The following remarks are from Shabbat morning at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. Rabbi Alissa Wise opened the morning plenary, “Visions of Freedom” with Andrea Smith and Sa’ed Adel Atshan with these words of Torah:
It is my hope that this morning’s exploration of visions of freedom, which centers the sharp analysis and experiences of both Native American and Palestinian scholars, will begin to prepare us to think creatively and expansively this weekend–and ongoing. To begin, I’d like to briefly share some of my perspective on a source of knowledge and inspiration we rarely avail ourselves of at JVP: the Talmud.
In the summer of 2007, while I was in Rabbinical School, I traveled with Birthright Replugged, a trip that takes Palestinian youth from refugee camps in the West Bank for the first time to Jerusalem, the Sea, and the villages their families were from before they were displaced in 1948. Part of the design of the trip is for those of us with passports that allow us to move freely to use that privilege to support Palestinian youth getting a glimpse of return, before they turn 16 and get the ID cards that forbids them to travel into Israel.
As we stepped onto the land where the village of Bariqa once stood, somewhere between Nazareth and Haifa, two brothers—Ahmed, age 14 and Muhammed, age 12—called their grandfather, who had fled this land when the war came to his village in 1948. Instead of a village, what is there now are heaps of stones where houses once stood, with rusting barrels and piles of trash littering the ground.
Via cellphone, Ahmed and Muhammed’s grandfather described the village to them, as they tried to find where his house once stood. We looked for the hills and the trees the grandfather was describing to Ahmed, using the piles of stones from destroyed homes and the cacti traditionally used as fences as clues.
The grandfather told Ahmed that while they were packing their bags in 1948, fleeing the village as the Israeli army approached, the last thing he did was carve his name in the tree outside of his house. He didn’t know then that he would be leaving forever. Ahmed and Muhammed found the tree with their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s names carved into it. The etchings were still intact.
Still on the phone with their grandfather, the boys picked some wildflowers growing nearby and held up the phone to the flowers so that the grandfather could talk to the flowers and say hello again. It was a reunion, two generations later.
On the way back to the refugee camp Ahmed asked me, “When will I get to return home?”
This question: When can I return home? Is hidden by the forests that the Jewish National Fund plants over destroyed Palestinian villages and Israeli laws that forbid commemorations of the Nakba. It is shouted over by liberals rejecting the Right of Return, and by “Birthright” trips for young Jews whose grandfathers were born in Brooklyn not Bariqa. But those of us working toward Palestinian liberation must insist on this question. The question is real and urgent for us to ask and to demand an answer to.
In the same summer of 2007 when I return to the village of Bariqa , I had the chance to teach Talmud to some secular jewish Israelis in Zochrot–the organization we will hear from later today.
I wish I had recorded the experience. Never have I seen such a radical transformation in a classroom. When my Talmud teacher from Rabbinical School and I stepped into the space and announced we would be teaching Talmud, the group collectively moaned. “What?! Talmud! We have nothing to learn from Talmud! Feh!”
Somehow we coaxed them into it.
By the end it was a complete 180. They were leaving marveling at how the rabbis of the Talmud totally understood what it was like to be a Jewish Israeli in 2007 advocating for the right of return for Palestinians.
It makes sense-The rabbis of the Talmud interpreted and adapted things to make sense in their time and their inner logic: just as we must! They were proud of themselves and their project to continue and flourish Jewish culture outside of the Temple in Jerusalem: just as we should be!
With the fall of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, Judaism began as an oral tradition focused on process, not product. This process, made up of arguments, deliberations, laws, and stories combine to do more than impart Jewish law — the process teaches us ethical responsibility.
The text we taught was a short little story from Masechet Menachot in the Bablylonian Talmud. To understand there are a few basic things you need to know (the Talmud has a lot of proto-hyperlinks and assumes lots of other knowledge).
- Tefillin is a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah which are worn during weekday morning prayers.
- In Jewish biblical law, firstborn sons were to devote their life to service in the Temple. Parents may “redeem” their sons from this obligation by paying a small sum of money. Numbers 18:15 states that you must redeem a firstborn son by paying the priest 5 shekel, or sela in rabbinic hebrew.
- When someone isn’t given a name, it means that they are not inside the authoritative system. The people inside the system are all referenced by name.
Ok, here is the story–
Pleimo asked Rabi: “With regard to someone who has two heads – on which of them does he lay t’fillin?”
Rabi said to Pleimo: “Either get up and be exiled, or accept upon yourself excommunication!”
Meanwhile, a man came.
The man said to Rabi: A baby was born to me who has two heads. How much must we give to the priest?
An old man came in and ruled: you must give him ten Selah.
Let me break it down a bit in case this short story’s brilliance passed you by.
Pleimo, the student who is himself a part of the approved system of the Talmudic rabbis–asks a seemingly outlandish, farsical question. Rabi chastises Pelimo and sees Pleimo as undermining his legitimacy and offers him to leave on his own accord or be banished. either way, Pleimo is out. If the story ended here, we might also think Pleimo was just being the class clown.
But then a man walks in–the Aramaic almost literally says “some guy”. And wait–there is such a thing as a person with two heads. A problem of a two headed person is real. The man is obligated to pay to redeem his first born, he needs an answer. The answer comes from a random old man, who is not part of the authority structure established by the Talmudic rabbis themselves.
Rabi doesnt think it is real question, pleimo may or may not think of it as real question–we don’t totally know, but it is a real question and there is an answer. It may not come from Rabi, from the seat of authority, but as the old man contributes his wisdom as someone outside the authorized seat of power– he asserts that there is a remedy. Justice is possible—you must give him ten Selah.
It is important also to not miss–as we consider how Talmud can teach us ethical responsibility through its process–that this critique of authority–the limitations of Rabi’s imagination, and the idea that wisdom can come from outside the seat of power the rabbis of the Talmud themselves have created– is something itself the very rabbis who created the system wrote! It is a welcome reminder to us of the limits of the systems even we create, and the importance of flexibility and humility in order to be ethical.
For the Jewish Israelis in Zochrot, it clearly felt like an affirmation that when they do their work of bringing the history of the Nakba and bringing Ahmed’s question into Israeli society they are often met with the response of Rabi: get up and be exiled, or accept upon yourself excommunication. But the question is real. The refugee is real. Our responsibility is real.
Our work in the Organizing program at JVP is about creating a situation where an ethical process can occur in palestine . Where an outside voice of wisdom and possibility outside a failed peace process, or an unethical status quo can vision freedom where Palestinians and Jewish Israelis as equal partners can determine the future they want to share.
Where Bedouin of the Negev can continue to live and thrive on their land in peace.
Where those who fall in love on either side of the Green Line can live wherever they choose,
where Gazan farmers can grow and sell and buy food freely,
where palestinian children are not imprisoned in Israeli jails,
where boys playing soccer on the beach are not murdered,
where Ahmed and Muhammed’s grandfather can see those flowers in person before he dies.
The vision of freedom is then simple, as we learn in the book of Proverbs: withhold not the good from whom it is due when it is in the power of your hands to do it.
Thank you to my teachers and co-thinkers: Rabbi Sarra Lev, Nava EtShalom, and Daniel Boyarin