Tattooed Jew

I read today that Egypt has closed the last remaining working synagogue in the country — Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria (you can check out the article for yourself here). I can’t find anything about it on the major news sources (NY Times, Huffington Post, etc.) so I’m holding out judgment on whether it’s true or not. That said, I’m not sure that the truth or lack thereof matters, in some fairly significant ways.

I can’t remember the last time a news story made me cry. There are news stories that break my heart. There are news stories that make me sick to my stomach. But this is the first time in a long time that a story has actually made tears come to my eyes.

I am trying to imagine an entire country in which there is no working synagogue. I’m trying to imaging an entire country in which no synagogue gathers to blow the shofar for Rosh Hashanah, in which no congregations gather to atone on Yom Kippur. I’m imagining no little boys running through the synagogue halls, and no little girls trying on their parent’s kippot.

Just the imagining breaks my heart.

It feels like a death to me, and my instinct is to turn to the Kaddish.

It’s what we do when someone we love dies. We rend our garments. We sit shiva – the mourners receiving visitors in order to make up the minyan needed to pray the Mourner’s Kaddish. We pray. And pray. And pray. For seven days. For seven days we sit shiva.

This is what I want to do – I want to sit shiva for a synagogue that may or may not have closed, because the reality is that synagogues are closed. Mosques are destroyed. Churches are burned down. Politics and fear, hatred and confusion, fundamentalism and rigidity so often rule the day. Faiths fight against each other. Faiths fight within each other. Houses of G…d die every day. So what I want is to sit shiva and pray the Kaddish.

Because the Kaddish tells us something so important.

Read it.

The Kaddish doesn’t talk about death. It doesn’t talk about mourning. It doesn’t talk about sorrow or pain. It talks about the glory of G…d. It talks about peace from Heaven and life upon the people.

It is good and right and just to talk about these things. People mourn. People feel sorrow. I feel sorrow even at the thought of this synagogue closing. But the Kaddish reminds us that there is more. We sit shiva for seven days because then we must stop. We must get up and live our lives. We must remember that the world continues. We pray the Kaddish to remind us of the glory of G…d, even in the midst of our grief.

I don’t mean this to brush away the (questionable) closing of Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. Truth or not it is painful. Truth or not, the story represents some very real fears about the nature of separatism, religion, politics, and fundamentalism.

But the period of shiva ends. We will mourn and we will move on. The shofar will blow. Children will run. Little girls will try on their parents’ kippot. In Egypt, the prayers for Yom Kippur will be prayed. Faith endures. In small places. In small ways. In new synagogues. In new families.

Faith endures past the mourning.

Ok, I like to think I’m fairly smart. I know I’m not Einstein or Foucault or Tessla, but I generally can read the news and understand what’s going on. But I do not understand Tom Smith, GOP Senate candidate. When asked, at the Pennsylvania Press Club, about his views on abortion and rape, he mentioned that he had gone through a similar situation, comparing pregnancy from a rape to having a child out of wedlock (see the video here).

I’m trying to give Mr. Smith the benefit of the doubt and believe that this was a poorly thought out, spur of the moment answer, and that what he really meant was simply that a baby is a product of both instances, end similarity. I want to believe that this is what he wanted to say. I want to believe that he sees no similarity between fooling around in the back of a Chevy and being raped other than that sperm and egg may come together in either case.

He asks us to see the situations from a father’s point of view, so that we will understand how they are similar. I have to say, I asked my father and it would never occur to him to attribute any similarities to the two situations. It would NEVER come out of his mouth. So regardless of whether Mr. Smith’s comment was thought out or not, I have to wonder about a man who could have these words come out of his mouth.

Judaism teaches powerful messages on the damage that speech can do. There are intense debates on what kind of speech is damaging and under what circumstances a certain kind of speech may be said. We have names for types of wrong speech — Lashon hara (for derogatory speech about another person), hotzatt shem (spreading lies about a person), rechilut (gossiping) to name a few.

Now, Mr. Smith’s speech does not clearly fall into any of these categories, but that does not mean it isn’t damaging, whether he intended it to be or not. To put out there this comparison means being responsible for the ways in which it harms. It means understanding that some women are going to see this as a suggestion that they are culpable in the event of their own rape, just as they might be if they had pre-marital intercourse. It means understanding the fear that has been put into the hearts of girls and women who are already struggling to approach their own fathers about their situations.

However much I agree or disagree with Mr. Smith, I cannot believe that these are things he meant to have happen. I cannot believe a father would intentionally put fear into the hearts of other men’s daughters. I cannot believe he intended to do the harm he did.

For the most part, none of us do. When we speak, we mean to be funny. We speak off the cuff. We throw out thoughts without thinking of the consequences. We are snarky and sarcastic, because it makes people laugh. We don’t think about who might over hear us, about who we are harming with our little jokes and ill-conceived statements. Harder than the kosher laws, harder than the Sabbath requirements — the requirements of right speech call us to parse every word, to imagine every consequence. Over and over again, we fail at these tasks.

The joy of right speech though, is that we are constantly given another go at getting it right. We can improve every time we open our mouths. Every day, every hour, every minute that we speak we are given an opportunity to guard our tongues, think before speaking, and anticipate the pain we might be causing others.

I’m not sure why Mr. Smith said what he said, and I am sorry that his ill-spoken comment will cause the damage it is causing — both to Mr. Smith himself, and to the people who heard and are dealing with it. But in some ways I am glad. It is a reminder towards right speech that we all deeply need, and one I hope Mr. Smith (along with the rest of us) will take deeply to heart.


I despise the language of war. We use it all the time — a war on drugs, a war on women’s bodies, attacks on this, attacks on that. We draw lines. We pick sides. We approach politics and religion like the other side is an enemy combatant that we must defeat. In general, I find this kind of language counterproductive and alienating (in the best of circumstances) and destructive and soul-killing at the worst of times.

That said, I’ve been reading the news this week, and I have to believe that I am not alone in having moments where I am incredibly happy that I cannot be fruitful and multiply. I have to believe that I am not alone in wondering if we — and by we I mean every woman on the planet — are under attack and should arm ourselves for war.

Here’s what I’ve read this week: GOP Senate candidate Tom Smith say says that, for father, having a daughter become pregnant because of a rape is similar to a daughter having a child out of wedlock. VP wannabe Paul Ryan has refered to rape as a method of conception. Todd Akin has explained to the nation that a woman cannot become pregnant because during a “legitimate rape”, the body shuts of those abilities (the baby making ones). Add to this the man who told me, personally, that if a woman was a good wife, her husband wouldn’t have to hit her. Add to it the man who told a friend of mind that she wouldn’t be gay if she would just let him knock her up so she could feel the joy of “rightful sexuality in order to procreate”. Add to that the millions of girls who, every day, are told by policemen and judges and fathers and brothers that they shouldn’t have been where they were, wearing what they wore, smelling like they smelled if they didn’t want something bad to happen to them.

I hate the language of war, but  it is becoming more and more clear that we are under attack. The question is what do we do about it? How do we arm ourselves?

When I first converted, I chose the name Rachel Ruth as my name in synagogue. I couldn’t imagine more impressive role models than these women. But they weren’t fighters. While they did what needed to be done, I have a hard time picturing either of these two women taking up sword and shield. It wasn’t their role. It wasn’t what they were called to be, to do.

I love these women, deeply and truly.

But as I think about war, as I think about protecting my body and my rights, the rights of any daughters I might bring into my family one day, and the rights of my beautiful nieces, I find myself turning more and more to a different kind of woman. It worries me. It worries me that the imagery in my head this week has been that of Yael driving a tent peg through the head of Sisera.

Is this what being a woman is going to come to — finding the (metaphorical) tent pegs that we can drive into the politicians who are attacking us? Will we have to be ever at the ready, as Yael was, so that when our enemies are sleeping, we can do what must be done? How do we even begin to arm ourselves against an enemy that is so all-encompassing? Because it isn’t just religion. It isn’t just politics. It isn’t just patriarchy. It’s religion AND politics AND patriarchy, and everywhere a woman’s body goes, the power belongs to these groups.

I don’t like thinking of my body as a battleground. I don’t have the vocabulary to fight this as a war. But Rachel and Ruth aren’t always enough in the world. Sometimes we have to pour out the milk, wait for the enemy to be sleeping, and remember that in every woman’s body is also a Yael waiting to do what must be done.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love words. I love languages. I love the nuance and grammar and all of those things that were so boring when we had to learn them in grade school. It’s this love that has dictated so many of my tattoos, and which brings me to this blog today. I mentioned in my first writing for Tattooed Jew that I believe tattoos can be holy conversations — that, like so many other things, we must begin to move past a reading of what they say to an understanding of what they mean.

Yesterday, I was working and, as usual, someone asked about the tattoo on my arm. He asked what it meant. It seems a little thing, and if you aren’t used to being asked daily what your tattoos say, it probably is a little thing. But he didn’t ask what it said. He asked what it meant.

It seems like semantics, and maybe to him it was. But to me it was a huge thing. There is such a large difference between what something says and what it means. To tell what something says is simple. It’s a matter of translation and literacy. But to say what something means – that is a matter of history and context, of the nuance of definition and the intention of the author.

This is why the Jewish tradition has the commentaries it has, why the Talmud was written and why Responsa are still being written. Meaning is variable. It is deeper than the definition of a given word. It changes with time and space and circumstance. To read Torah and take it for the surface meaning is only one level of understanding. One must go deeper to fully appreciate and understand the meaning of a word, much less the meaning of a whole passage. With language, I believe, what is said is only the bones, while what is meant is the heart and soul of the passage.

We live in a world in which holy texts are so often taken for what they say. We read literally. We find justification for our hatreds, our fears, and our fanaticism in the words on the page. We live our religions and our faiths playing only with the bones. It is an intimate thing to say what a passage, a tattoo, or a text means. Refusing to read beyond the bones of a text is a rejection of the few moments of intimacy we are granted with the Divine.