The Plurality of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu 5780

The Plurality of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu 5780

This piece originally appeared on SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

Nachamu Nachamu ami, “comfort, comfort my people,”— the opening words of the Haftorah from the book of Isaiah, which we will read this Shabbat, ring particularly poignant this year. What does it mean for us to move from a period of mourning, fasting, and solemnity into a prolonged period of communal consolation?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the profound wisdom of our Jewish calendrical cycle. We are not a linear people—our years are cyclical and, as we move through the cycle, our tradition asks us to embody the specific mood or energy of each moment, year after year, even as we ourselves are in a constant state of flux. For many years, when the Three Weeks came around, I wondered how I would find meaning in this time. Connecting viscerally to the Chorban—destruction of the 2 Temples—was not something to which I had an immediate or easy access point. I did always believe deeply in the utility and importance of collective mourning, but on some level it felt hollow. That is, until this year.

As these long pandemic months continue, as the losses—tangible and ambiguous alike—continue to pile up, as many of us feel weighed down by past and present grieving, it feels like our holy tradition is calling out to us, crying alongside us. As we emerge from the 9 days into Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, we are being reminded, even if just in a whisper, that we can move on. It will take seven weeks of comforting haftorot to make up for the three haftorot of rebuke, but we will be able to rebuild and enter a new year.

In Masechet Taanit 29B-30B, there is an extended discussion about how one ought to prepare for and observe Tisha b’Av. Numerous Tannaitic opinions are recorded pertaining to many aspects of the day itself and the days which precede and follow. The text asks: Should the mourning of the 9 days actually last for all of Av or just during the week in which Tisha b’Av falls? If Tisha b’Av falls on a Sunday, is there even a week of mourning before? When can a person do their laundry? What if they only have one garment and Tisha b’Av falls on Friday—can they wash their garment for the honor of Shabbat? And what about Torah study? Are you allowed to learn Torah? Maybe you can only learn the sections you’re familiar with. How ought we commemorate this time?

I am profoundly moved by the way in which the rabbis engage in this back-and-forth. After the Chorban, the Talmudic project began in earnest in Yavneh because the rabbis understood that we were living in a radically altered world and wanted desperately for our traditions to survive. We are heirs to their ingenuity. As I learned this sugya, I kept coming back to the way in which the rabbis were working out for themselves and future generations just how we would commemorate Tisha b’Av specifically and the Chorban broadly. Writing hundreds of years after that trauma, there was no consensus. To me, this lack of consensus points to the very human reality that the way we grieve and mourn is radically individual. Some of us need those safe containers to hold the pain. Our tradition masterfully created a staged process for mourning the deaths of dear ones for that reason. We move from Shiva to Shloshim to observing the yartzeit annually because we know that even as time progresses, we need a ritualized way to return to the loss and re-emerge into the world again and again, year after year.

Just as our rabbis were not of one mind about how to commemorate the loss of the Temples in Yerushalayim—just how much mourning and for how long is too much?—I know I am wrestling with a plurality of thoughts and feelings about my own grieving during this time. For those of us in an American cultural context, ours is a culture which is better at bottling up emotion and staying as far from death and pain as possible. Where’s the space for the rawness, the realness, the ambiguity of the losses some of us experienced and the real tangibility of others? May the wisdom of our rabbis and our calendar provide us with some solace and grounding in this moment of radical crash. May the fluidity with which the rabbis have an honest back-and-forth about how to commemorate this time provide us with fodder for how we mark our own time of trial and calamity.

Open My Heart To Your Torah

Open My Heart to Your Torah.

On Shabbat Parashat Bo 5779, January 12, 2019, I found myself in shul, like I do every Shabbat, wishing Shabbat shalom to folks as I entered the sanctuary, wrapping myself in my tallit and taking out my Hebrew Braille siddur, just like I would on any other Shabbat. There was a bat mitzvah celebrated in the community which happens frequently enough of course. The bat mitzvah girl was poised, spunky, learned, and one of the most enthusiastic leyners and darshanits I have ever heard. Oh yeah, and she just so happened to be blind. In her drasha after Musaf, she joyfully and humorously quipped that in addition to her parsha being particularly lengthy, one of the plagues mentioned in Bo is chosesh, darkness. Is this a joke from HaShem, she gleefully mused and proceeded to give over one of the most beautiful and spiritually cogent shiurim I have heard on this topic.

I felt an incredible wash of emotions as I sat in shul that Shabbat, davening with more kavannah than I remember in a long time. When it came time to take out the Torah, it hit me. A blind woman would be leyning the entire parsha and haftorah from a Braille text! I barely kept my composure as we proclaimed that Torah came forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Yerushalayim. Even now as I write, a week after the bat mitzvah, I find myself overwhelmed with emotion. You see, I have been yearning and praying for this day for a long, long time. From the depths I called out to you, HaShem, and you have answered me out of your great expansiveness!

As I studied for the rabbinate, I would frequently be asked about how a blind person participates in the Torah service. Does Braille trop exist, folks would ask. What about the issues around the halakhic requirement to read from the sefer itself? Do blind folks receive aliyot?

Blessedly, for at least the past 500 years, save for in those congregations, few in number which still hold by the Shulchan Aruch’s prohibition of giving blind men aliyot, blind people regularly receive aliyot. Thanks to the revolution that came about in Jewish communities and particularly in Ashkenaz as a result of determining that the individual receiving the Aliyah need not be able to read from the sefer itself, it was reasonably and appropriately determined that there should be no problem calling a blind person to the Torah.

The issue of Braille trop was another matter. Hebrew Braille, which is widely in use today was developed in the 1940’s and, save for the most basic punctuation marks, omitted cantillation, or trop. What this meant in practice was that if a blind person wanted to learn to leyn or chant Torah or haftorah, they had to do so by memorization exclusively. I can personally attest to the formidability of this task. Due to the assumptions made that because Braille is entirely horizontal, and thus unable to accommodate anything above and below a line, and that adding trop would increase the number of Braille characters in any given word as to make the utility of reading a text with trop impossible, it seems that it was decided early in Hebrew Braille’s usage that it simply wasn’t worth it. And, sadly, many of us, myself included, assumed that this was a sensible, if highly frustrating and inconvenient decision. As a rabbinical student, I frequently would be asked to brainstorm possibilities for developing Braille trop. I begrudgingly admit that as excited as I was at the prospect, the skeptical part of me, knowing how difficult learning dikduk—Hebrew grammar—was in Braille with all of the additional characters, didn’t really think that such a thing could come to fruition.

Baruch HaShem, there are those who took a different path, who didn’t assume it was impossible, who didn’t ask permission. Where there is a will, there must be a way. The bat mitzvah of Batya Sperling-Milner is, as best as we know, the first time a blind person prepared their leyning using Braille trop. Co-creating a Braille trop system! Not bad for a bat mitzvah!

What an incredible spiritual lesson for me and for all of us. I long felt like issues pertinent to blind and visually impaired accessibility fell exclusively upon me to solve. Though HaShem is infinite, we human beings are finite, and I would feel a sense of shame and dare I say even failure when I experienced fatigue, exhaustion, despair and overwhelm. This Braille trop system, the prototype for which I literally cannot wait to get my hands on is a tangible manifestation of the truth, so often forgotten, that the work is not upon me alone, and that others are just as passionate, just as driven and care just as deeply. I felt a jolt of electricity when I was enthusiastically introduced to an assembled crowd as the second person in the world to use this trop system. Ken Yehi ratzon! May it be so, speedily and in our days, amen.

The third and final significant challenge was halakhic. There are a variety of understandings of the role halakhah plays in our religious and spiritual lives in the Jewish community today. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, with some differences surrounding process, hold that halakhah is binding upon us. As such, when we have a question about a matter of ritual law, such as the question of may a blind Jew read Torah for the congregation, we rely upon a variety of tools to discern an answer. One of the most formative and important things I learned in rabbinical school about what it means to be a good posek was that a posek must always remember the individual who stands before them and who is making a halakhic inquiry. We are never meant to rule abstractly. Rather, we must always keep top of mind that halakhah, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning to walk, is as much about how we internally navigate our world and our relationship with HaShem, the Holy One Of Blessing, as it is about how we externally perform our religious obligations. Further, the notion that a posek is inherently objective does not bear out and sociological factors frequently play a role in how decisions are made, as is borne out by how customs of various Jewish communities factored into teshuvot written by sages historical and contemporary alike. Svara, or moral intuition, also plays a significant role. Indeed, svara is of paramount importance, a good reminder and lesson for all of us in religious leadership today. I truly cannot think of an example better emblematic of the revolution that svara can bring to all of us.

I know that extensive halakhic research was involved in how this bat mitzvah proceeded. I resonated deeply with Batya when she noted in a video describing her preparations that it was so important for her to know that she was fulfilling a religious obligation. She was going to do it, and she was going to do it by the book, as it were. This extensive research has rendered a potential, life-giving pathway forward. Baruch… hatov v’hamativ. For those of us for whom halakhah is an important facet of our Jewish lives, and who know, even when it seems like this is far from the reality we experience, that halakhah can hold all of us in our wholeness, it is important to root ourselves both in our moral and spiritual intuition about the right thing to do as it is to find a way that our change will be one that lasts and is accepted by our communities. Though I have enjoyed learning so many new-to-me mekorot or rabbinic source texts as I delve into the halakhic issues at play, one source stands out in particular.

The Maseit Binyanim, R. Benjamin Aaron ben R. Avrohom Salnik was a Polish Talmud chacham who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. His teshuvah is powerfully resonant today. He wrote his teshuvah after either becoming significantly visually impaired or completely blind, it is difficult for me to determine, but in either case he was significantly visually impaired. Though he writes specifically with reference to whether a blind person may receive an Aliyah, the ikkar of his teshuvah is that the anguish that a person with a disability feels when told no, you can’t do that when it comes to ritual participation is soul-crushing and that anguish must be taken into halakhic consideration. I, personally, can absolutely attest to this, and it is this consciousness that I pray I will always bring to my rabbinate and to the sensitivity with which I interact with others with disabilities, even and especially when I am presented with formidable halakhic challenges. I must ask myself, do I want to live redemptively? What are my values and how do they play out? And what does HaShem want of me in how I comport myself as a leader? I must always be able to answer thoroughly, intelligently, respectfully and with sensitivity. I may never fall back on tired excuses of I’m sorry, it’s just not possible.

Here is what the Maseit Binyanim so powerfully proclaims. May we internalize this Torah into our souls.
“[1] Many great sages have debated whether a blind person can receive an aliyah and read from the Torah, this one permitting and this one forbidding. And the gatherer of all the camps together, the one whose light leads the entire nation, the gaon and the greatest sage of his generation, Rav Yosef Karo, in his work the Beit Yosef, collected and gathered all the opinions and weighed and evaluated them, and came to the conclusion that it is forbidden, that a blind person is not permitted to be called up for an aliyah among those who are counted.
[2] And I said, “If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, leave not your place” (Kohelet 10:4), for you should not be cast off forever (Eicha 3:31). For from times of Avi Zanoach (Moshe, cf. Chronicles I, 4:18), the Torah has always been placed in a corner (accessible to all, see Kiddushin 66a), so that whoever wishes may come and take it. And even one mitzvah should not be negated.
[3] For behold, now in my old age, the sight from my windows has darkened, and my eyes have grown dim from sight (cf., Breisht 27:1). According to what the Rabbi (Yosef Karo) opined, I will be driven away this day from seeking refuge in the inheritance of the Lord (I Samuel 26:19), in the Torah of truth and of eternal life, that I shall not be included in the number of those who are counted to rise up (and read). Therefore, I said and decided in my heart, “God forbid that I should abandon the way of the tree of life, and from my youth I have grasped onto its branches, its laws, and its rule. Even in my old age I shall not cast it off. On its path I will tread.” And I will open with the matter of halakha, to see for what purpose the Rabbi has done such a thing to me. And behold, I will lift my eyes up to the high mountains, the ancient hills, and I will come out to the help of the Lord against the mighty men (Judges 5:23), I will prove and put forth my case… I will establish and “speak regarding Your laws in the presence of kings and not be embarrassed”. (Ps. 119:46)…


Can a Person Who Is Blind Receive an Aliyah?: A Teshuva of Maseit Binyamin