April 8, 2020

How is this year different from all other years?

By Amy Powell

The question, “how is this night different from all other nights?” takes on brand new meaning this Passover; nearly everything about this seder will be different from all other seders. Rather than celebrating our Exodus among friends, family –and even potentially strangers as the Haggadah encourages us to “let all who are hungry come and eat,” this year we are encouraged to celebrate alone.

Other years, we reflect on the 10 Plagues that occurred during the time of Pharoah, this year, we reckon with the real plague of Covid-19, ravaging communities around the world.

In this time of decreased trips to the store, shortages of all things except gefilte fish, we are learning of various rabbis relaxing hechshers and even restrictions on use of electronics for those who want to stream communal seders or Zoom with their family members.

To help you make the most of this strange moment, HBI has gathered a guide to some resources and readings.

How to Add Some Fun to a Strange Year

Did you ever wonder what comedian Lewis Black has to say about bitter herbs? Or, how Judy Gold’s annual dayyenu will explain this year, or want to hear Seth Herzog’s rendition of the 10 Plagues? The City Winery has you covered this Monday, April 6 with the Downtown Seder 2020. Yes, Cong. Jerry Nadler will be asking four important questions even though he won’t be the youngest and former Sen. Al Franken will be presenting from his shower. See the entire lineup of special music and commentary from The Lab Shul.

Do you need a Haggadah guide that pokes fun at the times we are in? Humorist Howard   Zaharoff, noting that Jews like to “find the humor”, published his Love in the Time of Coronavirus: Excerpts From a New Passover Haggadah in JewishBoston.com. Here you will find the seder re-explained with gems like, “Urchatz: We wash hands before opening a jar of Rokeach gefilte fish, since who knows who touched the jar before?” and “Maror: We eat bitter herbs to remind us that our portfolio declined 30% in the month of March.”

From Shalom Sesame, there is a riff on the afikomen,  Les Matzarables.

How to Conduct a Virtual Seder

Moment Magazine created a virtual seder guide, 2020 Seder Supplement “The Seder is Already Virtual: Reflections for a Ritual in Extraordinary Times” by Amy E. Schwartz.  The multi-denominational guide notes that it “draws on Moment’s popular “Ask the Rabbis” section, which includes rabbinical wisdom ranging from independent to Orthodox,” and includes “interviews with scholars and writers as well as articles and poems from the Moment archives.”

The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) produced Digital Content to Enliven This Year’s Virtual Seder with downloadable haggadot, playlists, children’s activities, recipes, thought questions and more.

The Washington Post created some variations on traditional recipes that offer a bit more immune boosting powers in A Passover like no other: Embrace a more intimate celebration of the Jewish holiday.

Hagdadot.com has a variety of downloadable and DIY resources, but this year added more on conducting virtual seders. Their webinar, The Art of Virtual Gathering: Passover 2020, is available as are other items to satisfy a range of needs and interests.

UCSJ (United Synagogue Conservative Judaism) published Passover Resources with helpful guidelines for many of the rituals and extra resources for conducting virtual seders that include grandparents and others.

JewishBoston.com’s How to Have a Kid-Friendly, Meaningful Virtual Seder, includes ways to incorporate the seder’s themes of resilience.

Readings to Help Make Sense of it All

For those who need or want permission to have a mediocre seder without fancy cooking, without creativity, Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick gives permission in Go ahead, have a shvach seder published in The Times of Israel. 

In The 11th Plague: Passover During Coronavirus, The Forward.com gathered opinions from 20 influencers, offering commentaries on Passover this year.

Also in the Forward.com, Abigail Pogrebin, author of The Wondering Jew, had conversations with six rabbis to reflect on this year’s Passover in Passover therapy: Our holiday expert asked 6 rabbis to reflect on this very different year.

In New York Jewish Week and the JOFA Blog’s The First Ever Seder Was Held In Isolation, Miriam Lorie relates our current moment to ancient times

In the Lilith Blog, Between Purim and Passover, a Plague, Rayzel Raphael, relates the Passover, Purim and Yom Kippur themes to the reality of today’s Passover.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Agunot Turn to Civil Courts for Remedies

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

A recent case in England relies on a new legal strategy, using laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence to address the agunah problem and shows promise in bringing the law of the state to bear on behalf of women.

Today, International Agunah Day(#gettfreedom)  and the Fast of Esther, is a time for the community to reflect and act in solidarity with women placed in legal and social limbo by Jewish laws of divorce.

An agunah (literally, a chained woman) is chained to a dead marriage by the whim of her husband.  Jewish law places sole discretion to grant a divorce (a get) in the hands of the husband and provides few effective remedies should he choose not to do so.  As Jewish law has been slow to find remedies that help agunot, many are turning creatively to the civil courts.

A husband might withhold a divorce out of spite, a desire to manipulate and control his wife or as a bargaining tactic in negotiations over financial or custody matters. A woman who has not divorced Jewishly cannot remarry under Jewish law and any children she might have with a new partner would have the status of “mamzer”, subject to ostracism and themselves unable to marry in the Jewish community.

Because Jewish legal authorities have lacked the will to provide halakhic remedies for this imbalance of power under Jewish family law, women have turned to the civil courts for help.  New York State, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa have all passed “get laws” that allow a civil court to attach financial consequences to failure to cooperate in a religious divorce.  France, Canada and the civil courts in Israel allow women to sue for damages for breach of contract or for negligent infliction of emotional harm.

Advocates for women subjected to domestic abuse describe this conduct as rooted in a desire to exercise power and control over the wife.  Advocates for agunot have come to see get refusal through this lens, describing it as a distinctly Jewish form of domestic violence. Strategies developed to assist victims of domestic violence can be deployed to help agunot.

In a case begun in January, 2020, a British agunah invoked a  2015 law passed by Parliament that recognizes that domestic violence involves more than physical abuse.  The law makes controlling or coercive behavior towards a spouse or intimate partner a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison.  The law defines this behavior to include:

 “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and /or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior.”

In this new agunah case, the parties (whose identities have not been disclosed) had married in Israel before moving to the United Kingdom. They soon separated and had been living apart for five years.  While they had been divorced in the English courts, the husband told the wife that he would only grant her a religious divorce if she cooperated in revoking a non-molestation order put in place by the English court to protect her and if she then left the country.  She argued that this refusal to release her from their Jewish marriage met the threshold test of causing her “serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect” on her life. Her counsel told journalists:

“The defendant was well aware that by refusing to provide a get, the victim would be isolated, prevented from forming a future relationship or having children, and unable to lead an Orthodox Jewish life in the community of her choice”.

The wife initially asked the Crown Prosecution service to lay charges against her husband for engaging in coercive and controlling behavior in violation of the law.  The state declined to bring this novel case. However, with the support of the domestic violence advocacy group, Jewish Women’s Aid, and case support staff at the London Beit Din, she hired counsel and brought a private prosecution case against him.  Facing criminal charges, the husband delivered the get on the courthouse steps and the criminal case was withdrawn.

It is unfortunate that Jewish women must turn to the civil courts for leverage to address the gender imbalance under Jewish family law.  But unless and until Jewish law offers effective remedies that allow women to secure their freedom, innovative approaches such as this will have to do.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a co-founder of the Boston Agunah Task Force, devoted to advice, education and support for women going through the Jewish divorce process.  


Esther and the Pursuit of Likeability

By Rabbi Wendy Amsellem and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

In this election season, there has been a focus on whether candidates, especially female candidates, are sufficiently likeable. Likeability is a virtue as it indicates whether a candidate is attuned to others and can get them on board to work with them. Likeability can even be translated as חן, an ability to be found gracious by others.

Esther, a heroine of the holiday of Purim (March 10), is the queen of likeability. In Chapter 2 of the Book of Esther, Esther is described as נשאת חן בעיני כל רואיה, she is found graceful by all who see her. At first this seems like an ideal situation – Esther is liked by everyone! Yet, it is also kind of odd. Is it really possible to be liked by all people?

Rabbi Elazar in Talmud Bavli Megillah 13a explains that Esther appeared to each and every person as if she was a member of their nationality. To the Persians, she appeared Persian. To the Medeans, she appeared Medean. They did not see Esther for who she actually was. Instead she became, in their eyes, whomever they wanted her to be. 

Rabbi Yuda in the Midrash Esther Rabbah 6:9 takes this a step further. He explains that Esther was like a statue whom a thousand people can equally admire. In his understanding, Esther did not present as a distinctive personality with independent thoughts, opinions and predilections. Instead she was a blank canvas of a person upon whom others projected their idealized desires.

This is a familiar trap for women. In order to have חן, to move about the world in a state of grace, women are told to be everything to everyone, to blunt the more distinctive aspects of themselves in order to be likeable.

For Esther, this comes at the cost of an expression of selfhood. As long as Esther is a statue, everyone can like her. Esther is afraid that if she gives voice to her own ideas, she will sacrifice her likability. And so the real Esther, as her name implies, remains hidden. 

Esther’s pliability and willingness to be whomever others want her to be reaches grotesque expression in the continuation of the passage in Bavli Megillah 13a.  The Talmud cites Esther 2:17 The King loved Esther more than all of the other women and she found favor in his eyes more than all of the other virgins. Rav explains that Esther is favored above all the women and all the virgins because her body can transform into whatever the King desires. If he wanted the feeling of intercourse with a virgin, Esther could provide that. If he wanted the feeling of being with a sexually experienced woman, Esther could  provide that as well. She is the King’s fantasy, mutable according to his desires.

This is not true חן  .חן is not about scooping yourself out so that you become only a reflection of what others want. חן is about expressing yourself in a way that is cognizant of those around you, while still maintaining your personhood, in relationship with G-d.

Proverbs 31:30 warns  שקר החן והבל היופי, sometimes grace is false and beauty meaningless. חן is not an end in itself. חן that is only fixated on how others see you is שקר, falsehood. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to be well liked. The Ishbitzer Rebbe in Mei HaShiloach, writes that Proverbs 3:4 Find favor in the eyes of G-d and people is followed by Proverbs 3:5 Trust in G-d with all your heart and do not rely on your own wisdom. The Ishbitzer teaches that these verse are juxtaposed because if people are unduly preoccupied with finding favor in the eyes of others, they should focus their intentions on G-d, and fulfilling G-d’s will, and in this way they can achieve חן in the eyes of both G-d and people.

Indeed, this is what Esther does. When she realizes that G-d wants her to save G-d’s people, she is able to find the courage to express her distinctive self. Esther stands before the King as an out Jewish woman and makes a powerful argument to save her people. She asks for something real and important and the King can see her for who she actually is and finds her full of grace.

The story of the book of Esther is how Esther goes from the false חן of Chapter 2 to the true חן of Chapter 7. She stops trying to obey and please everyone and in doing so she finds her voice and her power. Purim celebrates the process of revealing the hidden truth and giving it expression to the outside world. As we read the Book of Esther may we be inspired to find true חן in the eyes of G-d and people, and the strength to persist in doing G-d’s work.



Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. 








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)

Leavening and Lusty Hearts: Reconstructing the Bible’s Levivot

By Esther Brownsmith

Most people, when they read 2 Samuel 13, are horrified by its tragic contents. Amnon, the firstborn son of King David, falls in love with his half-sister Tamar. He devises a plan to get her alone, then despite her vocal protests, he rapes her. Afterwards, he brutally rejects her and throws her out. The story is tragic from start to finish — and it sparks a widening spiral of bloody revenge.

In short, when most people read 2 Samuel 13, they are not reading it as a recipe. But I am.

Amnon’s scheme relies on feigning illness, then asking for his sister to prepare him a special food, which she would hand-feed to him. That food is variously called bread (לחם), sustenance (בריה), and levivot (לבבות) — the latter a plural term that does not appear elsewhere in the Bible. Yet this term is crucial to understanding the eroticized atmosphere of the passage, which paints for us a picture of Amnon’s lascivious point of view. Thus, when I examined this passage as part of my doctoral dissertation, I decided that one of my tasks would be to recreate these levivot to search for clues to their significance.

Of course, the Bible does not provide a recipe for levivot, nor do other ancient Jewish texts, while modern Hebrew uses it as a name for latkes. A Google search for מתכוני לביבות (levivot recipes) results in many delicious photographs of potato pancakes, none of which resemble what Tamar made for Amnon. Instead, I turned to a combination of textual clues and culinary history.

Here’s what we know about the levivot:

Their name had passionate connotations. The heart (lev), which seems to form the basis for the word, was the seat of thought and emotion to ancient Israelites. Meanwhile, the root word לבב (L-B-B) had definite connotations of sexual desire in both Song of Songs 4:9 and Ezekiel 16:30, and the heart was a metaphor for arousal in Mesopotamian texts, like an incantation to help a man whose “‘heart’ does not rise for him.” As final evidence that the levivot had indecent connotations, a careful reading of 2 Samuel 13 reveals that King David and Jonadab avoid using the term; only Amnon and the narrator (who reflects Amnon’s lustful thoughts) use it to describe the food.

… But they weren’t “heart-shapedas we know it. Many scholars explain that their name means they were “heart-shaped” — but the heart shape, familiar to us from Valentines and emoticons, only dates back to the medieval period. In the ancient world, “heart-shaped” would have connoted a vaguely conical lump.

They were boiled in water. The Hebrew Bible makes this clear, even though most English translations say that they were baked. When Tamar cooks the levivot, the verb is בשׁל (B-Š-L), “to boil”; once she finishes boiling them, she pours them out יצק (Y-Ṣ-Q) to drain them. Later Jewish writings, like David Kimḥi’s commentary on 2 Samuel 13:6, corroborate that they were understood to be boiled in water.

They were made of kneaded dough. As part of her preparations, Tamar kneads לוש (L-W-Š) the dough. From a culinary viewpoint, this step is important, as it distinguishes the levivot from modern American dumplings. Kneading activates the gluten in flour, which gives yeasted breads their springy, chewy texture; in contrast, American dumplings are kneaded as little as possible, so that they retain a fluffy, tender texture.

Their composition included flour and other ingredients. This clue can only be inferred from the biblical text’s description of “dough,” which generally comes from flour, and the fact that they were a sickbed delicacy (and therefore probably contained fat and sugar to appeal to the palate). However, Maimonides corroborates it in the Mishneh Torah when he gives levivot as an example of a boiled food made of flour mixed with “other things” (Blessings, ch.3).

Based on these clues, I began to research boiled breads. I discovered that although boiled bread is not typical in modern American cuisine — even bagels are baked after being boiled — it has a rich history elsewhere in the world. Boiled bread ranges from Zulu ujeqe to German Hefeklösse, not to mention steamed breads like Chinese mantou. These bread rolls are a hearty dish, yet light and fluffy from their yeasted dough. For instance, one cookbook writes that “Hefeklösse mit Zimmetsosse (yeast dumplings with cinnamon sauce) were considered a meal in itself. When the cooks took the time to prepare dumplings with cinnamon sauce, the usual meat course was not served.”

Armed with this evidence that boiled bread was a real culinary possibility, I found a recipe for Hefeklösse and got to work. I knew that many of the ingredients would have to be modified, as the ancient world lacked ultra-refined ingredients like white sugar and white flour. I substituted whole wheat flour and date paste, which was the main sweetener in the ancient Near East. Most biblical mentions of “honey” actually refer to date syrup.

Moreover, the fat to use was unclear. Butter was rare in the warm weather of ancient Israel, and animal fat adds an unpleasantly savory flavor to the bread, as I discovered in an early trial. Olives were abundant in ancient Israel, but there is some scholarly debate about whether their oil was used in this period for culinary purposes, as opposed to anointing, burning for light, etc. In Mesopotamia, sesame oil was the primary oil used in cooking, and I found it added a mild, pleasant flavor. I used untoasted sesame oil, not the toasted oil used in many Asian recipes, which has a much stronger taste.

The stage was set for my final culinary experiment — and the final clue in my theory. When Amnon asks Tamar to make him the levivot, he doesn’t merely ask for “some levivot”; he asks specifically for “two levivot.” So I went through the same stages of cooking as Tamar — I kneaded the dough, shaped the rolls, boiled them, and drained them — and then I put exactly two levivot on a plate together. Sure enough, the plump, pale brown orbs bore a distinct resemblance to a woman’s bosom.

My theory had held: not only did the name levivot contain a certain level of innuendo, but the very appearance of two levivot had an erotic flair. Amnon knew exactly what he was asking for when he requested two levivot from his sister, and it wasn’t just an innocent snack.

Despite their disturbing history, though, levivot clearly continued to be eaten in Jewish communities into the Middle Ages, as the writings of Kimḥi and Maimonides attest. With the tenderness of Chinese steamed buns, they are a mildly sweet, fluffy treat, as well as a way to make bread without turning on an oven. The recipe below makes twelve large levivot — perfect for feeding the people close to your heart.

Esther Brownsmith, a doctoral student at Brandeis, is an HBI Scholar in Residence.  She was recently awarded a prestigious post-doc at the MF Norwegian School of Theology and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters where she will work on the broader project, Books Known Only by Title: Exploring the Gendered Structures of the First Millennium Imagined Library.The title of her project is “‘But she said…’: (Para)biblical Expansions as Fan Fiction.”

Her lunchtime lecture, The Concubine in the Refrigerator: Objectifying Women in Comics and Scripture, will be March 30, 12:30-2 p.m., at HBI, 515 South St., Waltham. 

Reconstructed Levivot 

60g lukewarm water (1/4 cup)
57g date paste or well-mashed Medjool dates (1/4 cup)
7g active dry yeast (1 packet)
57g fat, such as untoasted sesame oil or butter (1/4 cup)
180g lukewarm water (3/4 cup)
6g salt (1 tsp)
395g whole wheat flour, ideally einkorn or emmer (3 1/2 cups)

1) Mix together the 60g water and date paste, then stir in the yeast. Let sit in a warm place for 5 minutes, until the mixture is very frothy.

2) In a large bowl, mix together the yeast mixture with all the remaining ingredients.

3) Using the kneading hook of a mixer, or your own arms, knead the dough for several minutes (at least ten if by hand). Add more water if necessary for a supple, tender dough. By the end of kneading, the dough should be stretchy and smooth.

4) Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until the dough is doubled in volume.

5) Punch down the dough and knead it a few times. Divide the dough into twelve equal portions, then shape each portion into round rolls. Space out the rolls on a large tray and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes, or until very puffy.

6) Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring several inches of water to a boil. Reduce heat to a steady simmer.

7) When the rolls have risen, use a slotted spoon to lower six of them into the water, one by one. Cover, return to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not remove the lid while cooking. When done, the rolls should be firm to the touch. Remove with a slotted spoon, and repeat with the remaining six rolls.

8) Serve warm, with butter and optional honey.

Israeli Supreme Court Grants Protection from FGM

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

On February 9, 2020 The Israeli Supreme Court published a ground breaking decision in the field of legal feminism and the rights of asylum seekers in Israel. For the first time, the Court recognized applicants as meeting the definition of refugee and instructed the Population and Immigration Authority (PIA) to provide them protection as such. The applicants were applying for refugee status because they feared that their daughters, if returned to their country of origin, will be forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). This posts aims to explain the Court’s decision and discuss the implications of this decision. 

Receiving Protection from FGM

The applicants are a family from Ivory Coast. The parents have arrived to Israel in 2004 and 2005, and applied for asylum based on their own persecution. PIA rejected their applications, but they were able to remain in Israel under Temporary Protection status. When Israel revoked the Temporary Protection of Ivorians in 2012, they applied for asylum once again, saying that their daughters, who were born during their stay in Israel, would be forced to undergo FGM. They had shared with PIA that the grandmother of the girls had conducted FGM to one of her granddaughters without her parents’ consent, when the parents were away from their home. Their asylum application was rejected due to the “internal flight alternative”, since the immigration authorities assumed that they would be able to protect the girls from FGM if they reside in an area of their country which is remote from their families. The family appealed this rejection. The parents were concerned that they would not be able to protect their daughters from this practice, which is culturally important to their tribe, even if they move to a different part of the country.

As the case was pending before the Court, PIA decided to give the family status which would grant them a humanitarian status, allowing them to stay in the country while emphasizing that this is done despite the fact that the family does not meet, in their professional opinion, the standards for asylum. 

The Court decided to rule in favor of the applicants, making this the first case that the Israeli Supreme Court instructs PIA to grant an individual refugee status. The Court has generally refrained from determining whether asylum seekers meet the requirements of the definition of refugee, and leaving the question of what their status is obscure. It is interesting that the first decision of this sort is in a case of women fleeing FGM, and not in one of the cases of asylum seekers who were fleeing political or religious persecution. I have argued elsewhere, that this was a strategic choice for the Court, in an effort to evade a full confrontation with the legislative and the executive branches of government. These other branches are already threatening to pack the Court and to take away its judicial review powers by enacting an override clause, since the Court has previously issued numerous other decisions in the context of immigration law and policy. Perhaps notably, the leading opinion in this case was given by Justice Daphne Barak-Erez, who before her appointment to the Israeli Supreme Court was one of the leading feminist legal scholars in Israel. 

The decision also stands out among multiple decisions on protecting asylum seeking women from gender-based persecution in Israel. Most of the decisions given to date failed to apply a gender-sensitive definition of the category of refugee, and therefore were not instrumental in providing protection for asylum seeking women in Israel. While other countries have recognized women who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted by different forms of persecutions typical to women such as rape, FGM, forced marriage, etc., Israel has been slow and reluctant to adopt a similar approach. This decision brings Israel closer to the standards of other western democracies. 

Public Response to the Decision

Immediately after the decision was given, the former minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked, tweeted that the decision creates “a radical and dangerous interpretation to the refugee convention”, and that FGM, as appalling as it may be, cannot be grounds for refugee status in the Middle East. However, there is actually nothing radical about this decision. The US acknowledged that fear of FGM can be grounds for asylum in 1996, and so have multiple other countries. Gender-based persecution in its many forms is widely acknowledged by different countries and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In fact, in the course of the litigation of this case, PIA did not argue that fear of FGM could not justify asylum: the legal debate was only on whether it was sufficiently proved that the family could be safe in other parts of their country of nationality.

The Minister of Interior, Arye Deri, said that the decision could have harsh consequences, and may create a situation in which Israel has to include many African women, which he saw as unacceptable. This concern seems far-fetched at best. While the “fear of numbers” is typical to the immigration context, it really has no factual grounding in the case of Israel. Since the erection of the border fence along the Israel-Egypt border in 2013, the long continental border which Israel shares with Africa, it has become impossible to enter Israel in an undocumented manner. In such a situation, it is hard to imagine a phenomenon of large-scale migration from Africa. Also, research indicates that the inclusion of gender-based persecution in the definition of refugee had little or no impact on the number of women seeking asylum in other countries, so there is no reason to think this will make a difference in the case of Israel. There are so many barriers preventing women from fleeing and seeking asylum, that favorable changes in immigration norms are not key determinants of whether they will arrive to a country to seek asylum.  

The decision given by the Israeli Supreme Court puts Israel on the same line with many other western democracies, and contributes to the international efforts to combat violence against women in its various shapes, including FGM. As an Israeli woman, it is a proud moment to see that Israel lives up to the lesson of “never again”, a lesson learned by the suffering of the Jewish refugees, and extends it to African children refugees. 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She is a 2018 GCRL Scholar in Residence and a current Research Associate at HBI.


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