In Good HandsRead Now
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
There’s an incredible moment in the new Avengers movie (don’t worry, no spoilers!) in which all of the women superheroes suddenly materialize on the screen together, united in their collective duty to protect the object that is the lynchpin of the final battle…you might say… the Endgame. And though there are certainly other parts of the film that are meant to draw tears, I found myself suddenly and deeply moved by the moment of feminist solidarity.
In the universe of superheroes, women have only recently begun to take center stage. Usually these comic books, television shows, and movies exalt the masculine form: the übermensch of brawn and sometimes brains through which audiences can vicariously experience the satisfaction of vanquishing evil. But we have seen a shift in the approach lately: women are no longer there just for eye candy; rather they are essential to the plot. Perhaps they’re even the protagonist! And they bring both brains and brawn. After so many decades of the male-centric superhero universe, it was poignant to watch the strong and beautiful women take up the whole screen.
Tomorrow will bring to a close our second year of Women’s Torah Study, a weekly class in which we reflect on how Judaism engages women. This year, we took a deeper dive into the presence and absence of women’s voices in our tradition, tackling hard questions like:
The Torah seems to posit that a woman’s value lies in her ability to give birth. How can women become worth more than that?
As preparation to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah instructs: “do not go near a woman.” Does this mean that women are not the Torah’s intended audience?
Women’s involvement in Jewish practice often seems as a supporting role for her family, rather than for her own fulfillment of mitzvot. How can a woman create her own relationship with God and with Judaism, regardless of whether she chooses to marry and have children?
Traditional Judaism relegates women to their own side of the mechitzah and off the bimah. How do we encourage women to step forward and lead?
Our conversations took us to places expected and unexpected, unearthing deep questions that were always present but never acknowledged. We explored modern Midrashim written by women scholars and rabbis, we learned about societal trends that gave rise to waves of both Jewish misogyny and feminism, and we reflected on how to raise our own voices in response. And though we all emerged at the end with a different image of how we each express our Jewish voices, we are all united by the same approach: that becoming a Jewish feminist means having the freedom to challenge foundational assumptions about gender roles in Judaism.
I am profoundly grateful to the group of committed, insightful, passionate women who inspired me every Wednesday. You are all superheroes—and when you assemble before me, I know that our Torah is in good hands.
Birthing our NationRead Now
On Erev Pesach last year, I left the cheerful hubbub in my kitchen for a few moments, hoping for good news. Instead, after the then-familiar three minutes of waiting, I gazed upon yet another negative pregnancy test.
I thought that this month would be different—I thought that somehow, God would see us in our anguish, that our journey from slavery to freedom that year would be about abandoning the counting, the hormone pills, the cyclical emotional roller coaster every 28 days. I pictured the nurse from the fertility clinic administering the IUI two weeks prior, flashing us a big congratulatory smile, saying how she couldn’t wait to hear from us when we finally got positive results.
But it was not to be that month, or the next, or the next. I held Adam and Hannah close, exalting God for the abundant blessings I already had in my life, cried with my mom in the laundry room ... and we all put on joyful faces and celebrated our Festival of Freedom that centers around the idea that we are duty-bound to explain to our children why and how we were liberated from our oppression in Egypt. Exodus 13, for example, teaches us: “Seven days you shall eat no unleavened bread…and you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”
Children have a special job on Pesach. They are the catalysts of our gatherings, the instigators of our storytelling. The entire Seder is designed with them in mind; the rabbis teach us that we must set out dishes of nuts and candies to keep them awake and occupied, that we must place strange objects on the table so that they will ask why. The youngest guests at the Seder have the sacred task of asking the Four Questions, providing a framework for the conversation, and they also have the very important job of finding the Afikomen, without which we couldn’t conclude.
And so what happens, when we find ourselves deep in discourse about the birthing of our nation, the miraculous grace by which God took us out of Egypt on eagles’ wings, the mitzvah of sharing this story with the next generation—and simultaneously—feeling the pangs of emptiness that we cannot live up to the expectations that we set for ourselves? As a community, we must become aware that one out of every eight of our families contend in some way with infertility, and that as joyful as our holidays can be, that many times, they are tinged with sadness. Just as we look around the table, seeing in our mind’s eye those from previous generations who are no longer with us, we also look around and see the members of the next generation who could be there, who could be helping us shape and inspire the Seders of the present and the future in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine.
In your Pesach preparations this year, as you make donations to JFS, Mazon, and other organizations that support Jews who find the holiday to be a financial hardship, I also ask that you donate to the Hebrew Free Loan Society or the Priya Fund, non-profits that provide spiritual, educational, and financial support to families going through fertility treatments. For those who are still in their narrow place—their Mitzrayim, let us bring their stories to the forefront of our consciousness and let us support them as they struggle toward their liberation.
May we all be freed from our straits this year, and may we all come together in discovering our personal and communal paths to freedom.
A Plague Upon Our Houses?Read Now
Parashat Tazria 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Lilly definitely struck gold when it came to the Bat Mitzvah parasha lottery. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they find out they get to speak about contagious skin diseases in front of a large crowd of family and friends? Lilly did a great job giving us a contemporary perspective on this vis-à-vis inclusion and exclusion from community, so I’m going to spend a few minutes on a related theme that emerges towards the end of this parasha and appears in similar form in next week’s parasha of Metzora, and this is the issue of what happens when this same disease referred to as “tzara’at” manifests not on human skin, but instead contaminates fabrics and leather or even plastered or mud-covered building stones in houses. Most of our rabbinic commentators on the Torah tend to see the spread of these contagious diseases to inanimate objects such as clothing or houses as something natural, as if the object were just falling prey to a fungus or rot. But there are a few commentators who look at this somewhat differently, including Nachmanides from 13th century Spain. Commenting on the infection of clothing in this week’s parasha and on the “house plague” in next week’s parasha, Nachmanides says, “When the Jewish people are at one with God, God’s spirit is always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes and homes in good appearance. When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears on his flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him.” Nachmanides goes on to say that this only occurs in Israel, because only there could we be fully prepared to know God and have God’s Shekhinah, God’s presence, dwell amongst us.
Rashi, our medieval biblical commentator par excellence, from 11th century France, offers us a different explanation for the house plague right out of the Midrash, rabbinic legend—that the Amorites dwelling in Canaan, ultimately the land of Israel, had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses throughout the period of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, which the Israelites would find when they knocked down the ugly, moldy, “infected” houses upon their arrival in the land. Needless to say, the Israelites would be very pleased at the results of their cleanup effort.
That’s a fascinating midrash—and an outlandish one. Maybe instead of focusing on Rashi’s take that God infecting the houses was a roundabout way to reward the Israelites (and punish the non-believing Amorites,) we should instead think about a common thread between Nachmanides’ and Rashi’s comments. Nachmanides suggests that our clothes and our houses, if infected, would testify to the moral decay of the person wearing them. And if we look a little closer at Rashi’s take, perhaps he’s also criticizing the Amorites for hoarding and hiding wealth, seemingly prioritizing saving and protecting their wealth at all costs. Furthermore, if we set aside Rashi’s fanciful midrash altogether and just focus on the biblical text itself, we see that if an Israelite’s house is afflicted with this plague, then all the property within must be removed from the house, and the house must be diagnosed. Then a Kohen, a priest, tries to assure its ritual purity, and if that fails, the infected stones must be removed. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire house is supposed to be destroyed. Maybe we can’t picture this literally, but metaphorically this could be teaching us that our homes can theoretically decay morally to the point of destruction, to the point of holiness departing from their midst. That kedusha, holiness, should ideally find expression in our homes, should not surprise us on any level. Our ancient sages liked to encourage each of us to make our homes a “mikdash m’at,” small sanctuary, a sacred space for our family and for anyone else who enters into its confines. By the way, this is why we traditionally take the step of salting our challah every Shabbat, because in the times of the Ancient Temple, we used to salt the sacrifices that were brought to the altar, and now we salt our challah as a stand-in, helping transform our Shabbat tables into sacred altars. We can also think about the symbolism of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is open on all sides, reminding us not only of the importance of inviting others into that space, but also that we have the responsibility to fill in the walls of our home, so to speak, to frame our home symbolically with the values that we want expressed both within the house and outside of it when we interact with the world.
It’s on this point that the midrash about the Amorites hoarding gold and treasure in their walls again becomes useful to us. Thinking about the recent college admissions scandal that rocked—at least in the short term—the confidence of many in the college admissions process, we have to ask a crucial question, which is, “How did this happen?” And by that question I don’t mean how did these specific individuals cheat the system and take advantage of wealth and access, because for that, we can all read the many articles on the details of the case and perhaps be surprised, and perhaps not, at the brazenness of the scheme. No, I’m asking a different question, which is, “How did our society get to this point where parents are demonstrating to their children that the only thing that matters is getting ahead of others, getting what you want, and “winning,” not whether you got there fairly and on your own merits?” And while I don’t presume to say there’s only one answer to this troubling question, I’ll offer one now. Over a period of time too many people have succumbed to this temptation to cut corners and game the system, perhaps because they are convinced that what matters most in our society is THAT you get ahead, and that money can solve any problem. But even if it may be tempting to go down that path, our Jewish tradition reminds us that there is always another path, even if it runs counter to what others in society may be doing at the time. We always have a choice when we frame our home and shape the character of the space inside. At our dinner tables, sitting on the couch watching TV, or on our patio having an iced tea or another beverage on a nice spring evening, we can share our values with our children, our grandchildren, and our friends and neighbors. Yes, we could emphasize that anything goes as long as you end up getting ahead and getting what you want, or we can instead choose to frame things differently: that how we act matters. That dedication and hard work yields fruit. That happiness in life is not just about getting ahead professionally or financially. That kindness and generosity and helping others should not be an afterthought, but where it begins and ends for us. We have tremendous power to impact society and its values by way of first laying a strong foundation within the walls of our own houses. And while Nachmanides may have believed that both holiness and its absence, brought about by the decay of our morality and values, were limited to the land of Israel, I’ll respectfully disagree with him and say as clearly as I can that, going forward, what happens in our homes here in the U.S. can either validate the moral decay suggested by the occurrence of the college admissions scandal, or serve as a counterweight of kedusha, of holiness, that can inspire us and those around us to be our best selves and our best society and invite God back into our midst. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it soon be so.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
I’ve had gourmet desserts in more restaurants (and even countries) than I can count. But there is nothing more decadent than a hot Krispy Kreme donut as it comes off the assembly line. When Krispy Kreme first opened in my hometown of Baltimore (where they had several kosher locations), there were lines around the block.
Last week, I learned that I might have to think twice, next time, before I decide to indulge in a warm original glazed.
Two years ago, Krispy Kreme, like Panera Bread, Peet’s Coffee, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Dr. Pepper and Snapple, was acquired by JAB Holdings. JAB is a German company, founded nearly two centuries ago. But as was the case for many German businesses that were around in the first part of the twentieth century, the company’s owners, the Reimann family, were avowed members of the Nazi party. They built their tremendous empire on the backs of Russian and French prisoners of war, who served as a slave labor force in their factories.
The current owners, descendants of the two men who ran the company during World War II, no doubt, knew of their forbear’s despicable past, even commissioning a study a couple of years ago on how deep the connection ran between the business and the Third Reich. Pretty deep, they discovered.
And yet, they chose to keep the conclusions of the study to themselves until they were exposed by a German tabloid newspaper. Once the study became public, the family confirmed its accuracy and pledged to give 10 million euros to as yet unnamed charity.
In the ’70 and ‘80s many German businesses were forced to admit their role in the crimes against the Jewish people committed by the Nazis. They paid reparations to Israel and to the families of survivors to atone for their sins. Perhaps that is why most Israeli taxis are German cars and many Israelis have moved to Berlin. The German government has undergone no small amount of soul searching in recent years to understand and atone for the atrocities of the Shoah. When I was in rabbinical school, several of my classmates went on an all-expense-paid trip to the Rhineland to dialogue with government officials and civilians, Germans who were committed to doing whatever they could to right the wrongs of the past.
It’s clear to me, when it comes to JAB Holdings, that’s not the case. Not only did they fail to disclose, unprompted, what they uncovered about their history, the amount of money they pledged to donate is insulting. As the humor site McSweeney’s wrote, this family that makes use of a Jewish sounding name to peddle their (mediocre) bagels and appropriates Yiddish slang like “schmear” to make their chain more “authentic,” decided that donating 0.0297% of their net worth was an appropriate gesture of apology. Shame on them.
I’ll admit it. I consume a lot of their products. Shira and I only buy Peet’s coffee, we love it. We go to Panera regularly for salads. And Einstein’s is the most ubiquitous bagel chain in town (and I have eaten more bagels than perhaps any other food item over the course of my life). Though the foreign company that owns these chains has made some unconscionable errors in judgement, I have no wish to pass that judgment onto to the hundreds of hard-working employees who earn their living serving carb-addicted Dallasites like me.
But JAB Holdings profaned the name of German industry through its actions during the war and they did so again last week. It’s our obligation to let them know that when it comes to asking the Jewish people for forgiveness, they have truly missed the mark. I encourage you to join me in writing to their Chairman at his overseas office to inform him that your rabbi says that he, his fellow owners, and his board of directors might want to take teshuva a little more seriously.
Mr. Peter Harf
CEO, JAB Holdings
Haarlem, 2031 CC
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share