When I became the rabbi of a small congregation in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood I thought this would be a transition job in a small city outside of NYC. Truthfully I was feeling disillusioned about being a rabbi at all—I had been forced out of my previous rabbinic position for speaking out against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and because, as a board member put it, “your students would probably prefer to learn with a straight male instructor anyway.” So I said to myself— Jersey City, and a tiny little synagogue that just wants one Shabbat a month and the occasional lunch & learn? I can do this and just get myself back together.
Boi, was I about to get WOKE. UP.
After the violence of December 10th, 2019 which resulted in the murders of Moshe Deutsch z”l, Miguel Douglas z”l, Mindy Ferencz z”l, and Detective Joseph Seals z”l, Greenville and Jersey City were thrust into the local, state, and national spotlight, and the usual response ensued—every block in Greenville, it seemed, was patrolled day-in and day-out by police. All the synagogues in the area were amping up their security measures, and the various Jewish Federations convened what felt like weekly instructional sessions on how to optimize security measures. I was approached by a number of my congregants, however, who were suspicious about Greenville’s portrayal in the media. As I started monitoring the responses of many of our neighbors, mostly POC, I became suspicious too. Greenville is a neighborhood that has been neglected for years by the municipality. Greenville is also a neighborhood rampant with gun violence, and I learned quickly from lead activists in Jersey City that while the JCPD was a regular presence post-incident, there has been little-to-no follow up with regard to violence prevention or culturally-specific youth and family trauma counseling even after a $100,000 Community Violence Needs Assessment, paid for by Jersey City residents’ taxes, had been conducted between August-October 2019.
I have been fortunate these last few months to be learning from some of the most incredible rabbis- teachers, I have ever known—and they are all activists, POC, who have been fighting the good fight to help Greenville thrive. There’s Pamela Johnson of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition; Sandra Lovely of the I Love Greenville Neighborhood Association; Educational Gilmore, Lilia Diaz, Nevin Perkins of Blackmen United, Denis Febo of AmendTheThirteenth, and A’Dreana Williams, just 18-years old, of The Black Diaspora Club. To do them and their work justice would take hundreds of pages, but the essential lesson they have taught me is this: in order to fight for our communities, we must truly be a part of the community.
That’s why it is more important than ever for my synagogue, Bnai Jacob, in Greenville, to actively protest police brutality and demand judicial accountability when excessive police force is used, and to deeply question if a police presence at our synagogue for security is actually exacerbating a problem plaguing our community. We have to ask this question because, as the Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot 2:5 “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We are a Greenville synagogue, Greenville is our community, and police brutality is a problem here.
As protests and riots arose across this country, Mayor Steven Fulop decried calls to defund the police, saying that “it would never work in Jersey City”. The JC municipal budget 2020 shows 44% dedicated to public safety (33% of that allotted to police salaries) and less than 1% donated to Health & Human Services, which includes the divisions of Veteran Affairs, Immigrant Affairs, Women Infants and Children (WIC), Senior Affairs, and Disease Prevention (yes, like COVID-19 testing and tracking). Seeing these kinds of numbers has made me question—what kind of city is this whose government places so little value on human life? And let me be clear—it’s not the citizens. Jersey City residents are fiercely loyal and civically active, and while there are those on the city council and in other departments who are also fighting the good fight, there is clearly something amiss at the highest levels of governance.
My brilliant and courageous teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe (and yours, too ☺)— wrote last week about the necessity for the needs of a justice system to be understood in and on their own terms, untranslated. Following in her fabulous footsteps, let’s continue from Sanhedrin 17a into Sanhedrin 17b, in which we learn the following:
ותניא כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה בית דין מכין ועונשין וקופה של צדקה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה ובית הכנסת ובית המרחץ וביהכ”ס רופא ואומן ולבלר (וטבח) ומלמד תינוקות משום ר’ עקיבא אמרו אף מיני פירא מפני שמיני פירא מאירין את העינים
We learn in a braita—any city which does not have these 10 things, a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it: a Beit Din that can flog and administer punishments, a charity fund that is collected by two but distributed by three, a synagogue, a bathhouse, a bathroom, a doctor, a bloodletter, a scribe, a ritual slaughterer, and a teacher for young children. They said in the name of Rabbi Akiva- also different types of fruits because different types of fruits brighten the eyes.
Here we see our radical resistance ancestors (who were most likely living in an extensively policed state under Roman occupation) describing a proper city as one that meets the many needs of its community members—charity that is distributed fairly based off of a persons’ needs and number of dependents (see Rashi on Bava Batra 8b:5), a place for worship, multiple safe locales and professionals dedicated to public health, a scribe for the writing of sacred books and legal documents (see Jastrow entry on לבלר) education, and even requires that the city be able to provide diverse foods for nutrition (no food deserts for these fairy-ancestors).
Now check this—here are two other renditions of this tradition in later sources:
משנה תורה, הלכות דעות ד׳:כ״ג
כָּל עִיר שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ עֲשָׂרָה דְּבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ אֵין תַּלְמִיד חָכָם רַשַּׁאי לָדוּר בְּתוֹכָהּ. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: רוֹפֵא. וְאֻמָּן. וּבֵית הַמֶּרְחָץ. וּבֵית הַכִּסֵּא. וּמַיִם מְצוּיִין כְּגוֹן נָהָר וּמַעְיָן. וּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת. וּמְלַמֵּד תִּינוֹקוֹת. וְלַבְלָר. וְגַבַּאי צְדָקָה. וּבֵית דִּין מַכִּים וְחוֹבְשִׁים
Rambam (Maimonides) Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot (12th century)
Any city which does not have in it these ten things a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it: a doctor, a bloodletter, a bathhouse, a bathroom, excellent running water sources such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a teacher of children, a scribe, charity collectors, and a Beit Din to flog and to imprison.
אוצר מדרשים, חופת אליהו, חופת אליהו רבה רל״ב
כל עיר שאין בה תשעה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה, ואלו הן: בית הכנסת, ובית ישיבה, ובית המדרש לתינוקות, ובית דין, ובית מרחץ, וקופה של רוכלים, וקופה של צדקה, ומקוה, ופירות. ר״ע אומר לפי שמיני פירות מאירין עיניו של אדם
Otzar Midrashim Chuppat Eliyahu Rabbah (1915, an anthology of “minor midrashim” collected by scholar Julius Eisenstein)
Any city which does not have in it these nine things a Torah scholar is not permitted to live within it, and these are they: a synagogue, a yeshiva, a beit midrash for young children, a beit din, a bathhouse, a collection for merchants, a collection for charity, a mikveh, and fruit. Rabbi Akiva said this is because different kinds of fruit brighten a person’s eyes.
For Rambam, the emphasis on an excellent source of running water shows his concern and expertise, as a physician, about public health. Otzar Midrashim’s emphasis on the various levels of education (yeshiva vs. beit midrash, and the specification of mikveh!) and different kinds of collections (one for merchants and one for tzedakah) perhaps demonstrates the midrash’s concerns about different levels of access in any given city. The consistent point across the spectrum of these tradents is that the Beit Din is only one tenth (or one ninth) of the full picture of the proper city for a Torah scholar to live in. And even with that, the role of the Beit Din is inconsistent in these sources as to whether their role is ritual or civil (let alone to what degree a beit din ever had independent power from the secular authorities to imprison someone in the Diaspora).
I think the most important lesson in this, however, is that the Torah scholar’s obligation actually goes far beyond living in a city that prioritizes all of these things, but that the Torah scholar has a responsibility to be a part of building such a city. I was devastated when I left my position in NYC and wondered if I would ever feel the same spark I once felt about being an artistic activist rabbi shaking up the system from within, especially when I lost the fight so badly. But learning and teaching with SVARA has taught me to understand my queer rabbinic self as a descendent of radical fairy rabbis who also lost the fight from time to time, but they didn’t desist from the task (Pirkei Avot 2:16). So I say to you, my family, my Am (people)—we still have a lot of righteous work to do that we are not free to desist from. Let’s work towards defunding the police and building the cities that we, as Torah and Talmud scholars, and all people of the earth, should have access to living in.
Last week I watched the Netflix film Disclosure. I’m never going to be the same.
It’s a documentary about trans representation in film and media. Only trans people appear on screen—which is revolutionary in and of itself—but as I watched it, and listened to each of the artists on the screen speaking, something else became almost immediately obvious to me—the people they were talking to, off-camera, the interviewers whose voices and questions and responses you never hear, were also trans. Even as a cis (though queer) person watching it, I recognized in the way the folks on screen spoke—not only what they said but how they said it—that they were speaking to people offscreen who got it. It was apparent in the laughter that was shorthand for the words they didn’t need to say, in the tears that didn’t need to be justified, in the fragments of sentences that didn’t need to be finished, in the insider language that no one bothered to explain for any one else’s benefit.
There was incredible power in the profound insights the artists shared precisely because none of it was translated. It wasn’t diminished by the need to make it palatable to someone who didn’t understand it viscerally. It didn’t have to shrink to fit into someone else’s frame of reference, or become more tame than someone else might be able to tolerate. What was radical to me about that documentary wasn’t merely who was speaking, but who they were speaking to. They were speaking to each other. And the truths that surface when we, people with marginalized experiences, speak to each other, are revolutionary. Because we cannot even know the fullest truth of our own lives until we turn them over, and over again, with each other, with other folks who know, deeply, and with their lived life experiences, what we’re talking about, who understand pieces of it better than we do, and who need us to understand other pieces better than they do. And it is only in the not-translating that its full power can be surfaced.
There is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) in which the Rabbis ask the question: what are the qualifications necessary in a judge who will be appointed to the high court, the Sanhedrin, which adjudicates capital cases and makes determinations of life and death? What would someone deciding life-or-death matters have to know, what would they have to be like, for us to feel that they were most able to carry out justice? The Rabbis know that justice can only be created out of a space in which justice is embodied and experienced. So what they’re really asking is: what would a just space, a space that created justice in the world, look like? Read More
At SVARA we often say, “The Talmud is never really talking about what it says it’s talking about.” We focus on the text as formative rather than normative—the tradition is here to shape us, not necessarily by what it says, but by how it says what it says.
In our own chevruta, as two Queer learners committed to bringing our full selves and our radical politics to our learning, this has allowed us to have a more spacious relationship to texts that might otherwise be harmful, painful, or antiquated. When we focus on the process and see the content as secondary, we are opened up to the possibility of being deeply aligned with the methods of our Sages, even when we find that their rulings conflict with our values. We emphasize process over content, noticing the radical moves that the Rabbis make in their time, which inspire us to make the radical changes to and through the tradition that we need in our time.
But sometimes, we find genuine glimmers of ourselves, our truths, our ideals, and our experiences reverberating through their words. These moments are a true gift, in which we are seen by our history. This week in the Mishnah Collective, through our daily study of the teachings found in Masechet Avot (the tractate of the Mishnah known as “Avot”), we were blessed with one such moment:
הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ
Be careful [in your dealings] with the authority for they do not draw near to a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress. (Masechet Avot 2:3)
This teaching, potentially given over anonymously, is a popularly-quoted warning given to the community (in the plural, perhaps most accurately translated as “Y’all, be careful…!”) to beware of those who hold power. Read More