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. 

 

 


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.

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[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..."