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Abraham the Father of Multitudes

            There’s a belief – that you are supposed to take on faith – that all of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and even the Oral Torah (the commentaries on the Hebrew Bible written later by the rabbis, called the Mishnah and the Gemara) were given by God at Mount Sinai, along with the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish dogma, in fact, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were all written by Moses (and inspired by God) in about 1300 BCE. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that these stories were written and collected during the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, and a long time after the events described would have taken place.

            My Rabbi likes to say that the early stories in Genesis, pre-Abraham, are meant to be like Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so-stories, fables really, to explain the origins of things in our world. Why is childbirth painful? Why do we wear clothes? Why do we speak so many languages? Why are we scattered across the earth? And the answers were often adapted from what surrounding cultures had come up with to answer those same questions.

“Just so you know: dogs don’t wear clothes, and we all speak Woof.”

            There’s a well-founded theory, new to me but not new to biblical scholars, that everything before the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the central story of the Hebrew Bible, was written to make that Exodus more meaningful, and to explain why the Israelite tribes were able to escape slavery and enter freedom in the land of Israel. Others say that even the Exodus story itself is a fiction, created by a mixed group of tribes living in the land of Israel centuries later, to create a cohesive story of how they became a nation.

            This idea makes me feel seasick, as if the ground under my feet has been pulled away, but in another way it’s freeing. It allows me to see my ancestors, and these stories, as less concrete and more open to interpretation. There are reasons why every culture writes its own history, creating its own heroes and villains. Even the American story, so much more recent in history and therefore much easier to fact check, is full of exaggeration and idealization and interpretation meant to bolster certain values. This is what people do: we tell stories about our lives and our families. Some of these stories are even true, but many of them are meant to be symbolically true and to be emblematic of the life lessons we want to teach our children, rather than sticking strictly to the facts.

            And in the ancient world, history and chronology and literature were treated very differently than the way we treat them today. The idea that we fact check our stories at all would have seemed strange to them, and the idea that the science of a story would have to be correct would just seem silly. They didn’t care if the splitting of the Sea of Reeds was possible, just that it felt true to them.

“I never let facts get in my way.”

            Despite my endless questioning of the biblical authors, I always took it on faith that Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) were real people. I assumed that the authors of the Hebrew Bible were mythologizing and interpreting every which way, in order to make these patriarchs seem more important and to make them stand for more than just individual people doing idiosyncratic things, but I assumed that at least some of the stories were based in fact. It never even occurred to me to wonder if Abraham himself was a fictional character, created by later generations, to validate cornerstones of the Israelite faith. Part of me even accepted that the mythological characters of Adam and Eve, and even Noah, were historical in some way. My questions, when I had them, were more often about the way the biblical authors interpreted events, editorializing and exaggerating to particular ends, rather than whether or not the events themselves had ever taken place.

            But, if the stories of the Hebrew Bible are fiction, why do the patriarchs, and especially Abraham, matter – so much so that three world religions see Abraham as their forefather?

            The name Abraham basically translates as Big Daddy, or father of multitudes. And yet, Abraham is a mess as a husband and a father, which makes him an interesting choice for patriarch. He’s certainly not a good role model, except, maybe, in his faith in God.

            So what is the point of this Abraham character? And why has he resonated with so many people for so long? We can ask that question whether we believe that God wrote the Hebrew Bible or that many different authors wrote it for their own different purposes, actually. Why has Abraham lived up to his title as the father of multitudes, inspiring so many people to believe in monotheism and this Yahweh version of God?

            The Hebrew Bible doesn’t present us with a paragon of goodness who is born knowing how to do everything right – no, Abraham is flawed, and makes terrible mistakes, even life threatening mistakes, in his misreading of what God wants from him.

            He learns.

            And God is with him every step of the way, not always cheering on his actions but trying to guide him and be with him as he makes his mistakes. Maybe his imperfection is what allows us to relate to him, and go on this journey with him, and believe that, maybe, we can have our own, similar, relationship to God.

“I’m imperfect too, and you love me anyway.”

            This is a God who will stick with you when you struggle, and continue to spur you on to be better, and give you second and third chances to learn. Isn’t that what we all want, really, to be supported along the way and not required to be perfect from the start, or even at the end, in order to earn that support?

            So, does it matter if these characters really existed thousands of years ago? Maybe it’s even more powerful to think that our ancestors were able to imagine these characters and their stories, and create this vision of God. I’m a fiction writer after all; I believe in the power of a good story, whether it’s factually true or not.

“Tell us another story, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Why Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

(This was written before The Covid-19 shutdown but it still seems to resonate now, with all of us watching each other on social media and Zoom, and trying to figure out who’s accomplishing the most or being the coolest or the most responsible, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying and why. And most of all, we’re trying to figure out the rules of social engagement during a time of social distance. Let me know what you think.)

In sixth grade bible class, at my Jewish Day School, we learned that embarrassing someone is like killing them. At least theoretically. In the Talmud it says that he who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood, and it would be better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another. We learned tons of other lessons in our mini-law school class that year, but the embarrassment law stuck with me most, because, for me, embarrassment was a daily occurrence. As with most crimes, the commentaries on the bible encouraged a financial recompense for the crime, instead of direct revenge, and I was looking forward to all of that money.

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“Money for treats?”

Embarrassing me was a common sport among the girls in my class. They’d pull me aside to comment on my bra sticking out, or on my weight, or on my general un-coolness. They’d spent years criticizing me for my hygiene, my clothes, my vocabulary, my intelligence, my height, etc. They even humiliated me in my own home at my sleepover birthday party one year, hurling insults and tissues at me form the attic while the rest of my guests hunkered down with me behind the door to my room. The teachers did nothing. The parents did nothing. This was back when bullying was considered normal and teachers rarely intervened. I’ve been told it’s different now, but I don’t know.

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Ellie’s not sure either.

Being bullied by the girls at school was bad, but my father was the biggest source of embarrassment in my life. The sexual abuse was covert, but his campaign to make me look foolish was out in the open. When I was four years old he told my then six-year old brother to take a picture of me sitting on the toilet – and for this he taught my brother how to use his good camera and how to break the lock on the bathroom door. My brother could barely keep his shoelaces tied at that age, so my father must have worked very hard to teach him such specific skills. He didn’t bother teaching my brother how to develop the picture, though; he made the full-sized print himself, and framed it.

I didn’t know about the anti-embarrassment law back then, but I still felt wrong criticizing my father, even for his obviously abusive behavior, and I was criticized by other adults whenever I did get up the nerve to complain about him. This taught me that I shouldn’t speak up if it might cause my father pain, even if my intention in doing so was to protect myself. Because why should I matter more than he did?

That history has made me very sensitive to my own desire to heap scorn on others. I want to be very careful that I’m being fair in my criticisms, and I don’t want to be mean just because it feels good to be mean. And, after reading more of the small print, I’ve found out that there is more subtlety to the anti-embarrassment law: You’re required to testify in court, even if it could cause someone embarrassment; and, if someone repents and asks forgiveness, you can’t remind them of their past behavior (though it’s unclear how one might know if someone has gone through the full process of repentance, most of which happens in private). So now I’m even more confused. You are directly told to speak up when you see someone doing wrong; but there are all kinds of punishments for having embarrassed someone. How can you know when to speak up and when to remain silent?

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

I started to think about this issue recently when a man I know was following me around. He never threatened to harm me, and he never left scary voice mails on my phone, but he would stand too close to me when I was talking to other people, and follow me to my car, even when his car was on the other side of the parking lot. I did my best to discourage his behavior, by creating physical distance, and not making eye contact or conversation. A normal person would have gotten the hint, but he did not.

He knew about my abuse history, or he’d been told, but it was a further sign of his own psychological and social issues that none of that seemed to register. With my Masters in Social Work in my back pocket, I felt like I should know how to handle his behavior in a compassionate and understanding way, but knowing about his problems only made me feel guiltier for wanting to feel safe.

I tried to tell some of the women around me, thinking they would understand and offer support and advice, but they saw him as harmless. Oh, he likes you, they said, as if I should be flattered. I wondered if I was making a big deal about nothing, except that it was jangling my nerves, and making me scared to go to places where I knew the man might be. Even my therapist pooh poohed it, saying, you’re an adult, just tell him to leave you alone. This, technically, is called minimization and blaming the victim, but she didn’t see it that way.

I wanted the behavior to just stop. I didn’t want to have to confront the man in some way that might embarrass him, or me. But I also wanted other people to notice what was happening and protect me, and no one did. So I finally reached out to someone in authority to ask for help, as carefully and discreetly as possible, and help was offered quickly, and with kindness. The situation still isn’t great, but it’s better. Most likely, I should have asked for help sooner, before the situation became so overwhelming. As it is, I still feel anxious when I see the man, even when he’s doing nothing wrong. But I also feel uneasy about writing this, unsure if I’m revealing too much detail that could allow someone to identify him and cause him embarrassment.

And all of that made me wonder, why do I believe that I have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of myself? Did I learn that from home? From school? From society at large? And why didn’t I also learn about the requirement to speak up when you see wrong-doing? Was that left out of my education, or was it actively discouraged?

Recently, when I heard that some prominent men were criticizing Gayle King for even asking about Kobe Bryant’s well known past misdeeds, after his death. Some people were going so far as to send her death threats. And I wondered if this emphasis on not embarrassing people is exclusively focused on men, rather than on women.

This is the #MeToo movement encapsulated. Women stood up and said, No more, we are going to speak openly about sexual assault so that men will be stopped. And, immediately, the men invoked their version of the anti-embarrassment law. As if the embarrassment and shame caused by the abuser to the victim is not as important as the shame the victim causes by publicly accusing the abuser. Even if the man is never indicted, and he gets to go back to his regular life, he will already have been shamed. So, with statistics showing at most a five percent chance of a false accusation of a man, all women should be disbelieved, or worse, silenced before they can be believed or disbelieved.

When President Trump complains that his critics are mean and disgusting and causing him harm, there’s some validity to that. People are giving accounts of hateful, and disgusting, and embarrassing behavior committed by the president, and they do intend him harm in speaking up about his behavior. So, are they wrong for causing him harm? Is that the kind of embarrassment that is prohibited?

In my house growing up, and in my world growing up, the answer was yes. You are harming him by accusing him, even if he’s guilty, and you have no right to cause him harm. But, is that what the bible intended to teach us? And if it did, do we have to listen?

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

Cricket and bird

No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

IMG_0747

“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?