Helping Move Others to Brighter Futures: Elianna’s Service Year in Review

“It’s really powerful to be connected to people and organizations in the fields of social justice and change-making in Maryland,” says Service Corps Member Elianna Cooper (2020-2021 DC cohort). 

Elianna has spent the last year serving as the Montgomery County Community Organizer for Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). The organization’s work spans issues including state-level immigrant rights, prison reform, and police accountability. Much of Elianna’s work has been tied to the legislative cycle, changing what her role looks like on a day-to-day basis. Before session, for instance, she focused on political issue education and helped set up pre-session meetings with legislators. During the session, she watched Maryland Senate and House hearings, facilitated watch parties, and tracked the status of different bills. 

Elianna focuses on advocacy, helping volunteers to prepare and give legislative testimony, going to actions, hosting legislative watch parties, and organizing political education events. One of her fondest memories took place at the very end of the Maryland General Assembly, during which the legislators worked until midnight. Elianna and her JUFJ colleagues hosted a virtual Zoom event that framed this level of dedication with a Jewish lens. “It was really powerful to be on Zoom until midnight with people that were also engaging and watching the session until the very last second.”

JUFJ’s model works in coalition with locally based partner organizations, allowing Elianna to engage with various community leaders. “The JUFJ leader base is full of incredible, smart and kind people who are really invested in the work. I’ve enjoyed learning and growing from them. Through my placement, I have grown a lot professionally. I’ve been given substantive opportunities and robust responsibilities.” 

Her ability to handle those responsibilities have secured another opportunity for her — a job. Elianna will be staying on at JUFJ after her service year ends. “Throughout this work, I developed immense respect for the work that JUFJ does and the ecosystems where they work. I had a couple conversations with my supervisor about whether there was an opportunity for me to stay and we found that there was.”

Elianna and friends.

Outside of JUFJ, Elianna said she appreciates Avodah’s holistic approach to its Service Corps. She added that the communal living and Avodah programming she’s experienced over the last year has provided her with a “great space” for reflection and introspection, both privately and in community with others who are on similar journeys. 

She offers this advice to our incoming Service Corps cohort: “Approach everything with a deep sense of curiosity — be looking for the things you find engaging and resonant. Also, be confident. You have a lot you can contribute to your house, community and placement. You’re there to learn, but also to contribute.”

Elianna is excited to be continuing her advocacy work through JUFJ. “I really believe in change at the systemic level. A lot of the issue areas that myself and my housemates work on are, in a lot of ways, big and complicated. But, there are also real solutions to them. Especially legislators and communities working together can do things to make things better. Community organizing holds such a key role in moving people and communities toward brighter futures.”

Jewish Spirituality as a Life of the Law: Halakha and the Jewish Left — D’var Torah for Parashat VaEthanan

In our parasha, Moshe, in his final charge to the Israelites, completes the recapping of their story which occupied last week’s parasha and moves into his review of the mitzvot (commandments) and multiple exhortations not to abandon them upon entering the land. After warning them not to add or detract from the mitzvot, and reminding them how harshly God can punish violators, Moshe says the following (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:5-8):

“Look, I have taught you laws and statutes, just as YHWH my God commanded me, to do accordingly within the land which you are about to enter to inherit. And you shall observe them and do them, for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations who will hear all these laws, such that they should say, ‘Surely, this is a wise and discerning people, this great nation!’ For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?”

There are a couple of striking things about this passage, regarding the nature of Jewish law. First, it is the laws that are considered our wisdom before the nations, inducing them to proclaim our greatness. Other aspects of Jewish life may surround the mitzvot, but ultimately, the epicenter of our Jewishness before the nations is the mitzvot, which will wow our neighbors with their insight and justness. Second, not only are the laws good, but it is the laws that demonstrate God’s closeness to us. We should not understate the distance between the rhetoric of these verses from contemporary, (Christian?), popular conceptions about law and spirituality. Over the last century and change, many Jews — both those who reject mitzvot as well as those who observe them — claim that mitzvot and halakhot (commandments and laws) are arbitrary or meant to be not understood or that the pursuit of any reason for a mitzvah beyond “God commanded it” is futile and a waste of time. Religious versions of this philosophy can be found most explicitly in the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz and more elegantly in the writings of various rabbis of the Soloveitchik dynasty, including Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. That worldview is undercut by the Torah itself in these verses, which assert that the mitzvot should be so transparently comprehensible that non-Jews, upon learning about them, say, “Wow, what a smart and just law for a smart and just people!” Moreover, against a popular conception that the real heart of a spiritually connected life is ecstatic, rapturous, or meditative personal engagement with God, the Torah tells us here that it is our laws which impress our neighbors as reflecting a deep closeness with God.

The Torah’s conception seems pretty far from our experience. How could the Torah think that mitzvot would have such an effect?  To put it differently, how does the Torah here imagine the laws to be, so that they will have that effect in the world? And where does this passage point progressive and radical Jews to a relationship with halakha, Jewish law?

First of all, if the laws are our “wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations,” then that means that Halakhah must not be esoteric; it is meant to be accessible to anyone. One of the tests of any ruling or argumentation should be whether it can be comprehensibly explained to reasonable people who are curious and interested, even if they are not well-educated in Rabbinic texts or currently highly practicing of mitzvot. It also means that Jewish law must engage with the wisdom of the world. Rav Sh’muel bar Nahmani says in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: What is the source for it being a mitzvah to calculate astronomy? As it says, ‘for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations’. What are the wisdom and discernment that are in the eyes of the nations? Astronomy” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 75a). Jewish law must refract through the people’s wisdom, wherever it is located in any time and place. Halakha is not a list of stuff of interest to a clique; it is a culturally-specific prism through which we refract wisdom, a culturally-informed language through which we communicate knowledge and morality with the world.

Second, if Jewish law is meant to be widely and popularly inspiring, that means that it cannot be monovocal. It’s agility and potency must make room for human dispute, in accordance with the different assessments of reasonable people to the values at hand or the likely consequences, costs, and benefits and different choices. Good decisions are those considering values and consequences. Bad decisions are those that mechanically crunch supposed rules or formulae without translating them to the situation at hand. I can understand and respect a particular ruling in its own context while positing that in my own context, it would play out differently. Healthy mahloket (dispute) focuses on these actual differences of viewpoint.

Third, Torah must also be alive and growing. An early, medieval midrash captures what Rabbinic law is supposed to be in a parable offered by Elijah the Prophet to a “heretic” who embraced the written Torah, as a static, Divine text, but rejected Rabbinic, oral teachings. Elijah responded: “It’s like a king of flesh and blood, who had two subjects whom he loved completely. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. What did the intelligent one do? They wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it and arranged it on the table, spread the cloth upon it, and left it until the king returned. The foolish one did not do anything. After some days, the king came into his house and said to them: ‘My children, bring me what I gave you.’ One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh, what an embarrassment! Oh, what a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it!…(Similarly) when God gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make clothing” (Midrash Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2). There are wrong ways to bake bread and there is bad bread, as much as there can be unsubstantiated legal interpretation and disgusting legislation. But there are many kinds of equally authentic, delicious bread, reflecting the personality, culture, climate, geography, and many other influences on the baker. Good baking requires attention, hard work, and investment. It also suggests adding ingredients for delicious flavoring and even adding essential, external ingredients, just as water must be added to flour to turn it into bread. Most boldly, preparing flour for baking involves sifting, removing pebbles and toxins which the discerning eye knows to be extraneous to the flour. (I thank Rabbi Jason Rubenstein for this observation.) When is Halakha stupid and embarrassing? When I don’t knead, sift, and bake it, with the naturally occurring yeast in my environment.

Fourth, Jewish law must be inspiring and wise. It must be freedom. A midrash which we discussed earlier this year, on Parashat Ki Tissa, teaches an important lesson about the nature of Torah via a wordplay on the Torah’s mention that the first tablets of the Ten Commandments were “God’s work…engraved upon the tablets (haruth al ha-luhot)” (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:16). Though commentators note that this word “haruth — חָרוּת” is synonymous with the more common word, “harut — חרוט”, it is an unusual, even unique spelling of the word. This anomaly leads the Rabbis to interpret the “misspelling” as a play on words, imbuing the verse with a double entendre: “Do not read, ‘haruth – חרות – engraved’, but ‘heiruth – חירות – freedom’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 18:3). The Divine laws were physically carved into stone and they are engraved for us eternally as freedom. Three rabbis offer up different suggestions as to the nature of that freedom – freedom from mortality, freedom from political subjugation, or freedom from suffering — but they agree that mitzvot are freedom — not the false freedom which Toni Morrison exposes as mere “license” or personal choice (end of The Bluest Eye), but a communal, deep freedom from oppression. Leftists and organizers understand this very well. It’s the liberals who cherish everyone being able to do what they want. Leftists understand that that just means that people who have hoarded or been unjustly given excessive power will do what they want at the expense of people with less power, for whom freedom of choice will be a perverse, gaslighting, joke ideology. Freedom is law. Freedom is commandedness.

In light of the notion of freedom through law, the Rambam adds a sharp framing to his codification of the laws of pikuah nefesh, that saving a life overrides almost any other commandment, even a capital crime like Shabbat violation. First, the Rambam cites the law and its Scriptural hook, quoting the Talmud on Yoma 85b: “It is forbidden for one to hesitate to violate Shabbat for a sick person in danger, as is said, “‘that a person should do [the mitzvot] and live by them’ (VaYikra/Leviticus 18:5) – not that one should die by them.” The Rambam uncharacteristically goes off script, though, adding a comment beyond what the Talmud says there: “Here, you have learned that the Torah’s statutes are not revenge on the world, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace on the world” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 2:3). It follows, then, that if the mitzvot are achieving violence more than mercy, lovingkindness and peace, we are probably misunderstanding either what the mitzvah is (what it means, how it applies, and how to perform it), or we are misunderstanding the evaluation of mercy, lovingkindness, and peace.

Morality refers to our Divine responsibility as human beings. Halakhah refers to our Divine responsibility as Jews. These may not be totally co-extensive, but it’s impossible for them to be in conflict, unless we posit a cruel and capricious God. That means that if we perceive morality and Halakhah to be in conflict, we are misunderstanding one or the other, or both. Perhaps our perception of morality unfairly ignored a negative consequence out of the frame of our focus. Perhaps the proper ruling of Halakhah is counter to what we thought it to be: when you instinctively dismiss or reject a mitzvah, you might actually be sitting on a brilliant and necessary interpretive innovation as the application of that law in your circumstance. If the laws are to be our “wisdom and insight before the nations”, they must apply and extend morality, not compromise it, God forbid (literally). If the laws are to be accessible, morally compelling, and inspiring, that means that every law has purpose. As the Rambam writes in his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed: “Each one of the 613 mitzvot is either to instill true ideas or to remove bad ideas, or to give straight order, or to remove corruption, or to become accustomed in good character traits, or to warn off from bad character traits. Everything stems from three things – ideas, character traits, and collective behavior” (Book III:31). Rav Kook (1865-1935, Latvia, Palestine) famously asserts that real fear of Heaven always improves upon general morality and cannot undermine it: “It is forbidden for fear of Heaven to compress natural human morality, for then it is no longer pure fear of Heaven. A sign of pure fear of Heaven is when natural morality, which is rooted in the upright nature of man, is continuously uplifted by it [i.e., by the Torah] to levels higher than it had reached without it” (Orot HaKodesh 3:11). Mitzvot, properly understood, advance civilization. This is what impresses the nations.

Finally, the law is our greatest language of spirituality. The nations, witnessing many approaches to spirituality, are most moved by the spirituality of commandedness, communal wisdom, accountability, responsibility: “‘For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?’” The advent of Judaism as we know it, Rabbinic Judaism, coincides with God’s ceasing to speak to us through prophets. The Talmud (Bava Batra 12a) asserts that this reflects not a lesser, but greater, spiritual state: A Hakham (wise person), who has to use reason to figure out the Divine will, is preferable to a Navi (a prophet). Elsewhere, the Talmud (Gittin 56b) teaches that God’s silence is an expression of God’s greatness. These surprising sentiments are explained by the Jewish, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:  “Spirituality is offered up not through a tangible substance, but through absence. God is real and concrete not through incarnation but through Law, and His greatness is not inspired by His sacred mystery. His greatness does not provoke fear and trembling, but fills us with high thoughts. To hide one’s face so as to demand the superhuman of man, to create a man who can approach God and speak to Him without always being in His debt—that is a truly divine mark of greatness!” (from his essay “Loving the Torah More than God”, in the book Difficult Freedom). God’s silence is the greatest expression of love: God raised us, and showed us abundant love in giving us the commandments, through which we can achieve a life of justice and love, without having to return to the womb every step of the way. Such is a true life of mitzvot.

The most profound Jewish spirituality is a leftist spirituality: the spirituality of grounded, applied wisdom through law, the spirituality of endless responsibility and accountability, a true living Torah. Halakha awaits the Jewish left to speak it into its true being.

Shabbat Shalom.

Placement Perspectives: Service Corps Member Turned Supervisor

Diana and her daughter.

Diana Levy Moldovan has been involved with Avodah in multiple capacities, with involvement spanning more than a decade. In 2007, she became the first Service Corps Member to be placed at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ) — and she’s worked there ever since.

“My Avodah experience was awesome. I had just graduated college and I knew I wanted to be in education — I just needed to figure out how to do that in a sustainable way,” says Diana. “Being matched with SLJ was really amazing for me personally and professionally. It allowed me to get my master’s and stay in education long-term. I’m now going into my 15th year as an educator in New York City.”

The skills Diana gained during her service year prepared her to be a leader within her community and to be able to manage Service Corps Members of her own. 

“They have great, fresh ideas and are driven to do well. I’ve had a lot of Corps Members over the years and most of the time they stay with us if we have a position available. Many have stayed with us two or three years after Avodah.”

Diana said that the quality and caliber of Avodah’s Corps Members sets them apart from other young professionals entering the field and leads to a significant impact on SLJ’s students. 

“The mission alignment with Avodah is super important and helpful. Everyone we ever interview, they want to learn and to serve others. They want to share their passions. All of that is super important. It’s also helpful that Avodah vets people — we know that they go through a process to be selected for this program. Because they are opting into this program, I know they’re seeing it as more than just a job — this a career, a calling.”

In their roles, Corps Members spend time getting to know students and helping them find programs that fit their interests. The goal is to find high quality opportunities for the youth at the lowest possible cost. This not only supports the students in their daily lives, but also prepares them for the college application process. 

Diana recalls one Corps Member who had a lasting impact, even after their time with SLJ. She had gone on to earn a master’s degree and work for another, similar organization. She served as an advisor to a former SLJ student. “The student reached out to me and said, ‘This person is now my advisor and she has single-handedly gotten me through this year of college.’ That’s the impact. She learned the trade while in Avodah, and it was a huge stepping stone. She then went on and made a transformative impact for someone else.”

Diana personally attests, “Avodah absolutely helps young professionals get a foot in the door for long-term careers. Many Corps Members stay in the field they served in, whether they choose to stay with their placement organization or move on to somewhere else. It’s also a great stepping stone for pursuing graduate programs and advanced degrees. It’s either a turning point that shows them what path they want to take or sets them up really well for their next step.”

There are limited spots remaining for the 2021-2022 Service Corps year in our program cities. Interested applicants can apply at avodah.net/serve

Civility, Assuming Good Will, and the Threats of Powerful Saboteurs: D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim & Tisha B’Av

This week we begin the book of Devarim, Moshe’s great, booklong speech to prepare the people for liberated, responsible, landed civic life after his imminent death. At the beginning, he recalls desert history (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-13):

“YHWH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.  Turn and make your journey: go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the ‘Aravah, the hill country, the Lowlands, the Negev, the seacoast, the land of the Cana‘anites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. See, I place the land before you.  Go and take possession of the land that YHWH swore to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya‘akov, to give to them and to their seed after them.’ I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. YHWH your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. (May YHWH, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as promised to you.) How can I bear by myself the trouble of you, and the burden, and the strife!? Pick from each of your tribes people who are wise, discerning, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads…’”

There is considerable debate among the commentators regarding when in the desert narrative this appointment of judges and leaders took place, as it recalls, in different ways, both Sh’mot/Exodus 18:13-27 and Bemidbar/Numbers 11, especially verses 11-17 and 24-30. Be that as it may, how do we understand Moshe’s tone in our parashah? On the face of it, he is retelling the history innocuously: when God commanded them to leave the mountain and prepare to conquer the Land of Israel, Moshe pointed out that he did not have the strength to lead single-handedly through an undertaking of this magnitude, especially since, thank God, the people has become so numerous. Therefore, he inaugurated a more elaborate governmental system that was instructed to judge with full integrity.  It is in this innocuous, generous, descriptive light that the Ramban (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) understands that “trouble—טָרְחֲכֶם” refers to the overwhelming task of teaching Torah to so many people, “burden—מַשַּׂאֲכֶם” refers to praying on their behalf, by way of which he took upon himself the awesome burden of their needs and misdoings, and “strife—רִיבְכֶם” refers, simply, to their legal disputes (comment to Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:12). All three of these elements are natural aspects of civic life that imply nothing improper about the Israelites: decent citizens need educators, spiritual advocates, and judges, but naturally, when the population grows, one person can’t handle it all for everyone.

However, the language suggests a negative tone, implying that maybe Moshe rejected the people because he was fed up with them. All three of these words can mean what the Ramban says, but they more naturally cast aspersions on their object. More significantly, “How can I bear…” sounds like a leader at the end of his rope, lashing out at his intolerable subordinates.  This word, “How?!/אֵיכָה”, is known to us from the beginning of the megillah we read on Tisha B’Av (Eikha/Lamentations 1:1):  “אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה”— “How can it be that it sits all alone?! This city that was full of people has become like a widow!” This word reverberates through Megillat Eikha, also appearing in 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.  Similarly, in the haftara assigned to this week’s parasha, the prophet Isaiah exclaims, “אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים”—“How can it be that the faithful city has become a harlot; it was full of law, and righteousness lodged there, but now they are murderers!” (Isaiah 1:21).  It is a word that suggests disgusted shock at some proposition or situation.  For further examples, see Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:30, as well as Judges 20:3, which describes the brutal rape and murder of the Concubine of Giv‘a, which scandalized the entire people: “How could such an evil thing have happened?!” The Rabbis arranged the calendar such that we always read Parashat Devarim the shabbat before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn our personal and collective displacement and God’s terrible abandonment of the Jewish people. This arrangement suggests that the Sages wanted us to hear the word “אֵיכָה” in our parasha in Eikha’s tone of revulsion. If so, then we read those three words—trouble, burden, and strife—as a violent indictment of our behavior as a people. What did Israel do that was so bad? How did we manifest trouble, burden, and strife before Moshe?

Rashi (1040-1105, Troyes, France) cites a midrash in the Sifrei (c. 200 CE, Land of Israel) that offers a Rabbinic understanding of the cause of Moshe’s rejection of the people. (I thank Rabbi Saul Berman, who brought this midrash to my attention years ago.) The midrash explains as follows:  Moshe lashes out at “טָרְחֲכֶם—The trouble of you” because they were “torhanim—troublemakers”. A person on the losing end of a legal dispute would endlessly prolong the legal procedure, digging up more witnesses and finding any opening by which the conflict would be litigiously maintained. “מַשַּׂאֲכֶם—your burden” is because they clung to Moshe like sheets. If he left his house unusually early in the morning, they would spread rumors that he had been humiliated at home, ie, he had family problems. If he left home a little late, they would scare people by spreading gossip that he must have stayed late scheming against them.  They were privacy-invading rabble-rousers. They tried to destabilize legitimate authority through scaremongering, wild, unfounded gossip, and the malicious attempt to discredit honorable human beings. “רִיבְכֶם—your strife”, which the Ramban noted is a normal word for legal disputes, has a sinister connotation according to the Sifrei. They were nitpickers, always trying to cheat the system, get an unfair bargain, and perhaps murmuring legal jargon along the way (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #12). This midrash points toward one of Avodah’s central community norms, “Assume good will”. It is a premonition to the assault and exile of the Jewish people and destruction of our home that the Jewish people assumed hostility, tried to take advantage of each other, and escalated conflict.

The components of this midrash recall the most common reading of the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the most famous of the many Rabbinic explanations of why Jerusalem was destroyed (Gittin 55b-56a). What is the point of that story according to the most common retelling? That entrenched jealousies and pettiness tore Jewish society to shreds, while the unwillingness of those in power to intervene condemned this hemorrhage to be irreparable. The story is famous but bears repeating in full:

“There was a certain man whose friend was Kamtza and whose enemy was bar Kamtza. He once made a feast and said to his servant: Go bring me Kamtza. He went and brought him bar Kamtza. [The host] came and found [bar Kamtza] sitting there. He said to him: That guy is my enemy!. What do you want here? Get up and leave. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: I will pay for half of the feast. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza]said to him: I will pay for the entire feast. [The host] said to him: No, took him by his hand, stood him up, and escorted him out.

[Bar Kamtza] said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest, learn from it that they were content. I will go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. [The emperor] said to him: Says who? [Bar Kamtza] said to him: send them an offering [to be brought in honor of the government], and see whether they sacrifice it.

[The emperor] went and sent with him a three-year-old calf. While [bar Kamtza] was coming [with the calf to the Temple], he made a blemish on it….The Sages thought to sacrifice it anyway, for the sake of peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: But then, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed on the altar. The Sages instead thought to kill [bar Kamtza] so that he would not go and snitch. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: [If you kill him] people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. [So the Rabbis did nothing, bar Kamtza slandered, and the Romans had a fraudulent basis for attack.]”

The Talmud introduces this story by quoting Rabbi Yohanan teaching that “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza” and it’s tempting to interpret this to focus on the beginning of the story and the cruelty of the host who wouldn’t let the mistake go and tolerate the presence of his enemy. This reading passively assumes that their hostility was petty. However, in the continuation of the story, we find that bar Kamtza is a violent, vindictive rat who favors an oppressive occupying regime over his own people and tries to frame the Jewish people and condemn them to destruction. Let’s say the host and his guests were Black Panthers and bar Kamtza was a cop or friend of cops. Would it be wrong for the host to kick him out and refuse to be bribed to let him stay? If a party of any of our movement organizations was crashed by a supporter of the Capitol insurrection, would we be required to assume good will and preserve that person’s honor and enable them to hear our intimate movement conversation? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that that reading is supported by the text itself, which concludes with another statement of the same Rabbi Yohanan: “The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The real problem was that when movement leaders were trying to be pragmatic to de-escalate a crisis and preserve public safety, recognizing that standard rules might not be the most instructive in this crisis, one leader became let his cowardice immobilize himself, and “yeah, but” the movement out of bold action. Offer the invalid sacrifice. Maybe even eliminate the fascist informer in our midst. We’ll deal with fallout from that later; this is a time of crisis. (I thank Dr. Ethan Schwartz and Rina Sadun for their comments in a Facebook thread this week for stimulating my thinking on this story.)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs noted on Facebook a few years ago that since this Talmudic story is written hundreds of years after the events, and the Rabbinic movement didn’t even exactly exist as such at the time of the destruction of the Temple, we should read this story as later Rabbinic reflection on themselves: “We’re so accustomed to saying ‘if I had been alive at such and such a time, I would have been a Freedom Rider, resisted the Nazis, fought slavery, invited Bar Kamtza to dinner. It’s kind of an amazing act of self-reflection and self-admonition to say, ‘Actually, if I had been there, I wouldn’t have done anything.’ Now, perhaps the rabbis are trying to explain why they didn’t manage to save the Temple. And no question, there are hero rabbis as the story progresses. But in this moment, the rabbis don’t try to set themselves up as heroes, but rather acknowledge both the importance of bystanders, and the fact that most of us do not and wouldn’t have been that bystander who takes the risk of objecting.” That is what we mourn and grieve on Tisha B’Av.

Context is everything. The midrash on Moshe’s exasperated comment in our parasha is not teaching us to trust our political leaders no matter what, to put aside differences no matter how important they are, God forbid. The midrash is really talking about people like bar Kamtza, rich people with access to power who dig in on their pride to the point of exploiting, exhausting, or destroying the body politic. Who are the litigants who can afford to continually drum up frivolous lawsuits? Who has access to the means of spreading dangerous and frivolous rumors, of confusing fake news with genuine investigative reporting about our leaders? Who is able to cheat the system, hijacking legal jargon to whitewash it? Rich people with access to power. When the rest of us fecklessly enable their destructive grifting, sabotage, and ego trips, we wear down responsible leaders like Moshe. We also enable our own destruction and exile. Let us not be like feckless Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, who can’t distinguish between “normal” and “crisis” nor, God forbid, like the narcissistic saboteur bar Kamtza. Let’s not create the conditions in which Moshe gets so exasperated as to reasonably lash out at us in disgust.

Shabbat shalom and have a meaningful fast and journey through grief on Tisha B’Av.

Connecting with Divinity: Q&A with Service Corps Member Francesca Rubinson

In honor of Avodah’s 2020-2021 Jewish Service Corps graduation, we’re highlighting some of our outgoing Corps Members. We spoke with Francesca Rubinson, a member of our D.C. cohort about her next steps after Avodah. 

Where were you placed for your service year with Avodah? 

I work as a legal assistant at CASA, an immigrant justice and immigration legal services organization that serves Maryland, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In the legal department, I help immigrant youth renew their DACA status or now apply for DACA for the first time. I’ve learned a lot about immigration law as I prepare legal paperwork, and meet with clients either in person or via Zoom to confirm what kinds of protections they may be eligible for.

What do you enjoy the most about your placement?

I enjoy the opportunities to make a human connection with my clients. I came to Avodah having grown up in Washington Heights, a heavily Latinx neighborhood in New York City. I had a lot of friends and community members who were affected by immigration policy in different ways. 

I try to make a connection between myself and my clients. During the half-hour long immigration screenings I have to ask some pretty personal questions. I try to approach each meeting with gentleness, and a sense of humor if possible. Those are great moments to have, to not only be asking questions rapid fire.

Most of my clients came to the U.S. very young. I get to hear about what’s going on in their lives, with their families, workplaces, and communities. I talk to a lot of youth who are putting themselves through higher education and often working to support their parents and siblings. I really admire my clients’ resilience, I enjoy hearing their stories and forming connections. Even though DACA only provides temporary protections, I get to see its ripple effect on many people’s lives. 

Francesca making pierogi for her bayit.

Has this experience shifted a change in mindset for you?

I think this experience has gotten me more interested in the connection between Jewish-American history and modern immigration law and practice. In February, I was one of the people in the bayit who worked on the immigration issue salon, a Corps Member-led program about what we’re doing in our placements. 

When my group was coming up with what to share with our other housemates, I created a presentation on Jewish immigration history — ‘How did we end up in this place?’ It felt really interesting to do some of that historical research, and see the ways Jewish immigrants and refugees have faced quotas, long wait times, and discrimination. The parallels to today are obvious once you start to scratch the surface.

What’s next for you after Avodah?

I’ll be going to Harvard Divinity School, pursuing a three-year Masters of Divinity degree that combines the study of religion with skills in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. Being in Avodah helped me figure out whether or not I wanted to be ordained as a rabbi — I figured out that I liked the combination of academic study of religion with spiritual grounding. This training will allow me to be prepared for various roles, like working within a nonprofit or a university. 

I want to combine working in faith communities with social justice work. Part of why I am interested in this particular program is the ability to try out different field placements. One of the field placements integrated into the program is the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. I will be serving in a more social worker type of role – instead of only being a legal assistant – which gets me excited about the human connection aspect of immigration law. 

What advice would you give to the incoming Corps Members?

The work that Corps Members do in Avodah is really hard. A lot of us were helping people who were struggling with so many types of burdens, especially grief and isolation during the pandemic. We needed to support and lean on each other — the communal living aspect made our work so much richer and sustainable. Having the Avodah community to nurture yourself is a great resource while working for social change. 

“Then You Shall Be Clean Before God and Before Israel”: Public Service, Privilege, and the Place of Popular Opinion in Moral Judgment — D’var Torah, Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei

How do we know whether we are doing the right thing? Should we care what other people think of us as long as we’re doing what we understand to be moral and just? This week we read two Torah portions, Mattot and Mas‘ei, to close out the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. One statement of Moshe in Mattot seems to conflate Divine and popular approval; we will explore that statement and its interpretation in order to reach a deeper understanding of the place and time for adjusting our behavior to satisfy public opinion.

In Mattot, just as the people are finally ready to turn toward entering the Land, after forty years of wandering, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Menasheh ask Moshe for permission to settle where they were, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, on the lands newly conquered in the Amorite war: they had abundant cattle and those lands had excellent pasture (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:1). Moshe has a conniption: to his ears, this is a repeat of the fiasco of the scouts, 39 years years earlier, who aggressively denied that the Israelites could inhabit the Land and created a panic among the people. To Moshe, the request smacks of elitist privilege, which will sow resentment among the masses: “‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why would you turn the hearts of the Israelites away from crossing into the land that YHWH has given them?’” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:6-8). The tribes manage to calm Moshe down when they acknowledge and assuage his fears, promising that they will share the risks with everyone else, going to war with them as shock troops, only settling in their eastern lands afterward. Moshe’s language in agreeing to these terms raises questions about the place of popular opinion in the discernment of the moral: “‘If you do this…and afterward you return, then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under YHWH” (vv. 20-22). Our question is this: from the perspective of religious law, why does it matter and in what way does it matter that these tribes be “clean” or blameless in the eyes of their fellow Israelites? If they are blameless in God’s eyes, if they have met divine standards for just behavior, why does it matter what other people think?

There is an early, Rabbinic discussion about how to discern God’s will and follow it in ambiguous situations not governed by a clear commandment. In a passage we discussed last winter, three days after the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, God showed them how to purify bitter water and gave them their first commandment of the free times: “If you listen, really listen, to the voice of YHWH your God, doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes, giving ear to [God’s] commandments and keeping all [God’s] statutes, then every illness that I put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I, YHWH, am your healer” (Sh’mot/Exodus 15:22-26). Early 2nd Century sages probed the meaning of “doing what is upright” in God’s eyes, above and beyond observing the commandments (Midrash Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el, BeShallah: VaYissa‘ 1)

“‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’: These are the acclaimed stories, which are comprehended by the ears of every person….the words of Rabbi Yehoshua‘.

Rabbi El‘azar of Modi‘in says: ‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’ — this is business transactions, to teach that anyone who carries out business transactions faithfully, such that people are comfortable with them, is exalted as though they fulfilled the whole Torah.”

According to both rabbis, God’s will is discerned, in general, through popular, human consensus, either via the religious stories that resonate most broadly or via having a sterling professional reputation as a trustworthy person.

The notion that God’s will is discernible through human popularity finds even more explicit expression in one, classic, interpretation to the part of the Priestly Blessing asking that God shine the light of God’s face upon you “and show you grace” — “וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ” (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:25). One anonymous, Rabbinic voice understands God showing grace to mean that God “will give you grace in the eyes of other people” (Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar 41), adducing support from Genesis/Bereishit 39:21, where God shows Yosef favor by making his slaver like him, as well as Esther 2:15, Daniel 1:9, and, finally, Proverbs 3:4: “[Let kindness and honesty not leave you; bind them on your throat, write them on the tablet of your mind], And you will find grace and good consideration in the eyes of God and people”. According to this midrash, when we act responsibly, God will make others respect us and that is how we will know that God is pleased with us. This sensibility likely animates Rabbi Shim‘on’s famous teaching in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:13): “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name supersedes them all.” One may achieve religious distinction through learning, public, spiritual service, or government, but being well respected is, in this view, the superior indication of Divine grace and approbation.

How does this play out practically? What choices might be changed by taking this standard into account? Early Rabbinic sources heap praises on two priestly households who avoided any private use of goods similar to those of their specialty in Temple service. The House of Garmu were experts in making the Showbread and they are praised for never having bread from fine flour in their household, never feeding it to their children, “so that no one may ever say that they were fed with Showbread” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:5). It’s obvious to Biblical and Rabbinic law — no matter how widely violated in our world — that neither priest nor civilian may derive personal benefit from actual Temple goods: this is called “Me‘ila” and the Torah requires restitution with a financial penalty if one does this accidentally (Leviticus/VaYikra 5:14-16); it is strictly prohibited all the more so to derive such personal benefit intentionally, though there is some dispute as to just how severely this crime is punished (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 83a). In our case, though, the Garmu priests, of course, didn’t use fine flour actually belonging to the Temple. What they’re praised for is that they never used fine flour at all, even fine flour totally permitted to them. They denied themselves a basic, high-quality material good to prevent the public from casting a frivolous aspersion it would have no grounds to cast in the first place. The sacred bread artisans ate only cheap bread in their personal lives. Similarly, the House of Abtinus were experts in preparing the incense offering and they are singled out for praise because their entire clan completely abstained from wearing any perfume, “in order that no one ever say that they were perfumed from the pounded incense” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:6). In both cases, the Rabbis say that these praiseworthy abstentions from totally permitted goods are fulfillment of Moshe’s words to the 2 ½ tribes in our parasha: “then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22). When you’re in a position of leadership, the charge to keep a blameless reputation goes so far as refraining from privileges about which an ungenerous, tale bearing public might raise groundless suspicions.

This sensibility goes beyond post facto praise for meticulously scrupulous behavior to actual, legal regulations. The Rabbis ruled that a tax collector who finds a coin on the ground in public is prohibited from picking it up, even though you and I may do so if there is no accompanying marker through which we could hope to track down the person who dropped it. Not only that, but if someone who lawfully owes the tax collector money from personal business wants to pay them back, the tax collector is prohibited from accepting it while on the job. The law grounds these restrictions in the verse from our parasha: ““then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Tosefta, Pe’ah 4:15). If you collect public money, you may never be seen putting money into your own pockets, even if the money is totally separate and legal. It’s inviting distrust of the tax collection apparatus.

Similarly, various regulations accompanied the public servants tasked with allocating and spending money from the Temple coffers on Temple goods: “When one entered to do the appropriation of the Chamber, they would search him at the entrance and the exit and they would converse with him from the time he entered until the time he exited, to full that which is said (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), ‘then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel,” and it says (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:18, “And you shall do the upright and the good in the eyes of YHWH” (Tosefta, Shekalim 2:2). Because this public servant was searched thoroughly on the way in and out, no one can say that they pocketed any money for personal use from public funds. Because they were talking continuously, no one can suspect that they hid a piece of gold in their mouth. When the public sees this person shopping in the future, they can comfortably trust that this person did not get any kickbacks, any unfair leg up on the rest of them. A parallel text replaces the potentially humiliating and body-violating frisk with a standard dress code for this job (Mishna, Shekalim 3:2): “The one who made the appropriation may not enter the chamber wearing either a bordered cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet, lest if he became poor, people might say that he became poor because of a sin committed in the chamber, or if he became rich, people might say that he became rich from the appropriation in the chamber. For a person must be free of blame before people just as one must be free of blame before The Omnipresent, as it is said: ‘then you shall be clean [before YHWH and before Israel]’ (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), and it says: ‘And find favor and good consideration in the eyes of God and people’ (Proverbs 3:4).” 

Regulations to prevent criminal appropriation of public goods are not sufficient; regulations are imposed even to prevent any appearance of impropriety, to prevent people from jumping to incorrect conclusions. Why do the Rabbis praise public servants for abstaining from perfectly legal pleasures and impose restrictions on other public servants from otherwise perfectly legal, personal behavior? Why should honest people have to restrict their behavior because of mean-spirited, busybody gossips? After all, one of the earliest Rabbinic teachings, by Yehoshu‘a ben Perahia, is that we all “should judge every person as innocent” (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:6). The Torah itself commands that we “do not walk about tale bearing” or gossiping (Leviticus/VaYikra 19:16). If members of the public fabricate a suspicion that you have supplemented your income with tzedakah funds or Temple funds, why is that your problem? Aren’t they the sinner and shouldn’t they stand responsible? 

All of the teachings we have surveyed, elevating Moshe’s words in our parasha that we should strive to be blameless in the eyes not only of God but of fellow people, are directed toward public figures who are tasked with representing the public. That showbread and those incense offerings are on all of our behalf. It’s public tzedakah money and public tax dollars collected in the Temple coffers. A public servant entrusted with those public goods already derives special social benefit and power, a degree of celebrity, by having this distinguished position. No matter what police advocates will tell you, Jewish law recognizes that power accrued through public trust inevitably and maybe even rightfully comes with a measure of distrust and requires heightened public oversight and scrutiny. As a public figure, you can’t say that what you do is none of anyone’s business. It literally is their business. We have a responsibility to view people generously, but we also have a responsibility to maintain righteous and fair public institutions. When we’ve entrusted public officials with special access and power, those access and power bring invitations to corruption with them. We know that and we are implicated when they succumb while representing us. The value of judging others favorably still must take power dynamics into consideration. 

I’ll close with one last Rabbinic teaching that doesn’t quote our verse, but extends the sensibility beyond political power to the power attained through wealth. The Sages teach that if you make matzah into fancy, artisanal shapes and eat it on seder night, you have fulfilled your obligation. Nevertheless, you are not allowed to make matzah that way in the first place. A fabulously wealthy benefactor and student of the Rabbis named Baitos ben Zonin asked his teachers why not and they explained that you have to make matzah very quickly to prevent leavening and it’s just a bad idea to allow fancy shapes, because some people will take their time perfecting it and it will, God forbid, ferment and turn to hametz in the meantime. Baitos said, what if I use a mold, a stencil, which will take no time? The Sages answered that while this theoretically would address the problem, it’s still prohibited across the board, because “People would say that all shaped matzah has been prohibited, but Baitos’s shaped matzah has been permitted” (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 37a). In theory, Baitos’s solution is available to everyone, but in practice, who has the money for fancy, niche artisanal tools? A rich person like Baitos. A just law cannot tolerate carve-outs that have the effect of enabling special rules and privileges for rich people. The resentful public will think that the access to the Rabbis Baitos had because he was rich enabled him to get Rabbinic laws waived. And in a way, they would be right. That can’t be tolerated. That is a recipe for eroding public trust. 

The upshot we learn from Moshe’s exhortation to the 2 ½ tribes is that in order for the Torah to be applied equally, as one Torah, one law, it sometimes has to be applied unequally: those with social power, through public office or wealth, will default to extra power and status, the “crown” of royalty, the crown of priesthood, the crown of wealth, even the crown of scholarship, so they must engage in extra restrictions to keep them in public check. The crown of a good name is greater than them all and reflects Divine grace because that good name is achieved through demonstrating that one’s public service is not a tool for amassing power and privilege, but is actually public service. 

Shabbat shalom.

Thank you to Akiva Mattenson for learning and thinking through these sources with me.

Pieces of a Puzzle: Mandy Peskin’s Avodah Journey

Mandy Peskin spent this year serving as a legal clinic coordinator at Bread for the City, as part of Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps. The organization focuses on eviction defense, family law for survivors of domestic abuse, and helping people access public benefits, like SNAP. Mandy’s favorite part of her role is helping clients get proof of identification, such as birth certificates. Many of the clients she interacts with on a daily basis are from the South. As a Georgia native, Mandy’s service year has helped her understand how policies in her home state impact people, particularly those who are low income.

She recalls one client from Georgia who was in need of a birth certificate, but had no other proof of identity. Georgia law requires at least three forms of certified identification, each at least a decade old, to qualify for a delayed birth certificate. In addition, a number of fees are included in the process, including paying for the birth certificate and the documentation that leads up to being able to get the certificate itself, an issue that activist Stacey Abrams has brought to light. Mandy spent a great deal of time contacting different government agencies at local, county and state levels on behalf of the client — to no avail. She’s learned an important lesson in public service: you can’t help every person. 

“Working with government systems can mean running into all these dead ends — it’s a puzzle I have to put together. To avoid frustration, I give myself some space, move on from that client, and keep working. Maybe I can do something to help someone else. I’m not going to be able to help everyone, but if a little work on my part can make a big difference for someone else, I’ll keep going… I really like the challenge. I have always loved sudoku — this work is like navigating a puzzle. ‘What do I need to do to see the bigger picture?’ I enjoy navigating the challenges and frustrations in order to put something together that’s better than it was before.” 

When applying for an Avodah placement, Bread for the City appealed to Mandy for its diversity of issues. Even within the organization’s legal department, there are myriad causes to assist with: housing law, immigration and family law, and public benefits law. Her placement allowed her to learn about different fields and causes, which was critical for her considering her next step after Avodah — law school. 

On July 21, Mandy will join the nearly 1,400 Avodah alumni who have gone on to careers in social justice work. She intends to do the same by attending law school at the University of Maryland and create positive change on a systems level.

“I want to use my future law degree to work on policies and accomplish systemic change. While direct service with individuals is crucial, it’s also important to work on policy change to make things better for as many people as possible. Working within the education system is my niche — I want to help with policies that improve education, especially for students with disabilities. I believe education is the cornerstone of people’s lives. There are many building blocks of people’s lives that start in a school building.” 

Mandy and her housemates.

Getting into law school was “a dream come true,” and Mandy intends to take the lessons and friendships she gained from Avodah with her. She’s grown close to her housemates, which made it easier to navigate difficult workspace dynamics. Of our two DC bayitim, everyone in Mandy’s bayit spent their service year working remotely from the house. (To avoid spread of COVID-19, DC Service Corps Members who served at their placements in person lived in a separate house.) Sharing a home with 10 other people forced Mandy to improve her communications skills. She says wouldn’t trade her experience or the people she’s spent it with. 

“My advice to future Service Corps Members is to come in with an open mind. I met a lot of people who are very different from who I am and because of that I’ve been able to grow. We’ve been able to become friends and we now understand why we are who we are. I think not closing yourself off from others is the best way to make the most of living in the bayit.”

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die”: On the Perils of Guilt by Association: D’var Torah for Parashat Pinchas

Our parasha shows the Israelites pivoting toward preparations, finally, for proceeding to the Holy Land to inaugurate civic life. In the context of a census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage for national insurrections, the Torah matter-of-factly claims (Numbers 26:11),  “And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.” Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it? 

Let’s back up. Three weeks ago, we read of the Torah’s arch-criminal-in-our-midst, Korach, and the crushing defeat of his attempted insurrection (Bemidbar/Numbers 16-18).   Bemidbar/Numbers 16:32 narrates the punishment for Korach and his entourage: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all persons with Korach, and their property.” That sure makes it sound like Korach’s children were swallowed by the earth: who is more part of his household, who is more with him, than his children? Yet our parasha tells us that his children did not die.

Not only that, but the later Biblical history nonchalantly relates that Korach’s direct descendant Heiman was one of King David’s appointees to be in charge of song in the Temple (I Chronicles 6:16-23), and others of Korach’s descendants were the Temple gatekeepers and chefs (I Chronicles 9:17-32). This is a stunning turnaround: from Korach leading an insurrection against the Priesthood, to his descendants directing security and food production for that same Priesthood. It’s not just that the descendants had significant jobs supporting the Priesthood; they were entrusted with the keys to security and food service, the departments in which one can most easily murder, poison, or stage a coup.  

Moreover, apparently Heiman was not the only one of Korach’s descendants possessing musical prowess, as the Bible attributes ten of the 150 Psalms to the children of Korach (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, and 87). The Rabbis seem to attribute meta-significance to this fact: in an elaborate midrash on Psalm 1, which is not authored by Korach’s children, the Rabbis read the whole psalm as actually telling the story of Korach’s children’s rejection of their father’s ways. By placing this narrative in the very first psalm, they may suggest that a central theme of the book of Psalms is Korach’s children’s authorship of many of its poems.

How did this happen? How did Korach commit such villainy that his whole household was swallowed alive by the earth, and yet his children and descendants became some of the tradition’s most creative, dedicated, and productive artists?

The Rabbis derive a clue from the context of our verse. After introducing Korach’s coalition partners, Dathan and Abiram, in the census, the Torah reminds us: “These are that Dathan and Abiram, the elect of the congregation, who incited against Moshe and against Aharon in the company of Korach, when they incited against YHWH. And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people, and they became a sign. But the children of Korach did not die” (26:9-11).   Stumbling over the jagged edges of the unusual, multiple, prepositional phrases, the Rabbis break up the passage differently, as though the verse reads, “And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, as that company died, as the fire devoured 250 people. And they became a sign, as the children of Korach did not die.” Against the more obvious reading that the death of the sinners was the sign — literally, the banner (nes/נס) — the Rabbis interpret the sign to have been the non-death of Korach’s children. This sign, this banner, was literal for the Rabbis: “When Korach and his gang were swallowed up, his children found themselves like the mast of a ship, as it says, ‘and they were a banner’. Rabbi said, every place around them was ruptured, but the very place that stood beneath them was not ruptured” (Midrash Psalms 1). Or, as the same sage said elsewhere, “A place was set apart for them in Gehinom, and they sat upon it and sang songs” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a-b). The ground caved, leaving caverns and new plateaus, and they caught a piece of earth jutting into the air like a flag and held on tight, sitting upon it. 

It wasn’t dumb luck that saved them, but Divine justice. In the mob of insurrectionists were a handful of righteous dissidents, who bucked their wicked father. Psalm 1 opens, “Happy is the person who does not walk in the council of the wicked”. The Rabbis explain, “This is the sons of Korach, who did not walk in the council of their father, as is said, ‘Turn away please, from the tents of these wicked men’ (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:26). When God warned people to clear out before killing Korach and his posse, apparently Korach’s children did turn away (Midrash Psalms 1). The midrash associates the verse, “Rather, in YHWH’s Torah is their delight” (Psalms 1:2) with Korach’s children and their inspired soul music. It imagines the real, human drama of the moral crisis they experienced when their father led the insurrection against the spiritually appointed leadership: “They said: We are obligated in our father’s honor; could we contest Moshe Our Teacher? They stood and aligned themselves for Moshe’s honor” (Midrash Psalms 1). It’s the Torah itself that commands us to honor our parents; what to do when our parents encourage wrongdoing, when they move to overturn Torah? Honoring our parents, Korach’s children concluded, is in service of fulfilling our profound sense of responsibility in the world. It can’t extend to where our parents undermine responsibility. 

The Sages don’t imagine them just holding on for dear life on their jutting earth-corner, but sitting there and opening in song. They received their good fortune and grace being alive when they might have expected to be otherwise, by singing. We are still singing their songs today. Noticing that one of their psalms, #45, begins, “For the leader on the lilies, of the sons of Korach, a maskil, a song for beloved ones”, the Sages connect it to another verse about lilies and lovers, “My lover went down to his garden…and to pluck lilies” (Song of Songs 6:2) and notes: “They weren’t recognizable, and everyone who would see them would say, “they’re thorns”.  Why? Because they were with thorns. And what is the way of thorns?  For fire… And the sons of Korach, who were lilies, were plucked up from between the thorns, so that they would not be consumed with the thorns. So, The Holy Blessed One jumped and saved them…” (Midrash Psalms 45). Everybody just saw a bunch of hoodlums, terrorists, gangbangers around Korach, not noticing the poets and worshippers, guardians, and artists caught up in the masses. God notices, and so must we.

The Torah emphasizes that the children of Korach didn’t die in order to highlight their courageous dissidence and to intervene against our likely attribution of guilt to them on the basis of their proximity to guilty people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, in which Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully after decades of ordering the torture and murder of hundreds and thousands of people based on presumed proximity to wrongdoers, guilt by association, even if that association existed only in the racist fantasies of others. I’ve been thinking of the Chicago Gang Database, which still, somehow, exists, and which includes people merely for being acquaintances of people involved in gang activity. Meanwhile, American’s most deadly and callous family of drug dealers, the Sacklers, seem to be on the verge of receiving immunity for the carnage they have wrought. I recall the controversy and backlash PBS received from the right-wing for when Sesame Street first recorded a segment aimed at helping children cope with the incarceration of a parent. In America, we pardon or laud Korach while harshly punishing lesser criminals or those who look like our fantasies of what criminals look like, and we criminalize their children and everyone associated with them. Our parasha teaches us to reject that. When we criminalize innocent or dissident people by association, we commit a terrible sin. Torah warns us that when we do so, likely out of a fraudulent security ideology, we actually undermine our own security. It was none other than Korach’s descendants who were entrusted with the security of the Temple and its priests later on, as if to say that had Korach’s children been unjustly killed, the Temple and its priests would eventually have experienced compromised security, lacking the most qualified public servants for those roles.

Driving the point home, a stunning passage elsewhere, after telling of the brutality of our enemies in both Temple destructions, insists that “Some of the descendants of Haman learned/taught Torah in B’nei B’rak, some of the descendants of [Cana‘anite Military Commander] Sisera taught children in Jerusalem, some of the descendants of [Assyrian King] Sennacherib taught Torah to the masses” (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 57b). Who are these descendants of Sennacherib the destroyer, who exiled the northern kingdom in 722 BCE?  No less than Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of the great Hillel.

Seeing only thorns and setting fire to the whole field, without paying attention to each living organism, means no Hillel, no learning for the masses, ten fewer psalms, and imperiled security for our most sacred institutions. When so-called justice systems operate with blunt instruments, when children are convicted by association, when their association was imposed by the judge and executioner, everybody loses.

Shabbat shalom.

An earlier version of this devar torah was published on Jewschool.com in 2014.

“Judaism can uplift queerness:” Q&A with Justice Fellowship alum Emily Piff

Emily Piff (she/her) lives in Chicago, IL, where she participated in the Avodah Justice Fellowship in 2019-2020. Emily attended college in Atlanta, GA at Agnes Scott College. She now works as a Data Analyst for the Chicago Transit Authority. Emily is passionate about the amazing city of Chicago, where she likes to read and go to the library, organize for social change within her community, and take walks in the park. 

What was the Justice Fellowship like?

I found out about the fellowship from my friend Rose Silverman who participated the year before me. I organize at JCUA (Jewish Council on Urban Affairs) with many Avodah Alums and have heard great things about this fellowship, which excited me and really pushed me to apply.

It was a really awesome experience — I learned a lot and made really great relationships. I gained a new perspective on the Jewish world and the world as a whole. I have a Jewish social justice lens through which to see the world and I’ve been using it since. 

The most meaningful thing I took away from the fellowship is that I am supported by my Jewish ancestors and faith. There are many things that I see wrong in our society, and it was inspiring to see that Jewish people have been fighting against these wrongs for centuries. Judaism supports LGBT+ people, supports community care, and pushes us to find ways to live without harming other people. 

How does your queer identity intersect with your Jewishness?

Growing up in Alabama, I felt obligated to hide my queerness, which paralleled the way I felt about my Judaism. I felt like I shouldn’t talk about it because of how dominant Christianity was in the South. Those were two things that made me different, but I grew to be proud of them. 

How did you learn to be proud of your identity?

I left Alabama and went to college in Georgia, at Agnes Scott College. Going to a women’s college, being LGBTQ+ was the norm. This gave me the comfort to explore my gender and sexuality in a way that was exciting rather than scary. Because it was a different environment, I was able to learn and experience what it meant to be a proud Jewish person and a proud gay person. It’s so important to have spaces like that. 

I also had many people support my growth, especially Kristian Contreras, who worked for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Agnes Scott College. She was a mentor and friend who supported me personally and in my roles as President of Hillel and Student Representative on the Scottie Safe Zone Committee for LGBTQ+ students. Kristian made a big impact on my life by helping me grow into the queer Jewish person that I am today, and I am so grateful to know her.

Are you involved in queer and/or Jewish community now? 

When I moved to Chicago, I tried to get really involved in the Jewish and queer communities, including where those intersect. I am involved with the Silverstein Base Hillel, where I can learn about the intersections, difficulties and joys of being queer and Jewish. I also attend different events with Keshet. 

What advice do you have for younger, queer Jews?

I felt I had to wait to live my life, but things are changing rapidly for the better. I would tell them to find spaces where they feel they belong. Young people should look for people that make them feel their best. 

What sort of impact do you want to make?

Something that’s been awesome about Avodah is that I have made so many queer Jewish friends. It taught me that there’s so many different types of Jewish people. The fact that Judaism can uplift queerness — I can’t imagine how many lives that saves. I want to carry that forward.

More on Vigilante Justice When the Justice System Enables Abuse of Power: D’var Torah for Parashat Balak

A few months ago, for Parashat VaYehi, we addressed the violent, vigilante justice carried out at the end of this week’s parasha by Pinhas the priest, a short narrative I described then as “the Torah’s signature episode of political violence”. I also demonstrated how the Pinhas story is a sequel to the morally ambiguous story of brothers Shim‘on and Levi massacring the town of Shekhem to rescue their sister Dinah from the governor’s son, who had raped and kidnaped her, and also likely avenging the outrage (Bereishit/Genesis 34). Here’s what I wrote then by way of summary of the story from our parasha:

“Toward the end of the desert narrative, the whole Israelite community gets seduced into an idolatrous orgy led by the overpowering majority culture Moabites and Midianites. God is enraged (25:1-3): this is the Torah’s version of a national security crisis, as the Israelites are being swallowed by a perverse, aggressive, hegemonic culture. God reads this as a political collapse, sees the entire Israelite leadership structure as irredeemably corrupt, and commands Moshe to execute all the political leaders by public hanging (25:4). Moshe doesn’t do that but, instead, instructs the judges to kill those civilians who have cleaved to the foreign god Ba‘al Pe‘or (25:5). Meanwhile, in this leadership collapse, one brazen couple, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, flaunts idolatrous lawlessness, copulating, flagrantly, right in the front of Moshe and the whole people. Everyone’s watching, but all they do is cry (25:6). Just then, Pinhas, the grandson of Aharon the High Priest, the central line of the tribe of Levi, took the law into his own hands, grabbed a spear, stabbed the couple graphically, through their conjoined midsections, slaying them, and staying the Divine wrath, which had already killed 24,000 Israelites in a plague (25:7-9). Finally, the Torah names the offending parties: the Israelite man was Zimri, son of Salu, a Chieftain of the tribe of Shim‘on, and the Midianite woman was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, a Midianite Chieftain. Shim‘on’s and Levi’s predilections for violence meet again, but now, filtered through Ya‘akov’s charge, they are foes, Shim‘on as the brazen sociopath, out to exacerbate a crisis breaking down the community, and Levi as the zealot, who risks his life to commit gory violence in order to stop and prevent greater violence.”

We discussed how the Rabbis understand the Pinhas story as a story about power and a warning siren about a failed judicial system, showing ambivalence toward Pinhas and discomfort with his extrajudicial action, but putting themselves on the hook, as they reasoned that vigilante violence like Pinhas’s, justified after the fact by God, is a necessary and rational response to a failed and frozen justice system that does not intervene when rich and powerful people commit violence. 

Today, I would like to add just one important consideration to our ongoing exploration of political violence: the danger of systematizing or normalizing the vigilante response. Recognizing that God praised and rewarded Pinhas for taking the law into his own hands and killing Prince Zimri and Princess Cozbi, the Mishna apparently tries to incorporate that justification into the canons of Rabbinic law. They legislate that in a situation like that, the law is now that “zealots attack them —kannaim pog‘in bo” (Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6). This legislation raises perplexing and troubling questions: if vigilante justice is the use of generally prohibited means and processes in absence of a functioning justice system, how can that same justice system coherently incorporate the vigilante response? Vigilante justice can possibly make sense only where the justice system can’t, doesn’t, or won’t exercise its jurisdiction. 

Very early in the Talmudic period, great sages in both Babylonia and the Land of Israel (Rav Hisda and Rabbi Yohanan, respectively) unpacked this dilemmas in a stunning legal pronouncement undermining the reading of the Mishna we flagged above (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 82a):

If someone comes to consult (the court as to whether they should enact vigilante violence), they may not instruct them to do so.”

Rav Hisda goes further:

“Moreover, if Zimri had separated (from intercourse with Cozbi) and only then Pinhas killed him, (Pinehas) would have been executed (as a murderer). And if Zimri would have turned and killed Pinhas (in self-defense), he would not have been executed (for killing Pinhas), as (Pinehas) was a pursuer (trying to kill him).”

Vigilante justice is not part of the system. The system distrusts it, recognizing the very thin line between vigilante violence and criminal bloodshed. The justice system should always hover. In Rav Hisda’s reading, the Mishna is not legislating that a vigilante should step forward, but observing and recognizing that that is what will happen, and accepting it. Vigilante justice must be extremely risky for the vigilante. But the justice system must always recognize that in a narrow range of situations, when the system shows itself unable or unwilling to hold powerful people accountable, it cannot chastise the person who did the messy work it was unwilling to do. The primary function of the justice system should be to check the power of those who have accrued excessive power, to hold accountable those most likely to get away with violence. If the justice system fails to exercise that courage, it can only expect that someone else will, more dangerously, and in a way that exposes the violence passively sanctioned by the court.

Shabbat shalom.