Yirmiyahu as Writer

March 23, 2017

 

PAROCHIAL SCHOOL

It’s simple, really.

Hold your breath underwater.

Ten seconds for you,

ten seconds for God.

Careful not to mix up

their, they’re, there.

Careful not to confuse you

or you’re or your.

We wore knee-socks high

to the hinges in our pelvises

to cover would-be bends and leaks, split-open tangerines

and hid sticky collar bones beneath starchy

primary fabrics.

The sacred was lost to the profanity of our bodies,

and like Nietzsche, to us, God was probably dead.


Joan Didion begins her 1979 essay, the White Album, by writing, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ She continues, ‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I am a writer. And, I have a complicated relationship with words. The written word is my friend. The spoken word, often a distant relative. To me, the spoken word is often full of deceit, empty. I am easily tongue-tied, get nervous and clammy.

I write to give voice to the things I can’t say. I write to give dimension to all the things I cannot say. I write to mourn, to lament, to celebrate, to split open and come undone. I am a poet, an essayist, a compulsive journaler and cataloguer of people and things. Writing is often slow, and writing is sometimes a frenzy.

Yirmiyahu is a writer. Often referred to as the weeping prophet, he is also a poetic prophet, a prosaic prophet. In his eponymous book, we see the traces that are left behind by the writer. We can read and hopefully internalize the frenetic moments of chaos and pain, the slight moments of ecstasy, the future of the Jewish people.

Writing is response, and writing is also creation. For me, writing has become an increasingly effective tool in working through trauma. The process gives me space to react, grieve, accept, and ultimately, something new, something dynamic springs forth.

Sefer Yirmiyahu is at once a response and a creation. The text carries us through the trauma and pain of his time, and in turn gives voice to the suffering. Yirmiyahu gives volume and words to our lamentations. I would be remiss not to mention that Yirmiyahu is the rumored author of Eicha– another important example of this process.

When I think about it, if I am truly honest with myself, I know I write to be remembered. To cast something in graphite or ink to be read later, maybe taken out of a library, studied, perhaps hated. I write to not be forgotten.

Sefer Yirmiyahu is the preamble to exile. At the end of the text, Jerusalem lie in ruin, and the Jewish people are sent into exile, and as such, Yirmiyahu is desperate to hold on to the stories of the Jewish people, to record their voices, to ensure they are not consigned to oblivion.

Throughout the text, Yirmiyahu prepares the people for exile, and reflects G-d’s call for destruction and silence.

וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֣י ׀ מֵעָרֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֗ה וּמֵֽחֻצוֹת֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם ק֤וֹל שָׂשׂוֹן֙ וְק֣וֹל שִׂמְחָ֔ה ק֥וֹל חָתָ֖ן וְק֣וֹל כַּלָּ֑ה כִּ֥י לְחָרְבָּ֖ה תִּהְיֶ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole town shall fall to ruin.

Here, G-d threatens the Jewish people with silence and ultimately, erasure. The whole town shall fall to ruin, nobody will hear you. Your story will not go on.

G-d’s threat of silence mirrors the reality and experience of true exile–the censored humanity of a people without a story, without pens or paper. In this moment, it is clear to me that exile goes far beyond physical or political isolation. Exile is irrelevance. Exile is deletion.

Exile is inevitable, yet, the power to go on, to survive in exile, in the diaspora, depends on our ability to continue writing our story. Jeremiah literally writes a story in order to live, to allow the jewish people to survive in exile, to maintain an identity, a history.

Everybody in this room is a writer. Some of you will write complex Halachik teshuvot, many of you will write beautiful feminist midrashim on the whole of tanach, and many more of you will write compelling scholarly essays about the ebbs and flows of G-d and Judaism.

Soon, we will be the gatekeepers and pallbearers of our history and tradition. We will be charged with writing down and recording, with giving voice to the suffering, with giving volume to the masses.

We will prepare our people for exile, and we will enable them to resist it when it comes.

We write to build, and we write to stay relevant. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

 

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Eicha and the Calling of Bat-Zion

 

(טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד פְּלָאִ֔ים אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ רְאֵ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב׃  (איכה א:ט

Her uncleanness clings to her skirts. She gave no thought to her future; She has sunk appallingly, with none to comfort her. See, O Lord, my misery,; How the enemy jeers.

 

I have always had a rather unusual love for Eicha, for the book that so graphically describes the near destruction of the Jewish people, and our first moments of exile. I have never learned to chant Eicha myself, but I will often spring into song, singing the tune that I have memorized over the years. The cantillations and haunting melodies that for generations have carried our people through trauma, through distance and forgetfulness, and for so many people, to the next generation.

I do not find it surprising that I love this book. It is a work of careful, soaring narrative poetry. Eicha tells our story, during one of the most fraught and horrific periods in our history. And yet, Eicha also manages to paint an incredible picture of our relationship with the Divine. And, with unshakeable language, describes what happens when that relationship ends.

It is important to consider the language and imagery that Eicha employs. Eicha is told through the eyes of Bat Zion, the daughter of Zion, one of the most theologically resonant subjects in the Tanach. I say this because the Bat Zion offers insight both, politically and theologically, into the murky waters and early birth pangs of exilic Judaism.

טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד פְּלָאִ֔ים אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ רְאֵ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב׃  (איכה א:ט)

This verse is found early on in the book of Eicha. As we know, the desolation and destruction of Jerusalem is told through the eyes of Bat Zion. Bat Zion is a tormented subject. At once she is a mother, a bride, a widow. I find the use of Bat Zion as the mover of Eicha’s narrative extremely convincing and compelling on many levels. I also find the use of her voice empowering, and in the same moment, deeply challenging. Bat Zion is an incredibly feminine, perhaps intimate character. Throughout the book of Lamentations, we are drawn in, moved to tears, by the vivid, emotionally resonant pain of this woman in anguish. As readers, we are given an opportunity to hear, and hopefully feel, the sometimes excruciating experience of motherhood and femininity that our canon so often erases. As the subject and voice of this story, we are forced to take the Bat Zion, and with her, the woman, seriously.

And yet, for every moment of uplift, there is loss. And more particularly, for every potential triumph of the Bat Zion, there is abuse, emptiness, and distance. As I mentioned earlier, I feel a deeply emotional bond with the Bat Zion, and I am both comforted by and disappointed in the fact that she is conveyed throughout the book of Eicha in the certain way that she is. While the use of feminine voice is extremely important, and must not be diminished, it is important to point out the various and sometimes subtle ways this text attempts to condemn women and our bodies. Her uncleanness clings to her skirts. She gave no thought to her future; She has sunk appallingly, with none to comfort her. See, O Lord, my misery,; How the enemy jeers, (Lamentations, 19). Like many of my feelings about the book of Lamentations, I find this verse especially difficult. Here, the text describes an uncleanness, likely that of female ritual impurity, Niddah. In this verse, there is a muted condemnation of the Bat Zion and her body. There is an innate sense of disgust, of horror, directed at this ritual state, and perhaps the sacred state of the Bat Zion.

Here, I am left with an important and very difficult problem: Niddah as the metaphor for collapse, for exile, for death. How is it, that ritual impurity, that is often ushered in by intimacy and childbirth can be leveraged in this way?

In this particular moment of rupture, the literary power of the Bat Zion is unmistakable. Throughout Eicha, Bat Zion plays the role of Jerusalem, and embodies the various transitional stages between prosperity and destitution. The text’s invocation of Niddah, of female ritual impurity, is shocking at first, and deeply painful on many levels. And yet, we must remember what Niddah is: a required period of separation that is both initiated by and signaling of fertility.

I have thought a lot about the relationship between the laws of Niddah and actual, lived human experience and frailty. In so many ways, the Bat Zion complicates notions of intimate femininity, motherhood, and sacred, ritual impurity by at once being the voice through which our seemingly imminent end is narrated, as well as the human symbol of divine intimacy, and national hope.

I find that the Bat Zion, as well as the laws of Niddah, are actually near-perfect metaphors for my own theology. I believe in a G-d who is frail and unpredictable, unmovable and infinite. I believe in a G-d who moves with humanity, reflects the painful and jubilant transitions that we experience; a G-d who celebrates us, grows angry with us, and weeps for us. While we strive to meet G-d, to feel G-d, G-d does the same for us.  

In one of her vital essays on Process Theology, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, writes, “That same Divinity who sustains the world constantly undermines its stability.” This assertion captures the essentials of my own theology, and gives me an important context for reading the Bat Zion as the metaphor for which she is employed. Here, Rabbi Elad-Applebaum declares the humanity of G-d, the delicacy of G-d, and sometimes, the failure of G-d. In this quote, we are given so much important clarity into the ways G-d moves through the world, and can see how a G-d that is ductile can walk with the Jewish people, and all of humanity, through trauma, and on to redemption.

Niddah, as a required period of separation between partners, is a beautiful way to tell the story of our entrance to the diaspora. Following the required separation period that Niddah necessitates, is return. Physical and divine return between partners. After Niddah, the partnership renews, and the opportunity, and sometimes pain, of conception begins again.

 

Chosen to Choose

Chosen to Choose

My own theology is simple, and I have always struggled to give voice or language to G-d and to my relationship with the Divine. I have always believed in G-d, and perhaps that is true for nothing else but the cultural context in which I was raised; belief in G-d assumed, belief in G-d taken for granted. And yet, I know that my relationship to and understanding of G-d is dynamic, changing in ways I could not have predicted when I was a teenager, a period in my life when I was actually more traditionally observant than I am now. My relationship with G-d is just that, it is relational–it changes with me, and in response to the ways I am ever-changing. This personal theology of mine comes to bear as I consider my role as an American Jewish woman living in the diaspora, my place in a ‘chosen’ religion, and my personal relationship to halacha and the State of Israel. In this essay, I will carefully expand on each of these topics, particularly as they relate to, limit, and complicate my own sense of the Divine.

Emunah, belief in the Divine is a choice. While there may be moments in our lives that inspire us to believe, or stretch our conception of belief to be one that is strict, dependent, and sometimes disappointing, there is no universal moment when belief kicks in, nor is there any data to support why or how one may choose to believe. Religious people do not all experience the same moment of faith, we do not experience our faith in similar ways, and we certainly do not express or live out our faith in parallel. I am brought to life by this fact. I am also petrified by this fact. Here, we are presented with a paradox: is the practice of religion and belief in our, one G-d, a collective project, or an individual one? Can it be both?

When I was living in Boston, somebody once asked me why I believe in G-d. My answers included short vignettes about my adoption story, my parents’ experience with infertility, and the immense opportunity and privilege that I have been given throughout my life. The inquirer did not consider these answers sufficient. My answers did not actually address why, and certainly not how, I believed in G-d. In fact, my answers reinforced an idea of religion and belief that he had so fiercely clung to: that religion and faith fail because they are not data-based or driven by claims that can be proved, or for that matter, disproved by conventional logic or science. Honestly, I do not think these answers were sufficient, either. But I realized in that moment that there was no way to qualify or quantify my belief in G-d. Faith and G-d are not hypotheses to be tested and tried. Faith and belief cannot be proven, and yet, they are two unseeable things to which I desperately cling.

I have made a choice to believe in G-d. I have made a choice to see myself as infinite, and also so grandly small and maybe insignificant in relation to G-d. I have made a choice to live my life with and in relation to the Divine. The man who asked me why I believe in G-d rejects this concept of choice, and ultimately rejects the existence of G-d. I don’t find his question of why interesting, nor do I think it matters very much. If I make the choice to be a person of faith, suddenly the Divine is inextricable from my experience as a human being. And as such, I must decide the parameters and boundaries in which I will live and experience my chosen faith. If I choose to be a person of faith, that should be sufficient, because there is no scenario in which I will be able to prove why or how. The choice belongs singularly to me. This small philosophy of mine is closely linked to that expressed in Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s essay, BaDerekh: On the Way, A Presentation of Process Theology, and in Joy Ladin’s important piece, The God Thing. In both essays, the respective authors pinpoint and emphasize this idea that G-d is a choice. Belief in G-d and practice of that belief is a decision that we are empowered to make. And we are therefore left alone with the decision to create the theological universe in which we would like to live. Both Artson and Ladin convey a particular trope of empowerment and responsibility: If we are seeking space within our tradition, if we are begging to be seen by the convention of our religion, we must assert ourselves. We must carve out a moment, a text, a conversation within our canon that does speak to us, that is capable of holding us.

Here, I am presented with an interesting question: Can we choose to be a chosen people? How far can the empowerment model that Artson and Ladin explore, take us? Are we empowered such that we can shift or even amend our tradition, our notions of politics and history, to be more inclusive, to push boundaries, and perhaps expand the definitions of chosenness?

I believe in chosenness. I believe that the Jewish people were chosen to engage in a particular project of critical study, enduring and careful exploration of Jewish law and tradition, and exceeding commitment to justice. Chosenness binds me to our tradition. Chosenness ensures that my faith is not arbitrary, that my practice was not constructed or currently performed at random. Relationship is the product of chosenness. It is this relationship that secures me to centuries of stories, folklore, art, law, women, and tradition. This relationship gives me the context, the framework, and perhaps even the rules to participate in contemporary Jewish life and culture. In pursuing this relationship with G-d and the Divine, I am constantly and actively recommiting myself to what came before.

I am also aware of the many ways chosenness comes into conflict with our contemporary liberal values of inclusion, theological doubt and criticism, racial and religious equality, and above all else, egalitarianism. While we may seek and embrace chosenness, we must not do so at the expense or dismissal of others:

This ‘choosing’ of (or by) Abraham does not imply the rejection of others as G-d’s children. If reality ‘reveals’ itself to Abraham, this by no means implies that it does so for him alone. Abraham’s search becomes our doorway into the mystery; we have no need to deny the existence of other doors. Abraham and Sarah’s wide-open tent flaps point to an intent to convert as much of humanity as they encounter to the monotheistic vision, but not to ‘Judaism’ in a specific sense. Future Christians and Muslims can easily find room for themselves in the original big tent that our first ancestors worked so hard to create…In standing up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham challenges God not for members of his own tribe or faith community, just for fellow humans…(Green, 135).

While the Jewish people may be chosen for a specific project, we have not been chosen above or in rejection of people of varying faith traditions. Our collective truths are no more ‘true’ than those of any other religious or secular community. Our chosenness demands that we honor the ‘other,’ that we maintain a sense of humility in the presence of the myriad faiths and practices that exist around us.

Although Judaism has unique insights to offer the world, Jews do not hold the exclusive right to understanding God and truth. We must take a partnership perspective with other religious groups in order to reach a deeper understanding. The Jewish people are not G-d’s chosen people in the sense of being superior to other faiths, yet we are ‘chosen’ in that we choose to engage with Judaism as one good path, (Rose).

In his essay, Longing to Hear Again, Rabbi Leon Morris addresses the phenomenon and perhaps dilemma that is driving my Boston friend’s question, as well as the central critique of chosenness. Morris addresses the moment in which our conventional and liberal understandings of culture, politics, and history rub up against our readings of our own tradition. Rabbi Morris also addresses the fact that our modern conceptions of faith and tradition are often insufficient toward expressing or creating a true or authentic Jewish experience of the Divine, or practice of ritual. The question remains, how do we seek or create meaningful Jewish practice for ourselves that is both authentic, true to our texts and traditions, and also rapidly in line with our contemporary values of politics, justice, and pragmatism?

In this moment, we can envision a world in which Rabbi Artson’s Process Theology is at the center of Jewish life. As our contexts shift, so does our call to religious participation and practice. As our current political reality nearly forces us to abandon some of our canon’s most central arguments, we remain with the questions of relevance, authenticity, sustainability, and survival.  It often feels as though we have to make a decision that resembles the ultimate sacrifice: Do we maintain our liberal ethic or identify ourselves as authentic practitioners of Judaism? While this scenario resonates with me, and I do find its calculus deeply painful, I do reject it. Our conception of chosenness must compel us to constantly create a tradition that is substantial, inclusive, and honest about the ways it conflicts with our contemporary values. In these moments of tension, we do not need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We need not completely reject our canon or tradition to arrive at new and innovative conclusions about Judaism and G-d.

This discussion of chosenness and honesty leads me to the question of Israel, diaspora, and the Jewish future. I am a Zionist, and I believe in the Two-State Solution. I am Zionist, and yet I believe that Israel’s current policy of occupation is not only harmful to the Palestinian people, but to our own endurance and survival. We are a people of the book, and we are people of the land. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, and I believe that Israel should be the democratic homeland for the Jewish people. And yet, my sense of chosenness, my sense of G-d, and my deep love for the Jewish people becomes increasingly complex as the political reality in Israel worsens. As a Jew living in the diaspora, who cares deeply for the persistence and survival of both the Jewish people and the State of Israel, I am often left feeling helpless, and betrayed by notions of Judaism that have come so far, only to pervert the idealized, essential, and aspirational senses of Judaism and Jewish practice that we claim to pursue.

My fear is that chosenness has been misunderstood, that there has been a glitch. I have seen how desperately the concept of chosenness has been taken advantage of to allow for gross misbehavior, isolation, and oppression. When I think about the political and theological tool that Israel has become, I panic for the future of the Jewish people. I fear that we have forgotten not only our own history, but our direction.

We are chosen, and have been given an immense gift. We have been chosen to choose. We may choose to be better, we may choose to create innovative and inclusive Halachik practice and ritual, and we may choose to survive.

Personal Prayer

Bind it for a sign on your arm

And between your eyes.

שמע ישראל ד׳ אלקינו ד׳ אחד

There is unity and peace in these parts,

אהבה רבה

And immense love.

Take for yourself the trust you require–

And guide me to that trust,

Trust of self,

Trust of others,

Trust of You.

Empower me through your Torah.

Grant me calm and meditation.

Help me see the divinity in it all–

It is there.

Hold me as if wrapped in Tallis and Tefillin

Close and bound by mitzvot and love

That it should all be for a sign–

A reminder that I am finite and infinite all at once

That I am small and mighty all at once.

פותח את ידך ומשביע לכל חי רצון

My hands are open,

Are seeking.

תהילת ד׳ ידבר פי

Let me hold your praises in my mouth,

Let me sing for you.

אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע

Guard my tongue from ill-speech.

Bind it for a sign on your arm and between your eyes.