Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, January 26, 2023
In This Moment: "Status Quo," "Transgender" and Other Borrowed Words. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, More A.I., Women of the Wall
In This Moment
Click on the photo to hear the service held by the Women of the Wall this week at the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh Shevat. Assisted by an all-women's choir, as you can read in the article below (see the full article here). You'll note a familiar name in the article, Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray. If you listen to the video, you'll hear the intentionally disruptive loudspeaker nearby, attempting to drown the women out.
Friday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, Yad Vashem is involved in two significant exhibitions, One is at the U.N., where a Book of Names will be dedicated, a literal book with tangible, searchable pages containing the alphabetically arranged names of 4,800,000 Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazi Germans and their collaborators during the Holocaust. The names in the Book have been meticulously gathered over the past 70 years by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, from a range of sources, including Pages of Testimony. Empty pages at the end of the Book leave room for over a million names of Holocaust victims still to be recovered.
I'm especially excited about the "16 Objects" exhibit that will be opening in Berlin. It features unique Holocaust-era items, one from each of the Federal States of Germany, whose stories are intertwined with individual Jews hailing from across that country. The objects range from this toy kitchen to a piano, all of which were sacred to a Jewish family. See the artifacts.
The Garden of Eden in Christianity and Judaism
Join me and our interfaith partners for another of our sessoins based on the new book, "The Bible With and Without Jesus," tonight (Thurs) at 6:30 (note the time - check the flyer for the Zoom link). This week's topic is "Adam and Eve." You can find the chapter here. Join us as we discuss the very different ways Jews and Christians understand the concepts of "Original Sin," "Paradise," and the status of women as reflected in the Genesis account. Are men and women equals in both Creation stories or is the woman "cursed" to be subservient? Is Eden supposed to be a reflection of heaven, or simply a place of where humanity and nature coexist in perfect harmony? Is THAT heaven (or is it Iowa)? Is death a curse? Is the knowledge of good and evil a bad thing? Was the forbidden fruit an apple? Or maybe a fig? Lots to chew on.
How do you say "Status Quo" in Hebrew?
Both are loanwords from English.
What does that say about our sacred language?
Plus, a word about Fauda,
a Hebrew show with an Arabic name
This week's Hebrew Front Page (below)has an English front page right beneath it. Both are from Wednesday's Ha'aretz. Note that in the headline highlighted in yellow, the English term status quo, is transliterated directly into Hebrew (second line, middle). "Netanyahu Promises Jordanian King to Preserve the Status Quo on the Temple Mount." It's odd and a little disconcerting that there is no Hebrew term for "status quo." The status quo on the Temple Mount has been sacrosanct since the 6-Day War, and it is under threat right now, as this article attests (and Jordan's king fears). Preserving the status quo with regard to holy places enables the Muslim authorities to supervise worship while Israel maintains security while (usually) respecting the sanctity of the place for Muslims. That arrangement has allowed for an uneasy but stable peace to prevail for over half a century. By resolving not to resolve the conflict unilaterally, the parties allow the status quo to become a baseline, albeit an imperfect one, forged in compromise, but durable enough to hold things in place until the time is right to address prevailing issues constructively and incrementally. Status quo is so important to Israel's continued survival that it's hard to believe there is no Hebrew word for it. There are six Hebrew words for peace, but not a single one for the time-tested method for preserving it.
Acceptance of the status quo has not only kept peace between Israel and Muslim authorities, but it has also allowed Israel to preserve its own fragile balance between religion and state among the Jewish population, particularly in areas of Shabbat and holiday observances, kashrut, family status, education and the military. So, for example, in some cities buses run on Shabbat and in some they don't. Compromises were made back in the early years, and once that happened, things were kept basically the same, for the sake of peace. It was all about finding some middle ground that everyone could live with, even if no one was completely happy with the arrangement. At its best, status quo allows the pot to simmer just long enough for fresh ideas to germinate. It should not be a prescription for eternal ossification. In some cases adjustments to status quo policies need to be made for compelling moral reasons, especially regarding basic human rights, but allowing Jewish prayer atop the Temple Mount has never been cause to upset the status quo - until now.
Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled all the way to Jordan to assure King Abdullah that he would preserve the status quo, but will he? Watch out for what happens on Passover, when right wing extremists will undoubtedly try to stir the pot by sacrificing a goat in the shadow of Al Aqsa. It's been tried before, just last year, in fact. The police have stopped these attempts in the past, But now the inmates are running the asylum. The police are supervised by Itamar Ben Gvir, the right wing zealot who has already made his first official visit atop the Mount, and the Temple Mount movement is planning for a robust return of Jews to the site. And this year, Passover, Easter and Ramadan all coincide. Circle the first week of April on your calendars and stock up on canned goods. Things could get very tense around the world.
Still, there is no Hebrew word for "status quo."
And on the very same front page, another word lacks an authentic Hebrew translation.
In the red-highlighted story, about a transgender child being removed from a religious school because of parental pressure, you can see that the term "transgender" is also transliterated directly from English to Hebrew. (Read the entire sorry Ha'aretz story here). There is no Hebrew word yet for "transgender," just an English loanword, like טלפון, ג’ינס and ביי ("telephone," "jeans" and "bye") and like "status quo."
In this situation, though, I think I'd rather not see the Israeli language authorities take a crack at creating an organic Hebrew word for trans, considering that the best they've been able to do with LGBTQ is "homo." I'm happy just keeping things as they are. Let English carry the loan-load on this one.
The fact that the Hebrew language can't handle either gender fluidity or historical flexibility, (which maintaining the status quo ironically requires), suggests that Judaism's sacred language might have a problem with fluidity in general. The Hebrew word for fluidity is נְזִילוּת ("n'zilut"), which comes from "nazal," "to ooze." There's another word as well: זרימה, ("zrima,"), which comes from the word "zerem," a biblical term for downpour (see Psalm 77:18). Somewhere in between those two words, in between the oozing and the gushing, between stagnation and revolution, there is a simple, flowing stream - a fluidity that recognizes that nothing is static and unchanging, not regarding gender nor ownership of sacred spaces. Because of that, we need to be respectful of people who pray in different ways, for whom the very same location might have a very different history - different but also holy.
Fluidity is a key to understanding how, over the coming few weeks, the Torah cycle takes us from the blood-soaked banks of the Nile to the rising and ebbing tides of the Red Sea, and from the depths of winter's frost to the first oozing of sap on Tu B'Shevat.
In some ways, Israelis have always been very good at going with the flow. But with the current government's approach to both the Temple Mount and LGBTQ, and so many other areas, there has been a considerable hardening of the arteries. That needs to change quickly. As Pharaoh discovered, nothing good comes from a hardened heart.
Which brings me to Fauda, a show that thrives on fluidity. Having binge-watched the fourth season this week, I come away amazed at how interchangeable the Jewish and Arab characters are, as they flow from language to language, from tragedy to tragedy, from love to revenge and back to love again. The great tragedy is that the the fighting protagonists can never see, just for a second, just how similar they are to those they are killing, and in those fleeting moments when they might see it, they are betrayed by those who don't, whose hearts have been hardened beyond repair. The way the show flows from hatred to love, from enemy to friend, and from death to birth, might present the illusion of hope that the cycle can be broken. But the only ones broken in the end are the people themselves,exhausted from their endless battles. Even the births seem tragic because there is little hope but for a repetition of the cycle of stuck-ness, of an eternal, unending, unbending status-quo, and not the good kind of status quo, the one borne of inertia rather than compromise. As if we needed more proof, art imitated life last night in the streets of Jenin, where an israeli raid resulted in the deaths of nine Palestinians.
But transcending a plot that is replete with tragedy, there is one glimmer of hope. This Israeli show that glides effortlessly from Arabic to Hebrew, from Beirut to Tel Aviv, is Netflix's number one show in Lebanon and highly rated throughout the Arab world.
Everyone is watching. and that counts for something. On some level, we're all speaking the same language.
That portends a fluidity that just might upend the "statoos quo" some day, And it just might save us all.
To this list of 15 top prayer moments, we might now add the final scene of this season of Fauda, but no spoilers. I'll just say that the prayer - at least in part - is the Sh'ma. The finale lent the powerful impression that we are all connected, no matter what tribe we support, at birth, in death, and everywhere in between, but especially in death.
Wear It, Plant it: World's First Fully Compostable Footware (No Camels) - You wear it and plant it. Israeli startup Balena has developed what it describes as the world’s first fully compostable plastic fashion product. Balena has developed BioCir, a pioneering plastic that maintains its shape and use like conventional plastic. It’s only when it’s exposed to the specific bacteria and conditions of a compost facility, that the breakdown is triggered – so ethical consumers don’t need to worry about the slides disappearing on their feet. Balena released their first 1,000 pairs of men’s and women’s BioCir slides – with a cinnamon scent – in Tel Aviv, its hometown, together with designated take-back spots for when they wear out. Owners return the slides to be shredded, then planted back into the ground for full biodegradation at a local industrial compost facility, instead of tossing them into the garbage to be landfilled.
I want Judd Hirsch to win an Oscar — but not like this (Forward) - In a piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Simi Horwitz said, “Boris is well beyond Jewish stereotype.” I described him variously as the entire fish line at Zabar’s and an entire Upper West Side apartment block. (My editor punched this up with “as scripted by Mel Gibson.”) While there’s no doubting Hirsch’s Jewish bona fides, there is the uncomfortable fact that his performance plays somewhere closer to Eddie Murphy’s Jewish barber shop patron in Coming to America — except that that was funny.I have to say, I don’t blame Hirsch, who is one of two Jewish acting nominees this year with Jamie Lee Curtis for Everything Everywhere All At Once (a film which, in the theatrical cut, credited Jenny Slate’s character as “Big Nose”). I’m more inclined to fault Oscar-nominated screenwriters Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, who penned a character bordering on offensive even for a Jew to play, and that would be worth some kind of sanction from the ADL if performed by a gentile.
Tefillin Sourcebook - The World Wide Wrap is coming up soon, and this week's portion contains the foundation for the laws of tefillin. All the "hows" and "whys" of this ancient, powerful and mysterious ritual - all wrapped up" in a source packet that has been distributed to famlies at the annual "Wrap."
Fear and Faith - "Fighting fear when homes become tombs; leaps of faith from narrow places." Initially prepared after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, this packet looks at the tenth plague and the symbolism of Egypt's hidden meaning as a "narrow place." a place of narrow escape as well as a birth canal toward a new life.