October 23, 2019

Our Father, Our King: Divine Masculinity on Rosh Hashanah

By Rabbi Wendy Amsellem and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

Editor’s note: This blog post is one in an occasional series that will explore rabbinic teachings of positive masculinity. 

Speaking about masculinity today, in a favorable way, is so tricky that it is often easier not to discuss it. On Rosh Hashanah however, when so much masculine G-d language is deployed, it’s impossible to ignore it. G-d is a father, a king, a stern and exacting male judge. Our reluctance to discuss positive masculinity only contributes to the paucity of proper role models. Perhaps our discomfort with the language can be channeled into a form of repentance by assiduously exploring the ways that G-d models appropriate masculinity.

The first truth that men must accept, before they can learn any positive masculinity from G-d, is that they, themselves, are not gods. G-d is rightfully at the center of the world, but men have traditionally concluded, in error, that the world revolves around them. G-d sits in judgment of humans but it is not our place to judge others. Getting past this absurd arrogance is a precondition to being able to learn how G-d’s interactions with people can serve as a productive model.

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah relates that Rabbi Chama b’Rabbi Chanina said: “You shall walk after the Lord your G-d”(Deuteronomy 4:24); but is it possible for a person to walk after the Divine Presence? Is it not written, “For the Lord your G-d is a consuming fire? Rather follow the attributes of G-d, G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts mourners, and buries the dead.”

G-d demonstrates a caring and compassionate way of interacting with the world and we are meant to learn from those actions. The Petach Anayim, an 18th century mystical work by Chaim Yossi David Azulai (the Chida) reads the verse of “You shall walk after the Lord your G-d” as teaching that when we emulate the 13 attributes of mercy we must start after the ones which are names of G-d. By this the Chida means that we should adopt G-d’s merciful behavior without ever daring to think that we might actually be called to occupy the space that is G-d’s alone. 

The false promise offered in the garden by the snake on the first Rosh Hashanah was just that: “Eat and then you will be like G-d” (Genesis 3:5). After the sin, eight verses later, we hear: “The serpent deceived me – השיאני”. At least then there was clarity of the mistake. The rabbis point out that the Hebrew word used here for deception has the same letters as “יש אני” (there is – I) to teach that the snake tempted us by convincing us that we could be in the place of G-d. Consequently, we ruined certain dynamics of our relationship with G-d by not seeing G-d for who G-d really is.

In the mystical tradition, through this sin we defiled the letter daled – ד, which represents dalos – humility in G-d’s names of Sha-die שד-י and Ado-ni אדנ-י, leaving just yesh יש (there is) and ani אני (I). 

This month of Elul corresponds to the tribe of Gad גד. Their tribal position was at the front line when the nation went to battle. The stone that represented Gad in the High Priest’s breastplate was the achalmah (amethyst) אחלמה, that was meant to inspire courage to continue advancing the cause. The tribe of Gad גד also represents a unique blend of confidence and humility. The ג by itself, stands for גיאות, arrogant pride, but coupled with the aforementioned ד of modesty, it creates the necessary awareness of human vulnerability to be present as self, but not for self.

Hillel, who the Talmud testifies was exceedingly humble, said it best: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. But if I am only for myself what am I – אם אין אני לי מי לי.” Perhaps this is the intention of Elul as אני לדודי: the “I” must go and belong to G-d, the true Beloved. 

Like the tribe of Gad, we must have the courage to continue the struggle against toxic masculinity. By remembering that all of our actions must be for G-d (and not in the place of G-d), we can end the apathy towards the mentality that boys will be boys.

G-d’s forcefulness and strength are emphasized in the high holiday prayers. But G-d’s might is used to protect the vulnerable. G-d has great emotional range, power, and agency – but we emphasize that G-d would prefer to forgive than to be angry. G-d uses G-d’s power to elevate, inspire, and empower others, not to grind them down. We can learn from G-d’s attributes how to be better men and better humans. As we engage this Rosh Hashanah, let us pray for the courage and grace to find a more favorable form of being.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)






Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. 


Prayers to Open the Heart and Soul for the High Holy Days

Editor’s Note: To prepare for the High Holy Days, Fresh Ideas reprints five prayers, some unique to Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidrey and Yom Kippur liturgy and some that are used during both the high holy days and during the year, from Marcia Falk’s book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. In her book, Falk recreates the holiday’s key prayers from an inclusive perspective, often accompanying them with quotes from the Psalms and prophets.

Lighting the Candles for Rosh Hashana

Rise up, shine for your light is here. — Isaiah 60:1


May our hearts be lightened, 

our spirits born anew


as we light the holiday candles

and greet the newborn year.


Blessing the Children

The squares of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing. — Zechariah 8:5


(The child’s name) —


Be who you are, 

and may you be blessed 

in all that you are.


Fruit of the Tree: Apples and Honey

The trees of the field

Will give forth their fruit. 

— Leviticus 26:14


Go, eat choice foods

and drink sweet drinks

and send portions to those

who have not provided for themselves, 

for the day is holy. 

— Nehemiah 8:10


Let us bless the source of life

that swells the tree’s fruit with sweetness.


May the year be sweet as apples dipped in honey

and full as the ripe pomegranate

with blessings.


Tallit: Prayer Shawl

Wrapped in a robe of light,

Spreading the skies like a canopy.

-Psalms 104:2


Enveloped in light, I wrap around me

the widespread wings of the tallit. 


Kol Nidrey: All Vows

All vows —

all promises and pledges —


that we have made to ourselves

and that no longer serve

for the good — 


may their grip be loosened


that we be present of mind and heart

to the urgency of the hour.


The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (HBI Series on Jewish Women) by Marcia Falk, makes a great holiday gift or addition to your Jewish library. For more information on the prayers included, visit Brandeis University Press

Blog compiled by Amy Powell, HBI Assistant Director


The Israel Museum Acquires “The Israel Trail Procession”

By Amy Powell

The Israel Trail Procession, a video work by Ayelet Carmi and Meirav Heiman, most recently shown at HBI’s Kniznick Gallery, was just acquired by The Israel Museum, a top tourist site in Jerusalem, attracting over 900,000 visitors per year. 

The work depicts more than 50 people in a procession over parts of the Israel Trail, but with one important caveat: no one is touching the ground. 

Aya Miron, curator of the The David Orgler Israeli Art Department of the Israel Museum, described the work as “a monumental video installation” that shows mostly women and children “connected to tools and apparatuses designed especially for this work, rendering the act of walking particularly challenging” and resembling a “peculiar carnival or ritual procession.”

The museum, one of encyclopedic content, acquired the work because they consider it important, especially to the sorts of issues and questions Israelis face today, Miron said.

It addresses questions of place, belonging, tribalism, and the refugee experience. These issues are central in today’s social, geo-political, and cultural discourse both in Israel and around the world,” Miron said. 

Carmi and Heiman’s exhibition One Foot Planted, featured video works The Israel Trail Procession, Sphere, and other work at HBI’s Kniznick Gallery between February and June. In their first American exhibition, the Brandeis community and public heard from the artists about the origins of their work as independent artists and then as collaborators. Carmi also spoke about her childhood on a kibbutz and some of the parades and festivals there as an influence on the work. 

Each year, HBI brings one show, through an open call, that highlights the mission of promoting fresh ideas about Jews and gender. For the last two exhibitions, HBI selected Israeli artists whose work was acquired by major art museums after the HBI exhibitions. Three pieces from last year’s exhibit, A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women by artist Tamar Paley, were acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for their Judaica collection.

Susan Metrican, Rosalie and Jim Shane Curator of the Kniznick Gallery, said, “It is a tremendous honor and accomplishment for an artist to have work acquired by a major museum. We are beyond thrilled to have exhibited work by emerging artists that has gotten the attention of both the MFA and the Israel Museum. We’re also proud to have brought such incredible work to Brandeis and to the Boston community. These acquisitions certainly bolster the mission of HBI and the HBI Artist Program, and hopefully will bring more attention to the work taking place here.” 

Carmi and Heiman are thrilled to see their work get such a wide audience. 

“This work deals with a lot of Israeli politics. It’s not easy work and the Israel Museum and their curator felt that it was important work to put into the collection. It’s a privilege to us,”  Carmi said. 

“Sometimes movement becomes so difficult. We are talking about the problematic aspects of living in Israel and dealing with Israel. Walking the land is supposed to be the easiest thing to do — you put one foot in front of another. We chose something so symbolic, the Israel Trail, from one side of Israel to another — something that is so epic — and we show how difficult it is to walk.”

Miron said The Israel Trail Procession “creates a thought-provoking connection between the Israel Trail and the Israel Museum. They both blend history and culture in both general and contemporary contexts. The Israel Trail is connected to many other hiking routes, just as the Israel Museum offers endless and varied paths of exploration throughout its encyclopedic campus.”

Carmi noted that the artwork gives a struggle to each person depicted and asks the important questions, “What will we do for this land? What is worth doing for this land? ”

Amy Powell is assistant director of HBI.


Ending Gendered Hebrew, Expanding Jewish Identity

By Rachel Levy

In the Fall of 2017, Eyal Rivlin—an Israeli born Hebrew professor at Colorado University at Boulder—received an email from a student asking to matriculate into a Hebrew class. At the bottom of the student’s email, in the signature line, Rivlin noticed “they/them” pronouns, indicating that Lior Gross, his new student, did not identify within the gender binary. In Hebrew, nearly all words are conjugated in a feminine or masculine form, depending on the gender of the speaker. Unlike in English, where “they/them” is gender neutral, Hebrew has a masculine “they”—אתםֹ—and a feminine “they”—אתן, leaving no pronoun option for Hebrew speakers who identify outside of the gender binary. 

“There’s a need that hasn’t been met because of the belief that it cannot be done,” said Rivlin, who consulted with colleagues in Israel on the best way to include Gross in Hebrew class. Some colleagues suggested that Rivlin’s student could switch off from male conjugations to female conjugations every other sentence, while another recommended that the student speak with the gender they were assigned at birth. The responses from his colleagues reiterated the problem; everyone was seeing the need, but no one had a solution that truly honored individuals who identified outside of the gender binary. “I figured either we do what’s done in Israel or create a new way to evolve the language,” said Rivlin. Ultimately he responded to Lior’s email saying, “‘How do you want to do this in Hebrew?’”

“I loved how excited he was to be an ally to non binary people,” said Gross. “When we began working together, I naively thought this was a little thing that we were doing so I could participate in Hebrew class. It wasn’t our intention to lead a large revolution.” 

But, it became clear that the Hebrew language was in dire need of exactly that. After a year of using Rivlin’s Hebrew classroom to experiment with different conjugations and grammatical structures, Rivlin and Gross officially launched the Nonbinary Hebrew Project in October 2018. Throughout the process, they received overwhelming support from the CU Boulder faculty and Program in Jewish Studies. It was quickly shared by Svara—a traditionally radical Yeshiva that organizes Queer Talmud Camp that Gross has attended for multiple summers—and it went viral.

“We were going for a structure that holds both masculine and feminine,” said Rivlin about the new structure, “something that would feel organic to Hebrew so it wouldn’t create a sense of alienation or foreignness.” The current grammar and systematics of Nonbinary Hebrew can be found on their website which labels this linguistic addition “a tool for that liberation.” 

In addition to the liberation that it offers Hebrew speaking members of the gender-queer community, nonbinary Hebrew has promising implications for everyone. Currently, there is a rule in Hebrew stating that groups should be addressed in the masculine plural if at least one male is present. Many feminists have pointed to the default masculine “as problematic,” said Rivlin, noting that nonbinary Hebrew could instead be used “to address large groups,” and even change “the way that Knesset meetings are held.” 

Habonim Dror North American (HDNA), a Labor Zionist youth movement is another community that is tackling the issue of binary pronouns in Hebrew. In 2015, they passed a proposal called “Revolutionizing the Hebrew Language” at their biennial Veida. Gross was a camper for seven summers at Habonim Dror’s Camp Moshava, and was a mentor to the camper who spearheaded this change.

HDNA’s version of nonbinary Hebrew differs from Rivlin and Gross’ in the way that they conjugate singular pronouns, but “works really well in HDNA settings” according to Gross, who “used the work that they had done as precedent.” 

During the summer of 2019, Gross attended a workshop on nonbinary Hebrew hosted by This is Not an Ulpan, a Hebrew and Arabic learning educational project in Israel. “It’s really important to have an Israel based team and a diaspora based team to address the different needs for Hebrew use,” said Gross. While the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has gained some traction in the United States, movement has been slower in Israel. 

The Academy of Hebrew, the authority on how Hebrew is used in Israeli governmental agencies, plays a major role in creating precedent for changes made to the language. Rivlin said that when the Academy heard of his and Gross’ efforts, the response was that it was “too complicated” and “could not be done.”

Others share these concerns as well. Dr. Joanna Caravita, a professor, researcher, and scholar of Hebrew at the Five College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) sympathizes with the Academy’s resistance to Nonbinary Hebrew, saying “Pronouns are so basic and essential that they are so hard to change.” Caravita wrote her M.A. thesis on the modernization of Hebrew and Arabic, and specifically on the priorities of the people who were doing it. She noted in an interview, “Language is social and that’s one of the concerns that I have with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, that it has to be more widely accepted and used by a social group before it can be really enacted.”

When asked about those who might be wary of nonbinary Hebrew, Gross said that they understand where it comes from, “As a people who carry a lot of fear around change because of our trauma, it makes a lot of sense why there is a lot of skepticism,” but they also see the advantage of acting. “This is a big chance to take a leap of faith and say that this is something that needs to change.”

Rivlin added, “This is about adding another option for those who need it. It’s not for tables and chairs (which also take on gendered adjectives in Hebrew), it’s for people — to give them more of a place in the community and to expand the tent to say ‘you’re welcome here’ by using language that honors that.”

Gross graduated from CU Boulder in December of 2018 with a masters in ecology. Since graduating, they have spent time in both Israel and the United States, “following up on all my passions at the same time.” These passions range from Svara’s Queer Talmud Camp to researching soil and farming in Israel to maintaining the Nonbinary Hebrew Project’s website and continuing to improve upon it with their mentor and life long friend, Professor Rivlin.

The work that Rivlin and Gross have done with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has been expansive for nonbinary folk in finding their voice in Hebrew and in the Jewish community. While both commented on the project’s incompleteness, it is obvious that their “chutzpah” has opened a long overdue dialogue on the topic of gender inclusivity in Judaism. Rivlin reminded us that Hebrew, like all languages, constantly evolves. He and Lior see the Nonbinary Hebrew Project as the next step in the Hebrew Language’s evolutionary journey. 

Rachel Levy is a rising senior at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern


Never Again Para Nadie

By Rachel Levy

Growing up, I remember waiting on two important talks from my parents: the sex talk and the Holocaust talk.

I had heard vaguely of both, but only understood them as topics that I would learn more about when I was mature enough to understand their magnitude. When the sex talk finally did happen it was short, uninspiring, and I quickly repressed it. However, when I got the Holocaust talk—or talks, as they more realistically were—I felt as if I was being handed down a powerful legacy that came with the responsibility to always remember and never forget.

The Holocaust talks began with stories and trinkets from my grandmother who was fortunate enough to immigrate to the United States from France in the 1940s. We would sit on the couch of her home in Long Island and leaf through a scrapbook full of photographs, papers, and notes that represented the childhood she never got to have and the family members that I would never have the chance to meet.  My formal Holocaust education began in the 7th grade when my Jewish day school and Temple Sunday school individually determined that 12 years old was mature enough to understand its magnitude.

My peers and I collectively shuddered at The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, held our breath for Anne Frank and her family as we read excerpts from her diary and applauded each and every Holocaust survivor that visited us during that year. The following year, my 8th grade class and I visited Yad Vashem in Israel, and as I matured, my understanding of the Holocaust expanded and deepened.

I believe that the goal of all of these Holocaust talks was to foster Jewish trauma so that we could harness it for the power of good. I thought that when we were learning about the Nazi Regime and the rise of a ruthless dictator, that our lesson was to be wary of certain strains of charisma in leadership; when we learned about the yellow stars that Jews were made to wear, I thought that our lesson was that differences between humans can be wielded to create fear and separation and when I learned about the concentration camps, I thought that the lesson was that all humans deserve to be treated with dignity.

My Holocaust education was important because it gave me a litmus test by which to recognize injustice: Are my leaders concealing evil behind charisma? Is difference being constructed in a way that disenfranchises people and creates inequality? Are humans being treated with dignity? 

On July 2, I marched in protest with 1,000 other Jewish activists to let ICE know that it does not pass my litmus test. We marched together to clarify for members of the Jewish community and all people who are following this discourse that “concentration camp” and “never again” need to be recognizable beyond the context of the Holocaust. We marched together to honor the memory of the Holocaust by calling out injustice and taking action to prevent a similar atrocity from occurring again.

Frankly, what I view as significant and scary is that the people who helped design my Holocaust and Jewish education curriculums are too preoccupied with prioritizing and sanctifying their own trauma to recognize it when it happens to other groups. The divisiveness in the Jewish community over the comparison of the U.S. detention centers to the concentration camps of the Holocaust has become a distraction from acknowledging the blatant disregard for human dignity. 

One of the most poignant and effective quotes from the Holocaust is this, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” (Martin Niemöller)

Never Again means Never Again for anyone.

Rachel Levy is a rising senior at University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern


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