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.


R' Irwin Kula on the Rabbi in the Public Square

I want to offer one more post about the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting. On the second day of our gathering, Rabbi Irwin Kula offered a session called Rabbi in the Public Square. We'd been talking a lot about how we do our work within this visible networked world of social media, and what it's like to feel so visible (on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube), and he noted that "Religious people have long known that we're always seen. The Kadosh Baruch Hu [Holy Blessed One] is always able to see us." I liked that. (And it reminded me of the Sufi story about the sheikh who gave birds to his disciples, which Reb Zalman told at Shavuot a few years ago.)

He continued, "If you're going to have more transparency than ever, you need a God who is more forgiving than you ever imagined." I liked that point a lot too. And I resonate with his argument that at this moment in time, "we don't have alternative narratives, or languages, which are powerful enough to even have the conversation [about God or faith or what we really believe] in public culture."

He noted wryly that he thinks one teaches best to modulate one's own anxieties, and that whatever is driving one's anxieties will be the source of some of one's deepest Torah. The question which arises for him is, "do we have wisdom and practice that can add significant value to the concerns and cares and anxieties and desires and yearnings and dreams and nightmares that people have in their lives?"

As a New Yorker who was in the city when 9/11 happened, he's still dealing with the reverberations of that trauma. (I've linked several times over the years to his setting of the 9/11 voicemails in Eikha trope, which continues to move me both as a way of engaging with 9/11 and as an alternative pathway into Tisha b'Av.) He noticed that in the aftermath of the attack, only one rabbi appeared on national television; for the most part, rabbinic response to that national tragedy was invisible in the public square. And, he noted, the dominant narrative coming out of the mainstream Jewish community after 9/11 was, "now every American knows what it feels like to be" -- and every one of us in the room was able to chime in, because we had heard it too -- "an Israeli."

To be sure, that narrative about 9/11 does contain partial truth. Yes, there are ways in which that attack on our soil replicated for Americans some of the kind of uncertainty which for Israelis has become tragically commonplace. But, Rabbi Kula asked us, how does that narrative help? And what message is implied when a 3,000-year-old people which has been through churban (destruction), a people which "has in its repertoire insights about vulnerability and powerlessness," chooses to articulate that particular narrative in the public eye? The real question for him, he said, is how do we use Torah in our work in the world. Do we have the skills, the capacity, the methods, the pedagogies to bring Torah to bear on today's problems?

Continue reading "R' Irwin Kula on the Rabbi in the Public Square" »


To shame someone is to shed their blood

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים.

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

-- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 58b

Someone who embarrasses another person in public causes their face to turn paler (הלבין את פניו / hilbin et panav) as the blood drains away. When you shame someone, the Talmud says, it's tantamount to wounding them and shedding their blood. But online, we can't see one another's faces. If someone's blog comment or email causes the blood to drain from my face in shame or in sorrow, they don't know that; they can't see me. What -- asked one of my colleagues at the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting -- might be the new Gemara of how we should interact with one another in this online world?

This is something I've thought about. I've been blogging here since October of 2003, so almost ten years. And for the most part, my efforts to create and foster a kind and thoughtful community of conversation have been successful. I'm endlessly grateful to all of y'all who have contributed to those conversations over the years! But I've also been verbally attacked for things I've posted here. (And I'm not even going to link to things like the so-called Self Hating Israel Terrorists list -- whose name is such a delightful acronym -- and the things they say about people with whom they disagree.)

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Sami Barth, has a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his email signature and on his website. The quote is this: "When I was young I admired clever people; now that I am older I admire kind people." I'm right there with him on that one. Cleverness may be impressive, and there have been times in my life when I have wanted to be clever and to be admired for that, but these days kindness is what I really aspire to. And I like to spend my time in places, both online and off, where that value prevails.

But there's no discounting the reality that there are a lot of places on the internet where kindness and compassion don't seem to be the operating principles. I expect that anyone who has a blog has experienced some nastiness. And often it's the kind of nastiness that (I hope) perfect strangers would never choose to direct at someone in person. (See the xkcd cartoon Listen to Yourself.) But why, then, do they feel entitled to direct it at them via the internet? By what ethic is meanness an appropriate way to treat someone?

One of my colleagues, Rabbi Harry Brechner, suggests the following rubric. Before posting or sending anything, ask yourself: is it true? is it kind? is it important? He suggests that one should be certain that at least two of the three can be answered with "yes" before putting it out there.

As far as I'm concerned, the Talmudic teaching from Bava Metzia -- that someone who shames another person, it is as though they have spilled blood -- is every bit as true online as offline. A blog is a public space. When someone comes to my blog and insults me, or my teachers, or my teachings, or my values there, it is as though that person had shamed me in public. Because they have.

Being insulted or shamed in person and being insulted or shamed online feel quite similar. The blood drains out of the face, the heart pounds in the chest, tears hammer at the back of the eyes, a painful knot forms in the throat in exactly the same way, regardless of whether it's happening in the public square or on a blog. Beyond that: something cruel or shaming, once posted on the internet, is often persistent. It's searchable. It stays there.

I keep coming back to R' Harry Brechner's threefold communication rule: is it true? is it kind? is it important?

The things we write online feel important to us. And surely most of us say things we think are true. (I could argue with the veracity of some of those things -- so much depends on one's sources, what one reads, who one believes -- but I'm willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they post things they perceive to be true.) But I wish kindness were more often at the forefront of our consciousness.

For me, any evolving Gemara which takes the internet and social media into account needs to recognize that interactions between people online are still interactions between people. The way we treat each other online needs to be as compassionate, and as rooted in holiness and in Torah, as the way we would treat each other anywhere.


Worth reading, worth pondering: spirituality that's worth the effort

I read something this week on my friend Gordon's blog which really resonated for me. It's part of his Beginner's Guide to Becoming Episcopalian series. Gordon Atkinson -- some of y'all may know this -- blogs these days at Tertium Squid; he used to blog at Real Live Preacher. Here's the snippet I want to highlight for y'all:

[H]ere’s the deal: do you really want to go to a church for the first time and understand everything that’s going on? Do you really want to walk into the most sacred hour of the week for an ancient spiritual tradition and find no surprises and nothing to learn or strive for? Do you really want a spiritual community to be so perfectly enmeshed with your cultural expectations that you can drop right into the mix with no effort at all, as if you walked into a convenience store in another city and were comforted to find that they sell Clark Bars, just like the 7-11 back home?

I do hope you’ll give this a little more effort than that. Because something wonderful can happen when you stop trying to figure out what you should be doing in a worship service. When you admit to yourself that you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll just sit and listen. Because that’s really all you can do. And that’s actually a very nice spiritual move for you to make.

Reading this, I found myself thinking: right on. I know that Jewish liturgical prayer can be opaque and distancing for people who don't already know what's what. There's a lot of Hebrew. Many of the prayers are very, very old. So are many of the traditions surrounding those prayers. Different communities have different practices: we sit, we stand, we bow, some of us shuckle / sway back and forth like a mother holding a fussy baby. Our worship can be incredibly beautiful and meaningful, but if you don't have access to what's going on, that can feel distancing. I know that.

And yet I love Gordon's point that when one walks into sacred space and sacred community, partaking in the worship of an ancient covenantal community, it's okay to not understand everything from the get-go. What a bummer it would be if entering into communal-spiritual life just happened instantly, in a flash, and there was nothing else to learn -- nothing else to master -- nothing else to strive for. Is that really what we want? Effortless spirituality, the microwave TV-dinner experience of pressing a button and being instantly fed?

Don't get me wrong -- it's important to have moments of immedate access to God and immediate connection with a community. But there's also a lot of spiritual richness in giving oneself over to an experience one doesn't entirely intellectually understand, and trusting that faith and connection and understanding will grow over time. Some things are worth investing time in. Relationships. Parenthood. Delving into a culture or a religious tradition. So it might take a lifetime: so what? What else do you plan to do "with your one wild and precious life?"

Sometimes I think we give our own tradition(s) short shrift: we're willing to have the experience of being unfamiliar, being in beginner's mind, when we travel to someplace foreign and far away, but in our own traditions we want everything to be easy. And yet there's a kind of gift, a kind of magic, which maybe only arises when we allow ourselves to be given-over to a liturgical experience we don't need to entirely understand. Anyway, Gordon says all of this beautifully. Read his whole post here: Let the big people say what needs to be said.


Rejecting erosion

A Rabbi Without Borders: Doesn't worry, at least not very much, about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.

That's item six on the Rabbis Without Borders FAQ. Of all the things we talked about during the two days of our first fellows gathering, this is the one I find myself continuing to mull over and contemplate as the week continues to unfold.

Messages about the dilution and erosion of Judaism are surprisingly pervasive. I think of the anti-intermarriage rhetoric which is rooted in the fear that the Jewish community is disappearing (see A New Demographic, JewishPost.com), and the ways in which Birthright trips seem designed to encourage inmarriage (see Breeding Zionism, Tablet, 2010.) I think of the generalized sense that there were "good old days" and that our generation is sadly far from them: our Jewish educations aren't what they once were, our Jewish commitment isn't what it once was, that sort of thing.

Sometimes I'm susceptible to this narrative too. Not on the intermarriage anxiety front, but the Jewish education one. I imagine an earlier moment in time when -- at least in my fantasy -- every Jew was well-grounded in Jewish texts and practices, when basic liturgical and Torah literacy were a given. It's an easy thing to feel nostalgic about, in a moment when a lot of people don't necessarily have that grounding (and don't necessarily wish for it, either.)

But while it may be true that once upon a time we all knew our own tradition's canon, two other things were also true at that moment: the canon was a lot smaller, and the "we" was smaller too. (That insight comes from R' Brad Hirschfield.) I like being part of a diverse "we" -- diverse across all kinds of spectra: gender and sexuality, ethnicity, knowledge, practice. And I don't actually want to return to that more insular moment or to that time when our own canon was the only learning available to us.

I don't see today's intermarriage rates (or the rise in "nones" -- see Pew Forum: 'No Religion' on the rise, 2012) as dangers to Judaism or to Jewish community. Yes, our communities are more permeable than they used to be, and an increasing number of people are choosing and changing and crossing boundaries -- or, in R' Irwin Kula's terms, "mixing, blending, bending, and switching." (See his essay From the Cathedral to the Bazaar, HuffPo, 2010.) But I'd rather see those realities as opportunities to collaborate in writing a new chapter of our story than as occasion for sounding the alarm.

And I love the breadth and range of knowledge and passion which are open to, and cherished by, the communities I serve -- even if that knowledge isn't necessarily Jewish. I want to celebrate living in a moment when both our sense of our canon, and our sense of our "we," is expansive. A moment we can cultivate a cosmopolitan sense of ourselves as connected with other communities and cultures, not merely concerned with our own story or our own texts or our own ways of thinking. This potential for intellectual and spiritual expansiveness is one of our era's greatest gifts.

My teacher Reb Zalman speaks sometimes in terms of needing both the rearview mirror (so we can see where we've been) and the front windshield (so we can see where we're going.) I don't want to lose the rear view, but I'm also excited to be heading into new territory. And I don't believe that this new territory is one of disaster. The long and the short of it is, I don't want to buy into the negativity encoded in the narratives of dilution and erosion. They're not "the" story -- simply "a" story. I'd rather tell a different one.

Here's a different story: there are things I love, and I want to share them with you. I've inherited a deep toolbox of texts and practices passed down through generations, a box chock-full of wisdom and ideas and insights: old ones and new ones, useful ones and odd ones. I'd like to teach the use of these weird and wonderful tools. Not because they're endangered or because you "have to" learn them or rescuscitate them or save them, but because they're valuable ways of interacting with the history and the present, with the world around us, with emotional and spiritual life, with something beyond ourselves.

I love Jewish texts and teachings, Jewish modes of prayer, Jewish ways of experiencing the world and encountering God. I love them so much that I want to share them with everyone I meet. And one of the wonders of living in this moment of time is that I can do that, here on this blog. What an incredible gift it is to be able to share some of the riches of my tradition with people who are thirsty for -- or at least curious about! -- those riches. I don't know how to measure the impact of this work, and I don't ever expect to be finished with it, but I love that I get to do it in the first place.

And I love living at a time when there's so much capacity for bridge-building and interconnection. Between different cultures, between different communities, between different experiences, between different understandings of God. This is an amazing moment to be Jewish; it's an amazing moment to be a spiritual seeker; it's an amazing moment to be in the world. So the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Dare I hope that maybe we're on the verge of figuring out how to fly?

 


Reading on the train

I wasn't paying attention when I chose where to drop my bags and settle in, but by sheer luck I picked the side of the train which runs right alongside the Hudson. At this season the hills are a deep brown-purple and the water reflects the grey sky. The tawny reeds and grasses are the brightest, most colorful things in sight. A long low dark-green barge moves upriver, leaving ripples in its long wake.

Every few moments our horn sounds. Warning people and animals off the tracks ahead, I guess. The train rattles slightly, shaking just a little bit from side to side. The journey from Albany to New York City doesn't take terribly long -- only a few hours. But in emotional and spiritual terms it feels like a great distance between here and there. Between rural America and the great metropolis.

I have homework to do while I travel: rereading three studies about religion in American life. (One of them is a 2012 Pew Forum study 'Nones' on the Rise. Another is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.) I read these a couple of months ago, before what was supposed to be the first meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellows cohort -- but then Hurricane Sandy got in our way. Statistics don't stay in my head for long; I need to re-read.

It's interesting for me to learn that most people who self-identity as having "no" religious affiliation still consider themselves religious and/or spiritual. "[M]ost of the 'nones' say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both," says the Pew study. I find myself wondering how many liberal American Jews -- those who are affiliated, who do belong to congregations -- would be comfortable defining themselves in those ways.

And I'm fascinated to read that among American adults who say that religion is important in their lives, one-third report attending services less than once a month. It makes sense to me that those who don't identify with a religious community don't come to shul. But that a third of those who do so identify -- and, more, who say that religion is important in their lives -- don't come to daven: what does that mean?

I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations we have and what sort of learning we do over the next two days. For now, I'm alternating between digging into these studies and watching little birds startle from the branches and scatter as we pass.


On "Otherness" at Christmas

 

With family, at holiday party, 1982; with friends, in uniform, 1992.

From the age of eleven on, I attended an Episcopal school called Saint Mary's Hall. Six years of white sailor middy and pleated skirt, saddle shoes, "dress uniform" (white skirt and knee socks) on Mondays for chapel. I loved it there. The yellow brick archways and live-oak-filled courtyards, the motto which appeared on the entrance steps I climbed every day ("teach us delight in simple things"), the years I spent learning Latin and French, literature and biology. The friends I made, many of whom are still in my life.

And I didn't mind going to chapel every Monday, or learning the Lord's Prayer, or even singing the school hymn, which was "Fight the Good Fight." I enjoyed going each December to Christmas vespers services at the church we could walk to, down the street from the campus, where students would tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and students would play handbells, and we would all sing "Adeste Fideles" which I was unreasonably proud of actually understanding in Latin.

I didn't mind being one of the few Jewish kids at my school. I'd been going to synagogue with my family my whole life. I'd spent two years at Jewish day school. After my celebration of bat mitzvah, I became a teacher's aide and a bat mitzvah tutor at our congregation. I'd gone one year to Jewish summer camp. Nothing about attending an Episcopal school felt strange to me. It was just normal, and it was where my friends and teachers were, and I loved it there.

In retrospect, it's a little bit amazing to me that I felt so perfectly comfortable in my "otherness," especially given that adolescence is so often a time when our differences pain us. But I don't remember ever experiencing a disjunction around being a Jewish kid at a school where most of the kids were Christian or where attendance at weekly Episcopal chapel services was mandatory. Nobody expected me to be, or to become, anything other than what I was. I was different, but that felt safe.

Continue reading "On "Otherness" at Christmas" »


Three gratitudes

I'm grateful this morning for colleagues who pause our phone calls to make the blessing for Torah study, mindful that the words we're going to exchange are themselves Torah; who remind me to pay attention to the movements and signals of my own heart; who urge me to recognize and to honor both the act of stretching my comfort zone, and the act of remaining safely within it; who offer their own stories and experiences to match mine.

I'm grateful this morning for students who offer me the key to unlock their enthusiasm; who ad-lib interviews with Biblical characters, giggling wildly as they insert cows into scenes where, truth be told, cows were never meant to be; who earnestly ask permission to skip Hebrew this week so they can spend more time with the Torah story; who laugh and shout so loudly I know the whole building must be listening to their glee.

I'm grateful this morning for recordings of my beloved friends singing the morning prayers, with heart and harmony; for their presence, real with me again through the miracle of praying together across the miles and the months; for their reminder that I am most wholly the person I want to be when I take the time and space to enter into our liturgy, to be washed by its waves, to be rooted in its soil; for this ineffable togetherness.


Wishing for a different communal discourse

Late last week, I was forwarded links* to two Republican organizations trying to shame Rabbis for Obama by mis-representing several of the rabbis in that group (particularly Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb) as "anti-Israel activists."

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb first traveled to Israel in 1966, when she spent a year as an exchange student at Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. She experienced the call into rabbinic service the Shavuot she was fifteen, when she gave a speech called "Man and the Moral Law." (Women didn't begin receiving rabbinic smicha in the United States until Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, but Rabbi Gottlieb was one of the first eight women ordained as a rabbi when she was ordained in 1981.) Her first pulpit was Temple Beth Or of the Deaf. She's a trailblazer in the field of feminist liturgy (I use one of her poems in my seder each year.) And she's the coordinator of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence. A few years ago I interviewed her for Zeek, along with several other rabbis, in a roundtable about Israel: Roundtable: The Synagogue/ Israeli Politics Mash-Up. She is not anti-Israel, and neither are the rest of us who have subsequently been called out.

As this has unfolded, the xkcd cartoon has come to mind:

"Someone is wrong on the internet!" Courtesy of xkcd.

The cartoon is funny because it's true. Of course some part of me wants to rise to the bait, to correct the record because what is being said is not true. And then I think: why would I allow people who misrepresent us in these ways to define the terms of the conversation? And why does it matter to me that someone is, as the cartoon says, wrong on the internet?

Continue reading "Wishing for a different communal discourse" »


On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience

About a year ago, I printed out the following on a flyer and posted it inside the stalls of the bathrooms at my shul:

Asher Yatzar / Blessing for the Body

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת.

Blessed are You, Adonai, source of all being,
who formed the human body with wisdom
and created within us various openings and closings.
It is known before Your throne of glory
that if one of these were to be open where it should be closed,
or closed where it should be opened,
we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

This blessing, which teaches us to notice and appreciate the marvel of a human body which works, is traditionally recited upon going to the bathroom. (It originates in Talmud.)

I was inspired by the memory of the old Elat Chayyim Jewish retreat center in Accord, where I first encountered this blessing ten years ago. It was posted on a laminated sign outside the bathroom door as a reminder to be mindful of the miracle of having a body which works. (The sign wasn't exactly this one, but it was similar. Nor was it as lovely as this all-Hebrew one crafted by soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, but it was the same general idea.) I didn't grow up with this blessing, but when I first encountered it as an adult, I loved it. What an amazing set of intentions for noticing and recognizing an everyday miracle.

In more recent years I've developed a special relationship with this blessing. During my pregnancy with Drew, I needed to give myself an injection of blood thinner in my belly every day. I fear needles, so this was a major hurdle for me. I got myself through it by reciting this blessing as I pushed the plunger home. The injection kept my blood flowing smoothly and prevented another stroke; the blessing kept me able to make the injections. Anyway: the blessing has become a part of my daily spiritual practice, and I wanted to offer it to my shul. We often recite this blessing near the beginning of morning services -- but most of our members do not come to services frequently, and those who do are often not there at the very beginning. So I posted it in the bathrooms.

Over the months after I posted the blessing I received a lot of feedback, mostly positive. Several people came to me and said: what is that, where is it from, it's beautiful! Some asked me to email it to them so they could have a copy at home. Some visitors asked if they could take a copy home to their own shuls. People said that it had sparked new awareness in them -- both of the miracles of their own bodies, and also of the reality that Judaism contains a way of sanctifying even this most earthy of acts.

I also heard from a couple of people who found the posted blessing troubling. God's name, they argued, shouldn't appear in such a room. From a traditional halakhic perspective, that is correct, and when these members raised this issue I did some renewed learning about it. At that time, I decided that that since many (perhaps most) of our members do not understand themselves to be bound by halakha, the consciousness-raising upsides of the posted blessing outweighed the halakhic prohibition. And then a few weeks ago, the newly-revitalized religious practices committee asked me to take the blessing down.

Continue reading "On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience" »


Awesome community media piece: Mind the Gap in Crown Heights

Via this post at Jewschool I found a pretty wonderful piece of community media called Mind the Gap in Crown Heights:

(If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)

 

This is a radio and film piece made as part of Radio Rookies, "a New York Public Radio initiative that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories about themselves, their communities and their world." Here's how the video is described on YouTube:

Four teenage girls, all new immigrants from the Caribbean, arrive at a high school in the heart of what was the epicenter of the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. As newcomers they know nothing of the long history of tension between the Black and Lubavitch Jewish communities in the neighborhood. They set out to try to educate themselves about a culture so different from their own, in the midst of stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people.

Editor's Note on video: The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center works to improve inter-group relations in Crown Heights by creating a safe space where people of different backgrounds are encouraged to discuss hard conversations, through activities and workshops. For example, the scene in the video where Amy Ellenbogen, the Center's Director, poses a statement about co-existence in the neighborhood is a part of a game, "The Human Barometer", where participants move to different parts of the room to show if they agree, disagree or feel neutral about the issue.

It's wonderful to be able to watch and listen as these four girls from the Caribbean begin to learn about their Chabad Lubavitch neighbors -- and vice versa. Of course, the encounter isn't always comfortable or easy; but I give these kids props for their curiosity and their genuine desire for encounter.

As I think on it, there are a lot of stereotypes which could stand to be shattered not just in the Jewish communities' relationships with the broader world, but within our own communities, too. For instance, the liberal Jewish kids I teach and the young people who attend yeshiva in a Chabad setting -- those are groups of youngsters who never have a chance to connect and who almost certainly have all kinds of unconscious prejudices and misconceptions about one another. I guess that's always true.

I wish it were more possible to create more of these kinds of encounters, both within the Jewish communities and between our communities and others! But meanwhile, kol hakavod -- mad props -- to Selena Brown, Chantell Clarke, Sabrina Smith, and Tangeneka Taylor for going outside their comfort zome and making something really wonderful.


For more on this:

In Crown Heights, Getting Past Stereotypes Through Learning, in the New York Times