Musings

Escape to Canada: A Rabbinic Consideration

Penina : March 9, 2016

Headline: Escape plan: How to Move to Canada if the Election Doesn’t Go Your Way

A Personal Response with the aid of Rabbinic Tradition

Talk about escaping to Canada if one’s preferred candidate does not win the election is plentiful.   It has been plentiful before, when George Bush was re-elected, after 9/11 and so on. No doubt escape hatches will be touted again and again. This calls to my mind rabbinic commentary on the story of Elimelech and his wife Naomi.   What follows is not a political statement, but a rumination on where the consequences of escape touch upon my personal life.

In the book of Ruth, in the space of the first 5 verses, we learn the following: There was a famine in Bethlehem, in the land of Israel; Elimelech and his wife Naomi leave Bethlehem with their two sons to sojourn in Moab; Elimelech dies; their two sons die without offspring; Naomi survives alone. This is clearly a tragedy.   The text tells us how tragic by this: “And the woman was left of her two children and of her husband” (Ruth 1:5). Naomi was so bereft that in losing her husband and her two children, she lost her identity, indeed her very name. She is left like a remnant.   “R. Hanina said: She was left as the remnants of the remnants [of the meal offering].” (Ruth Rabbah).   I mention this so that we don’t overlook the fact that the real tragedy of this moment is on the shoulders of Naomi, who is embittered and alone.

The rabbis interpret that the deaths were a punishment for Elimelech (and I would add Naomi and the children) for leaving the land of the famine. “Why then was Elimelech punished? Because he struck despair into the hearts of Israel… He was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking on my door, each one with his basket [for food].’ He therefore arose and fled from them.” (Ruth Rabbah). Elimelech left behind those suffering from famine, rather than taking responsibility for the people of his country.

As I said, talk of escaping to Canada brings this story to my mind, but whether those who might flee this country (now or in the future) are unsafe in remaining, entitled to a better future, or should be frowned upon for leaving behind those less fortunate, is not for me to judge and is not the point of my re-telling.   The story leads me personally to my relationship to my Jewish community, to the shul wherein I daven and take on various leadership roles. Two years into my president emerita status and I feel very much like escaping, if not literally from the campus, internally from all responsibility. There are many things I don’t like about how the organization is run, how volunteers are recruited and nourished, and how visions are created (as in NOT). In fact I have been internally escaping for some time.

The response of the rabbis to Elimelech pulls me up short. Not because I am afraid of punishment as such. But I need to think very carefully about my responsibility to the people in my own small country, the land of my shul. These are folks who have nourished me, and whom I have nourished.   According to the teaching in Ruth Rabbah, one does not flee from those whom want might be able to help. Is this a moment to double down on my efforts to work with others to create a better community? Or is the a moment to go sojourn in Moab?   Not sure about this yet, but I do know I’m not moving to Canada any time soon.

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The Untether Ring

Penina : January 16, 2015

When my mom died 6 months ago, I started wearing one of her rings.  It’s a simple ring, flat and silver with some inlay of turquoise – might be Native American or Mexican origin.  Not a fancy ring, but very wearable and fit me well.  They handed me the ring in a plastic bag in the hospital after she died.  It had been on her hand when she fell at my dad’s nursing home, after which, despite major and expert brain surgery, she did not wake up again.  I have been wearing that ring every day since then, along with a few others which are my mainstay rings.  I am a ring person and have a lot of rings.  I wore this one both because I personally liked it, and because it connected me to my mom.

I had not found it easy to be connected to my mom in her lifetime, because pain, bitterness, disappointment seem to have been the chief things she communicated to me, and being the receiver of her sadness over the last few years in particular has been difficult and burdensome.   Nevertheless, when I sat quietly in the palliative care ward at the hospital, with the beautiful garden out the window, and heard my mom peacefully and without strain take her last breath, I felt that a lot of this negative emotion dropped away, and that both for her and for me there was a freeing up.   I grabbed the Gideon Bible and read to my mom for an hour from the psalms.   It is a Jewish custom for the psalms to be read over the deceased in the 24 hours prior to burial, so this was my best way to feel connected to my religion.   Not my mom’s – she was an atheist and raised Christian, but I continue to feel reading the psalms was just right.  I wore the ring from this place of connection.

This past week I made my second trip to the house in Monterey since my mom died, to look over her house, and then to take a week visiting friends a couple hours away.  After weekending in the house, and dealing with car title, home gardener, internet connections, house structure, and interviews with potential realtor and home move specialist, my first stop was Santa Cruz, to visit my old college roommate.   As I arrived, the sensation of my empty finger came to my consciousness, the finger where I knew I had put that ring in the morning.   My immediate reaction was shortness of breath, anxiety, and sense of loss.   This was the ring connecting me to my mom.   I started hunting for it.   I had not stopped the car since leaving Monterey, so I knew it had to be in the car or in the house, not on the road somewhere.   I hunted as many places as I could in the car, and thought about what might have happened to the ring.  I have not had this ring fall off ever, although it was not a super tight fit – none of my rings are.  So it must have caught on something I thought.   I hunted until giving up, and decided that the only logical place it could be was the disposal at the house.   The last thing I had done was reach into the soapy dish pan and wash my coffee cup, and then pour the water into the sink.  But I was pretty sure I had not run the disposal after that.  I would be returning to Monterey for my flight in a week and could look then.

After this discovery, the anxiety lingered.  There was no guarantee I would ever find the ring.    My stop in Santa Cruz was to walk some of my memories as a college student and resident, and to visit one friend.   I started my walk, enjoying the warm life-giving sun (after 0 degree weather in Boston), and started thinking about a friend of mine whose paper I was reading, and would visit the following day in Berkeley.  The topic was pastoral care, and the specific idea I pondered was inhabiting another as a witness.  It’s a deep and meaningful aspect of caregiving.  It put my mind into a place of calmness and of feeling inhabited and understood by my friend.  Quite suddenly I became untethered from the ring.  I pondered this for quite a while and celebrated it.  I untethered from the physical object for sure, but more than that, I felt a release from the heavy and painful tethering to my mom.  I had noticed this untethering to occur when I read the psalms, but now I saw that untethering is in stages.

The absence of the ring became a presence of untethering, a palpable sign of freedom.  I felt both my mom and I had taken another step towards loosening the bonds of disappointment and despair that had bound us for so long.   I walked along feeling the empty place on my finger as a release, not a loss.   I felt good and done and the ring left my mind as it had left my finger.

As it turns out, when I got to my Santa Cruz friend’s house a few hours later and opened my suitcase, there was the ring.   After all the work I had done to be at peace with losing it, I still felt a surge of happiness that the ring had come back.   I do really like it personally.   I hope it will now serve as a reminder of untethering.

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Transitions Through Gray (and Desert)

Penina : March 17, 2013

The last few months I walked at lunch down the bike path in Lexington, MA.   Many winter days were cold and windy, but the trees looked alive and full – snowy rather than leafy green.  Sunlight blazed off the white landscape.

A few days ago we had a mild early spring day, about 50.  Snow had been melting all week.   I noticed when I left my yard how muddy it looked, brown, worn out, and tired.  The fall leaves, which I allow to cover my plants to warm them under the snow in the winter, were now naked again, rotting, and drab.  During my walk I was amazed to realize that this point of transition from winter to spring, although warmish and evocative of spring, was disappointingly colorless.

The winter days were cold, but brilliant and invigorating.  The budding spring, when it’s warm and sunny, is simply marvelous.   But the in-between space…..  It was gray, and I had to work my mind hard to remember the jumping off point, and where I would land after crossing the desert.  Perhaps the grayness of the day fooled me, and made the past look better, as Egypt did to the children of Israel as they crossed the desert.   Perhaps I need to question my notion of beauty, and look for a way to appreciate the crossing itself.

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Facebook here I come

Penina : March 4, 2013

Getting connected to Facebook…..

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Bible Study Meets Theoretical Physics

Penina : October 29, 2012

Who knew that bible study had something in common with theoretical physics? I have been a student and teacher of Hebrew bible for over 10 years, but long ago was interested in the study of physics.  I come from a scientific family. My father is a physicist. My mother took her degree in math after the kids grew up. My daughter flourished as a math student, despite the discouragement of earlier teachers (5th grade teacher to my daughter: “You can’t do advanced math if you haven’t memorized the tables.” (!)) I was a star student in high school: advanced calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.

But as a UC Santa Cruz student in the late 60’s, I got caught up in social action, and the  romance and distraction of short-cuts to nirvana, and lost interest. When I wasn’t staring at the banana slugs, I studied poverty in South Carolina, grape boycott in San Jose, and Beowulf. In high school, Science had been for me masses of memorization – with definitive, invariable, Truth. I took pride in deriving formulae rather than memorizing them, and thought I was doing something important – but I didn’t question the fundamental reality of it all. If you could measure something, it was true. I associated physics with a certain intractable side of human nature, embodied in my father (ok, another story there).

For the past decade, in addition to doing close readings of Hebrew text, I have been studying bible commentaries by feminists, queer theorists, rabbinic sages, structuralists, narratologists, post-colonialists, true believers, atheists, archeologists, historians… I fully get it that in texts, there is no single Meaning, no immutable Truth. Who is reading? Who is writing? Who is the audience? What are my filters? What is the writer’s, reader’s, or commentator’s visible or hidden agenda? When was it written and when are we interpreting? But I didn’t reflect back to the world of science.

Recently, I came across the writings of Karen Barad, theoretical physicist and Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Whammo: where and how you observe (and who you are) makes a difference in physics, too! The binary between observer and observed breaks down. The observer does not stand in a separate space, objectively recording the Truth. In order for light to be seen and measured, it has to land somewhere and there is an interaction. Detectors are “sites for making meaning.” (#1 p 166). Yes, I thought, just as text readers are a locus (not the only locus) for making meaning. Mind you, one ought not violate the integrity of the texts: it is one thing to find multivalent meanings; quite another to make them say whatever you damn please.

In my study of texts, and biblical commentary, I had learned to suspect the hidden current of Enlightenment thinking: things happen for a reason; life is Progress; old is bad, new is good; European elite white male thinking – absence of the female and other genders, and absence of non-elite, non-European humans.  But I had never applied this insight to Science.

Reading “Meeting the Universe Halfway” was an epiphany. What? Enlightenment thinking is not the only framework for science? There are feminist and queer (#2) viewpoints in physics? This came like a jolt of lightening, illuminating both ends at once, communicating from bible cloud to physics earth and from physics earth to bible cloud, two directions at once. (#2)

1 “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism without Contradiction”
2. “Nature’s Queer Performativity” (discussion of lightning pp 33-35)

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Steve Alexander – the Inspiration

Penina : October 27, 2012

In June 2012, I started a new job.   My boss had all the authority, and used it to my detriment.   Yet I needed the job, and direct confrontation would not have secured my place.  I considered quitting.  Steve Alexander, my dear friend, told me he was once in a similar situation and he determined that the boss would not make him quit.  How not to quit?   Sometimes living by our wits is a better way to survive than what we used to call (maybe still do), “telling truth to power.”   I started looking closely at how our ancestors lived by their wits.  I printed out Hebrew tests of both Ruth and David surviving and thriving in situations where they did not, at that moment, have the upper hand.   And the idea for my series  “Living by their Wits” was born.   Thank you, Steve.

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Me Musing

Penina : October 1, 2012

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Back in the Saddle Again

Penina : October 1, 2012


Looking forward to getting back into regular meetings on the book of Samuel. We have a lot of exciting topics in the coming year.

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Good discussion topic

Penina : September 11, 2012
King David amongst the Philistines, or how to trick your way into power when you don’t have authority.   Note:  men in the bible do this along with women.

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