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March 2004
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May 2004

Gay marriage backlash

Virginia has just passed the so-called Marriage Affirmation Act. The Act not only prohibits the state from recognizing civil unions, but strips private contractual rights between same-sex couples by outlawing any "partnership contract or other arrangements that purport to provide the benefits of marriage." As I understand it, that means health care proxy/durable power of attorney, custody, health insurance, estate planning and wills, even shared home ownership.

I knew there would be a backlash against the progressive goings-on in Massachusetts and California and Oregon and New York, but this is beyond the pale. I'm joining the ACLU.

At least I can count on the Shalom Center to cheer me up with good articles about same-sex marriage within Judaism, like A Wedding Liturgy for a Same-Sex Marriage by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Enlarging Sacred Space: K'dusha and Gay Marriage by Rabbi Daniel Siegel, and A Covenant of Same-Sex Nisu'in and Kedushin by Eyal Levinson.


One God, Many Names

Mostly I read Metafilter for silliness, but sometimes I find gems there. Like One God, Many Names by Dr. Umar Faruq abd-Allah, a paper published by The Nawawi Foundation.

The paper begins by explaining the Islamic teaching (often misunderstood by outsiders) that the God worshipped by Muslims is the same one worshipped by Christians and Jews. Dr. abd-Allah does an excellent job of showing the shared linguistic root of the Arabic "Allah," Hebrew "Elohim," and Syriac "Alaha" (the term for God used by John the Baptist).

I was struck by the beauty of an excerpt from an Islamic list of divine names: "He is God, other than whom there is no god: Knower of the unseen and the manifest. He is the All-Merciful, Bestower of special mercy..." It put me in mind of our Yom Kippur prayer which begins Adonai Adonai el rakhum v' khanun, "The Lord, the Lord God is gracious and compassionate..." The paper also features divine names from a range of non-Abrahamic traditions, and explores the etymology of the English word "God."

In closing, the paper addresses the resonance that the word "Allah" has for Muslims (and some of the baggage it may hold for non-Muslims), and argues that love of this particular Arabic word should not keep Muslims from using other Arabic divine names -- or from using the English word "God." That clicked with me because I favor liturgical inclusion of a range of Hebrew divine names (if we stick with "Adonai," Lord, all the time, our conception of God may calcify and limit our understanding) -- and I also wrestle with a simultaneous love of Hebrew words and prayers, and a desire to open up Jewish worship to those who need the vernacular.

"One God, Many Names" is an excellent read; I recommend it highly.


The imperative to mend

Sometimes the world just makes me sad. The Israelis and the Palestinians continue to kill each other. Diaspora Jews continue to argue so stridently about Israeli policy that I fear we will never understand each other, on this issue or any other. People are killing each other right now, around the world, for reasons I can't imagine or understand. (And probably in more places than you realize.) Governor Mitt Romney wants to take action to prevent gay marriages from happening in Massachusetts; President Bush wants to amend the federal Constitution for the same reason; and I find that so incomprehensible that I can't imagine how to begin to argue with it.

Kabbalist Isaac Luria originated the notion of tzimtzum, what one college professor of mine jokingly termed the "bagelization" of God. (Bear with me; this relates.) Before creation, this theory goes, God was complete and infinite. In order to make room for creation, God had to withdraw God's-self. God pulled back and in the space which was not-God, there creation is. (Maybe that's why we're fundamentally estranged from our Source: God had to pull back to make room for us. Where we are, God isn't. Bleak, eh?)

Luria's teaching continues: creation consisted of holy emanations streaming into the physical realm. God's emanations, though, were too strong to be contained, and creation shattered. The world that we know, therefore, is always already broken. It consists of shells, husks, in which holy sparks once resided. It is our job to find those holy sparks and lift them back up to God, to reunite them with their Source, and in so doing make whole the broken world. (This is the original context of the phrase tikkun olam, healing the world.)

When wholeness seems impossible, I try to tell myself that it is good to open myself to what is broken. That we are exiled sparks of God -- and that sorrow is good if it impels us to reach God-wards.

Breath of Life, help me to approach the broken world with compassion, to accord full humanity even to those whose beliefs and actions I find most reprehensible. To know that every disagreement is an opportunity for growth, and that every sorrow is an opportunity for teshuvah, re/turning to You; that only despair is unforgiveable, because it removes the hope of change. Blessed are You, Source of all Being, who has given us a broken world and the imperative to mend it.


Retreats, and staying home

A few years ago at seder, I commented to one of my brothers that I wondered what it would be like to celebrate Pesach with a community of people who are as gung-ho about Judaism as I am. I said maybe next year I'd spend the holiday on retreat.

"I hope you don't," he said, "because that would be a loss for the rest of us." Having me there -- as quirky and feminist and in-love with Judaism as I am -- adds something to my family's seder. When I recuse myself to spend holidays with other people just like me, my family misses out.

I don't always make it to Texas for seder. My families are many. If I could teleport to hold a seder every night of the festival in a different place, I'm still not sure I could manage to be with everyone I'd like to celebrate with. That's okay.

But as we approach Shavuot, I'm thinking about retreats again. At the Kehilat Hadar retreat at Camp Ramah, a community of invested, engaged, thinking Jews will stay up all night studying and praying, and will welcome the dawn with enthusiastic prayer and song. I can't tell you how great that sounds.

But I'm not going. Because I'm organizing my shul's tikkun leyl Shavuot this year. (That's the traditional all-night study session. "Tikkun" literally means "repair" or "healing" -- an interesting term to use for Torah study, no?)

Last year was the first time I celebrated Shavuot as an adult. About twenty people started the night at my shul with the evening service; then community members taught shiurim, lessons, on subjects ranging from midrash-writing to Biblical poetry. (We interpret "Torah study" pretty broadly.) The crowd was skewed towards real grown-ups, with jobs to attend the next morning; a few people left after each shiur, until by 2am it was just Jeff (the rabbi) and me. He taught his lesson, and then we went home. Kinda...anti-climactic.

I wanted to last until dawn, to see what it's like to davven the morning blessings after studying all night in a mindful way. Jeff says he's happy with how it went, though, and from his point of view I can see why. It's good that our small congregation has people interested in celebrating Shavuot; and if we can't make it all night long, well, what's important is that we're trying. As leader of a smalltown congregation, he's thrilled that there's enthusiasm.

Me, I'm not the rabbi. I'm a community member who wants a particular experience, and I'm not getting it. And I know I could get it by going on retreat. So why aren't I going?

Because of what my brother said that Pesach. If I leave town to get all of my good Jewish experiences, then I'm not helping to build kehillat kodesh, holy community, in the community where I live. I can't donate funds to maintain our building; what I can give is my time, and my desire to help create meaningful Jewish experiences.

As things stand now, eight people have agreed to teach, including Jeff and me. People who don't teach regularly don't necessarily know how long a given discussion will last; there's a good chance we'll run through eight lessons in four hours. In other words, this could be another year when we fizzle by two.

I know I'll be bummed if/when I don't get the all-night tikkun I'm looking for, but I still think I made the right call. For Yom Kippur, when my shul will be packed to the gills, I'm returning to Elat Chayyim. But for Shavuot? I have a role to play here. I like knowing that I'll be helping members of my community get a joyful experience, even if it's not exactly the experience of my dreams.


Prison follow-up

A Brian Garnett, director of internal affairs at the York Correctional Facility in Connecticut, responded to my e-mail about the women's writing program situation.

It looks like a form letter, but hopefully it's accurate. The upshot is, the inmate writing workshop will continue, and Mr. Garnett claims that there was no order to delete the women's work off of hard drives as the AP had reported. Mr. Garnett writes:

The program was temporarily on hold for about a month, as concerns were addressed about the dissemination of news within the prison, of the $25,000 PEN America prize, awarded to one of the inmate authors. The Department of Correction had been given no prior notice of the nomination or the awarding of the prize. There is a very real concern regarding safety and security for the inmate and the prison, with her being identified as having access to that amount of money.

Media reports also charged that writing materials were destroyed. There was never any malicious intent on the part of the Department, nor was any destruction ordered at any time. Our only intention was requiring that the writings be committed to computer disks to fully preserve those materials and ensure they would be in place when the program started up again. We have now learned those initial reports of destruction were erroneous and little if any material was lost.

For PEN's take on the situation, a friend pointed me toward PEN Welcomes Developments Regarding Prison Writing Suit, Workshop Suspension.

It's nice to have good news to blog about.


Speaking out

From the AP: Prison officials destroyed computer files containing inmates' personal writing days after a prisoner won a national writing award, best-selling author Wally Lamb said.

Lamb, who teaches a creative writing workshop at the York Correctional Facility in East Lyme, said Wednesday that 15 women inmates lost up to five years of work when officials at the prison's school ordered all hard drives used for the class erased and its computer disks turned over. (Read the whole story here.)

Not my usual subject matter, I recognize. But my Jewishness impels me to a social conscience, and the capricious meanness of the prison officials' actions infuriates me.

I hope to teach in a prison someday. asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife gave me a sense of what inmates and their families face; Mark Salzman's True Notebooks gave me a glimpse into what an inmate writing workshop can mean to its participants.

asha's and Mark's books moved me deeply; and my nonprofit Inkberry was founded on the principle that telling one's own story can be transformative. Surely that is as true for prison inmates as for those of us outside -- in fact, one could argue that prison inmates need the transformative power of language even more than the rest of us do, because words can give their minds and hearts freedom that their bodies can't access.

The prison officials should be ashamed of themselves for responding to the news of Lane's award by closing the workshop down -- and destroying the words of these prisoners' mouths and the meditations of their hearts was an act of needless violence. It's an outrage, perpetrated against the largely-voiceless, removing what little voice they thought they had.

If you're half as angry as I am, consider emailing the Connecticut Department of Corrections at doc.pio@po.state.ct.us and telling them just how unconscionable this abridgement of rights is.


BloggerCon

Saturday I attended my first BloggerCon. I met some interesting people, got a mess of new URLs for my aggregator and blogroll, and had some good conversations. It wasn't all scintillating; but given that the con is free, I definitely got my money's worth! During the What Is Journalism session, Jeff Sharlet compared blogs to sermons, which resonated for me. And Dave Weinberger said "Writing is a way of caring about your world," which I liked. I also want to note that Rebecca MacKinnon's International session was terrific; I especially appreciated the link to her World Blog Aggregator.

Unsurprisingly, I was most excited about the Religion session, led by Jeff Sharlet.

We began by talking about the term "Godblog," which is apparently offensive to some folks, though I think it's really cool. It was suggested that blogging about other subjects (education, pop culture, politics) inherently means blogging about religion. Jeff observed that much of the language we use in describing the blogosphere involves religious metaphors: jihad, priesthood, missionary, sermon, miracle. People have a lot of visionary hopes for what blogging can do, which may make blogging itself a religious endeavor.

Questions included: is the internet by definition irreverent? Is blogging about religion a spiritual practice? Is it the only spiritual practice for some people, or is it part of a larger, more orthodox spiritual practice? What about politics: are religion blogs necessarily connected with politics? Is this really a question of storytelling: how we tell stories about what we believe in and what we don't believe in...? Can we strengthen congregations by having congregational blogs?

Several of the participants spoke up about how we use, and see, our own religion blogs. Fructus Ventris cited St. Blog's Parish, a Roman Catholic blog webring. She characterized the members as liturgically similar, but often politically opposed. Another participant cited The Village Gate (formerly The Right Christians). I talked about how I think religious communities, and therefore the religious blogosphere, can bring together people who hold a range of political opinions but who agree to listen to one another because we're part of a spiritual community. I also talked about how neat I think it is that blogging is such a DIY phenomenon, and made an analogy to branches of Judaism which place emphasis on individual engagement with tradition. One woman (I think she blogs at Rosa's Mundi) talked about neopaganism, which is generally very technoliterate. She observed that the web is a great way to meet other neopagans -- sometimes the only way.

We talked about blogging as essentially anti-authoritarian, and asked whether there's a disjunction between hierarchical religious traditions and this anti-authoritarian online spirit. We talked about Hasidic Rebel, the only Hasidic blogger we knew of, and wondered aloud whether he stopped blogging because he got outed within his community. There was also some talk of Catholicism, which is also pretty authoritarian, and how/whether that fits with the rebellious spirit of the blogosphere.

It was agreed that religion can be a pretty personal thing. Jay Rosen pointed out that there can be a tension between blogging (very of-the-moment, day-to-day, every day is new) and the timelessness of religion (and/or the idea that the world is eternal, unchanging). The woman from St. Blog's Parish put forth the theory that most religion bloggers believe in Truth-with-a-capital-T, which I'm actually not sure I agree with, though I didn't say so at the time.

Which religion lends itself most to blogging? Someone said Buddhism, because it's a religion of impermanence and the blogosphere is always changing. (I've already blogged Dave Weinberger's very funny comment about why so many Jews blog.) Someone else said atheism, because there are so many atheists online. URLs mentioned included Blogs4God, Dharma Crumbs, Catholic Rage Monkeys and Islamicate (I mentioned their Ahl al-Kitab blogroll).

We also talked about how some blogs focus on other religions, and not always in a spirit of respectful engagement, either. There's a way in which blogging opens communities up, and there's also a way in which blogging encourages polarization and insularity. Do we fear the way religion blogging can amplify extreme voices?

Could we collect a blogroll of religion blogs which could be used to teach kids about different religions? An Iranian blogger whose name I don't know said "What we get from blogs is lived religious experience, rather than doctrine," which I thought was a neat idea. Though Joshua Farber argued that "The plural of anecdote is not data," and that a range of blogs can show good information but they're still not a scientific sampling, which is also a good point.

How do we measure the success of religion blogs? Do religion blogs need to be read, in the same ways that journalism exists to be read, or can the mere writing of them be enough? Unsurprisingly, no consensus was reached there.

What can religious blogs teach secular bloggers? Jay Rosen pointed out that we tend to assume the binarism of verified fact vs. opinion, and that secularism triumphs when we think hard facts trump lived experience/faith/opinion; maybe religion blogs, he suggested, will teach us not to categorize everything by that simple either/or. Dave Weinberger said he's seen AKMA's blog have a pacifying effect on flame wars. Do religious blogs have a particular tone? Are they necessarily pacifying? I said they might be, though so many Jewish blogs focus on Israel that they become fractious fast.

Towards the end, the question was raised, "Can we use 'religion blogs' as a category, or is it too broad? Are there too many differences?" Unfortunately, I had to duck out shortly thereafter, so I missed the session's conclusion...


Room for argument

One of the things I love about Judaism is the way we handle disagreement. We're a tradition of argument. Abraham, the forefather of our faith, argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses, given the task of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt, argues with God about his suitability for the task. (God overrules him, to be sure; but I've never gotten the sense that his argument was insubordination.)

The sages whose conversations are enshrined in the Talmud argue with each other. Talmud is considered Oral Torah; the idea is that God whispered the entire Talmud to Moses atop Sinai, and it was passed down orally until it was finally transcribed. (Some denominations still see it this way.) But even though it's considered by many to be divinely-authored, it speaks in a multiplicity of voices. And we not only allow, but encourage, varied interpretations of Torah as a whole. How cool is that?

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from the JTS' commentary on the Torah portion Beshalach: [I]n Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. I love how this guarantees space, within my tradition, for different interpretations and respectful disagreement.

In the Religion panel at BloggerCon II yesterday, Dave Weinberger joked that this is why so many Jews are bloggers: because Judaism is "a religion focused on a community arguing with coreligionists about sacred texts over the course of time." In other words (as I understand him): the DIY ethos of blogging -- anyone can speak up and claim a place and a voice in the community, and disagreement is both welcomed and expected -- dovetails neatly with the Jewish ethos of coreligionists arguing over what we hold dear. I knew there was a reason this blogging thing came so easily... ;-)


The Dream of a Common Language

Out of Step Jew posted recently about Towards a Common Judaism, an essay by the editors of Azure. First, the editors describe the chasms separating the denominations; then they give cause for hope. They cite the Reform movement's recent movement towards engaging with traditionalism (which could be a bridge to dialogue with, say, Orthodoxy), the Nahal Haredi (Israeli Army unit which caters to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox, thereby enabling them to serve and removing a major obstacle to intradenominational harmony in Israel), and the Kinneret Declaration.

I'd never heard of the Kinneret Declaration before, but it says some impressive things: "We, secular, traditional, and religious Jews, each recognize the contribution of the others to the physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish people.... We are one people. We share one past and one destiny." What a marvel! Unfortunately, Out of Step Jew seems to think the Kinneret Declaration was largely ineffectual, so it's hard to know how hopeful a sign it really is.

Even so, I completely agree with Azure's editors that it's time to focus on creating a sense of ourselves as members of the same community."What is needed," they write, "is a change in paradigm along the lines suggested a century ago by the scholar and educator Solomon Schechter, who in His Majesty's Opposition called on Jews holding different viewpoints to see themselves as belonging to competing political parties within a single, great republic[.]"

My preferred metaphor is similar: we may be a family which disagrees about many things, but we're all the same family. My Orthodox cousin may go about his Jewishness in ways which baffle me, but I don't deny his right to define his own way of being Jewish, and I continue to value our relatedness. This is literally true within my family, which spans Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal affiliations and practices; how good would it be if k'lal Yisrael, the greater Jewish community, could focus this way?

I disagree with the editors, though, in the final step their logic takes: "Such an approach does not negate the role of comparison, but shifts its focus. Instead of highlighting differences among the movements of Judaism, it suggests that it is more revealing to consider how Judaism as a whole differs from the leading civilizations, philosophies, and religions with which it is in competition, whether these be Christianity, Buddhism, or the main streams of Enlightenment thought." (Italics theirs.) I agree that we should focus less on how we, as Jews of varying denominations, differ; but I don't agree that we should find our common ground in defining ourselves in opposition to the rest of the world.

To my mind, a certain amount of what I'll call insularity -- an inward focus and us/them mentality -- made sense historically. Our history of persecution was a good reason to turn inward. But in today's multicultural world, I think we are poorly-served by the insular impulse. How does focusing on how we differ from other peoples help us? It isolates us, creates opposition where none need exist, and prevents us from perceiving opportunities for connection. Which is not to say that we should pretend we are all the same; vive la différence! But I choose to celebrate difference, and to work on communicating through it. I define my Jewishness positively (I am, I believe, I think, I read, I write, I pray), not negatively (I am not like you, or you, or you).

Yes: it is important to the survival of the Jewish people that we learn to relate as family, instead of fighting bitterly about who is doing Judaism "right." But I also think it's important to the survival of humanity that we all learn to relate that way -- which means forming genuine connections outside our community, not just within it.

A dear friend, a local Episcopal priest, came with his wife to our seder last week. They participated with gusto, and enhanced our gathering greatly. In an e-mail the next day, he wrote to me that the experience had strengthened his resolve to "find the common ground and respect the distinct terrain" of our two faiths. That is precisely what I aspire to, and what I hope the Jewish community will come to aspire to: engaging with the rest of the world in a way which simultaneously cherishes common ground and respects the different terrain. Maybe the first step is to learn how to approach our fellow Jews that way...


Blowing my own horn

My essay Diaspora Grrl -- about metaphorical Israel and literal Israel, living in Diaspora, and creating holiness, among other things -- has been published in issue 76 of Bad Subjects.

I'm proud to be published there, so naturally I want to direct as much traffic as possible their way. If you don't know Bad Subjects, check it out: it's politically progressive, and manages to be both intellectually rigorous and invested/passionate. Also well-written and meticulously-edited. It's my idea of a good 'zine.

Many thanks to the friends who read "Diaspora Grrl" in draft, and also to the editors of Bad Subjects for their enthusiasm and hard work.


Ways of walking

I've been thinking lately about how I do, and don't, celebrate Shabbat and festivals. Many Jewish bloggers don't post on Shabbat, for instance; obviously I do. (Shabbat shalom, gang.) Well, to clarify: I post here, though I don't post to Kesher Talk, because that would offend other members of that community. To their minds, it's a violation of halakhah. I'm happy to respect that, in their space.

But I like posting to my own blog on Shabbat, because this is, well, fun. Playing with words and communicating with people are two of my favorite things. Giving up my computer on Shabbat would feel like sacrifice, and in turn would make me resentful of (and reluctant to observe) the holiday. So I don't abstain from computer usage. (Nor from other kinds of "work" which bring me pleasure: writing, gardening, cooking, puttering around my house.) Does that make me non-observant? Depends on how you define the term.

The phrase "observant Jew" generally means a person who observes the laws and rituals of Jewish tradition according to a standard set of interpretations. Lately, though, I've been wanting to use the words differently. I want to be an observant Jew--someone whose eyes are open. I want to interact with my tradition with clear vision. I want to really see Judaism, from the inside, and find joy and meaning there.

Rav Soloveichik, z"l, would probably argue that the joy and meaning would arise in time out of practice. That the point of halakhah is that we follow it; that "finding personal meaning" is a sentimental concept at best. (At least, that's how I remember the gist of Halakhic Man. I would re-read it this weekend, but can't seem to find my copy...) I respect his emphasis on praxis, but I'm attached to the notion that it's my responsibility to engage with the tradition in my own way. (This may be thanks to the Reform part of my upbringing.) The root of halakahah is the verb "to walk." I see no reason why different Jews' paths can't be different, as long as we're aiming in the same direction.

And speaking of people on parallel paths: to those of my readers observing Good Friday, may your vigil be fruitful, and may your celebrations on Sunday bring you joy.


Never Forget

The Shoah was an unimaginable horror. Hence the rallying cry "Never forget," to make sure we remember what happened and how, in order that we may prevent it from happening again. Whatever issues may divide the Jewish community today, I suspect we remain united in our abhorrence of the Holocaust, and in our resolve to prevent another Shoah from coming to pass.

To my mind, that imperative applies to all attempted genocides, not only genocides where Jews are the intended target. If the memory of the Shoah is to have any meaning, it must impel us to act against all acts of genocide, because they are all unconscionable.

So go read this Reuters article, in which Kofi Annan warns of a Rwanda-style genocide in Sudan, happening right now. And then do something about it. If the issue gets enough attention, maybe someone will stop the genocide from continuing. If you're an American, you can start by calling your Senator or Congressman to urge them to speak out, and if they don't have a position on the issue, kindly educate them.

I pinched this shamelessly from Ethan Zuckerman's blog, along with the five URLs below which provide information about the current situation in Darfur. This may seem too far-away, or too huge and terrible, for us to be able to stop it -- but that attitude as good as guarantees that it will continue. As it is written in Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers), it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. (Emphasis mine.)

A recent State Department briefing, which includes an exchange between reporters and State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli on the situation in Darfur.

President Bush's condemnation of the atrocities in Darfur.

Human Rights Watch report on atrocities in Darfur.

Amnesty International's report on Darfur.

BBC timeline on events in Sudan.


One Wonderful Day of the Omer!

Hag sameach: happy Pesach to you all!

Although tonight is the second night of the festival, I've already led two seders: I went to Boston to celebrate with my sister and her family and some of her friends on Sunday night (on the theory that, while it wasn't Pesach yet, it was the night when we could be together, and we wanted a seder together), and then came home yesterday for a seder with a dozen friends here at our house.

I'm glad to have gotten two seders this year. Seder is my favorite ritual, bar none, and after all the anticipation and preparation, it's good to get two seders under my belt before waiting for next year.

Tonight kicks off a different kind of anticipation: thinking ahead to Shavuot. Tonight, we start counting the Omer. (The what, you say?) "Omer" means "measures." When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was customary to bring harvest offerings three times a year, at Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Some say the tradition of Counting the Omer dates to those days. We measured the seven weeks between planting new barley and harvesting it; then offered a measure, in thanks, to our Source.

Now that few of us are barley farmers, and those who are can no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple, I'd argue that practices like counting the Omer must take on new meaning or risk becoming outdated husks of observance. Today we focus less on Shavuot's harvest roots, and more on its continuing relevance as the anniversary of the day the Israelites accepted the teachings of Torah at Sinai. One midrash holds that we were all, in a mystical way, present at Sinai to forge a personal bond with the essence of the Word: that's a day worth commemorating.

Shavuot is a holiday to anticipate joyfully. We count the Omer the way we count days to birthdays or vacations, eager for what's coming.

At Pesach we celebrate our freedom from slavery; in fifty days we will celebrate our acceptance of the Torah's teachings. Counting the Omer reminds us that we are freed not only from, but also toward. Passover and Shavuot are linked stages on our collective journey to mature, thinking, engaged Jewishness: we must be free in order to accept the joyful responsibility of connecting with God and healing the world.

I'm also personally counting days until Shavuot because I'm responsible for organizing my shul's tikkun leyl Shavuot (all-night Shavuot Eve study session) this year. Only 49 days to line up the people who are going to teach! Eek! Last year we only made it until about two in the morning; we didn't have enough night owls, and a lot of people's lessons ran short, and we just kind of fizzled. I'd love to have enough excited, energized people to actually make it all night this year...


Hametz and matzah

I spent this evening at my shul with our rabbi and two other congregants (coincidentally, the current president and the past president, both of whom are lovely men) making matzah. It's surprisingly easy. Here's what you do:

1) Preheat your oven to 400.

2) Mix 2 cups flour with roughly 3/4 cup water (halakhah dictates that it should sit for 24 hours in a cool, dark place to purify; we decided our well qualifies) in a food processor. From the moment water hits flour, you have eighteen minutes to get the matzah into the oven; otherwise it is considered at-risk for natural leavening, and is no longer kosher!

3) Separate the dough into six little balls, and roll each out with some flour until it's about eight inches in diameter.

4) Prick each matzah with a matzah perforator (ours was made of a large dowel with picture nails spaced evenly around the middle).

5) Bake for roughly 12 minutes, until they start to brown. Ta-da!

While we made matzah (and laughed at each other's attempts to get them round -- my advice is, accept their misshapen nature as proof that they were home-made by loving hands), we told jokes and talked about Passover. I shared a drash on matzah which came across my Torah e-mail list recently:

In Hebrew, matzah is spelled mem-tzaddik-heh. Hametz (leaven) is spelled khet-mem-tzaddik. The difference between the two words is the difference between H and Kh, between heh and khet. Those two letters look very alike; the difference between them is the little open space in the upper left of the heh. Just so, the difference between matzah and hametz is the little open space through which holiness can flow.

Whether you make your own matzah, or buy it off the shelf in a Manischevitz box; whether you observe the negative commandment to avoid leaven for the duration of the festival, or run out for a bagel the morning after seder; may your Pesach be full of little holy open spaces.