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This week's portion: prophetic (comedic) speech

This week we're in parashat Balak, in which Balaam is called-upon to curse the Israelites, but upon opening his mouth discovers he can utter only blessings.

Looked at through a certain lens, this parsha reads like slapstick. Balaam, on the road toward the place of the cursing, is temporarily thwarted by his donkey, who refuses to do his bidding -- and then talks back to him, giving him tsuris for whacking her with a stick. Shades of Shrek; can't you just hear the donkey speaking in Eddie Murphy's dulcet tones?

Once Balaam gets to the place where he's meant to offer curses, he opens up his mouth and the wrong thing comes out. (In this moment I imagine Balak as a kind of Homer Simpson figure: "D'oh!") Balak drags him to a different mountaintop -- maybe the cursing will work from here! -- but, once again, Balaam succeeds only in saying what God wills. At that point Balak, exasperated, orders him to stop: "Don't curse them and don't bless them" -- just stop talking, because you're ruining my plan! But Balaam offers blessings a third time.

Now Balak gets really mad, and vows to send Balaam away without payment. Balaam shrugs -- fine, he'll go home; he didn't want to come here in the first place -- but before he goes, he offers yet more praises for the Israelites, and while he's at it, damns a couple of enemies for good measure. Take that, Balak. See what happens when you dare to try to bring down curses on a people favored by God...

(Read the rest of my Radical Torah d'var here: Prophetic (comedic) speech.)

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Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)

Remember that contemporary theology books meme that was making the rounds of the religious blogosphere a while back? Were I doing that meme now, there's another book I would plug -- Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I've been assigned the task of reading sections from Rabbi Gillman's book for a forthcoming theodicy class, so this afternoon I donned a baseball cap and pulled up a big purple Adirondack chair and sat in the sun on our deck reading and underlining.

There's a lot of really good stuff here -- and I've only read a small handful of chapters so far. In this post I want to highlight some of the issues raised in the book's introduction; if there's interest, maybe I'll post more about other parts of the book later on.

One of the first ideas that caught my eye is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's formulation that we identify with the Jewish community by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Kaplan's work focused on belonging, whereas more traditionalist critics insisted that behaving was primary. "What is particularly striking about the dispute is the absence of any prominent modern thinker who is willing to make the case for the primacy of believing," Gillman notes.

Historically, the enterprise of systematizing Jewish belief has been somewhat alien to Judaism, and the thinkers who did engage in this work did so in a language other than Hebrew. (Even Maimonides wrote most of his work in Arabic, Mishneh Torah notwithstanding.) "[W]hereas the Jewish legal tradition -- not surprisingly for a system of law -- exhibited a great deal of inner consistency and coherence, Jewish theological positions have been wide-ranging and diverse." In other words, we're great at expounding upon the commandments, but not so hot at outlining belief. Maybe precisely because Christianity makes belief so foundational (think "credo"), Judaism explicitly doesn't, or hasn't.

Continue reading "Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)" »

About Oscar

Oscar at my wedding; Lenox, Masschusetts, 1998.

Oscar Ehrenberg used to invite me over for dinner when I was a kid. This was a particular treat when my parents were traveling; Oscar and his wife Millie, who lived just a few blocks away, would invite me to join them as though I were an adult who could make plans for herself. Reminiscences like these aren't what I usually post here -- but sometimes I just need to say these things, aloud where someone else will hear them. To help me remember. To create a record.

Oscar was born in what is now Slovakia in 1930. He died on Thursday in his own home, surrounded by friends and family, and the impact of his passing continues to ripple through the universe of those who knew and loved him well.

Oscar was witty and handsome -- as this article in the Express-News notes, a bon vivant. He and Millie reared their children alongside my parents' children, kept me company during my parents' travels, sometimes even accompanied my folks on those travels (the multimedia slide show on that Express-News page features a shot of my father and Oscar visiting China back in the early 1980s, when travel to "communist China" was adventurous and rare.)

As a boy, he spent two years in Auschwitz. I remember the tattoo on his forearm, and though he never spoke with me about that part of his life, I know it shaped him. He worked tirelessly to further causes of social justice.  In 1994 he spearheaded a community effort in San Antonio to aid the victims of genocide in Rwanda. (As the newspaper article recounts, "'I saw people starving,' he said. 'I had starved once. I didn't think we could simply do nothing.'")

When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, everyone grieved -- except, I think, Oscar himself. My mother recounts that when he was first hospitalized, my parents' rabbi stopped in to pay a pastoral care visit -- and he was thrown, graciously but firmly, out on his ear! Oscar didn't want to be ministered-to; he didn't want to be treated like an invalid. He wanted to keep living.

And he did, for longer than anyone had expected. Pancreatic cancer isn't something we can defeat, but even as the illness circumscribed his actions he found things to enjoy. Oscar savored fine wine, good food, and time with his family and friends -- even once the days came when a lunch date tired him out completely.

Mark Freedman, the executive director of Jewish Federation of San Antonio, wrote: "I will always remember his optimism, to the very end he was planning the next day and what good could be done with that day if you believed you could make a difference. Oscar always made a difference." And the whole community knew it, too -- more than a thousand people poured into my parents' congregation for his funeral.

The last time I saw him was in May of 2006. He and Millie came to my parents' house for hors d'oeuvres and a drink. I was shocked to see him so thin, his bones jutting so sharply -- looking, suddenly, like the Shoah survivor it's so easy for me to forget that he had been. I told him about my chaplaincy work, hoping that he would talk with me about his illness. But he resisted my attempts to steer the conversation in that direction. He didn't want to talk about sickness or death. He wanted to hear about my life in western Massachusetts, about the work and travel my husband was doing, about the things I enjoy in the ordinary moments of my life.

I learned a lot from Oscar, both about how to live and how to die. He taught me how precious our time here is, and how important it is that we each find a way to balance the call to heal the broken world with the need to live mindfully, and joyfully, through the duration of our days. I miss him already.

My father, and Oscar, and me. May 2006, San Antonio.

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This week's portion: Choice and change

In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers some striking insights into this week's Torah portion of Chukat, riffing off of the first verse in the parsha, "This is the law of the instructed-ritual that YHVH has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, that they may take you a red cow, wholly-sound, that has in it no defect, that has not yielded to a yoke[.]'" (Numbers 19:2, transl. Everett Fox.) Levi Yitzchak writes:

In our world, it appears to us as if we were created to engage in the things of this world. But in truth, that is not the case. The primary reason that we were created was so that we might come to recognize the unity of the Holy Blessed One...

That is the sense of "This is the law of the Torah:" there are mitzvot that reason compels us to perform. When we do them, we do not sense so strongly that we are performing them because the Creator commanded these mitzvot. That is why the Blessed Creator gave us commandments that reason does not comprehend. When we do them, we more readily recognize that we do them only because of God's commandment.

It's easy to understand why ethical commandments are important. How we treat one another matters. But ritual commandments, especially ones (like the red heifer) which don't make much sense -- those can be harder to cherish. For Levi Yitzchak, the illogic of a chok (a commandment which can't be made to fit our sensible paradigm) is precisely what makes it important. In accepting the chukim, we accept the "yoke of heaven" and acknowledge God's sovereignty.

There's something beautiful about that. It affirms that there are things in this vast universe which are beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That life isn't all about us. That, as Levi Yitzchak writes, we were created for an ineffable purpose -- recognizing the fundamental unity of infinite God! All of our strivings and disagreements and philosophical ruminations are not the point. Performing chukim has an impact on our spiritual awareness. They're devotional practices, not intellectual exercises.

There's also something difficult about it. The red cow becomes a kind of red flag. Maybe especially for women, who may feel that we are always already trying to break free from the expectation that we will submit ourselves to priorities which come from someone else. The world is too full of hierarchy and power-over, and siting ourselves in a position of submission to incomprehensible mitzvot can feel like another iteration of the same old song and dance...

(Read the rest of this week's Radical Torah d'var here: Choice and change.)

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More tidbits from Zohar

As previously noted, in the Zohar class I'm taking we've been moving through a series of Zohar teachings relating to parshiyot (Torah portions) in the book of Bereshit (Genesis.) Our homework for this week was to go to and identify (and learn) an interesting passage that relates to parashat Toldot. I found myself drawn to this section, and thought I'd share 3 snippets of it here. (Actually, this is a passage from Midrash Ha-Ne'elam, "The Obscure Commentary," which is often included in editions of the Zohar although it is technically an extra-Zoharic text.)

Our jumping-off-point is the first verse of the portion: V'eleh tol'dot Yitzchak ben Avraham; Avraham holid et-Yitzchak. "This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac." (That's the JPS translation, though translates tol'dot more literally, as "generations.")

"And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak" (Bereshit 25:19). Rabbi Yitzchak began the discussion with the verse: "The mandrakes give a fragrance..." (Shir Hashirim 7:14). The sages taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise the dead and shake the dust off them. As a result, they will no longer be made of dust, as they were when first created from dust, which does not endure, as it is written, "And Hashem Elohim formed man of the dust of the ground" (Bereshit 2:7).

Rabbi Yitzchak begins the discussion of this verse by leaping to a verse from Song of Songs. He's going to move us from "Avraham begot Yitzchak" to a teaching about resurrection, body, and soul, and the first move he makes is, he cites the Song of Songs. (This kind of exegesis feels to me like playing a hand of cards, one at a time. At the end of the hand, the cards should make a bridge between one text and another.)

Continue reading "More tidbits from Zohar" »

Torah in the hills

Deerfield River, Shelburne Falls.

Yesterday evening I drove to the town of Shelburne Falls. The drive takes about an hour, along some twisty back roads (including my favorite Cheshire shortcut to 116, and 8A through the backwoods of Hawley, and finally a short stretch of the Mohawk Trail.) I parked my car behind McCusker's Market, where I met the one other ALEPH rabbinic student in Western Massachusetts for dinner and some learning together!

I remember sitting with her in the dining hall of the old Elat Chayyim, back when I was still a prospective student -- I knew I wanted to apply, but had the usual anxieties about getting in. She urged me to apply, sooner rather than later. The work of becoming a rabbi in this program takes many years, she reminded me, so it might behoove me to begin. Besides, she pointed out, if I were in the program, we could study together, someplace between my town and hers. Last night, we finally brought that promise into reality.

Over sandwiches, we talked about how each of us is navigating the program: what courses we're taking, how we're fielding the various requirements, how we're juggling the program with the rest of our personal and professional lives. And then we settled in to do some learning.

The plan is to do an independent study in classical midrash. We've each picked up a lovely bilingual edition of Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, which will be our core text. We're still figuring out exactly where we want our learning to focus -- we hope to study some midrash, and then some Talmud, and see if we can trace how stories and references shift from one to the other. We're about to open a conversation with a rabbi from whom we've both learned in the past, to see whether she'd be willing to formally advise this independent study. So last night was really a preliminary meeting. But we wanted to do some learning, not just talking about learning, so we spent a while studying the beginning of the text, taking turns reading aloud and translating together. It felt great.

I love being able to connect with my fellow students virtually. (Yesterday afternoon, for instance, I had a Skype study date with a fellow student who lives in Florida -- which was terrific; it makes me happy to see his face on my screen and to hear his voice in my headphones.) But there's something about studying together in hevruta, in person, across a table, that just can't be duplicated. Two people learning together can arrive at insights that neither of them could have found alone -- their awareness can be more than the sum of its parts. Plus, it's just plain fun.

I'm already looking forward to next week, and to a summer of driving these mountain roads in order to learn.

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Mobius on the occupation

I don't post often about Israel, for a variety of reasons. One of these days I'll write something about why that's been my unofficial modus operandi for the last four years. But for now, I wanted to amplify something I just read -- notes from Mobius' remarks at the conference hosted by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.) He writes:

Rather than focusing on the conflict as a Palestinian rights or even human rights issue, when speaking with other Jews, we should focus on the occupation as a Jewish issue. How is the occupation bad for the Jews? How is it bad for Israel? What are the sacrifices we’re making, in terms of lives and resources, in order to hold onto the Territories?

But more importantly: What is it that we’re fighting to preserve by having a Jewish state? What is it that we stand for as a people? And what is the value of having a state if, in the process of establishing and defending it, we sacrifice that which we represent in the world (or otherwise alter that representation to be something no longer consistent with our tradition)?

I went on to say that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for the Jewish people to do teshuvah: To turn back to G-d and embrace the Torah. Then I explained what that means — what teshuvah looks like, and started breaking down the klalim gedolim — "the big everythings" in Judaism: We’re all the children of Adam. Love your brother as yourself. We’re all created in the image of G-d. These are the values we stand for: The unity of being. The oneness of G-d. The fellowship of humanity.

And then I started getting more specific: What does the messianic ideal look like? That we should be free to live in the land of Israel without anyone to oppress or disturb us. That non-Jews will look to us an exemplar of righteous conduct in the world. That they will cling to us for guidance out of the love of their own hearts. I then said that we need to ask ourselves how we can conduct ourselves in a way that endears the nations, rather than one that brings them to revile us.

Furthermore, I noted that the land of Israel is the altar of the world, and examined what that means, in terms of entering the land with a purified consciousness and a sacred vision. Are we conducting ourselves in the land in such a way that it sanctifies the altar or desecrates it?

There's more, of course. The whole post is here, and is well worth reading if this is a subject that matters to you. And while I'm at it, hey, yom huledet sameach, Daniel -- thanks for celebrating your birthday by giving over this Torah.

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Zohar, Torah, world

The current homework for my Zohar class is to step outside the comfort zone of Daniel Matt's 1983 translation (our primary textbook thus far) and spend some time with the nifty bilingual text at Specifically, we're each supposed to read the Zohar's commentary on parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19 - 28:9), choose a passage, and identify some of the questions and teachings rooted in that passage.

In the process of doing this assignment, I ran across a passage that I find particularly beautiful, which I thought I'd share here. It's the third teaching on this page:

Come and behold: whoever studies the Torah sustains the world and properly sustains every act in the world. There is no part within man that does not have a counterpart creature in the world. Just as the body of man is composed of levels of parts that act together to form a unified body, so is the world. All the creatures in the world are hierarchical parts that act on and react with each other, so they will actually be as one body. Everything, whether it be man or the world, resembles the Torah, because the Torah is made of different parts and sections that support each other. When they are all correct, they will become as one body. When David looked at this work, he said: "Hashem, how manifold are your works! In wisdom You have made them all: the earth is full of Your creatures" (Tehilim 104:24).

I love the way this teaching plays with different macrocosm / microcosm notions. Like the world, I have many parts which must work together -- and when they don't, I'm in trouble. The organs in my body, even the molecules that make up those organs, are all a part of the whole of me. Just so, I take part in the life of the world, in my own molecular way. (I'm reminded here of Reb Zalman's teaching that each religion is an organ in the body of the world -- that the world needs each tradition to fully be what it is, and also to be in cooperative conversation with each other tradition, because without both integrity and communication our system will fail.)

Torah, the Zohar says, is a cosmic blueprint for this kind of macrocosm and microcosm. The Torah too is made up of many parts. Though they differ (even contradicting one another, at least in a simple or surface reading) we need to understand them as part of the same whole. We need to be capable of accepting apparent contradictions, in our texts and in our lives, in order to see the system in a holistic way. When we can step back far enough to see the whole of Torah -- written Torah, oral Torah, commentaries and commentaries upon commentaries, the lived Torah of human experience, the white fire on which the black fire is inscribed -- then we allow Torah to be embodied as one.

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I had a Shabbat filled with shehecheyanus.

My nephew is visiting from afar, and I got to bring him to Caretaker Farm for the first week of CSA distribution. We were still getting snow this April, which meant distribution started later than usual this year, so I was expecting a very small first haul -- but I couldn't have been more wrong. I came home with two beautiful heads of lettuce, arugula and mibuna and mustard greens and baby spinach, bunches of radishes and baby turnips, a wee bok choi: a glory of greens. It felt really good to be back, to look out over the fields, to pick herbs in the herb garden and wave to people I knew.

Then we want to Wahconah Park to see a Pittsfield Dukes game. It was a beautiful evening for my first ballgame of the summer season. Everything about it was pleasing: the smell of the grass, the sounds (crack of bat and thunk of ball into glove), the feel and taste of peanuts freshly-shelled. We had to squint through the first couple of innings, of course -- the park was built in its current form in 1919, well before the advent of night ball, so the batter (and catcher, and those in the stands) face into the setting sun -- but we didn't mind. We didn't even mind that the Dukes didn't exactly win.

And then there were fireflies, and the tiniest fringe of new moon in the sky. And, in time, Shabbat morning services at my shul; the adults numbered nine, not quite a minyan, but even without taking the scroll from the ark we had a terrific Torah discussion. We talked about various priestly roles and modes of sacrifice, and then we studied the haftarah portion read when Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh. (It offers a fascinating perspective on the rebuilding of the Temple, and a messianic vision of God choosing priests from among all peoples when all races and all tongues join in praise together. Plenty of fodder for conversation, in other words.)

And there was a sweet afternoon of cloud and sun and rest. And as the day waned, Ethan came home from long travels! So many things to be grateful for.

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This week's portion: fruitful tension between paradigms

This week, in parashat Korach, Korach dares to argue that all of the community is holy and therefore the kohanim don't deserve a monopoly on their priestly role. In response, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers. This is one of the most fascinating, powerful, and problematic stories in Torah. It draws me and repels me in nearly equal measure.

If you're looking for insightful commentary on Korach, allow me to recommend Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman's Korah and Determinism, which explores questions of predestination, awe of heaven, and free will by reading Korach through the lens of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. I brought that text to my weekly hevruta group, and after a close reading of Rabbi Chipman and the Ishbitzer, we wound up talking about how each of us sees the story of Korach, and how our understandings have changed over time.

I've long identified with Korach, who can be read as a proponent of democracy, of grassroots activism, of empowerment. The entire people is holy, he says; power shouldn't be consolidated in the hands of an élite; each of us should be able to draw near to God. We aspire to holy community, don't we? And what could be more holy than a community in which everyone takes responsibility for her or his own relationship with God? That's part of why I entered rabbinic school -- in order to learn how to empower people to fully inhabit their relationship with Jewish tradition and with God.

It's easy to read this story as a conflict between Korach -- the wild figure who finds holiness in all people and who insists people can relate to God on their own -- and Moses and Aaron, the staid and stodgy representatives of the status quo, promulgators of hierarchy and order. Given that dichotomy, I've always been more of a Korach type. (Except, of course, that Korach is ultimately swallowed up by the earth -- not exactly the kind of future I'm looking for.)

Funny thing, though. As I settle more firmly into rabbinic school, I'm starting to relate more to Aaron and to Moses. My inner Korach still calls out for an egalitarian commitment to the holiness of the whole community -- but now he's answered by the growing voice of my inner Moshe....

(Read the rest of my Radical Torah d'var here: Fruitful tension between paradigms.)

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Eight things

My friend the Feminarian tagged me to participate in the "eight things" meme. The idea is to post eight random facts about myself, or habits of mine, and then tag eight people to do the same.

I find open-ended memes like this one surprisingly challenging. (Earlier this year I was tapped to share five things you may not know about me, and it took me a long while to come up with good ones. Something about wanting to be revelatory enough that the post is interesting, but not so revelatory that I overshare.) But hey: this is probably the only blogging I'll manage to do today, so I'm glad Stasi linked my way.

Let's see...

1. The only Turkish word I know is batilgian, which means eggplant. It's a foodstuff of which Ethan isn't very fond, so I make a point of cooking and eating it when he's out of town. (Today's lunch: a baked eggplant dish from Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant, far and away the best Moosewood cookbook out there.)

2. When I was in poetry grad school, I tried to read a collection of poems every week. It's a discipline I've let slip, in the years since Bennington, and I feel guilty about it sometimes. Lately I've started visiting used-books stores and buying slim volumes of poems by people whose work I don't know. I figure if I'm lucky, somebody will pick up one of mine that way, some day.

3. I never wear closed-toed shoes in the summertime if I can help it. Every few years I wear through the soles of my Birkenstocks, but it's totally worth it. Summer is the season for pedicures, walking barefoot through the grass, and displaying my shiny silver toe-ring.

4. The last cd I bought was Sounds Eclectic: The Covers Project. I'm a longtime fan of KCRW Rare on Air and the Sounds Eclectic series, and I also have a fondness for well-turned cover songs. The album doesn't knock my socks off the way I wanted it to, but kd lang's cover of "Hallelujah" is gorgeous.

5. Last erev Shabbat, before services began, we were talking about the various birdcalls we could hear through the open windows. (My shul sits at the edge of a field and the edge of a wetland, so there are birds aplenty.) I learned that evening to identify the sound of a red-winged blackbird, and confirmed the song of the wood thrush, which is my favorite.

6. I was born on the spring equinox. Technically I'm an Aries, though only barely. I've always felt Piscean -- more watery than fiery per se. Recently I learned that according to one kabbalistic understanding water and fire represent a pair of opposite sefirot, hesed (love) and din (judgement or rigor), and their conjunction symbolizes a kind of wholeness. Maybe that's where the equinox comes in -- balancing the two.

7. I'm apparently incapable of making a brief eight-item list; I have to expand and qualify. I also overthink things. Like blog memes.

8. Tonight I'm meeting two friends at Images Cinema to see Waitress. I don't see a ton of movies, but I'm a sucker for a good smalltown story (longtime faves include Local Hero and Mystery, Alaska) -- and the prospect of seeing Nathan Fillion on the big screen again makes me happy.

And as for tagging eight bloggers? I never know who to choose; it's hard to know who will be pleased to be tapped, and who will be exasperated by the intrusion. After spending too much time browsing my aggregator and blogroll, waffling, I'm copping out -- if you would like to do this meme, please consider yourself tapped (and drop me a link to your post in comments)!

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(Re)reading blogs

Generally speaking, qarrtsiluni only accepts submissions of new work, not retreads of work which has appeared elsewhere. But for their current issue, they're subverting that paradigm. The theme of this issue is Greatest Blog Hits, and for this issue alone they're seeking previously-published work at least a year old. How often do we revisit favorite blog posts, as we may revisit beloved books or poems? It's easy for posts to slip out of conscious memory once they scroll out of our aggregators or off of a blog's main page.

They've reprinted some amazing work. Like The Silverberg Variations: a story in twelve movements, from the long-defunct the vernacular body; Puma, from creek running north; and Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer in West Point, Nebraska, from The Middlewesterner.

The editors there have graciously reprinted one of my favorite old VR posts, about my first time serving on my congregation's chevra kadisha: Facing impermanence, posted in April of 2005. (A link to that post on my own site lives in the sidebar of this blog, so many of you may have seen it before. Even so, there's a certain pleasure in seeing it reprinted in a new home...)

As always, I'm honored to be in such august company. Go and read, and lose yourself in some of the wondrous stories contained in the snow globe of the blogosphere. These pieces merit multiple readings, and I'm so glad the editors of qarrtsiluni chose to hold them again up to the light.

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A prayer for growing something new

Some weeks ago a friend visited us while we were putting in berry canes. It was one of the first beautiful weekends of spring, warm and bright enough to wear my big straw sun hat. My friend kept us company, and lent a hand, as we tilled a patch of soil, dug trenches, seated fifteen berry canes, and covered the bed with fresh cedar mulch from a nursery down the road.

The canes didn't look like much, I have to admit. Sticks with rootballs. The two types of raspberries, and the handful of blackberries, looked and felt slightly different -- some greenish, some reddish, some thornier than others. Even so, they hardly inspired confidence, with their wispy beards and their truncated tops. But they'd come from the same berry farm where we got the blueberries we put in two years ago, and we trust the berry farm.

This afternoon I weeded the area around the berry canes, now bursting with new leaves. When we planted the blueberries, I wrote about how gardening wakes my sense of wonder, and my sense of faith. That's still true. Once again the combination of sweat and intention, labor and mindfulness -- seasoned with something ineffable -- has worked wonders.

As I was pulling goldenrod shoots in the berry patch today, the friend who helped us plant the canes was ordained a rabbi. Sweat and intention, labor, mindfulness, and the ineffable have led her to the cusp of something amazing and new. All of that hard work is finally going to bear fruit.

My prayer for her is this: wherever you are planted, may you flourish! May your roots in the tradition grow deep, and always find water. May you always be able to go dormant when you need to, to wake with gratitude, and to draw sustenance from the Source Who enlightens and enlivens all. And hey, thanks for helping us plant. I look forward to eventually harvesting some fruit of my own.

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Domestic agenda results are in

Remember that domestic Jewish agenda poll I linked to a while back, inviting readers to select the domestic agenda issues that matter most to us? My friend Mik over at JSpot announced yesterday that the results are in. More than 8600 people have voted so far, and the top four issues are health care (87%), the environment (84%), education (68%) and civil rights (57%).

I'm intrigued by his point that the percentages remained remarkably consistent throughout. In other words, health care was at the top of the list from the start, and stayed that way. (Ditto for the other top issues.)

Mik has interesting things to say about the connections between Judaism and the environment, and between Judaism and civil rights. Of course, he also notes that the priorities expressed in this (unscientific, but intriguing) poll are not the priorities promoted by most mainstream American Jewish organizations, and he has smart things to say about that, too.

I don't have dazzling new insights about this, but I think it's worth paying attention to. In light of that, let me also point you to the Washington Post's story Promoting a Domestic Jewish Agenda, by Michelle Boorstein, which went live yesterday. Boorstein writes:

The groups' premise is that the large, older, established Jewish advocacy groups -- that have more clout on Capitol Hill -- focus too much on foreign issues and don't speak accurately for the majority of American Jews, who care as much about health care and the environment as anti-Semitism in Europe or Israeli politics...

Thanks to the folks at JSpot for orchestrating this poll. I'm looking forward to seeing how presidential candidates respond to this assertion of American Jewish priorities.

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Paper and priorities

I learned a really entertaining thing at our religion committee meeting last night. Maybe all of you know this already? But in case you don't, I thought I'd share.

As you may know, the Reform movement has a new prayerbook in-progress, called Mishkan Tefilah. It's been in-progress for a long time; my shul ordered our copies five years ago, and the release date keeps getting pushed forward for one reason or another. (At the Biennial two years ago we davened using proofs, and they told us then that it would be out "soon." Yeah, right.) Anyway, the most recent publication date had been this summer...

...but apparently the paper that the publication committee chose for the prayerbook is the same paper on which the forthcoming seventh Harry Potter book will be published. And because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is expected to be a really big seller, Mishkan Tefilah is in a kind of suspended animation. They can't print MT until after the Harry Potter rush is over, lest that print job use up paper which might need to be allocated to printing more copies of HP7.

In other words: because I'm pre-ordering a copy of the new HP from my local independent bookstore...? I'm pretty much guaranteeing that my shul won't have a copy of MT until fall. Fortunately, I like the homegrown siddur we use at my shul; I don't mind waiting another few months for MT. (HP7, on the other hand...)

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Another chance to hear me read

There's a monthly Speaker's Night series at my shul, and this month the speaker will be me. This erev Shabbat we'll have kabbalat Shabbat services at 7pm, followed by a brief oneg and kiddush; at 8:15pm I'll read some of my poems, and maybe also talk a little bit about poetry and liturgy and how they intersect for me.

If you live nearby, or have any interest in spending this coming Shabbat in north Berkshire, please join us! (You can get directions by going here and clicking on the tab that says -- not surprisingly -- "directions.")

On Friday night, I'll be reading specifically from my Judaic work -- like these morning blessing poems, this new year's poem, this Torah poem. But as a teaser for this reading, I'll post one of my poems that isn't religious, per se, written five years ago yesterday, and posted today with much love.



I've been jonesing for hot and sour soup all day
but when I scan the takeout menu
I find myself ordering Mongolian Beef.
Ulan Bataar is thirteen hours ahead;
I can't imagine what passes
for breakfast there, and even if it were
the dinner hour something tells me
you wouldn't actually be eating anything
like what I get in my white paper carton.
Still, just saying the words raises a flush
of blood to my cheeks, as if eating so-called
Mongolian anything in this New England town
on the eve of our fourth wedding anniversary
could make me, just for an instant, closer to you.


Hope to see some of y'all at synagogue tomorrow night!

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This week's portion: compassion and fear

This week, in Shlakh-Lekha, we read about the scouts the Israelites send into the land of Canaan, and the troubling scene that arises when they bring back a report steeped in negativity and fear.

In this week's d'var at Radical Torah, I read this story as one about childhood and maturation -- and about how a parent might respond to the discovery that her child just isn't ready for the next big new thing:

We have all had moments of feeling that the world we inhabit is too big, too complicated -- that the task at hand is too overwhelming to face. The Israelites are like children, facing a challenge that's more than they can bear.

And oh, God is disappointed. God was ready to send us off to school, to new learning and new adventures, but after one glance into the tiled halls with their echoing lockers we went running back and begged to be allowed to stay home where we felt safe. (Beyond that -- if we read the parting of the sea as a kind of breaking of the waters, our emergence from the Narrow Place of Mitzrayim as a kind of birth, the Israelites wanted to return to the womb!) Poor God -- learning the hard way that children can't be forced to develop according to any pre-established timetable. God wanted us to mature, to grow into the future God had imagined for us, but we aren't there yet.

If we read this text in this way, what lessons does it offer? What is Torah telling us about how to relate to fear -- our own, and that of those around us? Read my meditations on those questions here: Compassion and fear.

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Mincha, maariv, havdalah, bat mitzvah siddur

One of the reasons there wasn't a new version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggdah for Pesach this year is that the time, energy, and attention that I typically invest in haggadah revisions went, this year, toward creating a siddur for my niece's bat mitzvah.

I wanted to create something which would be liturgically complete enough that those who needed to feel yotzei (that they had fulfilled their obligation to pray) would be able to achieve that goal -- but at the same time I wanted our homegrown liturgy to be pray-able in Hebrew and in English, and I wanted it to be accessible to those who were unaccustomed to Shabbat afternoon/evening davenen and/or to Jewish prayer in general.

I wanted to showcase my niece's prose and poetry and illustrations alongside some of my other favorite liturgical poems and passages. I wanted a balance of tradition and innovation that would meet my niece's (and her immediate family's) needs, and would also give a sense of one way to daven Renewal-style (since that's the flavor of prayer I find sweetest.) And I wanted to accomplish all of this in a way that honored our schedule, ideally in a way that would leave people wanting more.

I'm tremendously proud of the end result, and I'm offering it here as a resource. I imagine it may be helpful to folks who are preparing to lead mincha/maariv/havdalah services, especially when there's a bar or bat mitzvah involved. It may also be interesting to my fellow liturgy geeks -- and to those members of my family who weren't present but would like to see the siddur we used -- and, who knows, maybe to others, too!

This .pdf file doesn't include the watercolor cover (which you can see below in tiny thumbnail form) nor Emma's many illustrations (I'm especially sorry that this doesn't include her shviti drawing, a beautiful full-color illustration of a Tree of Life with God's names interwoven among the leaves and bark.) But it does include poems (hers and mine, alongside a few other favorites) and also my niece's terrific midrash on this week's parsha, Shlach, which gives voice to some of the Israelites sent to investigate the land of Canaan. This siddur offers one possible way to celebrate both the liminal space of Shabbat afternoon/evening, and of a young woman's formal religious coming-of-age.

siddur for mincha / maariv / havdalah [.pdf]

(Edited in 2005 to add: an updated version of this siddur is now available at my website: scroll down to the "Lifecycle" section of my ritual archive and download the pdf from there.)

Of course, nothing's perfect -- not even a siddur created lovingly and proofread assiduously by smart people (thanks, Aliza!) There are a few typos. And we neglected to inform the printer that we wanted these bound on the right, whoops. And, of course, this bound siddur doesn't include any of the kavvanot that I offered aloud from the bimah -- the words I spoke and sang to introduce and explain the various parts of the service. But isn't that always the way? Even the most beautiful prayerbook is always, inevitably, what my teacher Reb Zalman calls "freeze-dried liturgy"; voices, intention, and heart are needed to reconstitute it and bring it to life.

I welcome questions about and responses to the siddur. Enjoy!


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Bat mitzvah wow!

My niece and me, rehearsing on Friday afternoon.

This past weekend was my first bat mitzvah -- which is to say, the first bat mitzvah for which I served as rabbi. (Something of a coming-of-age experience for me, as well as for the bat mitzvah girl.) It was amazing.

About 140 of us gathered at the Maliotis Cultural Center for mincha, maariv, and havdalah on Saturday evening. As people filed in, Elise was playing guitar to set the mood; in the wings, Emma and I recited the bracha for donning tallit together. (She wore my grandfather's tallit; I wore the glorious blue watercolor tallit that she and my sister gave me for this occasion.) We took a deep breath and walked out onto the bimah, and then the service began!

In all honesty, it's kind of a blur to me. I remember smiling at everyone a lot, and singing with all my heart, and feeling rooted and awake and alive. I remember saying something about the community we were forming -- a once-in-a-lifetime gathering, since this group of people had never before come together to worship and celebrate in quite this way.

I remember my niece leading all of her portions of the service flawlessly (especially Uva Letzion, using the melody which is unique to Shabbat mincha. Mad props to Minna, who tutored her in leyning and chanting.) I remember the Torah reading -- my niece chanted beautifully, and for the first time I managed to chant the English translation (bilingual leyning!) I remember hearing my niece's d'var Torah and being wowed, again, by her insights and her poise and her ineffable uniqueness.

The whole service flowed. We were in the groove, the music worked, people sang, my niece sparkled. It went as well as I possibly could have imagined. Then, of course, there was a great party. Terrific food. Joyful dancing. Amazing music by Basya Schechter and Pharaoh's Daughter.

Afterwards, several people told me the service was moving, that it made them cry, that it was accessible to them in ways that Judaism had never been before, that they had never imagined that Judaism could feel like this, that it had been the perfect blend of tradition and innovation. I was on a cloud for the remainder of the evening. Those comments echo the way I felt after my first visit to Elat Chayyim -- and since my response to that first experience of Renewal davenen was to think, "I want to be a rabbi like that! I want to give other people the experience I'm having now!" I feel like I'm finally paying that forward.

I'm planning to post a .pdf of the siddur we created for this event; I think it's a useful resource. (So stay tuned -- that post should go live soon.) Meanwhile, I'm home again now -- slowly coming down off the high of seeing my niece do such an amazing job, and the high of creating a worship experience that I think really opened people's eyes to the joy I find in Judaism.

I feel so lucky to have been able to do this for and with my niece, and my sister, and our family.


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Profiling soferet Shoshana Gugenheim

I know I said I'd be offline for a few days -- and I mostly am! -- but I'm logging on briefly this morning to let folks know that the new issue of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture is online, and (as usual) everything in it is good.

I especially want to point folks toward my contribution to this issue (not because it's mine, but because it's a story I think is really worth reading): an interview with / profile of soferet (Torah scribe) Shoshana Gugenheim, which is called Shoshana Gugenheim: Woman of the Book. We spoke about art, Judaism, halakha, pluralism, and what it means for a woman to engage in the work that Shoshana's doing. Here's a tiny taste of the introduction:

For a woman to dedicate her life not only to sofrut, but specifically to writing a sefer Torah, is radical. Gugenheim isn't just claiming her right to hold forth as a Jewish woman about her reality; she is taking the most fundamental tool of Jewish authorship and authority into her own hands. When I write poems out of my own Jewish experience, I can say I'm "writing the Torah of my life" — but when Gugenheim takes up ink and quill, she is writing her life's Torah in a literal sense.


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