A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

Continue reading "A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779" »


When surprises turn out just right: a conversion, though not as I planned

29791142_10155434505157371_4627250841242018874_nTwo years ago, before Shavuot, my friend Rabbi Brent Spodek asked me to serve on a beit din -- the rabbinic court of three who preside over Jewish legal matters -- for the purpose of taking part in welcoming a new soul into the Jewish people. Rabbi David Markus was the third member of the beit din. We gathered at Isabella Freedman before that year's Shavuot retreat, met with the prospective Jew-by-choice for meaningful conversation, then accompanied him to Lake Miriam for his mikvah immersion. 

One year ago, before Shavuot, Rabbi David convened the same trio for the same purpose. We met again in one of the yurts beside the lake at Isabella Freedman; had a deep and rich conversation with the woman who was choosing Judaism; then accompanied her to the same lake before that year's Shavuot retreat. Both of these were extraordinary experiences for me as a member of the beit din. We joked last year that since each of them had brought someone now, it would be my turn in 5778.

At the time I truly thought we were all kidding. I've been a rabbi since 2011 and no one had ever sought to study toward conversion under my auspices. And then two people independently came to me seeking study toward conversion to Judaism. I wanted them to have an experience of community, so I opened up a class and encouraged others to join. And it became clear that this year it would actually be my turn to be em beit din and to convene my colleagues for this humbling and holy purpose. 

I had a lot of time to plan how I wanted the beit din and the conversion to flow, and I had everything all planned out. The beit din and immersion would take place at a beautiful spot: Surprise Lake, the lake at the Hudson Valley summer camp of the same name where our three congregations were convening for a Shavuot retreat. My whole Journey Into Judaism class signed up for the Shavuot retreat and made plans to come down early to support their classmates who were taking the proverbial plunge.

And then storms and tornadoes tore through the area and Surprise Lake lost power, and the retreat was canceled, the day before the beit din. Some scrambling ensued. My rabbinic colleagues moved heaven and earth to make a Plan B possible, including helping us find lodging in a region where every hotel and motel is booked solid with folks still taking refuge from storm damage. And on Friday afternoon, my whole Journey Into Judaism class (plus family members) drove down to the Hudson Valley.

We met at the mikvah in Poughkeepsie, which is housed in an Orthodox shul. The shul was opened just for us, and a mikvah attendant showed us around. My students gathered in a classroom, and the beit din gathered in the shul library, and one by one we met with the candidates for conversion. Then we met with them together. And then we held a tallit-chuppah over their heads and sang Reb Zalman's mother's niggun (which we had sung often before class) as we walked down the hall to the mikvah.

The mikvah attendant (colloquially known as a "mikvah lady") helped us ensure that the immersions were kosher to her usual standards. The men on the beit din stood outside the door of the mikvah, listening for the splash and the sound of our voices from inside. Each of my three candidates stepped down into the water, immersed and made the blessing, and immersed again, and immersed a third time, and emerged reborn as a woman fully in the living flow of Jewish spiritual and national identity.

And then we returned to the library to sign their documents and bless them, and then we all drove to Rabbi Brent's shul in Beacon. There we were awaited not only by a celebratory potluck Shabbat but by a large crowd from his congregation who welcomed our new Jews into the room with a rousing chorus of "Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov." (I don't think they expected that -- to be so heartily welcomed by a room full of strangers -- though of course they weren't strangers; they were fellow Yidden.)

It wasn't the day I had spent so long planning. We weren't outside in the sanctuary of nature, immersing in a natural body of living waters surrounded by trees -- instead we were in a windowless interior room in a shul none of us had ever seen before. There was an unfamiliar woman inspecting them for stray hairs before their immersions, and giving them a lace doily to cover their heads to make the immersion bracha. And because all of this was in God's hands and not mine, it was absolutely perfect.

We'd talked a lot about how when one joins the Jewish people, one is joining the gantze mishpacha, the whole clan: not just my shul, not just places where the practice and custom matches what we do in our small-town Reform-Renewal community, but the whole thing. When one joins the Jewish people, our Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructing and post-denominational cousins become one's family too. The Jewish family is big, diverse, complicated, sometimes exasperating, and sweet.

I couldn't have dreamed up a better example of that truth than arranging to immerse on 24 hours' notice at an Orthodox mikvah. Some of my students had never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue before (there isn't one in Berkshire County). But the wonderful people at Schomrei Israel opened their doors to us without hesitation, because that's what you do for fellow Jews. And then we showed up at an independent synagogue served by a Conservative-ordained rabbi and we were welcomed there too.

No matter how broad our conversations in our Journey Into Judaism class, they couldn't convey the experience of being part of this multifaceted people -- of being welcomed into this multifaceted people, with our wide range of customs and practices, modes of dress and styles of observance, melodies and prayerbooks. I couldn't convey in words what it feels like to walk into a strange synagogue in a strange city and feel like kin even when we differ, because our Jewishness connects us.

Last week's storms and the damage they caused threw a giant monkey wrench into my careful plans, and the way the day turned out was exactly what we needed. It taught my students something I couldn't have taught them on my own. It gave two communities the opportunity to enact the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It gave us a lived experience of feeling welcomed and cared-for and part of something much bigger than even the trio of shuls that had planned a joint retreat.

I'm endlessly grateful: to the folks at Schomrei Israel and Beacon Hebrew Alliance for welcoming us, for my hevre on the beit din for joining me in this holy work, to the members of my class for driving down to support their classmates, to the three who entrusted me with their journey, to Soferet Julie Seltzer for lending us her apartment for a night, and to the Holy One of Blessing Who ensured that the whole day unfolded exactly the way it was meant to, with surprises that turned out just right.

 


Pastoral care in tight places

Cf62b1ee-de67-4cd2-8d7e-333a273d112fRecently  I got an email from a dear friend who teaches at Knox College, asking, "Is there any chance you can come to Knox in the next few weeks?"

The Jewish community at Knox has been navigating some tough stuff around racism and antisemitism. (I don't want to give that stuff energy by linking to it; if you're interested, Google will enlighten you.) And there's no Jewish chaplain or campus rabbi to offer pastoral and spiritual support as the Jewish community navigates these tight places. 

So I'm going to Knox for a few days. While I'm there I'll join the chair of the religion department for a few of his classes, and I'll give a poetry reading. But the primary purpose of my visit is to offer care to the campus Jewish community. I'll hold "office hours" for anyone who wants to talk, and I'll offer a Jewish contemplative practice opportunity that will be open to all. 

My visit to Knox is pastoral. I'm not coming as an expert in antisemitism or racism. (The College is looking into having an actual expert in those areas come to campus in the fall -- hopefully a Jew of color.) I'm coming to be a chaplain, a "non-anxious presence." I hope my visit will offer some comfort to Jewish students/faculty/staff. Those who are in tight places need care. 

What's unfolding at Knox is part of a much larger phenomenon. People and organizations and institutions are beginning to grapple with the far-reaching effects of both racism and antisemitism and how different forms of oppression can mirror, intersect, and collide with each other. There's an opportunity for tremendous learning here -- and also a need for inner work to prepare the soil so that the seeds of that learning can bear fruit.

Many Jews with white skin don't think much about how our skin benefits us and how we partake in white privilege by virtue of our skin. And we may also be unconscious of how horrendous and pernicious are the impacts of racism in this country. America still hasn't reckoned with our legacy of chattel slavery or how that legacy persists in structural racism of all kinds, including police violence against people of color, mass incarceration of people of color, and widespread prejudice against people of color.

Many people who are not Jewish don't think much about the legacy of centuries of antisemitism: from ancient hatreds that led to exile, to Church teachings about deicide, to pogroms and mass slaughter (from Lisbon to Kishinev), to the Holocaust: the 20th-century Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And they may also be unconscious of how even light-skinned Jews fear the antisemitism that's built into white supremacist worldviews, and of the trauma we carry as Jews.

(I spoke about these issues at length in my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: After Charlottesville.)

And, not all Jews have white skin. It's easy to frame the tensions at Knox, or the recent tensions around whether or not the ADL should participate in Starbucks' anti-bias training, in terms of the colliding worldviews of Jews and people of color -- but that framing erases altogether the presence of Jews of color. And... I don't want to make Jews of color responsible for educating the rest of us -- for sensitizing their Jewish community to racism, or sensitizing their community of color to antisemitism. 

We all need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, even when (especially when) that learning is uncomfortable. There's so much that we all need to learn about each other... and when we're feeling attacked or traumatized or activated by an incident of hatred or bias, it's incredibly difficult to do that learning. When we're feeling attacked, emotionally and spiritually we shut down. It's a valuable defense mechanism. We need to honor that and give it appropriate time before we can move beyond it.

As I prepare for my visit, I'm working on the practice of cultivating compassion for everyone who feels afraid and marginalized and attacked in the current American political climate as incidents of hatred continue to mount. I'm reminded of the teaching that no one gets to tell a member of another group whether or not they're experiencing oppression: we need to listen to each other and honor each others' experience. I'm thinking about how rarely we give ourselves space to pray, reflect, and heal.

I'm thinking about how important it is that our communities come together to work against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds. I'm thinking about the work we can do together when we find the places where our yearnings and politics align -- without demanding complete mutual understanding or ideological perfection, because if we demand complete understanding from our allies before we can begin to work together, we'll never get to the kind of justice that the world so desperately needs.

And I'm thinking about the need to replenish ourselves as we work toward that more just world. Sometimes in order to have the strength to have the difficult conversations about how someone else's unconscious "stuff" hurts us, we need to turn inward first. We need to notice, and balm, our own aching places before we can build bridges or coalitions with others -- especially when our interactions with those others have re-activated those aches. We need to be kind to ourselves as we process and heal. 

May I be an instrument of balm and comfort for those in need.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


Joyful Life As A Religious Minority - on Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

I was interviewed recently for the podcast Reports from the Spiritual Frontier. My episode is live now, and the host -- my friend and colleague Ben Yosua-Davis -- titled it "Joyful Life As A Religious Minority." Here's what he wrote about it:

Artworks_coverJoin us for a conversation with Rachel Barenblat, Co-Founder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, blogger at Velveteen Rabbi, and Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA, as we talk about her experience of life as a religious minority. Hear about the gift of oddity, (9:30) the challenges and joys of being a religious minority (8:30), a more life-giving way to speak into Christian anxieties about Sunday sports, graying populations, and declining worship attendance, (15:00) and what it means to let new generations shape the tradition with their own hands (25:00). Hear more from Rabbi Rachel and other spiritual innovators by visiting us at www.facebook.com/reportsfromthespiritualfrontier or by subscribing to us via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you acquire your best listens for your week.

On Facebook he added:

Three reasons why you should listen[...]:

1) She's a calm, deeply grounded presence. If you're panicked about all the change going on in our country right now, she'll help you take a deep breath.

2) If you're particularly anxious about Christian institutional decline, she speaks specifically to our concerns about: worship attendance, money, and graying congregations.

3) If you want a look at how a non-Christian tradition is teaching its young people to "shape the tradition with their own hands."

I'm deeply grateful to Ben for the opportunity and for the fabulous conversation! 

Listen to the podcast here: Rachel Barenblat: Joyful Life As A Religious Minority. (He'll be posting a "B-side" mini-podcast on Thursday, featuring two of my poems from my new collection Texts to the Holy, too.)  And here are all of the episodes.


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time. 


Rabbi Roundtable: "What are Jews, exactly?"

6a00d8341c019953ef01b7c9380f16970b-320wiThis week's edition of the Forward's Rabbi Roundtable asks, "What are Jews? — a race, a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a nation….?"

I'm glad to see that many of us rejected the possibility of Jews as a "race," for a variety of reasons. I'm intrigued by how many people came up with the metaphor of a family to describe who and what Jews are (and what connects us across our many diversities.)

Here are our answers: Rabbi Roundtable: What are Jews, Exactly?


Biennial-bound again

DownloadToday I'm off to the URJ Biennial, the big gathering of the Reform movement. 

The last time I attended a Biennial was 2005 in Houston, Texas. In 2005 I was a baby rabbinical student, only a few months into my first year of study. Now I've been a congregational rabbi for six years (and I served for five years before that as a rabbinic student intern alongside Reb Jeff!) I expect the Biennial is going to be a different experience for me this time around. 

If you want a window into how I experienced the Biennial a dozen years ago, here's the roundup of the 18 posts I made during the 2005 Biennial. The internet was a very different place then. Twitter didn't exist yet. Facebook was a mere eighteen months old. We spoke in terms of the "blogosphere" and the "J-blogosphere" -- terms that make me sound like an internet dinosaur now! I don't know whether I'll blog much from the Biennial, though if something unfolds that feels appropriate to chronicle in this space, I'll do so.

There are a handful of sessions I'd particularly like to attend, and a handful of colleagues I'd particularly like to see. Beyond that, I'm keeping my schedule intentionally open so I can take advantage of whatever opportunities for learning, growth, and networking arise over the course of the next several days. If you'll be at the Biennial, drop me a line and let me know -- perhaps our paths will cross...


After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of "blood and soil," "white lives matter," and "Jew will not replace us;" white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car -- all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a "Shabbesdik" (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we're meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, "praying with their feet," as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa's suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity's worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they're clearly intertwined -- I recommend Eric Ward's essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that's a sign of my privilege. I haven't had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don't mean to parrot the "all lives matter" rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn't change the fact that in today's America, we don't all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today's America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won't all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it's incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I've often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we'd been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

 

Cross-posted, with some additional framing material, to my From the Rabbi blog.


About Bypassing

Spiritual-bypassingA few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important. 

For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual." 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.

When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.

In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.

If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.

Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.

Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.

Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own. 

Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title. 

 


The need for justice to balance love

Justice-love-scalesEarlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)

The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.

Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container. 

Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds. 

Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.

Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination.  Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse. 

Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure. 

This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did. 

A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.

The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share. 

May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.

 


Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude

Multitude-WebOne of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.

This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?

It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.

For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.

Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.

Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.

Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.

On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.

That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.

Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.

We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)


Responding to fear with prayer and hope

In recent days, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated in St. Louis and in Philadelphia, and bomb threats at Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools are becoming commonplace. (There were 31 such threats on Monday; there have been more than 100 since the secular year began.)

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from friends whose children attend Jewish schools that got bomb threats this week, and friends who are grieving the desecration of the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried or the cemeteries where they provide pastoral care and preside over funerals.

Meanwhile, there was an arson attack on a mosque in Tampa, Florida -- the second such attack in Florida in six months. Four mosques have burned in the last seven weeks. Hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest since 2001. Hate crimes have risen massively, and the list continues growing.

My heart aches. I oscillate between grief and fury. I am not afraid -- I am fortunate enough to feel safe where I live and work and pray -- but I know that those who are more vulnerable than I, who occupy positions of less privilege by virtue of how they look or how they pray or where they live, are very afraid.

I can't do much to shift our national political climate. But I can take action in my own community to stand against hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and to stand with friends of many faiths in affirming that our differences are holy and that we stand in solidarity with each other in times of need.

The Chaplains' Office at Williams College is putting together an interfaith opportunity for prayer and togetherness for next week. We'll begin in the Muslim prayer space on campus, where the Jewish students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by Islamophobia and the fire at the mosque, and then in their sacred space we will say the prayers of our afternoon mincha service. 

Then we'll walk together from there to the Jewish prayer space on campus, where Muslim students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by anti-Semitism and by the cemetery desecrations, and then in our sacred space they will say the prayers of their maghrib sunset worship. 

There are a few things I love about this intention. One is that we will be consciously sharing our sacred spaces with each other, and saying our own late-afternoon prayers in each others' sacred spaces. (And for any participants who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, they'll have an opportunity to respectfully be present and bear witness during a few minutes of prayer in each of those traditions.)

I also love the fact that we'll be praying for each others' wellbeing. Jews will pray for the wellbeing of Muslim communities and sacred spaces (both local and global), and Muslims will pray for the wellbeing of Jewish communities and sacred spaces (both local and global). This shouldn't be a radical act, though today's political climate often mitigates against this kind of basic human connection of love and care.

And I love the fact that we're standing against terror and fear -- against arson and desecration -- against bigotry and hatred -- by coming together in companionship, prayer, and hope. I know that what we do on our small campus in our small town won't change national or global realities, but it might shift our own internal spiritual realities, and the prayerful connections it will strengthen will strengthen us.

 

 

Related news stories:

 


Davening: together, even when we're apart

2900184206_c61c8e8622_zMany years ago when I was in rabbinic school I used to daven one morning a week with a telephone minyan of rabbinic school friends. We were all in the eastern time zone, in states scattered across the country. We used a conference call phone line. We took turns leading davenen. It was a gift to me to hear the voices of beloved hevre, not to feel alone in my spiritual practice. Of course, the technology posed some challenges. If we wanted to sing along, we had to mute our own phones, otherwise our voices would cancel each other out. And eventually that telephone minyan came apart at the seams. Still, it was sweet, for a time.

In more recent years I've participated a few times in davenen via zoom, the videoconferencing app we use in ALEPH for Board meetings and other conversations. I have powerful memories of the Monday morning after Reb Zalman died, when the rest of the ALEPH Board was together in Oregon and I was far away in Massachusetts. I joined them via zoom that morning, and davened and sang and wept with them. I remember feeling like we were truly together. Of course, it helped that I knew everyone in the room; we were already a community. I remember being grateful that there was a way for me to be with them from afar.

The technological tools available to us for this kind of virtual community keep evolving. One recent morning shortly after I arrived at work at the synagogue I opened up Facebook to share a piece of synagogue news on my shul's Facebook page, and saw that Shir Yaakov was davening the morning service on Facebook Live. As is usual for me these days, my early morning had not offered me time for davenen. Early mornings in my house, these days, are all about getting myself and my kid fed and dressed, packing our lunches, making sure we both have what we need for the day ahead, and getting him on the schoolbus on time.

But here was one of my hevre davening in a way that I could join. It felt like a reminder from the universe of how I really ought to begin my work day! So I put on tallit and tefillin and sang with Shir. In the chat window alongside the video there was a steady stream of comments from others who were davening too. He asked us to name the places we were in, and the places for which we were praying. I saw the names of friends across the continent, and the names of people I don't know. From time to time a wave of little hearts would flow across the screen as people clicked on Facebook's "heart" button to share their love.

After the minyan ended I found myself thinking about how davenen connects us across places and times. Part of what's meaningful for me in davenen is knowing that others are singing these words too -- or perhaps other words that evoke these same themes -- around the world. As the hour for morning prayer moves across the globe, daveners enter in to morning prayer, together and alone. And there's also a way in which davenen connects us not only across time zones but across time -- some of these words have been recited in prayer for centuries, and will be recited for centuries to come. 

In in the world of assiyah (geographically), those of us who joined this Facebook Live minyan were all over the place. But -- at least for a while -- in the worlds of yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought), and atzilut (spirit), we were all together. Sometimes when I gather with community in person, we're in the same place physically but our hearts and spirits aren't necessarily aligned. Someone's distracted, someone's focusing on this morning's news, someone's grieving, someone's angry with someone else in the room -- there are all kinds of reasons why we can be disconnected. But at its best, prayer connects us both in and out -- with ourselves and with each other -- and also up

("Up" is a metaphor, of course. As I taught my students last night in our intro Judaism class, Judaism's God-concepts include both transcendence and immanence, the Infinite and the relatable. God is in the vastness of spacetime, and as intimate to us as the beating of our own hearts. My favorite metaphor for God these days is Beloved. The God to Whom I need to relate right now is the One Who sees me and loves me in all that I am. Prayer doesn't always connect me with that One... but as with any other practice, the only way to reach the times when it "works" is to keep doing it even at the times when I feel like it "doesn't work.")

At its best, prayer connects us with our deepest selves, and with our Source, and with each other. No matter where in the world we are. Even when we feel most alone, when we "log in" to the cosmic mainframe (that's language Reb Zalman z"l used to use), we're connecting with the Network that links us all. Prayer can remind us to open our hearts. It can attune us to the subtle movements of soul. And though sometimes when I pray with others I feel that I am still alone, sometimes when I am praying alone I can remember that what appears to divide us is illusory, and what connects us -- always -- is infinite and deep.

 

Related:

Visitation, a tele-davenen poem, 2008


Returning home from a week in ALEPH-land

Colorado

Every year I struggle to figure out how to describe my week with this particular subset of my ALEPH / Jewish Renewal community, and every year my words come up short.

This is even more true than it used to be now that with Rabbi David I am co-chair of ALEPH. This means both that our time here in Colorado is longer than it used to be -- we gathered for a Board meeting last week, before the Shabbaton, which came before the smicha (ordination), which came before the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy -- and also that our time here in Colorado is more densely-packed with commitments, conversations, and appointments than it ever was before.

Looking back on the last week, my first thought is that I can hardly believe it's only been eight days. Surely I have been away from home for a month! It feels this way to me in part because each day is so packed (morning prayer, meetings, lunch meetings, more meetings, then afternoon prayer, then more meetings, then still more meetings, then evening prayer, then yet more meetings -- not to mention the impromptu meetings in the lobby, the elevator, by the fireplace, in the meal line...)

There's also a way in which gathering with the same community year after year causes time to telescope -- it shrinks and expands, linking now with then and then and then. Of course every year there are new faces: new students in the ALEPH ordination programs, new members of OHALAH. And every year a few of the faces who used to be with us are absent. Even so, the gathering of this community creates a kind of psycho-spiritual container that is palpably the same container each year.

And time takes on a strange quality inside that container. Is it 2017, or is it 2011, or is it 2006? On the Sunday of this trip I found myself thinking: is this the day I was welcomed in to the community (I remember exactly how I felt as I stood in line to walk beneath that chuppah as a baby rabbinical student), or the day I was blessed on my way out of the community, or the day when I got to be a part of the transmission of smicha? And of course it was none of those -- but it was also all of those, all at once.

The last eight days have been dense and rich and full. They've contained countless conversations about the pace of change, and organizational transitions, and the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. They've contained Board meetings and conference sessions, and learning with this year's keynote speaker Rabbi Benay Lappe. We've shared with the OHALAH community some of what we learned over our fifteen-month listening tour (we're working now on the report from those travels; stay tuned.)

One afternoon I went to the hot tub, surrounded by snow, and wound up talking there with colleagues about real-life ethical and halakhic questions we have faced around weddings, Shabbat, and brit milah. We talked about balancing competing values, about integral halakha, about gender and ritual, about ethics and how we make choices. It was an extraordinary conversation, and afterward we cleansed our palate by singing one of Reb Zalman's niggunim and one of Hazzan Jessi Roemer's melodies.

One night I went to a friend's room and held the space and bore witness as some of her dearest beloveds tied tzitzit and tchelet (blue threads) on the tallit she would wear during her rabbinic ordination. Another night I gathered some of my beloveds in my room and together we tied tzitzit and tchelet on my newest tallit, a creation made just for me by my dear friend Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Not My Brother's Kippah. On still other nights I sat in the lobby with friends and sang songs until far too late, with joy.

I've been privileged this week to bear witness to the smicha (ordination) of a class of mashpi'im (spiritual directors) -- and also the smicha of a new cohort of clergy, a hazzan and four rabbis. I've been privileged this week to take part in some extraordinary davenen, learning new melodies and savoring familiar ones, singing meaningful words in harmony with beloved hevre who care as much as I do about the words and their meanings and how they can connect us up and in and through.

As a special treat, twice over the last week (once before the Board meeting began, and once on Shabbes afternoon) I made it into the mountains with friends to walk and to soak in the natural beauty. That was a gift too. It's all too easy to come here and never leave the confines of the conference hotel, and while I am primarily here for the community and the hevreschaft, sometimes it is sweet to experience those collegial friendships in the setting of the natural world instead of the hotel halls.

This week I've had countless conversations. I've davened, I've learned, I've taught, I've kvelled. And now I am on my way home, physically exhausted but spiritually uplifted, grateful for this community and for the spiritual gifts they have enabled me to receive.

 


In this place

C4f767653e18511c3a2ad131b105f7d3In this week's Torah portion, our forebear Jacob is on the run from his twin brother Esau. He lies down with his head on a stone, and he has a dream, or a vision, of a ladder rooted in the earth with its top penetrating the very heavens. On that ladder he sees angels moving up and down continuously, traveling between earth and heaven and earth again. When he wakes, he exclaims "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

I can't think of a more appropriate Torah portion for our New Member Shabbat. As I look around the room at all of your faces, I know that God is in this place for sure.

Finding God in this place is what we're all about. Not only "this place" in the sense of the synagogue building, though we are blessed with a beautiful building and it is easy to feel the presence of the Holy when we gaze through these enormous windows at the willow tree and the mountains.

Some of us find God in this place via davenen, which is to say, prayer. Davenen is a Yiddish word. But the Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, which means to judge oneself. Some of us find God here by entering into prayer, and in so doing, coming to know ourselves more deeply. What arises in me as I bless the creator of light this morning? And what will arise in me as I bless the creator of light tomorrow morning, or next Shabbat, or the Shabbat after that? As we pray together, we witness our own subtle movements of soul. As we say and sing these familiar words we connect ourselves with the community and with our tradition, and maybe we find God in that connection.

Some of us find God in this place via service -- not the "service of the heart" that we know as prayer, but service of others. Those who gather here each month to cook meals for homebound seniors as part of our Take and Eat crew find God in dedicating their hands and hearts to feeding the hungry. Those who bring childrens' pajamas to our collection box, so that those who can't afford warm winter sleepwear for their children can rest easy knowing that their kids are safe and warm on the coldest nights... those who bring toys to our gift collection box, so that those who can't afford gifts for their kids this winter can rest easy knowing that there is something for them to give... in serving others here we make this place holy, and maybe we find God in that.

Some of us find God in this place through Torah study. Whether that means sitting here in the sanctuary discussing the weekly Torah portion, or studying a text during the kiddush after services, or participating in our book group, or taking part in our Introduction to Judaism class -- all of these are forms of Torah study, and all of these are doorways to noticing the presence of God.

Look around the room and recognize that God is in this place. God is in this place because we make this place holy with our choices, with our study, with our service, with our prayer. 

One of our tradition's names for God is המקום –– "The Place." God is in every place where people truly meet one another. God is in every place where people pray, and in every place where Torah is learned. We read in the Mishna (Avot 3) that wherever two people gather and study Torah together, the Shekhinah is with them. Shekhinah is one of our tradition's names for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. Sometimes we experience God as transcendent -- up there, out there, far away, too vast to imagine. And sometimes we experience God as immanent -- right here, with us, even within us. In Torah (Exodus 25) we read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם -- "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." Or maybe it means "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them."

We have made a sanctuary here in northern Berkshire. May it be a place where God dwells with us and within us. May we always wake to the presence of God in this place, in this moment, in this interaction, in this breath. May each of us be a blessing to this congregation, and may this community be a blessing for each of us, now and always.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. Image by Albert Houthouesen.

 


Exciting news: I'm coming to Williams!

Williams-college_2015-12-01_15-11-26.638Exciting news: this spring, in addition to serving my congregation as their rabbi, I'll have the opportunity of another way to serve -- I'm going to be the interim Jewish chaplain to the College at Williams College, my alma mater!

In 2017 it will be 25 years since I first came to the Purple Valley to attend Williams. One of my first memories of that freshman fall is of going to Friday night dinner and services at the Jewish Religious Center (a.k.a. the JRC).

For the four years I was an undergrad, I was intimately involved with the Williams College Feminist Seder Project. The JRC is where I first met Rabbi David, with whom I now serve as co-chair of ALEPH. I am delighted by the prospect of being able to give back to the campus Jewish community that set me on the path to who and where I am today.

My work at Williams will have (at least) two facets: caring for the college Jewish community (a.k.a. WCJA), and engaging with the multi-faith community on campus. I'm excited about both of these. I'm looking forward to getting to know a new generation of Jewish Williams students and seeing how their Jewish experience at Williams both is and isn't different from the one I remember. And I'm looking forward to working with the Christian, Catholic, and Muslim chaplains on campus -- and with the student faith-communities they serve -- as together we navigate what it means to be people of faith in a multi-faith world at this moment in time.

I will also still be serving Congregation Beth Israel as their rabbi, and that's an honor and a privilege too. I'll still be leading davenen at CBI two Shabbat mornings a month and leading our meditation minyan on Friday mornings, teaching my five b'nei mitzvah students, offering an Introduction to Judaism class on Wednesday evenings, preparing for the round of winter and spring holidays, and offering pastoral care and lifecycle support to the shul community.

I know that there will be challenges in making two halftime jobs dovetail, but I am committed to making it work this spring -- and I'm excited about the possibilities of more closely connecting the synagogue in Northern Berkshire with the campus Jewish community of which I once again get to be a part. 


Letters to God from a little boy

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At the end of the summer, not this past summer but the one before, I led davenen at my synagogue with Rabbi David Evan Markus. It was such a spectacular Shabbat morning that we decided to set up chairs outside, beside the little wall that extends beyond our building. When we turned east for the bar'chu, the people who were sitting right next to the wall turned and faced the wall in prayer and suddenly several of us made the exact same mental leap: the wall became our mini-kotel. (I wrote about it at the time.) When the Days of Awe rolled around, I tried an experiment: on Yom Kippur I invited congregants to write kvitlach, notes to God expressing whatever they most needed to say, and to tuck them into the holes in that wall as pilgrims tuck notes into the cracks between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

So many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for that practice that I resolved to do it again. This year once again, at the close of Yom Kippur morning services, I invited those who are comfortable writing on chag to write notes to God saying whatever they most needed to say and put them in the wall, and I invited those who do not write on holidays to walk out to the wall and place their hands on the wall and take a few moments for silent prayer. And people did so, and I was glad. When the day came to its close, I went outside to collect the notes in order to burn them as I had promised that I would do... and my son, who is going on seven, followed me outside to see what I was doing. I explained to him what the grown-ups had done, and to my surprise, he got upset. "How come I didn't get to write one?"

Then he brightened. "Hey, can I write one now?" I said yes, of course. He took a pad of paper and a pencil and carefully wrote, in his round first-grade handwriting, three separate notes to God. One of them said "Thank You God for the words that we speak." (I told him I think that's a beautiful prayer.) Another was an apology. And the third he kept to himself, and I don't know what it said. Together we rolled them up, and went outside into the moonlight, and tucked them into the holes in the wall. "I don't want you to burn them yet," he said. "I want them to stay there for a few days, because I just put them there, and maybe God hasn't received them yet." I said okay, and we left them there -- scraps of wadded-up paper, holy messages gleaming as white as his Yom Kippur shirt against the velvety darkness of the night.


New Paradigm Spiritual Community Initiative

25446560022_ec63efc0eb_zI'm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center today for the inaugural gathering of participants in a new program called the New Paradigm Spiritual Community Initiative.

This is an invitation-only gathering for about fifty people working in a variety of different arenas, all of which could be described as "spiritual communities" in one way or another. Some of us serve congregations; others serve in other capacities. (And some, like me, do both. I'm there both as a pulpit rabbi and as co-chair of ALEPH.)

The NPSCI is intended to be a five-year project, and this initial "consultation" will help to set its direction. 

Yesterday we began with some getting-to-know-each-other work. Each person took one minute to introduce ourselves to the room and say something about who we are, what we do, why we're here, what we're hoping for, etc. (And wow, this is quite a group!)

Then last night Rabbi Sid Schwarz (author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community) offered some framing remarks. Here are a few glimpses of what he said:

NPSCI aspires to support the development of spiritual communities that: a) are rooted in the wisdom and practice of Judaism, b) help people realize their full human potential; and c) inspire people to work for a more just and peaceful world...

When we are able to give people a sense of their purpose in the world, it is an experience of kedusha, holiness. Religions, at their best aspire to do both tzedek (justice) and kedusha (holiness), and often they fall short. They lose focus and perspective both on the means and the ends. But one of the things we in this room have in common is, we believe that Judaism has some chochmah, some wisdom, that can help create vibrant spiritual communities...

He talked about the need for innovation and R&D in Jewish life (a subject near and dear to our hearts in ALEPH!), the need to support and train those working within existing institutions on transformation from within, and the need to help people see that the paradigms in which we live are changing and that we need to shift our institutions to meet those changing paradigms. He asked:

Can we identify common elements that constitute a new paradigm for spiritual communities in America, and if so, what are the elements? What are the conditions for success? What best supports adaptation and innovation?

The question "what are the preconditions for spiritual innovation" is one of the core questions we're bringing to the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. Any time our core questions appear in other contexts, I feel affirmed in the fact that we're asking the right questions -- and glad to be able to wrestle with these big questions in the company of others for whom they are also meaningful. Another place of overlap between R' Sid's remarks and our conversations at ALEPH was this question he asked:

What would it be like if it were presumed that a Jewish spiritual community is one which both does the healing work people need in order to become whole, and one which raises people's sights about how to contribute to healing our broken world?

Today we're exploring different themes (wisdom, justice, covenental community, sacred purpose, arts), hearing from researchers from Harvard Divinity School who are working in this arena, and breaking into affinity groups (I'll be connecting with creative and innovative pulpit rabbis.)

The NPSCI is sponsored by Clal and spearheaded by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Its other organizational co-sponsors are HazonBend the Arc, Mechon Hadar, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  I'm not sure yet what exactly I'll be taking away from this gathering, but I can already tell that these are going to be thoughtful, interesting, meaningful conversations about the future of spiritual community. I'm glad to be here.