Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shabbat Kwanzaa: Rethinking Moses

In honor of the holiday of Kwanzaa and the upcoming Shabbat, a word of Torah is in order.


In the book of Numbers 12 (Bamidbar, for all my Hebrews), Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses (Moshe) for taking a isha Kushit (literally, an Ethiopian woman). For this, Miriam is punished (unclear as to why Aaron isn't punished equally). Just what is this criticism about?

The French biblical commentator Rashi suggests that the isha Kushit and Moses' wife, Zipporah, are one and the same. Since in other places, Zipporah's lineage is Midianite (she is the daughter of a Midianite priest), he suggests that she isn't Ethiopian (i.e., Black), but that she is either beautiful and exotic like an Ethiopian woman would be considered, or that it was clear -- like the difference between black and white -- how beautiful Zipporah was.

However there are others that tell a different story...

Josephus and a Midrash told in the Yalkut Shimoni collection fill in a gap in Moses' biblical life, suggesting that he actually spent 40 years beginning with him leading a military expedition to Kush (either Sudan or Ethiopia are suggested as the location) and continuing with him as ruler of the country (thanks to SM for helping with subtleties of text). It's not coincidental that this story would mean that he spent as much time leading Kush as he did leading the Israelites in the midbar (wilderness, desert).

According to this version of the story, while ruling Kush, he is so respected that he is given an Kushite woman (in one account, she is a widowed princess, whose late husband had ruled Kush previously).

So, here are the lessons to be learned:

  1. Long before the 1960's, Rashi already had suggested that "Black is Beautiful". Kol Hakavod, dude!
  2. As my friend, RR pointed out to me, Theodor Herzl had suggested Uganda as the location for a Jewish homeland during the early days of the Zionist movement, and that our people's history would have looked very different had his idea won. My response is that Herzl and the Zionist leaders probably didn't know that their idea had a midrashic foundation dating to the time of Moses
  3. Moses sojourn in Kush gives us reason to re-think how we picture him. Most art either has him as an Egyptian prince (certainly valid) or in Bedouin clothing for the desert. But the garb of an Ethiopian ruler would provide quite a different picture of the Hebrews' lawgiver. It would also mean that my shopping expeditions to Harlem put me in a chain of rabbinic tradition extending thousands of years old
  4. The relationship between blackness and Jewishness is not as simple as it seems on face value (pun unintended, but funny nonetheless). Dr. Karen Brodkin, professor emeritus at UCLA, wrote a book called How Jews Became White Folks, in which she pointed out that American Jews made a conscious choice to ascribe to whiteness (i.e., WASP-ness), but that, as a minority, they could have chosen to identify more with the position of Black America.
  5. There is a myth of Jewish genetic separateness that traditional Judaism promotes, largely to oppose intermarriage. The fact of the matter is that there was tremendous interweaving between our Jewish ancestors and the other nations around them (explaining the similarities in appearance between Jews and surrounding ethicities). So Moses might have been a great role model for today's world in which Jewish individuals often have other ethnicities playing at the same time.
  6. I have no idea what Moses' taste in women was. But it's interesting to have a tradition that puts him with a Black African woman. At the risk of being sacrilegious (not the first time nor the last for me), the first image that popped into my mind of Moses with an Ethiopian woman was the Eugene Levy character who is infatuated with Queen Latifah's character in the movie Bringing Down the House.

So, this Shabbat and Kwanzaa, take a moment to ponder Jewish identity, the Jewish sojourn in Africa, and our relationship with the cultures and ethnicities with which we interface.

Happy Kwanzaa and Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Inconsistency or Choice? Whatever it is, it's the Hallmark of Emerging Judaism

Back in the day, Jewish religious movements attempted to provide some internal uniformity, consistency, or at least commonality to religious observance.

In my childhood, you pretty much knew that the Orthodox synagogue would be a place in which women were observers, men and women sat separately, rabbis were at least somewhat differed to in terms of ritual decisions, Hebrew was the sole language of prayer (with maybe a quick English moment for prayers for the government or for the State of Israel).

Conservative synagogues in those days were largely Orthodox-lite. Men and women sat together, bat mitzvah girls could lead some parts of the service, there were a few women cantors out there, and, unlike most Orthodox synagogues, the parking lot was filled.

Reform synagogues (brace yourself if you're 30 or younger, because you probably never witnessed this) were places in which you'd be asked to remove your head covering (even if it was a kippah), women were rabbis (but rarely, if ever, senior rabbis in the large temples) and cantors, and congregants could exercise religious choice (as long as they didn't get too traditional).

Reconstructionist congregations were a bit of a wild card; far less predictability of what you'd find when you went to one.

The drive to conformity extended to individual behavior, at least publicly. More traditional (but not observant Orthodox) Jews drove to shul, but parked a block or two away (this brings back fond childhood memories of the few non-high holidays that we journeyed to synagogue). Religious Jews of any of the movements didn't have tattoos (particularly because ignorant teachers insisted, incorrectly, that the chevra kaddisha wouldn't let you get buried with one), were very discreet if they were sexually active, voted moderate to liberal, dressed conservatively, and only smoked pot with the closest of friends.

Somewhere along the way, the rules of the game changed, I think for the better. Nowadays, you can find Orthodox synagogues with women in spiritual leadership roles, Reform synagogues where most congregants wear kippah and tallit, and of course, Conservative synagogues, while going completely egalitarian, have also, in many cases, become more traditional.

But even more visible in recent years, is individual choice, or religious inconsistency if you want to look at it that way. In my list of friends and contacts are observant Orthodox lesbians, shomer shabbat Reform Jews, shomer shabbat Jews with tattoos, interfaith families with kids in Jewish day schools, and a wide array of other makes and models.

Do you see all this as inconsistency, or simply opening of choices? I'd love to hear feedback. Regardless...

The downside of all this is that our Jewish world is far less predictable. We can no longer look at someone and make assumptions about their based on appearances.

But the upside outweighs all. Because we once excluded so many Jews who simply wanted in. And now, through generational change and social change, the doors have swung open.

My thanks and appreciation to the many young-thinking people (of all ages) who have opened my mind to the Jewish world that continues to emerge and engage.