Monthly Archives: June 2017

Race, Gender, and Who We Are Today, or, Is Gal Gadot White? – Qorah 5777

You may be aware of an Internet dispute that popped up a few weeks ago with the release of the new Wonder Woman film. Some critics were quick to note the unfortunate tendency in the world of comic-book heroes turned into movies to feature only white actors. Wonder Woman is, according to some, yet another example of such an oversight.

Leaping into this fray, with a commentary posted on the website comicbook.com, was a brief piece about this by Matthew Mueller, arguing that Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress and model who plays the lead, is not “white”; rather, she is Ashkenazi Jewish.

How Wonder Woman Solves The Comic Book Movie Villain Problem

I must concede that I have often questioned the idea of Jews being white, and when I have submitted forms that ask for my race, I have occasionally checked off “Other.”

Despite the fact that Jewish students on college campuses are reminded of their “white privilege,” I think it’s a stretch to call us “white.”

But that’s mostly because “race” (I’m using a lot of air-quotes here) is an unfortunately enduring social construct that comes from 19th-century thinking about the palette of human physical traits, reducing them into approximately three major branches. But of course humanity is more of a continuum; the lines are not so clear. That is why scientists today speak of ethnic groups or populations rather than “races.”

But really, the challenge is that the human mind likes categorization. That’s the way we work. Part of the lens through which we understand the information we take in relies on a kind of series of shortcuts: black/white/yellow, male/female, gay/straight, etc. Our minds are not trained to think flexibly about these categories.

And this mode of thinking certainly permeates our tradition as well. The Torah exhibits a need to categorize, to classify, to separate. Consider the laws of kashrut: if a land animal has split hooves and chews its cud (series of stomachs and culture of gut bacteria that break down cellulose) it is fitting to eat; if not, then are not permitted to eat it. There is no grey area. Fish, as you know, must have fins and scales. (And some of you know that there are certain fish, like sturgeon and swordfish, which have scales early on but lose them. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards permit these fish as kosher.)

The sociologist Mary Douglas, in her seminal work Purity and Danger, examined the need of religion to categorize; things that cross boundaries were, to ancient people, dangerous. Our ancestors strived to keep things separate; think about the Torah’s laws about not sowing two kinds of seed together (Deut. 22:9), or not allowing wool and linen to be woven together in clothing (Deut. 22:11).

And that thinking continues into rabbinic literature; hence the continuous need in halakhah to determine where are the boundaries: what time of the day may you recite minhah / the afternoon service? Can you eat a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate used for eating a hamburger within 24 hours? Is electricity a form of fire, and if not, can you turn on a light switch on Shabbat?

One of my favorite examples of the rabbinic need to set boundaries is that of the woman in labor who is in the miqveh, in the process of converting to Judaism, and she is crowning at the same time (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot 46b). How far out, the rabbis ask, may the baby be before s/he requires a separate conversion? The answer is (drum roll!) that if the baby’s nose has not yet emerged, then s/he is a Jew. Now THAT’S a boundary.

So one of the curious things about living in the 21st century is that we are rapidly expanding the range of identities.

Consider our erstwhile president, Barack Obama, who has described his family as “a mini-United Nations.” He was born to a Kenyan father and a mother descended from English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French ancestors, who was also connected to a black former slave as well. Mr. Obama defies easy categorization, and although he may be referred to by some as the first “black” president, the reality is much more complex.

Have you had genetic testing? Nowadays, among the things that you can learn when you have your genes analyzed is your ethnic composition. I have not had this done, but I’d lay a fair wager that in addition to a hefty chunk of Ashkenazi Jew (itself a construct that dates to no earlier than about 1000 years ago, really only yesterday in terms of Jewish history), that there would be a fair mix of Slavic and Germanic, and who knows, perhaps even some Italian. (I’ve always enjoyed a hearty marinara.)

We are inching toward an age of gradients, in which there will be no black and white, nor gay or straight, but a virtually infinite variety of people that fall somewhere in-between.

While we may have been inclined to categorize people with reductionist brushes in the past, what may soon be the new norm is to acknowledge those gradients, to accept that none of us fits neatly into precise categories. And this transitional time will be challenging to many of us.

In parashat Qorah, which we read from today, there is a tension that comes through based on rabbinic interpretation of a couple of verses, a tension between what is eternally fixed and what is not.

First, there is the Qorah rebellion, which our bat mitzvah spoke about earlier. Pirqei Avot (5:19) cites this as challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon as a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven, a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim. What is a mahloqet leshem shamayim? A dispute which is holy, and will last forever. Internecine political struggles, which are not holy, do not last; disputes over the various understanding of our tradition are.

Elsewhere in the parashah (Numbers 18:19), we read about the “berit melah,” literally the “covenant of salt” that is between God and humans.

יט  כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’–נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ, לְחָק-עוֹלָם:  בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי ה’, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.

19 All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord, and for your offspring as well.

What is the nature of this covenant? It is something that lasts forever, that is stable and unchangeable, like salt.

The tension that we might perceive here is that nothing is fixed and immutable. The way we relate to God, the way we understand Jewish life, our relationship to Jewish text – these things have all changed over the last twenty years, let alone the last 2,000. And these things are, in fact, in the category of mahloqet leshem shamayim, holy controversies that will continue forever; how we worship, how we observe Jewish law, how we engage with our holy texts – these things are not fixed.

Two weeks ago, in honor of Pride Shabbat, BD Wahlberg spoke to us about BD’s experience in not being confined to one of two binary genders, and how we might understand that in a Jewish context.

I know that for some, BD’s talk was inspiring and affirming. For others among us, it may have been challenging and disorienting.

But facing the challenges of how we understand gender, how we understand “race” and ethnicity, these are holy challenges that we must continue to wrestle with. We cannot pretend that any of these things are like salt, unchangeable. We have to acknowledge that just as Judaism made room for relating to God through words instead of sacrifices, or accepted sturgeon as kosher, or learned that electricity is not fire and therefore may be used on Shabbat, that the way we categorize people also has to change.

And, to refer back to a point that BD made, we have to acknowledge that all of us are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And if that means that we do not fit into neat categories, well, then we are in mahloqet leshem shamayim territory once again. It is a holy struggle that will continue.

So is Gal Gadot “white”? Is Barack Obama “black”? Is BD a man or a woman? The answer to any of those questions could be yes, no, or neither. Once our minds have acclimated to this brave new world, we will no longer have to answer such questions. But in the meantime, let’s just live with the postulate that each of us is divine in our own way.

Shabbat shalom!

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/24/17.)

~

Articles about Gal Gadot and the “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jews

May 31

http://comicbook.com/dc/2017/05/31/wonder-woman-person-of-color/

June 2

http://forward.com/culture/film-tv/373658/gal-gadots-wonder-woman-is-white-lets-not-pretend-otherwise/

June 4

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yes-ashkenazi-jews-including-gal-gadot-are-people-of-color/

June 11

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ashkenazi-jews-are-still-people-of-color-reply-to-critics/

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Beautiful Equations – Shavu’ot, 5777

Close your eyes. Think for a moment about somebody you love. Think about what makes them special, what brings you pleasure when you are in their presence, what makes them unique, what you have learned from them, the good times you have shared.

It is always difficult to encapsulate why you love somebody in a few sentences or thoughts. It is the very nature of relationships that they can seldom be relegated to finite descriptors. We are much more likely to rely on our feelings, which are hard to put into words.

If you could describe the essential features of a lover, a companion, a spouse, a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, what words would you use?

Comfort / Safety / Security / Shared experiences / Memories / Partnership / Simplicity / Warmth / Mutuality / Ezer kenegdo (sometimes translated as “helpmeet”; Gen. 2:18)

***

Many of you know that, as a recovering engineer, I am always looking for metaphors that come from science to help us understand ourselves and our various relationships, including our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God). So when I spot such metaphors or stories in articles or podcasts, I make note of them.

One such piece appeared in a recent article in the New York Times, which struck me as particularly fascinating. It was about how some people find mathematical equations aesthetically beautiful.

My father is one of those people. He has a doctorate in mathematics, and he has always found all things related to math quite captivating. When he was in elementary school, he would deliberately misbehave, because the teacher would “punish” him by giving him math problems. But the joke was on her, because my father enjoyed doing these problems. Today, my dad will talk your ear off about Fibonacci numbers, or why integration is never taught well, or how much fun he had trying to solve a mathematical puzzle. He’s been retired for a decade or so, but has recently taken to tutoring students over the internet. He gets paid for it, but I’m pretty sure he’s not doing it for the money.

So I understand people who like math. I’m kind of in that category myself, and of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Shavu’ot is the mathematician’s holiday. Its date is set by counting off  forty-nine, that is, seven-squared days from the first day of Pesah. Its very name, meaning, “weeks,” is derived from this. It’s a holiday on which we read about Aseret HaDibberot, the “Ten Commandments” (although really there are 13 or 14, depending on how you count), and we also read and meditate on Ezekiel’s vision of a four-sided chariot that descends from heaven. In fact, the very name “Shavu’ot,” meaning weeks, is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, sheva.

This article in the Times referenced a recent study that compared the relative beauty of mathematical equations. The researchers did this by hooking up a bunch of mathematicians to fMRI scanners, and watching their medial orbitofrontal cortices “light up” when they saw certain equations. This area of the brain, right behind the eyes, shows a lot of activity when people respond positively to aesthetic experiences, like music or art.

So they were able to measure which equations the mathematicians found most beautiful. And the one that they loved the most was Euler’s Identity:

eulers identity

Now, I must confess, that is one staggeringly beautiful equation. It’s just so darned cool: e (Euler’s number, the base of the natural logarithm) is an irrational number equal to approximately 2.71828; π, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference, is also irrational. The other number, i, is the strangest of them all: it is an imaginary number that corresponds to the mathematically impossible solution of the square root of -1.

(My wife Judy reads all my sermons, and at this point she started inserting lots of question marks and exclamation points. So I’m going to apologize right now if you did not understand any of that – I don’t have the time to explain all of those things, and it’s not really that important. But very cool, nonetheless.)

And yet, somehow, when you throw all three of these mystical, seemingly unrelated numbers together, they magically resolve themselves to simplicity. Euler’s identity seems completely counter-intuitive, and yet it yields the most fascinating statement of math: that there is always an elegant solution. That’s one reason my father always cited for his love of math: that if you have done it right, there will always be an answer.

You might say that people are sort of like equations: we take in information about the world, mix it up within ourselves, and give back. We relate to others through variables and constants and operators. Right?

Or maybe not. OK, so people are not really like equations. We are much more complex. We rarely accept simple solutions. We have many more inputs and outputs, variables and constants. Most of the time we are difficult to understand. Our word problems are never so easily or elegantly solved. Our lives are not airtight, removed from all the other environmental factors around us. There is not always an answer; in fact, one of the most beautiful and agonizing aspects of humanity is that most of the time the answers evade us.

But sometimes, in the context of some relationships, the simplicity of our love for one another is striking. Sometimes we appreciate the others around us in a way that is absolutely indescribable, that cannot be put into words. I suspect that if you’d take a human subject, hook them up to the fMRI and paraded in front of them images of various people in their lives, their medial orbitofrontal cortices would “light up.”

As a regular part of my work as a rabbi, I sit with people all the time to discuss their relationships. It happens in the context of preparing for a wedding, when I ask the couples to talk about what makes their relationship successful. Or when I meet with a family in advance of a bar/bat mitzvah, when I ask the other members of the family to speak about the nascent 13-year-old. Or when I meet with the family who has just lost a loved one, in preparation for a funeral.

I am often struck by how difficult it is for us to talk about our closest relations, the people with whom we share the deepest, most complex bonds. How do you capture the richness of give-and-take between siblings? How do you acknowledge the massive burden of unpaid gratitude we owe to our parents?

And yet, we all know and intuitively understand, without trying to label it with words or ideas, the very deep connection we have with those whom we love, just as those mathematicians unwittingly revealed their appreciation of those gorgeous, elegant equations.

The great early-20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is perhaps best known for his essential work of modern theology, I and Thou. His message in that short, yet powerful, text is that our relationship with God is the most unconditional relationship we have. We cannot put any conditions on God, says Buber, and God puts no conditions on us. All human relationships are subject to the complexities of expectations met and missed, of the ideal vs. the imperfect reality.

And yet, at the core of every relationship is that fundamental sense of connection – not a logical one, not a checklist of “these are the things I love about you,” but a taste of the Unconditional. That’s where the Godliness seeps into each of our relationships. That’s where the holiness lies.

On this day when we actively remember those whom we have loved who have left this world, I think it is easier to rely on that unconditional, deeply emotional bond that we share with them. We feel that love for them in a way that is beyond logical. And particularly after the equations of our lives have ceased to function, after they have exhausted all the data, what remains is a kind of snapshot of their lives that lives forever inside of us, a shortcut that represents the many ways we knew them, the rich roster of experiences that we shared.

As we turn now to recall those whom we have lost, I ask you to remember how they taught you, how they raised you, how they gave you wisdom and love and companionship and everything else that they gave. And I ask you to recall the deeper things that made your relationship special, the indescribable ways that you loved them, the moments when you just took a look at that person and subconsciously acknowledged their inner beauty.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Shavuot, June 1, 2017.)

 

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