December 7, 2019

Noah’s Graceless Masculinity

By Michael Moskowitz and Seth Marnin

Rabbi Moskowitz is going to be joining Brandeis Hillel for a conversation around allyship as spiritual practice, and the week’s parsha. Details available here

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

Noah’s arc is long – he lived 950 years. Unfortunately, his arc bends away from grace. Parshat Bereishit concludes and Parshat Noach opens with Noah at his high point. He found favor in the eyes of G-d (Gen. 6:8), he was a “righteous” man…who “walked with G-d.” (Gen. 6:9). But just midway through the parsha, Noah tumbles from that exalted perch, becoming intoxicated and unclothed. (Gen. 9:20). 

Our rabbis teach that the 13 words in the first verse of Parshat Noach correspond to the age of bar mitzvah, the 13 years of becoming a man. By exploring parshat Noach and examining how Noah fell from grace and righteousness, perhaps we can find insight into how to better advance lessons of positive or healthy masculinity.

The Hebrew word for grace, חן chein, first appears in the Torah at the conclusion of Breisheit when distinguishing Noah from the wickedness of his generation: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of Hashem.” (Gen. 6:8). It is not coincidental that the words “Noah” and “chein” are comprised of the same two letters, “נ” and “ח,” just in a different order. It is foreshadowing and teaching, in part, that Noah was going in the wrong direction.

Parshat Noach begins with “These are the offspring of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, consistent in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.” (Gen. 6:9). This teaches us that the primary progeny of the righteous are their good actions. It was Noah’s laudable behavior, particularly in contrast to the moral corruption of his time, that allowed him to find grace in the eyes of G-d. For the ten generations from Adam until Noah, no one acted in a way that was received gracefully by G-d. And as long as he continued the work of recalibrating his behavior, he was able to maintain this elevated position. 

Here and throughout scripture, the verb “find” is associated with grace. It is a process of revealing that which was or is hidden. But unlike learning the whereabouts of a lost object, this is a relational “finding” where one learns they possess an attribute – in this case grace – in relation to another. And it is a dynamic state or process rather than a finite or static state. 

Noah’s selfish pursuits continue when he emerges from the ark after the flood. He encounters a new world. Rather than check in to understand the environment, to see how he can make it better, he instead conducted himself in a selfish way. He provided for his own needs, followed his desires. He planted grapes so that he could have wine as opposed to something more beneficial for the world. Instead of making himself into a holy vessel of the Divine, he indulged in the void and debased himself.   

This provides us with an opportunity to think about ways to become – and continue to be – a man while remaining righteous and not falling from grace. It is essential that we learn to pay attention to and understand the world around us, to appreciate how our actions impact those around us, and to grow and evolve over time. We cannot presume to know how we impact others, because we are not the arbiters of how our actions are received. Instead we must constantly check in, listen, and modify our behaviors in response to what we learn. 

It takes effort, humility, and a commitment to expand beyond the dismissive limits of “boys will be boys” to make real progress in the right direction. In our tradition seven represents the natural order of things and seven multiplied by itself, 49, speaks to the greatest expression of that exercise. The space beyond theses points, eight and 50, are transcendent moves from the physical to the supernatural like chanukah and brit milah (eight days) and the giving of the Torah, on the 50th. Fifty-eight is also the numerical value of Noah’s name.

After Noah’s failure, he doesn’t throw himself back into the struggle for a more equitable world. He doesn’t see his setbacks as an opportunity for growth or self-reflection. He learns no lessons, fails to grow, and falls from grace. Our Rabbis teach that had he lived in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not be considered noteworthy. Indeed they overlap for 58 years, but we hear nothing of Noah during that period. His name reminds us that when men of power and privilege fail to channel themselves for the betterment of humanity, when they fail to act as role models, they are not worthy of praise.

We read this story at the beginning of the new year, at the very beginning of the Torah, to remind ourselves of the human capacity to adapt and renew. It creates space to recognize the value and importance of understanding the ways in which our behavior impacts and influences others. As our world continues to evolve we must feel both empowered and responsible not only to construct our own new beginnings but to never lose sight of how our words and deeds are experienced by others. We must affirmatively seek feedback and participate in that dynamic process in order for the arcs of our lives to bend toward and seek out grace. 


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)





Seth M. Marnin is an attorney, educator, civil rights advocate, pursuer of justice and chair of Keshet’s board of directors. (Pronouns: He/Him)


Engendering Activism: The Multiple Impacts of Latin American Jews

By Dalia Wassner

HBI’s Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies will come together with the Latin American Jewish Studies Association to host “Engendering Activism: The Multiple Impacts of Latin American Jews,” on Sunday, October 27. The workshop, to be held at HBI, will explore the role of Latin American Jews who have used the visual and performing arts, literature, and activism to effect social and political change in their societies. By focusing on the combined Jewish and gendered participation of those individuals and groups, the workshop will broaden current research in the fields of Jewish Studies, Latin American Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Planned as a collaborative and dynamic meeting, the goal of the workshop will be to discuss papers, circulated in advance, that will be part of a dedicated issue of the soon-to-be-launched Journal of Latin American Jewish Studies. Dalia Wassner, Director of HBI Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies and Adriana Brodsky, co-President of LAJSA and Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, will serve as guest editors of this issue. 

HBI is proud to feature to graduate students, Gina Malagold and Joanna Spyra, who were involved in a research capacity at HBI earlier in their careers. Malagold, a Ph.D.candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, came to HBI as a 2017 HBI Gilda Slifka Summer graduate intern. She worked with Dalia Wassner on research surrounding 20th century trans-national Jews involved in the Mexican Renaissance. Malagold also worked on her own research project centered on Anita Brenner, an American who immigrated to Mexico and became a central cultural figure of the post-revolutionary milieu. At the upcoming workshop, Malagold notes that Brenner, and other women with whom she collaborated, had an acute sexual consciousness that allowed them to be the protagonists of their gender, identity, and sexuality. She now asks: “What occurred in this specific historical moment to allow for the invention of the Mexican Jewish chica moderna?”  

Joanna Spyra was a graduate student in Wassner’s 2018 course, Jews of Latin America, and received the 2018 HBI Graduate Student Prize for Outstanding Research on Jews and Gender for her MA thesis, “Ezras Noshim and Unruly Bodies: Disciplining Sexual Behavior of Jewish Immigrant Women in Argentina in 1936.” Spyra is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Bergen in Norway. Spyra will continue her work on sex trafficking in 1930’s Argentina while situating the discourse on white sex trade within the context of diaspora experiences of female bodies, highlighting issues of gender, (dis)ability, mental health, and psychiatry.

Other participants in the conference include:

  • Daniela Goldfine, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Language at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls will address the representation of the topic of Jewish sex trafficking in Argentina on film, and the connection between popular memory and historical archives.
  • Stephanie Pridgeon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Spanish at Bates College, will explore how gender and Jewishness converge in film to inform individuals’ solidarity with revolutionary politics throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on Cao Hamburger’s O ano em que meus pais saíram de férias (Brazil, 2006), Guita Schyfter’s Novia que te vea (Mexico, 1993), and Jeanine Meerapfel’s El amigo alemán (Argentina/Germany, 2012).
  • Judith Lang Hilgartner, Ph.D., a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Hispanic Studies Department at Davidson College will explore narratives of alliance and distance with the mother figure in Ruth Behar’s Lucky, Broken Girl (2017) and Rebecca Walker’s Black, White, and Jewish (2002), noting in both a negotiation of empowerment among Jewish women of color in a tumultuous, contradictory American society.  

The morning workshop will be organized into two panels comprised of all conference participants, and the afternoon will be a luncheon and conversation open to friends and supporters of LAJGS and LAJSA, as we discuss the following prompt: How do we as academics conceive of our roles in terms of engagement with the broader community and vice-versa? What common ground can we find between the academy and the community writ large?

The workshop is co-sponsored by Brandeis University Near Eastern & Judaic Studies Department and International Business School.

Dalia Wassner, Ph.D. is Director, HBI Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies.

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.


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