My Father was a wandering Amramean

I gave this Dvar on September 13, 2014

In Parshat Ki Tavo we envision a time when the Israelites are living in the Promised Land and are experiencing the blessings of prosperity that they could only dream of during 40 years of wandering in the desert. Moses instructs them how to appreciate and celebrate their bountiful harvest. He tells them to be thankful. He tells them to take some of every first fruit from the soil, put them in a basket and take it to the priest in charge at the time, and the priest will take the basket, and the Israelite is then to tell the priest “My father was a wandering Amramean, he went to Egypt with meager numbers and lived there, they were few in number and became a great nation” What a strange thing to say.

The point of this is that God knew that when we are prosperous and successful every force around us is going to want us to think that it is all about us and we are going to forget just how bad it was back then. And God does not want us to forget.

God is basically telling the Israelites, “Years from now things are going to go really well for you and you will forget about God because things are fine but this Torah Portion is a reminder to never foget and to be thankful for our first fruits and set them aside and share our blessings first with the priest and then with the stranger, because we were strangers once and God rescued us and delievered us out of Egypt.

There Shall Be No Needy

This is a dvar I gave for Parsha Re’eh on August 16 2014

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we read in Deuteronomy 15: “There shall be no needy among you…then in a few verses later it reads– If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kingsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. ….For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.”

These statements contradict each other—how can the Torah say There shall be no needy among you and then say there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.

Even more importantly, we have God’s instructions on how we should relate to the needy and the poor in our society and what our obligations towards them are. We need to be reminded that it is only if we embrace our responsibility to keep the commandment to support the poor that there will cease to be needy people amongst us –And God will not take care of it for us.

One of my teachers Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests that the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor is best summoned up by a single word of the biblical text: אחיך “your brother.” With this word, the Torah insists on the dignity of the poor, and it commands us to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from ourselves.

By telling us that the poor person is our sibling, our brother, the Torah reminds us that, like us, a poor person is made in the image of God and should be treated as such. It also prevents us from separating ourselves from him or her, from seeing ourselves as somehow inherently different from the poor.

This Parsha reminds us of our duty towards the poor. The Poor are our siblings for whom we must care. We have an infinite responsibility for the Other.

Each of us alone might not be able to eradicate poverty but by embracing our responsibility as individuals, as part of a community, of society, we can bring our world closer to the vision of there shall be no needy. This parsha teaches us that together we will make a difference in this world if we take care of each other or take care of our brothers and sisters because this is God’s will —


What Does the Bible Say about Food?

Vegan, for me, is about  more than what I do or do not eat. Veganisms is not so much about dietary abstinence as it is about spiritual sustenance; for me, it is a prayer, a petition asking why animals and people suffer greatly.  This question has led me to a lifestyle that is focused primarily on abstaining from the consumption of animals. Veganism is a the universal principle of compassionate, nonviolent living, and is central to my Jewish identity.

When I was younger I, like a lot of people believed that the dietary laws in the bible were there for some kind of health or sanitation reason and people living during biblical times believed the prohibited foods that were seen as unclean meant that they were unhealthy, unsanitary, dirty or somehow bad for us. As I got older I came to believe there are some laws in the bible that have no reasons and they are there because God told us to either not do something or to do something. I came to believe that the laws around food were one of those types of laws. We as Jews are not to eat certain foods because God told us to. That reason was good enough for me until I became a vegan and started to make food decisions that were based on my understanding of the Bible.  And now I have the opportunity for a better understanding of the dietary laws in the Bible. One of the areas that I intend to focus on in rabbinical school is our food choices and the laws around kashrut. I saw this paper as the perfect opportunity to begin that journey.

This paper focuses on the restrictions that the biblical writers placed on eating, why these restrictions arose, and the implications for today and our eating practices. To follow my train of thought read the relevant text from Genesis 1:28-30, Genesis 9:1-4, Leviticus 11:1-20 and Leviticus 17:11-15

What are the Restriction Placed on Eating?

Although there are many laws regarding the consumption of animals, one thing that remains clear, is from the point of view of the Bible all fruits and vegetables are permitted. This is the point of view from the first directive in the Bible,

“God said, behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you it shall be food,” (Genesis 1:29).

This text in Genesis is the first text in the Bible that discusses food and upon reading it and Genesis 1:30,  it would seem that humans and animals were not meant to eat animals, both were meant to be vegans.  There is a difference in the vegetarian food for animals and the vegetarian food for humans. In his commentary on the book of Genesis Claus Westermann states that humans are assigned fruit and grain to eat, animals are assigned green plants. I would change that just a little to say that humans are assigned fruit and humans were meant to be frugivores living off the seeds of plants. There is a commonly held theory within anthropology and sociology that humans evolved from a plant based diet. This theory is found in almost any introductory textbook on sociology. It relates that humans began living first in hunter and gatherer societies subsisting on foraging for food and later after the invention of earlier agricultural equipment such as the plow, humans started to domesticate crops and animals. Perhaps the priestly authors of this text were looking back to an ideal time where they believed that people did not eat animals. Not sure, but it is clear from this text that the writers of the text wanted the early beings, both animals and humans to be vegetarian.

The next mention of food occurs in Genesis 9, the end of the flood narrative where human beings have been wiped off the planet by a massive flood. In Genesis 9 humans are given permission to kill animals for food. There is no evidence in Genesis 1 that humans have permission to kill animals and or to eat them for food.

Genesis 9:1-4 is also a priestly text and the language is similar to Genesis 1:28-30.  In fact Genesis 9:1 is essentially a retelling of the instructions given to humans in Genesis 1:28, but here, given to Noah, as the world is reborn after the devastation of the massive flood.  In Genesis 1:26 & 28 humans and animals are put in relationship to each other and humans are to have dominion over the animals and take care of them. In Genesis 9:2, the animals have “fear and terror” of the humans

“Fear of you and terror of you will be on all animals of the earth and on every bird of the sky, on all that creeps on the ground and on all fish of the sea in your hand they are given,”

the dominion of humans over the animals found in Genesis 1:26 & 28 is repeated in 9:2, but with one difference: now the relationship between humans and the animals has changed, so that animals are afraid of humans.  Lastly, in 9:3, God’s provision of food found in 1:29 is repeated, and here Noah is told what he can and cannot eat, but with the addition of“every moving thing that lives shall be food for you to eat” that is, animals, birds and fish.

The instructions given to Noah on the eating of animals is not without restriction. He is told to not eat animals that still contain life, and blood is seen as life, basically, do not eat the blood from living beings.  The permission to kill animals for food is a concession since people were craving meat,  and reflects the reality of the world as experienced by the biblical writers. Jacob Milgrom adds “The human beings’ craving for meat is to be indulged, but they are to abstain from consuming blood.  Nahum Sarna adds even though permission has been granted “This concession to human weakness is not a license for savagery.”

There is, also, a practical consideration here too: Whether the writers believed there was a massive natural disaster that wiped out everything, I do not know, but this would mean vegetation would be in short supply and under these conditions with not enough plant food to sustain both human and animal populations, it is likely that humans would need to eat meat to survive.

In Leviticus 11, The Jewish Study Bible points out that the priestly source believes that the food restrictions up to this point have been known by the Israelites and now Moses receives additional restrictions to pass down to the Israelites. The new restrictions extend to all kinds of animals; land animals, creatures that live in the water, birds in the air, insects and small creatures of the land. This next session will focus on the land animals, fish, and birds.

Land Animals

Leviticus 11:2-3 are specifically addressing land animals that the Israelites may eat. “Any animal that has divided hoof and a split cleft hoof and chews the cud” the Israelites may eat. It can be assumed from the text that these are domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats.  In verses 4-7 we learn the animals that are off limits because they do not posses both of the traits of chewing their cud or having a divided hoof. The camel, the hyrax and the hare are off limits for food because they do not posses a divided hoof but do chew their cud.  The swine or pig is off limits because it does not chew its cud but does have a divided hoof.

It’s interesting to point out that the priestly writers only mentioned the animals that are forbidden and do not mention the animals that are permitted.  Milgrom relates that the writers took the sacrificial animals, the cattle, sheep and goats for granted and only list the wild animals.  In verse 7 the pig is the only animal named that has a divided hoof but does not chew its cud. Milgrom points out that the law of an animal chewing its cud was created to specifically exclude the pig, otherwise it would have just read “divided hoof.” The writers added the stipulation of chewing its cud for the sole purpose to eliminate the pig. Why was the pig excluded? Milgrom relates that the the pig was seen as sacred among the Hittites and the Greeks and offered to underworld deities. During the Iron Age when Israel entered the scene, pigs became rare.  Pigs were popular in Philistine sites but almost completely absent in Israelite sites. This leads Milgrom to believe that there are two possible reasons for the pig to be off limits “the dietary habits and the cultic practices of the hated Philistines.”

From my perspective I would also add that of the domestic animals (cattle, goat and sheep) the pig is the only animal that would serve no other purpose other than to be eaten. Pigs do not provide milk or wool, and cannot be used for plowing like cattle. They would cost to feed with no return for profit or trading.  Israelites could easily trade wool or milk for money, or goods and feed and clothe their families.

Creatures that live in the Water

Verses 9-12 discusses beings that live in the water. The Israelites can eat only creatures in the water that have fins and scales. The word שֶׁ֣רֶץ meaning swarming things, are off limits; all animals in the water that do not swim by means of fins, but instead crawl, swarm or creep are off limits.  Milgrom, citing Mary Douglas also points out that this could have something to do with locomotion. “Animals are permitted that move in a way that is natural to their environment: land animals walk, water animals swim (not crawl) and air animals fly.”  The criteria of fish having scales and fins drastically reduces the amount of edible fish to a few. Douglas writes “the underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class.”  Such as shellfish that live in the water, they do not swim, they crawl and therefore are seen as unclean.

Birds in the Air

In verses 13-19, the birds that are off limits are only listed. There is no description and no way to determine clean birds from unclean birds. The entire list of prohibited birds are all birds of prey.  One could draw the conclusion from all of these text, that since the Israelites are not allowed to eat blood, this also includes animals that eat blood by preying on other animals. Also all of the previously mentioned animals are all herbivorous animals.

So…Why do we have these restrictions?

Maybe the better question is, why did the priestly writers command us to eat with these restrictions? The answer I believe can be found in the relationship between blood and life as it relates to the prohibition against eating meat with the blood in it.

Douglas argues that the list of forbidden animals in Leviticus 11 comes right after the recount of the death of Aaron’s sons in chapter 10, who died after offering a strange fire at the altar (Leviticus 10:1-3). “Moses has just told Aaron that it is the duty of the priest to teach the people of Israel the difference between the clean and unclean.”  Chapter 11 goes straight into animals that are clean and unclean and is the “first lesson in the difference between clean and unclean animals. Douglas goes on to explain that the list of clean and unclean animals is in the same order of creation.

“In Genesis 1, the first two days of creation set up the four cardinal points and the next four days are spent putting living denizens into the earth, sky and water and putting the lights of the stars and planets into the sky. Compare Leviticus’ list of prohibited animal foods with that of Genesis 1 on the earth (Lev. 11.2-8), in the waters (Lev.11.9-12) in the air (Lev.11.13-25).” Mary Douglas

Land animals are listed first, followed by creatures in the water, and then finally creatures in the air.  The dietary laws are listed in order of creation, I would guess to remind us of the created order, and of the order as created and the sacredness of separation. The dietary laws of Leviticus 11 reflects and achieves the separation of the people around the rule of separation, to celebrate through obedience the sacredness and separateness of the source of separation itself. In this way separating of food is made sacred, in the same way that the seventh day of the week is made sacred. We separate shabbat from the rest of the week and it is made sacred or holy. The same could be true for our food.

Going back to Genesis 1:29-30, the original intent of the humans, as written by the priestly writers, is that humans and animals were meant to survive on green plants, seeds and fruit, they were to be vegans. In the Noah story after the flood the rules are changed to allow humans to eat meat. Humans are given permission to eat meat but never blood.

“But flesh with its life blood you shall not eat” (Genesis 9:4) and it is reiterated in Leviticus 17:14, “for life of all flesh, its blood is in its life, and I said to the people of Israel, you shall not eat the blood of any flesh, because life of all flesh is its blood;  All who eat it will be cut off.”

This rule also applies to eating carnivorous animals and means that we cannot consume animals for food that eat the blood of other animals.  The animals mentioned in Leviticus 11 that are seen as clean are all herbivorous animals and we can assume that the animals that chew their cud and have a divided hoof also do not prey on other animals, and do not eat blood and can be eaten by the Israelites after the blood has been removed.  Lastly, Douglas adds that “holiness is incompatible with predatory behavior. The command to be holy is fulfilled by respecting blood…the forbidden animals keep the rule of avoiding blood.”

Milgrom sees the dietary laws as an “ethical system and since humans will eat meat and kill for it. The Bible has worked out a system of restrictions whereby humans may satiate their lust for animal flesh and yet not be dehumanized in the process” To prove this he makes two points that are relevant to this paper.  1) the choice of animals for food is very limited, considering the number of animals that exist on the planet. All are domesticated plant eating animals.  2) Blood must be drained before a permitted animal is fit to eat. “Humans have a right to nourishment, but not to the life of others.” Milgrom sees this as “the Bible’s method of taming the killer instinct in humans, is none other than it’s system of dietary laws.” Milgrom dismisses all other reasons such as health and hygienic reasons and says that health and hygiene cannot explain the few choices of animals for consumption. He states that “one theory explains the reasons for the the dietary laws and that is that the laws serve as an ethical guide – a system whereby people will not be brutalized by killing animals for their flesh.”

Implications for Today and Our Eating Practice

The conclusion of Leviticus 11 explains the purpose of the food restrictions, “to be holy.” By restricting consumption of meat to clean animals the Israelites sanctify themselves and become holy. Even though the Bible permitted the eating of meat, humans were still to have a deep respect for life. This is the reason for the command to,“pour out its blood and cover it with earth,” (Leviticus 17:13) and the prohibition against eating it. “Pouring out the blood is a “symbolic way of returning the life of the animal, its blood to God. But the explicit reason for the draining and covering is to prevent its being eaten”

Many Jews today do not choose to obey the dietary laws of Leviticus and see them as archaic. Following the dietary rules today could have better implications for the Jewish community:

  1. Respecting creation.  Following the dietary rules laid out in the bible and having a distinction between clean and unclean animals is respecting creation as described in the bible. There are connections between creation and the dietary laws in Leviticus. The parallelism between creation and the dietary laws in Leviticus demonstrates a literary design and rationale by the writers behind these laws that appreciates the order of creation.

  2. Holiness. A dominant theme in the book of Leviticus. “To be holy” we cannot be holy beings if we eat blood, or if we eat animals that prey on other animals. The dietary laws were a compromise, since the Israelites wanted to eat meat, these laws allowed them to eat meat in an ethical way. By following the laws in this light and by limiting our animal consumption, we are holy. What does it mean to be holy, today? I believe that to be holy means living ethically, with justice, compassion and mercy for all living things.

  3. Health. Even though none of the scholars listed in this paper advocates the dietary laws as laws related to health, there is value in an argument for health. Regardless of what the biblical writers knew, we know today that a diet that contains too many animals is not good for us and is linked to a ton of health problems. By following the dietary laws in the Bible we would be eating less meat. Today with kosher slaughterhouses, which are part of big agribusiness and factory farming, we have moved away from the intention of the biblical writers, which I believe was for us to limit our consumption of animal flesh. Today factory farming makes it very easy to eat meat whenever we want, it’s cheap and easily accessible. If we followed these laws we would eat less meat, be healthier and holy.

Are you a Messenger?

Behold, I am sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי (Exodus 23:20, Mishpatim)

During the week I work at a retirement community in Philadelphia. I hang out with seniors, we talk, have fun and sometimes it’s serious as I witness their journey though this last stage of their life.  A few days ago, on Martin Luther King day I met a couple, Carla and Sam, they have been married for 65 years, Sam recently suffered a stroke and I was told that he probably would not live past Friday. I met their son, a family friend and the hospice staff. Sam was laying in a hospital bed in the middle of their tiny one bedroom apartment. I talked to Sam, even held his hand, I’m not sure if he knew I was in the room are not, but for me it was a touching moment especially since I knew on my next visit he would not be with us. Carla was so happy that I the “Rabbi” came to see them and talk with them. She told me how long they had been married, and in 65 years  they never went to bed angry. She was very happy to share this with me and tell me about their lives and I was very humbled by the experience.

Today, I led a Tu Bishvat seder at the same retirement community. It was only the second Tu Bishvat seder I had ever been to and the first one I led. The residents were so excited that I was there and people wanted to know where I was sitting so they could sit next to me. I had also learned that Sam had passed away yesterday and Carla was staying with her son for the rest of the week.

I talk a lot about the assumptions that people make about me, because I’m queer, Jewish and black but I too am guilty of assumptions. If someone would have asked me a year ago, if I would want to work in a Jewish retirement community I would have said no. I would have assumed that demographic would be the least accepting of a black, female rabbi who is also queer, and honestly, quite the opposite is true. They really don’t seem to care, they are just happy to sit down with me, and talk and share their lives. I never knew how happy people could be if you just sat down and really listened. I met a woman in her 90’s, she lost her husband and her only child and really has lost the will to live but after our conversation she left with a smile. Another woman in her 80’s suffered horrible abuse from her daughter, escaped to safety and is now living in this community, she has shared things with me and I know she is only telling me because she feels safe and because I carry the title “Rabbi”

As someone who did not grow up understanding the relationship between a person and their rabbi or their minister, I’m taken back by the tremendous gift; that I get to share in people’s lives. I get to experience the joy and the sadness with people. This gift and these relationships that I am forming with people, the experience is hard to put into words. I keep saying that I am a witness to people’s lives but it’s more than that. After meeting with my spiritual director she said this quote from this weeks Torah portion

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי

Behold, I am sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared (Exodus 23:20, Mishpatim).

Am I a messenger? Who are the messengers in our lives?

An Honest Days Work Deserves a Pay Check

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or one of the strangers who are in your land inside your gates;

At his day you shall give him his wages, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and his life depends upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord and it be a sin for you. [translation by Artscroll, adapted] -Deuteronomy 24:14-15

לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחֶיךָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ:

בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי עָנִי הוּא וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ וְלֹא יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל ה’ וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:

This week I started my Fellowship at T’ruah and my internship at Community Voices Heard (CVH), a member organization of low-income people. The environment is pretty diverse; brown people, white people, Jews, non jews, LGBT folks and straight folks. In other words the perfect environment for me, especially after spending the last year in a mostly privelged white environment.

My first day at work, like most jobs was an orientation that included the cool history of CVH and watching this amazing documentory, A Days Work, A Days Pay, that featured the organization. The film gave me some insight on New York’s Work Experience Program (WEP), where welfare recipents are forced to work in city-run programs for well below the prevailing wage. Common sense says that it should be illegal for the government to make poor people work for less than the legal minum wage, but it contines to happen. The WEP participants have also been deprived of basic labor rights, and must concede to what is demanded of them or lose their below minimum wage income and be kicked off welfare. This a lot of power and as one can imagine people in this system have suffered abuses and CVH continues to push to end these types of programs, that push for “work first” over education and training which result in people staying in a cycle of constant poverty. And trying to end policies where welfare recipents provide free labor around the state of New York. Further proving at least to me that the United States continues to look for slave/cheap labor and exploites the poor. If you work you should get paid a fair wage for a days work.

Watching A Days Work, A Days Pay gave me some insight into the real-life impact that a social policy can have on human beings. I was also able to comprehend the effort required for low income people to transform themselves from the victims of the system to fully empowered citizens who take control of their own lives.

I spent the rest of the week at CVH learning more about the members of the organization, calling residents of public housing to remind them about a mayoral forum coming up in the following week (New York is set to elect another mayor, Bloomberg has been in office for 12 years), sitting in on a meeting with members of CVH, a leader the DC37 Labor Union and protesting with Intern Labor Rights and CVH at the United Nations Headquarters. Trying to bring attention to the exploitation of unpaid labor/interns at the United Nations.

I have spent a great deal of time studying poverty, working on issues that affect the poor but usually from a privileged place. This week reminded me of why I have focused on these issues; to help people. And I believe when this summer is over I will not only have a better understanding of what it means to work for human rights, I will also have a better understanding of myself and grow as a human being.

Tzedek Tzedek

Operation Understanding 2012

This summer I had the opportunity to work with an organization called Operation Understanding, an organization committed to social justice. OU takes an equal number of Jews and Blacks, boys and girls all rising seniors on a journey to learn about their individual and shared histories so that they can effectively help to lead a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.

The organization was founded in 1985 by an African Congressman and a Jewish businessman. These two men came together over mutual concerns about the strained relations between Black and Jewish communities.  Both men became convinced that exploring their histories together might begin a powerful, constructive dialogue.  Together, they conceived of Operation Understanding.

My work with OU began late June and we left Philadelphia, and headed to a place called Fellowship Farm, hung out there for a couple of days for some team building, then set out on our journey, to New York and spent time in Harlem and Crown Heights, Park 51 and the World Trade Center Memorial site. We met a Queen, Queen Quet, leader of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, we went rafting in Atlanta visited the Martin Luther King Center,  learned about the Leo Frank Case. We visited the Paper Clips Project, in Tennessee, learned about the horrific tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys; nine black teenage boys accused of raping two white women Alabama in 1931, when their only real crime was catching a free ride on a freight train. We got some serious experiential education on slavery by being made slaves ourselves and being put on a slave ship. We crossed the  Edmund Pettus Bridge and learned a first hand account of what happened Bloody Sunday March 7, 1965 in Selma Alabama; and what it was like to be a freedom rider.  All of this information you will never find in U.S. History text book. We popped into the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tuskeegee, help to build houses in New Orleans and learned about Jewish life in New Orleans. We hung out with the Jewish community of Jackson Mississippi. We had lunch with Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles the last person to see Dr King alive and our last stop was DC before heading home. Along the way we attended Muslim, Jewish and Christian services. Visited civil rights museums, a holocaust museum and learned about Israeli, Jewish, American, black and African cultures.

This week’s Torah portion urges us repeatedly to pursue justice.  I could not help but go back to the phrase  “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”  צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue”) The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. It teaches us to pursue the goal of Justice through means that are just and teaches us: Justice for ourselves and justice for the other.

The kids I worked with learned a lot on this trip about the tragedies of the past and hope for the future. I also learned a lot. After a rough first year of rabbinical school and wondering if there really was a place in the Jewish community for me as a Rabbi. These kids and Operation Understanding helped to remind me that there is a place for someone like me in the Jewish community and for me Tzedek Tzedek צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף  represents my two communities, both seeking and pursuing justice.

Why Does the Torah Not Abolish Slavery?

In Parshah Mishpatim we transition in Exodus from a narrative, a story of a people, their enslavement, and their journey to freedom to

“now these are the laws that you Moses, shall set before them.”

Why do we care about this? The Israelites didn’t know how to act as a free people after all they had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. And needed guidance on how to behave as free people. Since the Israelites had left slavery it should not be surprising that the first set of laws mentioned in this parshah are laws about slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says:

If you buy a Hebrew slave he is to serve you for seven years. But the seventh year, he shall go free.”

What is surprising to me is that the Torah does not abolish slavery. Instead it lists a serious of laws on protecting the slave. The legalized slavery of the Torah only comes to correct some of the pitfalls of slavery. Slavery did exist during this time as an institution, as long as it existed, the Torah gave us laws to protect slaves from abuse and mistreatment. It’s almost as if the Torah could not imagine a world without slavery. Why doesn’t the torah just abolish slavery? Jonathan Sacks says:

“The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: Time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia….So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of Gods relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, to abolish it of their own accord.

Slavery, has existed probably since the beginning of time. Before modern era, slavery was not based on race, it was based on debt, crime or war. In the case of war, when one group of people defeated the other group, they would often enslave the loser and often these were women.

When slavery came to the New World, there was such a demand for labor that slavery became a whole new animal. Slavery in the United States was not based on debt, war, or a crime, it was only based on biological traits, what we now call race. And slavery became inheritable. I mention this because slavery in this country was wrapped in religious conviction. Meaning that on one hand according to Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography the cruelest slave masters and overseers were devout Christians, usually folks that had some kind of a conversion experience or today we call them born again. Further reading of Douglass’ does not imply that he believed christians were evil. He makes a clear distinction between Christianity of America and the Christianity proper. These slave masters used text in the Torah, to justify slavery. On the other hand you have folks like the Quakers, Methodist and the early evangelicals, campaigning to end slavery. These devout christians were also driven by religious conviction, inspired albeit by the narrative of the Exodus story.

As an American, a woman, a Jew and a person of color I feel intimately connected to the history of slavery. Not only the slavery mentioned in this weeks Torah portion but the history of slavery in the United States and the slavery that continues today. These verses in the Torah reflect the time when the Israelites had crossed over the line and moved from slavery into freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people and never allowed to forget the experience of slavery.

The laws embedded in this week’s portion, and the ones that will follow stress, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.

Genesis 1:29 and our Food

I have created a new title for myself, Food Activist.  I wish I could say that I coined the phrase, but I did not.  I heard it this morning on NPR and the title was used to refer to Michael Pollan.  With my ever growing interest in whole plant food and educating people about good wholesome unprocessed food.  It has had me thinking about the Torah (Bible) and what the Torah says about food.  Primarily in Genesis 1:29, where I believe that the initial intention was for us to be vegetarian:

“And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food.

Later permission was given for people to eat meat (Genesis 9:2-5).  Why? No one really knows, maybe it’s as simple as this: the world was flooded and destroyed and there was no more vegetation left and the only food sources would have been the animals on the ark and whatever food Noah and his family brought on the ark.

But I have an even larger question, what does it mean for us as a society that we have become so consumed with meat and cheap meat at that, that we do not care about the treatment of animals, the labors, or how food gets to our plate?

Please share any thoughts on this subject.