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An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.


Photos from this gallery.

Shabbat shalom to all!


Drew and mama make motzi. Photo by David Curiel.

Every Friday, I post on my synagogue's Facebook page, "Shabbat is coming! Get ready for that extra soul to descend and enliven you..." I love the idea that we each receive a second portion of soul, a neshamah yeteirah, on Shabbat. An extra spiritual spaciousness. An opportunity to breathe deeply and open up our heartspace.

There's an old story which says that every Friday, an angel looks in through the window at each household. If that angel sees familial strife, dirty dishes, tension and frustration, the angel sorrowfully says, "...may next week be just like this one."

But if the angel sees a set table, a family relating to each other with loving harmony, candles and challah and grape juice or wine, the angel joyfully says, "...may next week be just like this one!"

As we move toward Shabbat today, may each of us find the resources we need (both practical and spiritual) to reach a state of readiness -- so that when that angel peers in at us, it is able to offer the blessing that our Shabbat joy should continue, now and always.

Shabbat shalom!

A poem after a summer funeral


The windshield wipers sway from side to side
like whip-thin Hasidim shuckeling in prayer.

I traverse Silver and Old Orebed, roads named
after gashes in the flesh of the earth.

When the clouds relent, I lead the pallbearers
and their purple-draped cargo: two steps, pause.

Two steps, pause. Seven stops in all, one
for each day of the first week of creation.

Sweat beads on my back inside my black suit
like the water pooling atop the funeral home tent.

On behalf of a woman I never knew I ask forgiveness
and offer it in turn, untying her tangles.

We stand in silence as the shovels spear the dirt
and send it thudding down like arhythmic drums.




Bury-you-dead-dirt-shovelIt's customary to make seven stops on the way to the graveside. Explanations for this practice vary.

When I lead funerals, I recite the deathbed vidui on behalf of the person who has died. Tradition says that the soul of the deceased lingers until burial. Reciting the vidui may be a way of helping that soul to let go.

At Jewish funerals, the mourners always begin filling in the grave -- either with handfuls of soil, or with shovels. Some have the custom of using the shovel upside-down, because burying a loved one shouldn't be easy.

I'm always grateful to have the opportunity to serve at a funeral. There is something incredibly meaningful for me about being able to do this work.

Blessing after the haftarah - abridged / erased

Blessed source
of all time and space

in every generation
You are faithful.

Be compassionate,
life-giving, home.

Bring joy to our hearts.
Let us not be misled.

You have promised

Thank You for

thank You
for everything

Let Your name be blessed
source of all the earth.

I've been spending some time lately with the blessings recited in my shul after the haftarah reading during the Days of Awe. Although my shul does not read haftarah on a regular basis, we do read the haftarot on the Days of Awe, and on those days, I generally chant the blessings before and after the reading. (They're here in Hebrew; I can't seem to find them online in English, oddly.)

It occurred to me that I could take the text of that traditional set of blessings, and work with it using the erasure techniques I've learned from Dave Bonta. (I've done this once before -- as one of my 30 poems from this past month of April, now collected in April Daily.) I liked the result, so I'm sharing it here.

If you use this in your shul as a variation on the traditional blessings, let me know how it goes. Below the cut: the full text of the traditional blessings in English, for comparison.

Continue reading "Blessing after the haftarah - abridged / erased" »

Tu B'Av, the end of being "grounded," and accessing God's love

ImagesToday is the fifteenth of the lunar month of Av. The beautiful moon is round and full. And in Jewish tradition, this date -- 15 Av, or Tu B'Av -- is a day of rejoicing.

The Gemara (Taanit 30b-31a) offers six reasons why Tu B'Av is a joyous day. Of those six reasons, here's the one which speaks most to me this year: when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, 15 Av was the day on which those who were destined to die in the wilderness finished dying. On this date, the intimacy with which the Holy One of Blessings spoke with Moshe was restored, and as a result, blessing flowed to the entire nation.

I can't speak to the historical veracity of that story, but on a spiritual level I find it very moving. It tells me that the relationship between God and the people was so badly strained by the incident with the scouts (where the scouts went into the Promised Land but returned with a fearful verdict instead of trusting in God), and by God's response to that incident (declaring that this whole generation which had known slavery would perish in the wilderness), that until the karmic consequences were complete, they couldn't really connect to each other.

It's like what happens when a child misbehaves, and the parent gets angry and declares a punishment, and then both parties feel distant from each other until the punishment is complete. A parent grounds a teenager, and during the period of the grounding, their connection isn't quite working. The parent knows the grounding was the right thing to do, but once the initial anger wears off, the parent suffers from the distance between them, too. And then the period of being grounded is over, and they can relate to each other in a different way again.

The "grounded" metaphor may seem a bit frivolous, but there's also a connection between this day and the actual ground. Here's a midrash:

R. Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av (during the 40 years when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness) Moses used to send a herald through the camp and announce: Go out to dig graves. They would go out and dig graves and sleep in them. In the morning he would send a herald and say: Separate the dead from the living.” They would arise and find their number diminished. In the last of the forty years, they did this but found themselves undiminished. They said; we must have made a mistake in counting. They did the same thing on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth, but still no one died. When the moon was full, they said; it seems that the Holy One has annulled the decree from all of us, so they made the fifteenth a holiday. —Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 13

This midrash takes place while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. Each year, the people dug themselves graves and lay down in the graves, expecting to die. One year, they stayed there until the full moon, whereupon they realized that if God had not yet taken them, the "plague" of being condemned to die in the wilderness must be over and God must have forgiven them for the misdeeds of the scouts. So on this date, they emerged from the earth -- literally rising up from the ground in which they had lain all week. Today is a day of great rejoicing because it's the day on which our people realized we had been wholly forgiven.

On this date, says the Talmud, the last members of the generation who had known slavery died. The last connection to slavery and to constriction was released. And the punishment which God had declared was finished. As a result, God was newly able to speak with Moshe intimately again, and to pour blessings through Moshe into the whole people. I imagine God saying, "That was no fun for either one of us; I'm so glad that's over; let me shower you with love from now on!"

On this Tu B'Av, may we all find ourselves able to shed the last vestiges of whatever has been constricting us -- and may we find a new way to relate to God and to each other, steeped in abundant blessings and love.



For more on this: Happy Tu B'Av, 2011, a post which explores the custom of dancing in the vineyards in white dresses, Rabbi Jill Hammer's teaching that this day is a hinge between harvest and fruition, the feminist undertones of a sex-positive Jewish festival, and a teaching from Michael Strassfeld.

Image borrowed from Tu B'Av: the Love Connection.

A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel

Erev Shabbas

by Danny Siegel

It's so stupid,
Wednesday afternoon,
soaked in the idiotica of errands
and all those "things to do"
that steal a man's minutes, his years --
I forgot the Queen.
Her Majesty was due at four-eighteen
on Friday, not a minute later,
and I was wasting hands, words, steps,
racing to a rushing finish-line
of roaring insignificance
I just as well could fill
with preparations for the royal entourage:
cleaning and cleansing each act's doing,
each word's saying,
in anticipation of the Great Event of Shabbas.

Continue reading "A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel" »

The first Shabbat back home

8667917025_bdf841f59d_mIt's always a little bit hard to come home from the ALEPH Kallah. I love home! I love my family; I love my little shul; I love my smalltown life. But there is always a pang, a twinge, at leaving a community of hundreds of dedicated Jewish Renewalniks who care as much as I do about Judaism, about spiritual life, about healing creation.

This past Saturday morning when Shabbat services began we were only two people. I breathed deeply and told my one congregant that even if it were just us, we would have a perfectly sweet service. It's a beautiful July day; people are on vacation; it can be hard to muster a minyan in a small town in high summer. I know this, and it's okay.

But then another couple arrived. And someone else. And someone else. And then just as we were about to reach the amidah, we broke the minyan barrier and were able to daven the amidah aloud, and to read from the Torah scroll. I got to give blessings for the various aliyot. We said prayers for healing. We recited mourner's kaddish in the comforting presence of community.

We had a glorious kiddush, with fresh strawberries and dill crackers. And then we sat around the table and studied the haftarah reading for last week, Isaiah 1:1-27, and talked about theologies of trauma and teshuvah, and about God as the angry parent, and about redemption, and about how prayer doesn't mean much unless we back it up with ethical living.

It was so beautiful and so sweet! We may not have the combined energy of 600 Shabbat-blissed Renewalniks, but what we're doing is cut from the same holy cloth. I'm so grateful to be serving this community. I'm so grateful that this is what I get to do.

Photo by Len Radin.

A poem after Tisha b'Av


No blessing is so fervent
as the one over water
fresh from the faucet

adorned with ice cubes
and a quarter of a lemon
at the end of Tisha b'Av.

The crunch of snap peas
cold from the fridge
and sweet as sugar

their texture, crisp
and bright against the tongue
almost brings me to tears.

A day immersed in trauma,
the fallen temple of justice
mothers wailing for their sons --

our fast can't bring
children back to life,
rebuild what is broken.

But it reminds me
people know this emptiness daily
and have nothing to eat.

And that other hunger
for an end to prejudice,
for a world redeemed...

God, rouse my thirst
for righteousness. Make me
care for this damaged world.



4053470943_1ed648a3af_mThis poem's title comes from the Hebrew song וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן / ushavtem mayim b'sasson [here on YouTube], which is a setting of Isaiah 12:3.

(See also Amos 5:24, "Let justice flow like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.")

It is traditional Jewish practice to fast from both food and water during Tisha b'Av, when we remember the two fallen Temples and mourn the brokenness of creation.

On "the fallen temple of justice" and "mothers wailing for their sons," see: George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker and Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic.

Image credit: by gnuckx, licensed under Creative Commons.

As we move now into the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, may our Tisha b'Av galvanize us to build a more healed and redeemed world.

An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av

TextWhen one person is unkind to another, a whole world can be destroyed.

Once there was a woman who belonged to an intimate and dedicated online community, where for many years people had congregated to share their writing and to support each other through life's troubles and travails.

She had a friend in that community named Jane, and an enemy named Janeway. One day she decided to throw a party in IRC, and she invited members of the community. She meant to invite her friend Jane, but her email program auto-filled the wrong email address and the invitation went to Janeway instead.

So the party got underway, people were hanging out and watching streaming video and having a blast -- and the host noticed Janeway's nick in the list of participants. She was incensed, and instead of yelling at Janeway in a private channel, she accosted her in all-caps where everyone could see. "YOU! You tell untrue stories about me," she wrote. "What are you doing here? GET OUT!"

Janeway typed, "Look, I'm already here -- let me stay, and I'll chip in toward the costs of the party." The woman said, hell no. "Then let me pay for half of the party," Janeway wheedled. No, said the woman. "Then let me pay for the whole thing," Janeway offered.  With no further ado, the woman publicly booted Janeway from the chat server and password-protected the room so she couldn't get back in.

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Tisha b'Av begins tonight

2651898311_c55789ec7f_mTonight at sundown we enter into Tisha b'Av, a communal day of mourning. On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE; we remember pogroms and tragedies throughout our history; we remember human suffering writ large; we recognize the brokenness in all creation; we enter into a process of communal teshuvah, repentance/return. For many of us this is a day of fasting and contemplation.

On the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition tells us, Moshiach will be born -- our deepest hopes for redemption, entering our world at our moment of greatest mourning and sorrow. And beginning on the day after Tisha b'Av, we count forty-nine days -- seven weeks -- until Rosh Hashanah, the new year.

In the Tisha b'Av category on this blog are my writings about this day from the last several years, including a few poems (I am partial to As Tisha b'Av Approaches, 2012 and After the fall, 2011); an essay written the first year I fasted on Tisha b'Av (This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011); and a series of vignettes from one year's observance at my small shul (Three scenes from Tisha b'Av, 2009.)

I also recommend The journey from estrangement to love to return, a post by Rabbi Sara Leya Schley of Jewish Renewal community Chochmat HaLev. She writes:

Tomorrow night is the 9th of Av, the culmination of period of consciously connecting with our estrangement from self, community and the Divine. Symbolized by the destruction of the Temple, Tisha b’Av brings us to confront what it means to live without a spiritual home, without the place where Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) is always waiting for us. By awakening to our suffering – personal and historical, we create an opening to profound self-awareness. Encountering and embracing the shadow diminishes the power of fear over our psyche.

The wisdom of our Tradition teaches us that mourning our losses, deeply feeling and acknowledging our brokenness in body, mind and soul, creates the opening for renewal. On this darkest of days, Moshiah is born: from the depths of destruction, springs the hope of transformation and redemption. Leonard Cohen famously reminds us "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"...

Her whole post is worth reading. In another interpretation (because if there's one thing to know about Judaism, it's that we always have other interpretations, other ways of understanding things) Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning the ways in which not only the Temple was destroyed, but our whole planet is in danger of destruction. Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Eicha for the Earth: the Text a Ceremony of Sorrow, Hope, & Action at The Shalom Center is an excellent read on that front.

Whatever your understanding of this day, and whatever your Tisha b'Av practices are: may your Tisha b'Av be meaningful and profound, a doorway into the transformation of the holy season which is about to begin.



Photo is mine, from 2008; Stones, wall, shrubs, taken at Robinson's Arch. The fallen stones were hurled down from the Temple Mount when the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 C.E. 

Sealing the story in: a Watsonian reading of Dvarim

Here's the d'var Torah I offered for last week's Torah portion yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Devarim-FlickrThe book of Dvarim, also known as Deuteronomy, begins on the far side of the Jordan River. Most of us don't speak Greek, so the Greek name Deuteronomy doesn't mean anything to us beyond being the name of this book of the Torah. But it comes from the Greek Deuteronomion, which means "second law." This book of Torah is called Deuteronomy because it is largely a retelling. The Hebrew name Dvarim can mean either "words" or "things." The opening line of the book reads, "These are the words (or things) which Moshe said to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan." Over the course of this book, Moshe will remind the Israelites of the journey they've undergone.

In this week's portion, which is also called D'varim, Moshe reminds them of a few choice incidents. Notably, the moment when he realized he couldn't do everything himself, so he appointed magistrates and judges to share the burden of leadership -- and the the time when they sent twelve scouts into the promised land, and ten of the scouts lost faith in God, which doomed the whole generation to wander in the wilderness. And then Moshe reminds them of some of the battles they've experienced. Both the hard stories, times when God warned them that She was angry and wasn't going into battle with them -- but the people failed to listen, and went into battle anyway, and lost grievously... and the proud stories, times when they defeated powerful rival kings and nations, because they had God on their side.

Leaving aside for the moment how we respond to the theology which said that God went with us when we won, and God was angry at us when we lost -- what is going on in this parsha? Place yourself in the sandals of the children of Israel. They've just spent forty years in the wilderness. They've encamped on the banks of the river which is the final boundary between them and the nation they intend to conquer. Why are they listening to the retelling of a story they just lived?

From a historico-critical point of view, one could make the case that this is a visible seam between two different stories, written down at different times. For those who are serious Sherlock Holmes fans, this is called the Doylist perspective: looking at the story with awareness of the circumstances of its authorship.  But from a Watsonian point of view -- looking at the story from the perspective of someone who is inside the story -- there's a different way to make sense of this retelling. Moshe is retelling the story they've all just lived through because it's a way to sanctify their memories and seal those memories into their hearts.

Continue reading "Sealing the story in: a Watsonian reading of Dvarim" »

A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises

As Shabbat approaches, here's one final post about the ALEPH Kallah -- a mikveh story from last Friday...


Mikveh spot, Kallah 2013. Photo by Miriam Charney.

There are few things I love more in this world than a Jewish Renewal pre-Shabbat mikveh, especially when it comes after a dense and delicious week of learning and playing and praying together.

We gather at the lake and shoo away the men and boys; this is our reserved time at this beautiful beach. There are no screens to shield us here (as there usually are at Isabella Freedman), but the beach feels secluded. Anyway, our time is short -- the men will be here in 45 minutes -- so we shrug and get moving. We strip down to wherever we are comfortable: some of us in swimsuits, some clothed, most naked. (Some enter the water clothed and then become naked.) We are old, young, tall, short, curvaceous, skinny, pale, dark. Some of us bear scars, empty spaces where one or both breasts used to be. We are here to immerse before Shabbat, and to emerge ready to welcome and honor the Sabbath Queen.

I walk into the waters, soft sand beneath my feet, until I can barely stand. We are bobbing up and down gently in the dark lake. The waters are as dark as strong tea from the tannins in the pine needles which litter the lakefloor. We sing a chant as more women join us. Our mikveh leader reminds us that when we were babies, someone looked at our thighs and said "what beautiful pulkes!" A ripple of wistful recognition runs audibly around the group. Many of us remember hearing that said to our beautiful chubby babies before they began to crawl. I remember our son's sweet baby thighs and how much I wanted to just kiss kiss kiss every inch of his beautiful skin.

And then she tells us that our thighs are still beautiful, and a rueful sigh floats over the surface of the waters. How many of us are able to truly feel that? And our bellies -- how frequently we wish them away, bemoan their size, agonize over their curves. They, too, she tells us, are beautiful. Our breasts, or the places where breasts used to be: beautiful. Every inch of every one of us is beautiful. Each one of us is a reflection of God.

I wish that it weren't profoundly countercultural to tell a group of women -- ranging in age from twenties to eighties -- that each one of us is beautiful, that we are made in the image of God, that we should cherish our bodies instead of resenting or loathing their "imperfections." But it is. And it's deeply moving to hear these things sweetly said by the rabbi who is leading our ritual. Maybe in this moment, as Shabbat approaches, we can really believe her. We can wash away the decades of learned self-deprecation and emerge from the waters knowing our own beauty.

We break into groups of two and three so that each woman can be witnessed by one or two holy spirit sisters as she dunks. We begin sharing quietly with our sisters what we wish to release on our immersions, what we want to wash away (spiritually speaking) in order to greet the Shabbat Bride with a whole and joyful heart.

And then two police cars pull up, lights flashing.

Continue reading "A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises" »

New month of Av and Ramadan

18Chodesh tov: a good new (lunar) month to all. Today's new moon brings us into the month of Av on the Jewish calendar. We're moving further into our journey toward the Days of Awe. One week from tonight/tomorrow we'll observe Tisha b'Av, remembering the fall of both Temples and acknowledging the sorrow, loss, and brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world. For me, Tisha b'Av is when we really begin the journey toward the Days of Awe.

Between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks. Rosh Hashanah is the 50th day after Tisha b'Av, as Shavuot is the 50th day after Pesach. Some have the practice of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks -- I wrote about that a little bit in my editor's introduction to Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah. Like the period of the Omer, the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah are a period of introspection and deep soul-work.

As we enter the month of Av, our Muslim cousins are entering the month of Ramadan. (That was true last year, too.) This is the last time that our fast day of Tisha b'Av will coincide with their fasting month of Ramadan for a while. In the coming Jewish year of 5774, we'll have a "leap month" -- a whole extra month, which is to say, two months of Adar instead of only one -- which means that the Jewish holidays will move forward on the Gregorian calendar by a month. The Muslim calendar is purely lunar, not lunisolar, so when we gain an extra month, they don't... which means that our fasting won't be in synch again for many years.

Ramadan+e-belgique+1For me, there is something particularly meaningful about engaging in fasting and repentance on Tisha b'Av when it coincides with Ramadan and I know that the spiritual children of Ishmael are fasting and praying along with the spiritual children of Isaac. Our two traditions have many powerful and meaningful teachings in common. (I'm still grateful for the experience of the Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders retreat back in 2009, which I wrote about in the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.) Especially for those of us who pay attention to the Middle East, it's easy to get caught up in news stories about Jewish-Muslim conflict -- but that's not the only paradigm for our two religious communities. Maybe the experience of fasting alongside one another this Tisha b'Av and Ramadan can help us experience our similarities anew.

Want to know more about this new month on the Jewish calendar? The name Av means "father." One mystical tradition (found in the Sefer Yetzirah) associates this month with the letter tet / ט (which, since Hebrew letters are also numbers, corresponds to the number nine.) This letter is understood to resemble the shape of a womb. I love that the month whose name means "father" is associated with the womb -- what a beautiful encapsulation of the gender-bending (or gender-transcending) realities of God! (The masculine God-name HaRachaman / The Merciful One shares a root with rechem / womb, so there's a way in which our tradition is always engaging in this kind of gender-bending God-talk. I wrote about that a few years ago -- Returning to the divine womb.)

The Sefer Yetzirah also associates different months with different senses. The special sense of last month, Tammuz, was sight; the sense of this month is hearing.

"To hear" in Hebrew means "to understand," to fully integrate into one's consciousness (into one's heart, not only to understand intellectually in one's mind). To hear another is to fully understand his dilemma and emphasize with him...

The sense of hearing is the sense of inner balance. (Imbalance is the source of all fall and destruction). A well balanced ear, a well oriented sense of hearing, possesses the ability to discern and distinguish in everything one hears truth from falseness, as is said (Job 12:11 and 34:3): "the ear discerns words"/ ozen malin tivchan (the initial letters of this phrase spell emet--"truth").

The word Av contains the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, beit, which are the first letters of the words emunah and bitachon, "faith" and "trust." This month we strive to return to our beginnings, to the alef from which all creation unfolds, and to find faith and trust there.

adapted from various teachings about Av at

As we move into the month of Av and Ramadan, may we truly be able to hear one another -- not despite our differences but in and through them. May we empathize with one another. May we find inner balance. May we experience faith and trust. And whether or not we fast from eating on Tisha b'Av or during Ramadan, may we fast from unkindness, from ingratitude, from our worst inclinations. May we take advantage of this month and cultivate our hearts and spirits to serve God and to serve the world.

Chodesh tov / Ramadan mubarak!

Here's a blessing for the new month -- in Hebrew, transliteration, and English -- written by Marcia Falk: Prayer for the New Month.

Five more glimpses of Kallah


Lake; Fourth of July.


The Fourth of July. I choose the morning service which is described as "You've heard of downward dog? This is Upward God! Bring your inner Mahalia Jackson." It's led by two dear friends of mine, Rabbi Jan Salzman and Rabbi Mark Novak. Both have wonderful voices and shining neshamot / souls.

Reb Jan begins by humming America the Beautiful, and we pick up the humming along with her. Once we've hummed it through once or twice, Reb Mark speaks over the top, beginning "I have a dream..." He quotes Isaiah: the rough places will be made plain, the crooked, straight. He describes the prophet's dream of messianic reality, and speaks aloud his prayer that this should be the nation we build together.

And then we begin our morning service by singing "Adon Olam" to that same tune. And my heart opens right up: to God, to my hopes for this country, to this community, to the people sitting in this circle and singing with all their hearts, to purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.



One of my students comes up to me and tells me that he's been talking with his eleven-year-old son about writing psalms, and that his son totally "gets" it, and that his son wants to write psalms now too. He tells me that he and his wife have brought their sons to Kallah (or to Ruach ha-Aretz, ALEPH's summer program during even-numbered years) since they were six, and that his kids love it here.

It is such a delight to hear that my student is loving my class -- to hear that he's talking about it with his kids -- to hear that his kids are into it, too -- to hear that his young son understands immediately that he, too, can be a modern-day psalmist and can speak the words of his heart to God. To think of a little boy growing up with annual dips into this precious co-created Brigadoon where we learn and sing, play and pray, in conscious community.

That afternoon we work on psalms of "negative" emotions -- sorrow, grief, loss -- and my students really go there with me. It's a deep class and a powerful one. I am humbled by their participation and their trust. Grateful to be here with them.




I walk down to my apartment, change into my swimsuit, tie my room key around my neck, and walk across the street and down the road to the lake. The sky is blue, the trees are green, the water is steeped the color of dark tea from the tannins of countless pine needles.

I slip off my sandals and walk slowly into the water, feeling my way on the unfamiliar sandy bottom. The water is cool, the sun is bright, the voices of people talking and laughing surround me. People are gliding across the lake lazily on bright red kayaks which draw the eye. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and submerge for a moment. When I come up, the voices and the laughter are even sweeter than they were before. A kind of precognitive echo, a ripple, of the mikveh immersion to come on Friday afternoon.



On my way back to my apartment, I find a duck feather, gleaming at me in the grass. I bring the duck feather to Rabbi Kevin Hale, "the barefoot sofer," who is teaching a class on sofrut and Torah repair this week. My intention is to ask whether he needs more quills for his students. But he has a great big pile of goose and turkey feathers, and my little duck feather is not needed. To my surprise, he says instead, "would you like me to cut it for you?" And then he offers me a tiny vial of ink and a scrap of klaf -- a bit of marginal parchment from a 100-year-old Torah.

I am unaccountably moved. To my sorrow, the piece of parchment disappears sometime during my psalms class -- there was too much commotion in the room, and it must have floated away on the wind -- but I carefully carry the ink and quill to a safe place. I don't know that I will ever learn sofrut, but in even trying to use the tools of that trade, I feel closer to every beautiful handwritten letter of every Torah, everywhere.


Banners in the tent, before anyone arrived to daven and drum.


Friday morning I decide to try the drumming davenen. We're in the tent, translucent yud / heh / vav / heh banners glimmering in the sunshine. Together, Rabbi Ilan Glazer and Akiva the Believer lead us in a morning service with drums. This isn't a drum circle; it's a service, and our davenen follows the traditional mat'beah tefilah, the order of prayer. We will touch on each of the liturgical touchpoints of the different prayers, accompanied by drumming.

When I arrive, my intention is to daven but not to drum. But as the davenen gets going, and I see that there are a few unclaimed drums in the circle, on impulse I get up and grab one. When and where else am I going to try this?

It feels great. I love being part of the music we're all co-creating as we pray. And I'm not as inept as I thought I would be; maybe I've absorbed a few rhythm patterns from twenty years of life with Ethan! As we drum and pray and sing, people get up and dance through the psalms. For our silent amidah we enter into a simple eighth-note beat. First one drummer alone, then two, and then one by one we all take it up. We sustain it for ten minutes. I close my eyes. Are we playing the beat, or is the beat playing us?

After the service, my left arm is striped from my tefillin and my right hand reverberates from the drumming. Marks on my body, sealing and recalling the experience of heart, mind, and soul.

A psalm of amazement (upon studying quantum physics)


upon studying kabbalah and quantum physics


I boast I grew a baby
from component cells. Big deal:

You built the cosmos
from component atoms, and those

have moving parts which shift,
performing particle or wave.

As photons yearn for the void
my heart yearns for You

though when we meet
I disappear.

When I ascend the ladder
I understand entanglement

though when I fall back down
my human brain can't grasp

the endless ein-sof
of Your quantum fields.

for R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad

Ein_sofOn the second day of the class I'm teaching (on writing the psalms of one's heart), we worked with psalms of wonder and amazement. After reading a variety of psalms (classical and contemporary) and talking about them, we entered into a generative writing exercise and then wrote our own psalms of awe.

Since I'm taking an extraordinary morning class on kabbalah and quantum physics, that was what came immediately to my mind when I thought about wonder. Anyway: for those who are interested, here's the end result of that 20 minutes of psalm-writing, once again lightly revised from its original form.

Ein-sof means "without end," and is a kabbalistic term for God's most transcendent aspect.

Prayer for our country (on the 4th of July)

In many communities, including mine, there is a tradition of reading a pair of prayers toward the end of services: one prayer for our own nation, and one prayer for Israel. At my small shul we don't do this every week, though we do maintain the tradition of reading these two special prayers during the Days of Awe. As our Prayer for Israel, in recent years we've used a text written by Nahum Waldman (available here at the URJ website). As our prayer for our own nation, this year we'll be using something new. I enclose it below in case it's helpful to anyone else -- either as something to tuck away for your own upcoming High Holiday services, or for your 4th of July davenen, or however else you see fit. Feel free to use it and share it, as long as you preserve its attribution.

Prayer For Our Country

O God and God of our ancestors
receive our prayer for this land which we love.
Pour out Your blessing on this nation
and on everyone in our government.

Give those who serve our country
innate appreciation for the Torah's principles
of justice and peace.
Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

Cultivate in them, and in us,
the sense that we are all one family
obligated to care for each other
with kindness and compassion.

Banish hatred from our hearts
and from the hearts of our elected officials.
Help us to make this country
a light unto the nations.

May it be Your will
our God and God of our generations
that this nation be a blessing
to all who dwell on earth.

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:
 “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.
Neither shall they learn war anymore."
And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

A psalm of praise for an ice cream cone

Img_62011In my Kallah class on Writing the Psalms of Your Heart, we spent our first day on psalms of praise. We brainstormed a bit about what psalms are and how they work, read some psalms of praise (both classical and contemporary), and spent some time in class writing our own psalms and then sharing them aloud.

I decided it wasn't fair of me to ask my students to do something I wasn't also willing to do, so I worked on a psalm along with them. Just for kicks, here's the psalm I wrote, lightly revised since its original creation. Enjoy!


a psalm of praise

Praise for these soft cold curls
of maple walnut ice cream.
Praise for the scent of earliest spring

distilled into pungent sweetness.
Praise for the cold, so shocking in July,
as ice cream meets my tongue.

Praise for the cows who ate the grass
and made the milk, praise for the farmer
who sat on a low stool

in a barn that smelled of manure and hay
to squeeze the udders, or the milking machine
which impersonally coaxed the milk forth.

Praise for the giant mixer
which churned the wet slush of ingredients
with all the grace of a February snowplow.

For the trees which grew the walnuts,
for the maples whose lifeblood was donated
to this worthy cause: praise

to the One Whose abundance flowed
into creation, Who takes pleasure
in my pleasure, now and always.

Gleanings on kabbalah and quantum physics

TardisMy morning class at Kallah this year can be summed up (so far) as: I feel like I'm trying to pack the time vortex of a TARDIS into my head! The morning class I'm taking at Kallah this year is "Infinity, Nothingness, and Being: Running and Returning, An Exploration in Quantum Physics and Kabbalah, and I'm loving it. I want to share some glimpses of the class with y'all, but I find that I'm struggling to articulate the learning succinctly. This kind of learning is almost like a mystical experience -- I grasp it in a flash of joyous insight, and then when I try to describe it, it slips through my fingers! But I'll try anyway.

"I believe that every way in which we meet the universe, it all matters -- not only in the sense of making meaning, but in the sense of making things matter, e.g. making things materialize, bringing the universe into being anew in each moment."

That's Dr. Karen Barad, one of the teachers of this morning class (she's teaching with her wife Rabbi Fern Feldman.) Rabbi Fern is focusing on the Jewish texts and mystical material; Dr. Karen is focusing on the physics. Rather than drawing analogies between kabbalah and physics, they aim to offer a nondual approach. They're not arguing that quantum physics is just now discovering what kabbalists have known for centuries, or that kabbalah can or should be updated on the basis of contemporary physics. "Instead, we're going to diffractively read kabbalah and quantum physics through each other."

The idea of diffraction recurred repeatedly over the course of our first morning. Diffraction, I learned, refers to the patterns that waves make. (I'm one of the people in the class who has comfort and familiarity with the Jewish mystical texts, but only a dim memory of high school learning about the physics side of things.) First we got an overview of the classical / Newtonian understanding of particles and waves, and then the quantum stuff proceeded to complicate and problematize everything we thought we'd grasped!

Continue reading "Gleanings on kabbalah and quantum physics" »

Five glimpses of the start of Kallah


A faculty meeting. The evening before everything formally begins.

It takes about ten minutes to get everyone in the room, to arrange the chairs the way we want them, that kind of thing. In a lot of contexts, we would have spent those ten minutes kibbitzing, or possibly kvetching about our travel experiences or whatever's not going right in our day.

Not here. Rabbi Shefa Gold opens up her sruti box and begins singing a two-part Sim Shalom round. (One of her own chants, naturally.) The music builds as we all pick up the melodies. Soon we're singing it as a round. The melody ripples and swells in the bright and airy room.

By the time the meeting begins -- a good ten minutes later, but no one minds, because the singing feels like prayer -- the energy in the room has shifted and I feel I'm part of something bigger than myself.



Looking at the schedule for Tuesday morning davenen. There are several options: Yoga Shalom (the service interwoven with yoga), Davennen in the Vernacular (davening in traditional nusach -- but in English), Davennen in Nature through the Torah of Metaphor. It's hard to choose.

But what really cracks me up is the juxtaposition of Speed Davvenen ("No time to think; just say the words one after the other, as fast as you can. A popular form of meditation for centuries, Minhag Eretz Yisrael, as practiced in Tzfat...") and ShEmanic Journey ("Are there too many words in your davvenen these days? Let's try working with six. We will explore the many ways the Shma can transport us to davvenen bliss through chant, gently guided meditation, and light authentic movement.")

That's Jewish Renewal in a nutshell right there. Speed-daven all of the words in the siddur as fast as you can, considering it a form of ancient meditation -- or strip the whole service down to the six words of the first line of the Shema. Neither approach has to cancel out the other. Both are ways of approaching the Divine.


I have every intention of going to mincha (afternoon services), but it's a ten minute walk away in the rain, and I stop to say hi to someone I haven't seen in a long time, and then someone else, and next thing I know, I'm too late.

Instead I wind up hanging out with two friends by the bank of enormous windows at the back of the building where the shuk is. One of us starts singing the ashrei, the first prayer of mincha, and next thing I know, we are quietly singing and harmonizing and making our way through the whole short liturgy of the afternoon service.

Around us, people are still wandering, browsing beautiful tallitot and kippot and books and jewelry, chatting, hugging, catching up. And we're davening by the windows overlooking the rain and the lake. I'm reminded of seeing Orthodox men in black davening at airport gates, at the banks of windows overlooking the runway, before a night flight. We would look strange to them, I suspect: we are two men and one woman, me in a tank top, all of us barefoot ("take off your shoes," God told Moshe, "for the place where you're standing is holy ground"), laughing along with our davenen. The interplay of our voices and our spirits is tight and sweet.

Even while it's happening, I know it's something I don't want to forget.



Rabbi David Ingber has chosen to frame the opening plenary as a Hasidic-style tisch, a table gathering in which the rebbe's teaching is framed with niggunim and melodies. After a beautiful ma'ariv service led sweetly by Rabbi Jack Gabriel and a bevy of musicians, we fill the stage in the big tent with musicians of our own and we sing a Chabad niggun.

There is drumming (Akiva the Believer and Shoshanna Jedwab -- my cup runneth over!), there is guitar, there is piano, there is clarinet -- and there is a tent full of several hundred happy people singing. Soon there is spontaneous dancing. It is amazing. It feels like a tent revival. A happy, hippie, neo-Hasidic, egalitarian, feminist, queer-friendly tent revival.

Reb David introduces the notion of the plenary as tisch, and quips that it is a plen-isch -- and since we're Renewal Jews, it's a re-plen-isch. (Get it?) But against all odds, the evening really does feel replenishing. I share poetry and musings. Rabbi Riqi Kosovske shares a classical nursing prayer. Rabbi Ebn Leader sings "Memaleh kol almin, u-sovev kol almin" -- "You fill all worlds and surround all worlds, and without You there is no existence at all" -- so soulfully that I get shivers.

In between our teachings, we sing niggunim to seal the learning into our hearts. And we sing a Shaker hymn, which goes like this:

When you love-not one another in daily communion,
how can you love God whom you have never seen? (2x)

More love (2x)
The heavens are calling
the angels are singing
O Zion, more love, more love.

To close, Rabbi David Ingber tells an extraordinary story about why there is a tiny א in the first word of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus: that after Moshe built the mishkan, the tabernacle, he stood outside it and wondered, is there a place here for me? I did all this work, I made this thing, but do I belong here? And God whispered so that only he could hear: come on in, Moshe. There's room for you.

What a metaphor for us here in the big tent of Jewish Renewal. Come on in. There's room here for you.



In the small chapel space, my dear friend David leads the six-word Shema-focused davenen. We create a sonic tapestry without any plan or intention, and it fills the space, and it is beautiful.

We move through hearing: hearing with our ears, our bodies, our skin as interface with the world. We move through what it means to be Yisrael, standing, energizing our feet, entering into movement. (That's the most challenging part for me, but I try.) We embody the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh with our bodies, conscious of immanence. We experience relationship with God. We connect with the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh of transcendence, God beyond us, stretching our awareness beyond our bodies. And we break the final echad, One, into its component letters: forming the aleph with our bodies, rumbling a room full of chets, tasting the Spanish sound of the un-pointed daled.

We chant two different full shemas -- the "Reform summer camp" melody I use at shul (which feels and sounds entirely different to me in this space, accompanied by sruti box) and the triumphal Sulzer chant a cappella. The Sulzer shema comes near the end of the service, and it rings out like a heavenly shofar, energized by our deep explorations.

It's not quite like any other davenen I've ever done. What a gift.

Kol Echad: the voice of the One in the voices of the many

The theme of this year's ALEPH Kallah is Kol Echad. Last night, at the opening plenary session, four New England-based Jewish Renewal voices spoke on this theme and what it means to each of us. I was honored to be one of the speakers, along with Rabbi Ebn Leader, Joel Segel, Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, and Rabbi David Ingber. R' David was the "host" for the evening, and he patterned it on a Hasidic tisch, a dinnertable celebration featuring teaching interspersed with song. In between our teachings, we led the community in some of my favorite songs and niggunim. It was really sweet! Anyway: my remarks follow below.

Reflections on Kol Echad

Kol echad.

If you spell it כל אחד, it means "all is one." If you spell it קול אחד, it means "with one voice."

When I think of all of us speaking with one voice, I think of the teaching which says that when God gave over Torah at Sinai, God spoke with one voice and each person heard according to their abilities and inclinations. The revelation was singular; its reception takes as many forms as there are human souls, as many as grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.

In recent years I've been turning my attention to one very particular voice: the voice of my child. His voice awakens me, touches me, inflames me with love, and occasionally evokes my exasperation like no other. Becoming a mother has radically changed my sense of God, and of what it means to say -- as our liturgy so frequently does -- that God is our parent.

I look at our child, I listen to our child, and I see the two of us, his parents, reflected in countless ways. But I also see difference. He is his own being, wholly. (And holy.) He is full of surprises. He has his own desires and yearnings, his own inclinations, his own likes and dislikes. Is this how God feels when She listens to each of us?

We cry out with our many voices, and each of our voices reaches God.

A poem from Waiting to Unfold:


Was God overwhelmed
when Her milk first came in

roused by our thin cries
for compassion?

She'd birthed creation
from amoebas to galaxies

but did She expect to see
Her own changeability

mirrored behind our eyes?
Nothing could have prepared Her

for the shift from singularity
to multiplicity.

And the blank-faced angels
offered their constant praise

without understanding Her joy
or the depth of Her fear.

There is a Talmudic saying that "more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." I learned this in rabbinic school as a metaphor for how God relates to the world. God, my teachers taught, is bursting with blessing. Our prayers prime the pump and cause that blessing to flow. Once I became a nursing mother, I had a whole new understanding of what it might feel like to be God, prickling with the urgent need called forth by our hungry wailing.

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