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January 2006
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What makes a minyan?

After erev Shabbat services last Friday I got into a conversation with my friend David about the minyan rule. (A minyan is the quorum of ten required for communal prayer. Though Jews can and do pray alone, we're encouraged also to pray in community, and as a way of strengthening that practice it was decided long ago that many parts of the service -- chief among them, reading from the Torah scroll -- can only be done with a quorum.)

At my shul we are egalitarian, and count women as well as men toward a minyan. (This is true in most non-Orthodox contexts. As normative as it seems to me, it was a radical shift once upon a time; this Reb on the Web article does a great job of explaining how different denominations arrived at gender egalitarianism.) But what if we don't have ten? If we have nine adult Jews and one young Jew who hasn't yet reached b'nai mitzvah, the presence of the Torah taken from the ark is considered to "elevate" the child to adult status temporarily, and in this way we achieve the necessary ten. (I'm told this practice has its roots in the Shulkhan Arukh, though I don't have a citation handy.)

This isn't just academic. We're a smalltown shul with a small membership, and we often have to invoke this rule. Other times we have to eschew taking the scroll out of the ark altogether. We still read and study Torah together, of course; we just do it from our books, instead. Though I try not to let low numbers impact the Torah discussion -- I owe it to whoever's there to offer them as thoughtful and energetic a study session as I can -- I do feel something's missing when we're not able to savor the pageantry of taking our Torah out of the ark.

David likes to ask me hard questions. So he asked, with a twinkle in his eye, why we're still attached to the number ten. We're happy to break with Orthodoxy in order to count women as well as men, so why aren't we willing to break with custom on the question of how many people are required? (After all, it is related in the Babylonian Talmud -- in Soferim 10:7 -- that in Palestine, as few as six men were once counted as sufficient to say communal prayers.) If there's precedent for fewer, why not make use of that precedent? And if there's precedent for changing on the gender front, why not change on the number front?

Continue reading "What makes a minyan?" »

Torah commentary, two flavors.

This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, makes an abrupt shift from storytelling to legalism. Having received the revelation at Sinai last week, and having entered into covenant with God, we're deluged with a set of ethical commandments instructing us how to behave.

This portion contains verses that ring out for me: the order not to ill-treat any widow or orphan (in other words, to be good to those who are most vulnerable and disenfranchised), and multiple instances of the verse that Torah repeats most often, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Too, this portion contains verses I have to struggle to love: laws about what to do if your ox wanders off and gores somebody, what penalties a thief should have to pay if he's caught, and the appropriate use of the death penalty.

But my Radical Torah post this week focuses on none of these. I chose to write about the very beginning of the portion, which talks about freeing slaves, and what to do with a slave who doesn't want freedom:

Starting now, the Israelites are responsible for transforming their lives and the lives of those under their care, just as their lives have been transformed. But what to do when someone shies away from transformation?

Pierce his ear, Torah tells us; having rejected freedom, he is a slave for life. The ear-piercing is a sign of ownership. In one sense, the doorpost serves as the solid backdrop against which the actual piercing takes place. But the doorway has metaphorical meaning, as well. He who chooses slavery stands not only in a physical doorway, but in a figurative doorway between one state and another. When his ear is pierced against the doorpost, the blood deposited there — however scant it might be — evokes the bloodied lintels of the Israelites in Egypt, on the cusp of their own transformation from slaves into people who are free. In this case, though, the transformation is stalled, the new life stillborn.

How does this resonate for us today, in a culture where slavery is no longer practiced and we are neither slave-holders nor slaves?

Read the whole thing here: Choosing liberation.

On a related note: I recently got a comment from David, who said he enjoys my musings on Judaism but what will keep him coming back here is my poetry. I don't post poems here often, but that comment happened to arrive just as I was working on a poem inspired by the same verses from Mishpatim that sparked my commentary at RT. In gratitude for the comment, and in hopes that the poem will resonate for some of you, I'm posting the poem under the "Continue reading..." tag. Think of this post as Torah commentary, two flavors. I hope you enjoy.

Continue reading "Torah commentary, two flavors." »

The whole megillah

Last summer I posted about a new graphic novel, Megillat Esther by JT Waldman. It retells the story recounted in the scroll of Esther, and since I am both a Judaic geek and a fan of good comics, I badly wanted a copy. I bought one a couple of months later, at the Biennial last November. Since I like to read things at appropriate times of year, I decided to save it to read during the wind-up to Purim. Now that we've gotten our belated Tu BiShvat observance out of the way, it's officially the wind-up to Purim, so this afternoon I curled up with the book and devoured it.

I am really impressed with this book. First of all, it's a good graphic novel; each page is striking, the pictures collaborate with the words in a way Scott McCloud would surely applaud, and I would like to spend time contemplating the visual prosody of every page in the book. (The art is also a style that really works for me -- black-and-white, like woodcuts, but elaborate and detailed. Apparently the iconography is largely drawn from Persian art from 600-400 B.C.E.) Secondly, it's a faithful retelling of the original: the whole megillah is in here, in Hebrew and in English. Most often the English words are boxed and the Hebrew calligraphy is woven into the frame, but one way or another, Waldman's respect for the text is clear.

And thirdly, there are these wonderful digressions. Between the acts of the primary drama, there are vignettes, other stories, subplots, fanciful dips into midrash. Oh, and did I mention the part where this is such a topsy-turvy tale that midway through, one has to flip the book over and read it right-to-left like Hebrew text (or, to make a genre-specific analogy, like manga)?

It's possible I am the ideal reader for this book. I've been reading comics voraciously since 1993, when my friend Cynthia plunked a volume of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman into my hands. And regular readers of this blog don't need to be told how much I dig Jewish texts. So putting the two together is pretty much designed to make me bounce around in glee. But I'd argue that if you're a fan of Jewish texts, or a fan of comics, you ought to read this -- if you're not a fan of both before you begin, I'd wager you will be by the time you finish.

Seriously, this book is stunning. I count myself incredibly fortunate to own an original page from Howard Cruse's glorious classic Stuck Rubber Baby; I've got to admit, some part of me is wondering how exorbitant a page from JT Waldman's Megillat Esther might be. Anyway, original artwork aside, buy the book and read it before Purim. And be sure to say the blessing for Torah study before you crack the spine. Even if you think you know the whole megillah, you'll learn something new reading it this way.

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Happy (belated) New Year, trees!

"Today is the full moon of Shvat -- well, it's not long after the full moon," I amended. "It's the full moon, observed." Everyone laughed. "Which makes it Tu BiShvat: the new year of the trees."

My synagogue's Tu BiShvat event was meant to happen last weekend, but we postponed it by a week because of the dire weather predictions. As it turned out, we hardly got any snow here last weekend -- I envied those south and east of us! -- but by the time we realized it was safe to be on the roads, we had already set up the phone tree to inform people of the new date. So, our Tu BiShvat event was today, and we gathered several families with young kids for a morning of activities followed by a potluck lunch.

We began by passing out apples slices and talking about apples: why we like them, why they're special, what it's like to pick them. We brainstormed the many steps in the trip these apples took from their tree to our fingers, and took a moment to be thankful for the apples, the trees, and everyone who made the apples' journey possible. Then, of course, we blessed and ate them. Mmm.

There were two kids' craft projects: making bird feeders (we talked about the animals who live in and depend on trees; the feeders will help our birds make it through the winter, and as an added bonus they're made from old soda bottles, exemplifying the value of recyling), and making family trees. (We had also planned a mock UN summit on the Brazilian rainforest, for teens and for adults, but it made more sense just to do the two workshops for the younger set.)

Then, my favorite part: the seder! We used the haggadah I posted here earlier this month. I edited a little on the fly, since our crowd was mostly smallish kids and parents (and some of the readings in there are a little heady), but I thought it went smoothly. As always, we took our mystical journey through the four worlds, drinking juices to match each world (and each season), and eating different fruits to match the first three worlds (the fourth world, essence, can't be adequately represented).

Home now, relaxing in the wake of a holiday well-celebrated, I find myself gazing out the window at the hillside behind our house, thick with the trunks and branches of bare winter trees. It's nice to think that no matter when each first sprouted, this full moon marks a new year for them, the time when -- according to tradition -- the sap starts to rise again, feeding the new year's growth.

As it turns out, one of my favorite seasonal markers coincided with Tu BiShvat this year: Ioka Valley Farm, the sugar shack nearest to our house, started to offer maple breakfasts again, as they do each year during sugaring season. I doubt they had any idea last weekend was the Jewish New Year of the Trees, but the synchronicity of it makes me smile. Today may be cold and windy, but in some deep way we've turned a corner toward the eventual coming of spring.

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Brass crescents and Torah study

Voting is complete in the second annual Brass Crescent Awards, and the winners have been announced. I'm delighted and humbled that this blog won honorable mention in the "Best Non-Muslim Blog" category. Many thanks to the award organizers for their work, and to everyone who helped bring about this honor.

This morning in shul we read Exodus 20, and had a fantastic discussion about the Torah portion (specifically about the version of the decalogue we had just read) which drew on a variety of sources. We looked at pairs of text in dialogue with one another. For instance, on the question of punishment and reward, generations, and responsibility we read some Ezekiel 18 to balance Exodus 20:5-6. On the matter of how the revelation was heard, we read a midrash about how each Israelite heard the Voice in her or his own way (find that here, "Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with his particular capacity...") balanced by a d'var from rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman about hearing the commandments singly and collectively.

One of the counterpoint texts we explored was a quotation from the Qur'an which is strikingly similar to what we had just read from the Torah scroll. (Sura 6, "Cattle," verses 151-152.) Somehow, it feels appropriate to receive this nice news about the Brass Crescent Awards on a Shabbat when I was able to draw the Qur'an into our Torah discussion. May our two communities continue to be enriched by exploring our points of intersection!

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The longest night.

During my most recent hospital overnight, I did not sleep. During the early part of my shift I did my usual things: made rounds of the six ICUs and the E.D., visited a couple of patients who had requested to see the chaplain, spent my dinner break reading a back issue of the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, made my second set of rounds. Just as I was getting ready to head up to U511, the little cubicle room where the on-call chaplain sleeps, my pager vibrated at my hip.

For the sake of confidentiality, I can't share the details of the call. Imagine that someone fell ill suddenly, and was unresponsive by the time the ambulance arrived. Imagine one family member after another hearing the news and descending into grief. Imagine a burly priest driving in at two in the morning to offer the Sacrament of the Sick. Imagine the difficult decisions of organ donation and life support. Imagine the long crescendo and decrescendo of goodbyes. Imagine that the night went straight through 'til morning.

At some point in the timeless interim between night and morning I had a conversation in the long disjointed hallway. The young woman asked how long I had been doing this work, and how I was able to do it without crying. The first question has an easy answer: five months. The second one is harder to quantify. In my usual life I cry at the drop of the proverbial hat. I cry at movies. Often I cry just listening to music that moves me. But when I'm doing chaplaincy work, I don't weep. I tap into something I can't quite name, and it strengthens and roots me. I still empathize; I still imagine how I would feel if I were the family member by the bedside. But I don't break. I don't know what it is, but I'm thankful for it.

It was strange and startling to feel the light in the hospital begin to shift as dawn broke. It was stranger still when the empty overnight halls filled back up with the bustle of daytime: doctors and nurses, orderlies and med students, administrators and visitors. At eight I ceded the on-call pager to the chief chaplaincy resident, and went to class. When I went back upstairs on my lunch break to check on the family, the day-shift nurses didn't know me.

At the end of the day I drove home. That night I got a long night's sleep, so physically I've recovered from the all-nighter. Emotionally, though, I feel it has changed me in subtle ways that continue to reverberate. A little bit like my first (and to date only) experience with the chevra kadisha. That kind of vigil is awe-inspiring.

I think I understand now why so many people say CPE is the most valuable part of their seminary experience. The things I'm learning sound stilted and trite, put into words: how to offer company in times of fear or sorrow. How to witness something difficult. That illness and death provide doorways into holiness and grace. That we have obligations to those who leave, and even greater obligations to those they leave behind. That sometimes there is nothing we can do to ease one another's pain -- but doing that nothing can be the most important work in the world.

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This week's portion: altars and stones

A little while ago I promised myself that I would adopt the practice of writing a d'var Torah every week (or as close to weekly as I could manage). The discipline has three happy results: it keeps me engaged with Torah study, it prepares me well for the Torah study sessions I'm currently leading as part of each week's Shabbat morning service, and it gives me something to share with the fine folks who read Radical Torah.

This week Jews around the world are focusing on parashat Yitro. In shul we'll be reading the story of the revelation of the aseret ha-dibrot, those famous Ten Utterances, and looking at several interpretive midrashim about how the revelation happened. In the d'var I just posted at RT, though, I opted to focus on the implications of Exodus 20:22, a verse which which instructs the Israelites to make altars only out of earth or whole stones, not out of stones which have been hewn. Here's a taste:

What makes this injunction most powerful is that it comes on the heels of the revelation at Sinai, arguably the most transcendent experience imaginable. Thunder! Celestial fireworks! A voice from the heavens! This is the pinnacle of religious experience, a direct moment of contact with God at God's most transcendent. Torah immediately moderates that story with a reminder not to ignore the holiness immanent in creation. It is incumbent upon we creatures of the earth to connect with God using the earth in which we're planted and from which we live.

Read the whole d'var here: Earth and whole stones.

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Responding to the new Reform response to intermarriage

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an article by Michael Luo called Reform Jews Hope to Un-Mix Marriages. Predictably, several friends emailed me the link, wanting to know my response. As I began my third lengthy email exploring the article and my thoughts about it, I gave in to the inevitable and decided to blog it. Here's the heart of the article:

For the most part, concerted efforts to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert have been frowned upon. Now, however, in what would be a major shift of outlook for Reform Judaism -- the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of American Judaism, with some 1.5 million members -- that may be changing.

Concerned about what intermarriage is doing to American Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization of the country's Reform Jewish congregations, recently called for Reform synagogues to increase their efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses. By welcoming and accepting gentile spouses, Reform congregations have "perhaps sent the message that we do not care if they convert," Rabbi Yoffie said at the union's most recent conference, in November...

Now, Reform congregations across the country are wrestling with how to respond. The push, which is accompanied by materials and initiatives on "inviting and supporting conversion," treads on emotionally fraught territory for thousands of interfaith families.

You bet it does. I heard Rabbi Yoffie speak about this in his Shabbat morning sermon/keynote address at the URJ Biennial last fall. I had qualms about it then, and I have qualms about it now.

Continue reading "Responding to the new Reform response to intermarriage" »

Frequent flyer Torah miles

"Let me suggest something to you," said my Talmud teacher to me this morning. Our phone tutorial was just getting rolling, and she had just reminded me to say the blessing for Torah study. I was sitting in one of the classrooms at my synagogue, Beginner's Guide to the Steinsaltz Talmud open before me. "Here's what I do. When I'm drinking my coffee, first thing in the morning, I say la-asok b'divrei Torah. Are you a coffee drinker?"

I am, I said, looking at the periwinkle-blue cup of hazelnut blend I'd picked up on my way to shul this morning. ("La-asok b'divrei Torah" are the closing words of that Torah study blessing I mentioned, which thanks God Who sanctifies us with the commandment to immerse ourselves in words of Torah. And yeah, if you see a pun between "la-asok" and the way the English word "immerse" connotes soaking, you're not alone -- Reb Arthur does too.)

"Say the blessing while you're drinking your morning coffee. And say the priestly blessing and the thing from Mishnah Peah 1:1, while you're at it." We do this in the morning liturgy at my shul sometimes. We say the blessing for studying Torah, and then having said the bracha we need to do a little of the activity we've just sanctified, so we read the priestly blessing and we sing a passage from Talmud which lists a string of actions which accrue merit -- honoring father and mother, visiting the sick, and so on -- and which asserts that the study of Torah is equal to them all. (A fascinating assertion, which I've blogged about before.)

"This way, you've blessed all the Torah study you'll do all day, so any stray Torah thought you have is blessed," Rabbi Abrams explained. "And that way, every Torah insight is 'logged' on your behalf, and will be counted when we come around to the Days of Awe again. It's like frequent flyer miles: if you go on a flight but you don't give them your number, you get the trip but you don't get the credit! This way, you get the joy of the learning, plus the merit of having learned."

What a great image: Torah study thoughts racking up like frequent flyer miles, ready to help transport one to someplace higher when Rosh Hashanah rolls around.

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A new haggadah for Tu BiShvat

Tu BiShvat, the Jewish "new year of the trees," falls this coming Sunday. The holiday has its roots in a passage in the Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah, about how there are four different iterations of new year's each year:

There are four New Years. On the 1st of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; on the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of cattle; . . . on the 1st of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; on the 1st of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to the view of the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel says, on the 15th of Shevat. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Mainstream Jewish tradition follows Hillel in most things, so we mark the new year of trees at the full moon in the middle of the month. Out of the notion that trees have their own new year (originally used to mark the age of trees, to determine when one should begin tithing fruits to God and when one could eat of the fruits oneself) came an elaborate set of holiday traditions, up to and including a mystical journey through the four worlds. I love this about Jewish tradition -- we're forever expanding small texts in new ways.

(For more on the history of the holiday and its observance, check out some of my previous posts on this one: New Year of the Trees, posted in 2004, or Happy Shvat!, posted in 2005.)

I'll be celebrating at my synagogue, where we'll begin the day with a trio of environmentalism workshops for kids of various ages, and then proceed to a Tu BiShvat seder and potluck lunch. (If you live locally, you're invited; it's open to all, kids' program at 10am and seder at 11:30.) The custom of the TuBiShvat seder comes from the medieval kabbalists of Tzfat, who connected each of the four worlds with a season and symbolized each with a different combination of juices and fruits. Of course, our haggadah diverges a little bit from theirs. Call it a modern variation, based in tradition but not bound to it. I think our changes and additions are good ones. I hope you'll agree.

2006 Tu BiShvat Haggadah (.pdf)

Enjoy the haggadah. Feel free to use it, or to modify it, or to be inspired by it to create a haggadah of your own. (And if you do use it, let me know what you think, and how it works out for you -- I'm always happy to get feedback.) May Tu BiShvat be joyful for you and yours!

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This week's portion: Song of the Sea

Another week, another Torah portion. This week we're reading parashat beshalach, which contains one of the most visually beautiful passages in Torah: the Song of the Sea. That's what I'll be reading in shul this Shabbat, and that's what I chose to write about for Radical Torah this week.

Shirat Ha-Yam is both visually and verbally breathtaking.  Some compare it to brickwork, seeing in its shape the patterns of stone on stone that suggest how Torah can be foundational. Others consider it to evoke the ocean crossing, with ragged waves drawing back on both sides and a column of Israelites in the middle.

From the Jerusalem Talmud comes the metaphor that Torah is written in black fire on white fire. Some modern-day midrashists suggest that the text's  missing stories exist for us to extrapolate from the white fire, the spaces between the visible words. If that's so, then this poem is redolent with untold stories --  or maybe the spaces in the text are openings for our own words of praise. Before we get to the white spaces, though, the black text is worth exploring...

If you're so inclined, head over and read my whole post: Reading the song, singing our own.

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Taking the reins

This week I begin an exciting new phase of my rabbinic-student education: what I've been calling my "internship in practical rabbinics." My rabbi, Jeff Goldwasser, is -- as he writes in the synagogue newsletter -- going on sabbatical for two two-month periods this year, and the first one begins now. Several congregants are rising to the occasion, helping to field the many tasks that Jeff does in his role as congregational rabbi. I am honored, and humbled, that many of these tasks have been handed to me.

I will have four primary responsibilities while he's gone: leading services (largely Friday morning meditation services and Shabbat morning services; most of the Friday evenings will be led by other congregants) and reading Torah, teaching (the twelve students in our b'nai mitzvah prep program will be my responsibility), facilitating festival observance (the holidays of Tu BiShvat and Purim fall during the first half of the sabbatical, and we have big programs planned for each), and providing crisis care, pastoral counseling, and funeral coverage for the community. (That's why I chose to enroll in an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education this year; I wanted to have some crisis counseling experience before Jeff went away.)

I try not to let my expectations shape my reality, but I've thought a lot lately about what my February and March will be like. Mostly I expect to learn a lot. None of the tasks I've been given are new to me, but I've never had to do them in quite this way before. For instance, I know how to prep a Torah portion (learn the verses I'll be reading from the scroll, and assemble a handout for discussion), but in the past I've had the luxury of spending all week on each one I've been responsible for. I'll need to learn how to do it faster, because it won't be the only congregational task demanding my time. Maybe I'll learn how to better communicate my love of Judaism to the teens in our religious school (or at least how to be less intimidated by a room full of adolescents filled with afterschool energy). And I'll have to learn how to balance responsibilities while juggling more balls than I'm accustomed to.

That last skill may be the most important one. I'm still executive director of Inkberry, and I'm still a student (remember the Talmud tutorial I blogged about a few weeks ago? plus the CPE program at Albany Medical Center runs through May.) So this spring gives me a chance to try balancing my already-full life with the new responsibilities of filling in for Jeff. Every rabbi I've spoken to about this has observed that what I describe sounds pretty much like rabbinic life in general, so I guess this is a good chance to begin learning how to juggle, prioritize, and balance.

It's also a good chance to practice compassion for myself. No one expects me to be perfect at this (except maybe me); if I can let go of my perfectionism a little, this should be fun. The truth of the matter is, though I've only been in rabbinic school for five months, I've been preparing to do this work for a much longer time than that. When I led my first service at CBI -- amazingly enough, a scant two years ago; my first stint as shaliach tzibbur was the Shabbat of Tu BiShvat, 2004 -- Jeff advised me to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to have fun. That's still my mantra, and I think it will serve me well while he's away.

It may be that I'll have to cut down on my blog-reading (and blog-commenting) during Jeff's sabbatical. I'll miss the conversations, but hope you'll all forgive my relative lack of presence. Please keep me in your thoughts! This is going to be an adventure.

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Carlton Pearson, paradigm shifter

I heard a really powerful hour of radio programming this weekend: the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, an evangelical Pentecostal preacher (Reverend Oral Roberts, his mentor, famously considered him "[his] Black son") who underwent the radical shift from preaching a theology of hellfire (that most of humanity is damned to eternal hell, and only those who accept Jesus as their personal savior can be saved) to preaching what he calls the "doctrine of inclusion," a theology which holds that we are all already "saved" whether we know it or not and that hell is what we, here on earth, do to one another.

The radio show was This American Life, the episode was #304 ("Heretics,") and the creators of the show spent the entire hour on the story of Pearson's rise, fall, and new life as a preacher of universalism. It can be heard here (stream it for free using RealAudio, or purchase it as an audio download for $13). Go and listen: it's a beautiful piece of storytelling, and it moved me profoundly. Bishop Pearson is a paradigm-shifter, and in that he reminds me of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zaide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal.

Continue reading "Carlton Pearson, paradigm shifter" »

Deep thanks to my Muslim readers...

To my great pleasure, Velveteen Rabbi is a finalist in the Brass Crescent Awards (cosponsored by City of Brass and, in the category of Best Non-Muslim Blog ("Which blog writen by a non-muslim is most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialog with muslims?")

I've made two significant posts about Islam over the last several months. One is Reading the Qur'an 1 (meant to be the first in a series, though I have yet to draft the others; it reflects my thoughts after reading the Qur'an for the first time), and the other is Sufism: Beyond the Veil, an exploration of William Chittick's book Sufism (and of the common ground I find between Sufism and some aspects of Judaism). Both were a pleasure to write, and both have sparked fascinating conversation across religious and cultural boundaries.

The more I learn, the more fascinated I become with the points of resonance between Islam and Judaism. I'm honored to have been nominated, and am enjoying the chance to browse the other nominated blogs. See the nominees in every category (and, if you wish, vote) here.  Thank you, Brass Crescent folks!

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Radical Torah: voices from the Jewish left

Radical Torah is "a weblog which features multiple takes on parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion), as seen through the lens of progressive religious and political viewpoints. The project seeks to create a resource of authentically Jewish responses to pertinent social justice issues, timed in accordance with their relevancy to the Jewish calendar." It's the brainchild of Dan Sieradski (Orthodox Anarchist), and the first few contributors include Danya Ruttenberg (Jerusalem Syndrome), Rabbi Arthur Waskow (The Shalom Center), and Rabbi Michael Lerner (Tikkun).

I'm humbled to be a part of that august company; I just contributed my first piece there, some thoughts on parashat Bo sparked in part by my hospital chaplaincy work. Here's an excerpt:

Torah tells us God hardened Pharaoh's heart, time after time, so that the first plagues and the middle plagues did not lessen his resolve. Only when firstborn sons died throughout the land, from the firstborn of Pharaoh himself to the firstborn of those in the lowliest dungeons, did Pharaoh relent and release us from slavery. But Torah is, typically, matter-of-fact in the retelling. It isn't a novel; it doesn't show us what these terrible wonders felt like for the Israelites. What was it like to take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in lamb's blood, and paint our doorposts red, knowing what we were warding away by the act? What was it like to hear the cries of mothers all around us, in every Egyptian household in the land, bewailing these sudden deaths?

Read it here: Seeking Compassion. And if you're interested in smart progressive Jewish thinking, add Radical Torah to your aggregator -- this is an exciting new endeavor of which I am really honored to be a part.

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Birthday d'var

I have three good friends who have birthdays this week, but only one who I think would truly be psyched about a personalized Torah commentary. So happiest of birthday wishes to Emily, Elissa, and Sandy; and for Sandy, a bissel Torah...

Dear Sandy,

On the Hebrew calendar, you were born on the 17th of Shvat in the year 5732, during the week when the Jewish community was reading parashat Yitro. Three major things happen in Yitro:

1) First, Yitro (or Jethro, as you might know him) chides Moses not to try to teach and adjudicate for the people all by himself. "You're going to burn out, you doofus," Yitro says (more or less) -- "get yourself some competent advisors, who share your awe of the Holy One, and let them help you."

2) Then Moses brings the people to the foot of Sinai and tells them to prepare themselves for three days. And in a cloud of smoke and fire, the voice of God speaks out (in such a way that, tradition tells us, every Jew throughout history was somehow, mystically, present) and declaims those famous utterances we call the Ten Commandments.

3) At the very end, God gives some instructions about the kind of altar the Israelites are to build: out of earth or found stones, not hewn ones, because wielding a tool against them will profane them.

The first lesson is a big one: that even the most wise and powerful leader needs a trusted cohort of colleagues. (Think Frodo and his companions, or Buffy and hers. Except, okay, don't think about them too closely, because I'm not really prepared to assert that either Frodo or Buffy is like Moses in a significant way. The point is, whether we're looking at Torah or at foundational geek texts, even our greatest hero doesn't work alone.) Then we get that radical moment when God speaks through the ages, reminding us to honor our progenitors, to refrain from cleaving to idols and from taking human life, and to sanctify our time through holy rest each week.

And then, at the end, there's that little filip about honoring the Eternal with what's whole, with what we find in creation. Those last lines are significant, I think. Today in lieu of bulls and sheep we offer our hearts, our words, and our intentions to God. The close of Yitro tells me that we need to bring our prayers and our mindfulness in a way that's whole. We don't need to construct something elaborate or "unnatural" to hold our intentions. God wants us to bring whatever we are to the whole and holy world; to use (and, by using, to sanctify) the stones that are already there.

Today, on your birthday, I wish you the blessings of your birth-portion: the cameraderie and companionship of trusted advisors and friends, the radical amazement of personal connection with the Source that nourishes you, and a deep awareness that the world as it is -- not the world as we might reshape it, but the very world we've got -- is the perfect stage on which to pour out your heart. Happy birthday.

Love, Me.

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