HOT OFF THE SHTENDER: OLAM HADASH: TOWARDS A JEWISH THEOLOGY OF ABOLITION

by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, Talmud Faculty

This piece is an excerpt from R’ Ari Lev’s Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Tzedek

Last week a grand jury in Louiseville, KY exonerated all three officers in the case of the murder of Breonna Tayler, and merely indicted Detective Brett Hankison for wanton endangerment, for the shots fired into neighboring apartments, but not for the murder of Breonna Tayler. 65 years to the day that an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder, which they later confessed to.

We arrive at this new year with an intimate awareness that the space between the world as it is and the world that we long for is cavernous. We arrive bereft and betrayed by a state and a system that have always, and continue to devalue Black lives. We arrive not only to affirm that Black lives matter, but that Black lives are precious. And we call upon the prophecy of Arundhati Roy and Jewish tradition to guide us. 

Arundhati Roy writes,

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past 

and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. 

[This pandemic] is a portal, 

a gateway between one world and the next.” 

Which is why we are here. To imagine our world anew. 

In Hebrew the word for world is olam – 

As in Adon Olam – Master of the universe

As in Melech HaOlam – Sovereign of all the World

As in Hayom Harat Olam – the world is pregnant with possibility.

It is a word that spans both time and space. It describes eternity and existence in one beat. As in L’olam va’ed – forever more, eternally.

And not only that but, rabbinic literature is replete with references to the idea that

האדם הוא עולם קטן

There is no more profound manifestation of a world, than that of a human being.

We are worlds unto ourselves. Microcosms of existence. Which is also why we are here. Not only to imagine a new world, but to imagine ourselves anew. 

These are inseparable processes – because the world needs you whole. Uvtuvo mechadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit. Every single day, creation is renewed. We have the chance to create ourselves and our world anew. Every single day. 

Lucky for us Jewish tradition is replete with stories about personal and collective transformation, stories in which what seemed completely impossible becomes reality. Stories in which our ancestors transcended the narrowest of circumstances and created the world anew. 

And while sometimes we call this a miracle and credit it to the Holy One, more often than not the Sages, of blessed memory, go out of their way to recognize it as human creativity and agency. Or perhaps more aptly, the sages understand that the miraculous is ever present in our world and in our actions.

One midrash wonders: How did Noah manage to survive the flood and live to see his children exit the ark, thus begetting a new generation of humanity? How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging him into the sea? How did Joseph go from being shackled in prison to a governor in Pharaoh’s court? How did Mordechai go from being ready for the gallows to executing his executioners?

In other words, what made it possible for Noah and Moses and Joseph and Mordechai to transform their circumstances, to live into a radically new reality? Now the midrash doesn’t just ask the question. It actually goes way out of its way to offer an answer. And in every case, for each of these people, the answer is the same. 

אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ

It was because of their ability to see a new world. An Olam Hadash. A world renewed.

Each of these people was able to imagine new ways of being and living. And they allowed that vision to hold them steady through profoundly difficult circumstances. 

In the days after the murder of George Floyd, may his memory continue to be a source of transformation, Black leadership across the country mobilized people to take their grief and their rage to the streets. 

On Sunday, May 31st, as the sound of helicopters roared above West Philly and the smell of tear gas wafted towards my windows, there was a request from Black clergy and comrades for white clergy to come to 52nd street, to provide spiritual support to protestors and accountability to the police.

As I got closer to Malcolm X Park, it was abundantly clear that our clergy garb was useless in the face of SWAT munitions and a literal armored tank pacing back and forth in front of the YMCA. In the midst of state sanctioned chaos, two young black protestors walked slowly and deliberately towards the line of armored vehicles and armed police in riot gear. With their hands raised above their heads, they held signs that read: “Who are you protecting?” and “Do you really care?”  Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Open Our Hearts Through Torah

by Laynie Soloman, SVARA Faculty

In the bet midrash, in meetings, and in conversations with SVARA-niks and community members week after week, I hear a refrain: We are holding so much grief. But it is a stagnant and stuck grief. It is heavy in our bodies, lodged in our bones, and in our hearts. We are faced with a daily onslaught of information that traumatizes us, each day offering a new overwhelming tragedy or injustice to our hearts and bodies that are already overflowing. Our government attempts to normalize an oppressive and devastating status quo, which denies us the opportunity to fully register what’s happening.

Our usual mechanisms for feeling and expressing personal and collective pain aren’t available to us: hugs, communal song, public ritual, breaking bread with community, and sharing stories of our loved ones, along with so many of the ways our bodies rely on being witnessed and connected in order to move through and release our grief and pain.

Doing “teshuva“—making space for self-accounting, reconciliation, and presenting ourselves to those who have done harm to us—this season feels impossible: how can we do the sacred work of repair with so little space inside our hearts? I’m reaching the end of a year of personal loss—as y’all who have been in the bet midrash with me this year know, I’ve been dedicating my learning to the memory of my Bubbie, who passed during this season in 5780. As I grieve this personal loss and feel it compounded with collective grief and daily heartbreak, I am feeling the pieces of deep sadness that are lodged inside of me, inside of my body, halting and shortening my breath, tightening my stomach, shrinking my posture.

Everything is stuck, and we don’t have a way to let it out. This season I’ve been asking myself: How can I—how can we all—open? Without the practices we’re accustomed to, what can help us to feel so that we may begin to repair?  Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Steeping the Divine Into the Space Between Comrades

by Noah Westreich, SVARA Fellow

I can conjure up many different memories that have to do with the High Holidays. I remember being a kid and choosing the overflow room to sit with my friends and pass the time during services, the grainy video playing on the rollaway television stand. I remember the 110-degree heat of El Centro, CA, the site of my first student pulpit where I led Rosh Hashanah services. I remember the selichot service where I met my partner one year ago.

This year things look quite different, and there is no precedent for what we are about to experience this season. As I prepare myself for this uncertainty, I’ve found it helpful to spend time learning and engaging with the texts of our tradition, which contain examples of unprecedented circumstances that not only call for innovation but also provide the delightful, knowing sensation that we have been here before and there are texts to prove it.

In SVARA’s daily Mishnah Collective we have been looking at the following teaching from Rabbi Chaninah found in Pirkei Avot 3:2: 

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן תְּרַדְיוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְאֵין בֵּינֵיהֶן דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, הֲרֵי זֶה מוֹשַׁב לֵצִים…אֲבָל שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם

 

R. Hananiah ben Teradion says, “If two [people] dwell together and there are no words of Torah between them, behold, this is bad company’s meeting”…but if there are words of Torah between two that dwell together, the Shekhinah dwells between them.”

Rabbi Chanina teaches that “bad company” is when two people are in relationship and there are no words of Torah between them. The Hebrew for “bad company” is moshav leitzim and literally means “a dwelling of scorners.” In other words, this is an environment rife with speech and behavior that leaves you feeling undignified and hurt. We might think, then, that when two people do have words of Torah between them, they would be seen as “good company.” But this is not so! When two people sit together, in a relationship, and there is Torah between them they are, according to Rabbi Chanina’s teaching, joined by the divine. The alternative to “bad” here is not “good,” it is Divine as the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is presented as being deeply steeped in that relationship. Read More