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August 2005
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October 2005

Holiday poem

Poems can take on a life of their own, especially once they're released into the world. Every year I write at least one poem related to the Days of Awe, and I send it around as a new year's card. To my great pleasure, some of those poems are starting to find a wider audience.

Last year, two of my High Holiday poems were published at Tel Shemesh. This year, a poem or two of mine are slated to be included in a High Holiday supplement at Heska Amuna, a Conservative shul in Knoxville, TN. And the new poem I wrote this fall (and printed on this year's card) has had some adventures, too; it was apparently read at a harvest moon gathering, alongside Robert Frost's "Unharvested" (now that's fine literary company!)

How do I know this? Because my friend Diana Elvin chronicled it in Celebrating a fall bounty, her most recent newspaper column. Though the formatting isn't preserved in the online edition, the print version features the penultimate stanza of my poem as the pull-quote for the article, which is pretty neat. (Thanks, Diana and Advocate editors!)

I'd like to share the poem with you -- at least, with those of you who are interested in poetry. (I'll put it beneath the extended-entry link.) May the coming holidays be sweet for you, and Shabbat shalom to you all!

Continue reading "Holiday poem" »

Mothers and sons

Earlier today, Shira of On the Fringe posted a beautiful meditation on the Akedah, Would you take your only son...?. She explores the traditional understanding that God was testing Abraham's obedience and his faith, asking the same supreme sacrifice that the pagan gods of the day were understood to demand. And she says that though she can wrap her mind around it intellectually, when she considers it emotionally she knows she could never make that sacrifice, even if God asked it. Her post got me to thinking again about the Torah readings we're about to immerse ourselves in, and what we can learn from returning to them again this year.

The Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah (and, for that matter, the Haftorah readings assigned to match them) revolve around mothers and sons. Barren women wishing for children; mothers weeping for their children; the demands we make of God and the demands (we think) God makes of us.

One of my favorite resource books for exploring these texts is Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates. I've read and re-read this anthology every year during the Days of Awe, or the days leading up to them, for at least the last five years. And every year I find new insight in these commentaries: into Torah, into teshuvah, into how I might -- as a woman and as a Jew -- wrestle with my tradition's holy stories in order to come away blessed.

Continue reading "Mothers and sons" »

Defining Renewal

"So what is Jewish Renewal, anyway?"

You'd think I'd have a good response to that question, especially now that I'm a student in the Renewal rabbinic program. But I wrestle with the same "elevator speech" problem that my friends over in Reconstructionist Judaism and Unitarian Universalism know so intimately; there's no good twelve-second definition of Jewish Renewal.

I've heard Renewal described as "feminist neo-Hasidism," and there's some truth to that; we draw both on feminism's social and political shifts, and on the mystical, joyful passion of the Hasidic world. I've also heard Renewal described as "Jewish Unitarian Universalism," and there's some truth to that too; we espouse a post-triumphalist religious sensibility and an understanding that there are many paths to the one God. But neither of those descriptions conveys the whole flavor of what Renewal's trying to do.

If you've got the time, I'll happily push a pile of books and articles into your hands. Reading Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit, and Reb Arthur Waskow's Down-to-Earth Judaism is a good start. There's a fantastic article by Rabbi Rami Shapiro called The Three-Fold Torah, published in Tikkun (Volume 18, No. 4), which does a great job of explaining the Renewal movement's approach to Torah and revelation. But most of the people who ask me what Renewal is aren't looking for a course syllabus. (More's the pity, really.) So what do I tell them?

Continue reading "Defining Renewal" »

Reader, I married them.

I'm a romantic; I get jazzed every time two people decide to take the leap of faith involved in committing to spending their lives together. I'm also a liturgy geek; I love the endless variations that are possible on the wedding theme. And I'm a poet with a longstanding interest in the potential transformative power of language, so it lights me up when people pay close attention to how the words they speak can change their lives. It stands to reason, therefore, that I would love doing weddings even more than I love attending them. All of the above pleasures apply, plus I get to apply my time and energy to making the phenomenon happen in a way that's simultaneously customized to the two people involved, and consonant with their tradition(s) and their understandings of God.


I like all weddings, but last night's stands out, both because it posed such fascinating challenges, and because it was so darn much fun. Last night I married Wendy Koslow (of now-defunct blog The Redhead Wore Crimson) and Joey "Accordion Guy" Devilla. Their story reads like a fairytale. They were introduced by Reverend AKMA at the first BloggerCon a few years back. Despite the distance between Toronto and Boston (and between their two families and backgrounds -- Wendy is Jewish and American, Joey a Catholic Filipino-Canadian) they fell in love. I was thrilled and honored when they asked me to officiate for them, though I knew this ceremony would stretch my skills; it's not like I have a vast repertoire of Jewish/Filipino wedding liturgies to draw on!

I consider myself as a kind of bespoke tailor of wedding ceremonies. I work with the couple to choose beloved things that matter to them and I stitch them into something beautiful and uniquely theirs. Where interfaith ceremonies are concerned, I aim to walk the fine line between honoring each tradition's uniqueness and integrity, and finding ways for our differences to be complementary. But I'd never tried to harmonize elements from two such disparate traditions before; would the seams show?

Continue reading "Reader, I married them." »


Quarrtsiluni is "an experiment in online literary and artistic collaboration. The title comes from an Alaskan Inuit word for sitting together in the darkness, waiting for something to burst." (So the blog's main page says, anyway.) It's somewhere between group blog and literary 'zine; each month the editors offer a theme, and accept submissions of prose, poetry, photography, and art relating to that theme.

The first few posts have recently gone live, on a September theme that brings the blog's title into clearer focus. I'm delighted to be able to say that one of them is mine, a very short piece called Ready! It's either a micro-essay or a prose poem (call it whichever works for you). I'm honored to be in such fine company -- the other inaugural posts have come from Dave of Via Negativa and Beth of The Cassandra Pages. Perhaps yours will be next?

Check it out, enjoy what's there, leave comments for the writers, and look to see what might be inside you, waiting to burst forth.


In entirely unrelated news, I'm off to Boston today for the nuptials of Wendy and Joey. I'm expecting a fantastic time, naturally. See you on the other side!

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Healing words

When I think about the intersection of poetry and medicine, one of the first names I think of is Richard Berlin. Author first of the chapbook Code Blue, then of the collection How JFK Killed My Father (Pearl Editions 2003; reviewed here), Berlin writes poignant, startling poems about medicine that illuminate something important about our common humanity. (He also happens to live in Berkshire County, as I do; we met some years ago when we both participated in a reading from Holding True, a letterpress anthology published by Mad River Press.)

Richard has smart things to say about why doctors need poetry. The Psychiatric Times graciously offers an archive of his poems which I recommend browsing at length. (They also offer a terrific annotation of his work, written by nurse and poet Cortney Davis, whose work is worth exploring in its own right.) As I prepare for my first on-call night at Albany Medical Center tonight, I'm finding his poems especially resonant.

Richard's poem Sleight of Hand always blows me away -- the tenderness of the encounter, the reverence with which the narrator treats the old woman's body, the turn of the diagnosis, the ending like a kick to the gut. I love, too, the spareness of Playing God at the Hospital, which isn't at all about what you might imagine. Hospital Food offers insight into our health and our hungers. Lately I've been struck by First Night On-Call, Coronary Care Unit, maybe because the CCU is one of the seven intensive care units I'll be expected to visit on my rounds.

The prospect of hospital chaplaincy work gives me a world of new respect for everyone in medicine: doctors, nurses, orderlies, technicians, the many people who confront the pitfalls of embodiment daily. Maybe the best poem of Richard's for me to read today -- since I seem to be looking for a poem to reread repeatedly, like thumbing a string of mala beads -- is What I Love, song of praise to his profession and his work. I take comfort in the lines

I love my patients, not as a group, but one by one,
each person teaching me the trials
of suffering and survival, every saga different,
even with the same disease...
...And they come with their own yearning
questions I answer by listening without judgment,
the constant miracle that listening can be enough.

Miracle, indeed. May my listening be enough for those who seek me out, tonight and every night.

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Tales of dialogue

I read two stories that made me happy today, so I thought I'd break from my usual blogging model and pass them along.

Jonathan of Head Heeb blogged about Bridge Over the Wadi, a bilingual school in Kfar Kana which brings Jews and Arabs together; it's beginning its second year of programming this fall. "There's a certain amount of self-selection among the families that participate in this school," he writes. "[S]ome are mixed couples, and the others by definition have an active interest in bridging the Jewish-Arab divide. Even these, however, have found that they have a great deal to learn about each other, and as their interaction has become more natural, they have benefited from the learning." (Here's the Ha-aretz story at the heart of his blog post.)

And in Thank G-d for Summer Camp, Sarah of Jewschool posts about 3rd annual Oseh Shalom Sanea al-Salam Peacemakers Weekend at Camp Tawonga, a three-day program dedicated to creating dialogue around the Israel/Palestine issue. "90 participants from places as far flung as Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jenin and Palo Alto lived, ate, played, sang, talked, smoked, joked, argued, clashed, agreed, disagreed and burped babies together while sharing their stories about Israel and Palestine," she says. Her post includes a moving quote from an Israeli man about sharing talk and cigarettes with a man he'd once considered an enemy.

Difficult as dialogue can be, I'm really glad to see evidence that it's happening. Hearing each others' stories, and acknowledging each others' truths, can be a powerful first step toward changing the world.

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Depending on how you count, this is at least the third time I've picked up the study of Hebrew. As a kid I got a couple of years of Hebrew at the local Jewish Day School (enough to make my way through the siddur and to prattle about my family). In college I took a year of conversational Hebrew, effectively re-learning what I had known at the age of nine. And over the last year I've been working at it again -- first by taking myself through the First Hebrew Primer, and now by taking Hebrew III via Hebrew College Online.

Since I've spent the last year studying Biblical Hebrew, I figured Hebrew III would be a good fit for me. It's right in the middle of Hebrew College's online offerings; it ought to be not too easy, not too hard, but just right. Trouble is, I haven't studied modern Hebrew in over a decade. So far the grammar and morphology are within my power, but the vocab is killing me. For every ten minutes I spend on a review exercise, I spend thirty flipping to the back of the textbook to look things up in the glossary. My Biblical vocabulary isn't ideal, not by a long shot, but I've gotten fairly comfortable with words like "cattle" and "desert" and "commandment;" in contrast, this week's exercises include terms like "mailbox" and "supermarket" and "clock." Oy.

Continue reading "Relearning" »

Shine on, harvest moon

It's almost a year since I did my last wedding, but wedding officiating seems to be one of those skills (like riding a bike) that, once acquired, never leaves. My only nervousness today was about whether I'd be able to find the wedding site in a timely manner! Old Quarry Road in Otis turns out to be just under an hour from my house, and someone had thoughtfully marked the last couple of turns with white balloons tied to street signs. Once I approached, Peter and Shane's house was easy to spot; on their tiny dirt road it was the only one with an enormous white tent beside it, with caterers lighting luminarias along the tented walkway.

As we queued up the wedding party in the reception tent and readied ourselves to head in to the ceremony tent, I assured everyone that the wedding would be beautiful  even if something didn't quite go according to plan, because we were gathered together for such a joyful reason. That was apparently the right thing to say; it defused the nervous tension that always seems to swirl before a wedding, replacing it with laughter.

Peter and Shane had enclosed cloth squares with their 'save the date' cards, and invited their guests to decorate them and send them back to be stitched into the couple's chuppah. A chuppah represents the home the couple will build together; like the tent of Abraham it is open on all sides, signifying hospitality to all. Traditionally it contains no furniture (well, aside from the wee table we put the havdalah materials and the kiddush cup on), reminding us that what's important in a home is the people, not the possessions. Tonight's chuppah was framed of branches, twined with leaves and flowers, and topped with a stunning quilt made from the squares that people sent back. That Shane and Peter's symbolic home was adorned with the work of beloved hands made it all the more meaningful.

The ceremony went marvelously. As always, the best part was basking in the joy I saw in the bride and groom's eyes. Planning a wedding takes work, but when we reach the final moment -- when two people are standing with me beneath a chuppah, placing rings on each others' fingers and repeating the words of their vows after me -- all of the stress melts away. The catering decisions don't matter any more; the program folding doesn't matter any more; the guest list doesn't matter any more. All that matters is the two of them, and their dazzling and brave decision to make a life together. It is a tremendous honor to be able to sanctify this kind of turning point in peoples' lives.

Their ceremony is online here [pdf for download]. I expect some family members were disappointed that I didn't perform half of the service with a British accent as the wedding website promised, but despite that flaw people said truly lovely things afterwards, and I came away feeling glowy and warm. As I drove away under the glorious harvest moon, the party was still going strong, a candlelit fairytale of music and conversation. It makes me happy that I was able to play a role, however small, in celebrating these two wonderful people and kicking off this new chapter in the story of their lives.

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Seeking the Beloved

This morning in meditation we used the name of the current Hebrew month, Elul, as our focus. The Hebrew letters of the word אלִול can be read as an acronym for the phrase Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (That's from the Song of Songs.) The Beloved, the rabbis teach, is one way of understanding God; the acronym reminds us that Elul is a time to keep God and love foremost in our minds. Today as we sat in the sanctuary and focused on our breath, we were encouraged to think of each inbreath as ani l'dodi and each outbreath as v'dodi li -- each breath a conversation with the Beloved, an assertion of that relationship which underlies everything we do.

As we approach the Days of Awe, it's easy to get hung up on the stern qualities of God that some parts of the liturgy celebrate. (Like the Unetanah Tokef prayer, which shows God sitting in judgement, establishing who will live and who will die in the coming year.) I imagine I'm not the only one who's occasionally distanced by the infinitely high and transcendent sense of the divine that some of those prayers describe, and by the emphasis on judgement, power, and might. But Jewish tradition has always stressed the importance of balance, especially between and among God's qualities or attributes -- like the pair of chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (discipline and strength), which are considered to be a matched set.

The holidays we're moving toward may have a lot of gevurah in them, but that discipline is balanced -- ideally, anyway -- by the previous month's focus on lovingkindness. In Elul's focus on God-as-Beloved I see deep chesed, and that tells me something important about the process of teshuvah (re/turning to God) in which we're meant to engage at this time of year. In order to align ourselves with our Source, to do the spiritual housecleaning we each need to do, we're supposed to focus on love.

Some teach that during Elul we should focus on external teshuvah (repairing our relationships with others) and during the Days of Awe, the first ten days of Tishri that fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should focus on internal teshuvah (repairing our relationship with God). What might we learn from combining these two notions, that Elul is for focusing on love of God and that Elul is for repairing our relationships with others? Maybe that the best foundation for repairing our relationships is remembering that we are each created b'tselem Elohim, in the image of God. I enact my love of God by loving you, and in healing what's broken in my relationships I draw nearer to the ultimate Beloved.

Traditionally this is a month for reading Psalm 27; this year I may augment the psalm with some selections from Hafiz. There's nothing like sacred love poetry to remind me that there's more to the All than distant judgement or kingship. Especially this month, God is as near as my own heart.

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Twelve people sit in a circle in a wood-paneled room balancing notebooks and styrofoam cups of hospital coffee. We range in age from thirty to sixty-five or so. We are ten men and two women. We are Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist, Jewish, and a few other things besides. At least half of us are ordained clergy, or are somewhere on what one student called the "long and winding road to ordination." At least three of us are lay leaders in our congregations. At least two of us regularly offer pastoral care to prison inmates. At least two of us are juggling two jobs. At least two of us have driven more than an hour to be here. Three of us have been here before; the other nine are new. And at least one of us feels jazzed, eager, and overwhelmed, and will have vaguely anxious dreams about the hospital tonight...

Continue reading "Hineni" »

First day of school

September: yellow goldenrod and yellow schoolbuses, crisp falling leaves and crisp new notebooks. It's always made sense to me that autumn is when the Jewish New Year falls, because the academic calendar starts in the autumn too. Together those two seasonal cycles shaped my growing-up, and though I haven't partaken in the academic calendar for a while now, I still feel a change when the school year begins.

I've promised a post about why I chose the Aleph rabbinic studies program, and that post is in the works, but I haven't had time to polish it yet, and I might not have much time in the next week or two, because tomorrow -- for the first time since I finished my creative writing program six years ago -- I go back to school!

What does that mean? Well, it means something different for each student in the program. The program of study in the Aleph Rabbinic Program is simultaneously structured and highly individualized. Though there's a dauntingly comprehensive academic grid we each have to master, we each come to the program with different competencies and masteries (and lacks thereof), so we all begin in different ways.

The matriculation process is still in-progress; I don't yet have a Director of Studies (chief advisor/mentor), and I've got some paperwork waiting for me, so I won't be settled-in for another few weeks at least. But I'm diving in anyway; that seems to be the thing to do. I'll be doing four things towards my rabbinic degree this fall:

  • Clinical Pastoral Education (which I've blogged about here, here, and here), which starts tomorrow;

  • An ALEPH telecourse in Deep Ecumenism (the semester-long follow-up to the class I took on retreat at Elat Chayyim earlier this summer, which I blogged about here), which starts on Thursday;

  • An online Hebrew class (Hebrew III, through Hebrew College), designed to help me break the "sefer barrier," which starts tomorrow;

  • Working with my rabbi on reading Torah, leading services, and generally learning the trade at his side -- I've started thinking of this as an apprenticeship in practical rabbinics. This one's ongoing.

Continue reading "First day of school" »

Havel Havelim #36 is here!

It's been an exciting week in the Jewish and Israeli blogosphere, and I'm honored to be this week's host of Havel Havelim ("Vanity of vanities," -- see line two of Kohelet for the reference), the carnival of the Jewish and Israeli blogosphere, which SoccerDad started back in December of 2004. This is installation #36, an auspicious number (double chai -- to life, to life, l'chayyim!)

This roundup aims to showcase some of the insight and breadth of the Jewish and Israeli blogosphere. We've got posts about politics, the existence (and value) of the Jewish Diaspora, the theology and reality of Hurricane Katrina; Torah commentary, teshuvah meditations, musings on Jewish ethics and the death penalty; Israeli life, Israeli philanthropy, and Israeli photographs.

Needless to say, I don't personally agree with all of the posts to which I've linked here, but I think they're all thought-provoking, and hope you do too. With no further ado, here's my roundup of some of the week's highlights...

Continue reading "Havel Havelim #36 is here!" »

Preparing for chaplaincy

Albany Medical Center, it turns out, is enormous. They employ more than seven thousand people -- that's more than twice the number of people who live in Lanesboro. It's a teaching hospital, and it was constructed over a long period of time, one building glomming on to another, so there are a dozen different elevators and stairwells, a veritable abecedarium of buildings. It's kind of overwhelming.

Earlier today at Employee Services (U building, sixth floor) I filled out a sheaf of medical forms, and then gritted my teeth in a corner cubicle while the very pleasant RN tried to convince one of my arms to offer up a vein. (She succeeded. Eventually. I felt very stylish walking around the hospital with all of my gauze bandages.) Then came a TB test -- the first of two; I'll have to return next Wednesday for another. (This Friday, and Friday next, I have the option of returning to have the tests read, or convincing my primary care physician to read them. Given the cost of gasoline, and the fact that Albany is a solid hour away by car, something tells me I'll be heading to Williamstown Medical, instead.)

I'd never had a drug test before, and was intrigued by the proces of initialing a dozen different stickers, each meant to show that the vials containing my samples hadn't been tampered with and that they were really and truly mine. Then came a physical, and then a "fit test" (breathing into a mask attached to a chunky blue machine.) And then we started dealing with the paperwork. Volunteering at a hospital takes real advance preparation. I guess it's not something to enter into lightly.

Continue reading "Preparing for chaplaincy" »

Celebrating dialogue

Happy Arrival Day, commemorating the anniversary of the first arrival of Jews on American shores! In the announcement preceding this year's blogburst, Jonathan wrote,

I ask only that the entries touch somehow on Jews, Judaism, Jewish thought, perceptions of Jews or interaction between Jews and gentiles. Like the previous two Arrival Days, this one will also focus on a theme. In 2003, the theme was the American Jewish past and in 2004 it was the future; this year, the focus will be on American Jews as part of a larger whole.

The part/whole relationship I want to blog about is how Judaism in general, and American Judaism in particular, relates to other religious traditions -- and the paradigm shift I hope we're experiencing in that regard. I believe Judaism can best safeguard its integrity through relinquishing triumphalism, and I think the I-Thou dialogic impulse is one of our greatest strengths. Hopefully this blog post will begin to explain why.

Continue reading "Celebrating dialogue" »

On Katrina

I wasn't initially going to post about the hurricane; I wasn't sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation. But in a comment on a post by RenReb, earlier today, I wrote:

All I can do, right now, is pray -- for the refugees, that their lives be rebuilt speedily; for the mourners, that they find comfort; for the rest of us, that we find the strength we need to continue to see holiness in the world despite the suffering to which we are bearing witness.

and writing that comment made me realize that I have something to say after all. I don't have good answers to the question of theodicy. The hurricane has reminded me, along with millions of others, that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I don't know how to reconcile that with my understanding of God. Our challenge now, as I see it -- and arguably this is always our challenge, though it's easy to forget -- is to continue to do what we can to repair the broken world, despite all the things we don't understand and despite the immensity of the work ahead.

The two Katrina blog posts that have resonated the most for me this week are Naomi Chana's On Believing ("Another disaster, another wave of toxic theology -- to borrow one overused metaphor from the newcasters, it's a veritable gumbo of painfully inadequate theodicy, silly soteriology, and back-door blasphemy") and Alex Steffen's call to action New Orleans: Everything Has Changed:

We aren't trying to build a bright green future because we have nothing else to do. We aren't scrambling to reinvent our industrial civilization because we're bored. We aren't working for a more just global economy for kicks. We aren't fighting for democracy and human rights and good global governance in order to have something to talk about at parties. We aren't ringing the alarm sirens over global warming because we like the way they sound.

We're doing all these things because the future of our planet is at stake. People's lives are at stake, millions of them.

Elsewhere in the post, Alex writes, "We can change the world. But the time to act is now." I have to believe that he is right.

It's Elul: teshuvah season, the time of year when Jews focus on who we are and who we want to be, how we may have missed the mark in the year now ending and how to align ourselves with holiness in the year to come. Part of my teshuvah is embracing both the obligation to face the world as it is, and the obligation to do what I can to improve it. That could mean donating money, or donating time to something like the Katrina People Finder project which aims to combine the dozens of missing/found people sites into one searchable database; it could mean praying; it could mean working here in my own community, even though I'm hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast, because people here are needy too; it could mean working to improve the environment, or the quality of life around the world; it could mean all of those. What's important, I think, is that we each do what we can, whatever that is.

If on Yom Kippur I decide to give God a stern talking-to about the suffering we've witnessed in the past year, that's legitimate; Judaism has a long tradition of arguing with God, from Abraham to Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the Hasidic rebbe who  is said to have held a trial at which God was the absentee defendant, accused of having inflicted undeserved suffering on humanity. But in order to have that conversation, I need to uphold my end of the bargain, which means doing what I can, and continuing to hope.

As it is written in Pirkei Avot, (the quote gets overused, yeah, but it's right):

It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.


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Tachanun: prayers of penitence

Some months ago, when I began my semi-regular daily davvening practice, I spent a while staring at the pages marked Tachanun: Prayers of Penitence. Six short prayers, bookended by the kaddish (which serves both to magnify and sanctify God, and to alert the worshipper to turning-points within the service), Tachanun includes a few passages I'd only ever seen in the machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook). 

It felt strange to imagine praying ashamnu (the communal acrostic of ways in which we've missed the proverbial mark) or calling upon God as Avinu, Malkeinu ("Our father, our king"), at the tail-end of wintertime; those prayers are linked, in my mind and heart, with the transformative season of fall. And though I could easily connect with other elements of the weekday morning service -- the desire to cultivate morning gratitude, and the portions of the weekday liturgy that match what we pray on Shabbat -- I had trouble relating to the notion of saying penitential prayers every day.

"Maybe when Elul comes," I thought. "Ramping up to the Days of Awe: that's a good time to start saying tachanun. I'll wait until then."

Continue reading "Tachanun: prayers of penitence" »

Rites of passage

On Tuesday I reached a major milestone: I mailed my application to become part of the ALEPH rabbinic smicha (ordination) program. The application has been in-progress since I met the dean, Rabbi Marcia Prager, at Pesach; back then I promised myself that I would submit all of the official paperwork by the end of August, and I made my self-imposed deadline!

I handed the big, thick envelope to the postal worker, paid the Express Mail fees, said a shehecheyanu, and went directly to a congregant's home; her father had passed away and Jeff is on vacation, so pastoral care and the funeral were my responsibility. I couldn't help finding meaning in the confluence of events -- it seemed like the Universe was saying, "You want to be a rabbi? Okay: start growing into it now."

Yesterday morning, as I was reeling slightly from the emotional rollercoaster of submitting my Aleph application and doing my first funeral within the span of 48 hours, I got an email from my friend Judith, a student in the rabbinic smicha program and one of my Elat Chayyim room-mates when I was there in July. Her email congratulated me for being accepted so quickly.

I blinked at the screen. My heart leapt into my throat. I wrote back to ask her if she knew something I didn't know. Sure enough, she did, and now all of you know it, too: I've just been accepted into rabbinic school! Over the course of the day my inbox overflowed with emails from other students in the program, and rabbis who received smicha through it, welcoming me into the community and wishing for me that the journey be a fruitful one filled with blessings. I have no doubt that it will be.

For any local readers who may be worried that this means I'm leaving town, fear not; I'm not going anywhere. The lay leader work I do at CBI (which I've come to think of as my apprenticeship in practical rabbinics) will be a major component of the program for me. This fall I'll also be taking my first Aleph tele-course (a continuation of the Deep Ecumenism class I took this summer); the Clinical Pastoral Education program I'm doing in Albany this year is part of my Aleph studies; and I'm about to sign up for a Hebrew course online so I can continue readying myself for the kind of in-depth text study that is coming my way.

Over time I hope to blog more about my rabbinic aspirations, about why I chose this program, about the path that brought me here -- and, hey, about doing my first funeral, which was a strange rite of passage too -- but for now, I'm floating on a cloud, and wanted to share my joy. 

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Places to study

Mobius recently posted a link to the new website for Yakar, a yeshiva in Jerusalem which calls itself "a center for education, social concern and spiritual expression which reaches out to all." (The organization's full name is Yakar Center for Tradition and Creativity. I like how they neatly harness the tension between those two opposites by linking them.) Their ads intrigued me, so I clicked over to check them out.

The first thing I saw on their site is one of my favorite Rav Kook quotes, about those who sing the song of their own lives, and those who sing the song of their people, and those who sing the song of humankind, and those who sing the song of God, and those who sing all of these songs. It says something good about Yakar, I think, that those are the words they chose for their index page, the first face they present to the online world. On the About Yakar page, they write:

Today we need to develop a language of Torah that can heal both the individual and society. A Torah which engenders a sensitivity towards the other. A Torah that hears the cry on the street. A Torah which is inclusive, not exclusive, whereby identity becomes a means of understanding, not of rejecting.

Identity politics can easily divide people and communities, which seems counterproductive to me (more and deeper divisions are just not what the world needs), so I like the idea of a language of Torah which subverts that insider/outsider dynamic. And in their insistence that our Torah hear "the cry on the street," I see an emphasis on the Jewish call to justice, which I applaud. I can't speak to Yakar's programs from firsthand experience, but I'm impressed with how they describe themselves and what they stand for.

Any yeshiva which takes the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel as a reminder that we are all called to grapple with our tradition in order that we may be blessed: that's the kind of place where I could not only study but learn. Now if only they'd open a western Massachusetts branch...

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Re'eh: thoughts on kashrut

Roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, camel, hare, raven, ostrich, stork, hoopoe, bat, orangutans and breakfast cereals: all of these (okay, almost all) are in this week's Torah portion, which I'll be reading on Saturday. I'm finding that these unfamiliar nouns make the Torah prep slow going. This would all be easier to learn if I were better at Hebrew zoology.

These verses of parashat Re'eh focus on which animals are permitted, and which forbidden, according to the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut). Brillat-Savarin wasn't talking about kashrut when he said, "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are," but his quip works surprisingly well to explain the system's underlying principle. Since forbidden animals are considered tam'ei (ritually impure), the system of kashrut is a way of keeping ourselves pure as befits a community which is consecrated unto God. We are what we eat, so we'd better eat things which are clean.

Someday I'm going to write a long essay on kashrut: how it evolved, different understandings of its reasonings (or whether there's even supposed to be a reasoning behind it), arguments for why one might choose to abide by it and arguments for why one might not. But to do it right, I'll need mad Talmud skillz, so it's going to be a while. Meanwhile, I still need to lead a Torah study session about it on Shabbat morning, so I dug up some contemporary commentary on the dietary laws that I hope will get conversation going.

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