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Finite language, infinite truth (Radical Torah repost)

A miscellaneous note: I don't want to spam y'all with yet another post today, so I'm hijacking the beginning of this Radical Torah repost to let y'all know that I reviewed Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's latest anthology, The Passionate Torah, at the Forward this week. The review is here: Let's Talk About Sex. Enjoy!

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2006 for this week's Torah portion, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that Adonai, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you.

Setting aside for the moment whatever mixed feelings some of us may have about entering and occupying the land -- maybe especially this week, as we endure the emotional rollercoaster of Tisha b'Av and we remember the destruction of the temple and the spiritual growing pains that the diaspora brought upon us -- this is a fascinating snippet of parashat Va-etchanan. What are we to make of this injunction neither to add to, nor to subtract from, the Torah of God's commandments...especially given that in its retellings, the book of D'varim is already doing just that?

Continue reading "Finite language, infinite truth (Radical Torah repost)" »

IBARW: celebrating the diversity of Jewish community

This week is I Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW), the fourth annual weeklong carnival of posts relating to racism and race. If you're new to the conversation, you might begin with this Race-related resources post -- for white readers, I especially recommend the classic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [pdf].

IBARW seemed like a good opportunity to unpack (and ideally keep trying to dismantle) some of my own unconscious assumptions about race. Growing up, I mostly knew Jews of Ashkenazi descent, which is to say, Jews with roots in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. I knew a few Jews who'd come to San Antonio via Argentina, which meant that their Hebrew was Spanish-inflected rather than Yiddish-inflected, but they were mostly of Ashkenazic descent, too -- their families just immigrated to South America instead of North America during the late 19th and early 20th century waves of Jewish immigration.

But the Jewish world is so much more than this. I don't mean to knock Ashkenazic Jews, or our food and culture -- these are the building-blocks of my own family and childhood! But there are whole other Jewish worlds out there: Sefardic Jews (Sfarad is the Hebrew word for Spain) of Spain and North Africa; Mizrahi Jews (mizrah means "east") of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia; Jews in, and from, India and Latin America and Asia. Klal Yisrael -- the broader Jewish community -- has always been multifaceted and multicultural.

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This week's portion: promise


if you act wickedly
in the land which I give you
you will be cast out

you will wander homeless
with your possessions
on your backs

you will be scattered
and serve the gods
of consumption and overwork

but if you search there
for relationship
with what lasts

you will find Me
no matter how distant
you think I might be

heaven and earth
immovable and eternal
be My witnesses

even your exile from Me
is illusion
I will not forget

In this week's portion, Va-Etchanan, Moshe exhorts the children of Israel to behave appropriately in the land which God is giving them. Starting in Deuteronomy 4:23, Moshe reminds them that if they begin to worship graven images they will be cast out of their land; they will be refugees. For me the most powerful verse in the portion is 4:29, which reminds the Israelites that even in the depths of exile, "if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul." Even in galut, our connection with God can remain.

I have complicated feelings about the idea that God promised my ancestors (whether literal or spiritual) a slice of land in the Middle East, but I know that many of us struggle with feeling that we are in galut from connection with God. I find in these verses a reminder that even when we have exiled ourselves from the divine presence through our unethical behavior, God is still there for us. All we need to do is remember that, and reach out.

Working on this poem this week which contained Tisha b'Av has been a powerful experience for me. Encoded in our Torah portion this week I see a reminder that even when we feel at our most distant from God -- as, perhaps, on Tisha b'Av, when we mourn so many of our losses -- the connection can still flare to life.


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Three scenes from Tisha b'Av


Five people are sitting on the sanctuary floor; three are still in their chairs. The lights are dimmed: it's bright enough to see our prayerbooks and our little booklets containing Lamentations and several poems, but the room is noticeably dark. Outside, torrential rains pour down.

We take turns reading Lamentations aloud. At the beginning of each chapter, one person chants the first half-dozen verses according to the haunting tune only used on this one day of the year; then we go around the room, reading the poem in English.

Jackboots have marched in the Temple where barbarous hands have besmirched the sacred objects and fouled the holy places where fear and respect should have kept them away.

It's "jackboots" that gets to me. Intellectually I know that this chapter, like most of the poem, is an alphabetic acrostic and the translator needs to ensure that each verse begins with a new letter. Between the I verse and the K verse comes the J verse. But emotionally, that doesn't matter. The image of jackbooted thugs walking cavalierly into sacred places, kicking things over, trashing what is loved, will not leave me.

Continue reading "Three scenes from Tisha b'Av" »

More resources for Tisha b'Av

Rabbi Jill Hammer, of Tel Shemesh, has written A Midrash on the Month of Av, newly-published at Zeek, which speaks of the womb as the holy temple:

The temple is in exile, and this may be why midwives are scarce, birth takes place in the realm of the sick, and healers know better how to cut open the womb than to deliver a baby from it.   Many labor without delivering: the gate opens too slowly.  The heart rate plunges, the emergency unfolds, the exit from the womb comes with a breach in the wall.  One-third of all births are Caesarean births.  We have lost the keys to the temple.  

We have lost the sounds of the temple, the murmuring of the rituals and the voices of prayer.  Women become pregnant and they tell no one, for fear they will have to tell that there was a miscarriage.  They feel joy and do not speak.  They are sick, they vomit, they do not explain.  They go to work, they care for others. There are no stories of birth on television, only stories of doctors who bravely catch babies as they emerge from somewhere.  The temple is silent.  Who will open up this silence? 

Her essay speaks to me in powerful ways, for reasons which are probably obvious. Beyond that, I admire her radical revisioning of what it might mean -- especially for women -- to be in mourning for the temple we have lost.

And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, teacher of my teachers, offers Prayers for the Ninth of Av. He notes that during the afternoon mincha service, when tradition holds that the transformation begins to be possible, we add a special prayer for Jerusalem to the amidah (central standing prayer.) He offers a new prayer in place of the traditional one. In English, his prayer begins:

Comfort, Yah our God,
all who mourn your sacred house,
who grieve the holy wholeness it contained.
Comfort especially those who live most closely
in the shadow of its memory,
amidst the shattered sacredness of Your Holy
City, the city of many names and owners;
Capital of the state of Israel,
the beginnings of our redemption,
Al Quds, the apple of the eye of Palestine...

I appreciate that his prayer acknowledges Jerusalem's dual identity. If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, we will all need to acknowledge that "our" holy city is also "their" holy city, and that we and they need to find a way to honor her through living side by side. Anyway, whether or not you'll be praying a formal mincha amidah tomorrow, I recommend Reb Zalman's prayer, which you can read in Hebrew and in English at his blog post.

And finally -- if you're not in a place where you can listen to the chanting of Eicha/Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, you can hear the whole poem sung in Hebrew according to the haunting melody used only on Tisha b'Av here at or here at Len Fellman's website. Len has also set Simon Zucker's "Lamentation on the Holocaust" to Eicha trope -- a beautiful example of setting an English-language text to fit the carrier-wave of classical cantillation.

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Preparing for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av begins tomorrow night at sundown. Jewish tradition holds that five major catastrophes have fallen on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

The authors of the mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second" -- it is the kernel at the heart of Talmud, and was redacted around 200 C.E.) lived after the Second Temple was destroyed, and they were preoccupied with the cause of the calamity. They tell us that the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE because of the community's high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE, they wrote, because of sinat chinam -- causeless hatred.

In later Talmudic sources, the rabbis offered a variety of other explanations for the Temple's fall: the community failed to keep Shabbat, no longer recited the shema with appropriate intention, treated scholars with contempt, and so on. Each of these arguments tells us something about who the sages of that era were and what mattered to them -- and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the Temples fell because the Babylonian and Roman armies were simply too strong to fend off. They were looking for theological reasons for the destruction, because if it were our community's sin which brought about the destruction, then surely our teshuvah (repentance/return to God) would cause us to be raised up again. (My thanks are due to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, who articulated these teachings in a recent e-bulletin from the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied last summer.)

My own theology differs from that of the sages of the Mishnaic era. I see the fall of the temples as the incredibly painful birth pangs of a new era. Without the temple at our tradition's heart, we evolved rabbinic Judaism: a creative -- and portable -- transformation of our paradigm for communal living, prayer, and connection with God. From the vantage point of modernity, I can see the blessing which we were able to wrest from the rubble. I wouldn't go back to what we had before. But I find value in gathering with my community once a year to mourn our old losses, and to mourn the brokenness of the world in which we still live. To dive into the reality of human suffering, and to grapple again with the question of how to give our suffering meaning.

Take note of the place where this holiday falls in our festival cycle. This is the low point of our year. From here we begin the slow climb up to the month of Elul (an opportunity to spend four weeks in spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and then come the big holidays of (northern hemisphere) autumn, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In some ways, 9 Av is the very beginning of the road to those celebrations. We're eager for the rejoicing of the festivals we know are coming, but we can't get there without being here first. This is our day for mourning galut, exile -- not only (or maybe not at all) exile from the site of the Temple, but the existential exile of living in an imperfect and disconnected world. That's spiritual work we need to do each year before we can be ready to move into the high holiday season.

Tomorrow night at my shul we'll read from Eikha (Lamentations) and we'll read contemporary kinnot, poems of lament. Along those lines, if you're looking for appropriate reading for 9 Av, don't miss Aryeh Cohen's gorgeous and heartbreaking new contemporary Kinah; you might also find value in Rabbi Daniel Brenner's Third Temple meditation, and in Rabbi Daniel Seidenberg's Laments: A Fresh Translation of Eikhah, available as a PDF and as a DavkaWriter file. Whatever form your observance may take, I hope you find meaning in it.

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This week's portion: record


Some family stories
told and retold
wear a groove in the heart

lift the swing-arm
place the needle
and the words roll again

every time it plays
we learn more deeply
how things went, that time

when he left her
by the side of the road
by accident

or when she hurt
their feelings
and they never forgot

what if the record
wore itself thin
and couldn't be played?

would we invent
a new story, without
our old missteps?

In this week's portion, Dvarim, the first portion in the book of Dvarim (known in English as Deuteronomy), Moshe begins to recap for the Israelites everything that's transpired since they left Egypt forty years ago. They're encamped on the far side of the Jordan, on the verge of crossing over into the promised land.

The story that Moshe tells reads at times like a greatest-hits list, chronicling all of the ways in which God has taken care of the children of Israel -- and at other times like a litany of the Israelites' worst mistakes. Reading it this week, I'm reminded of how families have stories which we tell and retell. The stories don't change much from one telling to the next, and after a while the repeated story becomes the official memory even for those who weren't present when the events in question unfolded. The stories in Tanakh are our tribal family stories, which shape us just as surely as our nuclear family stories do.

I find myself wondering: what would happen if we could disentangle ourselves from these stories the way we've always told and heard them? Could we open ourselves to the possibility of a new narrative -- for our family, for our community, for ourselves? As we stand on the cusp of crossing over into a new chapter of our lives, which stories do we want to keep telling about who we have been, and which stories might we want to discard?


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A rosy Cellcom ad; a depressing response

By now you've probably all seen the Israeli Cellcom commercial that's been making the rounds:

Cellcom commercial. If you're reading this post in an aggregator or via email, click here to watch the ad.

I first read about it at Jewschool last week, where Kung Fu Jew points out that the ad has raised the ire of the Israeli left (and sparked some dark parodies -- the one to which I just linked cuts between the ad and a newscast, meant to suggest that Israel's response to the soccer ball which comes flying over the separation barrier is more air strikes on Gaza.) Kung Fu Jew notes, "I actually think [the ad] is rather benign. I mean, it's not accurate to reality. But it's got the slightest glimmer of hope in it, doesn't it?"

Well...unfortunately, that's debatable, as this story in Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz notes. At the most recent weekly protest against the separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bil'in, a group of Palestinians decided to try to re-enact the video in real life, to see what would happen. They kicked a soccer ball over the fence -- and were immediately met with tear gas grenades:

Again, if you can't see the embedded video, you can click here to watch.

Seriously: one side kicked a soccer ball, the other side threw tear gas. (Can one really wonder why Israel is so often accused of disproportionate response?) For more on the story of how that video was made, I recommend the BBC article Palestinians mock 'bad taste' ad.

I can see where Kung Fu Jew is coming from. My own first inclination was to see the ad through the rose-colored glasses of my hopes for peace and mutual respect between Israelis and Palestinians. Okay, granted, it's an ad about a fictitious soccer game which doesn't actually show any Palestinians -- just Israelis having a good time playing football with their invisible opponents on the other side of the enormous wall -- but leaving aside the literal invisibility of the Arabs and the way that the ad trivializes the separation barrier, there could be something kind of sweet about it... except that the reality of the situation is so incredibly bitter.

Continue reading "A rosy Cellcom ad; a depressing response" »

TV and religion on Speaking of Faith

A friend just pointed me to an episode of the NPR show Speaking of Faith called TV and the Parables of Our Time. In these 51 minutes, host Krista Tippett and her guest Diane Winston explore a handful of television shows which ask (and sometimes answer) fascinating theological questions.

Television is where many of us go to immerse in storytelling. The serialized form echoes the weekly lectionary: just as I hear the next chapter in the neverending story of Torah each week when I go to shul, I tune in to my favorite shows week by week to find out what happens next. I think a lot of people today find in TV what the religious among us find in scripture: a regular chance to immerse in a story which grips us and which prompts us to ask tough questions about who we are and what matters in our lives.

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A tefillin meditation

This morning I opened the מטא–סדור / Meta-Siddur created by R' David Wolfe-Blank, of blessed memory. The name is something of a pun. In English, the name "Meta-Siddur" suggests that this text transcends the prayerbook, offering commentary on it. The Aramaic word meta means "to reach towards," and this loose collection of teachings, arranged according to a four-worlds understanding of the journey of Jewish prayer, "is intended as a 'reaching' toward a more evolved siddur." This isn't a siddur one can use to pray with; it's an amazing collection of resources to dip into, which will inform how I engage with more traditional siddurim over time. Anyway, I was looking for inspiration, something to carry with me into my morning practice.

The page that drew me was page 82.1, which has two columns of text. In the right-hand column are the words from Hosea which we recite as we wind the straps of tefillin around the hand: "I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice, with lovingkindness and compassion; I betroth you to me with faith, and you shall know God." (I wrote recently about how the Hebrew is unclear: are we speaking to God? Is God speaking to us? The words can mean both at once.) The left-hand column of text contains a series of assertions, which R' Wolfe-Blank calls "Partnership Vows:"

I will defend you, in private and in public.
I will not speak ill of you behind your back.
I will champion you.
I will cheerlead you.
I will struggle to achieve physical well-being to ensure that I spend my maximum lifespan with you.
I will struggle to achieve emotional well-being to ensure that I spend my maximum happiness with you.
If I find myself becoming judgmental I will speak with you honestly and clearly so that we can sort out what is yours and what is mine to own so that together we can learn and grow.
I will watch my withdrawals.
I will never cut you off from me abruptly or absolutely.
I will never suddenly walk away from you.
I will walk with you...

I love the way these vows preserve the ambiguity I like so much in the original Hebrew. I can speak these words to my partner, and I can speak them to God -- and I can imagine God speaking them to me. Each of these options challenges me in a different way. Speaking them to my partner would be the easiest of the three; speaking them to God honestly is harder. What would it mean to defend God? To speak with God honestly and clearly about my judgments and my baggage so that I can discern my own issues and move them out of the way of our relationship?

I'm not looking for another daily practice to add to my list -- I have enough trouble maintaining the ones I've already committed to doing! -- but I can imagine reading this list of vows some mornings as I lay tefillin. I'm curious to see whether and how doing that would change my relationship with the words, or with the act of putting on my tefillin, over time. Thanks, R' Wolfe-Blank.


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Zeek magazine, summer 2009

The new summer issue of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture has hit the newsstands. We've been putting out a gorgeous print magazine (in addition to our online content) for years, but we only recently moved to a quarterly schedule, so this is our first summer edition -- very exciting.

The issue features an interview I did with artist Richard Kostelanetz earlier this year. He's a fascinating guy, a polymath and an artist who's worked in a variety of genres (including compositions for tape loops, which endeared him to me immediately.) We talked about music, art, composition, Sephardic Judaism, and the connection between Judaism and the avant-garde, among other things.

Anyway, the interview is only available in the print edition (along with poetry from Amy Gottlieb and Rodger Kamenetz, fiction from Tsipi Keller and Yossel Birstein, and essays from Michal Govrin and Jay Michaelson -- and a great deal more) so if you're not yet a subscriber, you should be.

By the by, Zeek recently signed a deal with The Forward (here's the JTA post about it); our website is going to move from the (sadly moribund) Jewcy site to sometime soon, so stay tuned. I'm excited to see what new developments arise from this old-media new-media collaboration.

Shabbat shalom!

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Vows and obligations (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for one of this week's Torah portions, Matot, back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

This week's portion, Matot, deals with promises and vows. Last year at this season I asked my congregation whether the words neder, shavuah, and isar rang any bells for them...and then I sang the first line of what is perhaps the most haunting melody in our lexicon: "Kol nidrei, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, u'shvuot..."

But what do these various synonyms signify? Rabbi Jonathan Kraus writes:

[I]n making oaths (sh'vuot), one either asserts that something is true (e.g., an oath of innocence) or promises to undertake an obligation (e.g., David's oath that his son, Solomon, would rule after him). By contrast, vows (nedarim) are conditional promises to dedicate something (or someone!) to the sanctuary. (e.g., Hannah's promise to dedicate her son to the sanctuary if God answers her prayer that she become fertile).

Does this distinction still have meaning for us? What is a neder today, now that there is no Temple to dedicate ourselves to? What does it mean to make a vow to Adonai, or to take an oath imposing an obligation on one’s soul? How might this be different from making a promise to another human being?

We read in Ecclesiastes 5:4 that "it is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill." But in the Talmud it is written, “It is proper to swear to perform a mitzvah, for a man is permitted to urge himself on (to do a good deed)." Talk about mixed messages. What exactly is Torah trying to tell us about our promises and their significance?

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This week's portion: spoils


The spoils of war
were passed through fire
their history cleansed

but regarding the Israelites
tasked with destruction
our story is silent

they spared non-combatants,
women and children, but
Moshe's outrage overflowed

he demanded death
for those who had seduced us
into foreign worship

we sent their young sons too
beyond the veil
into the realm we can't know

how did our soldiers
emerge from this trial
this awful moment of power

was their compassion burned away
did their humanity
disappear into smoke

This poem was inspired by the combination of reading this week's Torah portions, Mattot and Mas'ei, and reading the Jewschool post Gaza soldier testimonials: Shoot and ask moral questions later, about the newly-released Breaking The Silence reports from Israeli soldiers about their actions during Operation Cast Lead. Reading the Biblical stories of warfare through the lens of the modern-day news can be both powerful and painful.

The image that prompted me to write this poem comes from Numbers 31:21-23: "Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, 'This is the ritual law that the Lord has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead — any article that can withstand fire — these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water.'" It's striking to me that there's a ritual of cleansing for the spoils of war... but what about the participants? How might the wholesale slaughter of the Midianites have affected them?

The Israelis of today are not the ancient Israelites of our scriptures, but for me the same question holds: what spiritual impact does violent warfare have on our souls? One difficult answer can be found in the new booklet of IDF testimonies released this week by Breaking the Silence.

Holy One of Blessing: may we someday read the stories in this week's Torah portion and not find any resonance with contemporary practices of war whatsoever.

(There's no recording of this week's Torah poem because I came home from my two weeks in Ohio and promptly came down with the same crud which half of the student body had last week -- I'll be fine, but you really don't want to listen to me reading poetry this week! Sorry, y'all.)

On an unrelated administrative note: it is now possible to subscribe to this blog via email. Come to Velveteen Rabbi and click on the link in the upper left-hand corner which says "Subscribe to Velveteen Rabbi by Email." Once you've signed up, on days when there are blog posts you'll receive a daily email containing the day's new post(s). Most of y'all subscribe via RSS already, but for those who don't have feed readers but do have email accounts, hopefully this will be helpful. Enjoy!

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As Shabbat wanes

"Mizmor L'David," psalm 23, sung to a waltz tune which is a variant on the one we sang. This recording is the exact tune we used, but the strings and synthesizer give it a feel that's very unlike our evening.

The final hour of Shabbat is gloriously bittersweet. Seudah shlishit -- the ritualized "third meal" of the day, though sometimes the meal consists only of silence and song -- is at once a moment of consummation (tradition teaches that during these last hours of Shabbat, the presence of God dwells most palpably among us in the world) and the beginning of our parting from the Shabbat queen and the neshama yeteirah, the extra soul, which is ours for the duration of Shabbat and is then gone. The moment when Shabbat is most present is also always the moment when Shabbat has begun to depart.

We sit in the dining room where we've just completed dinner. The artificial lights are turned off so that we can experience the organic darkening of the day. We sing songs of longing for God, interspersed with short periods of silence in which each song continues to resonate. We begin with "Shalom Aleichem," a song which welcomes divine messengers or angels, which most of us think of as a Friday evening song but which is also sung on Saturday late afternoons. There's a special extra verse for this time of seudah shlishit. And then we sit in silence, and breathe, and pause before we sing again.

We sing two different versions of "Yah Ribon" by Rabbi Israel Najara (circa 1600.) We sing "Tzama l'Chol Nafshi," a couplet from psalm 63 (lines 2-3, though we sing them in the opposite order: "O God, I have looked for you in the sanctuary, to see your power and your glory / My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you!") We sing "Yedid Nefesh," by Rabbi Elazar Azikri (the words are 16th-century; Reb Zalman's singable English translation can be found at the bottom of this post, though we sing the poem in the original) using a melody which comes from the Bratzlav Hasidic tradition. (Bratzlaver Niggun 1 [mp3])

We sing the 23rd psalm to a beautiful and plaintive slow waltz melody, asserting in this moment when Shabbat is beginning to leave us that our faith in God endures, and I remember the seudah shlishit at Ohalah in January. The poem "Twilight" from my chapbook Through arose out of the experience of singing the 23rd psalm in a darkening room as Shabbat waned on the day of my miscarriage. I sing it now with my hand resting on my growing belly.

As the hour grows too late to be able to see our song sheets clearly, we shift into singing niggunim, songs of yearning without words. Though I love the songs with words, it's the wordless ones which finally crack my heart open, and there are tears in my eyes. The voices and faces sitting around this room are so beloved to me, and I know I will not see them for many months -- probably a year. My longing for Shabbat not to have to leave us is intertwined with and magnified by my longing not to have to part from my chevre, my circle of teachers and friends. My heart overflows with gratitude for this moment and with sorrow that the moment has to end.

When we are done, although we have not eaten an actual meal, we sing a brief one-line blessing over the spiritual meal of song and silence. Our blessing consists of two words from psalm 23: cosi revaya, my cup overflows. As we sing, we look around the room, and on everyone's face is an awareness of just how true the words are. When we're done, we walk in silence slowly across campus to the place where we will daven the evening service and then make havdalah, the ceremony separating Shabbat from week. When we get there, it's not quite time yet, so for fifteen minutes or so we sing a Hasidic chant about how there is nothing else but God. Hazzan Jack skillfully uses that tune as our impromptu nusach for the evening service, so we sing our whole evening service with echoes of "ein od milvado" ringing in our ears and hearts.

At havdalah, Reb Marcia tells us (in the name of Reb Elliot) that some Hasidim add an extra word to the final havdalah blessing, the blessing which praises God Who separates between holy and profane, Shabbat and workweek, etc. They -- and now we -- bless God Who מבדיל ומגשר, separates and bridges, between all of these binaries. The addition of that one word changes my whole havdalah experience, and also my anticipated experience of departure from beloved teachers and friends. Tomorrow will bring our separation, but even as we part, we're always on our way back together again.

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Seven jewels from smicha week


On Sunday evening the Nava Tehila folks lead us in singing as we move from a circle around the room into three concentric circles. We sing the faculty in, and then "sing in" those who are already ordained (some of my spiritual direction fellows), and then sing in the rabbinic pastor students and prospective students, and then sing in the cantorial students and prospective students, and then the rabbinic students and prospective students. Each niggun is different and each is beautiful. Then comes "spirit buddy time" -- a chance to connect in triads and talk about who and how and where we are. I talk about gratitude.


In Monday's morning service, we read about Moshe going to the top of the mountain to see the land, and then laying his hands (the original smicha!) on Joshua, who accepts the weight of new responsibility. We have the practice here of doing group aliyot, inviting up to the Torah those who feel called to connect with a particular theme. My dear friend Simcha Daniel calls up for that aliyah those who feel we're on the cusp of taking on new responsibilities which we fear might be too much for us without God's help. Along with many others, I go up to the Torah (hi, impending parenthood) and the aliyah shines. I love hearing the voices of so many of my friends around me.


On Tuesday morning, I learn a new tune written by my dear friend Shulamit, which we use both for Modah Ani (the blessing for gratitude) and for Ashrei. I teach my dear friend David to lay tefillin for the first time, and then I breakfast with more dear friends. By the time I get to my morning class I've already had a full and beautiful day. My classes that day feel almost like the icing on the cake; the davening and the conversations are enough.

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Taking note of 17 Tammuz

Today is 17 Tammuz, a minor fast day in which we remember the long ago day when the walls around Jerusalem were breached, the first step toward the destruction of 9 Av. It's also considered to be the anniversary of the day when Moshe shattered the first set of tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf -- a different kind of breakage.

I wrote a post about this day two years ago, Reflections on 17 Tammuz. I don't have anything new to add, so I'll just point you there again.

I'm not fasting today, for obvious reasons, but if you are, I hope that your fast is meaningful. May we find a way today to be open to whatever may flow through the places in us which are broken, remembering that our brokenness can be a place where holiness is found.

On a semi-related note, I wanted to point to a new initiative which recently came across my desk: Fast for Gaza. "In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta'anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with the ongoing crisis in Gaza." I'm inspired to see so many of my colleagues and teachers already on the list.

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Transforming violence into peace (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Pinchas is another one of those Torah portions that's hard for many contemporary liberal Jews to read comfortably.

The story begins at the tail-end of last week's portion, when the eponymous Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman -- called, in later texts, Zimri and Cosbi -- who are consorting at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. God has declared a plague against the Israelites as punishment for "whoring with Moabite women" -- if we read it literally, the problem is exogamy; if we read it metaphorically, the problem is the spiritual idolatry involved in offering sacrifices to somebody else's deity -- but after Pinchas kills the pair of lovers, the plague ends.

That's the prologue. At the start of this week's portion, God gives Pinchas a brit shalom, a "pact of friendship" or covenant of peace, for him and his descendants for all time.

Arguably the central question of the parasha is, was the brit a reward for acting righteously, or a corrective intended to steer Pinchas toward a more righteous path? And what are the implications of each answer, in terms of how we understand violence, peace, and God's will for humanity?

The traditional commentators see the covenant as a reward. In their view, the spearing was absolutely the right call. But other readings are possible -- and maybe helpful to others like me who find the portion's unbridled violence difficult to bear.

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Happy news

I didn't do a very good job of counting the Omer this year. Maybe some of you noticed that I didn't blog about my Omer-counting as I've done in years past. (Counting the Omer, for those who've forgotten, is a journey of counting the days between the festival of Pesach and the festival of Shavuot, between liberation and covenant. Once upon a time it was an agricultural custom, linked to the spring barley harvest; today for many of us it's taken on mystical resonance, and becomes an opportunity to spend seven weeks contemplating a set of seven divine qualities in which we also partake.)

Anyway. I fell down on the Omer-counting job, because my mind was elsewhere this year during those seven weeks. During Pesach, I discovered that I was pregnant.

Those who've been reading this blog for more than a few months probably remember that I had a miscarriage in January, so the news that I was once again pregnant raised a lot of emotions. I began immediately to count days -- but not the days of the week of lovingkindness, the days of the week of boundaried strength, the days of the week of harmony. Instead I counted the days of being five weeks pregnant. Six weeks pregnant. Seven weeks pregnant. My goal was the magical end of the first trimester, when I would be able to share the happy news more broadly without (as much) fear.

As of this writing I'm in my eighteenth week, well into trimester #2. My body is changing, and so is my relationship with my body. I'm by turns amazed (apparently I am capable of growing a tiny human being without any conscious volition) and mildly chagrined (apparently my body would like to sleep eighteen hours a day, and to eat about twice as often as I used to do.) It's a great exercise in recognizing both what's miraculous about this embodied life, and also what's absolutely not within my control.

My spiritual director has said that this baby will be one of my greatest teachers. He's not suggesting that the baby will be some innate spiritual genius -- rather, that the act of becoming responsible for a tiny person's wellbeing will transform me. That parenthood will be a spiritual journey all its own. I don't doubt it. I'm excited to see how it changes me. How it changes us. And also, I hope, to discover what in our current life won't change -- what will be the constants on which we can count, as our lives turn upside-down in December.

What does this mean for Velveteen Rabbi? I don't see myself becoming a mommyblogger; those of you who are here for the Torah commentary and the poems will hopefully still have what to read, though it does seem only fair to warn you that my posting frequency will probably plummet for a while next winter at least. I will remain in rabbinic school, so the posts about my rab school experiences will still come down the pipe, though I anticipate taking fewer classes for a while after the baby is born.

Since this blog is one of the places where I think out loud about my religious life, the ups and downs of spiritual practice, and the lessons I'm learning (both from books and teachers, and from whatever experiences come my way), I'll probably post here from time to time about motherhood through that lens. I hope that there will be poems about motherhood, after a while. I'd like to do some writing and thinking about modes of Jewish practice which fit womens' needs -- I don't know which of the spiritual practices I maintain now will survive the transition into parenting a newborn, nor which new practices might emerge once we get into new rhythms. I guess in this, as in so many other things, I'll just have to figure it out as I go along.

Anyway. Ethan and I are elated, and nervous, and excited, and we wanted y'all to be able to share our joy!

Edited to add: Ethan's posted about this, too: The real life update.

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Moving into Shabbat

On Friday morning, my friends Aura and Shoshanna led an "Erev Fourth of July" (Fourth of July Eve) shacharit, which blended traditional nusach with a variety of American tunes. The first thing that really knocked me out was singing the entirety of psalm 148 to the tune of "The Water is Wide" -- the harmony around the room, and the gorgeousness of the Hebrew poetry combined with the power of the melody, brought me to tears. 

We sang the Shema to the tune of Gershwin's "Summertime," and "Mi Chamocha" to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." We sang Tom Paxton's "Peace Will Come" and a verse of "Simple Gifts." As our Aleinu, we sang an abbreviated version of "Letter to Eve" by Pete Seeger, where the chorus is a list of words which mean "peace" in a variety of languages. (Our version included shalom alongside pacem in terris, mir, shanti, salaam, and hey wa.)

It was completely extraordinary, and I suspect that it's going to subtly shift the way I feel about Independence Day this year.

I always love Jewish Renewal mikvah experiences. This time we were a group of maybe forty women, of all ages, including a few of the teens who are here this week. I wonder how I would have responded, as an adolescent, to seeing women comfortable like this in our varied and different bodies? I paired up with a mikvah buddy and we spoke quietly about what, from the week now ending, we each wanted to release in the world of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotions), and briyah (intellect) and what we want to release into in the world of atzilut (essence.) We made the bracha for the immersion together as a group. And then, singing the "Woman I Am" chant I learned so many years ago at Elat Chayyim, we all made our way into the water, and sang throughout everyone's immersions. I watched my partner immerse four times, and then she witnessed me, and then we joined the singing circle. At the end, all those who were new to mikvah made their own smaller circle in the middle and we blessed them with a shechecheyatnu and with whooping and song, and then tromped out of the pool so that we could make space for the men's mikvah which would follow our own.

I forgot to bring my little jar of wearable glitter this time around, but even without it, as I moved into Shabbos I felt sparkly.

Of the three Shabbat evening davening options, I chose to daven with Nava Tehila -- no surprise to anyone who remembers my posts about the three Shabbatot I spent with them last summer, all of which were grand.

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Prophetic (comedic) speech (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote on this week's portion in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah. I would note now that I see an added universalistic note to this story: this story shows the Torah's recognition that there are true prophets outside of the house of Israel! But apparently I didn't think of that in 2007.

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.

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