Each year I like to post a round-up of my top ten posts from the (Gregorian) year now ending. (Here's the list I posted at the end of 2008; here's the one from 2007; and here from 2006; and here from 2005. I didn't yet have this practice in 2003 or 2004.) This isn't a Letterman-style top ten list, with my least favorite post coming first and my most favorite at the end; the ordering is chronological. With no further ado, I present ten of my favorite posts from 2009. Here's to 2010! May the secular new year bring blessings for us all.
I've been trying to figure out how to write about the crisis in Gaza. Watching it unfold has been heartbreaking. Spending last summer in Jerusalem gave me a clearer sense for how small the country is, and how interconnected. As I talk to my Israeli friends whose friends and family are called up to serve in the army in times like these, I feel afraid with them. I feel compassion as I read the stories of those who live in Sderot, who spend their days under constant fear of rocket fire. And I feel devastation as I read the stories of those who live in Gaza, whose lives have been upturned or destroyed by the war.
First of all, the rabbis who wrote these texts spoke to an audience who would have recognized the quotations. They didn't have to puzzle over references as the modern reader might. (Imagine someone 500 years from now trying to read a 20th-century text which makes use of poetry references ranging from Chaucer to Mary Oliver, alongside quotations from widely-known tv shows, the kind of things that are so embedded in our pop culture consciousness that we hardly notice they're references anymore.)
In January, at Ohalah, I had a miscarriage. Every pregnant woman knows it is possible, but I doubt anyone feels prepared when it happens. // I was amazed by how many women came up to me, as word quietly spread, and said that the same thing had happened to them. Having tangible proof that I was not alone -- that this was survivable -- helped me through. // My mashpi'a (spiritual director) suggested that I consider writing poems as I moved through the experience and its aftermath. Writing offered me a way to externalize the roil of emotions. I wrote my way through the experience, and then as I felt ready I began to revise the drafts. To take the raw outpourings of my heart and turn them into poetry.
As a Jew, I inevitably experience Christian ritual from the outside. Sometimes it challenges me. I'm not always comfortable encountering the places where Christianity refracts or reframes Jewish texts or teachings. (Take the hymn "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us," e.g. -- "Passover," "sacrifice," these are words we each use but we mean different things by them, so that encountering that language feels like hearing a snip from a familiar song transposed into a new mode and unfamiliar key.) And sometimes it blesses me -- like today: the sound of the bells, the moment of silent meditation, the I-Thou opportunities of passing the peace, the reminder that in human frailty and fragility we can learn something about the nature of God.
What was most wonderful for me was the chance to experience something intimately familiar (the traditional Shabbat liturgy) in a setting which was entirely new (the huge beautiful sanctuary; melodies which I hadn't heard before; fast-paced Hebrew inflected with Spanish sounds.) This makes a powerful case for preserving Hebrew as our language of prayer: it is amazing to be able to go anywhere in the world where Jews gather, and to be able to join in praising the Holy One of Blessing in the same familiar words I've known all my life.
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.
On Yom Kippur we focus on all the places where we've missed the mark in the last year, all the ways in which we've failed to live up to who we know we can be. We ask ourselves: if this were the day of my death, if the work of my life had to stand as it is right now, through what would I be remembered? // But at the same time, on Yom Kippur we are incredibly close to the Holy One of Blessing. The gates of repentance are open to anyone who approaches them with an open heart. There is an infinite source of love available to us, and we are always already forgiven. We just have to come knocking.
"I don't believe that being Jewish has shaped my views particularly towards racism and racial oppression. Until I went to university I never met Black South Africans; it was a watershed event for me, my first week at university, for the first time in my life meeting Black South Africans as equals and peers, striking up friendships, having lunch together. I became angry and frustrated in that very first week at the inequity and unfairness of Black students being equals on the campus but the minute they stepped into the street they lived in a completely different world. They had to carry special ID documents, and if they forgot them at home they were liable to be put in prison for the night; they went home to Black townships, many of which didn't have electricity or running water. I went home to a comfortable home in a White suburb with tarred roads and parks and electricity and they had to go home to these very poor living conditions. In that first week, I became actively involved in the student anti-apartheid movement, and that's shaped the rest of my career."
Primary responsibility for Israel's decisions lies in the hands of the Israeli government. But as a Jew with spiritual connection to the place, its people, and its history, and as an American whose tax dollars provide military support for Israel in its various choices, I feel both entitled and obligated to speak out when I understand that Israel's actions are making matters worse. I believe that a two-state solution is key to the healthy self-determination of both peoples, and that Israel's actions have often run counter to this goal -- as has support from the United States which fails to take these realities into account. It was remarkable to attend such a large gathering where these basic stances were largely shared.
I write here about Judaism, about God, about spiritual life -- a range of subjects which could easily encompass meditations on pregnancy and impending motherhood, if only I could find the way in. Part of the challenge is that the subject is at once so big and so small; it's an enormous life-change and a perennial miracle, and yet it's a perfectly ordinary thing that humanity has done since time immemorial. There's a balancing act here. This is incredibly important, and it's also incredibly mundane. Though I guess the same could be said of daily spiritual practice, too.