jewish Views on Reparations

by Clare Kinberg

May 19th, Erev Shavuot, was an evening of study, cheesecake and blintzes for AARC. There were four study sessions; I hope to do a blog post on each one:

  • Jonas Higbee: “Building a Community Response to Fascism: Lessons from Richard Spencer’s Visit to MSU”
  • Clare Kinberg: “Shavuot4BlackLives: Jewish Views on Reparations”
  • Etta King Heisler: “Belonging in America:  What is Belonging and How Does it Broaden, Limit, Deepen, or Otherwise Define Our Community?”
  • Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner:  “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and…Challah?”

First up, my session on “Jewish Views on Reparations.” My impetus for the session was “Shilumim,” the shavuot4blacklives study guide put together by Graie Barasch-Hagans, Koach Baruch Frasier and Mackenzie Zev Reynolds and distributed by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ).

Shilumim is the Hebrew word meaning ‘reparations;’ ‘Leshalem’ is ‘to pay’ from the same root as ‘shalem,’ to make whole. The concept of the study guide is to extend the theme of Shavuot, which Jews begin to count down to on the second night of Passover, the beginning of our liberation, and which traditionally ends with the revelation at Mt Sinai, the receiving of the Torah seven weeks later. Graie, KB and Mackenzie suggest we extend this trajectory another several weeks to end on Juneteenth (June 19) with a focus on what is needed to fulfill liberation. That is, reparations.

Shavuot4blacklives introduces the study by reminding us when the Vision For Black Lives Platform was released in 2016, many members of the Jewish community had strong reactions to the way that Israel was characterized in the document, particularly the use of the word “genocide” in connection to the Palestinian people. At the same time, “Jews of Color in our community called on all of us to remain committed to the Movement For Black Lives, to racial justice, and by extension, to Black Jews no matter what.” They offer this study guide on the reparations sections of the Platform as one way to do that.

The Israelites despoiling the Egyptians. Image from f. 13 of the ‘Golden Haggadah.” 1325–1349

Our discussion was framed using Aryeh Bernstein’s essay, “The Torah Case for Reparations,” in which he draws on many places in Torah to conclude “Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation.” The Bernstein article, a long, worthwhile read (with lots of excellent links) is a specifically Jewish follow-up to Ta-Nehisi Coates 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

As Bernstein’s essay based itself on Torah, Rabbi Sharon Brous’ LA Times Opinion piece, “Why Jews Should Support Reparations for Slavery,” is based on a rabbinic dispute in the Mishna:

Gittin 55a:12

§ The mishna teaches that Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Gudgeda further testified about a stolen beam that was already built into a building and said that the injured party receives the value of the beam but not the beam itself. With regard to this, the Sages taught in a baraita (Tosefta, Bava Kamma 10:5): If one robbed another of a beam and built it into a building, Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners. And Beit Hillel say: The injured party receives only the value of the beam but not the beam itself, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent. In order to encourage repentance, the Sages were lenient and required the robber to return only the value of the beam. The mishna was taught in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel

I included in our discussion packet two pieces on Affirmative Action that have relevance to our current moment, a moment in which political concord among representatives of Black and Jewish communities is needed, yet is unfortunately characterized by significant discord.

One recent example of the discord: When Starbucks announced that they were closing for an afternoon (Tuesday, May 29) to do a company-wide training on racial bias, they initially included the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as a consultant on the training. The inclusion of the ADL was immediately met with push-back from some Black activists, which, in turn, was met by dismay from many Jews who think of the ADL as an outstanding leader of anti-bias education. Contemporary Black activists cite the ADL’s frequent coordination with law enforcement and the ADL’s support for U.S. police being trained on crowd-control and counter-terrorism in Israel.

I brought into our Shavuot  discussion my own perspective which relates back to the 1970s when, to my dismay, the ADL argued against Affirmative Action programs, then among the chief policy proposals advocated by African American organizations. The ADL had determined that Affirmative Action was not good for the Jews. Our Ann Arbor community should be interested in the history revealed in this 2003 article “Jews temper views on affirmative action”:

“In the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 decision against affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Jewish groups lined up in vocal opposition to affirmative programs. In that decision, the court banned quotas but allowed racial criteria to be used in admissions decisions. This time around [2003], their positions are more muted, as well as more diverse. Only the Anti-Defamation League, one of the then-staunchest leaders of the national fight against affirmative action, has filed a brief opposing Michigan’s program.”

I included the 2017 article “Affirmative Action as Reparations” to make the link between the current arguments for reparations and the original thinking behind Affirmative Action.

Menachem Begin protesting against the Reparations from Germany Agreement in March 1952. The sign reads: “Our honor shall not be sold for money. Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We shall wipe out the disgrace!”

Finally, I included the Yad Vashem Shoah Research Center document on “Reparations and Restitutions,” which, to the surprise of most of us at the table, begins by saying, ‘From 1953-1965, West Germany paid the State of Israel, Jewish survivors, and German refugees hundreds of millions of dollars in a symbolic attempt to make up for the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.” The early growth if Israel’s economy was made possible by this money, yet it caused deep division among Jews.

There is a lot of information in this blog, and I hope much food for thought. The comments are open below for any who want to continue this discussion here.

 

AARC Shavuot 2018: Belonging, Behaving, Believing

“In 1934 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote his classic text Judaism As Civilization. Kaplan taught that there are three ways of identifying with a religious community: by believing, by behaving, and by belonging…And it’s true that no matter what Jews believe, and no matter how Jews behave, there is an underlying, fundamental and intrinsic interconnection that ties us together in a common history and present reality.”

–Rabbi Joe Klein

Celebrate Shavuot with a Night of Learning

Saturday May 19, 7-10 pm at the JCC

Choose from 4 study sessions taught by AARC community members

Eat cheesecake and other dairy sweets

Bring a box of grain to donate to Food Gatherers

Close the evening with Havdallah

7:00 PM:  Gather

7:15-8:15:  Jonas Higbee: “Building a Community Response to Fascism: Lessons from Richard Spencer’s Visit to MSU” (‘Behaving’)

7:15-8:15:  Clare Kinberg: “Shavuot4BlackLives: Jewish Views on Reparations” (‘Behaving’)

8:15-8:30:  Cheesecake Break

8:30-9:30:  Etta King Heisler: “Belonging in America:  What is Belonging and How Does it Broaden, Limit, Deepen, or Otherwise Define Our Community?” (‘Belonging’)

8:30-9:30:  Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner:  “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and…Challah?” (‘Believing’)

9:30-10:00:  Havdallah

Our Measure of Grain

“Memorial Tablet and Omer Calendar” by Baruch Zvi Ring, 1904. Paper cut, pencil, ink and paint. Owned by the Jewish Museum in NYC. Baruch Zvi Ring (Ringiansky) came to Rochester from Vishya, Lithuania, in 1902. Please visit this artwork on the Jewish Museum website to learn more about the incredible intricacies in this work.

Our Beit Sefer, led by our Yeledim class (Bass, Ben, Ellie, Isaac, Joey, Miles, Molly, and their teacher, Shlomit) is collecting boxes of grains (pasta, cereal, rice, etc) to make a collective donation to Food Gatherers. We started collecting right after Passover and we will continue through Shavuot. By collecting donations for the Food Gatherers, the Yeledim are learning to connect the Jewish holiday cycle with a need in our community.

We are commanded by the Torah to bring, on the second day of Passover, a measure—an omer—of the first cutting of our barley harvest to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to G‑d, and not to partake of that year’s grain crop until that offering is made. We then count 49 days, and on the 50th day, which is Shavuot, we bring the first of our wheat harvest as an offering to G‑d, and we do not use of the year’s wheat crop for Temple offerings until this is done. Hence, the 49-day count leading from Passover to Shavuot is called “the Counting of the Omer”—a reference to the omer of barley that was brought on the first day of the count.
(from “Grain, Growth and Goodness” by R. Shlomo Yaffe)

The Yeledim have set a goal of collecting as least 49 boxes of grain, one for each day of the Omer. And you can help! We will be collecting this Saturday, May 12th at the JCC during Second Saturday Shabbat morning services, and also at our congregational observance of Shavuot on Saturday May 19th.

Isaac Asimov’s Book of Ruth

I’ve written about Shavuot several times over the past few years. In 2015, I wrote on the culmination of the counting of the Omer and the concept of “our lives as torah.” Last year, when Loving Day and Shavuot fell at the same time, I reflected on Jews and interracial marriage. In that blog, I recounted reasons I’d found that we read The Book of Ruth on Shavuot, “…the story takes place during the seasonal harvest that the holiday marks; Ruth’s acceptance of the Israelite faith is analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah; and because of the legend that King David, a descendant of Ruth, died on Shavuot.”

Last week my friend Abbie Egherman told me about the 1972 Isaac Asimov book, The Story of Ruth. Abbie is on a search for books that will inspire us, as Jews, to become more deeply and actively involved in refugee support and resettlement. According to Asimov’s memoir, his retelling of Ruth’s story is a long essay treating the book “as a plea for tolerance against the cruelty of the scribe Ezra, who forced the Jews to ‘put away’ their foreign wives.” Asimov’s essay places the story in context of the culture of the time it was written, but his purpose, as explained in his memoir, was to reflect on the potential of any people to become persecutors when in positions of power. In particular, he wanted Jews to look at our own history, situations in which we have been in power as well as eras when we have not.

There will be plenty of time to discuss Asimov’s reflection, as well as other retellings of the Book of Ruth at our congregation’s Shavuot gathering.

 

AARC Shavuot in Stages

May 30, 2017

Everyone Welcome

RSVP Here 

Location: Marcy Epstein’s home, 1307 Henry St.:

6:30pm Holiday blessing, Parsha Study, and Spring Soup

7:30 Community celebration with flower strands and wreaths and Ice cream treats

8:30 “Many Books of Ruth” Real storytelling, with wine and cheese tasting

Also:

May 31st 6:30-7:30 Yiskor/Memorial Serivce at the JCC

contact for Marcy: dr_marcy@hotmail.com

Loving Day and Shavuot

Diaspora mapping at Jews of Color National Convening May 2016

Diaspora mapping at Jews of Color National Convening May 2016

This year, 2016, the Jewish festival holiday of Shavuot, and the celebration of Loving Day, fall on June 12. This has set me to musing. Shavuot is our celebration of the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, and Loving Day commemorates the day in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all laws (which still remained in sixteen states) that banned interracial marriage. It is celebrated by interracial families around the globe, according to the lovingday.org website, to fight racial prejudice and to build multicultural community. This is the first year that Shavuot and Loving Day have occurred on the same day.

On Shavuot, Jews traditionally read the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman who, after her Israelite husband dies, joins her mother-in-law Naomi, and confirms her Israelite identity with the words, “whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” The reasons given for reading Ruth on Shavuot are that the story takes place during the seasonal harvest that the holiday marks; that Ruth’s acceptance of the Israelite faith is analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah; and because of the legend that King David, a descendant of Ruth, died on Shavuot.

The confluence this year of these two holidays is an opportunity to think about Ruth’s words in today’s racially tense and divided world, at a time when many of our families are interracial and there is a growing recognition that Jews are a multiracial people. Traditionally, we view Ruth who, as a convert, leaves her Moabite self behind and throws in her lot with the Jewish people. Today we understand marriage and all relationships as reciprocal: Ruth and Naomi will need to lodge where each, and both together, are accepted and safe. Today we recognize and appreciate that individuals bring all of themselves into their relationships and families. We don’t ask a convert to cut themselves off from their past, or leave out any part of themselves. And corollary to this, we recognize that, as a multiracial people, all Jews are affected by racism. Which makes me think: How would our community and our lives be different if each of us would say to each individual in our community “whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and our God is one.”

Saturday June 11, 7:30pm: Shavuot–the celebration of our receiving the Torah. Judith Jacobs will host us at her house, and serve the traditional blintzes. Sign up here to attend. We’ll read a retelling of the story from “Listen to Her Voice: Women of the Hebrew Bible” and then focus on a chapter of “Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story” (Please note, this gathering is instead of our Second Saturday service that morning.)

This year’s Michigan Loving Day celebration is in Grand Rapids, hosted by Ebony Road Players.

“We heard God’s words without using our ears.”

Shuli and Me“We heard God’s words without using our ears.” So Shavuot is described at the end of Shuli and Me: From Slavery to Freedom, the storybook Omer calendar by Joan Benjamin-Farren you will hear at the AARC havdallah and Shavuot observance. The story, told from a freed slave child’s point of view, imagines those first seven weeks in the desert. We have been following the cloud. Today we are camped at the foot of the mountain. We’ve washed our clothes. We are waiting.

After havdallah, Rabbi Michal will lead us in a discussion of approaches to the concept of torah; the capital “T” Torah, the five books in our traditional scroll, and other uses of the concept of torah. A couple that speak to me, for instance: In a Kol Nidre sermon Rabbi Mona Alfi quoted the medieval scholar, Bachya ibn Pakuda: “Days are like scrolls, only write on them what you want to be remembered.” She explained, “In essence, what Bachya ibn Pakuda was saying is that each life is a Torah for future generations to examine and learn from.”

A description of Carol Ochs’ book Our Lives as Torah: Finding God in Our own Stories, says “Through the process of seeing our experiences in relation to Biblical stories, we begin to recognize our lives as part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people–as Torah.”

Let’s meet there, at the mountain, and discuss: May 23rd 7:30pm till ? At the home, still, of Rabbi Michal and Jon Sweeney, 2960 Lakeview Drive. Dairy, dessert potluck. Early evening all ages, after havdallah for adults, childcare available. Email Clare or Rabbi Michal.