On preparing a nondenominational funeral

It was a challenge I had not sufficiently pondered: how to create a meaningful nondenominational (read: non-Jewish) funeral service which would serve its ritual purpose, bring comfort to the mourners, and use language familiar and accessible to those assembled, without taking me out of the comfort zone of what I can authentically pray as a rabbi and as a Jew?

One of my dearest teachers, when I was in rabbinic school, taught me that a funeral is the one time when we always say yes. If someone asks me to do a wedding, and I say no -- because the date isn't convenient, or because I'm not comfortable with their stipulations, or for whatever reason -- they can always find another officiant. There are a lot of rabbis who do weddings, and generally speaking, a nuptial couple approaches potential clergy well in advance of the blessed date. But if someone needs a funeral, the need is immediate, and it is incumbent on me as a rabbi to say yes. It's my job to be there for them and to use the prayers, skills, and teachings at my disposal to help them navigate the shoals of grief.

So when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a congregant's loved one, I said yes without hesitation. The only question in my mind was what words, exactly, might be appropriate to the situation, because this family member was not Jewish. I have a fair number of dual-faith-heritage families in my community, which means I have a lot of congregants who have Christian family members. When those family members belong to their own faith-communities, then their funerals are a matter for their clergy. But when they're unaffiliated -- "unchurched," in Christian parlance -- a different situation arises. (Other liberal Jewish clergy, I expect you've run into this situation too; I'd love to hear from others about how you've handled it.)

I knew that most of the family members who would be gathering to mourn would not be Jewish. But all of them were grieving a loss, and all of them were in need of a liturgy which would create a safe container to hold them in their grief. This was a new spiritual assignment for me, and an opportunity to think about how I understand funerals to work and what I understand my role at a funeral to be.

First I looked to the funeral liturgy I usually use, which is based in Ma'aglei Tzedek, the Reform Rabbi's Manual, though has grown from there. (I've adapted my practices over the years, drawing on Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgies and teachings.) I turned also to poetry, thumbing my copy of Beloved on the Earth, which I reviewed here some time ago. I knew I wanted some things which the assembled could read or recite together, ideally familiar words and cadences. Psalms, then: I chose parts of Psalm 90, and Psalm 23, and also the Lord's Prayer. (For all that it's a Christian prayer, there's nothing in it which is uncomfortable for me as a Jew -- actually when I've heard it rendered in Hebrew I've been amazed and moved by just how familiar its turns of phrase are, and how similar to the liturgy I love and know.)

What might the mourners be expecting, what forms and structures would be most comforting to them in their grief? I consulted Google to see what I could learn about Christian funeral liturgies. (I'm grateful to those who've put the Book of Common Prayer online!) Of course, there are certain central elements of Christian funeral ritual which are foreign to me. Christians and Jews have different teachings about what happens to our souls after death, and I can't in good faith affirm Jesus as the resurrection and the life or as the only path to God. But I fashioned a prayer of committal to recite at graveside, which I hoped would serve to sanctify, with our words and intentions, this place in the earth into which this beloved body would be returned.

I hope and pray that the words I assembled were the right ones, and that my presence was a comfort. For those who are interested in the end result of my labors, two short services are enclosed here: a memorial service intended for use in the funeral home, and a graveside service intended for interment. (Neither includes any identifying information or anything specific to this family.) I welcome your thoughts, questions, and feedback in response. And if these liturgies are useful to someone else, by all means, use them elsewhere; I share them freely, with hope that all who are bereaved will find comfort.

Memorial [pdf]

Interment [pdf]


A few words about Esther for a Christian audience

Earlier this fall I heard from Rachel Held Evans, who describes herself as "just a small-town writer asking big questions about faith, doubt, culture, gender and the Church." She has a very well-read blog and she's spent the last few years studying what the Bible teaches about women as she's been working on her forthcoming book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. (I wonder whether I'll enjoy it more, or less, than I did A.J. Jacob's A Year of Living Biblically...)

Anyway, she recently launched a series of posts about Esther, beginning with Esther Actually: Princess, Whore...or Something More. (I also quite like her post Esther Actually: Purim, Persia, Patriarchy.) Most of her readers, she tells me, are evangelical Christians, and she wanted to counter some of the disturbing ideas about Esther she's seen promulgated in the evangelical world. She asked whether I would be willing to write a guest post, a few hundred words about what Esther means to me as a Jewish woman and as a rabbi.

I'm honored, and humbled, to be asked to provide what may be the only Jewish perspective her readers have ever encountered on this story. Anyway, my guest post is now live on her blog:

Like most Jewish kids, I grew up hearing the story of Esther in the court of King Achashverosh each year at Purim. But I didn't appreciate the subtle humor of the story, or the wonders of her character, until I was entering my thirties.

I don't think any Biblical figure can or should be read in only a single way. But I like to read Esther as the hero of her own story -- and also the hero of the story shared by the whole Jewish people. She's an orphan who rises to power in the court of the king. She knows how to live in an assimilated society -- she goes by the name Esther, which has resonances with the Hebrew word nistar, hidden -- and yet she also knows her own true nature...

Read the whole thing here! Esther Actually - Rabbi Rachel.

Thanks, Rachel, for opening your doors to another Rachel. And to anyone who finds your way here from Rachel Evans' blog, welcome; take a peek at the VR comments policy; feel free to browse the "greatest hits" posts in the sidebar (here are excerpts from my favorite ten posts from last year); and I hope you'll stick around.


Brettler and Levine on the Jewish Annotated New Testament

On Saturday evening I drove south to Great Barrington, to hear Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler and Dr. Amy Jill Levine speak about the Jewish Annotated New Testament at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. (For background, here's the article I just wrote for the Berkshire Eagle: Jewish scholars give perspective on the New Testament.)

When I arrived, shortly before six, the parking lot was full; I had to drive further down to the overflow parking lot! The place was totally packed -- hundreds of people were present. (Midway through the event, someone asked any Christians present to raise their hands -- I'm guessing about a quarter of the room was Christian.)

Our speakers were introduced by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, a member of Hevreh and also a member of the Berkshire Minyan which meets at Hevreh. The evening was co-sponsored by Christ Church Lutheran, St James Episcopal, Congregation Beth Israel, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and the South Berkshire Friends Meeting.

"On this Saturday night I am struck by the fact that we are sitting together on a kind of bridge in sacred time. Saturday night marks the end of the Jewish Shabbat and precedes the Christian Sabbath. Resting on this bridge together, we are graced with a unique opportunity," said Rabba Stern-Kaufman. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, R' Stern-Kaufman said, "deepens the possibility of understanding and healing" between Judaism and Christianity.

Marc Zvi Brettler

When many people see the title of the book they think that this is a controversial book, noted Marc Brettler. The first blog entry he saw about the book began thus, "Without having read it, and I can guarantee you I never will, I can guess it's a new bold attempt by the rabbinic Talmudists to undermine the faith." (Looks to me like this is actually a comment on someone else's post.) Meanwhile, the first review on Amazon read, "It is evil for Christians to try to convert Jews...why don't you people leave us in peace?" You just can't win, he joked. But more seriously -- "we just could not find a better title for the book!"

Oxford University Press discovered long ago, he explained, that Bibles sell well. Fifteen years ago OUP was revising its standard college and church Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the main editor contacted Brettler, saying that he wanted someone to be involved who was not Christian, in order to ensure that the newer editions would not draw the spurious distinction between the Old Testament God of law and war and the New Testament God of grace. A few years later came the Jewish Study Bible, in which the Hebrew Bible was commented-on by Jewish scholars -- it was remarkable, Brettler noted, that there were finally enough Jewish scholars for that volume to happen!

After he finished co-editing that, he said to his editor, partially in jest, "what would you think about a bunch of Jews getting together to do the New Testament the way we just did the Hebrew Bible?" It took his editor a few years to talk the rest of OUP into it, but here we are.

Edited to add: I've just had a lovely email exchange with an editor at OUP, who offered a gentle correction to the previous sentence of this post. He writes: "When I proposed the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the issue among my colleagues was not whether to commission and publish it – everyone agreed on that, once they saw the positive academic reviews – but rather whether it was a book for general readers or only for academics.  Most of the people I worked with thought it would be a library and professional book, not one intended for non-experts." Many thanks to Don Kraus for the clarification!

"I think this book is important to different people for various different reasons," Brettler noted. "I am tired of hearing people talking about the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, implying that Judaism and Christianity are more or less the same thing!" He cited the book The Myth of Judeo-Christian Tradition and said he wished it were more widely-read. "Part of what worries me about this term, Judeo-Christian, is that it is often used in a pernicious sense, to exclude Muslims in various ways," he noted. And then, for a laugh, he held up the bumper sticker someone had sent him -- the fish with feet (Darwin-fish style) which reads "Gefilte."

Brettler continued:

I hope that we are able to respect each others' scriptures, which are different in a variety of ways, and that we can come to understand each others' scriptures... and get a sense for what the commonalities, as well as the differences, are.

Continue reading "Brettler and Levine on the Jewish Annotated New Testament" »


A call for kindness during Kislev

In Judaism, the big fall "holiday season" is the month of Elul leading up to the Days of Awe, then Sukkot and the cluster of festivals which come at its close. In mainstream American culture, the big fall "holiday season" is the shopping season which begins with great fanfare on the day after Thanksgiving and culminates at Christmas.

This can be a challenging season. Here in the northern hemisphere the days are darkening (and at the latitude of northern Berkshire, the days feel short indeed!) Thanksgiving is an opportunity for gathering with loved ones, feasting, and cultivating gratitude...though for those who are alone, the family feast day may feel even more isolating. And even for those who are blessed to gather with family, a holiday like Thanksgiving may raise or exacerbate old tensions and old hurts. On top of that, of course, some of us are introverts -- which means that concentrated togetherness-time, even if it's something we anticipate and savor, can be draining.

Over Thanksgiving weekend we entered a new month on the Jewish calendar, the lunar month of Kislev which will hold within it this year both Chanukah (which is always on the 25th of Kislev) and Christmas (which is always on the 25th of December -- except in those Christian traditions where it is on January 6 or 7 -- but regardless, it doesn't always fall during this lunar month; this year 12/25 will.) Chanukah and Christmas too offer opportunities for gathering and togetherness as well as loneliness and alienation, for celebration as well as sorrow.

For some Jews, the approach of Christmas is an enjoyable opportunity to respectfully appreciate someone else's religious traditions. For others among us, it awakens childhood memories of feeling "Other," or of yearning for the glitz and sparkle the Christian kids got to enjoy but feeling guilty for that yearning. For some of us who were reared Christian but have chosen Judaism, this month raises anxiety about how much it's "okay" to still enjoy old family traditions. For some of us who were reared Jewish but have chosen Christian spouses, the season can raise similar fears and tensions.

Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days.

Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating? Listen to your body, which is your oldest and dearest companion, and be gentle to it. For me that means getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, the ritual of my little iron teapot; it means making sure I'm eating vegetables, and it also means giving myself permission to enjoy holiday sweets.

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child. You deserve the same attention and comfort as any beloved animal or child. GIve yourself permission to feel whatever you're feeling.

Pay attention to your social barometer. For some of us, the approach of winter's dark and cold days brings out a yearning for people, for gathering and hosting and feasting. For others, this same moment in the year wakens the desire to curl up in comfortable solitude with a book and a glass of wine or favorite episodes of a familiar tv show. (For me, both of these things are true at once! This is why I always test as both an introvert and an extrovert when I've taken the Myers-Briggs type indicator test.) Wherever you fall on that spectrum, notice it, and make the decisions which will cradle and support you.

Try not to get caught up in expectations. "What if he doesn't like his gift?" "What if I'm not spending enough?" "What if I'm spending too much?" Oy -- it's enough to tangle one's emotional and spiritual life into knots (not to mention one's neck and back muscles.) Tell yourself that whatever you bring: to the potluck, to the Chanukah or Christmas party, to your friends and family -- whatever you bring is enough. You are enough. Not just this month, but the whole year long.


Briallen Hopper's sermon for Passion Week

My friend Rabbi Debra Kolodny sent me the text of A Sermon for Passion Week by Briallen Hopper, a faith blogger and divinity student (you can read Hopper at Huffington Post -- I'm certainly going to from now on!) and the sermon so moved me that I want to share it here. Here's how it begins, with a text from Lamentations (which in the Jewish community we read on Tisha b'Av) and with some of Hopper's own words:

“Thus says the LORD:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.
Thus says the LORD:
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.”

It’s been thousands of years now,
but Rachel is still weeping for her children.
She’s still refusing to be comforted.
But she’s not in Ramah.

Right now Rachel is in suburban Minnesota.
Her son Justin bravely came out at age thirteen and endured merciless bullying for two years.
He killed himself last August.
Rachel found his body.

Rachel is also in Indiana.
Her son Billy was called a fag at school.
His classmates told him to kill himself.
And so he did.
Rachel found his body too.

Dan Savage, who shared the sermon with the internet-at-large, called it a "mashup of an It Gets Better video and the Passion of the Christ." Warning for content relating to rape and violence against women and GLBT people; if reading this is going to be harmful for you, please guard your boundaries as needed. But for those of us who are not triggered by this material, this is, I think, a sermon we all need to read. Hopper writes that we like to talk about "justice," but

"Justice" cannot do justice to the stories
Of the people who come through our doors
Reeling with pain,
Trapped in cycles of trauma,
Covered with scars and bruises in their spirits or under their clothes.

I know this to be true, and my heart breaks reading the stories Hopper tells. But she also offers a powerful way of thinking about Jesus as one of these wounded children, and at the end of the sermon she also offers hope.

If this sounds like something you can bear reading, here's the link: A Sermon for Passion Week. Thanks, Briallen, for this powerful example of how to preach.


The forest beyond the trees

photo by flickr user EveMBH; licensed under creative commons.

Every year at this season the subject rises up again. This year you can find it in Slate, where Mark Oppenheimer and Jessica Grose debate Should Jews Own Christmas Trees? Or Andi Rosenthal's essay Tree of Life, which asks "why one particular type of tree--you know, that one--causes us such anxiety." Or take this recent tweet from @InterfaithFam: Having a Christmas tree doesn't make you "less Jewish" - or does it? I offered a three-part response on twitter, but -- go figure -- I think I have more to say than can be expressed in 520 characters.

This isn't just about conifers. The tree is a stand-in for the bigger issue of how we as a religious minority relate to the dominant religious/cultural tradition around us. (My perspective on this is a Diaspora one, and a USian one at that -- readers from elsewhere, feel free to chime in too.) The notion of Jews trimming Christmas trees raises communal fear of assimilation and disppearance. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that fear and of how it shapes our response.

This also isn't new. R' Joshua Plaut's essay Jews and Christmas teaches that many Western European Jews had Christmas trees (my maternal grandmother, z"l, used to reminisce about having a tree in Prague in the 1930s; apparently Theodore Herzl had one too) and how in the US, too, many Jews adopted the custom of trimming a tree as a sign of American-ness. Jewish writer Anne Roiphe wrote an essay in 1978 about her Jewish family's Christmas celebrations (and in response to the ensuing wave of criticism wrote Generation Without Memory and vowed to seek a more engaged Jewish life.) 

But the the Jews I know who have Christmas trees have chosen that practice because someone in their intimate family is a non-Jew for whom the tree, and the celebration it represents, is important. The Jewish Outreach Institute offers statistics: "28% of the 2.6 million married Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews and the rate of intermarriage [in 1990] was 52% of all marriages involving at least one Jew." Many of us have Christians in our extended clans, if not our intimate nuclear families. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that, too.

Continue reading "The forest beyond the trees" »


Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

Continue reading "Jews in medieval Christendom" »


[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace, featuring Greg Khalil, President and Co-Founder, The Kairos Project; Salam Al-Marayati, Executive Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Mark Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Maureen Shea, Former Director, Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and former Churches For Middle East Peace Chair.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling introduces the session; he's part of The Shalom Center which works for peace in the Middle East, peace for human beings and for the environment; the org has long been involved in this wor through its annual Tent of Abraham celebration and through the work of (my teacher) Rabbi Arthur Waskow who would be here today except that he was in a devastating car accident some weeks ago and is still rehabilitating from that experience.

"Jews, Muslims, and Christians clearly have a long connection to what is known to some as the Holy Land," says Rabbi Liebling. Our three communities can work together to bring peace; how to do that will be the subject of this morning's panel. There are challenges to our communities working together in this country to bring peace, but we need to remember that at its origins this is not a religious conflict but rather a territorial one. "Religion can be used to remind us all of the interconnection and interdependence of all humanity."

Moderator Ron Young from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East begins with "There are still people who say, if were going to talk about peace in the Middle East, for God's sake keep religion out of it!" He tells a story about getting together in 1987 ago with a group of fifty leaders from all three traditions to begin this work, all of whom agreed that they weren't sure how this kind of peace work was possible but all felt called by their religious traditions to begin doing the work.

At that session, a prominent Palestinian businessman named Sami [I missed his last name -- anyone?] from Kansas City said "I have long had the deepest respect for Judaism but I have a bitter hatred for Zionism." Rabbi Arnie Wolf said, "I have never met Sami before; I hope we can work together for peace; but the left side of my heart is Judaism and the right side of my heart is Zionism and I can't take my heart apart for Sami or anyone else." The encouraging thing that happened at the coffee break, says Young, is that no one left the room, and Sami and Arnie headed straight for each other and engaged in intense dialogue. That kind of thing happened repeatedly, and at the end of 2 days these 50 religious leaders endorsed a two-state solution and spoke out in favor of self-determination for both communities.

The format for the session is this: first Ron Young will ask some big questions for all of the panelists to answer, then we'll begin to work from questions written down on index cards by people in the room. Here's the first of those bg questions:

In the last few years, there's been a convergence of advocacy positions among a range of groups in DC which heretofore had found each other problematic, simplistically pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. The American Task Force on Palestine; Americans for Peace Now; the Arab-American Institute; Churches for Middle East Peace; Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; the Muslim Affairs Council -- we've mostly been on the same page in terms of what we advocate the US Government should do. My question to the panelists is: the scene locally is not always the same as it is nationally. So these forces, which are significant nationally, are very significant but locally it gets messier. It is more complicated. I want each of you to comment on reminding us why you think this religious dimension is important, and talk a bit about the scene locally as you see it: what advice you have for people who want to work together. And also, think about how if some other community is going to work with our community, here are some things you should be cautious about or sensitive to.

Our first respondent is Mark Pelavin. "The local scene is as different as there are localities," he says. The diversity of discussion in communities is fascinating to him, and how different the conversation is in different places, how it's driven by the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in various communities. "The local level is where the most interesting things are happening, and also where the worst things are happening," he says.

Continue reading "[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace" »


A field trip into Easter

Six years ago, I attended Easter services in Williamstown for the first time. Our friend Bernard was here that year and needed a place to worship. He was far away from his home church of St. Kizito's in Nima, Accra, and he'd had a rough Holy Week, which had included the death of one of his sisters and the  robbery of his house back home. Easter that year fell on his birthday, so we offered to take him to church and then out for a birthday/Easter brunch...but Ethan came down with the flu, so I gathered a couple of friends and we took Bernard to daven at St. John's.

Going in to the experience, I felt oddly nervous. I was worried that I might stand out as an obvious outsider -- and worried too that I might blend in, that it might be spiritually dishonest of me to "pass." Mostly I worried about whether I would feel comfortable. In college I sang with a madrigal ensemble which often performed in churches during Holy Week, and on one memorable occasion the sermon was about how the Cross is meant to be a "stumbling block to the Jews." (I don't remember where that was; only that I ran out of the sanctuary in tears, and that the most ardent Christians in the a cappella ensemble followed me to offer comfort, bless them.)

Anyway. On Easter morning in 2003 I parked my car down the block from the church and emerged to see the rector of St. John's standing outside. He'd just come from the early morning service, and was getting ready to do the 10am. He saw a friend across the street, beamed a hundred-watt smile, gave him two big thumbs-up and called "He is Risen!"

In that moment, I knew I was going to be just fine.

Continue reading "A field trip into Easter" »


Christmas greetings to all who celebrate!

The star embedded in the floor in the spot where Jesus is said to have been born. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.


Christmas, too, has something to teach us. Every Christmas I get a real yearning for the Christian ability to imagine God as a baby. Seeing God as a newborn babe, you begin to understand that even God needs to grow, just as we do! And that this really may be the purpose of the universe -- that we ourselves are God growing Godself, and that the task of every person and faith community is to collaborate in that process.

-- Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish With Feeling


Wishing my Christian friends and readers a Christmas that is merry and bright!


An outsider looking at Lent

As those of you who are Christian are probably profoundly aware, Lent began this week. As always, I'm fascinated by the ways in which being part of the religious blogosphere offers me a chance to peek at the religious practices of others, and I'm already enjoying some of the Lenten blog posts that are rolling across my aggregator. For instance, Ash Wednesday Lavendar by RJ:

Ash Wednesday – and really all of Lent – is a journey more than a destination – a way of discerning and searching for the holy in the ordinary events of our human lives – and as you know if you have ever travelled, some journeys are wonderful and rich, some are messed up and filled with trouble, and some never get off the ground[.]

I'm also intrigued by Father Chris' post Washing off the ashes? He takes a fascinating look at the question of religious visibility on Ash Wednesday, and I think he's identified an important tension between following traditional precepts because there's value in doing so, and resisting the temptation to allow one's enactment of those precepts to feed the ego.

I see parallels between the 40-day Lenten period (symbolic of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert) and the 40-day period Jews observe between the beginning of the month of Elul and Yom Kippur. I've written before about how the number 40, in the rabbinic imagination, represents the period from something's inception (or conception) to fruition. With that in mind, I see these 40-day journeys as chances to mindfully inhabit the work of teshuvah, turning-toward-God, that's so foundational to religious life.

One of the things that's always moved me is the practice of refraining from offering alleluias in church during Lent. Once, several years ago, I went with a friend to Easter services (that's a story I should tell here, one of these days) and was blown away by the joy I perceived in those Easter alleluias, I imagine because the community had been fasting from praise for so long. I can't imagine going forty days without offering praise; I find it tough enough to eschew praise on the single day of Tisha b'Av! But the idea has stuck with me.

To my readers and friends who are entering into Lent, I wish you a journey that brings you where you need to go. (If you're blogging about it, let me know where.) May the rest of us be respectful witnesses to your travels.


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Modern midrash on Christmas

Y'all know I'm a big fan of Real Live Preacher. Gordon's a terrific writer, and I count him as one of my role models for what it can mean to be a committed, quirky, passionate person of faith. This year I decided to give myself a little Chanukah gift in a way that would support him. (Hey, I know what it's like to get a little boost, financially and emotionally, because someone decides to buy a blogger's work in print.) I bought myself a copy of A Christmas Story You've Never Heard.

The introduction begins with the first seven verses of Luke 2: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus..." And then Gordon pipes up, reminding us that "the facts are few and the account minimal to the point of absurdity." There's wonder and mystery in the story, he writes, but much of it hides between the verses and in the silences.

The way most of us imagine the Nativity -- and I'd wager that most of us, even Jews for whom this is not a sacred text, have some mental image of it -- is anachronistic in the extreme. The Greek word kataluma doesn't mean inn; the famed manger was probably a stone trough in a basement animal pen; and the magi aren't even mentioned in this gospel at all. What Gordon offers us, in the place of those familiar (and sometimes hackneyed) mental images, is a real story:

Joseph's carpenter shed smelled of leather and wood and grease and earth and work. The tools were old and the wooden handles slick with use. The place bore the wonderful patina of a man's lifework.

The smell made Isaac smile when he poked his head around the doorframe and saw Joseph's powerful shoulders rolling back and forth as he pulled a drawknife across a huge beam of wood. Chips were flying everywhere.

"Shalom, Joseph. Is that..." He sniffed loudly. "Cedar?"

This is an embodied Joseph, and one who's getting serious flack from his friends for standing by Mary in her disgraceful state. Mary, too, and her family, and Joseph's family, all appear in sometimes startling revitalized form.

This little book is midrash, pure and simple: exegetical storytelling that fleshes out the story's characters, closes off loopholes, offers interpretation. It takes the text seriously, but it doesn't take itself seriously; it's funny as well as poignant. Obviously this is a story that will be more resonant, and more powerful, to those for whom it is sacred scripture. I'm not in that camp. But I appreciate the power of a good story, and especially of a good midrash on a story I thought I already knew.

Available from iTunes as an audiobook; available in print, on audio cd, or via download from his store. (And if you buy the paper book, he tucks a little surprise into it; mine came with a candle label featuring a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Mary.) Thanks for the storytelling, RLP. Here's wishing you a week that is merry and bright.


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The Faith Between Us

Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal: a former wannabe Catholic priest and a self-described "failed Jewish mystic." Close friends. Co-authors of The Faith Between Us, a book which charts their dialogue about everything from marriage proposals to veganism, parables and mysticism and the pursuit of authentic religious faith. Both men have long literary pedigrees; they've been regular contributors to McSweeney's and Killing The Buddha, and Peter is one of my colleagues at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Together, they fight crime. Okay, no, they don't. But they've written one hell of a book.

This book began with what has become, for many of us, a not-so-innocent and not-so-simple question: Do you believe in God?

We're nervous even to ask; simply posing the question reveals something about you, if only that you're earnest enough to care. And answering in either direction, yes or no, can often feel like a great risk, depending on the company you keep. This kind of exposure can be embarrassing. The question catches us with our, yes, Proverbial pants down.... We step carefully around the question: Do you believe?

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

In the introduction, Scott and Peter talk about existing "on the religious fringe" as undergrads, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. (I know the feeling.) And about studying theology in graduate school, yearning to reconcile the desire for intellectual integrity with religious devotion that was unquestionably irrational, but was powerful nonetheless. (Yep. I know that feeling too.) And they talk about their friendship, and what it opened up for and in them.

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Interfaith Thanksgiving in Austin

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the city's largest interfaith organization, announced Thursday that its annual Thanksgiving celebration Sunday had to be moved because Hyde Park Baptist Church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

(-- Church rejects interfaith service on its property, Austin-American Statesman)

Boy: that's the kind of lede that makes me cringe. And in my former home state, no less.

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries sounds like exactly the kind of organization I'd be involved with if I lived in that neck of the woods. "AAIM envisions a respectful, caring and inclusive community where people of diverse cultures and religions are actively involved in enhancing the quality of life in the Austin area," their website explains, and "AAIM unites faith and cultural communities to foster respect, partnership and transformation in service of the common good."

For the last 22 years, AAIM has held an annual Thanksgiving service attended by over 1000 people. The sacred obligation of hosting the event rotates each year, and this year the Central Texas Muslimaat was slated to host. Since none of the local Muslim community spaces are large enough to hold 1000+ people, they arranged to rent space from Hyde Park Baptist Church...until the folks at Hyde Park realized that this Thanksgiving service would involve ecumenical worship, and yanked the proverbial rug out from under the AAIM three days before the event.

It's not my place to criticize members of other religious traditions for living out their faith as they understand themselves to be called to do, but this story saddens me profoundly, as stories of religious insularity always do.

There's a happy ending to this particular tale, though. Congregation Beth Israel, "the oldest and largest Jewish congregation in Austin," rise to the occasion and offered their building as a home for the Muslim-hosted AAIR Thanksgiving supper and service this year. Evidently CBI's immediate response was "It's an honor to be able to provide the space, especially knowing our co-hosts are Muslims," and they immediately offered to arrange space for Muslim evening prayer. (In Jewish tradition we pray thrice daily, rather than five times, but the practice of offering regular evening prayer is a place of common ground.)

The service was held yesterday, and it sounds like it was wonderful. (The Statesman has an article about that, too: Interfaith Thanksgiving service hosted by Muslims at Beth Israel.)

I am grateful to CBI for stepping up and doing the right thing, and glad to know that despite this hurdle it was possible for hundreds of south Texans to gather in a spirit of reverence, community, and gratitude to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Guess it's just one more thing to be grateful for this week.


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Walking Makes the Talk

I knew joining Jewish Seminarians for Justice was a good idea. Already, the simple act of telling colleagues that the group exists and that I'm a part of it is putting me in touch with some amazing stuff. Like this project, spearheaded by Rabbi Karyn Berger, which seeks to spark conversation and transformatoin among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim seminarians:

Walking Makes the Talk is aimed toward Christian, Jewish and Islamic seminary students (or recent graduates). The project aims to send 30 students to Poland and Bosnia to visit Holocaust sites in an attempt to engage in interfaith dialogue about genocide, racial/religious hatred, and the dangers of inter-sectarian hate.  (We will also learn about the Armenian genocide in Turkey -- but because discussing the genocide is illegal in Turkey, we cannot visit Turkish sites as an official group.)

Physically experiencing the realities of genocide -- going to the place where a genocide occurred, talking to survivors or to those who navigate the aftermath -- can open new vistas of understanding between people. Participants will engage in a curriculum not only of discussion and text study, but also one which incorporates art, poetry, and music as means toward learning. Upon returning home, each participant will be required to commit to one public service project, in his or her own faith community, which will involve connection with another faith community.

Sounds powerful, and potentially transformative not only for the participants but for their communities as well. "If we want to prevent genocide, the way to do it is not after-the-fact, not once it's already in-progress," Berger says. "Ultimately, the way to prevent genocide is to learn to appreciate and love our differences. We need to change the way we understand each other."

Common experience creates a well-laid foundation for dialogue. Walking Makes the Talk offers the possibility of communication and understanding among up-and-coming leaders of various faiths... The program is designed to help us move our communities from discussion to action. It will help create a group of men and women who are committed to social change and aware of our interconnections, who recognize the power of individual and communal action to ensure the well-being of all people, regardless of sexuality, ethnicity, or religion.

Ready to apply for one of those thirty positions? Not so fast -- right now the project is just getting on its feet. In fact, it could use your help in getting underway. Reb Karyn is looking for people who want to be involved in any way -- spreading the word (psst -- feel free to share this blog post far and wide), fundraising or grant applications, organizational work, community outreach, marketing and PR, and so on. Once the program is ready to accept applicants for the overseas program, she'll be looking for people to help screen applicants. There's interest in making a documentary film about the project as it unfolds, so if you're interested in film-making you can lend a hand there. Basically, it sounds like any and all assistance is welcome.

I should note, too, that while the overseas program is designed especially for seminarians and theology students, the project which supports the overseas program is open to anyone. No matter where you are in the world, or what kind of work you do, if this project excites you, let Reb Karyn know -- she'd love to have you on board. She's reachable at her firstnamelastname at yahoo.com.

She says: "Dream big; the door is open; we can create the future we want to see!" Kein yehi ratzon..


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Abrahamic baby blessings

How many baptisms feature blessings and prayers offered by Jews and Muslims alongside the words of a Christian pastor, godparents, and community? This morning, the twin sons of my friend Thurman  -- who was the initial instigator of the Progressive Faith Blog Con, and who co-midwifed the first con into being with me last summer -- got an extra-special welcome into their community, the broader community of faith, and the world.

The baptism was at the Church of Our Saviour, a pretty little Episcopal church in Secaucus, New Jersey. The vicar, Reverend Mark Lewis, led a lovely service -- with a somewhat unusual twist. After the boys were formally named and baptized (on contact with the water, they laughed in apparent delight), I was called to the baptismal font at the back of the church where everyone was crowded around, and I offered this prayer:

Our God and God of our ancestors! Sustain these children through their parents' loving care. May their parents rejoice in their growth of body and soul. May their parents have the privilege of raising them, educating them, and encouraging them to attain hearts of wisdom. And let us say, Amen.

As you are wrapped in the arms of those who love you, so may your lives be wrapped in justice and righteousness. As we embrace you today, so may you embrace your tradition. As you startle to the world around you, so may you remain ever open to the whole world you encounter. As you cry for food and comfort now, so may you one day cry out to correct the world's injustices. As your eyes fill with wonder now, so may you always be filled with wonder at life's everyday miracles.

I closed with the priestly blessing, in Hebrew and in English. Then I stepped back into the throng, and Hussein stepped forward. He whispered the adhan (call to prayer) and sura fatiha (first sura of the Qur'an) into their ears, quietly, and then offered an extemporaneous prayer for the boys, their parents, and their community.

At the time of the blog con, Thurman was anticipating parenthood. (I remember offering a prayer for his wife's safety, and for the twins', at some point during the con.) By the end of the weekend, after we had learned and talked and prayed together, he asked whether Hussein and I would consider playing a part in his boys' naming/welcoming ceremony many months hence. Today that request bore fruit.

Afterwards, nearly everyone present came up to us to thank us for being there, to talk with us about our respective religions (Hussein and I laughed that we had each inadvertently been promoted -- people kept calling him Imam, which he is not, and calling me Rabbi, which I am not yet!) and to express how moving they had found our contributions to the ceremony. I found it moving, too. It was wonderful to witness the welcoming of Thurman's boys into their home church -- and to be able to play a part in welcoming them into a broader religious world.

Connecting with blog-friends in person is always a pleasure, and today's connection was especially sweet. It's not every day I get to walk this kind of ecumenical talk. I believe that our lives are enriched when we can encounter each others' religious practices respectfully, with awareness both of our differences and of our common ground. Today gave me an opportunity to live out that practice, and it was sweet indeed.


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Up the spiral

One of the good books I've read during these days in San Antonio is The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong's memoir about moving into, and then out of, and then in a different sense back into religious life.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun for five years, beginning in 1962 when she was seventeen. The Spiral Staircase begins with the profound culture shock of leaving the regimented religious life, and entering into the wild tumult of the 1960s. Armstrong weaves together the details of her academic and professional life with their underlying emotional and spiritual narrative of struggle, trauma, and reintegration. And then, in the latter third of the book, we follow her into a new life of writing about the three major monotheistic religious traditions, and a new understanding of what transcendence, practice, and faith might mean.

The T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday serves as an organizing principle for the book. The first section appears after the preface; each chapter is titled with a phrase from the poem, and as the book unfolds, the poem's significance to Armstrong becomes increasingly clear. This is a gorgeous poem which I hadn't read closely in years. It's really worth re-reading. (Go read it now, if you want; I'll wait.)

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Interfaith work and the godblogosphere

Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi David Zaslow speak about Jewish-Christian interfaith work. "The time seems to have arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other," he said. "We're discarding prejudice and beginning to understand what the Holy One may have wanted us to understand all along. If not now, when?" His remarks made an impact on me. I took a lot of notes. I promised myself to look into his work once I got home again.

Of course, I lost track of that resolve. Other things rose up to take precedence, as they do. But last week when I was at Elat Chayyim, I picked up a slim pamphlet in the bookstore -- Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal / K'tavim she'ba'Lev -- and lo and behold, the final essay in the chapbook is by Rabbi Zaslow, and matches neatly what he spoke about. (It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book, which has the working title Roots and Branches.)

One of the first things that strikes me is the passage about one-upsmanship:

Do we need to criticize each other's faith in order to explain or exalt our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to "spin" descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each others' beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretive spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.

It's tough to take in somebody else's beliefs without feeling some twinges of defensiveness. But we need to learn to listen without judgement; to speak for ourselves, and to allow others to speak for themselves too (instead of speaking for them.) This is a prerequisite for dialogue, easily as true online as it is off.

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Praying the psalms

I spent some time, while we were on vacation in August, perusing the shelves of used-books stores up and down the Maine coast. (One of our favorite vacation pastimes.) At one tiny store in Camden, I found some real gems, including a hardback first edition of Truck, the first book I ever read by John Jerome, may his memory be a blessing. (I miss him still.) I also picked up, for two dollars and fifty cents, a slim paperback edition of Thomas Merton's Praying the Psalms.

Merton was a Trappist monk with a deep interest in ecumenism. (His commitment to interfaith dialogue was tremendous, as this tribute to Thomas Merton at Monastic Interreligious Dialogue explains.) He was also an ardent Catholic, and his Catholicism thoroughly informs how he reads the psalms.

This little text was published in 1956, pre-Vatican II, and feels in places somewhat dated as a result. It was clearly written for a Catholic audience. But much of what he says rings bells for me despite our differences. Like this passage:

To praise God!

Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory?

Praise is cheap today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable -- everything is constantly being 'praised.' Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is 'praised' with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer, it turns out in the end that nothing is praised. Praise has become empty. No one really wants to use it...

So we go to Him to ask help and to get out of being punished, and to mumble that we need a better job, more money, more of the things that are praised by the advertisements. And we wonder why our prayer is so often dead[.]

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