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June 2007
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August 2007

The place where I am

Yoga has been an on-again, off-again thing for me through several professional incarnations. I can chart the last ten years of my life both through jobs (newspaper editorship at one end of the county; arts nonprofit at the other end) and through the beautiful yoga centers in those two towns where I started and restarted my yoga practice. I've never really stuck with yoga in a longterm way, though. Scheduling gets in the way, and eventually distance. During the year since I left Inkberry to pursue full-time rabbinic studies, I haven't really been doing yoga at all.

The trouble is, there's only so much time in the day. I'm aware that I would be mellower, more energized, and saner if I prayed three times a day, engaged in daily yoga practice, and worked on poems for an hour every morning...but if I actually gave each of those practices the time it truly deserves, I'm not sure when I would, oh, work, you know? Besides, I'm not very good about doing yoga on my own; I need a class, both for community and for motivation, and driving thirty or forty-five minutes to the studios where I used to learn takes too much of a bite out of the day.

But Ethan and I have been engaged in a slow process of exploring Pittsfield, the county seat which is directly south of the town where we live, and on a recent pass through I noticed a yoga center on North street. (It's next door to a lovely coffee shop with wifi, and across the street from surprisingly decent takeout Chinese.) Last Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, I rounded out my week by taking a gentle introductory yoga class there. This morning, to kick off my Monday, I returned for a class they call "Ashtanga Flow."

The first thing we did was take a comfortable seated position, notice our breath, and cultivate awareness of where each of us was at, on all levels. Notice your body, the instructor urged us. It's the best yoga teacher in the room, so listen to it, and be aware of what it needs. You can only practice from the place where you are.

The class pushed me right up against my physical limitations. It had been months since I last attempted downward dog, and I can tell that my hamstrings and my hip joints and my pecs will chide me for this unexpected burst of physicality tomorrow morning! But throughout, I kept returning to the notion that I need to be mindful of my body; to hear what it's telling me; and to work with what I've got, not what I imagine I ought to have. This sounds so easy, even corny, but I find it surprisingly difficult to put into action. Some part of me always wishes my body were different -- sleeker, stronger -- and every time I bump up against the disjunction between the body I imagine and the body I've got, there's a twinge of frustration.

Of course, those twinges of frustration are excellent opportunities to practice some of the middot we talked about in class a few weeks ago. Savlanut, patience; hakarat hatov, gratitude; rachamim, compassion. (Yes, my primary task this week is to write the final paper for that class; how'd you guess?) Returning to yoga practice after a long time away offers me all kinds of chances to work with my real body, with all of its imperfections. To be where I am, not just in a metaphysical sense but in a very embodied one.

I drove to class this morning humming a melody by Reb David Zeller z"l. The melody goes with the words "Ki imcha m'kor chayyim, b'orcha nir'eh or / for with You is the source of life, in Your light we see light" and the verse that was in my head goes

Wish to be where you want to be (3x)
Wish to be where you are.
Wish to be where you are right now (3x)
Wish to be where you are.

What better benediction could there be for a Monday morning -- for the return to yoga, for the work that lies ahead, for the ongoing process of refining how I relate to where I'm at on my various paths?

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Clothing, signals, teshuvah

Not long ago, I made a day trip into New York City to see an old college friend who has become baalat teshuvah. Regular readers may know that teshuvah is the continual process of reflection and refinement, turning and re/turning to orient oneself in alignment with God, central to Judaism in all of its forms. But colloquially, someone who is baal/baalat teshuvah is someone who came from a secular or liberal background and has entered the Orthodox or Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world.

My friend who has become BT lives in Jerusalem now, and it's not my place to tell her story. But I've been thinking a lot about my experience of visiting her in what used to be her hometown...and about how I agonized over what to wear, and what that process revealed to me about my emotions surrounding her choices.

Maybe, I thought, I should dress in a tsniusdik (modest) way to put my friend at ease. After all, I would do no less if I were visiting a foreign country where such dress were presumed. In the Vatican, in Amman, and in Mea Shearim I have worn long flowing linen in order to respectfully interact with religious cultures that don't match mine. I could do the same in Queens. Then again, thought I, maybe I should dress as I ordinarily do at this time of year, in cropped trousers and a tank top. My friend has known and loved me as I am and have been, and I shouldn't need to change my appearance in order to interact with her.

Of course, what I chose to wear wasn't really the issue. The real question was, what would my clothing choices say about who I am, and who she is, and how I hoped we might interact going forward? On one level, I wanted only to see her, to reassure myself that she is still herself despite these substantial life-changes, and to remind both of us that our friendship can still flourish. Arguably I could do that no matter what I was wearing. But on another level, clothing always signifies, and there was so much I wanted mine to say.

Early in her transformation, she told me that I may be one of the few people in our old circle of friends who can understand the joy she finds in serving God. I believe that I can -- but I'm still deeply challenged by the places where our practices and priorities differ. There are aspects of her choices which make me uncomfortable and sad. We can agree on the centrality of Torah, avodah (service / prayer) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness); on the benefits of prayer, study, and daily spiritual practice. But when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality, what women do and how women dress and by whose rules women live, we're now in very different places.

The Judaism I cherish is expansive, egalitarian, queer-friendly, cognizant that ours is only one path to holiness. The Judaism she has chosen is based on some assumptions that are very different from mine. That's not easy for either one of us. And all of that emotional and spiritual stuff got piled, inevitably, on the question of how I decided to dress for my day trip. Clothing encodes all kinds of messages about who we are. What messages were my sartorial choices going to send?

In the end, I dressed as I ordinarily do: flowing black linen capris, a sleeveless shirt, uncovered hair and open sandals. Ardent Jewishness comes in a wide range of forms, and mine remains deep and real even though I dress in ways she would no longer consider appropriate. I could only come as I am, not as who I imagined she might want me to be.

And in the end, the chitzonim (externals) weren't that significant; what really mattered was how we approached each other, and that was (literally and metaphorically) with open arms. I think we managed an honest conversation about some of our differences, and also some of the places where we still match, clothing choices aside.

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To see what hurts

Maybe I should start observing Tisha b'Av by volunteering as an emergency room chaplain. On this day, of all days in the wheel of the Jewish year, we're meant to connect with our own brokenness; with suffering and loss; and with the terrible things we do to one another around the world, hatred and violence and damage caused by our own human hands.

Eicha is beautiful poetry, and when we read it last night in the darkened sanctuary of my shul I was gently moved, but the story it tells is so distant. Besides, I have so many complicated feelings about the Temple (what it was, what it means now) that often I can't relate to the ways this holiday has traditionally been understood. But Tisha b'Av is about more than the loss of the historical Temples in historical time.

Tisha b'Av asks us to stop distracting ourselves, stop putting a good face on things, stop focusing on the bright side and actually allow ourselves to be aware of how much we can hurt. It demands a willingness to face suffering. It insists that there is theological and spiritual importance in the reality that our lives contain pain. That facing what hurts is a necessary prerequisite to the spiritual work of discernment and transformation that we are called to do. On Tisha b'Av we're supposed to see what hurts.

Do we want to live in that place all the time? Hell, no. It's not healthy and it's not wise and in general I do not advocate it. But Jewish tradition holds that, one day a year, it's not only useful but critical for us to look honestly at brokenness. To own our brokenness, communally. To acknowledge how our actions, and inactions, make us complicit in all kinds of damage. War. Famine. Poverty. The poisoning of our planet. The fall of Jerusalem 2,593 years ago, and fighting in East Timor and Afghanistan, Darfur and Somalia, the Middle East and Iraq, in recent memory and today.

On both physical and psychological levels, we know that ignoring what hurts is not a way to make it go away, and yet that's so often precisely what we do. Of course, we know also that dwelling on pain -- poking at an open sore -- can prevent the source of the pain from healing. But on this one day of our liturgical year, Jews are called to notice the pain. To let go of our coping mechanisms, stop self-medicating with food or alcohol or fantasy, and face the broken world as it is, for at least a little while.

Because only through facing that brokenness do we have any hope of making repair. I blog every year about the beautiful teaching that moshiach, the embodiment of redemption, will be born on Tisha b'Av. Only in acknowledging our brokenness can we begin the process of healing -- and when we do this wholeheartedly, we can really change our world, if we will only believe.

The hospital where I used to work was a profoundly holy place, not despite the tragedies that unfolded daily within its walls but because of how we tried to respond to them. Real compassion and love require honesty and open eyes. I can't minister to someone if I'm cringing away, trying to protect my worldview from the reality of her suffering. At Yom Kippur we each stand alone before our understanding of God, but at Tisha b'Av we are called to slog through this together. To wrestle with loss as a community, to allow ourselves a brief period of what may even be hopelessness --

-- trusting that by the end of the day, the hopelessness will begin to lift away. That when we face the inconceivable breadth and depth of human suffering together, we will also inevitably find the inconceivable breadth and depth of human love and compassion, too. That only in opening ourselves to loss can we find our way beyond it. That the only way out is through.

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Exploring Eicha

Tonight, when Tisha b'Av begins, we'll read Eicha, the book of Lamentations -- what Shaye Cohen has called "the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future."

The authorship of Eicha isn't definitively known. We know that in 586 B.C.E when the first Temple fell, only ten percent of the Israelite community (the elite) was exiled. We know that they took the implements of the Temple with them, but did not build a new Temple in Babylon. They began instead to develop services and prayers which could exist independent of Temple sacrifice -- to turn a national identity into a religion, to shift focus from a place which could be destroyed to a story which we carry in our heads and hearts.

(After the Babylonian exile ended, historians tell us, again only ten percent of the community picked up and moved; 90 percent remained in Babylon. Those who returned to Jerusalem were restorationists, invested in rebuilding what had gone before. What they had lost.)

The tradition tells us that Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) was the author of Eicha. We know he wrote other kinnot (songs of lamentation), including one about the death of King Josiah. We know that he stayed in the land when the Temple fell, and Eicha seems to be spoken in the voice of someone who stayed behind. Scholarship today suggests that Eicha is actually five separate poems stitched together, and that each chapter was written by a different poet.

For those of us who will be reading Eicha tonight and tomorrow, I offer the following set of questions. (Reb Laura brought these to our theodicy class, and the process of working through them was really valuable for me.) As you read each chapter of the poem, consider: how would you characterize the speaker(s)? What aspect of the catastrophe does the speaker emphasize? Who does the speaker blame? What stance does the speaker take towards God? And what are your reactions to the speaker's views -- how does each section of the poem make you feel?

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Middot through text and practice

"Stand where you are and serve in love: refining our middot through text and practice" was the second class I took at smicha students' week, taught by Rabbi Elliot K. Ginsburg (a.k.a. Reb Elliott, with whom I had the deep pleasure of spending Yom Kippur a few years ago) and Rabbi Shohama Wiener (Reb Shohama, the head of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah/spiritual direction program). As the syllabus explains,

The physicist Neils Bohr once said that the opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. In our spiritual lives we are often called to balance opposing truths: the need to cleave to those we love and to let go; as Jews to simultaneously embody Yisrael (one who wrestle with God) and Yehuda (one who practices gratitude); to be open to moments of breakthrough and to cultivate the slow, subtle movement of soul. In this course, we will explore some key psycho-spiritual moments in the life of the spirit, drawing on classic kabbalistic and hasidic texts.

Middot can be hard to explain. The term "middah" literally means "measure," and middot are at once divine qualities or attributes, and attributes / qualities / character traits of the human soul. (Here's one list of middot, drawn from Pirkei Avot.) In this class we looked at the spiritual practice of refining our middot -- a theme that runs both through our texts and our lives.

Themes [of the class] include: tsubrokhnkeit, breaking open the heart and keeping the heart open when it isn't being smashed open; discerning what is being birthed and what is dying; and when to leap and when to attentively wait -- how in short to work with the ratzo va-shov, the ebb and flow of the holy spirit. We will also explore some practices of spiritual friendship, and key teachings on anger and equanimity, forgiveness, and self-acceptance / self-worth.

All that in five short days. (No, really.) It was a pretty amazing week.

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A week of thinking about theodicy

The morning class I took at smicha students' week was a history/philosophy class called "Theodicy, Catastrophe, and Paradigm Shift," taught by Reb Laura Duhan Kaplan. Our aim, Reb Laura told us on the first morning, was to examine the question of the dike of theos -- is God just? (And if not, what will we do about it?) The course was designed to spark both intellectual and intuitive responses to those questions, drawing on the wide range of answers offered by Jewish tradition. The course description begins:

Major catastrophes in Jewish history that result in individual and collective suffering have been catalysts for the development of our rich religious tradition. Catastrophes provoke Jews to ask about God’s role in the world, to adjust to changing historical circumstances, and to find new ways to relate to God collectively and individually. This is a history of ideas course, so we will examine questions of theodicy (God’s justice) in two ways: (1) as philosophical ideas expressive of individual crying out; (2) as new theological theories that express differences between priestly, rabbinic, and hasidic world views.

Most often, when someone comes to a rabbi with a personal question about something painful, she isn't looking for a mini-lecture on our changing conceptions of how suffering can bring us closer to God. But our texts can offer a framework for fielding the personal questions we expect to encounter in our rabbinates. The more we know about  the varying ways in which Jewish tradition has dealt with suffering, the more they can subtly inform our work...and the more prepared we'll be for the reality that our own answers to these questions will inevitably shift over time.

We began with a set of four traditional religious conceptions which aren't easy to reconcile. 1) God exists and is involved in our lives; 2) God is good; 3) God is omnipotent; and 4) evil and suffering exist. What do we do with the disjunction between those ideas?

Throughout the week, we looked at how paradigm shift becomes necessary because of ruptures in our lives. The old categories may no longer work. Over centuries, out of brokenness, new paradigms emerge. (For instance: the destruction of the Temple precipitated a paradigm shift into a new unfolding of Judaism.) Rupture leaves an indelible mark, which over time yields (or maybe precipitates) a kind of renewal. How has the Jewish community responded to suffering, and how have our central metaphors and teachings shifted over time in response to changing historical and theological realities?

Continue reading "A week of thinking about theodicy" »

A whole week of Shabbat

On the first morning of smicha students' week, the first thing I saw when I stepped outside the Madonna Center was a huge rainbowed hot air balloon. It drifted slowly over the the vista spread before us: the sleepy Rio Grande, the adobe-styled houses and the sagebrush, and the bustle of downtown Albuquerque, all in front of the mountains that book-end the view. Actually there were ten balloons, ranged across the sky -- one for each of the sefirot. I didn't rush inside to fetch my camera so I could snap a picture; I just marveled.

The next morning I again went outside before shacharit, and discovered balloons in the vast southwestern sky again. These floating rainbows are an everyday miracle, it turns out. Every morning they grace the amazing world. All we have to do is step outside and open our eyes.

There's so much I want to say about smicha students' week. Over the next several days, as I transfer my notes from paper to laptop, I hope to blog about some of what I learned, both in and out of class. But much of what's really incredible about this experience isn't easily translatable.

How can I describe what it feels like to spend a week with fifty colleagues and a dozen teachers, every one of them remarkable and most of them already beloved to me? How can I describe the experience of thrice-daily prayer led by dear friends, the way our shared repertoires of nusach and melody let us break into impromptu multi-part harmony again and again? (I blogged about that at the end of Ohalah, the annual meeting of the Renewal rabbinic association -- and the feeling is even stronger this time around.)

The best parts are ineffable, and are already fading into memory. Our week together was like one long Shabbat; we put aside mundane tasks and concerns, savoring music and Torah and togetherness like the proverbial taste of the World to Come. And now we've returned to the weekday consciousness of ordinary time -- sweetened, I hope, by the memory of our learning and our interconnection, like the lingering fragrance of spices after havdalah, sustaining us until we meet again.

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Top 30 from the Times of London

Hello from the outskirts of Albuquerque! I am having an utterly remarkable, wonderful, densely overwhelming week here with the rest of my ALEPH chevre (friends/colleagues/community.) I want to chronicle at least parts of it here, but my online time is really quite limited, so look for my first real post about smicha students' week once I'm home again.

At this moment I just want to offer a welcome to anyone who found your way here from Faith Central, the Times of London blog where Libby Purves just listed the thirty most influential religion blogs (she kindly included Velveteen Rabbi on the list -- thanks, Libby!)

As you may have gathered, I'm travelling this week and am only online for a few scant minutes each day, so there's not a lot of activity here just at the moment. Normal blogging will resume next week when I'm home again; meanwhile, if you're new to VR, there's a list of my favorite posts from the last four years in the sidebar. Enjoy, and shabbat shalom!

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Off to smicha students' week!

Well, I'm off to the Madonna Retreat and Conference Center atop the West Mesa in Albuquerque, New Mexico for six days with the ALEPH student community. Yes -- smicha students' week this year is at a retreat center run by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe! (Apparently kashering their kitchen was the final project for the mashgiach course last week at Kallah...)

My first plane (of three) departs at 6am. (Ouch.) That requires leaving my house at 4am -- not my idea of a good time. This soon after the summer solstice, the days here are still absurdly long; I'm pretty sure it's light by 4:30, which will at least help. (It also helps that Ethan -- who is awesome -- is driving me to the airport.) But needless to say, this post was queued up in advance, and should post itself automatically while I'm on the road. If I make it to the airport in time, I can daven shacharit in the pretty little interfaith chapel. (Won't be the first time. I like it there.)

Meanwhile, I'll take my leave with this version of tefilat ha-derech, the wayfarer's prayer.

May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors
that You lead us in peace and help us reach our destination alive,
joyfully and peacefully.
May You protect us on our leaving and on our return,
and rescue us from any harm,
and may You bless the work of our hands
and may our deeds merit honor for You.
Praise to You, Adonai, who hears prayer.

Kein yehi ratzon! I don't know whether I'll be online much or at all while I'm away, so I hope no one will be offended if I'm out of touch for a while. Shavua tov, everyone; have a great week, and I'll see you on the flipside.

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Shacharit planning

I'm preparing, with two friends, to co-lead shacharit (morning davenen) next Wednesday morning at smicha students' week. Yesterday morning we spent more than an hour on the phone, talking through the matbe'ah tefilah (deep structure of the service), what we want to include, and how we want our service to feel.

Leading davenen can feel a little bit like a performance. I don't know what kind of space we'll be in, but odds are good we'll be at the front of the room. I hope we can arrange chairs and meditation cushions in something like a circle, and we'll be sharing leadership all the way through, but even so, we're still the folks in charge of steering the craft for the allotted hour, and there's some pressure there.

Of course, it can't just be a performance. We have to tap into the themes of the service, the praise and supplication and thanksgiving. Real prayer requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. If we don't, it won't work. If we're not willing to lay our hearts on the line, no one else will take the leap of following us into real connection. DLTI has taught me that. Only when we "go there" do we give everyone else permission to go there, too.

In Renewal we talk a lot about how the structure of the service fits the Four Worlds model. The opening songs and blessings are tefilat ha-Assiyah, the prayer of the world of action and physicality. We'll do some movement, some chant, hear a nugget of teaching as we get warmed-up. The songs and psalms of praise which follow (p'sukei d'zimrah) are tefilat ha-Yetzirah, the prayer of the world of heart and emotion.

(That's the section of the service for which I'm most responsible, and it's where I'm stretching the most. I hope to chant one of my own prayer/poem variations in the natural minor nusach used during weekday p'sukei d'zimrah. I've never done that in public before, and -- especially because these are my own words -- the prospect makes me nervous. But in my mind, my teachers remind me to "be shy on my own time!" Real prayer involves taking risks.)

The Shema and her blessings make up tefilat ha-Briyah, the prayer of the world of thought and intellect. We'll use a variety of melodies here too, including some written by one of my fellow leaders. And the central standing prayer (which we'll daven in silence) and the prayers of tachanun (supplication and repentance) -- those are tefilat ha-Atzilut, the prayers of the world of essence and deepest connection with God. These levels of prayer are rungs on a ladder, each one offering a spiritual challenge and a gift. During that hour, it's our job to move up that ladder, and then safely down again.

I've been rereading my journal from the second week of DLTI, reinhabiting the emotional rollercoaster of that week and remembering a lot of things about how this work works. Mindful of Reb Shawn's teaching that the tefilot (prayers) contain their own kavanot (intentions), we're keeping extra-liturgical direction to a minimum; especially in this crowd, we don't need to tell people how each prayer is supposed to make them feel.

Especially in this crowd. Right. When I think about co-leading this service, I oscillate between feeling energized and blessed...and quaking in my Birkenstocks. So many brilliant teachers and insightful mentors will be a part of our number; who are we to lead them in prayer? But of course, we're not praying for everyone; we're praying with everyone. And we're praying in continual conversation with the Holy Blessed One -- which is way more important than my flashes of ego-driven anxiety about making a mistake in front of, say, my dean.

It reminds me of the story of the man who carried two slips of paper all the time: in one pocket the reminder that he was dust, in the other pocket the reminder that for his sake was the world created. Leading davenen, like chaplaincy work, requires confidence and humility in equal measure. In the end, no matter how carefully we plan our service, noting melodies and stage directions and intentions for each piece, something will happen that we don't expect -- and that's the real prayer, right there.

When I consider the fact that planning and doing and thinking about this stuff is what I do -- not the extra thing I squeeze in around the margins, but actually my work, the thing I'm dedicated to -- I feel so lucky I can't find words.

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Reflections on 17 Tammuz

Today is the 17th day of Tammuz: a minor fast day in Jewish tradition, inaugurating the "Three Weeks" of mourning leading up to Tisha b'Av. According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf.

The Three Weeks are also called bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the straits." They're a kind of narrows, a temporary and temporal Mitzrayim. During these weeks, many Jews don't celebrate weddings; some eschew instrumental music (a source of joy), haircuts (a nod to vanity), and even saying the shehecheyanu (blessing of gratitude sanctifying time.) These mourning customs are intensified during the nine days of leading up to Tisha b'Av.

I've read some striking and resonant things about minor fasts like 17 Tammuz. In God In Your Body, Jay Michaelson writes:

I approach the five Temple-related fast days by expanding the metaphor of the Temple's destruction to embrace the principle of separation itself. Then I see my fast not merely as mourning, but also as the path to healing...

I draw strength from the knowledge that around me as I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are also fasting on this communal day -- even if my reading of the day's significance is different from theirs. Jews have never agreed on why we do anything; we have four new years, and three names for the Passover holiday. Yet community is built by doing... Secondly, and relatedly, is the aspect of humility in spiritual practice. Every year, I learn from the tradition, even if my relationship to it is no longer as orthodox as it once was...

I approach the five Temple-related fast days in the spirit of practice, and practice requires form. If we only do the practice when we feel like it, it isn't a practice.

Really good points, all. But for many liberal Jews, minor fasts like this one are barely on the map, and ditto the customs of the Three Weeks that follow. In The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that an increasing number of Jews maintain an observance of 9 Av, but not an observance of minor Temple-related fast days like this one. As Rabbi Everett Gendler writes:

There is a practical reason for phasing out certain of the minor fasts, aside from loss of the significance they once had. Now that we have added observances to the calendar -- Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and more -- we need to drop those that mean little to us, lest we fill the calendar up with holidays. If too many days are special, what's special about special days?

He has an interesting point. Many liberal Jews no longer ardently hope for the restoration of the Temple-that-was, preferring instead to embrace the paradigm shift into rabbinic (and post-rabbinic?) Judaism as a necessary turn in the unfolding of history's spiral. For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

There's a kind of slantwise answer in this quotation from Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi:

There is a danger posed by the Three Weeks with its list of catastrophes that befell the Jewish people one generation after another. The danger is a paranoia that declares that everyone else in the world is wrong and therefore their fate is of little concern to us. Instead, we should generalize from our experience and become involved in the universal... The teshuvah for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular. In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens.

It falls to liberal Jews today to turn and re-turn these narrow straits into a container for meaning in a way that shifts our focus to the universal. This drash by Reb Arthur Waskow finds resonance in the teaching that this date marked Moses' shattering of the tablets. He suggests that Moses shattered the tablets just as we today shatter a wineglass at every marriage. The breakage, paradoxically, seals the covenant of the relationship.

Whether by fasting or not, today Jews remember the breakage of Jerusalem's city walls -- the first step toward the destruction of the Temple, and the rebirth of Judaism which ultimately followed. Even as we prepare ourselves in three weeks to mourn the Temple's fall, and the experiences of exile that 9 Av represents, can we see the breaching of those city walls as a kind of sacred shattering, opening the possibility of something lasting and new? When the walls between us fall, and the dust of their collapse settles, what can we create in the new negative spaces that are left behind?

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Homily for Michael and Emily

Several friends have asked me to share the text of the homily I offered at the wedding of two dear friends this past weekend. With the happy couple's permission, I am glad to do so.

The whole weekend was a delicious treat. I'm honored to have been able to craft a wedding for and with Mike and Emily, and am still basking in the glow of their togetherness. A million mazal tovs to everyone involved!

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"So, Rachel, how's school?"

Yesterday at brunch a friend asked me, "so where are you in your studies, and how are you enjoying them?" I realized, after the fact, that I answered the first question in some detail, but gave short shrift to the second. (Fortunately, I have a blog, so I can rectify that now.)

The answer to the first question is, I'm in my second year. My program consists of 60 courses, requiring a minimum of five years of full-time learning; I'm not sure when I'll be done. I often offer the analogy of the dojo where Ethan and I used to train. Each person would move through the ranks at the appropriate speed, some faster and some slower (depending on all kinds of factors, both physical and emotional.) Just so, I don't know how long the journey to my "black belt in Judaism" will be. I can control how quickly and how well I master the things I know I need to learn, but ultimately the decision to give me "senior status" (which effectively sets the date of smicha, ordination) will depend on the members of the Va'ad (board of directors of study -- they're listed at the top of this page, if you're curious) and their sense that I'm ready for that year and for what follows.

But that doesn't begin to answer the second half of her question, does it? My answer to that part of the query is, I'm loving it.

The picture of my rabbinic school life changes every few months. During the recent spring semester I studied mishnah with my rabbi (which I'm still doing; we're about to finish Brakhot, maybe even this week!), took a Hasidism class jointly offered by ALEPH and the Tiferet Institute (which was fantastic), and took ALEPH's "Breaking the Sefer Barrier" course (about which I've blogged a few times.) Starting in April, I picked up two little mini-courses in kabbalah and Zohar; they're not substantial enough to earn much credit, but I'm doing some independent study work now with Reb Yakov which will hopefully earn me credits in time.

Now I'm preparing for smicha students' week, which begins this coming Sunday. Each year the ALEPH rabbinic, cantorial, rabbinic pastor, and hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) ordination students gather with our teachers to spend a week in intensive learning. (It's not unlike a Bennington residency, except that instead of eating, sleeping, and breathing creative writing, we're eating, sleeping, and breathing Judaism.) I'll be taking two intensives during smicha students' week. One is a class in Middot (loosely translated, virtues or values or personal qualities) taught by Rabbi Elliot Ginsberg and Rabbi Shohama Wiener; the other is a class in Theodicy (reconciling the existence of suffering in the world with the existence of a just God) taught by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. So this week I have piles of reading to do, and presentations to prepare...and I'm also working with two of my fellow students on a morning service we'll co-lead together, for the assembled students and faculty, midway through next week.

I'm looking forward to the third week of DLTI, the two-year liturgical leadership training program I began last summer (which I've written about before, most recently here and here) -- that'll be in early August. And I've just started studying Mekhilta with one of my classmates, which will ultimately become a formalized independent study. And at some point I should figure out what courses I'm taking in the fall... fortunately, I'm meeting with my director of studies next week, which should help me get a handle on what I need to be doing next.

In a nutshell? I love the learning, and I also love the thoughtful, compassionate, inspired community of people with and from whom I'm privileged to learn. I continue to feel deep in my bones that this is the work I'm supposed to be doing -- that I'm getting better at it, which is exciting -- and that these are the teachers I want to emulate in my own rabbinate, when I get there.

Do I occasionally get hung-up on the question of my progress and the speed thereof? Yep. I'd like to be so grounded and serene that I just never worry about stuff like that, but I'm not quite that person yet. But I'm working on it -- and the best part is, the deeper I get into the program, the easier it is for me to remember that the journey matters at least as much as the destination. And that's the answer to how rabbinic school is treating me: it's overwhelming, it's daunting, it's incredibly fun, and it's a journey I'm glad to be on.

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