When is a “safe space” not safe? Depends on who’s asking.
The term itself was borne of the desire to cultivate nurturing community for vulnerable populations— think, say, LGBTQ teenagers, or survivors of sexual abuse. But in the age of an ascendant “alt-right,” some conservative commentators decry the very notion of safe space as a personal affront to their liberty to say whatever they want to say, whenever they want to say it. Contest the use of an insult or slur, for example, and you can expect to be accused of being a “liberal snowflake,” who “needs her little safe space.”
Enter a synagogue, though, and the folks who demand a safe space may be anything but liberal. Especially if the rabbi’s speech is about social justice. “I don’t want to talk politics in the sanctuary,” you may hear. Or, “I come here for prayer, not politics!” Some rabbis have gotten the message loud and clear. One of my colleagues in the Bay Area has vowed to keep his shul “free of tumultuous political tension,” because such talk “alienates a segment of our brothers and sisters.”
That space is, presumably, safe for that particular segment. But what about the rest of the community?
Look back in Jewish history, before our peculiar American moment, and you’ll find that keeping the synagogue free of “tension” was not always our highest priority. Historically, in fact, the shul has been a place not just of prayer and study, but a place of disagreement — even on Shabbat.
At the turn of the century, for example, the pages of Jewish newspapers like the Forward were filled with breathless descriptions of Jewish women targeting synagogues as venues to publicaly confront the exorbitant prices charged by kosher butchers.
In Jewish communities throughout the US and Europe, the synagogue service itself was an arena to practice civil disobedience. Specifically, the presence of large crowds at the time of the Shabbat morning Torah reading created an opportune moment to stop the service, and bring forth arguments and disputes. This tactic even had a name — ikuv kriah, or “delaying the reading.” By holding up the public Torah reading, marginalized members of the community would exert pressure on the community to consider or accept their demands.
In her encyclopedic chronicle of shtetl life, There Once Was a World, Yaffa Eliach describes the electric moment in which “the plaintiff mounted the bimah, banged three times on the table, and announced, ‘I am delaying the Torah reading.’” At that very moment —- and not, say, at some private mediation held in the rabbi’s study -— the rabbi and synagogue elders were expected to hear the complaint, and provide “advice, truth, and Torah justice.”
Abraham Sachs, in his 1928 Yiddish-language memoir of Jewish life in Lithuania, calls the ikuv kriah a “weapon seized upon by the Jewish workers in their struggle with their masters,” illustrating the point with a story of factory workers in Grodno calling “public attention to their grievances” by holding up the Torah reading in the shul where their employers prayed. And when a wealthy member of the community paid to save his son from having to serve in the army — sending instead the only son of a poor widow, “Tamar the bean-woman” — Sachs describes the poignant moment when Tamar herself was brought before the ark.
“My child! My child! You are murderers!” Sachs reports the woman wailing. “Take pity and give me back my child!” A week later, the woman’s son was returned home, a free man.
Sachs argues that such scenes “served as a means for shaming the evil-doers by pillorying them before a great assembly, a thing that everyone sought to avoid at all possible cost.”
And how about for us? At a time when we are all shamed by the separation of mothers from children, from threats to basic Jewish values like healthcare and human dignity — isn’t this a time to “hold up the Torah reading?”
Sure, we can see the sanctuary as a privileged place that keeps us safe — safe, even at this crucible moment, from thinking about the needs of the world. But Jewish culture is unique in elevating discussion and debate to sacrament status.
The hour calls us, as Jews, to bang three times on the table, and seek “advice, truth, and Torah justice” — for all the members of all our communities.