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We Are Not People of the Book: A Way Forward

by Elsa Asher

I stood next to my father in the large cathedral space, rented by the community for Yom Kippur, and prayed. The rabbi and cantor and community members opened the ark, lifted the Torah, and walked it around the large room with such honor, much more honor than is given to people’s bodies—disabled bodies, birthing bodies, trans bodies, sick bodies. We spread open the Torah and read. We read about the animal offering of goats, how we cast a lot to discern which one to slaughter and which one to send back to pasture. 

We sat and listened to a community leader offer a dvar torah, or talk, on our diasporism, how we are people of the book, how we make home everywhere. This is when I wanted to yell: Why are we reading about a goat offering instead of actually just doing it? The instructions are all there. The ritual technology is time tested. Clearly our ancestors experienced it as effective for the community, enough to document it.

We make home everywhere because we have been forced to. When we were first displaced from the lands we lived on—and history points to the fact that we lived among many other peoples on the land—we mourned.

By the waters of Babylon, where we laid our lyres down
laid our lyres down, sat and cried, sat and cried
By the waters of Babylon, never sang our sacred songs
sang no sacred songs, tongues were tied, tongues were tied

Similar to the histories of other peoples who were forcefully displaced from their land, a kind of trauma unfolded immediately and across generations. The kind that is personal, particular, intricate, and widespread, collective, and cultural.

Without being free to visit the burial grounds of our ancestors, or visit the stone altars we had built, our trees where we made offerings, we feared we would forget our ways. Our tradition was an oral one, passed down through storytelling and listening. A political leader, out of fear of tribal annihilation—through literal loss of life, or through the loss of traditions—took up the project of writing things down. Thus began the codification, the focus on the word. The books. The reading about. The writing of.

This is an effective survival strategy. I understand it, respect it. But like all survival strategies, it is no longer an accurate or needed response to the current situation, and it is time to reassess. It is time now that we can let go, put this survival strategy away, and embrace a return to doing the ritual acts themselves.

It is time now
It is time now that we thrive
It is time to lead ourselves into the well

It is time now
And what a time to be alive
In this great turning we shall learn to lead in love
In this great turning we shall learn to lead in love

Here is a blessing for discovering what emerges personally and collectively through the embodied, visceral actions of the rituals of our ancestors. Because we are resilient. Because we were not always patriarchal and don’t need to be now. Because we can recover from being colonized, invaded, and displaced. We can recover from becoming colonizers ourselves.

רוח קדושה קדמי לשלום
הוריינו הקדמונים המורים את דרכינו מקור
מורשת מדור לדור
אנו מבקשים את ברכתך
בהודייה על החיים האלה

Ruakh kdosha kadmi leshalom
horeinu hakadmonim hamoreinu et darcheinu makor
moreshet midor ledor
anu mevakshim et birchatech
behodaya al hakhayim haele

Sacred spirit welcome in peace our ancestors,
teachers of our ways of source,
of our lineage from generation to generation,
we ask for your blessing
in gratitude for this life.

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