an alternative model for forgiveness

Something I see in the news fairly often is a terrible crime followed immediately by the family’s “forgiveness” of the perpetrator, often with vague Christian overtones. People often heap praise and awe on such families. While I don’t want to deny survivors any form of psychological comfort that may be available to them, I’ve never understood what it means to grant forgiveness before the perpetrator has been held accountable and accepted responsibility, and while I understand there may be psychological benefits to such an act, I don’t believe that such an act can possibly be healthy on a communal level.

I’ve also seen some bad group therapy sessions led by facilitators who push participants to ‘forgive whoever they need to forgive in order to move on,’ without any forethought that some people in the room might actually have the problem of being too forgiving and being pathologically unable to hold others accountable for hurting them. Here, I suspect there’s a breakdown amongst gender lines.  I suspect the blanket advice “forgive, forgive, forgive” is probably more pertinent to men, who are already trained to stand up for themselves and protect their honor, and probably more harmful for women, who are already trained to yield and forego slights.

So, in the face of all the toxic Christianity-infused and patriarchy-poisoned ideas about forgiveness floating out there, what’s the Talmud’s model, and do we want to learn from it?

One of the closing sugyot in Yoma, the masechet about Yom Kippur, we see four tales about forgiveness.  It is important to emphasize that nowhere in Yoma have I found any tale involving a very serious crime.  I have not yet found a Talmudic example of someone forgiving after murder, rape, or any other life-changing act of violence.  The relative silence is telling.  The masechet, by contrast, is replete with tales of smaller slights.  I won’t argue that the lessons here can necessarily be applied to bigger issues, nor that they cannot.   Still, we will see a very different model of forgiveness emerge from the one valorized by secular media.

R’ Abba Sits in the Trash

ר’ ירמיה הוה ליה מילתא לר’ אבא בהדיה אזל איתיב אדשא דר’ אבא בהדי דשדיא אמתיה מיא מטא זרזיפי דמיא ארישא אמר עשאוני כאשפה שמע ר’ אבא ונפיק לאפיה אמר ליה השתא צריכנא למיפק אדעתך
R’ Jeremiah had once offended R’ Abba, so he went and sat at his front door.  The maid came out to dispose of dirty water and threw it on R’ Jeremiah’s head. He said, “I’ve been turned into a trash heap.” R’ Abba hurried out and said, “Now I’m the one who needs to be forgiven.”

This is a Talmudic admission, as I understand the story, that sometimes the original victim in the story will become the perpetrator.  (Again, keep the context of a minor interpersonal slight in mind, not serious acts of malice.)  In this story, R’ Abba had no intention of disgracing R’ Jeremiah.  It was just an accident.  He knew, however, that as long as he was withholding forgiveness from a repentant wrongdoer, R’ Abba’s actions were going to be scrutinized closely.  Even accidents could be misinterpreted as cruel.  When we withold forgiveness, we need to understand that the people who wronged us are very sensitive to our treatment of them.  We are not allowed to “put people in the doghouse,” and we must be on guard that our actions not be interpreted as such.  The series of 4 stories thus opens with a perpetrator-focused moral tale.  Don’t worry, things get a little better from here.

Rabbi Zeira’s Process

ר’ זירא כי הוה ליה מילתא בהדי איניש הוה חליף ותני לקמיה וממציא ליה כי היכי דניתי וניפוק ליה מדעתיה

Rabbi Zeira, whenever someone had offended him, used to make excuses to pass in front of them, to always find himself near them, so that they would come out and the matter could get resolved.

Here we have a very different wronged party than the above story.  Rabbi Zeira has already made up his mind to be appeased. Someone has wronged him, and he’s ready to forgive them.  He’s so ready, in fact, that he’s making himself a common sight in front of his perpetrator, showing how available he is for the other person to come up and speak to and any point.  I see two more major takeaways here:

As the wronged party, once we are ready to forgive, we need to avoid the temptation to avoid the other person.  One of our responsibilities is to remain available to the person seeking forgiveness.  They may need to see us in community a few times to realize it’s OK for them to approach us and apologize.

But more importantly, forgiveness is an interpersonal process.  It’s not unilateral.  Rabbi Zeira could have held a press conference and told reporters that he forgives the other party.  He could have written a moving Facebook post talking about his own journey toward forgiveness.  Instead, he knew that what he really needed in order to forgive was the other party approaching him and asking for it.

Rav Kills a Butcher

רב הוה ליה מילתא בהדי ההוא טבחא לא אתא לקמיה במעלי יומא דכפורי אמר איהו איזיל אנא ‘ לפיוסי ליה פגע ביה רב הונא אמר ליה להיכא קא אזיל מר אמר ליה לפיוסי לפלניא אמר אזיל אבא למיקטל נפשא אזל וקם עילויה הוה יתיב וקא פלי רישא דלי עיניה וחזייה אמר ליה אבא את זיל לית לי מילתא בהדך בהדי דקא פלי רישא אישתמיט גרמא ומחייה בקועיה וקטליה

Rav had once been offended by a certain butcher. The butcher didn’t come to Rav by Erev Yom Kippur.  Rav said to himself, “I’ll go to him myself and allow myself to be appeased.” On the way, he ran into Rav Huna.  Rav Huna asked him, “Where are you going?” He responded, “I’m on my way to extract an apology!” Rav Huna responded, “No, you’re on your way to kill someone.” Rav continued the journey anyway. He found the butcher still at work, chopping heads. When he looked up and saw Rav, he yelled, “What are you doing here? Get out! I have nothing to say to you!” In the moment of distraction, a bone flew and lodged in his throat. He choked and died.

Rav presents a balance to R’ Zeira’s method above.  He also takes initiative to grant forgiveness.  The only problem is that the butcher, who was the perpetrator, hasn’t approached him yet to ask for forgiveness and Yom Kippur is bearing down. Rav is so zealous to forgive him that he goes out of his way to find him.  He even ignores a colleague’s warning that this is a dangerous decision.  The ultimate result is the death of the butcher.  In the Talmud’s characteristic hyperbolic style, the point is clear: Rushing this process when the perpetrator is not ready to be held accountable is extremely ill-advised.

Why in this story is it the butcher who dies, and not Rav?  Why does the Talmud say that the danger in rushing the process is for the perpetrator instead of the victim?  Isn’t it the victim who could be re-victimized by an unrepentant perpetrator?

Here, I think it’s important to remember the context of a minor slight.  Rav’s overeager desire to forgive is all about Rav.  He wants the spiritual satisfaction of having forgiven someone.  He wants the emotional resolution.  But in doing so, he denies the guilty party the process that is actually needed — that of taking responsibility first.  Ultimately, the outcome will be that neither party merits resolution.

So we can add an addendum to our takeaway above: When we, as the wronged party, are ready to forgive, we must avoid the temptation to completely avoid the other person.  We must allow them to see us in community several times and give them the chance to work up the courage to speak to us.  But we cannot actually enter them into that conversation.  It’s critical to the process that they take the initiative to open the dialogue.  They will never gain true forgiveness if they don’t make the move toward accepting responsibility.

When Someone Refuses to Forgive


רב הוה פסיק סידרא קמיה דרבי עייל אתא ר’ חייא הדר לרישא עייל בר קפרא הדר לרישא אתא ר”ש ברבי הדר לרישא אתא ר’ חנינא (בר) חמא אמר כולי האי נהדר וניזיל לא הדר איקפיד ר’ חנינא אזל רב לגביה תליסר מעלי יומי דכפורי ולא איפייס והיכי עביד הכי והאמר ר’ יוסי בר חנינא כל המבקש מטו מחבירו אל יבקש ממנו יותר משלש פעמים ארב שאני ור’ חנינא היכי עביד הכי והאמר רבא כל המעביר על מדותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו אלא ר’ חנינא חלמא חזי ליה לרב דזקפוהו בדיקלא וגמירי דכל דזקפוהו בדיקלא רישא הוי אמר שמע מינה בעי למעבד רשותא ולא איפייס כי היכי דליזיל ולגמר אורייתא בבבל

Rav was giving a lecture and Rabbi Hiyya came in. Rav went back to the beginning and started over.  Then Bar Kappara came in. He went back and started over. Then Rabbi Shimon came in. He went back and started over. Then Rabbi Hanina came in. Rav shouted, “How many times can I start over??” He didn’t go back to the beginning. Rabbi Hanina felt insulted. Rav went to him to apologize. He went 13 Yom Kippurs in a row, but R’ Hanina wouldn’t be appeased.  And how did Rav act like that? Don’t we have a teaching that one shouldn’t ask for forgiveness more than three times? Yes, but Rav is different. And Rabbi Hanina, how did he act like this? Don’t we have a teaching that when one readily forgives, God forgives all our sins? Yes, but Rabbi Hanina had seen in a dream Rav hanging from a palm tree, and he know that a dream vision of someone hanging in a palm tree means that they are destined for greatness.  He wanted Rav to go away and become a great leader of Torah in Bavel. 

Rav appears again in our final story, this time as the wrongdoer.  He offends Rabbi Hanina (whose name, note means “grace.”)  He apologizes and apologizes and apologizes.  Rabbi Hanina simply refuses to forgive him.  He wasn’t being cruel: he simply had other plans for Rav.  With nothing else to do after having mortally offended a senior colleague, Rav simply packs up and leaves town. The ultimate result of that action? Torah is brought to Bavel.  Rav goes on to found a central yeshiva there, and Bavel’s Torah will eventually outshine even that of Eretz Israel.  This is the surprising origin story of the entire Babylonian Talmud — an unresolved dispute, a refusal to be appeased, a lack of emotional resolution.

Here I think we see our most important takeaway.  Sometimes we simply have to live without forgiveness.  Yes, it’s incumbent upon wrongdoers to apologize and it’s incumbent upon the aggrieved to forgive.  However, when that process fails, one must move on.  And sometimes moving on without forgiveness is the most generative and productive thing that one can possibly do.

like a set table (Mishpatim)

This bracha was offered to colleagues in education at a special event.

Our parasha opens with a fairly innocuous statement from Hashem to Moshe:

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃
These are the rules that you shall set before them:

Considering that what follows is a very lengthy list of laws, however, the word choice opening the parasha becomes puzzling.  “Set before them” is a circuitous way of saying teach them, or repeat them, or tell them.  What does it mean to “set” the rules before the people?

The Midrash offers an answer.  Rashi explains:

אשר תשים לפניהם. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ”ה לְמֹשֶׁה: לֹא תַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתְּךָ לוֹמַר, אֶשְׁנֶה לָהֶם הַפֶּרֶק וְהַהֲלָכָה ב’ אוֹ ג’ פְּעָמִים, עַד שֶׁתְּהֵא סְדוּרָה בְּפִיהֶם כְּמִשְׁנָתָהּ, וְאֵינִי מַטְרִיחַ עַצְמִי לַהֲבִינָם טַעֲמֵי הַדָּבָר וּפֵרוּשׁוֹ, לָכַךְ נֶאֱמַר אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם – כַּשֻׁלְחָן הֶעָרוּךְ וּמוּכָן לֶאֱכוֹל לִפְנֵי הָאָדָם 
WHICH YOU SHALL SET BEFORE THEM — God said to Moses: It should not enter your mind to say, “I shall teach them a section of the Torah or a single Halacha twice or three times until they memorize it exactly, but I shall not take the trouble to make them understand the reason of each thing and its significance”; therefore Scripture says, אשר תשים לפניהם, “which you shall set before them”— like a table fully laid (שֻׁלְחָן הֶעָרוּךְ)1 before a person with everything ready for eating (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 21:1:1).

According to the midrash, Hashem is actually giving Moshe pedagogy advice.  Hashem is telling Moshe, “Don’t think your job is to repeat this instruction.  Your job is to set the table, invite the people to the meal, and allow them to taste all the different טעמים (flavors).2

The idea of educators as hosts of a meal is a powerful model for pedagogy.  At a meal our goal is not control what others’ eat.  However, we try to create an experience that our guests will want to participate in.  We make room for everyone at the table, we make sure that different tastes are accommodated, and we create an atmosphere in which they feel welcome.3

In some ways this both lowers and raises the bar for us.  As educators, ultimately, we cannot control what information students will take in, find important or interesting, and remember.  In this way, the bar is lowered.  This responsibility does not belong to us.

What we are responsible for, however, is making room for everyone around the table,  creating content which accommodates different tastes, and creating an experience in which people will want to participate.  In this way, the bar is raised.

My hope for myself and my colleagues as educators is that we fulfill the vision of this midrash–that we successfully set the table for our students, make space for everyone we’ve invited to the table, fill it with the many different flavors of of Torah which we’ve learned, and create an experience they’ll want to take part in.

1. This midrash provides us with the origin of the phrase Shulchan Aruch, the most well known halachic code.  Its title literally means “the set table.” It’s somewhat ironic that the Shulchan Aruch‘s biggest weakness is that it does not give the reasons behind the laws (see the next footnote) but rather just recounts them.

2. This is a pun.  טעמים can mean “flavors” but it also means “reason.”  The midrash is saying that they should taste the different flavors of the meal to mean that when we learn halacha we should grasp the reason behind the rule and not just learn the rule itself.

3. It’s supremely ironic to me that this midrash gives a model for teaching halacha which is followed by virtually no one in the field of teaching halacha (though is sometimes followed in subjects seen as “softer” like Tanach.)  This midrash quotes God as requiring accessibility and diversity in the teaching of halacha.  No where does God require mastery of a certain amount of halacha, or wholesale ingestion of the entire corpus.  The image here is of a meal, where guests are expected to partake of what suits them, according to their own appetite, capacity, and taste.

“Do not go near a woman” (yitro)

One of my favorite moments of all time in Tanach happens in this week’s parasha.  It’s a moment when, I believe, Torah winks at us with a secret.

God is preparing the people for the big moment at Sinai.  He speaks to Moshe.

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה: לֵךְ אֶל הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם.  וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יֵרֵד יְהוָה לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם עַל הַר סִינָי. וְהִגְבַּלְתָּ אֶת הָעָם סָבִיב לֵאמֹר: ‘הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם עֲלוֹת בָּהָר וּנְגֹעַ בְּקָצֵהוּ, כָּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהָר מוֹת יוּמָת’.  לֹא תִגַּע בּוֹ יָד, כִּי סָקוֹל יִסָּקֵל אוֹ יָרֹה יִיָּרֶה, אִם בְּהֵמָה אִם אִישׁ לֹא יִחְיֶה. בִּמְשֹׁךְ הַיֹּבֵל הֵמָּה יַעֲלוּ בָהָר
God said to Moshe: “Go to the people, sanctify them today, and tomorrow they shall wash their clothes. They shall be ready for the third day for on that day God will descend on Mount Sinai in the eyes of all the people. You draw a limit for the people, saying, ‘Keep yourselves from ascending the mountain or touching its borders for all who touch the mountain shall die.’ Do not touch it with your hand lest you be stoned or thrown down; whether animal or beast, he shall not live. During a trumpets blast they may ascend the mountain.”

These are the instruction that God gives to Moshe on the eve of the grand revelation at Sinai.  In preparation for the impending public theophany, the people must:

  1. Wash their clothes
  2. Be prepared for the third day
  3. Refrain from ascending the mountain
  4. Refrain from even touching the mountain
  5. Ascend the mountain when they hear trumpets [Hebrew ambiguous]

Now let’s compare that with what Moshe actually tells the people.  After they wash their clothes, Moshe addressed them:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם: הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה
Moshe said to the people: “Be prepared for the third day. Don’t go near a woman.”

Nowhere did God say this.1 Nowhere does Moshe actually hand over the instructions about touching the mountain.  This is an incredible moment in Torah.  The omniscient narrator of the text preserved both God’s speech and Moshe’s speech in order to highlight the discrepancy between the two.  God made no mention of gender. God gave no indication that הָעָם referred only to the men, or that וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם meant stay away from women.  That was Moshe’s translation.

This, I believe, is the moment at which Torah tells us: Hey, this whole experience has been filtered through a human conduit. This is Torah admitting to us that it is a divinely-inspired text but certainly not a divinely-dictated text.

Torah gives us many other examples of God giving instructions to Moshe, which Moshe then translates imperfectly to the people.  Ancient texts are not overly fond of repetition.  What, then, are we do make of this carefully preserved game of telephone between God, Moshe, and us if not precisely this point?

Torah also gives us many speeches and laws which Moshe told the people, without God’s original.  It would not take a stretch of imagination to believe that Torah expects us to know that all of Moshe’s speeches and laws were imperfectly translated.  Torah itself knows, even if we don’t know it or refuse to acknowledge it, that it bears a human imprint and that it is, necessarily, a product of time and place, a product of context, and not the perfectly preserved, unbiased word of God.

1. Some say that God implied it when he said וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם which implies ritual purity, i.e., refraining from sexual activity. Even according to this interpretation, however, this would imply that Moshe is translating his message for a specific audience in a specific time and place, and thus Torah would bear the imprint of historical context.

poverty compassion in the Shulchan Aruch

I’ve been learning hilchot kiddush in the Mishna Berurah and something that stands out to me is how thoroughly the halachic literature was willing to engage the b’dieved, especially in matters of poverty.

I was surprised when walking through the kiddush chapter (Siman 271: דיני קידוש על היין) that the third law jumps right into poverty. Look, Shabbat is expensive. You have to have, at a minimum, two loaves of bread, three cups of wine (don’t forget havdalah), and a nicer-than-average meal on both Friday night and Saturday midday. This can be a serious financial burden.

The Shulchan Aruch tells us:

אם אין ידו משגת לקנות יין לקידוש ולהכין צרכי סעודה לכבוד הלילה ולכבוד היום ולקידוש היום מוטב שיקנה יין לקידוש הלילה ממה שיכין צרכי הסעודה או ממה שיקנה יין לצורך היום

If one cannot afford to buy enough wine for kiddush and night, for a nice meal at night, for a nice meal at day, and wine for day–it’s better that they buy wine for nighttime kiddush using the money for everything else.

Here the halacha is engaging fully with the Jewish community which cannot afford to buy even a full bottle of wine for Shabbat.

And why does night time kiddush wine take highest priority? Because that is what ushers in a state of rest and joy. That is what allows you to feel that you are participating in Shabbat like everyone else. (The Mishna Berurah will clarify that this refers to a family which already has minimal meals for all of Shabbos. If they truly have no food, however, then basic food needs trump wine.)

Later in the section there is a lengthy, complicated law on what to do if you are entering Shabbat without enough wine for all 3 of the required cups:

אם אין לו אלא כוס אחד מקדש בו בלילה ואינו טועם ממנו שלא יפגימנו אלא שופך ממנו לכוס אחר וטועם יין של קידוש מהכוס השני ולמחר מקדש במה שנשאר בכוס ראשון ואם לא היה בו אלא רביעית בצמצום ונחסר ממנו בלילה מוזגו למחר להשלימו לרביעית והיינו דוקא כשיש לו כוס אחר להבדלה שאם לא כן מוטב שיניחנה להבדלה שאי אפשר בפת משיקדש עליו ולא יהא לו יין להבדלה ואם יש לו שני כוסות מצומצמים אחר מזיגה יקדש בלילה באחד ויבדיל על השני ולא יקדש ביום דקידוש הלילה עדיף

If you’ve only got one cup of wine: make kiddush over it at night, but instead of drinking directly out of the cup, pour it into a second cup and drink from that one.  Then, on Shabbat day, make kiddush over what remains in the first cup. If there isn’t at least a revi’it left, dilute it with water until you have enough.

This all applies in a case where you’ve still got a cup leftover to do havdalah. However, if you do not, it’s best to save your one cup of wine for havdalah, because after all if you had to, you could make kiddush on bread. Havdalah, however, you can’t make on bread.

And if you’re entering Shabbat with only two very minimal cups of wine even after diluting them with water, you should use one for kiddush at night and one for havdalah.

This is a source that is deeply invested in making Judaism possible for people, whatever their economic context.  What happens if we take this pitiful image of the poor Jew diluting down a single sip of wine into three cups and translate that into a modern dilemma.  Luckily, most Jews don’t struggle to buy a bottle of wine for Shabbat.  But some certainly do.  And many certainly struggle with more extravagant costs of Judaism.

What would it look like for Jews and halachic authorities today to be more invested in opening up Judaism for those without means?  What’s the procedure when we can’t afford to take off work on both Shabbat and holidays?  What’s the procedure when we can’t afford to send our children to day school and also save for their college education?

And I also wonder if this can be expanded beyond its economic implications.  The struggle facing most American Jews is not affording Judaism but having knowledge and skills to relate to it meaningfully.  Can we imagine a compassionate body of halachic literature that speaks to the Jewishly illiterate masses and disconnected masses:

If you only have enough ruach for part of Shabbat, it’s better that you dilute it down and make it last the whole time, rather than spend it all on Friday night.  Do some work on Saturday if that’ll get you to nightfall with a little kavvanah left.  If, even after diluting, you won’t be able to make it last, then it’s best to usher in Friday night with the ruach that you have, and go without on Saturday day.

wisdom from rav yosef (Bava Kamma 66b)


בבא קמא דף סו עמוד ב
האי מילתא קשי בה רבה לרב יוסף עשרין ותרתין שנין ולא איפרקה עד דיתיב רב יוסף ברישא ופרקה: שינוי השם כשינוי מעשה דמי שינוי מעשה
Bava Kama 66b
On this point Rabbah challenged Rav Yosef for 22 years and Rav Yosef couldn’t solve it until he ascended to the position of rosh yeshiva, and then he resolved it: a name change is like a physical change.

In the middle of a complicated sugya about ownership, Rabbah needles his colleague with a logical challenge, a kushiya. The full argument is beyond the scope of this post, but the background is grounded in theft.  If I steal from you, at what point does that stolen thing become mine?  If I steal your baby calf, tend to it and cause it to grow, and ten years pass–is that full grown cow mine?  If I steal your firewood and built a table, is that table mine?  The rabbis rule that a significant physical change to the object does in fact cause ownership change.  The thief may keep the new thing but he must pay back the owner for its value. While this may seem unfair, it is in the best interest of the victim as well as the thief.  The victim may very well not want the object back the thief has changed it.  If you turn my firewood into sawdust, I don’t really want the sawdust back.  It’s useless to me.

Rav Yosef spends 22 years mulling over a certain kushiya raised by Rabbah, but to no avail.  Meanwhile, he rises to a prestigious office with an impressive title, the rosh yeshiva.   Once he takes the reins as a leader, he suddenly solves the kushiya. It’s a eureka moment: a name change is like a physical change. That is, a name change constitutes a significant enough change to effect an ownership change.  Stealing an object and changing its name is as powerful as turning firewood into sawdust.  The thief acquires the object by changing its name.

From this brief episode, we learn two insights:

  1. Sometimes you need a little power to solve a problem.  I see this sometimes when people newly take on leadership.  Sometimes a quiet, ineffective person transforms upon the assumption of a title.  You don’t know what someone is capable of until you give them a chance in charge.
  2. Rav Yosef’s life informs his experience of halacha. He is paskaning from his personal experience.  He just received a name change himself. He knows how transformative this act is.  He was just plain old “Rav Yosef.”  Now he’s “Rosh Yeshiva.”  He’s a new man.

self-care: it’s not about you

Progressive communities talk a whole, whole lot about self-care. This is not a phrase you can hear in large swaths of the country. It’s found in urban, class-privileged communities where everyone goes to therapy to unpack the trauma of being a highly-educated, well-fed white person who has never been to war or seen physical violence.

I’m reminded of a scene from the YouTube sensation, “Shit (Young White, Class-Privileged, City-Based) Radical Queers Say to Each Other,” which is now unavailable:

A young woman is sitting in a bougie cafe, eating a $4 pastry. “I’ve been sitting in this cafe all day,” she says, “just thinking about capitalism.” She looks off, troubled. “I’m really going to have to do some self-care after this.”

I became acquainted with this phrase not in a therapist’s office but in day-to-day conversations, when people wanted to flake on a commitment, or impose their will on another, shirk a responsibility, waste resources they didn’t work for, or refuse to be a good friend in any myriad of ways, all while invoking the inviolable “self-care” excuse, leaving the receiver feeling shafted but without any recourse to address it, because, after all, self-care sounds like a really important thing.

And it is. Taking care of oneself is an important skill that takes a long time to cultivate, and some people never learn it. But what exactly is it?

I was once part of a therapy group where, at the end of every session, every person had to say one thing they would commit to doing for “self-care” later that day. If the facilitator felt that something we said didn’t meet the criteria of “self-care” she would prod us to find another answer. Examples of answers I gave which were rejected:

  • buy groceries
  • pay an overdue bill I’ve been worrying about
  • return a phone call from the doctor’s office
  • clean my room

By contrast, here are some answers my peers gave which were accepted:

  • eat a bowl of ice cream
  • watch a movie
  • go shopping

I don’t want to argue that any of the above can never be an act of self-care, but I do think that we way too often confuse self-care with self-indulgence, and that many things which we call “self-care” actually have the opposite effect. Taking care of your responsibilities and feeding yourself healthy food is self-care. Being lazy and eating junk food is probably not, unless you’re specifically cultivating those skills because you’re never able to do so for fun. (But let’s face it, most depressed Americans, like the ones in my therapy group, have no problem in those departments.)

What do Jewish sources have to say about self-care? Vayikra Rabbah, a source of midrash on the book of Leviticus, has a story to tell about it. It does this by weaving together two seemingly unrelated verses. The first one is:

ויקרא כה:לה

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ

Leviticus 25:35

If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side.

This verse is telling you how to treat a neighbor who becomes abjectly poor. The Torah then goes on to be more specific: lend them money at no interest, do not take them as a slave, hire them as a laborer, and do not rule over them harshly.

Then, a verse from the Book of Proverbs:

משלי יא:יז

גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ אִישׁ חָסֶד וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ אַכְזָרִי

Proverbs 11:17

The righteous benefits himself; the cruel brings on himself trouble.

It’s not totally clear what גמל נפשו means and thus the whole meaning of this proverb is somewhat ambiguous: Is the person righteous because he is taking care of himself? Or does being righteous cause benefit to come to you?

Vayikra Rabbah provides an interpretation by weaving the proverb together with the Torah verse and telling a story about them both:

יקרא רבה לד

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ הה”ד גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ אִישׁ חָסֶד זה הלל הזקן שבשעה שהיה נפטר מתלמידיו היה מהלך והולך עמם אמרו לו תלמידיו ר’ להיכן אתה הולך אמר להם לעשות מצוה אמרו לו וכי מה מצוה זו אמר להן לרחוץ בבית המרחץ אמרו לו וכי זו מצוה היא אמר להם הן מה אם איקונין של מלכים שמעמידים אותו בבתי טרטיאות ובבתי קרקסיאות מי שנתמנה עליהם הוא מורקן ושוטפן והן מעלין לו מזונות ולא עוד אלא שהוא מתגדל עם גדולי מלכות אני שנבראתי בצלם ובדמות דכתיב (בראשית ב, ו): “כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם” על אחת כמה וכמה

Vayikra Rabbah 14

“When your kinsmen is in straits” and “The merciful man does good to his own soul (Proverbs 11:17.)”

These verses refer to Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like regarding the statues of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in God’s Image and Form, should I not all the more so do likewise?”

If we look at the story on its own, we see Hillel calling self-care a mitzvah. He uses the image of Greek and Roman citizens meticulously cleaning statues of their emperors to explain his own act of visiting the bath houses. Since we were all created in God’s image, we are all basically little statues of God. Keeping our bodies clean is an act of honoring God.

On the one hand, I can see in Hillel a little of the radical queer needing self-care after sitting in a coffee shop all day. He too is sublimating a comparatively frivolous act. Instead of using psychotherapy babble, however, he uses theology.

On the other hand, however, Hillel radically inverts the model of self-care. For one thing, as Hillel explains to his students, self-care isn’t really about you. For Hillel, it’s about being a good citizen in God’s world. For another thing, and much more dramatically, the verse from Leviticus which is enmeshed in this midrash reframes the entire passage.

On the surface, the verse from Leviticus on which this entire midrash hangs seems strange. It’s not explicitly linked in the midrash, and we’re left to wonder what on earth the destitute kinsmen has to do with Hillel going to the bathhouse. Here’s the thing: Taking care of yourself is what enables you to take care of others. You cannot offer help to others effectively if your own needs are not being met. Furthermore, how well you take care of yourself might actually dictate how well you think others deserve to be taken care of. I think that’s what this midrash is actually trying to tell us. Self-care isn’t about you. It’s about being a good citizen in your community and standing ready to catch others who may fall.

This, perhaps, leads us to a conclusion that will be unsatisfying at times. Is it always about the other person? Would it be so wrong to say that taking care of others is actually preparation for taking care of yourself?

Well, no. I actually think that’s also the point of this midrash. Hillel is, after all, encouraging his students to visit the bathhouses. For some of us, self-care is really difficult and we will do it only with extreme reluctance. I think that’s part of why the midrash’s linking of these two verses is very apt. We are being reminded to treat ourselves at least as well as we would treat a loved one in distress.

The dual nature of this midrash is extremely reminiscent of that of a more famous passage, ואהבת לרעך כמוך (you shall love your neighbor as yourself.) The verb here could be read as either a command (“thou shalt love”) or simply as a future tense (“you will love.”) For those of us who love ourselves very much, the passage is a clear command: love others at least that much. For those of who struggle to love ourselves, the passage is a dire warning: you will only find yourself able to love others as much as you love yourself. The verse is telling those people to love themselves, because it’s ultimately not about them.

that’s so sad, abba (kiddushin 13b)

Every Wednesday night I find myself among peyos and black clothes, a melodious din of old men’s voices, a steady hum of their insights into theoretical laws written by men thousands of years ago: a local kollel.

The rabbi is just friendly enough. He smiles and shakes my hand, but never asks about my personal life. It’s better for us that way.

Tonight we straggle in one by one from the cold, rainy day outside. He hands out large, lopsided photocopies of a daf he’s chosen for the night’s lesson. The printer had selected the oversize paper. He didn’t bother to correct it.

I think of the words of a rav at my more modern yeshiva just a few blocks away, where I’ve spent the entire day learning. “What really separates us from those to the right,” he told us, “is not our mitzvot-observance, or our level of learning, or even our politics. It’s our aesthetic.”

I thought of all the apartments I’ve rented from YU boys: the filing cabinets doubling as a coffee table, the suitcase full of dirty clothes under the couch, the unopened junk mail mixed in with the tupperware, and nothing on the walls. I had nodded as our own rav (shirt tucked in, matching shoes) had said this.

He used the word “aesthetic” but of course that’s just the surface of something deeper: an unwillingness to be influenced by a system of values outside the Torah. That halacha and morality do not have a perfect 1:1 correlation has always been obvious to me. That same sentence would be repugnant to those to the right of me.

Photocopy in hand, turning my head sideways to get the image straight, I nod again. There is a sefer in this beit midrash which contains the rules of making a photocopy, down to almost the same obsessive detail as the array of sources which tell you how to put on tefillin: the user’s manual. But it’s been collecting dust in an unopened drawer next to the photocopier for a generation now.

A few other students come in behind me. As the teacher passes around a grocery bag full of highlighters, we take our seats at a table in the middle of the kollel.

We read the gemara line by line.

“What’s this step?” he asks us. “A question or an answer?”

“A question,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Now, is it a challenge question or an information question?”

I don’t know. As in life, it’s not always possible to tell the difference.

“An information question,” says the red-haired boy next to me.

“Yes,” the rabbi agrees. We color the line orange.

We are learning gemara skills, basic for this crowd of life-long learners, expert-level compared to my home community of Reform Jews who stumble sounding out a line from the prayers. Seated at my table are a handful of other students, mostly from non-Orthodox backgrounds. We stand out in this kollel, haltingly reading and translating gemara as the men around us speak the language of the Sages fluently. But I know the difference between us is not really the text skills. It’s the photocopy.

We are learning a sugya about yevamot, a complicated halachic discussion dedicated to drawing that very thin line between mitzvah and incest. In the ancient world, you see, a man could be required to marry his dead brother’s wife if certain conditions are met. If those conditions are not met, however, he is not only exempt from marrying her, but absolutely forbidden to under the strict rules which govern sexual immorality.

We come to a shocking question.

The rabbi asks us, “How do we know that the living brother can fulfill his obligation by raping the widow?”

I blink.

He’s asking an information question. But the question challenges our entire project, threatening to condemn every leather bound book being turned over in the soft, never-worked hands of all these men around us.

A Talmudic commentary on the margin of the page points us to a gezerah shava, a technical move the gemara frequently makes. We find a textual proof for our question…and that’s how we know that the living brother can fulfill his obligation by raping the widow.

“Rabbi,” the red-haired boy ventures. “Do you find it troubling that the gemara just proved that rape can be a mitzvah?”

“No,” he answers, without any particular tone in his voice. “Why would I find that troubling?”

The student shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Well,” he starts again. “It seems like the Torah is saying that it’s right to rape her.”

“Oh,” the rabbi exclaims in surprise. “You’re asking an ethical question.”

I look back and forth between the rabbi and the red-haired boy. It takes a cultural gap wider than text skills for this misunderstanding to have happened. Our teacher thought he had been asked a textual question, “Was this proof good enough?” He had missed the note of incredulity and fear in the student’s voice, the obvious challenge behind his question.

“The truth is,” the rabbi continues, “I don’t really think of questions like those.”

In a rare moment of candor, he tells us a story.

“The other day I was learning mishna with my son. The mishna was talking about a case where a woman marries a man who immediately dies, then another man who immediately dies, and so on, ten times in a row. My son interrupts and goes, ‘Abba, that’s so sad!’ It was jarring to me. I would have never thought of that. You know what? It was sad.”

He looks off in the distance for a moment, lost in thought.

“Line 33,” he suddenly continues. “Is this a question or an answer?”

one may not enter a ruin to pray (Berachot 3b)

On Berachot 3b, we encounter a sugya that is near and dear to my heart, that of Rabbi Yosei entering the ruins.

תניא א”ר יוסי פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך ונכנסתי לחורבה אחת מחורבות ירושלים להתפלל בא אליהו זכור לטוב ושמר לי על הפתח <והמתין לי> עד שסיימתי תפלתי לאחר שסיימתי תפלתי אמר לי שלום עליך רבי ואמרתי לו שלום עליך רבי ומורי ואמר לי בני מפני מה נכנסת לחורבה זו אמרתי לו להתפלל ואמר לי היה לך להתפלל בדרך ואמרתי לו מתיירא הייתי שמא יפסיקו בי עוברי דרכים ואמר לי היה לך להתפלל תפלה קצרה באותה שעה למדתי ממנו שלשה דברים למדתי שאין נכנסין לחורבה ולמדתי שמתפללין בדרך ולמדתי שהמתפלל בדרך מתפלל תפלה קצרה

“It was taught: Rabbi Yosei said, “One time I was walking along the road and I entered a certain ruin among the ruins of Jerusalem in order to pray. Elijah, of blessed memory, came and guarded over me at the entrance. He waited for me until I finished my prayer. ‘Peace be upon you,’ he greeted me. ‘Peace be upon you, my rabbi and teacher,’ I responded. ‘For what reason did you enter this ruin?’ he asked. ‘To pray,’ I responded. ‘You could have prayed along the road,’ he said to me. ‘I was afraid that other travelers would interrupt me.’ ‘Then you should have recited an abbreviated prayer,’ he said. And in that moment I learned three things from Elijah: I learned that one may not enter a ruin, that one may pray along the road, and that one who prays along the road may recite an abbreviated prayer.”

I first encountered the story of Rabbi Yosei and the ruins of Jerusalem about seven years ago.  I was in my early twenties and had grown irritated with Judaism. I craved a stronger identification with tradition but felt blocked from it by my female body. My rabbi at the time had suggested the balm of Judith Plaskow and the local Rosh Hodesh group. But the more I tried to make peace with my female body through feminism, the more split in two I felt. On the one hand, I agreed with everything feminism said to me. On the other hand, it wasn’t really speaking to me at all. Having a very limited understanding of “transgender,” I lacked the words with which to articulate my distress any further.

That summer my rabbi arranged for me to have a phone conversation with Rachel Adler, whose works he had recommended. I didn’t have a long distance plan so I asked a friend to use his house phone to call California. He assumed I had a job interview. I was too embarrassed to say that I was having a religious crisis instead.

I was hoping a one-to-one conversation with the right feminist-minded clergy would clear up the chafing I was feeling between the hope I had for a just and loving God and the fact of my female body. It didn’t.

Locked in a friend’s bedroom and whispering into the receiver, I lacked the insight to pose the right questions and Adler lacked the clairvoyance to answer them. We ended the conversation without me having found the conclusion I was seeking, and the dial tone brought a twinge of pain. At that time in my life, I had felt that my female body had no value, and that the more I sought out feminism, the vaguer my discomfort grew. I could accept the principles of feminist ideology, but I couldn’t shake my deep hatred for my gender. This paradox frustrated me, and I was growing depressed.

Years after the conversation with Adler I would find the insight to parse my dilemma into its two complicated pieces: I felt uncomfortable in the female role both because the patriarchy regards females with little value, and also because I am transgender. Feminism had the answer for only one of those problems.

Adler, whose specialty was not pastoral care, spent an hour on the phone with me that summer afternoon, trying to help. She quoted to me the story of Rabbi Yosei and Elijah. She told me that patriarchal Judaism was a ruin and that one must not enter a ruin to pray. She quoted from the following lines.

בני מה קול שמעת בחורבה זו ואמרתי לו שמעתי בת קול שמנהמת כיונה ואומרת אוי לבנים שבעונותיהם החרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין האומות ואמר לי חייך וחיי ראשך לא שעה זו בלבד אומרת כך אלא בכל יום ויום שלש פעמים אומרת כך

[Elijah asked,] ‘My son, what voice did you hear in this ruin?’ I said that I heard a bat kol, a heavenly voice, cooing like a dove, and it said, ‘Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I wrecked my house, burned my temple, and exiled them among the nations.’ And Elijah said to me, ‘By God, that voice cries out like that three times a day every day, not just at the moment [in which you heard it]!’

Adler advised me that although it is true that one may hear an echo of God in the ruins of obsolete theology, it is still forbidden to enter. There are echoes of God everywhere. You pray from the road that you’re on. It’d take me years after this conversation to encounter the sugya again, this time with reading it as a transgender man with a hevruta who was with me throughout the transition.  The story hadn’t moved me the first time around.  But this time the words came through loud and clear:  “Do not enter a ruin.  Pray from the road you’re on.”

Whether the ruins are second wave feminism, patriarchal Judaism, or any other falling institution, I stopped entering them a long time ago. The bat kol, the echo of truth, that still rings out from the ruins is not precious enough to risk my life for.  I’ve heard you, Elijah.

the time I almost received a beating in a Target bathroom (Berachot 8a)

The Rabbis ask what Psalm 32 meant when it said, “לעת מצא,” the time of finding.

We reject a number of possibilities:

אמר רבי חנינא: לעת מצא–זו אשה
רבי נתן אומר: לעת מצא–זו תורה
רב נחמן אמר: לעת מצא–זו מיתה
רבי יחונן רמר: לעת מצא–זו קבורה

Says Rabbi Hanina: ‘The time of finding’–that refers to finding a wife.
Rabbi Natan says: ‘The time of finding’–that refers to finding Torah.
Rav Nachman says: ‘The time of finding’–that refers to finding death.
Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘The time of finding’–that refers to finding a burial place.

All these possibilities are rejected. Comes another rabbi to solve the riddle:

מר זוטרא אמר: לעת מצא–זה בית הכסא
אמרי במערבא: הא דמר זוטרא עדיפא מכלהו

Mar Zutra says: ‘The time of finding’–that refers to finding a bathroom.
And in the Land of Israel, the sages say: Mar Zutra’s answer is preferable to them all.

Sometimes finding a safe bathroom is challenging. In the days when I didn’t reliably pass as male, I was never sure whether I’d face more resistance using the men’s room or the women’s room. I’ve been yelled at by strangers–sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not–in both rooms.

Now, years into transition, there’s no doubt that the men’s room is the right place for me. This isn’t without incident, however.

The stalls don’t always have doors. Sometimes the stalls are occupied. Sometimes it’s awkward to enter a crowded men’s room, go into the stall, pull down my pants, simply pee, and leave.  And then there’s the issue of quietly–very quietly–tearing toilet paper, hoping no one is listening to what I’m doing.  Sometimes I’m not quiet enough.

I learned to be quiet tearing toilet paper the hard way. Once, early in transition, I found myself in a Target bathroom unexpectedly. Like everyone, transgender or not, I avoid public restrooms but this time I was hit by the wrong combination of traffic and coffee. And when you gotta go, you gotta go.

I didn’t really pass yet, but I was more often yelled at in the women’s room. So I rolled the dice and went to the men’s room.

There was one other man there using a urinal. I walked past him to enter a stall. I didn’t pay any attention to him, and I assumed he wasn’t paying any attention to me. I was wrong.

Inside the stall I did what trans men normally do.

I sat down, urinated, and tore a piece of toilet paper.

It was then that I noticed that an unnatural silence had fallen on the bathroom. Through the cracks of the stall I could see a single blue eye. He was staring at me. It was a cold, hard gaze.

I thought at first that I was misinterpreting the situation. The crack between the door and the stall was wide. Maybe he wasn’t intentionally looking. I stayed in the stall, sitting, with my pants down, feeling vulnerable, and hoping to fool him into thinking I was just doing what all men do when they sit down.

But his stare didn’t let up.

I looked away, tried to be natural, tried to think, “What would a cis man do?” The answer: keep pooping?  Yes, that’s what a cis man would do, I decided.  That wasn’t why I sat down, but I was ready to give myself a hemorrhoid faking it.

Finally, a minute or two later, I heard the bathroom door open and close. I looked up. The icy blue eye was gone.


I flushed, pulled up my pants, and exited the stall.

Then I saw him.

He was still there.

Standing by the door.

He had opened and closed it to fool me.

He was young, large, in charge, and blocking the exit.

Every scene from Boys Don’t Cry flashed through my mind at once. I was trapped. I looked into the abyss of violence in a Target bathroom, and it looked right back through two mean, merciless eyes.

Suddenly the door flung open again.

An employee, oblivious to the scene he interrupted, walked in, roll of paper towels in one hand, mop in the other. The other young man left and I never saw him again.

I washed my shaking hands thoroughly, far too thoroughly, dried them on the fresh roll of paper towels, and thought, “Mar Zutra, you were onto something.”

Look! No, Don’t! The Dilemma of Stealth

Before I came to Jerusalem to learn, I hadn’t planned on being rigorously stealth.

But there wasn’t a box for me on the application.

And no one asked.

So I didn’t tell anyone.

Sometimes I assume people can tell by looking.

But sometimes it seems like no one knows.

Mostly, this feels good. I don’t second guess anyone’s intentions. They’re not overcompensating when they call me “dude.” If a male teacher didn’t shake my hand, it’s just because he didn’t feel like it. If my host didn’t ask me to lead bentching, it wasn’t personal. I don’t have to worry about these little things that would be adding up and taking a toll if I were out.  And for the most part, not disclosing feels fine ethically.

But sometimes I have to go a step further than not-disclosing, and that is starting to feel weird.  I’ve been wiggling out of direct questions a lot lately:

“If your family is secular, how did you end up with a Jewish name?”
(Me: “Sometimes it just happens that way.”)

“Have you ever had long hair? Really?? When?”
(Me: “Just a phase I went through…”)

“Are your ears pierced?”
(Me: “Yep, another phase, I guess.”)

“Why do you care so much about egalitarianism?”
(Me: “Hard to say.”)

This year has been an experiment in stealth. Mostly, I love it. It takes a lot of anxieties off the table and frees up my mind to think about other things.  It saves my peers and teachers, most of whom have not interacted with other transgender people, from saying something out of ignorance that would damage our relationship.  And it saves me the pain of hearing it.

But it also creates the need to be evasive and vague at times, especially when asked direct questions that have no good answer without saying, “You know I’m transgender, right?”  And it gets in the way of forming meaningful relationships with others, if I can’t honestly speak about the first 20 or so years of my life in anything but superficial terms.

Yiscah Smith came earlier in the semester and gave a reading of her book 40 Years in the Wilderness. I arranged to be a few minutes late so that she wouldn’t thank me in front of everyone for inviting her. I was afraid if people knew I was the one who invited her to speak that I’d be outed. At the same time, I wanted to be in the conversation with my peers, talking about transition, and seeing their reactions.

This is part of a mental push/pull that’s been going on since I’ve been here–aptly described in Jamison Green’s essay, “Look! No, Don’t! The Visibility Dilemma for Transsexual Men.”

This past week I swore there was another FTM in the beit midrash.  The person was visiting and, from across the room, I sized up all the signs I know too well: torso length, hand size, fat distribution, brow ridge, and the subtle cues of socialization (saying “sorry!” a lot, for one.)  And the strongest one of them all: making eye contact with me for a beat too long.  We nodded at each other.

Then I second-guessed myself.  Am I so lacking in comradery that I’m imagining this?

By luck we wound up in the bathroom at the same time.  We didn’t speak but I heard the evidence.  Pee, toilet paper tearing, flush.  We washed our hands side by side in silence.

The glee of being right was erased by the realization that I just found comradery through the sound of someone else’s urine.

I made a mental note to remember this at the end of the year, when I look back on this experiment in stealth, and consider whether to stick with it going forward.