This year’s omer journey with Fabrangen began with Miriam the prophetess exploring the future of Torah study, with God “sitting and creating intricate white spaces swirling atop the letters [of the Torah]” (the tale, after Menachot 29b, so far). It continued with intertwining biblical and talmudic stories of redemption. [Skip to blog background. Skip to tonight’s omer count.]
Division of God?
Miriam’s brother, glimpsing Rabbi Akiva with his students, learns that Akiva will one day expound “mounds and mounds of laws” from each little flourish on the Torah’s letters. Miriam, glimpsing the dizzying array of Torah on the internet, fears that the “mounds and mounds” — multiplied over centuries — might fill up the Torah’s white space. Harder and harder lines drawn over time through the proliferation of movements and sects especially worry her.
In epilogues to “Miriam and the White Space,” we learn
- the same Rabbi Akiva who taught those “mounds and mounds of law from each tittle,” was initially unable to model respect for his students, with disastrous results; and
- Akiva’s five post-disaster students credited with the survival of Torah, experienced conflicts to the point where Rabbi Jose exclaims: “Shall it be said: Meir is dead, Judah angry, and Jose silent: what is to become of the words of the Torah?”
- Centuries later, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, asks Jewish leaders to develop a “spirit of sacred disagreement.” She speaks of “the ease with which we can malign and demonize our ideological counterparts” and how “adversaries harden against each other’s genuine integrity and concerns, dismissing each other in categorical and one-dimensional terms.” (Her essay: “Can We Talk?.)
In “Ruth and the White Space,” we see Rabbi Meir argue for his right and responsibility to learn Torah from an apostate. Beyond that, Meir “spreads his cloak” over the apostate — as Boaz did with Ruth — to redeem the apostate and his Torah.
The Book of Ruth, according to Alicia Ostriker, models the possibility of welcoming “what is unacceptably transgressive”:
Stretching our notion of community and nation, Ruth quietly endorses the acceptance of the Other, the outsider. Here for once, we learn how to make love not war, how to love and accept those who are conventionally supposed to be our enemies. The Book of Ruth is about an erasure of the boundary between one’s own people and the enemy.
— For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers University Press, 2007)
The Ruth Rabbah commentary based on the lives of Meir and Acher models the possibility of honoring the Torah of someone who transgressed, without endorsing heretical ideas or practices.
Building Relationships…or not?
Weintraub argues that what is needed now, among leaders trying to discuss Israel, is effort “at every level that actively build relationships and support meaningful communication across lines of distrust, aversion and dismissal.”
Relationship is, of course, central to the story of Meir and Elisha. The Inter-Denominational Women’s Leadership Dialogue fostered essential relationships across many Jewish communities by bringing women together who might not otherwise have had that opportunity. (I [Virginia Spatz here] continue to be grateful for the depth of connection this experience offered.) Organizations like the Hartmann Institute, the National Havurah Committee, and Clal continue to foster relationships beyond denomination. But what if one or more parties to a conflict within Judaism are not ready or willing to engage in relationship-building?
R. Meir taught: “Schism is lamentable, even when it makes the world habitable. It is written: ‘God made the expanse, and it separated the waters’ [Gen. 1:6-8] — and since division of the waters is written of there, ‘it was good’ was not written there.” (Genesis Rabbah 4:7; more on this). When we hear one group of Jews (haredim) call another group (Women of the Wall) “gentiles,” however, must we accept “lamentable”?
Might it be better, as some Jewish leaders believe, to formalize the apparent rift?
Or is there still a way for each of the communities to honor the “fruit” of the other, while setting aside what they consider “rind”? Might we still find a way to follow Meir’s example and spread some kind of collective cloak over one another, to engage in mutual redemption before it’s too late?
PLEASE NOTE: This blog, as a project of Fabrangen, is raising questions about how we are to live some lessons derived from Shavuot-related texts. It is not expressing for the havurah any particular political position, which would develop from a process unrelated to this omer blog. Further discussion, from the individual author’s perspective, appears on “A Song Every Day.”
Counting the Omer with Fabrangen 5773
Counting the days and weeks of the Omer is one 49-day-long experience, extending from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavuot — the “Feast of Weeks.” Counting each day, within the sequence, is another experience. Pursuing the “continuous thread of revelation” in our lives, beyond Shavuot, is something else again.
Count the Omer with Fabrangen Havurah in Washington, DC by subscribing to this blog. This year’s count is following an evolving midrash and its footnotes, and miscellaneous thoughts. Share your thoughts along the way by contacting songeveryday at gmail and/or posting a comment.
Tonight’s Count and Blessing
During evening prayers, add:
A) (Standard, male address for God:) Barukh ata YHVH, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sefirat ha-omer.
We praise You, Adonai, Our God, Master of time and space whose commandments add holiness to our lives, Who commanded us to count the omer.
B) (Alternatively, address God as feminine:) Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach haolam, asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteha vetzivatnu al sefirat ha’omer
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Ha-yom shemonah v’arba’im yom, shehem shishah sh’vuot v’shishah yamim la’omer.
Today is day forty-eight, making six weeks and six days of the omer.
[This translation and transliteration were borrowed from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and from Jill Hammer’s Omer Calendar of Biblical Women at RitualWell.org. For additional text to accompany the counting, see Five Steps.]