Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Havdalah and Distinctions

I know Julie and I haven't posted in forever. It turns out that having a baby is time consuming: who knew?

One of our congregants asked me to clarify havdalah for her. Specifically, she was concerned about blessing God for separating the Jewish People from other nations. She often has guests in her home who are not halachically Jewish, and is concerned that in making this brachah, she is invoking a ritualized contempt or discrimination that her guests may understandably find offensive.

While leaving aside for the moment the very real issues and concerns with the situation of individuals not halachically Jewish, I tried as best I could to address her concerns by reframing and clarifying the meaning of havdalot not as “separation,” (though technically that is a fair translation) since I think that has more negative resonance in English than the word havdalah has in Hebrew (especially in America, where “separate” in social reference often connotes Jim Crow, a very negative form of separating people from one another), but as “making a distinction.”

Distinction is not a hierarchy: it is a vertical differentiation, not a horizontal differentiation. It need not (and, I think, does not) imply a valuative judgment, merely an acknowledgement of difference.

ויאמר אלקים יהי רקיע בתוך המים ויהי מבדיל בין מים למים
Gen. 1:6. And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters: let there be a distinction (mavdil) between water and water.”

This is the language of havdalah: taking something and noting differences. There is water above the vault of the heavens (i.e., clouds and rain) and there is water below the vault of the heavens (i.e., lakes, rivers, and seas). It’s all water. None of it is any better or worse. But some happens to be over here, and some happens to be over there. Without either, the world would be the less. But we note their differences and rejoice in them in different ways: we make different brachot for seeing lakes and rivers than for the sea, and both different from that we make over seeing rain. But all get a brachah said over them, because we rejoice in water. In just the same way, a distinction is made between the People Israel and the other Peoples of the world. We’re all Peoples. Without any of us, the world would be the less. But we rejoice in our differences, since we all have our different places and different functions. Our purpose is to be Jews, and we rejoice in it. If we were Irish, or Hawaiian, or Maori, or whatever, our purpose would be to be Irish or Hawaiian or Maori, or whatever, and we would quite rightly rejoice in that. And it would be just as true that our people would be special, unique, and different from all others.

We find this idea far, far back in our tradition.

הלוא כבני כשיים אתם לי בני ישראל נאם ה' הלוא את ישראל העליתי מארץ מצרים ופלשתיים מכפתור וארם מקיר
Amos 9:7. “Are you not like the Kushites to me, O Israel?” Says Hashem. “Did I not bring up Israel from the Land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Kaftor, and the Arameans from Kir?”

We are God’s People...in our own, unique way. Other Peoples are also God’s Peoples...in their own, unique ways. And the examples God gives in Amos are Peoples we weren’t even friendly with: reminding us forcefully that even the Peoples we don’t always like are still God’s Peoples. “Special” and “unique” are not the same as “better.”

To value one’s own self and heritage does not, by definition, require the denigration of others and their heritage. The idea that it does is both unfounded and antiquated. That some in our tradition may have chosen to turn the idea of havdalot (distinctions) in such a fashion absolutely does not mean it must mean that, or even that that is the most accurate meaning. So, yes, we do speak of our distinction from the other nations of the world; and they could speak of their distinction from us, or from one another. Not because we’re Jews and we rock but they’re non-Jews and they bite. Nobody has to bite. We can all rock, in our own ways. We’re just different from one another: a rich glory of variety, which is what we should expect, given that we are all creations of the Infinite.

In the same vein, at this congregant's request, I also translated Havdalah for her afresh. Maybe it will be useful for others, also, so I include it here in this link.


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