Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How Far We Haven’t Come (Parshat Naso, B’midbar 4:21-7:89)

There should be a name for the particular sense of pride, the utter self-righteousness, that arises when we modern readers encounter the deeply problematic practices of our Israelite ancestors and proclaim our own cultural advancement. There is truly no better time to assert our moral superiority, to affirm our ethical evolution, than when we confront ancient rituals like that of the ordeal of the bitter waters for a woman suspected of adultery, that we find in this week’s parashah, Naso. How can we not feel that we’ve ascended beyond the baseness of our forbearers when we learn about the dehumanizing treatment of women within our most foundational texts?

In Numbers 5:11-31, the strange rite that rabbis will call sotah is detailed and transmitted. In just twenty verses, we learn that a woman accused by her husband of adultery should be brought to a priest, her head made bare, forced to drink bitter waters, her hand taken and manipulated by the priest to lift up an “offering of jealousy”. The dusty water that she’s been made to ingest might cause her belly to distend; should this happen, she will be considered a curse to her people. In just twenty verses, we are made to imagine a world in which a woman can be shamed, humiliated, and victimized by a society that accepts and upholds male supremacy. The chapter concludes with a verse that seems to strike at a deeper meaning of this disturbing ritual: “The man shall be clear of guilt, but that woman shall suffer for her guilt.”
Perhaps it is at this point that we especially begin to feel that aforementioned sense of moral superiority, of how far we’ve come. Baruch HaShem, thank God, that this is not the world we inhabit.

Then, we read news reports and especially hear the words of the victim in the Stanford rape case that were published last week, shared widely on social media and read aloud on news sources—and immediately our air of superiority dissipates. The pedestal onto which we’ve climbed to look down on our biblical ancestors is kicked out from under us; their misogyny is our own, their degradation is our own. In the end, it seems that to envision a world in which the ordeal of bitter waters might take place requires no feat of imagination at all, only that we open our eyes to the bitter ordeal that victims of a sexual assault are so often made to endure in our criminal justice system.

In our own time, it seems, we’ve devised a ritual that shames and dehumanizes survivors of sexual violence; in the name of justice we demand mortification. As the Stanford woman wrote in her statement to the judge:
Instead of taking time to heal, I was taking time to recall the night in excruciating detail, in order to prepare for the attorney’s questions that would be invasive, aggressive, and designed to steer me off course…This was a game of strategy, as if I could be tricked out of my own worth.

Indeed this may be the greatest similarity between the ordeals past and present; they are meant to be theatrical and exhausting, but more than anything they are meant to devalue the testimony of women, to trick them out of their own truth. Mishnah Sotah, the earliest rabbinic passage that describes the rite, makes explicit the desire to intimidate and wear out the women who were living through this experience. Building on the information provided in this week’s Torah portion, the sages of the Mishnah fill in the details of the ritual of sotah in all their sordid glory. Now there will be torn clothing, exposed bodies, more shame, more indignity.

Yet, even as they expand on the specifics of the bitter waters, in typical fashion, the rabbinic voice also arises to subvert the ritual. The Mishnah relates that when society grew more promiscuous, the great sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai abolished the practice altogether. Strangely, right along with elaborately describing and defining thesotah ritual, the sages are bold enough to ban it.

As talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin writes, “What we find here is a defining moment in the assertion of rabbinic power in the abrogation of a rite that is frequently associated with the most extreme misogyny—and precisely in the context of accounts of rabbinic misogyny.” Another scholar of Talmud, Judith Hauptman, similarly argues that, while far from feminist, the rabbinic voice pushes the tradition in the direction of an anti-misogynist agenda.

Here we stand, thousands of years from the world in which this text came into being—and still we grapple with official practices that demean and dehumanize women. As a rabbi on a college campus, I have encountered far too much pain, far too much shame, and far too much acceptance of a culture of sexual violence. I can’t merely sit and be present as tears slowly and quietly streak their way down the faces of the young people with whom I work.

I plead with my communities and my generation to recognize the ongoing legacy of social norms like those reflected in Parshat Naso, to not pretend that they are mere relics of the distant past, and to connect the trials of women long ago with the trials of women in our day. May we, in the spirit of Yochanan ben Zakkai, educate ourselves about the “rituals” of a system that humiliates and oppresses—and then, obliterate them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Breaking the Fast, Building Commuity

Muggy summer days, where the heat of the sun seems to linger long past evening, are not entirely conducive to fasting.  When walking outside is enough to cause you to break into a sweat, it is hard to imagine making it past mid-afternoon without so much as a sip of water.   Yet, it was just this type of summer day that we encountered when the 17th of Tammuz and the holy month of Ramadan overlapped for a shared fast day between Muslims and Jews.  

This fast day, meant to mark the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in times long past, was made even more difficult by the dispiriting news emerging from Israel and Palestine in the present day.  Yet, the office of Chaplaincy at Tufts, along with the Muslim Students Association and Hillel saw an opportunity to build a sense of spiritual companionship around our joint fast.  So, that night as the sun set, we joined together at the interfaith center for a shared meal.   Jewish students and Muslim students sat together, sipping on tea and juice, breaking bread and immersing in conversation.  We learned from one another about the cultural and spiritual significance of our practices, and connected about our shared experiences as members of the Tufts community. 

The acting Muslim chaplain for Ramadan, the inspiring Celene Ayat Lizzio, introduced the evening with a kavanah or intention.  She mentioned that we, here, have little control over the events transpiring in the Middle East, but that we do have the opportunity to reach out to one another in a spirit of fellowship.  For my part, I paraphrased the words of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur, words that demand that every fast impel us towards making the world more just.   For all of us, this is the desired destination of the various spiritual paths we walk.

A couple of days ago, strolling across campus, I bumped into the student who had led the Muslim evening prayers, and I was able to wish him an easy fast.   As a newcomer to Tufts, I hope that this is the first of many, many experiences being in dialogue and community with other faith groups.

Rabbi Jordan Braunig is the Director of the Tufts Hillel Initiative for Innovative Community Building. Jordan is a newly-minted rabbi from Hebrew College in Boston, who enjoys seeking out the spiritual significance of the world he encounters, whether through art or Torah or conversation or America’s Funniest Home Videos. Before coming on board full-time, Jordan was the Rabbinic Fellow at Tufts Hillel, where he learned that there is no better place to work. As the Rabbinic Director, Jordan will mentor, teach and, most importantly, learn from the amazing fellows who are a part of the Initiative for Innovative Community Building. Originally from Shreveport, Jordan left Louisiana to attend college at NYU and has been working his way up the NE corridor ever since. Jordan is a pickler, a Saints fan, a Scrabble-lover, and a Pa to two adorable kiddos.