A New Mishkan in a New Desert: Coronavirus and Community

This is the first Shabbat since, idk, the Black Plague (??!!) when Jews all around the world are not gathering together in synagogue or for Shabbos meals (hopefully), but are engaging in the massive collective effort of staying-home.

It’s remarkable that this week’s Torah portion is devoted to detailing another massive collective effort- when wandering in the desert, we all pooled our resources to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as our spiritual core throughout those rough years. וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ- “everyone whose heart uplifted them came, everyone whose spirit inspired them to generosity” brought their own offering to support the work. The parsha laboriously details the different goods each Jew had to offer- silver and copper; wool, linen and goat hair for spinning; spice and oil for lighting and incense…

Ironically enough, this gigantic in-person work party holds up a poignant mirror to our own moment of social distancing. Now, as then, “everyone whose heart lifted them up to approach the work to do it” is taking action- setting up mutual aid networks; devising new ways to build virtual community; holding each other close, even and especially across distance; taking care of the home, and the inner work of the soul.

In this unprecedented time, we are building a new Mishkan in a new desert- each of us recommitting, in our own way, to the work of reaching out, showing up, reaffirming being-together, co-creating the collective spiritual anchor that will guide us through this tough time.

וִיהִ֚י נֹ֨עַם | אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַֽעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֖דֵינוּ כּֽוֹנְנָ֣ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּמַֽ֘עֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֜דֵ֗ינוּ כּֽוֹנְנֵֽהוּ: May the pleasantness of my Lord our G-d be upon us- may he establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork, may he establish!!

The Right Wants to Keep Jewish and Black Non-Jewish Communities Divided. We Can’t Let That Happen.

Written at Political Research Associates, with Leo Ferguson and Dove Kent

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“Jews and allies have drawn thousands to demonstrations following separate antisemitic attacks by members of Black communities against orthodox Jews in Jersey City, Crown Heights, and Monsey. The White nationalist movement, meanwhile, has applied antisemitism and racism to strategically exploit tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish Black communities in service of their broader goal of White racial dominance. By examining these developments, we can gain insight into the endurance of antisemitism as a political ideology that harnesses popular grievances for reactionary ends, and we can understand its increasing appeal, in our volatile era, to far-right nationalist movements and aggrieved individuals across different communities.”

Read more at Political Research Associates.

Taking Aim at Multiracial Democracy: Antisemitism, White Nationalism, and Anti-Immigrant Racism in the Era of Trump

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My report on antisemitism and white nationalism in America, with Political Research Associates.

“The last thing White nationalist Robert Bowers posted to social media before his deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue was, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” That was October 27, 2018. Bowers’ killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue sent shock waves through both the U.S. Jewish community and all those concerned with the violence of bigoted politics. As shocking as it was, it is important to understand that Bowers’ attack was driven by an explicitly White nationalist ideology—an ideology that imagines that U.S. Jews are manipulating policy to use non-White immigrants as a weapon against White people.

As this extremist ideology moves from the fringes to increasingly influence the Republican Party, all the way up to the White House, it is important to understand how antisemitism and anti-immigrant racism are core mobilizing strategies of the Right in the Trump era. Make no mistake, it is the White nationalists and their dog-whistling allies in the Trump camp who pose the principal threat to U.S. Jews, alongside a nationalist policy agenda that targets immigrants and communities of color with bigotry and exclusion.”

See more at Political Research Associates.

‘May Memories Rise’: On the Meaning of ‘Yaaleh Ve-Yavo’

A year ago I had occasion to write on Torah themes. I recently got my drash published on the site Lehrhaus- ‘May Memories Rise’: On the Meaning of ‘Yaaleh Ve-Yavo’. It’s about Rosh Hashanah and the power of remembrance, collective memory charged full to bursting with the fierce hope of redemption- a theme that first drew me back to Yiddishkeit, a theme that for me is also deeply political. I ended with a Walter Benjamin quote (of course), to gesture towards this.

“On Yamim Tovim, High Holidays, and Rosh Chodesh, we include the Ya’aleh ve-Yavo prayer in our davening. Commentators suggest that this prayer was added to the liturgy as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices once offered to Hashem during these hagim. In this prayer, evoking our ancestral virtues and Messianic aspirations, we ask God to have mercy upon us, save us, and treat us with compassion and lovingkindness.

But what exactly do we mean when we ask God, in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, to “remember” us and our ancestors, Jerusalem, and Messiah? Why not simply pray for God to “save us,” “redeem us,” etc? What is added by evoking, in flourishing detail, the uprising of memories before God’s consciousness?…

“As flowers turn toward the sun,” wrote Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “so, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.” Ken yehi ratzon!”

L’shanah tovah!

Where Did The Past Go?

Check out my feature article for the summer 2019 issue of Jewish Currents, ‘Where Did The Past Go?’, on current progressive Jewish debates about the nature of antisemitism, and the ongoing legacy of April Rosenblum’s influential zine ‘The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere’.

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Are Jews ‘middle agents’, caught between ruling elites and oppressed peoples, from America to Israel/Palestine? Is antisemitism ‘cyclical’? How do we make sense of Jews as both oppressors and oppressed? I try to unpack these live and vital debates animating Jewish progressive movements today.

Things have moved quickly since I finished this article back in January. Back then, the weaponization of antisemitism charges by Trump and the Right against Ilhan Omar and ‘the Squad’ hadn’t yet erupted so glaringly onto the national stage. Today, it’s clear to many that a middle-agent framing can help us understand these attacks. By slamming ‘the Squad’ repeatedly as antisemitic and anti-American, the Right positions Jews as a cudgel, shield and buffer with one hand- claiming to protect us, like feudal lords, while in fact isolating us from our natural allies- while deploying antisemitic rhetoric to inflame their base with the other hand, putting us in danger (tirades targeting Soros and ‘globalists’, accusations of ‘disloyalty’, etc). While this situation contains many novel elements, in other ways, it’s not so new- American Jews end up wedged in the ambiguous middle, a setup that ultimately positions us for scapegoating, and benefits the white Christian elite.

I also regret that, solely for reasons of space, I wasn’t really able to address Israel/Palestine. Many claim that the state of Israel is another middle-agent setup- positioning Jews as a front-line buffer for the West in its ‘clash of civilizations’ against its global enemies, situating the Jewish state between the primarily white Christian elites of the world-system and its restless masses, absorbing the rage of the latter while shielding the former from view. Others think this is deeply problematic, deploying the same criticisms listed in the article for the American context. It’s a really complex question that deserves its own article, and I hope others write about it.

In case it isn’t clear from the article, I ultimately like ‘middle agent theory’ (if we can even speak of it as a single unified theory), and for that reason I gave voice to its valid criticisms. It’s one among many frameworks we can inherit from our Jewish pasts, to understand antisemitism today. No one schema we inherit is sufficient, all have shortcomings if we try to understand the present solely through one lens. (And ‘middle agent theory’ is itself a hodgepodge, assembled from bits and pieces of the Jewish past, from the Central European Middle Ages to 19th-century eastern Europe to 20th-century Algeria.) But at its best, when used carefully and critically, seeing Jews as middle agents can help us understand antisemitism by grounding Jewish positionality in concrete and particular structures of race, class and colonial relations. There are clear patterns there that we need to trace, to understand the complex phenomenon which is antisemitism.

Veha’ikar- the main thing is, it’s possible to hold our people accountable for active complicity in oppression, while also acknowledging middle-agent dynamics at play that ultimately oppress us, too (for some this is obvious; it took me awhile to internalize!). We can combat our communal embrace of race and class privilege in America, while *also* seeing how this embrace ends up trapping us as the moving target of ‘punching up’ scapegoating in the era of Trump and white nationalism. We can hold similar nuance when acknowledging Israel’s complex positionality at the volatile fault lines of world imperialism, while calling for Palestinian freedom and return. We can see these contradictions as moments of dialectical tension, and we can be compassionate towards our people. I’m as little interested in a liberal discourse which sees antisemitism as ‘always cyclical’ because Jews will always and forever be victims, as I am in an ultra-left discourse which anxiously disavows any notion that antisemitism may be structural, out of a myopic fixation on *only* chastising our communal complicity in systems of oppression.

Today the American Jewish community is positioned to understand our middle agent setup and to interrupt it, in a way that our ancestors weren’t. May we continue to build the grounded understanding of antisemitism, within our communities and in broader movements, that can fuel our action and help get all of us free.

 

The Resurgence of Right-wing Antisemitic Conspiracism Endangers all Justice Movements

Days after the synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, I wrote in Religion Dispatches about the antisemitic ideology that helped motivate the shooter. Conspiracy theories about George Soros, ‘globalists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’ are on the rise in today’s far-right movements, imagining Jews as the hidden engineers of white dispossession, the arch-enemies of white nationalism. Progressives need to understand this resurgence of antisemitism in order to show up for Jews, protect all our movements from attack and stamp out the steady rise of white nationalism in America.

“We’ve seen this before. Throughout the 20th century, insurgent far-right movements deployed conspiracy theories about shadowy socialists, cosmopolitan financiers, and covert culture-manipulators in order to win support for their authoritarian agendas. Most of the time, these theories were overtly anti-Semitic, with Nazi Germany and its obsession with “Judeo-Bolshevism” serving as the starkest example of the consequences of these theories—for Jews and for the world.

Today, it is can no longer be doubted that from San Diego and Pittsburgh to Charlottesville, Virginia, and the pages of Breitbart, anti-Semitism is resurgent in the Trump era. But how it operates—and why it’s on the rise—can be unmasked. What role do these conspiracy theories play in right-wing ideology? How are they related to discourses and policies that target other marginalized groups? How do they endanger Jews—and harm other justice movements?…

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories substitute an imagined revolt against illusory oppressors for a clear analysis of who really profits from societal structures of exploitation. While other racist tropes tend to “punch down” at an allegedly inferior target group, anti-Semitic conspiracism “punches up” at a target it imagines as inordinately powerful, seemingly standing above or behind social movements and political forces, pulling the strings.

In a world of dizzying social and political change, these conspiracy theories furnish a meta-explanation—for confused and alienated individuals such as Earnest and Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, but also for right-wing media figures, politicians and other influential players—of how the world got this way and for who is responsible. In Europe and the United States, virtually any conspiracy narrative acts as an antisemitic dog whistle (or fog horn), even when Jews are not directly named.

This is why anti-Semitism is so dangerous, not only for Jews but for all movements for social change; because it’s such a powerful tool in the right-wing ideological arsenal, providing a scaffolding for sweeping attacks against progressive movements and perhaps sending some of the most vulnerable, who might otherwise benefit from those movements, down the dead end of conspiracism.”

Four reasons why I love Purim- on vulnerability and resilience, diasporism, and fighting white supremacy

I really love Purim. In this post, I’ll explain four reasons why.

Purim tells us that holiness can be found in our world, not only in the lofty striving of the soul towards immaterial realms of transcendence, but right here, in the thick grit of our social, political, historical being-together. Purim tells us that we can find strength in times of darkness, when the face of G-d is hidden from us, when life is bleak and redemption seems most remote. Purim is a fleshy tale of diaspora struggle and resilience, that concerns itself, finally, with the eradication of white supremacy and Empire from the face of the earth. How, you ask? Read on…

1. G-d is in the struggle

The Talmud, in Shabbat 88a, tells a curious tale that connects the seemingly disparate events of Sinai and Purim. When the Jewish people, wandering in the desert, gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem held the mountain menacingly above our heads and said to us, ‘If you accept my Torah, great! If not, here is your burial place!’ The rabbis voice a concern- this sounds pretty coercive! Was our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai truly genuine, if performed under compulsion? Nonetheless, answer the Rabbis, in the age of Achashverosh we again accepted the covenant, this time willingly. Facing the genocidal decree of Haman, we recommitted ourselves, defiantly, to our peoplehood and faith; we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’ at Sinai. 

At Sinai, the very essence of G-d was revealed to the Jewish people in an utterly transcendent, mystical, even psychedelic experience of theological and moral enlightenment and revelation. Purim is the dialectical opposite of this. In Purim times, the First Temple lay in ruins, and many doubted if return and rebuilding was still possible. The era of prophecy was drawing to a close, and the Jewish people, through a series of political twists and turns, narrowly escaped genocide under an oppressive regime.

At Sinai, we saw G-d face-to-face; in the Book of Esther, G-d’s name is not even mentioned. What a strange assertion, then, that the exalted heights of Sinai are bound intimately to the ‘mundane’ events of Purim, occurring 1000 years in the future!

Purim is the ultimate secular, materialist holiday. The Book of Esther (which, again, never mentions G-d) is wholly concerned, not with transcendent matters of the soul, but with the gritty, precarious survival of the Jewish people in history. Its narrative unfolds wholly in the realm of realpolitik, a tale strung along by palace intrigue, political calculation, human decisions, and sheer luck. On the surface of things, divine miracles are nowhere to be found; redemption Seemingly comes to the Jewish people solely through natural means. 

One may assume that, since it deals with ‘political’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’ matters, Purim is held as a lesser holiday by the Rabbis. But quite the opposite- Purim, as Shabbat 88a tells us, is the foundation-stone of our very covenant with Hashem. For the sages, Purim is the happiest day of the year, comparable in importance to Rosh Hashanah- and its mandated merry-making carries a redemptive power equivalent to fasting on Yom Kippur. Tradition teaches that after the Messiah arrives, Purim is the only holiday Jews will continue to celebrate, and the Book of Esther is the only holy book, outside of the Five Books of Moses, that will not be nullified. 

We can see why Purim is accorded this special status when we understand that concepts such as ‘G-d’, ‘holiness’ and ‘faith’ reign, for the Jewish people, not only in exalted spiritual realms, but also in the concrete, material worlds of politics and history. The Western dichotomy between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ is foreign to us. Just as the Jewish ‘faith’ does not rest in the heart’s interior but concerns itself, as halacha, with the immanent details of our lives, so does the spiritual heart of our people beat for this world, in all its vexing complexity.

The activists and organizers among us can be energized by this materialist strain of Jewish peoplehood and theology. The struggle to stay alive and avoid persecution; the shifting relations between social forces; the day-to-day work of politics and relationship-building; the desire to get safe and free right here, in the immanent unfolding of our social being-together- this, too, is holy

2. Diaspora

Forty years after Sinai, the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, formed a civilization, built a Temple, and established a Davidic kingdom. Why did the rabbis in Shabbat 88a not link these momentous events to Sinai, as proof and embodiment of G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people? Why, when looking for a post-Sinai moment in Jewish history when we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’, did the rabbis ‘pass over’ our epic saga of self-empowerment in the Land of Israel, to focus instead 1000 years into the future, when we huddled vulnerable and precarious under a foreign king in Persia? 

Purim is the quintessential holiday of diaspora, the only holiday that takes, as its chief concern, the saga of the Jewish people facing persecution and choosing resilience in a foreign land. (While Passover echoes similar themes, I hold that Purim holds greater resonance as a direct commentary on the complexities of post-Temple diasporic Jewish life).

For centuries, the narrative arc of Purim has reflected back, into the eyes and hearts of generations of Jews, all the concentrated hopes, anxieties, promises and travails of our diaspora experience. The communal re-telling of the Purim story in shul- the only public recitation whose attendance is halachically binding upon every Jew- becomes, for each diaspora community that bears witness, an opportunity to wrestle with intimate and lived questions of our power and powerlessness, our relationship to the ruling elite, the peril of our vulnerability and the promise of empowerment, and more.

Jewish tradition contains many deep teachings insisting that galut, exile, is intimately related to hitgalut, revelation. It is only when we are dispersed throughout the world, that we can truly make visible to all humanity that Hashem’s kingdom is indeed everywhere. Our ‘descent’ into exile is, in fact, part of a grand cosmic process of tikkun, unification or repair, which is necessary for the unfolding ‘ascent’, the completion and redemption of all Creation.

Tradition is ripe with such teachings emphasizing the generative, redemptive qualities of diaspora. These teachings did not serve simply to comfort Jews during the long, cold centuries of subjugation- rather, they formed the real backbone of a rich diasporic Jewish consciousness, cosmology and worldview, one often overlooked in prevalent modern Israel-centric conceptions of Jewish identity.  

In this light, we can understand the rabbis’ linkage, in Shabbat 88a, of the revelation at Sinai- which itself occurred outside the land of Israel, in the in-between space of the desert- to the diasporic events of Purim. Perhaps, living in Babylonian exile centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, this linkage of Sinai and Purim helped the Rabbis orient themselves in Jewish history, and imbue their condition with meaning and purpose.

This linkage carries an ethical message for our resilient people, as well. The covenant we make collectively with G-d, affirmed the rabbis, is concretized most primordially not when we exult in the empowerment of a Temple or a Davidic Kingdom, but rather, when we face our vulnerability in a time of precarity, when we place our trust in the redemptive power of a holy force beyond any earthly kingship. 

We do not highlight this diasporist ethos in our own time, in order to score a hurried, oversimplistic political point against Israel and Zionism. Yesterday and today, dynamics of power and powerlessness, questions of exile and return remain complex for the Jewish people, and the stakes are high. We unearth subterranean strands of diasporism in order to remain attentive to all our tradition teaches us about our peoplehood, as we renew our task of being in the world, being with others, and being ourselves.

3. Personal resilience

This model of covenant as vulnerability carries resonance, not only for our peoplehood, but in our personal lives as well. As mentioned before, G-d’s name is absent from the Book of Esther, and any ‘divine’ or ‘miraculous’ import to the events of Purim is hidden behind a text which seems to depict a completely natural sequence of political events. Even the name ‘Esther’ evokes ‘hester’ or ‘hiddenness’, as in ‘hester panim’, the hiddenness of G-d’s face. The Purim story depicts a time when the Jewish people are vulnerable, frightened and on the brink of destruction- and yet here, in these very depths, we ‘ordain [the covenant] we had already taken upon ourselves’, here we are redeemed! 

To be sure, we each have our ‘Sinai moments’- profound experiences of connection with the Oneness of the universe and the Source of all life, moments when we feel we have come face-to-face with an exalted, trippy Truth which has revealed itself to us. These moments surely are an important part of spiritual life- but perhaps, they aren’t the deepest part. Perhaps, like any relationship, our covenant with G-d- that is to say, our experience of the holy in our lives- is truly tested, deepened and concretized when things get hard, during times of darkness, when it seems like G-d is absent, when redemption from our travails feels farthest from view.

The words ‘Megillat Esther’, the Book of Esther, can be creatively translated as ‘the revelation of hiddenness’. Purim tells us that it is only here, in the dark night of the soul, when G-d is most radically absent, that we can truly ground an unbreakable covenant, can hold an eternal flame to the deepest darkness and affirm, in raw, unshakeable faith, that this, too, is holy 

4. Fighting white supremacy

Finally, I love Purim because, with a little digging, it can be read as a rallying cry to fight white supremacy, fascism and Empire. The archenemy of the Purim story, Haman, is identified by Rabbinic commentators as an embodiment of Amalek. The ‘eternal enemy of the Jewish people’, Amalek is described, by commentators, sometimes as an actual tribe of people sworn to attack the Jews in every generation, and more often as a spiritual force of corruption, sinfulness and degeneracy that plagues the world, standing diametrically opposed to Judaism’s holy light and purpose.

The original ancestor of Amalek was the grandson of the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength, celebrant of brute force. In medieval and rabbinic thought, Amalek was often conflated with Edom, another descendant of Esau, representing the spiritual force of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Edom/Amalek came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire- highly distrusted by the rabbis as the paradigm of human greed and moral bankruptcy- but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world.

Amalek was sometimes theorized as the most ‘self-conscious’, ‘vanguard’ expression of Edom. Today, putting on our political theory hats, we understand that movements of fascism and white nationalism- which, from New Zealand and Pittsburgh to the White House, threaten to consume our world- represent the most concentrated, ‘vanguard’ expressions of larger structures of white supremacy, rooted in the legacy of capitalism in Christian Europe, that have fueled the Western world from the beginning. Today, we call Amalek and Edom by a different name- white supremacy, Christian hegemony, and Empire. 

There are only two passages of Torah of which, each year, every Jewish man, woman, and child is halachically required to hear the recitation- the Book of Esther on Purim, and, on the Shabbat before Purim, a separate Torah passage announcing our obligation to destroy Amalek. In recent decades, right-wing Jewish movements have identified Islam and the Left as Amalek- a frightening inversion, with deadly results. To combat this chillul Hashem, some seek to do away with the traditions of Amalek entirely, or to ‘spiritualize’ Amalek to refer to principles of hate and intolerance more broadly.

I believe we owe it to our ancestors, who suffered under centuries of European Christian persecution culminating in fascism, to remain specific. The obligation to destroy Amalek is an obligation to eradicate systems and forces of white supremacy, Empire, greed-driven capitalism, and right-wing Christian fundamentalism plaguing our planet.

This Purim, may we rededicate ourselves to bringing the holy deep into every level of our lives and our worlds; may we recommit ourselves to fighting white supremacy, wherever it stands; may we reattach ourselves to all that which sparks light, even in thick darkness.

Chag Purim Sameach!