Raising Holy Sparks Podcast: Inviting All To Participate; Inclusion and Disability Advocacy

Raising Holy Sparks Podcast: Inviting All To Participate; Inclusion and Disability Advocacy

Originally published in 2019.

This episode was recorded as part of Rabbi Misha Clebaner’s podcast Raising Holy Sparks. Listen to the full podcast episode here.

Episode 10: Inviting All To Participate; Inclusion and Disability Advocacy w/Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

““You can do everything the other kids can do. You just do it differently!””

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is, as far as she is aware, the first blind woman in the world to enter the rabbinate. A sought after speaker, spiritual leader and educator, Rabbi Tuchman has taught at numerous synagogues and other Jewish venues throughout North America and was named to the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 for her innovative leadership concerning inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. In 2017, she delivered an ELI Talk entitled “We All Stood At Sinai: The Transformative Power of Inclusive Torah”.

The idea of inclusion and access is not just about disability rights, it is about all people taking a fresh look at how things are being done and asking if everyone present was invited and welcomed with an equal energy of love and affection. It is also about going one step further and thinking about those invited individuals and also asking if they are allowed to be equally active participants in the experience that is currently happening?

“I mean, if we’re talking about equity and access and we think about Pesach/Passover.. the amount of cooking that falls particularly on women. Why do we cook these elaborate huge meals… women have the obligation to be there at the Seder, but how can you be sitting up for hours if you’ve literally spent the last week and a half cleaning your house for Pesach/Passover so stringently… you’ve spent all this time cooking these huge, this huge meal for Seder. You get to the table, you’re exhausted.

So what if we totally reorient ourselves to like putting at the center of Pesach/Passover what we’re actually celebrating, which is freedom and that it is “zman heruteinu/time of our freedom”. And really create a far more accessible holiday for everybody involved and it’s going to be much more meaningful because it’s going to be more accessible and there’s many more points of entry into that space

We also discussed how sometimes people think of religion as just an intellectual exercise. I ask Rabbi Tuchman what her thoughts are on the role of embodied experiences and ritual objects in Jewish life, and how those moments, specifically, speak to communities with disability.

“So when people with disabilities or other identity categories that are “outside” of a typical embodied “norm”, when we engage in ritual and when we honor holy ritual objects that we place on our bodies, I think that that’s a way of reclaiming the divinity that we all have.

I think that when we engage in these ritual practices, we are saying like, my body is holy too. And I was created just as much in God’s image as anybody else. And when I, you know, put on ‘tefilin’ or when I don a ‘tallit/prayer shawl’ or a ‘talit katan/wearable prayer shawl’, like all of those things, it reminds me of who I am and what I’m out here to serve, which is not the will of the people who are making decisions about what is arbitrarily acceptable and arbitrarily not, but rather the ‘craftsman’ as it says in the “Gemarah/Talmud”, who fashioned every single person.”

-Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

When society says that your body is different and that means it is “bad”, ritual objects and rituals as a whole is a counter-cultural opportunity to say “no, this is a holy body. watch me as I participate in this holy encounter.”

We concluded our conversation with some resources and thinkers to follow up with to continue the learning:

  • “Do You Dream in Color?: Insights from a Girl without Sight” by Laurie Rubin

  • “Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure” by Eli Clare

  • You can also read more by Rabbi Tuchman herself at her website, which can be found here.

Dictionary of Jewish terms used in this episode:

  • Al regel ahat – on on foot.

  • Tkufa – era.

  • Baruch hashem – thank God

  • Davka – precisely

  • Neshama – soul

  • HaShem – God [literally: The Name]

  • Betzelem elokim – in God’s image

  • Hester panim – hidden divinity [literally hidden face] (essentially: a world that feels devoid of Godliness or goodness)

  • Beresheit – the book of Genesis. Bamidbar – book of Numbers.

  • Tikkun Olam – repairing the world

  • Ahava – love

  • Sinat chinam – baseless hatred

  • Shekhina – divine energy

  • Moshe – Moses. Aharon – Aaron.

  • Shmot Dalit – Exodus 4

  • Am Yisrael – The Israelite people. Bnei Yisrael – Children of Israel.

  • Mitzrayim – Egypt

  • Pesukim – verses

  • Siddurim – prayer books

  • Etrog – citrus fruit. Lulav – palm fronds.

  • Tzitzit – fringes on corners of garments

  • Mitzvah – commandment (can also mean a good deed in other contexts)

  • Arba minim – another name for etrog and lulav, and other items used on sukkot.

  • Havdallah – end of shabbat ritual

  • Pesach – passover

  • Tefilin – this you just have to google image search.

  • Davvening – praying

  • Haskalah – era of enlightenment

  • Guf – Body

  • Kal vehomer – how much the more so

  • Lehatchila – a priori

  • Talit – Prayer shawl

  • Talit katan – wearable prayer shawl

  • Tachlis – practically speaking

  • Choshech – darkness

  • Kavod – respect

  • Tsim’tsum – shrinking

  • Dayenu – passover song

  • Shulchan arech – eating part of the seder

  • Hallel – Songs of Praise/Psalms

  • Hashgafic – denominational

  • Hiddur mitzvah – going above and beyond for a mitzvah or holiday

  • Zman heruteinu – time of our freedom


Full Transcript:

Misha Clebaner: 00:01 Rabbi Lauren Tuchman is the first blind woman in the world to enter the rabbinate. She was named to the Jewish weeks 36 under 36 for her innovative leadership concerning inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. In 2017 she delivered an ELI talk entitled “We all stood at Sinai, the transformative power of inclusive Torah”.

Misha Clebaner: 00:30 Some shows need to give warnings about excessive cursing. For this episode, I’m going to give a warning that there’s going to be a fair amount of jargon and insider Jewish language for the first half of the episode and then it kind of fades away towards the end. But for any language that folks don’t know, I’m going to be sure to throw that up on the blog associated with this episode, but please stick around and bear out the sentence or two that you might not understand because there’s a lot of really fascinating conversation. And we’re not just talking about inclusion in disability, we’re talking about inclusion in every which way from holidays to synagogues.

Lauren Tuchman: 01:11 “And the world, in a culture, in a cultural climate, in which many of us talk about showing up and standing in solidarity. So many people with disabilities really experience a world in which the showing up is so much about the posturing and the talking about ‘how’ important it is to show up and it isn’t actually happening in reality. So when we talk about being in solidarity with and showing up for, let’s remember that that actually is a tangible act and it’s not simply about how we talk about people, but how do we treat people and interact with people.”

MC: 01:43 Hello and welcome to Raising Holy Sparks with Misha Clebaner, a show where we celebrate the beauty in this seemingly mundane discover the extraordinary in the world around us. So much wonder out there. Let’s get started.

MC: 02:00 Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, welcome to Raising Holy Sparks. Thanks so much for joining me in conversation today.

LT: 02:06 Thank you so much for having me. I feel really honored to be here.

MC: 02:10 Yeah. So one way that I like to start our conversations is just to see is there kind of a basic or introductory question that people ask you frequently or on a common ongoing basis?

LT: 02:25 Yeah, people ask me a lot about my journey to the Rabbinate, especially because as far as I’m aware I am the first blind woman in the Rabbinate, so that inspires a lot of questions and a lot of curiosity. And so, you know, “al regel ahat/on on foot” I usually tell people I love Torah, I loved Judaism, I love Jews and I really wanted to serve the Jewish people. And the other thing that I often will say in response to that is that I deeply believe that we are in an amazing “tkufa/era” right now of Jewish history. And that “baruch hashem/thank God”, the rabbinate is becoming increasingly diverse. And when we become more diverse and we open the table of leadership up to new insights and new experiences that we haven’t really centered, we are all enriched as a people. So that is generally, that’s what inspired my journey and I very much consider myself to be still on the spiritual journey. I mean ordination was like step one of God willing, many, many, many steps. So here I am.

MC: 03:25 Yeah, that’s actually get that question on, you know, on a frequent basis as well. And kind of your answer is pretty similar to mine, which is the most obvious answer about why someone would want to go into the rabbinate because of their love of Judaism and the Jewish people. And also, you know, deep down inside, the real answer for me is just I love God and you know, but I never want to say that to people. I feel like that will scare them away.

LT: 03:52 I hear you. I also, yeah, I also love God. That’s also why I did it. Right. And a lot of times, you know, like we have this allergy in the United States, especially in the Jewish community to talking about that. But I really actually think that Rabbis and spiritual leaders “davka/precisely” need to be talking about God and spirituality like as the primary thing that we do. I mean, what else? Why are we here otherwise? I mean I can give all the sermons I want and any number of other topics, but I’m not moving the “neshama/soul” if I’m not talking about the “neshama/soul”.

MC: 04:22 Absolutely. So speaking of the “neshama” the soul, I’d love to just start our conversation with a question around kind of your spiritual curiosities. I’m wondering if there’s kind of a question that kind of sticks like a needle or a thorn in your side that you keep coming back to, whether it’s a question you had in your childhood or a question that you’ve been ruminating over recently, but kind of just some of those big questions. You know, something like, what’s the meaning of life or what does adjust or peaceful world look like, or any of those types of big spiritual religious questions. I’m curious, what’s one that you find yourself attracted to or kind of that stuck in your, in, in your side?

LT: 05:06 Yeah, I, that’s a, that’s a brilliant question. There are several big spiritual questions that I keep coming back to over and over again, and one that I’m particularly animated by right now is “how do I live out deeply the teaching that we all have a spark of “hashem/God” within and that we were all created ‘betzelem elokim/in God’s image’ in a world in which there is so much ‘hester panim/hidden divinity’”. Also, by the way, should I be translating?

MC: 05:32 That’s a good question. I kind of, I kind of like the use of the Hebrew. Yeah, if you’re, if you feel like it interrupts your flow, feel free to not translate and then I’ll just throw the translations onto the blog post that’s associated with episodes. So I don’t want to mess up your flow.

LT: 05:52 Okay, great. So, the question then that animates me is how do I truly live out the belief in “beresheit/The book of Genesis” that we are all created “betzelem elokim/in the divine image”, and that we have that spark of HaShem within us, and that we have the Godly soul within us. And at the same time we are living in a world in which there is so much “hester panim/hidden divinity” and people do not live that belief out. And we all have, I’m sure I had so many challenges in our lives that beg the question, you know, “why are people not seeing the godliness in me?” Right? That is very much of an ongoing spiritual question. And the only, the way that I answer it now, it is really aspirational that like it’s, it’s about how we live our lives and how we interact with others and how we try to do the work of “Tikun Olam/Repairing the World” not only in terms of the larger question of creating a just world, but really I actually think in the really important way of interpersonally and in relationships that we have, whether they are intimate, whether they are familial, whether they are friendship collegial or just person on the street. We’re all humans, so we’re never like, this is all always aspiration, but it’s like trying to return to that practice is really central and trying to remember that, you know, the teaching is so radical and so important, but it is hard to, it is hard to figure out how to have a theology in a world in which there is such “hester panim/hidden divinity” in which we have absolutely forgotten the divinity within every single human soul.

MC: 07:31 That’s kind of what the reasoning behind this project is. You know, the name of the show is the raising of holy sparks because there’s a spark of holiness and all of us and it’s just kind of laying flat. And so if we just are able to kind of kick up that dust a little bit and to raise up those, you know, those moments of divinity, the beauty within each and every one of us, then, you know, then the hope is that that’ll make the world a little bit brighter, beautiful, more peaceful.

LT: 08:00 Yeah, Amen, Amen, and the question that is, how do we do that? And you know, I guess the real way we do it is and how we interact in the world. I at the risk of sounding very cliche and at the risk of making a very essentialist statement, which I am not an essentialist thinker at all or I try not to be, I do think that we have become so siloed and that social media has only made that more pronounced. That the silos that already existed, that the assumptions we already make, we can completely shape our digital environments. And our, like, physical environments so such that we never interact with people who are not like us. And it’s really hard to actually do the bridge building of interacting with people who are not like us. I think we see this really speaking as an American Jew think we see this in our culture just everywhere today where relationships are utterly fractured. We don’t know each other’s stories at all. We don’t know the trigger, the trigger points. I don’t really love the term trigger, but those points within others that are challenged that, you know, bring up a lot of things and we have to remember that we all have divinity within, that we all are living on this planet together and that we have to show up with “ahava/love” and not with, you know, “sinat chinam/baseless hatred”.

MC: 09:24 Absolutely. And I completely agree about the dangers of social media, but you know, just like anything, there’s, there’s a spark of holding us within that as well. And so the hope is so little can we continue to hold these organizations accountable to help us, you know, create communities that are stronger and more cohesive rather than creating these silos that are kind of created algorithmically. Those are intentional and those that are created. So it’s not, it’s not something that’s unfixable. We can definitely continue to get closer across community lines.

LT: 10:01 Amen “ve/and” Amen, and the amount of Torah that I have learned on social media is incredible. So I think that that is absolutely correct, that there is a holy spark within everything and it’s all about how we channel it.

MC: 10:13 So I’m wondering if you could speak to your childhood and growing up and, and your experiences of living with disabilities, special needs, um, kind of all of the richness and complexity of what that means. And so just kind of share little, a little bit about that experience growing up and how did it feel? Well, what were your hopes, where were, where were the moments of inspiration? Just kind of help to speak a little bit so we can kind of hear a bit more about your story.

LT: 10:49 Yeah, so I did not grow up in a Jewishly affiliated family. So my, my Jewish involvement really began in high school and college. So I can speak more to like with childhood things. I can speak more to like what it was like to be a child with disability and to like living in a world, you know, that.. there is the very often stated thing “”is a world not designed for me, which I actually really want to problematize my spiritual perspective, but I’ll do that in a minute. So, you know, I think that it really gave me a lot of insight into kind of looking in at the normal, the norm when I never was able to meet the norm. Right? And I have chosen to take that experience and there are a lot of different ways we could take that experience, right? There’s a lot of, you know, and I certainly certainly know very, very deeply what it means to feel very angry, very disillusioned, very, very broken down by, you know, ableism and by other things in the world, by discrimination, by bigotry, by people’s lack of imagination. And at the same time, I think it actually means, I think that when one does not meet the norm, it gives them a lot of insight into how society works. And it actually lets you think a lot differently because you’re not stuck in these binaries because they never really applied to your life. So in some ways it’s like a, it’s a double, it’s a double edged sword.

LT: 12:16 And I was very lucky in that I had very loving parents, very supportive family who really did everything they could to get me the best education that you know, was possible, did everything they could to include me as best as possible, in life in general, not only academically, but also just socially and in terms of, you know, access to leisure, access to all of those things. And that was, that was certainly fundamental, to my sense of self, and my sense of belonging. I was no different than any of my other siblings. I have two brothers, both of whom are sighted. I was just a member of the family. Like they were, I mean, of course I had all my assistive technology and I used a cane and, you know, I, you read Braille and all of those things, but, it, you know, disability was something that I think in that time, I think that growing up, you know, there was a strong emphasis in the culture, especially around disability inclusion. About “davka/precisely” kind of, I don’t want to see papering over cause that’s kind of too strong of a term, but kind of not discussing the unique or the differences that disability actually brings to a person’s life experience in the service, and I think it was coming from a really well-intended place of saying we really want to strive for inclusion into broader society.

LT: 13:46 We really want you to be able to be connected and included in a, in the, in the most organic way. And so you can do everything that all the other kids can do. It’s just that sometimes you do things differently. And I think that for a child, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I think they, for a child hearing that positive messaging around “you can do everything the other kids can do. You just do it differently”. I think that it can be very, I think it can be very good because I think when you’re a child, I think you simultaneously understand that you’re different and you simultaneously don’t really have the language to talk about it. Because just as with any other kid who may be different from the norm, whatever their difference is, you know, as we go through our human development as children, teenagers, young adults into adulthood, we become able to access more depth in language, but we don’t have that as children. And so I think that it’s, it’s a really important foundation to, you know, remind kids that they are able to achieve and be what they wish to be. But the problem also is that the reality of the world is that actually disability does create a lot of difference.

MC: 15:07 I was wondering if you can actually go back to that, that phrase about the world being designed for folks and kind of the problematized aspect of it.

LT: 15:16 Yeah. So there’s a very good idea. It’s not only in disability rights and justice circles, you hear it a lot in other minority communities as well. “Speaking about a world that’s not designed..”. So the whole idea, for your listeners who may not know where this, this notion comes from, it’s like the world was create.. the world is designed in such a way that those who have the most power, if we are looking at it through a privilege/oppression dynamic, those who have the most power have the most supports to get through the world, to get through their lives. But those supports are so hidden because they’re considered to be normal. So for example, an accommodation for a disability is considered an accommodation, right?

LT: 16:02 Because we are assuming that there is a norm that the disability is not meeting and therefore we have to accommodate that person and their needs to a preexisting norm that did not take them into consideration. So that’s kind of the notion of the world being designed, not for me. And we see this everywhere. We see this and literal physical structures that are inaccessible. We see this in material not being made accessible for folks with various impairments, blind, deaf, hard of hearing, visually impaired, you know, any manner of impairments, intellectual disability, cognitive disability. So those supports are just not put into the fabric of the way the human, the world was created because the world is created in such a way as to favor those who have power and privilege. And so part of what it means to work for disability rights and justice is to create a world that is actually designed to meet the needs of all who live on the planet.

LT: 17:02 And the reason that I think that’s a problematic framing from a spiritual perspective is not because I actually don’t think it’s accurate like the world as we experience it.. the reality, the reality is we experiences is extremely, I mean, creates many barriers to access. There was no question about that. I certainly had to adapt to many of them when I was going through rabbinical school and just in life in general. But I really believe that we have to look at this again from a God centered perspective and ask ourselves, right? Like is this actually the way that HaShem intends for the world to be? Right? Does HaShem actually intend a world in which people with disabilities or other, you know, minority categories are literally struggling every day for basic sustenance and basic access. Or are we as human beings actually meant to transcend our own discomfort and actually build a sanctuary for the “shekhina/divine energy”.

LT: 17:53 And I think that disability really challenges so many discomforts that a lot of people without disabilities carry about what would life be like with a disability, that it’s easier to just ignore us or to be condescending to us or to really project a lot of their biases onto us rather than actually engage with us as fellow human beings, created “betzelem elohim/in the divine image”. So it challenged.. I believe that we are challenged to look in our Torah and to look at the, to look at HaShem’s encounter with “Moshe/Moses” in “Shmot Dalit/Exodus 4”, right? Where Hashem is saying to Moshe/Moses: you’re going to lead “Am Yisrael/The Jewish people”, you’re going to lead “Bnei Yisrael/Children of Israel” out of “Mitzrayim/Egypt” and Hashe.. and Moshe/Moses, you know was like, “I can’t, because I am a man of few words. I am slow of speech and slow tongue.”

LT: 18:41 And HaShem was like I, I know because I created you. There’s that beautiful, there’s that beautiful line which I actually used to really read very negatively, that says, you know, who created you, you know, who created folks who are blind, deaf folks with other various disabilities. Was it not I, HaShem? And so for a really long time related directly to the question of the world not being designed for you. I actually read that as HaShem saying, well, like, okay, the world is basically creating so many barriers to your access, well, I created you as you are and this is the way the world is. I’m, and I’m like, and I would look at that, I’d be like, great so HaShem are you punishing me basically from who I am? And then I actually started going back to the Torah and I’m like HaShem doesn’t say that at all.

LT: 19:26 HaShem says, I need you as you are, “davka/precisely” this is why I’m providing you a reasonable accommodation. Because HaShem says a couple of “pesukim/verses” later here is your brother, Aharon/Aaron, he’s going to speak for you and you’re gonna put the words in his mouth and he will know what to say to the people, right? So HaShem is like I created you in my image because you’re human, like every other human on the planet. And because I created in my image, I know that you have these particular needs and therefore I’m gonna. I know that there’s a way we can meet those needs because I’m HaShem/God, right? And I’m going to do that. There’s no, you know, committee meeting, there’s no inclusion committee meeting. With all due respect to inclusion committees, we don’t have a conversation about how do we get those accommodations and too much money. It’s too much “blablabla”. It’s like, okay, Moshe is our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu/Moses our teacher, our greatest prophet and teacher going to lead, is going to lead “Am Yisrael/The Israelite People” “Bnei Yisrael/Children of Israel” out of “Mitzrayim/Egypt”. And so I know that there is an accommodation that he needs. And so I’m going to like do that because I, it’s just not even a question.

MC: 20:31 And even a couple of chapters after the story that you mentioned of Moshe/Moses being declared a ‘heavy of tongue’ and needing the accommodation of his brother Aaron becoming the official speaker for Moses, what happens is that Moses has a conversation with his father in law, Yitro/Jethro and Moses says, well, I’m feeling overworked. And so his father in law, Yitro says, well, we have to come up with an entire system of delegates where you can kind of kick over some of the work to these other people. And so whether it’s the system of delegation that to some extent is an accommodation to fill a need in the same way that Aaron becoming the official speaker was an accommodation to fill the need of being heavy of tongue, both our accommodations, but only one of those kind of takes on the connotations of disability. And also earlier when you were talking about how when people show up whether or not they have a disability, people show up with different ability. And so what that points to is the fact that there’s a spectrum of ability for whatever thing it is that you have to do and everyone in some way or another needs an accommodation. And so we’re all doing things differently. And yet there’s this kind of perception that only some people are needing this extra help. So what are some of your thoughts about this reality of there being a universal need for accommodation? That it’s not just the community of disability, it’s actually everybody.

LT: 22:16 Right. Exactly. And as you said about accommodations, that also brings up the notion of universal design, which is this really important concept emerging out of disability experiences where, the idea is that universal design is meant to be accessible to as many people as possible. And when we make things accessible to one, we often make them accessible to more people. I think that that is not as clear cut as it is often portrayed. I think that there is a lot of truth to that. That that is absolutely the case. That when we make things accessible for when we make them accessible for all, when we provide alternative format “siddurim/prayer books” for people with print disabilities for example, we open up the possibility of other people who may need alternative formats but didn’t think they did or felt like I have to use a standard print book.

LT: 23:06 But we also have to acknowledge that there are access conflicts as well. Where something that makes things more accessible for one group actually makes things a less successful for another. So we always have to remember that we’re on a long human continuum of access needs, that we actually all have them. That disability is present for some of us in a very overt ways. And accommodation needs are present for others in less overt ways. But that you’re right, that there is certain baggage attached to certain disability categories. It doesn’t exist in general. And I think that that is actually very much connected in the United States to this Protestant work ethic idea that we, that America inherited from Calvinism and from other places around individualism around like, you know, it’s, I don’t, I’m not an expert on it, so I hesitate to like give over “al regel achet/on one foot explanation”. But just this notion that we are individuals fundamentally pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps disability throws a wrench into that. And because disability throws a wrench, throws a wrench into that, it’s very obvious that there is a challenge and it’s been very difficult to map that onto a cultural context in which the individual’s independence specifically is prized over everything else.

MC: 24:37 Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to switch gears for a moment now and just kind of think about the more ritualistic aspects of Judaism more, or perhaps Judaism as a whole. In some ways it has a very tactile worldview. For instance, it’s somebody kneeling down, picking up the dry dirt, feeling that there’s a drought and they pray for rain; or the holiday of Sukkot and they’re smelling the “etrog/citrus fruit” and they’re shaking the leaves of the Lulav. And so there’s kind of a reputation that Judaism gets as being very heady and very intellectual. So I’m wondering if you could speak to some of the more tactile or embodied elements of our tradition that you are particularly moved by or moved towards.. Or that you move to.

LT: 25:30 Yeah, absolutely. So, um, I would “tzittzit/fringes on corners of garments, and so in “Bamidbar/Book of Numbers” we have the commandment to wear tzitzit and it specifically says that you shall like look at them and see them and remember the commandments. And so people ask me all the time, well, you’re not able to see your tzitzit so how is that, how do you, how do you understand that mitzvah? And I would say that, I mean, yes, it is true. I do not physically see my tzitzit but if I’m wearing my tzitzit out, I certainly know that I’m wearing them. Certainly feel them like against my, my skin and I’m certainly aware that they’re there. So there are a lot of, when we say “see” are we talking specifically about visual seeing, are we or are we talking about mindful awareness and how do we experience mindful awareness?

LT: 26:21 So that would be one way I think about Jewish ritual and, and how I connect to that specifically. Also I think in general.. the “etrog” is one of my favorite things. I love the smell of the “etrog”. It’s beautiful. Sukkot is a really fun holiday. Although I joke that I pray to HaShem every yom kippur that I will get two additional arms for sukkot. So it’ll have one for my siddur, one for my cane, and enough to carry the “arba minim/another name for etrog and lulav”. And unfortunately HaShem has not granted me my two arms for the duration of sukkot, but I’m still working on it.

MC: 26:53 Good luck with that.

LT: 26:57 So, you know, also the spices for “havdallah/end of shabbat ritual”, “pesach/passover” has so many different kind of embodied elements. The Seder itself should be embodied, although of course we, we tend to get pretty heady with the Seder or there is that, there is that tendency, but you know, we are supposed to see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt. And that is an embodied, a physical, literal embodied experience that we try to recreate through the various foods and traditions and leaning to the left and all these things that we do at the Seder. And you know, everything I mean “tefilin” literally binding Torah upon the body, right? That, I mean how much more intimate with the Torah can you get than that, right? And all of these things I think really draw a person in an a, in a very, a really visceral way.

LT: 27:51 And I think we have to, I mean, I know that I’m very guilty of this, of forgetting that these are like so deeply embodied and really just doing it by rote, you know, and, and, and davvening/praying the siddur and doing that all by road and getting into my head. And I think that, you know, with the Haskalah/era of enlightenment, and then the aftermath of the haskalah and in the aftermath of a lot of other things as we’ve like shifted into this as you said, and I really agree with you this much more heady, Jewish way of being. We are, I think starting to see a shift of like trying to integrate the “guf/body” into that. And I think that there are a lot of ways of doing that and there are a lot of experiences and they actually think also, and this is something that I think is really important that relates to disability and relates to ritual and all of these things. I think it’s really important and really, reclaiming for people. A lot of people with disabilities have grown up with messaging. I mean we all, I think that in modern societies we’ve all grown up with a lot of really, really problematic ideas around the body and a lot of body shaming and a lot of trying to fit into arbitrary, completely irrelevant norms of existing cause we want to be accepted. And so we do all manner of things to our bodies so that we are acceptable. And I think that “kal vehomer/how much the more so” with disability. The body doesn’t fit the normal, “lehatchila/a priori” especially if the disability is as we call it, an apparent disability. But we are so, so taught to squeeze ourselves into a norm that we cannot squeeze ourselves into. Right? Like no matter how hard a child with whatever disability tries to not have that disability, the reality is that’s a part of who they are in the world.

LT: 29:47 But we are so afraid of, of having children live lives that are hard, that we think the only way to basically make sure they can integrate into the world as it is, is to make it such that their bodies are made in such ways that they are as acceptable and normal as possible. And I do believe that in the world as we live, we do have to make sure that it, I mean we have a responsibility to help children of any ability find a way to navigate this world and to be really honest and open with them. And we have to honor that their experiences, their embodied experiences are important and valuable. And the fact fit others around them struggle with them or a deeply discomforted by the fact that disability is present is much more about “them” and not at all about the person.

LT: 30:36 But it’s ability even though it’s so often gets put onto us to make people without disabilities comfortable or you know, I hear this a lot and other communities of folks that have experiences of the body that are not typical quote unquote of this notion of we have to make “them” comfortable with us. But rather I think we need to start shifting and saying, and all of us, not simply people without disabilities or not simply, you know, any insert, any group of any majority group of people. We are all part of this process of continual growth and continual becoming where we have to do the reflection around what do we think is normal, what do we think is acceptable? What do we think is typical and standard? And we have to allow ourselves to move out of that. So when people with disabilities or other identity categories that are, you know, quote unquote, outside of a typical embodied norm, quote unquote, when we engage in ritual and when we honor holy ritual objects that we place on our bodies, I think that that’s a way of reclaiming the divinity that we all have.

LT: 31:43 I think that when we engage in these ritual practices, we are saying like, my body is holy too. And I was created, I just as in God’s image as anybody else. And when I, you know, put on tfilin or when I don a “tallit/prayer shawl” or a “talit katan/wearable prayer shawl”, like all of those things, it reminds me of who I am and what I’m out here to serve, which is not the will of the people who are making decisions about what is arbitrarily acceptable and arbitrarily not, but rather the craftsman as it says in the “Gemarah/Talmud”, who fashioned every single person. Absolutely. So I think that’s such a beautiful idea.

MC: 32:39 And so you mentioned Passover which I believe is the most celebrated Jewish holiday there is in the Jewish community. And so if we could kind of mention one or two tangible things that folks can do to make that experience more meaningful or more embodied, what’s something that anyone can do during their Passover Seder to kind of make it a more embodied, meaningful, beautiful experience; to kind of elevate it from what they currently do. And Passover is coming up in a couple of months.

LT: 33:15 Yeah. It’s my favorite, favorite, favorite holiday. Absolutely. Like above and beyond. And I love all the “chagim/holidays”, but especially “pesach/passover”. So there are a couple of ways I think I can address that on a more “tachlis/practical” level.

MC: 33:29 Perfect. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.

LT: 33:32 Yeah. It’s on a “tachlis/practical” level. I’m going to speak specifically as somebody who’s blind because that’s the authentic experience that I’m coming from. When we’re talking about the 10 plagues and we get the “choshech/darkness”, I can’t tell you the number of sedarim/multiple seders that I’ve sat through where we give children the opportunity to interact, to enact the 10 plagues, and we get the “choshech/darkness” and we give the kids the dark sunglasses and put them on. I unfortunately have this experience one pesach/passover, it was like, oh my gosh, I can’t do anything, I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything. Hoshech! Hoshech!

LT: 34:08 And I’m thinking, oh my God. So let’s think about what are these plagues, right? Like how do we understand them in the Torah? Like this isn’t, I don’t actually believe the 10 plagues are remotely appropriate for children to be acting out. Right. I think that if you want to involve, like we should be involving children in the seder. That’s the entire point, right? Like the entire point is to teach your children. I totally get that. I don’t think that the 10 plagues is the time in the Seder to be teaching our children, in that particular acting out of kind of way, because we end up sending really problematically ableist messages through that. And it’s very uncomfortable when you were a guest at a seder like that because you know, you’re trying to maintain, “kavod/respect” for the host.

LT: 34:58 And at the same time, it’s like, like I’m feeling this “tsimtsum/shrinking’ of like going into myself and like, oh my goodness, how much work do we have to do in the world? So think about other areas of the Seder that may be more appropriate to do that kind of dramatization. I’m thinking, you know, with the four questions of course, is very stereotypical, “dayenu/passover song” is also typical but also like, what would it mean? I mean, so many people, you know, they get too, “shulchan arech/eating part of the seder” and they’re like, I’m done. But that’s not the best part of the seder. In my opinion, the best part of the seder is davka/preceisely after the meal when we’re singing Hallel/Songs of Praise and Psalms. What if we like really embodied that? Is there any reason that you couldn’t get up and dance? Is there any reason you couldn’t celebrate?

LT: 35:51 I mean that’s the whole reason we’re saying Hallel. Why are we sitting around a table mumbling, Hallel? You know, were mumbling Hallel around the table because it’s so late and we want to get home and go to bed. But we’ve totally missed the point. The point is that we’re praising HaShem because we’ve been freed. So get up and like move your body and like give everyone that opportunity to do that. You know, whether they have a disability or not, you tell him like, hey, you work, we’re all here. We’re all a part of “Am Yisrael/The Israelite People”, we’ve just been freed from “Mitzrayim/Egypt”. Like let’s praise God for that. So, that’d be one thing.

LT: 36:22 I also, on a much more practical level. As somebody who is blind, I typically, I’ve had greatest access in my own journey to more traditional texts of the Haggadah. I also tend to be a bit of more of a traditionalist anyways, so I don’t know what gets, you know, the chicken or the egg came first there, but try to have a single Haggadah, find some way to like make that accessible to everybody sitting around the table. Because I understand there’s so much amazing commentary we bring when we all bring our own Hagada. But I can’t tell you the number of times, even as somebody who knows the Hagadah as well as I do, that I’m sitting in a seder and everybody’s got a different Hagadah, and I’m spending half of the time trying to find my place and totally outside of the experience because I’m trying to find where everybody else is. So let’s think about who was going to be in the room and let’s think about maybe we have a base text that we all have and then maybe we do a little bit of prep work and say, what are some texts that I want my guests to have?

LT: 37:34 And really like prepare them and make them available electronically so that people who may need to, you know, have a copy of them for themselves, can do that or just think about that when you, it’s a lot because planning a Seder is a lot, certainly no question about that. And I know that these are very difficult to put into practice. You know, depending on who you are and what your needs are. But if you know you’re going to have a guest who is blind or visually impaired, really think about the Haggadah you’re using.

MC: 38:05 Yeah, absolutely. And per your point about the dancing during Hallel after the meal, I think that one reason a lot of people, would probably be disinclined to dances because they’re so full, they’re stuffed. And, I think some folks think of Passover as kind of the Jewish version of Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving as this big story about, you know, we’re all, we’re getting stuffed, we’re eating the gravy, we’re eating the Turkey where we’re getting sleepy, but I think per your point about making Passover an embodied experience and the fact that we’re actually supposed to realize that we are coming out of slavery and we’re coming into freedom, how would a person that has just come into freedom eat a meal, would they stuff themselves without any intention whatsoever or is there a more mindful eating aspect and as a result of eating mindfully, you eat a little bit less and then you, you have space to, to dance at the very end.

LT: 39:03 Yeah, absolutely. I think that especially in the US, we do think of Pesach as the Jewish thanksgiving and to your point, I completely agree with you. I think that’s why I’ve never done when I, you know, I’ve never danced at Hallel at the seder, like tried to keep myself awake for that part of the, for that part of the time. But yeah, I think the, right, exactly. We can have mindful eating. And that’s the entire point. It’s really meant to be an incredibly mindful, like gratitude filled experience, not this drudgery of a huge meal. I mean, think about, I mean, we’re talking about equity and access. I mean, if we’re talking about equity and access and we think about Pesach, I mean to your point about the meal, the amount of cooking that falls particularly on women. Why, why do we cook these elaborate.. Huge..?

LT: 39:53 And then of course, like, because I mean, even in the most traditional circles, women participate in the seder, women have an obligation, right? So I mean, I am, I am a traditional egalitarian, but even in like in other “hashgafic/denominational” circles like women have the obligation to be there at the Seder, but how can you be sitting up for hours if you’ve literally spent the last week and a half cleaning your, your house for Pesach so stringently that you have to wonder if it’s a “hiddur mitzvah/going above and beyond for a mitzvah”, or is it like a fear… We have such an interesting relationship to that to cleaning for Pesach and then you’ve spent all this time cooking these huge, this huge meal for Seder. You get to the table, you’re exhausted. So what if we totally reorient ourselves to like putting at the center of Pesach what we’re actually celebrating, which is freedom and that it is “zman heruteinu/time of our freedom”. And, and really create a far more accessible holiday for everybody involved and it’s going to be much more meaningful because it’s going to be more accessible and there’s many more points of entry into that space.

MC: 41:07 Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. So, we’ve had the opportunity to kind of go into the issues for a little bit, but I wanted to make sure I took some time to go to the basics. And just to focus on on vocabulary. Yeah. So I was wondering if you could just speak to the vocabulary for a little bit. For instance, kind of around, um, connotations or how folks receive language such as disabled, handicapped, special needs what have you, just to kind of, for folks that are not within the community to kind of give us the basics, the 101, of kind of how, how people within the community are receiving language. What, what are words that.. Or ideas that are attractive and what are some kind of language or words that are, you know, that are better left in, in the past?

LT: 42:05 Yeah, I think this is a very important question because it’s a very dynamic question. Um, and part of that is because of the disability community is a huge umbrella. So I will answer both out of my best educated experience, as a, as somebody who’s done a lot of work in this community as well as for my personal experience. So there are several different ways people refer to themselves. I would say that there has been a lot of emphasis on person first language. So that would be, I am a woman who was blind. As opposed to saying, I am a blind woman. I’m focusing on the personhood of the individual with a disability before folks focusing on the disability. There are a lot of people who object to that. And there is an identity first language which would say, I am a blind woman, not a woman who’s blind.

LT: 42:58 Just as, as a Jewish woman, I would never say I am the woman with Jewishness. I would say I’m a Jewish woman, right? Because the Jewishness is so integral, right? It would be so weird English to say I’m a woman with Jewishness, right? I’m a Jewish woman. I am equally Jewish, equally women. And so too with identity first language, what people are saying is, you know, if I’d say I am a blind Jewish woman, what I’m saying is all of those parts of my personality, like all those parts of who I am in the world are equally relevant to my life every day. So, you know, being blind is part of how I live in this world. That is just, that is my experience of life on this planet as somebody who is blind also someone that is Jewish, also somebody who’s female.

LT: 43:50 And so that is really what identity language identity for language is trying to get at. It’s supposed to person first language where person first, a lot of people feel that person first language kind of erases disability by kind of putting it second. So like I am a person first before anything else. Other people say no. I actually davka/precisely want to use person, first language and I want to say I am a person who is blind. I want people to remember my humanity because the reality is also that outside of very small circles of people who have a more politicized understanding of disability, disability can be used an incredibly negative ways. And I think, you know, saying that people like I am a person with a disability is a… It’s kind of like a reminder to people. Like, you cannot forget my humanity where but identity first people would say, well, but if you say I am a person with a disability, you’re not honoring how integral disability is to who you are as a person.

LT: 44:54 So it’s very, the distinction is very, very fine. I modulate between the two. I professionally use person first. And I actually am more personally, I use both interchangeably. I don’t have a particular preference for either in my personal life. I use person first professionally because I think it’s actually where people are. And I think if we need to get, if we want to get people where we want them to be, we’ve got to meet them where they are and we’ve got to, you know, I signed up for this role as a rabbi. Like I got to do some educating and Jewish spaces around that. And, and when I’m able to put my professional hat on and do that, that is, you know, I’m able to maybe move one or two people or a group of people.

LT: 45:40 Special needs is a term that is pretty much universally not preferred. It cant be used by parents of children with disabilities, particularly children with intellectual, cognitive and developmental disabilities, generally I would, I would avoid, if all possible, I would avoid the term special needs. It feels very euphemistic to people. It feels like it’s dodging the issue. People.. There’s a campaign Hashtag “say the word” and the reason for this campaign say the word being disability. The reason for that is people really want to be acknowledged. Like people want their experience and acknowledged. They think that it’s out of this experience that I explained as a child were well intended. People, you know, focus on what you “can” do, like how you “can” integrate. And I think that there is a place for that. I really think that’s important for a person’s sense of self of reminding them, look, there is a place for you.

LT: 46:38 But when we are not talking about disability and difference, when we’re just kind of “tolerating” it, then we’re not actually changing how our systems work. So part of what people are saying is I need you to acknowledge that this is part of my experience because I need you to understand me in my complexity. I think it’s really a cry from the neshama/soul for understanding. When we live in a world that’s so often wants to treat us with, you know, at arm’s length, really wants to “other u”s, doesn’t want anything to do with us or only looks at us as a curiosity. So I strongly advocate that special needs is a term that people really should stay away from. Differently abled is also one of those terms that people generally in the community that I’m a part of, a really shy away from.

LT: 47:27 It’s again, it feels very, it doesn’t, it doesn’t land well. It feels kind of euphemistic and it’s one of these things that differently abled, what does that even mean? And similarly, handicap is also one of those terms that there’s really fallen out of fashion. Um, I want to give a disclaimer that one of the things about doing disability work, specifically across disability is that I have to navigate and hold the fact that people with disabilities have so many different ways they would like to be identified. So while I, while I believe it is absolutely true across the board that generally terms like differently abled special needs and handicapped are really terms best left in the past. If a person with a disability says “no actually would prefer to be called differently abled”, that needs to be respected, as that person’s choice of them using their agency to choose language that they resonate with and it speaks to how they identify and show up in the world.

LT: 48:35 I think that can be very difficult in the activist and advocacy circles because there’s so much, there’s so much tied up in language, there’s so much worldview tied up in language. And we tend to hold those very, very close to our chest, close to our jugular. But we need to be able to hold that. I can think one thing you can think another and maybe we can find some areas of common ground. So just to say that again “al regel achet/on one foot”… person first versus identity first. That’s a complicated, fine distinction. If anybody wants to contact me after this and ask more about that, I’m certainly happy to answer in greater detail. Always. Always, always follow the preference of the person that you’re speaking with. If they’re saying person first, always used person first with them. If they’re saying identity first, always use identity first and really even beyond language, the most important thing is how do we show up in the world and how do we treat people we interact with. One of the common themes that I express and I often hear expressed is that in the world, in a culture, in a cultural climate, in which many of us talk about showing up and standing in solidarity, so many people with disabilities really experience a world in which the showing up is so much about the posturing and the talking about how important it is to show up and it isn’t actually happening in reality. So when we talk about being in solidarity with and showing up for, let’s remember that that actually is a tangible act, and it’s not simply about how we talk about people, but how do we treat people and interact with people

MC: 50:20 To wrap up our conversation, I’d love to do five rapid fire questions, kind of, you know, some of the first things that jump into your mind. If you don’t like a question, feel free to pass. All right? Okay. Number one, how many languages do you know?

LT: 50:40 I knew three, I now say I know two.

MC: 50:44 Okay. Number two. What’s a favorite TV show of yours? … or book.

LT: 50:50 What’s a favorite TV show? I think I’m going to pass on.. Oh, well I read a really amazing book recently called “the trouble of love”, so beautiful such a beautiful novel. Everybody should go out and read it.

MC: 51:05 Speaking of books, what’s a book or resource you recommend for folks that are eager to learn more about disability or vision impairment or anything like that?

LT: 51:18 There are several memoirs that I think are really important to read. One of them is called “do you dream in color” by a woman named Laurie Rubin. There’s an entire chapter about her Bat Mitzvah, which I really think every Jewish educator should read. And I think that the more memoirs like that.. Also really anything by Eli Clare who tends to be a pretty, vociferous activist and has a lot of really important things to say. And anything by Dr Julia Watts Belser, particularly her work around disability and Talmud, all of those things I think are so critical to read.

MC: 52:00 Question four, which of the following two options are you more drawn to Hasidic Torah commentaries or mitnaggid/Lithuanian Talmud analysis.

LT: 52:10 I love “Svara” (an organization in “Chicago”) dearly and I’m so grateful for that pedagogy and Gemarah is my, I love Gemarah. Hasidic Torah commentary! I love Hasidut, but I love Gemarah too, but I really love Hasidut.

MC: 52:27 Tell us how you really feel.. and the last question is what’s a favorite quote or mantra of yours that you like to keep in your back pocket on a daily or weekly basis?

LT: 52:42 Shiviti Hashem Lenegdi Tamid (I always place God before me).

MC: 52:47 Beautiful. And also rabbi can you tell us a little bit about some projects that you’re involved with nowadays? Maybe your website or some something that folks about an event they, that they should know about it. Just kind of fill us in about the latest happenings.

LT: 53:05 Yeah, absolutely. So my website is rabbituchman.com. So rabbi T U C H m a n dot com. I have a lot of writing up there and some other really cool things. You should check it out. Also my Facebook pages, facebook.com/rabbiTuchman, those are the best to get in touch with me. And then a couple of really cool projects that I’m working on right now. I am teaching a beit midrash, inspired by Rabbi Benay Lappe “svara” pedagogy. So “Svara” a traditionally radical yeshiva based in Chicago, they’re awesome. Go check them out. And I do work with young folks doing Jewish social justice work through Avodah, the ruach avodah, in the Washington DC area. Avodah is a wonderful organization go check out the really great work that they do. And also I am, I’m learning a lot more about what it means to become a spiritual mentor or companion.

LT: 54:06 So I am very excited that I am part of the group of what’s known as young contemplatives. It’s through “spiritual directors international” and we’re going to be going on a retreat together in March and really doing holy listening and generative listening and being part of the larger intergenerational conversation around what it means to spiritually care for and companion people. So that’s, those are the things that I do and I also do a lot of teaching and a lot of speaking and scholar in residence type things around disability, around Torah, spirituality. I’m also God-willing going to be launching a Mussar vaad/group, “bimheira yamei/hopefully soon. So through David Jaffe’s “insight out wisdom and action project”.

MC: 54:49 That all sounds fantastic. So again, rabbi, thank you so much for joining us and wishing you all the best.

LT: 54:58 Thank you so much for having me. It was truly an honor.

MC: 55:01 All right. I hope you enjoyed this episode with Rabbi Lauren Tuchman and myself. If you enjoyed the conversation, we have many more like this coming up, so be sure to subscribe to “raising holy sparks”. And if you really enjoyed the show, please be sure to leave a five star review as it helps to support the show. Thank you so much for listening. See you next week for our next episode. Be well and be the awesome you that you are. The world needs it.

Parashat Lech Lecha

Originally published in 2020.

Learn about this week’s torah portion with My Jewish Learning.

Parashat Miketz

Originally published in 2020.

This week’s Torah portion was taught with My Jewish Learning.

The Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto

Originally published in 2020

Explore the enduring spiritual wisdom from the Piaseczna Rebbe, also known as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. Rabbi Lauren Tuchman explores his Torah commentaries known as the Aish Kodesh, or Holy Fire, which offer insight into the human condition, suffering, and resilience.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Exploring the Matriarchs

Originally published in 2021

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Knowing and Not Knowing: Celebrating the Expansiveness of Torah

Originally published in 2021

Today, I remember. I remember vividly the all-consuming sadness I felt last Purim, as the sun was setting and my celebratory seudah was ending, the last event I attended with a large Jewish community. I remember feeling overcome with the intuitive sense that it would be a long, long time before I would daven with a minyan, learn in a physical bet midrash, and otherwise gather to sing, celebrate, learn, mourn, and grieve with others outside of my small pod. I also distinctly recall not knowing how to explain my sorrow. Last Purim, we knew there was a deadly, dangerous virus looming. I remember the conversation surrounding the question of whether one could attend a virtual Megillah reading. Were the circumstances really that grave that a virtual reading could be sufficient for those for whom in person gatherings took religious precedence? Surely this outbreak will be a few months at most—we’ll be back to “normal” by Shavuot.

As I think back over this turbulent year, I am humbled by my own sense of assumed knowing, on a holiday that is all about not knowing. Purim is, after all, many things. It is a holiday about opposites, reversals, revelations, and concealments. It is also understood to be about knowing and not knowing. Traditionally, one is supposed to drink until they cannot tell the difference between blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman. It should go without saying but I feel absolutely obligated to say that this knowing and not knowing is not only achieved through the use of intoxicating substances. Our sages also teach that the knowing and not knowing is about achieving a mystical union with all that is. For those of us who are spiritually inclined but for whom achieving mystical union with all that exists feels a bit too abstract or out there, we can also think of this idea of knowing and not knowing as related to the Gemara’s famous teaching in Shabbat 88a concerning our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.

The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai.

״וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר״, אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם.

אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: מִכָּאן מוֹדָעָא רַבָּה לְאוֹרָיְיתָא.

אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.

The Torah says: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa interprets this verse in the following way: [Because of the language of “lowermost part of the mountain,” the verse implies that the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain], and comes to teach that that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”

Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: This would undermine our obligation to fulfill the Torah! The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.

Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them,” (Esther 9:27). The Jews “ordained” that which they had already “taken upon” themselves through coercion at Sinai. 

We encounter here the famous idea that our acceptance of the covenant through our declaration of we will do, and we will hear, or we will listen was not, in the rabbi’s read done willingly. We were coerced. It was not until the days of Purim that we in fact willingly accepted the Torah upon ourselves. During this time of knowing and not knowing, we are provided here with an interesting juxtaposition. On a day when we tend to be consumed by physical delights and pleasures, we also celebrate our fullest acceptance of Torah.

Admittedly, as someone for whom Purim has, at the best of times, been incredibly alienating, this shift in emphasis is comforting. I can immerse myself in my love of learning Torah and skip the parties. No more need I attend a Megillah reading feeling utterly miserable on the happiest of days because the room is loud and I cannot hear anything going on, knowing all the while that this holiday is so visual, with everyone showing off their costumes and laughing at comedic sketches that I miss because I cannot see them. Learning all Purim night? Now that I can get behind!

If I’m being honest with myself, and if we are being honest with ourselves, what does that shift in emphasis actually mean for us? Isn’t everything Torah ultimately? We are not a people known for our asceticism. In fact, our tradition requires us to take pleasure from the physical world and thereby elevate and make it sacred. Purim is deeply a part of that. I have to remind myself that just because the loud and chaotic Megillah readings of years past left me feeling deeply alienated, that in no way means that Purim is not mine to take hold of, just as we each take hold of all of the festivals.

Which brings me back to the somber character of this Purim and I imagine all Purims subsequent to this year. We are both marking the one year anniversary of this terrible pandemic and celebrating a tremendous moment of redemption for the Jewish people. The Gemara’s teaching above and our celebrations of Purim are both experienced collectively. We celebrate our deliverance together and our acceptance of Torah together as one people. We know from this past year that we need community to remain resilient and to hold us and that community is and can be experienced in so many ways. I remain humbled and deeply moved by how SVARA has pivoted and how so many of us have pivoted to navigate this crumble and crash. Even and especially as we mourn the tremendous losses of this time, we are unearthing new possibilities for connection which I pray stay with us long after COVID is eradicated and we are all vaccinated, speedily and in our days, amein!

And yet, the yearning to find individual expression within a communal framework is with me deeply. I bring that juxtaposition with me as I celebrate and receive all that Purim holds for me. This Purim, as I prepare to hear Megillah in an environment that will better meet my needs, I allow myself to open to the expansive possibilities of this holiday, knowing that my own not knowing prevented me from showing up most authentically in my own life as a Jew and as a lover of Torah. May this holiday with all of its layers of possibility, struggle, and promise allow us to get even a taste of the world we are co-creating into being.

Knowing and Not Knowing: Celebrating the Expansiveness of Torah

Torah Study: Parashat Shelach

Originally published in 2021

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