Academy for Spiritual Formation: Prayer

38403766801_cd9dc3b2ec_zAttending daily worship here has been fascinating, rich, fruitful, sometimes challenging, and often beautiful. 

I've spoken with other participants about their experience of worship, and they tell me that it is not like what they are accustomed to at home. It's more contemplative, most of them tell me. Some say it's more liturgical than home, some say it's less so. It's clearly not one hundred percent familiar to anyone -- we use a prayerbook created by The Upper Room, unique to these retreats.  Of course, it is probably least familiar to me, because my liturgical tradition is Jewish, and this is not Jewish prayer by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a kind of cousin to Jewish prayer, sometimes, in interesting ways.

Some of what we've been doing is familiar to me as a Jew who has been in Christian spaces before. (I attended an Episcopal school for six years, and have sung in many churches.) It's always both wonderful, and somewhat disconcerting, to encounter familiar words and phrases and prayers in this other setting. The psalms, of course. Or hymns that speak of "Israel" or covenant -- though in a Christian setting, those terms evoke their community of believers in Jesus, rather than the community of Jews. That stretches me sometimes, though of course it's okay for these words to mean different things to them than they do for me.

My task is to honor and notice those tight places, and the objections voiced by my discursive mind -- the part of me that inhabits briyah, the world of intellect -- and then gently set them aside so that I can be present in this worship in yetzirah, the world of heart and connectivity. Where can I find, in this liturgy and in this experience of prayer, the heart-connection with God that I seek in my own prayer life? I love the discipline of daily prayer, and even when that prayer is in a modality that is foreign to me, it's still an opportunity to open to God. Thrice-daily prayer in community is a gift, even when the prayer isn't always exactly my own.

Prayer is an experience of discernment. The Hebrew להתפלל / l'hitpallel, "to pray," comes from the root meaning to discern or judge oneself. Through the discipline of daily prayer, we come to know ourselves in a deeper way. For me as a Jew, the experience of immersing in daily liturgy (even my own familiar and comfortable liturgy) is also an experience of seeing what bubbles up within me to distract me from my prayer. What are my recurring thoughts, narratives, ideas, fears? The goal is not to resent them for distracting me from prayer, but to lift up the sparks of distracting thoughts, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.

If that's true in the familiar setting of Jewish prayer -- the words of the siddur that roll comfortably off my tongue, the melodies of weekday nusach and the musical settings I know best -- how much more so in this setting of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. As I pray in these unfamiliar forms, I learn things about myself. What buttons are pushed for me by these Christian uses of Jewish ideas and terms? What is evoked for me? Where do I feel what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy," and where do I feel resistance? These aren't my native prayer forms, but they are prayer and they are real -- and can be real for me if I let them.

I have been reminded often this week of Reb Zalman z"l's teaching that in order to appreciate the beauty of a stained glass window, one needs to stand inside the church and see the light streaming through it. In order to appreciate what role Jesus plays for my Christian brothers and sisters, I need to open myself to their prayers. Sometimes their prayers trigger my "allergies," because being a member of a minority religious tradition surrounded by Christian language, ritual, and presumptions has shaped me in not-always-comfortable ways. My work is to notice those allergies without letting them push me out of prayer.

I can pray authentically as a Jew in this Christian setting: that's the path of deep ecumenism, to which I committed myself when I chose a Jewish Renewal path. One night this week I led evening worship, sharing beloved prayers of Jewish nighttime liturgy. Otherwise, I've taken it upon myself to pray as my colleagues here pray. (With the exception of participating in communion. I do not partake, but I join the community in singing as others go up to receive the wine and the bread. And oh, I do love to sing.) I'm grateful to be able to quiet my mind, sink into the music, and let myself pray -- cultivating openness to whatever arises.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the Upper Room retreat prayerbook.


Academy for Spiritual Formation: enjoy the silence

37662717764_bd490e4217_zOne of the things I'm loving about this week with the Academy for Spiritual Formation is their practice around silence. After evening worship, we maintain silence until morning prayer. No talking in the halls; no talking in the rooms. Just silence.

This is a familiar practice to me from my days at the old Elat Chayyim -- before it was at Isabella Freedman, back when it was in the Catskills -- though there, at least in my memory, the rule was weekday evening silence in public spaces, not in the rooms. (I'm pretty sure I remember chattering with room-mates late into the night.) But we used to keep silence until the end of breakfast, so for those of us who woke early for morning prayer, the words and chants and melodies of shacharit would be the first sounds of the new day.

The experience of ending and beginning my day in prayerful silence has been putting me in mind of a post I wrote some years ago (2014) titled Prayer, privilege, parenthood. That post begins with a Hasidic teaching about the merits of keeping silence until one speaks the words of morning prayer, and then delves into questions of who has the luxury of that kind of lifestyle. (Spoiler alert: my conclusion is that those of us who are caregivers for others, e.g. aging parents or young children, don't tend to have that luxury -- and that it's therefore a problematic paradigm to lift up.)

As a parent (and especially as a solo parent) I chafe at the presumption that "real" spiritual life necessarily requires silence and spaciousness. This is part of why I so loved R' Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow: because she insists that parenting itself can be a spiritual practice.  In general I'm interested in breaking down our perceived binary between spiritual and ordinary. For me, the real work is figuring out how to infuse our daily lives with connection to something greater than ourselves.

And that has to mean that the retreat model, or the model in which someone else is doing the caregiving so the "spiritual" person has the spaciousness to be spiritual, can't be the only valid path. I don't want to privilege the luxury of morning silence, or to suggest that it's the only valuable modality of spiritual life. It's not. And -- I'm still super-grateful that I get to experience this, and also that I get to experience this community's form of thrice-daily prayer. (More about that in another post: stay tuned.)

There are also periods of silence here each morning and afternoon, after the presenters offer our teachings. During those times of silence, retreatants are invited to meditate, to pray, to walk in the woods, to journal... one way or another, to use the silence as an opportunity for integrating what the presenters have shared. And when we reconvene for plenary sharing time, the retreatants' responses to the learning come wrapped in a container of silence. It's remarkable how that changes the ta'am, the feel, of the whole experience.

"Honor the silence as a gift," says the sign posted on the chapel door. The silence is a gift: an opportunity to listen to the still small voice within. And that's as true for the retreat leadership team as it is for the participants. Even for those of us who are creating and holding the container for this holy endeavor, going from prayer to silence to prayer is enriching and deepening. As I learned years ago from Rabbi Shefa Gold, the silence after the chant is an integral part of the chant. As I learned from the Slonimer rebbe (via Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg), the white space containing the letters of the Torah has a special kind of holiness because it holds the holiness of all the words within it. The silence that holds our prayer enriches our prayer, as our prayer enriches our silence. 

I'm grateful for this week's gifts of silence.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the sign outside the chapel door.


Academy for Spiritual Formation: feeling surprisingly at-home


38340517452_7548af49e1_zThe strangest thing about this experience of The Academy for Spiritual Formation thus far is how familiar it feels. I've never been here before. I've never met any of these people. And more importantly, I've never been on a Christian spiritual retreat before. But I felt at home the moment I arrived.

Conversation over our first meal together oscillated between retreatants catching up after time apart, and a deep dive into questions like "what does healing mean" (and can death be a kind of healing?) It felt just like gathering with a group of rabbi friends, except that the jewelry tended toward crosses rather than the hamsas or v'ahavta amulets I usually see. 

The retreatants  have come together in community to grow as spiritual beings and to rekindle relationships forged in the crucible of emotionally intense retreat-time. I know what that's like. And I recognize in the facilitating team the conscious intention of creating and maintaining the sacred container of retreat-time for the spiritual growth of those who take part. I know what that's like, too.

On our first evening after dinner and before evening prayer we gathered for "Covenant Groups," as we will do nightly. Covenant Groups are an opportunity to process the day and what it has awakened in each of us. We are encouraged to be present, to listen deeply, to resist the urge to "fix" when people share difficult truths, and to enter together into holy listening.

When I read the guidelines, I smiled in recognition. In the Jewish Renewal community in which my formation as כלי קודש / kli kodesh (a "holy vessel") took place, we have very similar nightly groups during our week-long retreats and our two-year training programs. We call them "Mishpacha Groups" -- משפחה / mishpacha being the Hebrew word for family.

Many years ago when my mother joined me at a Ruach ha'Aretz retreat (to care for my son while I was in classes), I encouraged her to join a mishpacha group made up of folks who weren't clergy students. I wanted her to have people other than me with whom she could process her experience there. I remember one day she came back from her mishpacha group, and said to me with some wonderment, "I think everybody here is a spiritual seeker!" I think that story comes to mind now because it's why I feel immediately at home at the Academy for Spiritual Formation: everyone here is a spiritual seeker.

Of course there are differences in our language, our theologies, our modes of worship. And I will inevitably bump into those over the course of this week, and not always comfortably. But we're all engaged in the ongoing work of spiritual formation. To my delight, that means that in some ways, coming here feels like coming home. As someone who cares deeply about the life of the spirit, I'm thirsty to be around others who care as I do. It's a joy to be in community with fellow seekers as they walk their own path -- different from, but often intersecting with (or overlapping with, or perhaps running parallel to) my own.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: my bedroom at the retreat center.


Off to the Academy for Spiritual Formation

Academy-LogoI've participated in a lot of two-year training programs, from my low-residency MFA at Bennington (which I began in June of 1997, more than twenty years ago -- how did that happen?!) to the Davenen Leadership Training Institute while I was in rabbinical school. But I've never taught in one -- until now.

Today I'm on my way to Malvern Retreat House, a retreat center outside of Philadelphia, where I'll be serving as faculty for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Here's how their website describes the enterprise:

Since 1983, the Academy for Spiritual Formation has offered an environment for spiritually hungry pilgrims, whether lay or clergy, that combines academic learning with experience in spiritual disciplines and community.  The Academy's commitment to an authentic spirituality promotes balance, inner peace and outer peace, holy living and justice living, God's shalom.  Theologically the focus is Trinitarian, celebrating the Creator's blessing, delighting in the companionship of Christ and witnessing to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives, churches and the world.

This will be the second week of this cohort's journey together. In the mornings they'll be learning with Rev. Marjorie Thompson. In the afternoons I'll be teaching them about the psalms. Each of us will teach for an hour, and then the students will enter an hour of silence (primed with questions for reflection), and then we'll regroup for half an hour to work with whatever arose for them during that contemplative time. I'll also take part in the week's various prayer and meditation opportunities designed to help cultivate discernment as the participants continue on their journey of spiritual formation.

Each instructor had the opportunity to assign two books in advance. I assigned Miriyam Glazer's Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy and Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing (not about psalms per se, but an excellent introduction to the richness of Hebrew as a sacred language.) I'm looking forward to seeing how those books resonate for them, and what kinds of questions they open up. My hope is to open for them an authentic and devotional relationship with the psalms: without ignoring the substantial differences between our traditions, but without getting bogged down in them, either.

I'm looking deeply forward to learning with and from the students -- and to attending daily prayer in a tradition that's not my own. (One night I'll have the privilege of leading evening prayer, which puts me in mind of when I got to do something similar at Beyond Walls at Kenyon College a few years ago.) I'm fairly certain I will be the only Jew in attendance. I'm looking forward to experiencing how my own spiritual journey will be enriched by walking alongside this group of Christians for a week.

Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, spoke often of Deep Ecumenism -- not merely "interfaith dialogue," but connecting deeply with our siblings of other traditions. One metaphor he used is the image of light pouring through a stained glass window. In order to appreciate its beauty, one has to be inside the building. Just so with spiritual truth: in order to understand what trinitarian theology does for a Christian, I need to be willing to stand in their shoes, to feel as they feel -- without ceding my own spiritual authenticity as a Jew. My Jewishness need not be threatened or diminished by that. On the contrary, it can be enriched.

He taught that we need to transcend triumphalism (the belief that any tradition is "right" and therefore the others are wrong). Instead, we can draw on the wisdom of Rev. Matthew Fox, who speaks of "many wells, one river." We all draw living waters from our own wells, but the source of that water is the same underground river, the same source of flow. (It's that same flow that my hashpa'ah / spiritual direction training gives me tools to discern with, and cultivate in, those whom I serve in that capacity.) May I be a fitting conduit for that flow, so that I can bring openness and authenticity to the awesome task of this teaching.


Through the (double) door: Chayei Sarah

Desert-cave-james-barrereIn this week's Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, Avraham purchases a cave in which to bury his wife Sarah. The cave is named מכפלה / Machpelah. In English, it's just a place-name. In Hebrew, it has a meaning. 

The root of that word, כפל / k'f'l, means to double or to fold. Rashi says this teaches us that it had a lower and an upper cavern. (Others say, possibly a cavern within a cavern.) Or, Rashi suggests, it was called "doubled" because couples are buried there. Tradition teaches that Adam and Eve were buried there long before Sarah and Avraham. But our mystical tradition sees here something much deeper -- pardon the pun.

The Zohar teaches that when Avraham first entered the cave, he breathed the scent of fragrant spices: a sign that within the cave was an entrance to the Garden of Eden.

For our mystics, the cave of Machpelah -- the doubled cave -- was two places in one. On one level, it was a physical place, a cave in the earth. And on another level, it was a doorway to another reality, a portal to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden represents both the very beginning of time and the afterlife, the level of heaven where the righteous reside with God clothed in garments of light. Machpelah is a portal between earth and heaven, between "this world" and the "world to come," between a reality in which we live apart from God and a reality suffused with divine Presence.

My son likes to play iPad games, like The Room and House of Da Vinci, that involve solving puzzles. Both of those games involve a mystical eyepiece, and when that eyepiece is activated, hidden things spring to life. Invisible ink becomes visible; hidden symbols and markings begin to glow. It's as though there were another layer to reality, a realm of secrets, and only those who have eyes to see can decipher the clues to the hidden reality beneath. That's pretty much what our mystical tradition teaches.

"Come and see," says the Zohar. That's the Zohar's refrain: come and see. Open your eyes. If we know what we're looking for, we can find ultimate reality, the presence of God. We can see that this cave isn't just a cave: it's also a portal. We can see that this moment isn't just this moment: if we go through the portal of Machpelah, we simultaneously access the beginning of time and the culmination of all things.

But sometimes we can't see what's in front of our eyes. We get caught up in appearance: this looks like a cave, it's just rocks and dirt. So the Zohar offers us another path in: the scent of spices, which is the scent of Eden, the place-and-time of humanity's beginning and our most transcendent joy. Tradition says that when we smell spices at havdalah, our souls get a "hit" of the scent of Eden. Spice and fragrance are also associated with Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Divine Presence. The scent of spice, which is the scent of Eden, opens us to God.

Maybe there are scents that hyperlink you with other places and times. For me, one is honeycake baking, which immediately says "Rosh Hashanah." Another is Bal á Versailles, my mother's perfume. Another is rosemary on my fingers, which links me with where I grew up, and with travels in Israel, and with a friend's back yard in California, and with a church rose garden in Alabama, and other places besides.

For the mystics, Machpelah was a trans-dimensional portal, a doorway in space and time. The physical cave of Machpelah is now beneath a building that is half-mosque, half-synagogue, and hotly-contested by all. But even in this physical place far away from that Land, we can harness this Torah portion's invitation to be transported.

What transports you? What connects you with God, whether for you that means God-far-above or God-deep-within? What sounds / sights / sensations / flavors / scents lift you out of yourself and into connection with something greater than yourself? On this Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, what is the doorway you need to walk through to find the peace and connection and wholeness that will restore you?

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my synagogue at Shabbat services this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Rabbi Roundtable: what do we wish Jews would stop doing?

6a00d8341c019953ef01b7c92df7d3970b-320wiThe Forward's latest Rabbi Roundtable is up -- on the question "what is one thing Jews need to stop doing?

Once again they chose to frame their question negatively, which exasperates me a little. (I would have preferred to have answered the question, "What is one thing you wish Jews would do more of?")

That said, it's interesting to see the answers from across the denominational and postdenominational spectrum.... and to see how many of us said some variation on "we need to end our internal triumphalism / stop knocking each other / stop acting as though our own way of doing and being Jewish is the only right way."

Read it here:  We Asked 25 Rabbis: What Is One Thing Jews Need to Stop Doing?


Visions of Renewal: Vayera and renewing our Judaism

69002

Shabbat shalom! Thank you for welcoming Rabbi David and me into your synagogue and into your community this weekend. 

We named our weekend together "Visions of Renewal." I want to unpack that a bit. Why "vision," and what's "renewal"?

Over the last few years, as Rabbi David and I have traveled the U.S. and Canada, we've noticed that Judaism we all inherited often feels like a Judaism of receptivity. We've all received a tradition that others created.  Receiving can feel passive – like we receive the news on TV, or receive the family constructs into which we're born.  It just happens.

But this week's Torah portion, Vayera, is about a quality of vision that's not passive but active, literally a making-seen.  "God caused [Avraham] to see, on the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day."

"God caused Avraham to see."  As we'll learn in tomorrow morning's Torah study, this Torah portion is about how Avraham sees, how we see, what he saw, what we see and why.  The upshot is this: in changing how he sees, Avraham changes his life.

We can spend a lifetime talking about Avraham, but I want to talk about us.  What do we see and tend not to see?  What covers our vision?  What can we do to make our vision clear?  That's the work of spiritual life: clarifying and renewing our vision so we can act in the world.  

When we look at spiritual life, do we see something obligatory? That's the classical view -- we do things because God commands us to do them. Or we don't, because those who brought us Reform Judaism rejected that paradigm. I serve a Reform shul not unlike this one, and most of my congregants tell me they don't feel "commanded." But then do mitzvot simply become irrelevant? (Spoiler alert: I'm going to say no.) Whether or not we see mitzvot as obligatory, they can renew our hearts and spirits. 

The Hebrew word מצוה / mitzvah is related to the Aramaic צוותא / tzavta, "connection."  Whatever your beliefs or disbeliefs about God, to me the key thing is how we connect – to God (whether far-above or deep-within), our ancestry, each other, our hearts and souls. If we see the connection hiding in each mitzvah, might that change how we feel about doing it -- or how we feel while doing it?

What about prayer: do you see liturgy as something you do because it's written in a book -- or something you don't do because it's written in a book? Do you see holidays as something you do because they were given to you -- or something you don't do, because they don't speak to you? Do you see spirituality as something that the rabbi and cantor give to you? Whether or not you were raised Jewish, do you see Judaism as something you either keep, or let go?

What if we could see all of this -- mitzvot, prayer, holidays, spiritual life writ large -- as something we actively make our own? The practices we name as התחדשות / hitchadshut, "Renewal," are about doing just that: making  it our own, renewing and being renewed.  Renewal isn't a brand or label. It's a way of living our Judaism, refining our capacity to see the richness and authenticity of spiritual life hiding in plain sight... and actively making it our own, so both our souls and our traditions can shine.

Take a step back and look at tonight's prayer service. Maybe you noticed chant, weaving of Hebrew and English, uses of silence, a focus on joy, themes popping out of the words – like vision, chosen for this week's Torah portion (Vayera) – a mix of ancient music and modern music. These reflect the spiritual technology we call "davenology" -- from the Yiddish "daven," to pray in meaningful ways attuned to spirit and heart. Renewal seeks to infuse prayer with heart -- and to infuse our hearts with prayer.

To use a metaphor I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, prayer is a meal and liturgy is a cookbook. We can't eat a cookbook. Renewal teaches: what matters is what helps us have a spiritual experience that actually connects us.  That's why we'll use Hebrew words, English words, sometimes no words. Classical words, contemporary words. Poetry, music, dance...  This isn't experimentation for its own sake: it's for the sake of deepening our experience of prayer.

Judaism is more than prayer, and Renewal is about more than "just" renewing our prayer lives. We bring this experiential approach to everything. One tool we use for that is hashpa'ah: in English, "spiritual direction." The Hebrew hashpa'ah comes from the root connoting divine flow. A mashpi'a(h) helps others experience the flow of divinity in the real stuff of their lives – family, work, faith, doubt, health, illness, sex, you name it.  About everything in our lives, we ask, "where is God in this?"

It's a big question.  When I began my training as a spiritual director -- both Rabbi David and I hold that second ordination -- my teachers asked me about my spiritual practices, and I started making excuses. "Well, I know I should be praying three times a day, but life gets in the way..." And my mashpi'a stopped me, gently, and said: I'm not asking you to tell me what your spiritual practices aren't. What are you doing in your life that opens you up? 

We can vision our spiritual lives negatively, in terms of what we don't do – we don't come to services "enough," or meditate "enough." But then our spirituality is negative, based on what we lack.  What if we actively vision it positively, based on the lives we actually live? If we're washing dishes, if we're folding laundry, driving the carpool, buying groceries: where is God in that? (We'll talk more about infusing ordinary practices with holiness in Sunday morning's session "Spirituality on the Go.")

Another of our tools is the collection of teachings, texts, and perspectives that come to us from Zohar and kabbalah and the Hasidic masters. These exquisite teachings can change the way we read Torah, how we experience time, how we live our lives.  We'll use these tools to study Torah tomorrow morning, tomorrow night when we enter into Jewish angelology, and on Sunday morning's session on "Mitzvah and Mysticism."  All of these are about connecting, actively changing how we see.

Davenology, spiritual direction, and mysticism are among the Renewal spiritual technologies especially near and dear to our hearts.  And here's the thing that's most important to me – not as a rabbi, but as a seeker like you: you don't have to be a rabbi for Renewal to enliven your spiritual life. You don't even have to be Jewish. These tools can help all of us transform our vision: whoever we are, wherever we're coming from, whatever we do or don't "believe in." 

That's what this weekend is about.  "God caused Avraham to see."  It's about seeing different, and being changed for the good.

On this Shabbat Vayera, this shabbat of active vision, may our eyes be opened to see what's been hiding in plain sight. May the Holy One cause us to be active partners in seeing the Judaism we yearn for, and bringing it into being in a world that needs us more than ever.

 

Offered at Temple B'nai Chaim in Wilton, Connecticut, where Rabbi David Markus and I are scholars-in-residence this weekend.


Sparks

Notice autumn's attenuation of light,
how early night brings stars.
Back to the beginning.

Dark came first. Then God ached
for an other, for face
meeting face, the birth

of I and Thou. Shaped us from earth
and breathed a soul, tender --
creation's first kiss.

Skin touches skin: we seek
sparks scattered across synapses
and lift them up, new constellations

spelling the unsayable name
as fallen leaves melt into sweetness
to nourish the wish of spring.

 


On Avram and Sarai and #MeToo

This d'var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week's Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God's command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth -- or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I've always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, "You're beautiful, and if they think you're my wife they'll kill me and take you -- so pretend to be my sister instead." And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires "sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels." Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!"

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh's court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don't want this to be in our Torah -- our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women's rights and women's bodies and women's integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity's part, and arguably even on God's part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word "patriarchal" comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren't always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram's sake. We don't know; Torah doesn't say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don't do anything; I've never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don't walk alone. I don't go out at night. I don't park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don't wear certain clothes. I don't make eye contact with men...

Most of us don't even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don't want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That's the assumption when women's bodies are property.

Guess what: it's still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men's need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here's a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn't have a voice in this story: don't replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her. 

Don't say "but men get raped too." Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don't derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that. 

If you're sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone's not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no -- or "not right now" -- even if they say it through body language instead of words -- then don't do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else's body. 

Understand that men feeling entitled to women's bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, "but I don't do those things!" I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It's in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It's shaped the way I think about my own body, and there's a lot that I'm working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here's the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can't.

I wish this story weren't in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren't such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory -- seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited -- is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week's Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go. 

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

Posted with gratitude to my hevruta partner, who helped me think through this. Shabbat shalom to all.


Rabbi Roundtable on the opioid epidemic

6a00d8341c019953ef01bb09ce0114970d-320wiI think their general intention is to publish these responses once a week, but given that the opioid epidemic is in the news, the folks at the Forward decided to publish a second Rabbi Roundtable this week: 

We asked 22 rabbis: What can the Jewish community do to fight the opioid epidemic?

This is a subject we need to grapple with as a community, and I'm glad that the Forward is putting it in the spotlight.


The Open Invitation

 

Noahs-ark-blueChodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!

Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?

Well, not exactly.

When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.

Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"

It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?

The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.

That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."

And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.

The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us:  the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.

Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?

The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?

Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.

May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.

 

I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.

 


Rabbi Roundtable at the Forward

Rabbi-roundtable-1508161760The good folks at the the Forward have started up a new series they're calling Rabbi Roundtable. They chose 17 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and they're posing questions to us and sharing our answers. 

The first one of these has just gone live, and the question they chose to ask this week is, "What is the biggest threat facing the Jewish people today?" Here are our answers: Rabbi Roundtable / What's the Biggest Threat to the Jewish People? Deep thanks to the editors at the Forward for including me as a leading voice of Jewish Renewal.


On stillness after the holidays

IStock-485751996

...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....

 

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important