A week in ALEPH-land

I've been away from home for a week, in the Brigadoon of ALEPH-land. First there was an ALEPH board meeting; then a glorious Shabbaton (Shabbat weekend retreat); then the smicha (ordination) of new clergy; then the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. Every single day was jam-packed, from early morning until I fell into bed at night. I can't recount the whole thing, but here are glimpses.

The board meeting opened with morning prayer and song, and we sang again every time we began a new session after a break. I love this about this board -- that we break for prayer; that we break into song. The song which became our refrain was "Ivdu Et Hashem b'Simcha" ("Serve God with joy!") What a perfect mantra for our board service, and for the work we try to do across ALEPH writ large. 

On Friday night I sat between two of my dearest friends, resplendent in our Shabbat whites to welcome the Shabbat bride, and we sang in harmony all the way through the service. Singing these beloved words, alongside beloved friends who care about the words as much as I do, with their beloved voices intertwining with mine, always feels like coming home. This time was no exception. I am so blessed.

Saturday afternoon began with mincha (the afternoon service), where the leaders read from Torah in a way I had never seen before (sharing only a verse or two at a time, in both languages, and then offering a related meditative question for us to sit with.) There were sensory delights: mint leaves for scent, dried fruits to eat, white Colorado stones to turn and hold in our hands. That service led seamlessly...

...into se'udah shlishit (Shabbat's ritual "third meal") which was a beautiful feast of niggun (wordless melody), story, and song...which in turn segued seamlessly into ma'ariv (the evening service) which we sang in the weekday melodic mode facing the windows where the darkening sky was visible, which in turn led right into havdalah. As always when I bid farewell to a Shabbat with these friends, I wept.

One morning's davenen was billed as a "barbershop quartet" service. Two women and two men sang in a cappella harmony, encouraging us to harmonize and to join in, blending weekday nusach, other melodies we know for our daily prayers, and secular doo-wop melodies in a fabulous tapestry of sound. Another morning we sat in a circle with a rabbi-drummer and sang liturgy and niggunim, interwoven. 

Somewhere in there were evenings with friends, a guitar or two, hours of singing, and laughing until my belly ached with happiness. One night in a hotel room (probably annoying the heck out of the other folks on our floor!), one night in the "firepit," the lounge adjacent to the lobby with the fireplace and cushy chairs. Prayers, folk songs, Hebrew songs, Yiddish songs -- so many melodies and harmonies!

One night there was a kirtan ma'ariv with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, the Kirtan Rabbi. We sang his gorgeous Shviti chant (a setting of one of my favorite lines from psalms, which I have written about before, and which has even sparked poetry). I had been blessed to hear his chant a few months ago before it was released into the world, and I loved hearing it (and singing it) in this context, with this community.

On my last morning in Colorado I went with David to the Reb Zalman Meditation Room. We met up with Hazzan Steve Klaper there, and together the three of us davened the morning service. We sang, and the room reverberated with our words and our intentions, and we ended with "Ana B'Choach," the prayer we learned from Reb Zalman which asks God to untie our tangled places and help us be whole.

There were countless meetings. Some formal, some informal. Some planned, some arising spontaneously as someone found me or us in the lobby and wanted to talk. There were Listening Tour sessions. There were meals with old friends and new. There was absolutely not enough time to connect with everyone! How I wish I had mastered the art of bilocation, so I could be in two places at once.

As always, I return home with a feeling of profound gratitude for having found this hevre, this community of beloved colleagues and friends. I wish we'd had more time. I'm already looking forward to this summer's ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17, Fort Collins Colorado, preregistration is now open!) when I will get to learn and teach and study and pray and dine and sing and rejoice with these friends again.

 


I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »


The first five gifts from Getting It... Together

The first gift of the "Getting It... Together" weekend came when I arrived in time to sit in on the last hour of a morning class. The week leading up to this celebratory weekend was "smicha students' week." The ALEPH ordination programs students, faculty, and some musmachim (alumni), have been here all week learning, praying, being together. I got to sit in on the last hour of Reb David and Reb Shohama's morning class, which meant that not only did I get to see some dear friends teach, but I also got to hear the new melody for the angel song which Shir Yaakov had written during the class. (Holy wow.)

The second gift of the weekend came during the opening program, when I got to hear our special guests -- among them Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and Rodger Kamenetz -- offer reflections and remembrances of Reb Zalman. I particularly remember Reb Moshe making us laugh and also reminding us of Reb Zalman's profound teaching that each of us can be a rebbe -- and it's not only that we can, but that we're obligated to. And Rodger's words to Reb Zalman, spoken so sweetly, about how in Reb Zalman's voice and heart one became lebn, beloved.

We closed that program by singing again the three-part zhikr which we sang at the Remembering Reb Zalman celebration last year. The power of those melodies and words is multiplied in the experience of singing them with others to whom they have meaning. Then came the gift of evening prayer. I got to daven with two of my beloveds beside me, and others in front of me, and still others behind me -- like the angels in the angel song.  What was I just saying about the power of prayer being redoubled in the experience of singing with others to whom the words of our liturgy have meaning? That.

The fourth gift came when two of the ALEPH student hazzanim led us in the full Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals. Which we sang with all of the well-loved rigamarole, from pounding on the tables, to the silly and sweet after-joys of the niggunim which naturally follow. ("What's the fifth letter of the Hebrew alef-bet?" "HEY!" Yai, di dai, di dai, di dai dai dai di dai di dai di dai dai dai dai dai, HEY!) I rejoiced watching people who are dear to me dancing arm in arm as we sang praises. Then there were niggunim and zemirot. Shabbat melodies, sung with gusto and heart. Songs of yearning; songs of joy.

And then I retired with a few dear friends, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of fig arak and two guitars, and we sang and reminisced and sang (and sang) for another few hours. It was as though the davening had never stopped -- prayers, Hebrew songs, melodies old and new, we just kept singing. I stayed up far too late. I woke far too early. Usually I guard my sleep fiercely! But I woke with a song on my lips and in my heart, and the joy of the melody lifted me. Perhaps I have been temporarily transmuted into an angelic being who subsists not on food and sleep but on the sheer joy of togetherness and praise.

 


Getting excited about Getting It Together

GettingItTogether

Last summer it occurred to some of us in the Jewish Renewal world that this year, 2015, would mark the 25th anniversary of the trip to Dharamsala chronicled in Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. Wouldn't it be neat, we thought, if we could bring together people from that trip for a celebratory weekend which could enliven us spiritually and would galvanize us in the holy work of being in community with each other across Jewish denominations and across religious traditions?

From that spark, Getting It...Together was born.

July 3, 2015, will be the anniversary (on the secular / Gregorian calendar) of the date when Reb Zalman z"l (may his memory be a blessing) left this life. I remember last year feeling alone in my sadness because many of my friends and colleagues were together in Oregon when he died and were able to pray and mourn and celebrate him together right then and there, and I was not with them. This year, at the one-year anniversary, I will remember him together with my extended Jewish Renewal community (and with many others) at what promises to be an extraordinary weekend:

The Fourth of July weekend this summer will be a weekend of learning, worship, music and ritual offered by followers of all faiths, culminating in a summit of faith leaders and artists promoting the vision of deep ecumenism through various expressions.

Reb Zalman was fond of saying “The only way to get it together... is together.” An innovator of ecumenical dialogue with practitioners of a wide variety of spiritual paths, Reb Zalman leaves us a legacy of Deep Ecumenism. His deeply personal approach to dialogue led to significant friendships with many of the world’s great philosophers and spiritual teachers.

This summer, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the remarkable journey of Reb Zalman and a small and varied group of Jewish leaders to Dharamsala, India, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to help Tibetan Buddhist leaders learn how a People survives (and thrives) “in a diaspora.”

Special guest presenters include: Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, Rodger Kamenetz (author of The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the 1990 journey), Rabbi Leah Novick and spiritual leaders from many faith communities.

There's special resonance for me in being able to gather with my Jewish Renewal community and also with a multi-faith community as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Jew In The Lotus -- since, as I recently wrote (How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed) there's a direct link between that book and my rabbinate.

The Getting It...Together weekend will run from Friday July 3 through Sunday July 5. We'll begin with some pre-Shabbat activities, including an opportunity for mikveh (ritual immersion) before Shabbat as well as some learning and contemplative practice. Shabbat services will be lively, musical, and intentionally inclusive (especially so, given that this will be a multifaith gathering) and will be facilitated by some of Jewish Renewal's leading lights. I think one of the best ways to experience Jewish Renewal is to daven (pray) with us, and this promises to be fantastic davenen!

Over the course of the weekend, our special guests and others will offer teachings honoring Reb Zalman's vision and contribution to the renewal of Judaism and to the ongoing work of deep ecumenism. Plans call for a concert of Middle Eastern music after havdalah, the ritual which brings Shabbat to a close. Sunday will be a day of art, music and dance performances, and stories from the trip to Dharamsala, culminating in a closing summit which will feature our Jew In The Lotus guests as well as some next-generation visionaries.

It's going to be an amazing weekend, and participants of all faiths are welcome. (And the weekend is followed by a week-long retreat called Ruach Ha-Aretz which I'm not able to attend but which I know will be wonderful, and which will continue the learning about deep ecumenism in some lovely ways.)

Register for Getting It...Together today.


Praying in the nursing home

NursinghomeWhen I arrived at the nursing home with my guitar and a pile of prayerbooks, they kindly gave me a bellhop's cart. Better yet, they provided a staff person who could lead me through the labyrinth to the right elevator which would take me to the hallway nearest to the private dining room. In that room there is a china closet with  wine glasses inside, and a window with a distant mountain view. Aside from the speaker mounted in the corner, periodically blaring announcements, it feels almost like a home.

We'd never done this before -- bringing the service in to the nursing home. I have one congregant there, and he used to be among our most faithful daveners. We've missed him, the last few years as he's been increasingly unable to come to shul. And then his daughters asked whether we could bring shul to him. So we put the word out, and we hung a sign on the door of the synagogue in case anyone dropped by this morning expecting our usual services, and we met in the nursing home instead.

I had brought ten copies of a handout I had prepared, containing a song and a tiny excerpt from this week's Torah portion. I had brought a pile of fifteen siddurim. At first it seemed as though that would be sufficient, but as more and more people arrived, we pulled extra chairs in from the dining hall next door. Eventually people shared prayerbooks and looked on with each other, which had not been intentional on my part, though I think it actually led to a deeper feeling of connection with each other.

We sang as many old melodies as I could come up with, from "Mah Tovu" to "Adon Olam." The music is a carrier wave for the meaning behind the prayers, and I wanted to reach the patriarch who sat with us, eyes closed, clenching his daughters' hands. We touched on every prayer in the morning service, but did some of them in abbreviated form; what I wanted most was for the rhythms and sounds to gently enter our elder's heart. I chanted a bit of Torah and offered a blessing for everyone present.

After the Torah reading I shared a glimpse of the ideas about which I had planned to speak, about the Torah of wholeness and how each of us is a Torah (stay tuned -- I'll post that tomorrow), and then I offered an impromptu teaching about how our ancestors carried in the ark both the second set of tablets and the shattered first set of tablets. From this we learn to cherish not only our wholeness, but also our brokenness. We are precious not only when vigorous, but also when broken by illness or age.

When it was time for the kiddush afterwards we stood in a circle around the refreshments which our patriarch's daughters had provided. We sang the borei pri hagafen blessing over bunches of grapes because we had gotten our wires crossed about who was bringing juice and wine; we sang the borei minei m'zonot blessing over coffee cake because the same miscommunication had meant there was no challah. It didn't matter. All around the room were smiles, and clasped hands, and open hearts.

I love leading services in the sanctuary at my shul. We have an extraordinarily beautiful space, with tall windows looking out over an amazing panorama of wetlands and mountains and meadow. And yet there's something special about bringing our community and our familiar prayers into a setting like this. As a friend noted to me afterwards, praying in this way helps one to realize that the words and the heart behind them are what connects us -- not the building, no matter how beautiful it may be. 

 


Spreading a little bit of hope

The world is full of terrible news, including news about inter-religious mistrust, hatred, and violence. And since it's Adar and we're supposed to be joyful, I thought I'd signal-boost a few hopeful things which have come across my transom recently. First is a small one -- a reminder that there are individuals out there who buck trends of mistrust between different religious communities:

I found this image beautiful -- the care with which he is tending to the Hebrew-inscribed headstone speaks to me of meaningful relationship. A bit of online digging reveals that there have been Jews in Morocco since Roman times, though today only about 2,500 remain. You can read a bit more about Lahcen and his spiritual generosity here: 8 touching stories of Jewish and Muslim friendship.

Next, here's one which involves a lot more people. You've probably read about the recent shootings outside a Copenhagen synagogue and free speech rally. 30,000 Danes marched peacefully in response to those shootings, and the Prime Minister of Denmark spoke in solidarity with Danish Jews. (Read all about it: 'Attack on Jews is an attack on all of us': Thousands of Danes Rally in Copenhagen.)

Here's another response to the violence in Copenhagen, and to the bigger picture of how members of different minority religious traditions relate to each other in Europe: Muslims plan 'peace ring' around Oslo synagogue. That was the first (brief) article I read about the intention of one Muslim community to make a statement about caring for local Jews. Here's a longer one, from the Washington Post:

The headlines have been grim...But the future of tolerance and multiculturalism in Europe is far from bleak. The bigotry on view has been carried out by a fringe minority, cast all the more in the shade by the huge peace marches and vigils that followed the deadly attacks. And some communities are trying to build solidarity in their home towns and cities...

Ervin Kohn, a leader of Oslo's small Jewish community, had agreed to allowing the event on the condition that more than 30 people show up — a small gathering would make the effort look "counter-productive," Kohn said. Close to 1,000 people have indicated on Facebook that they will attend.

(Read the whole thing: Norwegian Muslims Will Form a Human Shield Around Oslo Synagogue.) Obviously something like forming a "human shield" or "peace ring" is a onetime happening, but to me the fact that so many people are interested in participating says to me that this is a meaningful expression of support which will, God willing, last beyond the day of the peace ring's formation.

On a related note, I've been watching the #IGoToSynagogue hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag began as a Jewish initiative, a way for Jews to proudly assert that despite violence at one of our houses of worship, we will still continue to gather, live, pray, mourn, and celebrate as holy community. Dayenu, that would have been enough. But the hashtag is also being used in an unexpected way.

Here's the image which I'm seeing all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds -- Muslims Ayse Cindilkaya and Bacem Dziri at a synagogue, holding a sign bearing that hashtag and declaring that they stand for the safety and sanctity of all houses of worship, not only their own. The photo bears the logo of the European Muslim Jewish Dialogue group, and it's a lovely show of solidarity with Jews:

(If the above image doesn't appear, you can go directly to it by clicking on this link.) And last but not least, speaking of solidarity with one another: here's an article in the Times of Israel which I found worth reading -- London's Faithful Walk Together in Show of Solidarity.

L-to-r-Julie-Siddiqi-John-Witcombe-Margaret-Cave-John-Bercow-MP-Ibrahim-Mogra-Krish-Raval-Shoshana-Boyd-Gelfand-Remona-Aly-Michael-Wakelin-Jonathan-Wittenberg-credit-Richard-Verber-World-Jewish-Relief-635x357

[A]s they walked, wide-eyed, into the airy piazza of the mosque, to greet and meet people of all faiths and none, there was a palpable relaxing of shoulders and a cheerful atmosphere.

The mosque was the first stage in a simple but charming initiative, called the Coexist Pilgrimage, devised by faith leaders in response to the attacks in Paris in January. The alumni of the Cambridge Coexist Leadership Program already knew each other. So when a rabbi – Masorti Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg — and a Christian minister, the Rev Margaret Cave, put their heads together with the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sheikh Ibrahim Mograbi, it wasn’t hard to come up with the idea of the faith walk...

At a moment in time when we're hearing a lot about the awful ways that human beings can treat one another, here are some glimmers of common ground and of hope. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


An essay in Keeping Faith in Rabbis

KFR-Web-Optimized-Large-Front-CoverI'm delighted to be able to announce that I have an essay in a new volume called Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Ellie Roscher and Rabbi Hayyim Herring, new this month from Avenida Books.

Here's how the editors describe the volume:

Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education is an original book of essays by rabbis, academics and lay leaders who explore the question, “What goes into the making of a 21st Century rabbinical leader?” Keeping Faith in Rabbis does not prescribe formulas for rabbinical education. Rather, it is an intentionally curated conversation across ideological boundaries that both celebrates the work of rabbis and suggests new paradigms of rabbinical education and leadership.

The list of contributors includes some real luminaries. My essay "In the Right Direction: Hashpaah and Spiritual Life" appears alongside "Speaking Torah: from Stammering to Song" by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld; "The Loneliness of the Rabbi" by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweiss; "A Letter to a New Reform Rabbi" by Rabbi Rami Shapiro; and "Growing Rabbis" by Rabbi David A. Teutsch. (I'm also especially looking forward to reading "The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate" by Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein" -- because I straddle the line between introvert and extrovert, and I just love that essay's title.)

It is a particular delight for me that my words will appear alongside the words of some of my  ALEPH colleagues, including Rabbi Julie Hilton Danaan and Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, and some of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues, including Rabbi Richard Hirsh.

Here's some of what others have said about it so far:

“Keeping Faith in Rabbis is like having coffee with 33 rabbis and lay leaders who speak to you as a trusted confidant. Before you get to the last drop, you’ve been challenged, and inspired to re-imagine the future of rabbinic leadership and education for our changing world.” –Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation, Congregational Learning, The Jewish Education Project, Adjunct Lecturer Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion 

Keeping Faith in Rabbis delivers even more than it promises. Through the conversation about raising up the rabbis of tomorrow, the essays in this volume put forth bold visions of what Jewish life in America could yet be. These are voices of leadership, unfettered.” –Professor Shaul Kelner, Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University

“Passionate, deeply personal, funny, erudite (though worn lightly), sometimes confessional, always thoughtful and reflective, the essays in Keeping Faith in Rabbis probe the changing demands on and possibilities for rabbinic leadership. Essential reading for everyone who cares about the future of Jewish life.” –Dr. Ronald Krebs, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota

Keeping the Faith in Rabbis is available from Avenida Books and on Amazon (Print edition $17.95 | Kindle edition $9.99). If you're interested in Jewish community or in questions of where the Jewish future may lie, I think this book will be a terrific resource -- and also hopefully a conversation-starter, both in our communities and in other liberal religious communities where the questions raised in this book will resonate. Pick up a copy today!

 


Baseless hatred: still here

This is a time of unusually polarized and polarizing discourse in the Jewish community. The situation in Israel and in Gaza is devastating. And so is the way I've seen people reacting to different beliefs and opinions regarding that devastation: who's at fault, which atrocities are "worse," whose suffering merits our attention. As though compassion were a zero-sum game. As though anyone "deserves" fear, destruction, and loss. As though feeling empathy for the Other weren't at the very heart of Torah.

Just last week I received an email from someone who sought to put me in cherem, excommunication, because this person perceives that my writings about how I hope peace and justice will come to Israel and Palestine are a threat to Jewish unity. One of my dear colleagues has received death threats directed at them and their children. Another colleague was the victim of a spoof press release, filled with hateful rhetoric, which purported to be from him and featured his full name and contact information.

Everyone I know who writes about the Middle East expects to receive hate mail. Often that hate mail is laced with profanity. Often it draws analogies to Nazis, insisting that one who holds the "wrong opinion" about Israel and Palestine is no better than a kapo, one who collaborates with the destruction of our people. This is hate mail written by Jews, to Jews. When we are feeling strong we shrug it off, try to laugh, say ruefully that it's the price one pays for having an opinion. But in truth, receiving this vitriol hurts.

What is the matter with people? This is a real question. What is wrong with us, that anyone imagines that these are appropriate ways to treat others? Harassment is never called-for. Neither is name-calling. And surely it should go without saying that no one should ever make death threats, or spread libelous allegations which could be damaging to someone's livelihood. This is not the way that human beings should treat each other. Ever. No matter how substantively we disagree, about anything.

The sages of the Talmud, I suspect, might agree:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed.

But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed baseless hatred. This teaches us that baseless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.

(Yoma 9b)

Baseless hatred, say our sages, is of equal gravity with the three worst sins in the Jewish lexicon. Because our community was unable to overcome its internal divisions; because of unkindness and inability to bend -- say our sages -- the second Temple fell. Tonight at sundown we will gather in fasting and prayer and lamentation, remembering that destruction, mourning every grief and brokenness we know. Have we learned anything about kindness and compassion in the last two thousand years?

 


Fourth of July: not a yontif, but still has meaning

320px-US_Flag_BacklitTen years ago when I first heard Reb Zalman (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing!) teach in person, he sighed that the Fourth of July had once been an important yontif  (holiday), but seemed no longer to be so for many American Jews. He was talking about how certain ideas don't necessarily hold the power for us that they did in earlier eras. (For instance, "King" used to work well as a metaphor for God, but today it doesn't have the resonance it used to, so we've needed to find different partzufim, different "faces" of God, to which we can better relate.)

I suspect that when Reb Zalman was a young man it was easier than it is today to feel unambiguous patriotism. That may have been especially true for Jews who came here in the wake of the Shoah and saw America as the goldene medina, the golden land of opportunity and freedom where it was safe to be a Jew and where anyone could succeed. Certainly that was true for Reb Zalman, as it was true for my grandparents -- all of whom escaped wartorn Europe, all of whom lost loved ones in the Shoah, all of whom found new opportunity in this land.

In my generation, at this moment in time, patriotism can be a complicated thing. Many of us have mixed feelings about our government and its actions, regardless of which party is in power. We're increasingly aware of how our nation's exercise of power around the world can be problematic. We're also increasingly aware of systemic racism and injustice -- places where our nation hasn't lived up to our hopes.

I love many things about this country; I love many places in this country; I love many of the ideals of this country. But I don't love everything that this national entity does. And patriotism seems inextricably linked with nationalism, and nationalism has led to a lot of suffering around the world in recent history. As Lee Weissman tweeted a few days ago:

It seems to me that nationalism played a role in both World War I and World War II. (Certainly German nationalism was one of the forces which fed into Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of the Shoah and the deaths of millions.) Nationalism played a role in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in which at least a million people were killed and some 12-14 million people were displaced. And I think nationalism plays a role in the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine.

In our household we talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, embracing the notion of being a citizen of the world in all of its interconnectedness. Here's how my husband Ethan described cosmopolitanism in an interview with Henry Jenkins:

[Kwame] Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.

(Read the whole interview at Henry Jenkins' blog. And hey, while you're at it, read Ethan's award-winning book Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, And How To Rewire It.)

What does one do with all of these feelings on the Fourth of July?

For me, the glorious Fourth feels a little bit like the tailgate party outside a Green Bay Packers game. Does that sound sacreligious? I suppose that's evidence for Reb Zalman's theory that for many Jews today, Independence Day is less a yontif than it was for our forebears. But I don't mean it as a knock on the day. It's great to celebrate one's team and the community which has arisen around that team -- as long as one doesn't fall into the fallacy of imagining that people who support a different team are inferior.

How will we celebrate the Fourth? Weather permitting, we'll go to the sweet little parade in a nearby town. Everyone will be wearing red, white, and blue. There will be bunting and streamers and balloons galore. There will be a marching band, and kids on tricycles, and people riding in classic convertibles throwing candy. Everyone will cheer. Then my family will go to the synagogue picnic, where little kids will splash in a kiddie pool, and adults will grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and we'll eat watermelon and popsicles. Then, after the kids are put to bed, we'll sit on our deck and watch distant fireworks across the valley.

It feels great to celebrate community. But at the end of the day, just as I know that there are other teams in the NFL besides the Packers for whom one might reasonably root, I know that my community -- this nation -- isn't the only wonderful one in the world. I know that our customs and contexts aren't the only way to live. (They're not even the only good way to live. Those who've been fortunate enough to live in, or even to visit, more than one country get a sense for how norms and customs differ, without any one set being the "right" ones  -- that's part of why travel is so wonderfully broadening.) And that's okay. I don't need my country to be the "best place on earth" -- I just need it to be the best version of itself that it can be.

I want to live in an America which lives up to the ideals I hold dear. Some of those ideals were built into the fabric of its founding (equality, rights, liberty and justice for all.) Others have arisen in recent decades as humanity as a whole has become more enlightened (equal rights for women and for people of all races, equal marriage rights, equal rights for GLBTQIA folks, and so on.) When I think about the positive valances of patriotism, I think of those ideals. I think of times when I've felt hope that this country could be a better place, a kinder place, a more just and righteous place. That's what I'd like to be cultivating today.

Some months ago a friend and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to see, among other things, original copies of some of America's founding documents. I felt a frisson of awe looking at that looping old handwriting, the paper so fragile but the words so enduring. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." I admire the idealism and the optimism with which those words are imbued.

Is today a yontif, a holy day, for me? Not exactly. But it is a day for pausing to celebrate where we are, before we pick up our tools again and continue the work of -- in the words of our Constitution's Preamble -- trying to "form a more perfect Union." Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate.

 

Related: the poem Not There Yet. "When Moshiach comes / everyone will celebrate / interdependence day..."


How Caretaker takes care of me

A recent post at the Cassandra Pages -- Bonjour, summer -- moved and delighted me. Those photographs of berries, mushrooms, radishes -- holy wow! Summer's abundance in living color. I've walked through some of Montréal's markets, though not at this time of year. Last fall when I went north to promote 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, I saw piles of pumpkins, gourds of all sizes and shapes, arrangements of dried grasses: some of autumn's late bounty. But Beth's post reminded me of some of the reasons I so adore summertime. Extravagant greenery, blossoms of every variety, fruits and vegetables grown in one's own local soil.

Here where I live we don't have markets quite like the ones in Montreal, but we do have a handful of community-supported farms. There's a new one right in our neighborhood, actually! But we still go to the one about fifteen minutes away, where we've been members for some twenty years. Longtime readers may remember hearing about this place before -- it's called Caretaker Farm. Every summer when we reach the first distribution week, the first time when members are invited to come to the farm and gather a share of the seasonal bounty, as I walk onto the grounds I say a fervent shehecheyanu (the blessing which thanks God for keeping me alive, sustaining me, and enabling me to reach this moment.) I am always grateful to be able to return.

The barn and farmhouse, seen from the fields.

Every year the first salad from the farm is a revelation. Tender Boston lettuce, a riot of tiny arugula and komatsuna and yukina greens, wedges of sweet bright white baby turnips and coins of spicy radish: it always amazes me how different these things taste from the boxed mixed greens and commercially-grown cucumbers we pick up at the supermarket all winter long. Even if I were to try to replicate Caretaker's bounty at the grocery store, it wouldn't taste the same. Once I sliced into a Caretaker carrot and a commercially-grown carrot at the same time and I was awed by by the local one's color and flavor. It's one thing to read about the difference between local agriculture and commercial farming; it's another thing entirely to see and feel and taste that difference.

There are few places in the world which are more beautiful to me than Caretaker Farm. I think it's probably objectively a gorgeous place -- fields of bright plants gleaming in the sunshine, cupped by the gentle curves of the Berkshire mountains; it's pretty as a postcard -- but for me the beauty is as much emotional as it is physical. This is a piece of land which has for decades been lovingly stewarded by farmers who we admire for their commitment to community and commitment to the land. It's a real community gathering place. Every week when I arrive with my canvas bag slung over my arm, I see people I know. We greet each other in the distribution barn, in the herb garden, in the fields where we're picking beans or berries or basil leaves.

Looking out the lower-level barn door.

I started coming to Caretaker when I was a college student, the summer before my senior year when I was hard at work on my senior thesis in religion. I came to Caretaker through the years I spent in grad school. I came to Caretaker the summer I was pregnant, and with my hand on my growing belly watched other people's children playing in the sandbox and picking raspberries -- and I wondered what it would be like to bring our child there someday. I came to Caretaker with our infant son strapped to my chest in a sling. The year he was newly-walking he ran around the grounds. The first tree he ever tried to climb is a little one next to the distribution barn, where he has seen bigger kids in the branches.

Longtime readers have heard me tell the story about running into my friend Rev. Rick Spalding in the cherry tomato rows, and his remark that the farm "is some of the holiest ground I know." That story keeps resonating for me. On Shabbat mornings in summer when I'm not leading davenen at my shul, the farm is usually where I can be found -- hanging out with our son near the sandbox or the frog pond, or walking down to see the chickens in their movable coop, calling "Shabbat shalom!" to congregants who I see across the fields. The farm is holy not because it's a consecrated structure with stained glass windows or a lofty dome, but because of the years of loving attention and intention which have been devoted to creating community in this place.

Caretaker Farm takes care of me. No matter what's on my mind or what's difficult in my life or in the world, stepping onto that piece of land uncoils my tension. It's a place which feels to me like Shabbat, whether I'm there on a Saturday morning or a Tuesday afternoon. There's something about this farm -- from the herb garden and the cupboard of fresh bread on distribution days, to the far pumpkin and raspberry fields across two wooden bridges and a stream -- which evokes some of that same feeling for me: the feeling of entering into Shabbat, of leaving my to-do lists and my workday consciousness behind.


Reconnection

Clasped_handsI've been given a gift this week -- the opportunity to open the door for someone who wanted to reconnect with Judaism.

I know what it's like to be spiritually thirsty. I know what it's like to feel "on the outside," in galut -- exile -- from community and from God.

I've told the story here many times of how, at the end of my first week-long retreat with Jewish Renewal community, I was walking in the fields talking with God as was the practice of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav. For personal reasons I'd felt alienated from God and from Jewish community for a long time. I told God that I was grateful to be on speaking terms again, and that I wished I didn't have to leave God behind when I went home again -- and suddenly it was clear as day, as obvious as the wildflower-laden field in front of me, that God had been with me even when I had felt distant, and that God would be with me wherever I went. It was a life-changing moment.

Jewish Renewal was my door back in to community, tradition, relationship with God. I am endlessly grateful for the compassionate welcome, and for the amazing teachings I've been blessed to receive from my teachers there. When I entered into rabbinic school, one of my most fervent hopes for my rabbinate was that I would have the opportunity to open this door for others who felt the way I had once felt -- not certain whether or not there was a place for them at the Jewish communal table.

At one of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellows gatherings last year, we talked about the question "who is your Torah for?" I wrote a blog post in response, and here's part of what I wrote then:

The idea that we teach the Torah we most need to learn is one which was already very close to our hearts. And so is the idea that the unfolding Torah of our lives is a sacred text -- different from the written Torah we find in our libraries, but also holy. And the idea of "using Jewish" to serve people -- bringing Jewish wisdom, Jewish tools, to bear on the work of serving God and serving humanity -- is also close to my heart. We were all asked to ponder, and to answer, the question of "who is my Torah for?" As soon as I heard the question, my answer arose in me.

My Torah is for anyone who is thirsty. Anyone who's thirsty for connection, for community, for God. Anyone who wants to make their lives holy or to become more conscious of the holiness in the everyday. Anyone who wants access to the rich toolbox of Jewish wisdom and traditions and ideas which I am blessed to have as my yerusha, my inheritance...

(The whole thing is here: Rabbis Without Borders: Who is your Torah for?)

Every time I get to sit down with someone and hear their story, I am grateful that I get to do this work. Every time I get to sit down with someone and listen to the words of their heart, I am grateful that I get to do this work. And every time I'm able to give something back in return -- whether it's a teaching or a practice, a tallit or a book, or just a word of welcome -- I am grateful that I get to do this work, and grateful for the teachers who opened up this toolbox for me so that I can share its contents with those who need.


Building bridges between Judaism and Islam

MultifaithRetreatGarrisonfor5.31.11r postSeveral years ago, when I was still in rabbinic school, I participated in the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, organized by RRC's office of multifaith initiatives. I blogged about the experience a bit as it was unfolding, and later wrote the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan / Elul, which was published in Zeek magazine.  (Here's a short outtake from that essay.) Next week I will have the tremendous honor of participating in that retreat again -- this time as an alumna facilitator.

This year's retreat is for women only, which I think will shift the experience in fascinating ways. Our scholars will be Judith Plaskow (author of Standing Again at Sinai) and Aysha Hidayatullah (author of Feminist Edges of the Qur'an), and we will study the Sarah and Hagar story as it appears in our two traditions' holy texts. I'm responsible for facilitating the storytelling session one evening, and will offer a short workshop in writing spiritual poems / psalms for those who wish to partake.

I am so excited about doing this. Attending the first retreat of this kind back in 2009 was an amazing experience on many axes at once: meeting Jewish student clergy from across the many streams of Judaism, meeting an equally-diverse group of emerging Muslim leaders, studying texts together, breaking bread together, delving into the difficult conversations about what divides us, coming away with a stronger sense of what unites us and how our traditions can inform and enrich each other.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to help facilitate this experience for the women who will be attending next week's retreat. (And having read the participant bios, I'm eager to meet everyone who is taking part!) We've been asked to eschew our "devices" -- phones and computers and tablets -- as much as possible so that we can be wholly present to the retreat experience, so I may not be online much during the four days of the retreat program, but I look forward to coming home with stories to share.

 

Image from a post on the RRC Multifaith World blog.


RWB alumni retreat, first 24 hours, in gerunds

12278089923_16b7820e76_nSeeing friends from my RWB cohort again.

Meeting people from the other rabbinic cohorts.

Putting faces with Twitter handles and email addresses.

At an icebreaker, "outing" myself as a reader of speculative fiction.

(Also as a congregational rabbi and a writer.)

Watching the Superbowl with a room full of rabbis.

Hooting and hollering at the football and the commercials alike.

Sipping whiskey with a friend from far away.

Davening shacharit (morning prayer) b'tzibbur (in community).

Remembering, all in a flash, davening in that same room four years ago.

Meeting people whose work I have long admired.

12297025174_2d2bba1757_nHearing from heads of the Republican and Democratic Jewish organizations.

Talking, in small groups, about political pluralism and whether / how it's possible.

Chatting about poetry with a fellow-poet rabbinic school friend.

Studying Hasidic texts of passionate pluralism.

Being amazed by their radical welcome and openness.

Studying texts on how blessings turn the forbidden into the permitted.

Tweeting back and forth with RWB fellows who are here, and RWB fellows who aren't here (and tagging it all #rwbclal).

Enjoying dinner conversation about growing up as geeks who love Judaism.

Being with other rabbis who are thoughtful about our rabbinates.

Sitting by the fireside surrounded by quiet conversations and laptops.

Thinking about finding the partial truth in things with which I disagree.

Making midrashic message-driven trash art out of broken cell phones, paint, beads, and clay.

Returning to my room, exhausted from a long day but grateful to be here.

Taking Nyquil and heading for bed.


Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community

Photo-Sid-SchwarzThis morning I attend a keynote address by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whom I have known since that PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat I was blessed to attend all those years ago. He's now involved with Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership, the parent organization of Rabbis Without Borders), and has most recently published Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, which makes him a perfect fit for an OHALAH conference themed around He'Atid, the future of Jewish Renewal. His talk is entitled "Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community."

In a recent presentation to CLI, R' Sid offered a metaphor of broadcast and receiving -- that rabbis need to be able to both broadcast and receive. He suggests to us this morning that we might understand Torah as 70 wavelengths on which we might receive truth. Most of us can only broadcast on a few wavelengths and can receive on fewer than that, and that's something we need to work on.

He reminisces briefly about how he wasn't able to hear Reb Zalman's Torah back in his early rabbinic school days, and indeed regarded it as "strange fire" within the Reconstructionist rabbinical college... and because God has a sense of humor, here he is today, in full awareness of the debt he owes to Reb Zalman and to this neo-Hasidic / Jewish Renewal world. He talks about the shift which unfolded in the 20th century -- thanks to R' Mordechai Kaplan, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel, our own Reb Zalman -- between the vertical metaphor of God (God's up there, we're down here) and a horizontal metaphor of God (we and God are interrelating in an I/Thou fashion.)

I came to understand that what I'd seen as dichotomies in the Jewish world were in fact overlapping truths. We all need to work on our antennas so we can access one more wavelength than before so that we can acknowledge that truth has many faces, as does Torah, at least 70 faces.

He uses his work as a historian to try to help him understand not only the past but also the future. He acknowledges that we read in Talmud (Bava Batra) that from the time of the destruction of the Temple of old, prophecy exists only in the hands of children and fools. But notwithstanding that sugya, we have to try to take the risk of understanding not only the past but how we're going to address the future.

In his newest book Jewish Megatrends he talks about the moment we're at today in American Jewish history: a simultaneous decline of legacy Jewish institutions (synagogues, Federations, JCCs, membership organizations -- the "organized Jewish community") and also a golden age. If you look at the legacy Jewish institutions, the current situation looks like a decline; but if you look at the innovation sector of Jewish life, you see amazing pockets of renaissance.

He files these renaissance happenings under the headings of four pillars. The first is chochmah, wisdom. In 50 years, he suggests, the world will be amazed that religious communities ever though of themselves as independent silos, rather than interconnected. Reb Zalman was way ahead of the curve on this! We all need to understand the overlap between our wisdom traditions and every other. The second pillar is tzedek, justice. And the third and fourth pillars are kehillah (intentional spiritual communities) and kedushah (helping Jews live lives of spiritual purpose.)

He asks: what is the nature of the kehillah we need to create? And what kind of spiritual leadership is required to lead such kehillot?

Continue reading "Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community" »


Open hearts, open minds, open Hillel

LogoThe Swarthmore chapter of Hillel made headlines recently for declaring itself an "open Hillel," open to diversity of opinion on Israel. They have linked themselves with Open Hillel, a student-run campagn to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. Open Hillel seeks to change the standards for partnership in Hillel International's guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their views on Israel.

When I was an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college which didn't formally have a Hillel, though we did have a Jewish religious center and student group on campus. I attended Shabbat services there regularly -- until differences of opinion, both ritual and political, drove me to seek my spiritual self-expression through unofficial channels instead. (After that, the Williams College Feminist Seder was my primary mode of communal engagement.) If my student organization had been the kind of "open Hillel" which Swarthmore's organization aspires to become, I might have stayed engaged all the way through.

Here's how the Open Hillel folks describe their position:

Hillel International's current guidelines are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus. They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. They also exclude certain Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, from the Hillel community. Although individual campus Hillels are not obligated to follow the guidelines, they have been used to pressure Hillels into shutting down open discourse on Israel...

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International's mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

This is very much in line with my own hopes for the post-collegiate Jewish community. I've written before about how frustrating I find it when members of the Jewish community police the speech of other Jews on this issue. (See Wishing for a different communal discourse, 2012.) My Judaism is a pluralistic, inclusive, big-tent Judaism where we interact respectfully and kindly despite our differences -- whether they are denominational, liturgical, practical, or political. Spiritually speaking, I resonate with the haggadah's call "let all who are hungry, come and eat" -- it doesn't say "let all who are Democrats," or "let all who are Republicans," or "let all who support AIPAC" (or JStreet or Jewish Voice for Peace) come and eat.

No one should have to leave part of themselves behind in order to merit a seat at the table. No one should be excluded from the Jewish community because of what they believe -- including their stances on Israel/Palestine. Beyond that, what message do we send when we seek to control the conversation about Israel? What are we afraid of -- that someone might say something with which we don't agree? It seems to me that the correct answer to speech with which one disagrees is not silencing that speech, but rather adding more speech to broaden and enrich the conversation. That's precisely what the Open Hillel movement aims to do.

I know that there are Jewish college students who do not identify as Zionists, or whose relationship with Israel is complicated, or who want to have conversations about targeted BDS (boycotting settlement-made goods.) I want those students to be part of the fabric of Jewish community, not to feel that they have to leave the Jewish community behind in order to ask their questions or articulate their truths. And I know that there are college students whose viewpoints on Israel / Palestine are profoundly Zionist, and I want those students to be part of the fabric of the community, too! (I'm not convinced that those students have as difficult a time safely speaking their truths as do those on the Jewish far left, but that's another conversation.) My point is, I want the Jewish community to be diverse enough to welcome kids with many different opinions, and to include them intentionally and with care.

Tightly guarding the boundaries of who's "in" and who's "out," and policing which opinions are permissible and which are taboo, comes out of old-paradigm thinking. I think that old paradigm has outlived its usefulness. College students today are increasingly aware of intersectionality, of the ways in which different social justice issues and different forms of oppression intersect and interact. Our world is increasingly permeable and interconnected, and so too our Jewish community. A Jewish community which seeks to control the conversation about Israel / Palestine is not going to be vibrant or relevant in this century.

I believe that the Jewish community (like all communities) is strengthened by discussion and debate, as long as that debate is l'shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven" rather than for the sake of ego or self-aggrandizement. We should be able to create a container which can safely hold our differences, even our differences on Israel. But I know how difficult it can be to create that container -- and also to be the person who feels excluded from that container and therefore unwelcome within the community, or only welcome if one keeps part of oneself silent and hidden. How wonderful it would be if our campus Jewish communities could model this kind of inclusivity for the rest of the Jewish world. Kol hakavod to Swarthmore Hillel. May others follow!


Also worth reading: my colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen's post On Open Hillel, Open Debate, and Open Minds.


Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Continue reading "Susan Katz Miller's Being Both" »


A Jewish Renewal / Rabbis Without Borders take on the Pew study

Pewjew2_302

In the wake of the recent Pew study on Jews in America today, I can't help wondering: how many "Jews in the pew" jokes can reasonably be made in the span of a week? Okay, that's not really the question. But the editors at Religion Dispatches asked a provocative question in response to the study and in response to the dialogue around that study in the Jewish community thus far: Pew and the Jews: So What?

They asked a handful of smart and thoughtful people to respond in brief, among them J.J. Goldberg, Jay Michaelson, Ruth Messinger and Shaul Magid. I'm honored to be in this company as well. My response begins:

As a Jewish Renewal rabbi, I'm interested in the renewing of Judaism. I take a post-triumphalist stance toward other traditions even as I seek to lift up what's beautiful in my own. As a Rabbi Without Borders I aim not to worry about communal dilution, nor to work from a narrative of erosion. (That's part of how RWBs self-define.) Wearing both of these kippot, I find reasons for hope in the Pew study...

You can read my whole response here: Opportunity Knocks in Pew Study. And don't miss the other responses linked from the main page -- all are thought-provoking and add something valuable to the conversation.


An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "An internet parable about kindness for Tisha b'Av" »


Five glimpses of the start of Kallah

1.

A faculty meeting. The evening before everything formally begins.

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

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

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

 

2. 

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

 

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

5.

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

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

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

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


On Women of the Wall

36896_448277780672_5949327_nOne of my greatest regrets about my summer in Jerusalem, some five years ago now, is that I did not manage to join Women of the Wall to pray together at the Kotel (the Western Wall) on Rosh Chodesh. I'd had every intention of doing so, but when new moon rolled around I was sick with a truly miserable summer cold, and feeling wretched in the particular way one feels when one is ill and far away from home. I've thought of that often in recent months as news about Women of the Wall has been percolating through my various networks to reach me here in the States.

I support Women of the Wall in a deep and heartfelt way. Women of the Wall's mission "is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall." Of course, here in the States, across the liberal movements of Judaism, the freedoms to wear tallit, to be counted in a minyan, and to read from the Torah out loud are taken for granted. There's a strange and often painful irony in the fact that these freedoms are so difficult to pursue in Israel, which is supposed to be a spiritual home for all of us.

One of the best essays I've read on this is On the Ritual Fringes by Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling in the Marginalia Review of Books. Rabbi Tuling touches on a lot of important things: the history of women wearing tallit, the disconnects between Israeli perspectives and American ones, the history of the Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel, and -- of course -- Women of the Wall. Here's an excerpt:

Though traditionalists might discount women’s prayer—or they might view the tallit-wearing as a political stunt—the deeper reality is that prayerful feminism may be found across the spectrum: in the all-female Torah study groups among orthodox women and in the alternate God-language in the Reconstructionist prayer book. It is in fact a heart-felt prayer service that the women are conducting each month at the Wall.

Second, it ignores the broader context: this conflict is not simply about the status of the Western Wall. Rather, at stake here is a series of larger questions regarding the role of women in Judaism and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Israel and the Diaspora often talk past each other, not recognizing the gulf in their thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for Israelis to assume that the liberal forms of Judaism are on their way to oblivion, about to disappear in a generation due to intermarriage and assimilation. And, according to this line of thinking, this kind of activist feminism is merely a fad. So, the argument goes, why should Israel accommodate them?

Whereas many American Jews, living as they do in a country where the liberal streams are so clearly visible and established, are simply appalled: why is Israel arresting Jews for engaging in what amounts to normative Jewish practice?

You can read her whole essay here at the Marginalia Review of Books, and I recommend it -- it's both well-written and cogently-argued. 

One of the interesting things for me about Women of the Wall is that what they're asking for -- the right of women to daven in tallit, and to pray aloud (not hushing their voices for fear of inadvertantly arousing the men in the men's section), and to read from Torah, at what is commonly considered to be Judaism's holiest site -- is actually substantially less than what I myself would most prefer. I grew up praying exclusively in mixed-gender environments, where men and women sit together, sing together, and pray together. (And my first substantive experience of praying behind a mechitza, a curtain or barrier separating the genders, was actually quite emotionally painful for me -- see Prayer at Panim, 2007.)

In more recent years I've learned to live with separate seating when necessary, and I've even experienced some separate-seating davenen which really uplifted me (see A morning at the Leader Minyan, 2008.) Still, egalitarianism runs deep in me, and I don't generally think that "separate but equal" counts as equality. What I most yearn for at the Kotel would be a space where people of all genders can pray together, aloud, wearing the ritual garments we love, connecting with God in joyful prayer and song. This is more or less what Natan Sharansky has proposed in his plan to make the Kotel a tripartite space: one space for men's prayer, one space for women's prayer, and one space for egalitarian / mixed-gender prayer.

But I'm conscious that it's in part thanks to WoW's efforts to daven at the Wall all these years that we're now able to even begin to conceptualize compromises like the one that Sharansky suggests. Beyond that: I respect the fact that Women of the Wall is truly transdenominational, including not only women who come from egalitarian contexts (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) but also women who come from Orthodox contexts and would not be comfortable davening alongside men. I value the incusivity of their decision to seek the ability to daven wholly at the Kotel as women among women, and I recognize that if they were to pursue the aim of davening in an egalitarian / mixed-gender way, they would no longer be a welcome home for their Orthodox members.

In my ideal world, the Kotel would include both a place for single-gender women's prayer (singing aloud, wearing tallit and tefillin, reading from Torah) and a place for egalitarian mixed-gender prayer. (Oh, and a place for single-gender men's prayer, too. Though my memories of the Kotel, particularly on Shabbat, are that it's already mostly a space for single-gender men's prayer -- I distinctly remember showing up on Shabbat and finding that the mechitza had been moved and the women's section was 1/3 of the space and the men's section took up 2/3 of the available wall. I'm not sure Orthodox men in Israel need me to protect their rights to continue praying as they already do! I just don't want them to impose their modes of prayer on me.) And -- this should go without saying -- no one would ever harass or assault anyone for praying at the Kotel in their own way.

Of course, in my ideal world, kindness and compromise would win out over exclusion and strong-arm tactics; Jews of all flavors would be free to practice our traditions no matter where in the world we live; and Jerusalem would be a city of the purest justice and compassion and peace. May that day come speedily and soon. Meanwhile: kol hakavod ("all the honor") to Women of the Wall for being role models not only in creating a transdenominational prayer community, but also in simply praying the way their hearts guide them to pray.

 


 

Related:

A beautiful prayer for Women of the Wall.

Rabbis for Women of the Wall. "We invite cantors, professionals, lay leaders and every Jew to join us in signing" a statement in support of WoW.

My own post Morning prayer at the Western Wall...almost, 2008.