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December 2004
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February 2005

A Passage to India

I'll be offline for half of February thanks to a ten-day trip to India and the time it takes to get there and back. (I may be online less than usual beforehand, as I pack and prepare for the trip, and also afterwards, as I wade through the email messages that will pile up during my absence. If I'm slow in responding to comments, please forgive the delay.)

I'm deeply excited about going to India. Conventional wisdom holds that India is one of the most beautiful, and also most overwhelming, countries in the world. Everyone I know who's been there tells me I'll be stunned by the number of people, the sounds and smells, the crush of crowds, the poverty. Secretly I think I won't be so overwhelmed as all that -- how could I be surprised by the sensory overload of the developing world after visiting Makola market? -- but maybe I'll be bowled-over anyway. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Though I won't be anywhere near Dharamsala (our itinerary calls for a few days in Mumbai and then train travel through Rajasthan), as I get ready for this trip I can't help thinking about the India book which launched my adult journey into Judaism: Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, which my friend David gave to me more than ten years ago, and which tells the true story of a group of rabbis who went to Dharamsala to talk with the Dalai Lama about Diaspora survival. My essay "Up the Spiral" talks about how that book launched me in this orbit, and kept me (t)here, too.

I still remember finishing it the first time, lying on top of the crazyquilt on the futon in Ethan's apartment, and beaming with the deep realization that Judaism comes in so many forms -- and that it doesn't have to be insular at all. The rabbis who went to pow-wow with His Holiness came from every corner of the Jewish world, and though they didn't always agree (indeed, they often saw important things very differently) their respect for one another, and for their shared enterprise, shone through their differences.

The Jew in the Lotus opened my eyes to the existence of a Judaism that is multifaceted and open to interfaith encounters. I was especially intrigued by the description of contemplative and mystical Jewish practices, and by Rodger's portrayal of Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi -- though I didn't quite believe he could be as cool as he sounded. (Turns out he is.) The book does a beautiful job of bringing people to life -- from luminaries like Reb Zalman, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and the Dalai Lama to the many ordinary people at the intersections of Judaism and Buddhism with whom Rodger spoke. Some consider themselves Jewish; others consider themselves Buddhist. Unsurprisingly, where the two traditions meet, both strong emotions and opportunities for learning can arise.

Thubten Chodron -- born Jewish, now a Buddhist nun -- wrote eloquently about the experience from her perspective. And in What I Learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama,  Rodger Kamenetz has written a lovely essay about that trip, his return six years later, and why he had to go so far away to learn something so meaningful about home.

Travel broadens. It opens the eyes. It shakes one up. It surprises. It requires one to be flexible; it involves leaving one's comfort zone; it demands awareness that one isn't actually in control. (I've already had a reminder of that, in my scramble to get my passport renewed fast so it would be suitable for a six-month tourist visa. For a while there, the fate of my trip was entirely in the hands of the Indian Consulate General of New York.) I can't wait to see how India changes me, and what it teaches me about the world outside my usual stomping grounds. And I suspect that, like Rodger and the rabbis who went to Dharamsala fifteen years ago, I'll come home with new insights about the place (physical, emotional, and spiritual) from which I left.

Another award-related post

When I said I wouldn't be blogging much this week, I probably guaranteed that I'd blog again before I went to bed tonight, didn't I?

Just wanted to let y'all know that voting is now open in the Jewish & Israeli Blogs Awards. This blog is nominated for Best Jewish Religion Blog (group B).

Incidentally, though I thought one could vote once in group A and once in group B, it appears that one can vote only once on the page. Just so you know.

I won't be offended if y'all vote for Baraita. :-)


It's a low-blogging week for me, because my father is visiting from San Antonio. So instead of spending my usual multiple hours a day basking in the glow of my laptop, I'm chauffeuring him around town to see the sights. Today we took in the current exhibition at MASS MoCA -- we agreed that we both liked the Matthew Ritchie stuff the best -- and sampled the wares of my two favorite coffee shops, both indie joints. (I also had the pleasure of showing Dad my picture in today's paper, which felt pretty neat.)

It makes me happy to hear the sound of my father's voice ringing through my house. The scent of his cigars and his aftershave is profoundly comforting, because it's such a familiar combination. We haven't lived under the same roof in thirteen years, so we're unaccustomed to one another's rhythms -- but I think we're both happy to have the chance to walk side by side for a few days.

It's a little bit strange to be away from my usual routines; away from the blogosphere; away from weekly meditation and the other practices that characterize, and ground, my day-to-day life. But it's good to be showing my father around my life: familiar haunts (we're returning to our favorite neighborhood pub tonight) as well as new experiences (we showed him his first episode of the Daily Show last night). I think of it as a practice of kibud av v'em (the mitzvah of honoring one's parents). Suspending my ordinary life for a few days when he comes to town is the least I can do.

I'll close this blog post with a link to one of my favorite poems, one which honors the poet's father for acts of lovingkindness performed without a word: Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays." May my time with my father enrich and inform me. See y'all on the other side.

Rabbi Rami's manifesto

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has written A SimplyJewish Manifesto (subtitled "toward a second American Jewish revolution") which I think is really worth reading.

Here are two of my favorite bits, one from near the beginning and the other from near the end:

We recognize Judaism as the Jews' ancient and on-going effort to effect tikkun through teshuvah, repairing the world to wholeness by continually returning our attention to God and godliness...

...We recognize all beings as manifestations of God, all religions as attempts to articulate the Ineffable, and all scripture as sources of Truth. We reject all notions of chosenness and uphold the equality of all beings in, with, and as God.

I've been a fan of Rabbi Rami's for some years now. Back in 1997 I participated in an online Torah discussion forum which he moderated; it was reasoned and reasonable, which felt like quite a rarity at the time! I also like his book Minyan. If memory serves, that was the first place I encountered the notion of nondualistic Judaism, which was fairly eye-opening for me.

And I like his manifesto a great deal. The principles he articulates fit neatly with my understanding of my tradition. Some of what he says may strike my more traditionalist readers as controversial, but I think the manifesto is worth reading regardless of where you fall on the denominational spectrum. To me, this reads as a very Jewish Renewal document, though I don't know whether he would characterize it that way himself. (In any event, it's a lovely encapsulation of why I feel so at-home in Jewish Renewal.)  It's short and sweet, and packed with good ideas. Read it here.

What makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?

In response to Shawn Landres' recent post at People of the Book, I'm making available a paper I wrote a while back which addresses the question of what makes Jewish literature Jewish.

I spent a semester of grad school exploring a cross-section of Jewish literature, with the intent of trying to define (or at least more clearly understand) what makes a Jewish book. I read classics (some Torah, natch, plus Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Delmore Schwartz, Malka Heifetz Tussman) alongside writers of today (Francine Prose, Hal Sirowitz, and Rodger Kamenetz, among others).

Aware that my own roots give me a tendency towards Ashkenazi-centrism, and wanting to combat that, I turned to Ilan Stavans' Jewish Latin America series for balance. (The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas has one of the coolest titles ever.) I read secondary sources about Jewish literature (among them an excellent issue of the Pakn-Treger that happened to focus on this very question). I had a ridiculous amount of fun.

The...question I began with... [is] what makes a piece of writing Jewish. Must it be written by a Jew? If so, is the Jewishness of its author enough to make the writing itself Jewish? Conversely, what if a piece of writing (a story, a poem, a novel, a body of work) deals with Jewish characters and settings, but is not written by a Jew? What does it mean to deal with "Jewish characters and settings" in 1998, when  a "Jewish character" (or a Jewish author) could as easily be a black lesbian feminist Jew-by-choice living in California as a white man of Eastern European descent living in New York city? What is a Jewish character, a Jewish author, a Jewish subject? Does language matter -- which is to say, is a piece of Yiddish fiction automatically Jewish? How about Hebrew poetry? Is there such a thing as a Jewish "essence," a Jewish neshamah, in a piece of writing -- and if so, what creates it? When I turned my eye towards this project six months ago, I dimly sensed these questions on my horizon.

The question I did not sense on my horizon, although perhaps I should have, is this: is Jewishness about looking in or looking out? Must Jewish writing  be directed inwards within the Jewish community, or can it  be universal?

I wound up writing roughly 7000 words on the subject. I can't claim to definitively answer the question (the more Jewish lit I read, and the more I think about what I've read, the less possible I think it is to concretely define the genre), but there's some interesting food for thought there.

The paper is available for download here:

A Question of Reading: Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature So Jewish, Anyway?

Hopefully you'll enjoy reading it a fraction as much as I enjoyed writing it!

(Cross-posted to People of the Book.)

People of the Book

People of the Book is a new group blog dedicated to Jewish books, Jewish explorations of books, Jewish literary and publishing news, and general insight into Jewish literary life.  It's the brainchild of Miriam and Paul Shaviv (of Bloghead); other contributors include Shawn Landres of Religion and Society, Ayelet Waldman of Bad Mother, Harry of Off the Beaten Bookshelf, and me.

My first post there consists of musings on one of my favorite Alicia Ostriker poems. I hope to see the blog become a forum for good book discussions; go, give it a read, and join the conversation!

The Ayelet Cohen controversy

Dan Rosan alerted me to this story about Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, a Conservative rabbi who may lose her standing within her movement. Depending on who one asks, that's either because she didn't jump through some beaurocratic hoops, or it's because she's too outspoken an advocate for GLBT Jews. The New York Times just ran a pretty informative piece about it, which begins:

A rabbi who has officiated at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples has been threatened with expulsion from the Conservative movement's rabbinical association, though movement officials say it is not her activism that is at issue but her repeated defiance of the movement's rules.

(Read the whole thing here. Registration required; if you're not a subscriber, you can also read it here.)

Rabbi Cohen serves a denominationally-unaffiliated gay and lesbian congregation, which she has called her dream job. As this piece notes, GLBT shuls can't technically join the Conservative movement, so Rabbi Cohen had to get a special waiver to work there. She didn't get it renewed in time, and that may be coming back to bite her now. The question is, is her standing in jeopardy because she didn't dot her i's and cross her t's, or is it her radicalism that's gotten her in trouble?

The Rabbinical Assembly says she neglected to abide by organizational standards when she failed to apply to renew the waiver required for her to keep her current position. Rabbi Cohen's supporters are crying foul, implying that the waiver is a pretext and that she's actually being ostracized for her outspoken support of GLBT Jews. Rabbi Cohen wants to make use of the takkanah, the right of rabbinic authorities to "uproot" a law, in order to change how traditional Judaism regards queerness. She has been active in creating liturgies and rituals for GLBT Jews, and has spoken freely about her desire to see the movement change its policies.

In 2003, Rabbi Cohen delivered the keynote address at Tse Ulemad ("Come Out and Learn"), a "day of learning about sexual orientation and halakha in the Conservative Movement". In that address, she argued that gay and lesbian Jews must no longer be relegated to second-class status:

We are turning Jews away from our institutions and that is turning them away from the Conservative Movement and from Jewish life.  We all know that we cannot afford to lose people in this day and age.  We cannot afford to close the doors of our synagogues and schools on Jews who want access.

And it doesn't have to be like this.  We are the Conservative Movement.  Who understands better than we that halakhah is vital--in both of its meanings: absolutely essential and completely alive.  We do not fear approaching text with hard questions and innovative readings.  We are uniquely placed to read both our sacred texts and the world around us with a sophistication, a critical eye and a reverence that does not inhibit our minds but deepens our thirst for understanding.  If we feel in our hearts that this situation is unconscionable, if we wonder about the gap between our civic values and our religious laws, there is no one more qualified then we to meet that challenge.

I'm not a part of the Conservative movement, and I don't know what the "real" story is behind her RA standing (or lack thereof). But from what I've gathered, Ayelet Cohen sounds like a remarkable woman, a dedicated Jew, and an admirable rabbi. I think excluding her would be a loss for the Conservative movement.

If any of my readers can shed more light on what's going on, I'd appreciate that.

The sap is rising

One of the suggestions my friend Charlene gave me, when I was preparing to spend my first winter in New England, was "grow lots of plants." She too hailed from south Texas, and understood how green-starved southern eyes can get once northern winter sets in. That was a long time ago, but the advice still holds true.

My mother is fond of noting that both of her Massachusetts daughters seem to have green thumbs. (Each of us plays host to a small forest of cacti, philodendrons, and aloes.) I'm not sure Mom understands that the array of houseplants isn't just decorative -- it's necessary. I love the winter wonderland outside my window, and the  fact of greenery in my home helps me sustain that love through the months of ice and snow.

Today I made a happy discovery: my orchid (I think it's some kind of phalaenopsis) is sprouting again. My sister gave me the orchid some years ago, after I led a Passover seder at her house.  We'd divided the labor in our usual way: I handled the liturgical end of things, and she masterminded the food and the guest list. As decoration, she placed a potted orchid on each table. Afterwards, she gave me one of the centerpieces, as a thank-you.

I drove back across the state with the plant in a cardboard box. It blossomed for months, but by Rosh Hashanah the flowers withered and dropped, and then the stalk turned dry and pale. I snipped the stalk off at the base and kept watering the pot. The big oval leaves pleased me, springing from their nest of pebbles and moss.

To my delight, the following spring the orchid sprouted a stalk again. I kept watering it, fed it occasionally, and once the stalk was long enough bound it to the same curved stake that the first plant had grown to follow. It rewarded me with a ridiculous abundance of snowy blooms, fuschia streaks at their hearts. I put it on my seder table again.

The following year, the pattern repeated. This year will be the fourth, which is why I've come to think of this plant as my Pesach orchid. (Kind of like my so-called Christmas cactus, though that one actually blooms at Thanksgiving.) Today the new stalk is about two inches long, with a green tip. I have hopes that it will be tall enough to bind, and maybe even flowering, by Pesach.

It seems appropriate that this tropical plant shows signs of life as we approach Tu BiShvat. The sap may not be rising quite yet in the trees outside our house, but my orchid is waking! Blessed are You, Shekhinah, wellspring of all life, who manifest in so many small and exquisite ways.

Origins of Jehovah

This morning I mentioned to Jeff that one of the things I find odd in my spiffy new JPS Tanakh (given to me for Chanukah by my dear friend Cynthia -- no, not this one, the other one!) is that there are vowels printed beneath the Tetragrammaton. Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh (henceforth YHVH -- easier to type) is unpronounceable, so why add vowel markings to it? It turns out there's a reason for that, which leads to a funny historical note.

We generally substitute one of two names for the tetragrammaton: adonai or elohim.  A Rabbinic custom developed, of adding vowels to the YHVH in some editions (e.g. not Torah scrolls, but study texts, the ones with vowels and cantillation markings). We take the vowels which would go under the letters of the substitute name, and put them under the YHVH. (With me so far?) That way, when one sees the tetragrammaton in a study text, one can glance at the vowels and know which substitute name was meant to be used.

And what would happen if you pronounced, phonetically, the tetragrammaton with the vowels for "Adonai"? You'd get Yehovah! Which leads to the amusing historical note: the name Jehovah is  a mistransliteration of the tetragrammaton with "Adonai" vowels. Not knowing the Rabbinic custom of inserting the vowels of the substitute name beneath the letters of the unpronounceable Name, someone assumed that the thing to do was to read the letters with the vowels which were on the page, thereby creating the name Jehovah. Near as I can tell, that "someone" was a thirteenth-century  Spanish Dominican monk named Raymundus Martini, in  his 1270 C.E. work Pugeo Fidei.

This transliteration misunderstanding led, however indirectly, to the first religious argument I ever engaged in. At the age of eight, I got into a shouting match with our gardener (a devout Jehovah's Witness) about the name of God. Naturally enough, he insisted God's name was Jehovah; I, righteously indignant as only an eight-year-old can be, insisted it was Hashem. (Guess nobody had told me what "Hashem" actually means: "The Name." It's another workaround for the unpronounceability of YHVH.) Our housekeeper broke up the quarrel, horrified. Today I'd probably argue that the real problem was that we each believed we had the One True Answer; surely God has as many names as we can divine!

Really, this all just makes me want to watch that scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian again...

Koufax nominations

The official slate of Koufax Award nominees, in the "Most Deserving of Wider Recognition" category, is now online here. What a fantastic list!

Folks seem to be voting for their top choice(s) in the comments on that post. Allow me to humbly suggest that readers nip over there, check out the list, and cast a vote for your favorite(s). Of course, if your favorite in that list happened to be Velveteen Rabbi, I'd be delighted...

Happy Shvat!

Today is the first day of the month of Shvat, which means it's only two weeks until Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. Living in New England, as I do, I'm always a little bit amused by the notion that this is the time to celebrate trees and planting. (We're pretty snow-covered around here, and will be until Pesach.) But I like the rhythm of the year that tells me that we're moving towards spring, even if I can't sense it. The days still feel short, but they're lengthening. And tradition teaches that at Tu BiShvat, the sap begins to flow for the coming year. (This means it will be reasonable soon for me to start counting the weeks until sugaring season, when we can savor maple breakfasts at Ioka Valley Farm...)

I didn't grow up observing Tu BiShvat. It's a holiday I've come to know as an adult. I started reading and writing about it a few years ago; two years ago I celebrated it at home with a group of friends; last year I led the Tu BiShvat seder at my shul, after leading my first Shabbat morning service. That was an exciting day. (More about the cusom of holding a Tu BiShvat seder in a moment.) Every year I learn fascinating new tidbits: the month of Shvat is associated with water, and is a kind of conduit for spirituality. If we regard the winter months as one long night, Tu Bishvat is considered to be somewhere around three a.m., neither precisely night nor precisely morning. The reason why 15 in Hebrew is denoted alphabetically with tet-vav instead of yod-heh (e.g. why we call this date "Tu BiShvat" instead of "Yah BiShvat," and what difference that makes.) And so on.

Most of us associate the word "seder" with Passover, for obvious reasons. But seder just means "order," though colloquially it refers to a meal-centric home-based religious ritual with many parts. And increasing numbers of Jews are holding Tu BiShvat seders these days.

New-agey as the custom may seem, it's actually been around for a while. In the sixteenth century, the Lurianic Kabbalists of Tzfat established the custom of a Tu BiShvat seder which takes the participants on a journey through the four worlds. We begin in the external world of action, symbolized by fruits (nuts, usually) with hard outer shells. Representing the world of emotion, we eat fruits which are soft on the outside but retain a pit inside. In the world of thought, we eat fruits which are soft all the way through. And entering the world of essence, we eat nothing at all, because no food can adequately symbolize the infinity of being. All kinds of neat lessons can be drawn from this progression, which is also conceptualized as moving through the Tree of Life from roots to treetop. The four worlds also correlate to the four seasons and the four elements. This kind of dense, resonant esoterica is totally up my alley.

Like the Passover seder, the Tu BiShvat seder involves a haggadah. Of all the rituals I've written in the last several years, my Haggadah for Tu BiShvat is one of my favorites. Some poems, some teaching, some readings; bits of some of my favorite source-texts, plus some work of my own that I spent a happy while honing and polishing.

The holiday's in just over two weeks: plenty of time to stock up on some grape juice or wine, nab a few fruits in each category, and gather friends or family for a Tu BiShvat seder. Anyone who wants to use my haggadah is welcome to do so; you're also welcome to use my haggadah as a jumping-off point for crafting your own.

The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Tu BiShvat

And if you're so excited by this that you don't want to wait two weeks, hey, you could also try Rabbi Jill Hammer's Rosh Chodesh Shvat Seder of Fragrances. Her ritual is parallel to the Tu BiShvat seder, but intended to be celebrated at new moon instead of full moon.

If you have questions or suggestions, let me know. May Shvat be a month of blessing!

Exodus: the saga continues

As we continue to read the story of the Exodus again, I'm enjoying looking at Pharaoh in a new way. Before the Torah service this past Shabbat, Jeff spoke briefly about how we read the story and what it can teach us. The story of the Exodus as told in Torah, he noted, isn't necessarily meant as a history; it's meant to tell us something about who and how we are in the moment of reading it. Pharaoh, in that sense, represents not only a particular historical ruler of Egypt. We can also read him as symbolic of something within ourselves, the part of ourselves which is resistant to change.

Pharaoh can't handle the notion of changing the status quo. Only when remarkable outside events impinge on his worldview (the Nile turning to blood, e.g., or the plague of fiery hail we read about last week) is he capable of extending himself in a new direction...and when the external stimulus goes away, so too do his changes. He reverts immediately to the place where he's comfortable, the place of familiar power. Who among us can't identify with that, even a little? Change is scary.

After the Torah reading, I led us in discussing Pharaoh's heart-hardening and the question of free will (drawing on many of these ideas). At the end of the conversation, I linked the portion with my favorite Heschel quote, "Prayer is useless unless it is subversive, unless it shatters pyramids and loosens the calluses on the heart." The bit about pyramids is obviously an Egypt reference, and I think the latter half of the line is, too. When we act wrongly, and when we allow fears of change to hold us immobile, our hearts calcify, as Pharaoh's did. In prayer, we enact our intent to be unlike Pharaoh. We soften the calluses that form on our hearts, and make ourselves vulnerable before each other and before God.

This week’s Torah portion continues the narrative we’ve been reading these last few weeks. When you read parashat Bo, you may note that before the tenth plague, God pauses to instruct Moses on how to celebrate Passover. Moses repeats the instruction to the Israelites, saying

"You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.  And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.  And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?'  you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'" (Exodus 12:24-27, JPS translation)

What's fascinating about that is that these instructions are handed down before the tenth plague and the departure from Egypt. The instruction to commemorate happens before the thing-which-will-be-commemorated. Wouldn't it make sense to give those directions one year after the Exodus? For Moses to say to the Israelites, "Hey, remember that thing God did for us a year ago? Every year on this anniversary, we're commanded to sanctify ourselves by remembering that liberation, and here's how we do it." But that's not how the story goes; the Torah tells us that these instructions came down before the thing which they describe.

This, Jeff noted yesterday, can be read as a sign that Judaism is not about what is past, but about what is to come. Judaism is interested not in who we were, but in who we have yet to become. To me, there's something beautifully impermanent about that. We celebrate not what is, but what we hope will be, what we ourselves hope to take part in shaping. Like our own liberation from our many and varied narrow places.

The gift of good intentions

I recently learned a new Hebrew word: mincha, gift or offering. It's also the name of one of the three daily services: ma'ariv (evening), shacharit (morning), and mincha (afternoon). On Shabbat there's an extra service, musaf, recited after shacharit -- but in the order of ordinary daily prayer, there are three times to pray, and mincha is one of them.

The Talmud gives two reasons for the thrice-daily schema. One is that the services parallel sacrifices once made in the Temple (two sacrifices a day, plus burning leftovers at night; or, in an alternate interpretation, the evening service derives from the need to say the shema before bed). The second argument holds that each Patriarch started one of them and the custom stuck.

Mincha is the shortest of the three services, consisting (in the Ashkenazic tradition to which I belong) of three main prayers: the ashrei, the amidah, and the aleinu. Despite its brevity, many Jews no longer davven it regularly, because it falls just before sundown. It's tricky to stop and pray then in a busy law office...or a medical practice...or a house where the kids have just come home from school and need snacks stat! Midrash links this service to being "in the field," so some argue that it's meant to interrupt the workday: making it either a frustrating obligation that sets us apart from others, or a shining opportunity to embody humane work practices by pausing to center ourselves before the sun goes down.

Lots of people sell wee pocket-sized copies of the mincha liturgy, to facilitate praying it on the go (you can even get it for your Palm.) I'm not sure whether to be amused or alarmed that someone has ruled it acceptable to davven mincha while driving a car.

Despite these handy accessories, I doubt I'm likely to start davvening mincha regularly (I'm still aiming for a reliable morning practice)...though I do like the idea of pausing the workday before sundown for a few minutes of connection. Expanding my mind through Rabbi Shefa Gold's ashrei chant could be nice. Or an amidah comprised of a few minutes standing and chatting with God by the metaphysical water cooler. Or contemplating how I can help bring about a day when unity pervades creation (as described at the end of the aleinu).

Granted, these are non-mainstream ways of conceptualizing mincha...but what does "mainstream" really mean in such a glacial riverbed as Judaism, where so many shifting streams braid together? There are plenty of branches further-out than mine (like this Breslover teaching that mincha harmonizes the process of absorbing wavelengths of God's light into the world during the spiritually-dangerous afternoon.)

Me, I'm just pleased to learn what the word mincha means. (The other two daily prayer sessions have names relating to their time of day, and I'd always assumed that this one did, too.) I like the idea of making a gift of my intentions every afternoon as daylight wanes.

Egoblogging: nominations

I'm incredibly honored that Velveteen Rabbi has been nominated for a Koufax Award (in the Most Deserving of Wider Recognition category; also, my Moving Beyond the Big Three essay was nominated for Best Post) and for a Jewish and Israeli Bloggers award (in the Best Jewish Religion Blog category).

Surfing the lists of nominees, I'm finding many cool blogs to add to my aggregator. If you want to find good Jewish blogs and/or good lefty blogs (and, hey, some good lefty Jewish blogs: two great tastes that taste great together!) these nominations threads are excellent places to look.

JIB nominations are open now; ditto nominations in the First Annual Brass Crescent Awards for the Islamic Blogosphere. So if you have fave Jewish blogs or fave Islamic blogs which you think deserve a pat on the back, get thee to the nominations threads!

On Va'era

This upcoming Shabbat we'll be reading parashat Va'era.  Three things especially interest me in this portion: the notion that Moses considers himself unable to speak God's words, Pharaoh's heart hardening, and how to read the plague of hail and fire in the wake of recent natural disasters.

Early in the portion, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelite people that God will free them, but they're too ground-down by slavery to listen to him. Then God instructs Moses to give Pharaoh that famous ultimatum. Moses demurs, protesting that he is (according to the JPS translation) "a man of impeded speech" -- sometimes rendered as "a man of uncircumcised lips."

The latter translation may not be precise, but what an evocative metaphor! It underlies the midrashic notion that Moses stuttered or had a speech defect; it suggests he feels his lips aren't sacred enough to speak God's words. Usually the passage is read as "hey, if the Israelites wouldn't listen to me, surely Pharaoh won't either, because I am of uncircumcised lips," but in this d'var Torah by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan we see the causality inverted. He riffs on the writings of Aviva  Zornberg (who was, in turn, drawing on the Sfat Emet):

"They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips."  This interpretation turns the usual on its head. Rather than speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is listening, or the lack thereof, that creates speech. Prophets may only prophesy if there are people to listen. If Pharaoh and the people are unwilling to hear then it is as if Moses is unable to speak. In other words, if a prophet speaks in a desert and there is no one there to hear him (or willing to hear him) does he really say anything?

According to this reading, without listeners speech is meaningless or impossible. Reading it that way, I empathize with Moses, who felt his power to communicate diminished by others' unwillingness to listen. I can imagine how terrifying and overwhelming it might be to feel trapped between the imperative to speak ("God wants me to say these things") and the fear of failure ("I won't be listened-to; I can't do what God wants; I'm not enough.")

What's interesting to me is that after a few plagues, Pharaoh seems willing to listen. He even acknowledges that God is righteous and he is in the wrong...but Moses knows that the repentance won't stick. And sure enough, it doesn't; in the first lines of next week's portion, God explains that he has hardened Pharaoh's heart. What's up with that? If Pharaoh were willing to let the Israelites go after only seven plagues, why does God harden his heart and require the rest of the story to unfold as it does?

Continue reading "On Va'era" »