Academy for Spiritual Formation: Prayer

38403766801_cd9dc3b2ec_zAttending daily worship here has been fascinating, rich, fruitful, sometimes challenging, and often beautiful. 

I've spoken with other participants about their experience of worship, and they tell me that it is not like what they are accustomed to at home. It's more contemplative, most of them tell me. Some say it's more liturgical than home, some say it's less so. It's clearly not one hundred percent familiar to anyone -- we use a prayerbook created by The Upper Room, unique to these retreats.  Of course, it is probably least familiar to me, because my liturgical tradition is Jewish, and this is not Jewish prayer by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a kind of cousin to Jewish prayer, sometimes, in interesting ways.

Some of what we've been doing is familiar to me as a Jew who has been in Christian spaces before. (I attended an Episcopal school for six years, and have sung in many churches.) It's always both wonderful, and somewhat disconcerting, to encounter familiar words and phrases and prayers in this other setting. The psalms, of course. Or hymns that speak of "Israel" or covenant -- though in a Christian setting, those terms evoke their community of believers in Jesus, rather than the community of Jews. That stretches me sometimes, though of course it's okay for these words to mean different things to them than they do for me.

My task is to honor and notice those tight places, and the objections voiced by my discursive mind -- the part of me that inhabits briyah, the world of intellect -- and then gently set them aside so that I can be present in this worship in yetzirah, the world of heart and connectivity. Where can I find, in this liturgy and in this experience of prayer, the heart-connection with God that I seek in my own prayer life? I love the discipline of daily prayer, and even when that prayer is in a modality that is foreign to me, it's still an opportunity to open to God. Thrice-daily prayer in community is a gift, even when the prayer isn't always exactly my own.

Prayer is an experience of discernment. The Hebrew להתפלל / l'hitpallel, "to pray," comes from the root meaning to discern or judge oneself. Through the discipline of daily prayer, we come to know ourselves in a deeper way. For me as a Jew, the experience of immersing in daily liturgy (even my own familiar and comfortable liturgy) is also an experience of seeing what bubbles up within me to distract me from my prayer. What are my recurring thoughts, narratives, ideas, fears? The goal is not to resent them for distracting me from prayer, but to lift up the sparks of distracting thoughts, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.

If that's true in the familiar setting of Jewish prayer -- the words of the siddur that roll comfortably off my tongue, the melodies of weekday nusach and the musical settings I know best -- how much more so in this setting of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. As I pray in these unfamiliar forms, I learn things about myself. What buttons are pushed for me by these Christian uses of Jewish ideas and terms? What is evoked for me? Where do I feel what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy," and where do I feel resistance? These aren't my native prayer forms, but they are prayer and they are real -- and can be real for me if I let them.

I have been reminded often this week of Reb Zalman z"l's teaching that in order to appreciate the beauty of a stained glass window, one needs to stand inside the church and see the light streaming through it. In order to appreciate what role Jesus plays for my Christian brothers and sisters, I need to open myself to their prayers. Sometimes their prayers trigger my "allergies," because being a member of a minority religious tradition surrounded by Christian language, ritual, and presumptions has shaped me in not-always-comfortable ways. My work is to notice those allergies without letting them push me out of prayer.

I can pray authentically as a Jew in this Christian setting: that's the path of deep ecumenism, to which I committed myself when I chose a Jewish Renewal path. One night this week I led evening worship, sharing beloved prayers of Jewish nighttime liturgy. Otherwise, I've taken it upon myself to pray as my colleagues here pray. (With the exception of participating in communion. I do not partake, but I join the community in singing as others go up to receive the wine and the bread. And oh, I do love to sing.) I'm grateful to be able to quiet my mind, sink into the music, and let myself pray -- cultivating openness to whatever arises.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the Upper Room retreat prayerbook.


Academy for Spiritual Formation: feeling surprisingly at-home


38340517452_7548af49e1_zThe strangest thing about this experience of The Academy for Spiritual Formation thus far is how familiar it feels. I've never been here before. I've never met any of these people. And more importantly, I've never been on a Christian spiritual retreat before. But I felt at home the moment I arrived.

Conversation over our first meal together oscillated between retreatants catching up after time apart, and a deep dive into questions like "what does healing mean" (and can death be a kind of healing?) It felt just like gathering with a group of rabbi friends, except that the jewelry tended toward crosses rather than the hamsas or v'ahavta amulets I usually see. 

The retreatants  have come together in community to grow as spiritual beings and to rekindle relationships forged in the crucible of emotionally intense retreat-time. I know what that's like. And I recognize in the facilitating team the conscious intention of creating and maintaining the sacred container of retreat-time for the spiritual growth of those who take part. I know what that's like, too.

On our first evening after dinner and before evening prayer we gathered for "Covenant Groups," as we will do nightly. Covenant Groups are an opportunity to process the day and what it has awakened in each of us. We are encouraged to be present, to listen deeply, to resist the urge to "fix" when people share difficult truths, and to enter together into holy listening.

When I read the guidelines, I smiled in recognition. In the Jewish Renewal community in which my formation as כלי קודש / kli kodesh (a "holy vessel") took place, we have very similar nightly groups during our week-long retreats and our two-year training programs. We call them "Mishpacha Groups" -- משפחה / mishpacha being the Hebrew word for family.

Many years ago when my mother joined me at a Ruach ha'Aretz retreat (to care for my son while I was in classes), I encouraged her to join a mishpacha group made up of folks who weren't clergy students. I wanted her to have people other than me with whom she could process her experience there. I remember one day she came back from her mishpacha group, and said to me with some wonderment, "I think everybody here is a spiritual seeker!" I think that story comes to mind now because it's why I feel immediately at home at the Academy for Spiritual Formation: everyone here is a spiritual seeker.

Of course there are differences in our language, our theologies, our modes of worship. And I will inevitably bump into those over the course of this week, and not always comfortably. But we're all engaged in the ongoing work of spiritual formation. To my delight, that means that in some ways, coming here feels like coming home. As someone who cares deeply about the life of the spirit, I'm thirsty to be around others who care as I do. It's a joy to be in community with fellow seekers as they walk their own path -- different from, but often intersecting with (or overlapping with, or perhaps running parallel to) my own.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: my bedroom at the retreat center.


Off to the Academy for Spiritual Formation

Academy-LogoI've participated in a lot of two-year training programs, from my low-residency MFA at Bennington (which I began in June of 1997, more than twenty years ago -- how did that happen?!) to the Davenen Leadership Training Institute while I was in rabbinical school. But I've never taught in one -- until now.

Today I'm on my way to Malvern Retreat House, a retreat center outside of Philadelphia, where I'll be serving as faculty for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Here's how their website describes the enterprise:

Since 1983, the Academy for Spiritual Formation has offered an environment for spiritually hungry pilgrims, whether lay or clergy, that combines academic learning with experience in spiritual disciplines and community.  The Academy's commitment to an authentic spirituality promotes balance, inner peace and outer peace, holy living and justice living, God's shalom.  Theologically the focus is Trinitarian, celebrating the Creator's blessing, delighting in the companionship of Christ and witnessing to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives, churches and the world.

This will be the second week of this cohort's journey together. In the mornings they'll be learning with Rev. Marjorie Thompson. In the afternoons I'll be teaching them about the psalms. Each of us will teach for an hour, and then the students will enter an hour of silence (primed with questions for reflection), and then we'll regroup for half an hour to work with whatever arose for them during that contemplative time. I'll also take part in the week's various prayer and meditation opportunities designed to help cultivate discernment as the participants continue on their journey of spiritual formation.

Each instructor had the opportunity to assign two books in advance. I assigned Miriyam Glazer's Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy and Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing (not about psalms per se, but an excellent introduction to the richness of Hebrew as a sacred language.) I'm looking forward to seeing how those books resonate for them, and what kinds of questions they open up. My hope is to open for them an authentic and devotional relationship with the psalms: without ignoring the substantial differences between our traditions, but without getting bogged down in them, either.

I'm looking deeply forward to learning with and from the students -- and to attending daily prayer in a tradition that's not my own. (One night I'll have the privilege of leading evening prayer, which puts me in mind of when I got to do something similar at Beyond Walls at Kenyon College a few years ago.) I'm fairly certain I will be the only Jew in attendance. I'm looking forward to experiencing how my own spiritual journey will be enriched by walking alongside this group of Christians for a week.

Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, spoke often of Deep Ecumenism -- not merely "interfaith dialogue," but connecting deeply with our siblings of other traditions. One metaphor he used is the image of light pouring through a stained glass window. In order to appreciate its beauty, one has to be inside the building. Just so with spiritual truth: in order to understand what trinitarian theology does for a Christian, I need to be willing to stand in their shoes, to feel as they feel -- without ceding my own spiritual authenticity as a Jew. My Jewishness need not be threatened or diminished by that. On the contrary, it can be enriched.

He taught that we need to transcend triumphalism (the belief that any tradition is "right" and therefore the others are wrong). Instead, we can draw on the wisdom of Rev. Matthew Fox, who speaks of "many wells, one river." We all draw living waters from our own wells, but the source of that water is the same underground river, the same source of flow. (It's that same flow that my hashpa'ah / spiritual direction training gives me tools to discern with, and cultivate in, those whom I serve in that capacity.) May I be a fitting conduit for that flow, so that I can bring openness and authenticity to the awesome task of this teaching.


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.)


Glimpses of a week in Alabama

33641141506_8159a61cb6_zThere are so many things about my week in Alabama that I wish I could share with y'all.

The preaching at 16th Street Church in Birmingham last Sunday. I had thought I would miss the service, but the Jewish student and I who flew in that morning both arrived just in time, and holy wow, I have never actually seen preaching like that before.

The rosemary in the rose garden in front of the Presbyterian church where we stayed in Tuscaloosa, which I touched every time I went by, like a mezuzah. It scented my fingers, an olfactory hyperlink to many places and moments I have loved.

Four ChaplainsBuilding a "safe room" on our first day, in hard hats, on a bare slab on Juanita Drive, right in the heart of where the tornado devastated the city in 2011. Nailing two-by-fours together, framing walls, adding steel brackets, adding steel cladding -- to keep the inhabitants of that Habitat home safe if a tornado should come through town again.

Leading our first evening discussion on brokenness and mending through the lens of Rabbi Isaac Luria's teaching about the breaking of the vessels and our obligation to lift up sparks. Connecting that with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's teaching about how when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying.

The quality and caliber of our conversations all week long. Each of my colleagues taught one night, and each offered beautiful teachings drawn from their own tradition. (You can see the four of us in one of the photos illustrating this post -- taken outside of Habitat for Humanity's office in town. They'll print the photo and tack it up on a wall there as part of their illustrated address book of people who've come through town to serve in this way.)

Crouching in a patch of clay outside one of our rehab homes with a Muslim student, showing each other how to write and pronounce the root of the verb "to write" in our respective holy languages. (In Hebrew it is spelled כתב - k/t/v. In Arabic it is k/t/b. We both beamed.)

33704224946_2fdd09e0ac_zWorking on rehabilitating a home for someone in need. I was based primarily in her kitchen, putting doors and veneer on cabinets, tiling and grouting the backsplash, fitting baseboards and nailing down thresholds. I take comfort from knowing that when we leave, her home will be safer and more beautiful and more functional than when we arrived.

Taking on a long list of carpentry and construction tasks that I had never done before. I'm comfortable now with a circular saw, a table saw, a mitre saw, two different kinds of tile saw, not to mention nail guns powered by compressed air. (Comfortable enough to maintain a healthy respect for them! But no longer afraid of them.)

Today (Friday) is our last day on our various job sites. We'll knock off slightly earlier than usual so we can return to First Presbyterian Church, clean ourselves and the church, and make our way to Birmingham. The coming Shabbat will feature Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, Shabbat morning services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and afternoon mass at St. Francis Xavier before our closing reflections and havdalah. 

As the week draws toward its close, my body is tired but my spirit is soaring. I'm endlessly grateful to my chaplaincy colleagues at Williams for the opportunity to take part in this extraordinary week, to our hosts at First Presbyterian Tuscaloosa and St. Francis Xavier Birmingham for putting us up, and to the kind and patient teachers at Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa who so graciously and warmly helped us believe in ourselves as we learned new ways to serve.

 

 


Seven more gifts from "Getting It... Together"

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Leading Sunday morning prayer with a dear friend. (Gift #5.)

1.

One of the blessings of my Shabbat morning was davening with Hazzan George Mordecai. He has a beautiful voice, of course. Also a beautiful presence. And he frequently brings melodies I've never heard before. Sometimes this is because his knowledge is so wide and deep; his heritage is Iraqi, Turkish, and Indian, and he taps deep into Jewish melodic traditions which I don't know well.

And other times it's because he's written the melodies himself -- as with the setting of "Hallelu avdei Adonai," which I was blessed to hear him lead in March, and which he brought again this weekend. But even when he's leading melodies no one in the room knows, somehow he gets us all singing along within minutes. And oh, how his "Hallelu avdei Adonai" goes right to my heart and fills me with joy.

 

2.

I spent our menucha (rest) time on Shabbat afternoon sitting on the floor of a college dorm room with a guitar and a pair of prayerbooks and two friends, planning melodies for afternoon services and for morning services to follow. It was like a sweet little glimpse back into rabbinic school! And then I got to attend the Shabbat mincha services led by those two dear friends, and sing with them, and beam.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg spoke about mincha as the hour of redemption and the time of greatest sweetness. And he spoke about living in a time when God is hidden, and how paradoxically that means that God is all the more present with us. God's transcendence may have withdrawn; we no longer live in an era of overt miracles. But we live in a time when Shekhinah, divine Presence, is everywhere.

 

3.

At se'udah shlishit, the "third meal" of Shabbat, my beloved friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg offered a vort, a word of teaching. He spoke about the powerful blend of fulfillment and yearning which characterizes that hour of Shabbat -- especially when we are together in community like this. We have moved so deeply into this "foretaste of the world to come," and we know it is about to wane.

One piece of his teaching which made me swoon was the image that when this community comes together for Shabbat in this way, together we are like a Tibetan singing bowl. We become a musical instrument together, an instrument of song and praise. Our hearts and souls resonate in harmony. He said that and I thought: yes. Yes. We are. And even after we go home, the music still reverberates.

 

4.

Saturday after dinner, I sat on the floor in a packed room and listened to Rodger Kamenetz speak about dream work -- not only what's in his book The History of Last Night's Dream, but also the way he's working with (and his students are working with) dreams now. He spoke about life lived on the horizontal plane and how dreams can operate on the vertical plane, taking us deep -- or lifting us high.

And then someone in the room volunteered to share a dream, within the safe space of our coming-together, and Rodger worked with that person and with the dream. And even though I wasn't the person whose dream was being explored, I came away with deeper insights into my own dreams.

 

5.

One of the sweet surprises of my weekend was that I got to lead Sunday morning davenen (prayer)! My friend Rabbi Aura Ahuvia led with me. The building in which we were supposed to meet turned out to be locked, but that wound up being a blessing; instead we sat in a rough circle outdoors on a patio instead, and davened along with birdsong and crickets. It is delicious to daven in the open air.

We began the morning with some gentle and melancholy melodies. Saturday was 17 Tammuz, when we remember the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem so long ago, but because it fell on Shabbat, this year that remembrance took place on Sunday. We sang the last line of Psalm 150 to "By the Waters of Babylon" and as our voices interwove I thought of the broken walls, the broken places, in our hearts.

And by the end of our davenen we had shifted mood. I said a few words about how I've come to think that the way to deal with the brokenness in the world and in our lives is to seek to find God's presence in the experience of what's broken. (As that great sage Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in.") We closed with sweet and heartfelt song.

I love leading davenen for a room (or, in this case, a patio) full of people who are dear to me and to whom the words of the prayers mean as much as they do to me.

 

6.

At the Sunday "Living the Legacy" event which served as the culmination for the weekend, we heard from several of those who were on that historic trip to Dharamsala, and from other luminaries as well. Of course, Rodger spoke beautifully. I was so immersed in listening that I failed to take a single note! And he showed a video clip from Dharamsala, including a few moments which weren't in the film.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks pointed out that adopting techniques -- acculturating, not assimilating -- has always been part of our tradition. We can take the best of what's outside to help us strengthen inside. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said that this moment in time is either an age of tikkun olam (repairing the world) or chorban olam (destroying the world) -- and the choice is up to us.

Alaa Murad said that we can cherish our differences, even feel pride in those differences, and still be able to learn with and value each other. My friend and teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg, who moderated the discussion (and who taught the first ALEPH class I ever took, which was on deep ecumenism) spoke about dialogue and spirituality, saying, "I can learn from you without becoming you."

Rabbi Leah Novick taught that we don't need to lose our specificity when we come together. She said, "Learning from other traditions has made me a better Jew and a better rabbi." Dr. Rachael Wooten urged us, "Know your teachings deeply enough to use them in service of what you believe in." She said, "go deeper into what you already do." She said, "The real work is inner work."

 

7.

Right on the heels of "Getting It... Together," we began a two-day ALEPH Board meeting. The first thing we did, upon gathering around the table, was sing a blessing for the dinner we had just eaten. Then Rabbi Shohama Wiener, who acts as Rosh Hashpa'ah (head of spiritual direction) for our Board, offered an opening blessing and niggun and we sang more. Oh, impromptu ten-part harmonies!

And then we went around the table and spoke a few words about how each of us is. The dear friend who was sitting beside me said that being here with our hevre -- the singing, the davenen, the love of Torah, the companionship -- fills her up. When it was my turn, I said, "I feel exactly the same way." What a gift it is to be able to serve, as co-chair, this community of which I am so blessed to be a part.


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.


A Year of Deep Ecumenism - including a Jew in the Lotus 25th Anniversary weekend

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The very first class I took, when I was in the process of preparing to apply to the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, was Deep Ecumenism. (It's a required class for all students in the ALEPH ordination programs.) Deep Ecumenism was one of the pillars of Reb Zalman's thinking. It's a way of relating to other faith-traditions which goes beyond the shallow waters of "interfaith dialogue," and which eschews the old-paradigm triumphalism which held that there's only one path to God.

The idea of Deep Ecumenism wasn't Reb Zalman's alone. Centuries ago, Meister Eckhart wrote that "Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up." Following on Meister Eckhart's teaching, Reverend Matthew Fox wrote "we would make a grave mistake if we confused [any one well] with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism." Deep Ecumenism teaches that no single religious tradition is "The" way to reach God.

Reb Zalman built on that thinking when he wrote (and taught and spoke, time and again) that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity. Our differences are meaningful, and our commonality is significant. No single tradition is the whole of what humanity needs; no single tradition contains all the answers. And that's great! Because it means that we can learn from and with each other across our different traditions. "The only way to get it together, is together."

Deep Ecumenism teaches us that we can best serve the needs of all humanity when we not only respect other religious paths, but collaborate with them in our shared work of healing creation. No one tradition contains all the answers, but every tradition can be (in the Buddha's words) "a finger pointing at the moon," directing our hearts toward our Source.

Reb Zalman z"l taught that we can and should find nourishment in traditions other than our own. No single spiritual path contains all of the "vitamins" that are needed. He wrote that we must undertake "the more intrepid exploration of deep ecumenism in which one learns about oneself through participatory engagement with another religion or tradition."

In engaging with the other, we learn about ourselves. When we learn from and collaborate with fellow-travelers on other spiritual paths, our own practices are enriched — and we come one step closer to a world without religious prejudice or fear.

(That's from the Deep Ecumenism page on the new ALEPH website.) This is one of the things I've always loved about Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman's teaching that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity -- each necessary; each individual and different; and each needing to be in communication with the others because we're all part of the same great whole -- speaks to me. And I think that this kind of shift, in interreligious relations, is something that humanity needs.

Over the course of 2015, ALEPH will be presenting a variety of programs relating to Deep Ecumenism. One will be a weekend gathering over the 4th of July in Philadelphia, titled GETTING IT TOGETHER:  Reb Zalman’s Legacy and The Jew in the Lotus 25th Year Retrospective. (I'm incredibly excited about that; longtime readers may recall that Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in The Lotus is the book which introduced me to Reb Zalman and to Jewish Renewal in the first place!)

Another will be a week-long retreat at Ruach Ha'Aretz (ALEPH's mobile summer retreat program) focusing on Deep Ecumenism. I know that some terrific Jewish Renewal teachers will be there, and the organizers are also exploring having teachers from other religious traditions as well. A third will be an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine [pdf], to be co-led by Rabbis Victor and Nadya Gross, among others. And there are other projects in the works -- literary, liturgical, and so on.

When I think about why I'm glad to be on the ALEPH board of directors; when I think about the kinds of things ALEPH is doing which feed my spirit, and which I think have the capacity to be world-changing; this Deep Ecumenism work is one of top things on my list. This is one of the reasons I came to ALEPH in the first place -- because I found Reb Zalman's mode of interacting with, relating to, and learning from other traditions (as described in The Jew in the Lotus) to be so meaningful.

I'll post more about that 25th anniversary gathering as more information becomes available, but for now -- save the date, and consider joining us that weekend? I know that many of the original participants in that journey will be joining us, among them Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and of course Rodger Kamenetz himself. And it will take place on the Gregorian anniversary of Reb Zalman's leaving this life -- a sweet time to remember his work, and to rededicate ourselves to carrying that work forward in the world.

 


Glimpses of the Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton

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Arriving back at this OMNI gives me a peculiar sort of Brigadoon feeling. Even though I know that my hevre (beloved study-friends) have been geographically scattered since we last met, when I return here and they are here too, it feels as though this place and this community have just been waiting for me to walk in again. The moment I walk in the door, I see people I know and love all over the lobby, chatting and checking in and hanging out, and it feels like home.

I knew that our community would continue long beyond Reb Zalman's time on this plane. I have been certain of this for years -- at least intellectually. And yet there's something in me which needed proof; needed to feel that the connections of our community are as real as they ever were, even though he is gone. Being together, remembering him together, matters so much to me right now.

It is wonderful to be here. And yet I see Rebbetzin Eve (Ilsen) walking through the lobby and it's still hard to believe that Reb Zalman isn't walking beside her. The sweet and the heart-clenching, all in one moment.

 

2.

The bracelets we're given at registration, which we will need to wear in order to get into the Sunday "A Heart As Big As The World" event at the Boulder theatre, are not flimsy fluorescent-colored plastic like the wristbands I've received in other places. These are made of what feels like recycled paper, nubbly and rough. Then I realize that they are made of handmade paper which contains wildflower seeds. The idea is that we will each take our bracelet home, plant it, and come up with wildflowers. This feels like ALEPH in a nutshell -- sweet, lovely, a little bit orthogonal to the way most people do things, not only eco-conscious but striving to bring more beauty into the world.

 

3.

Rabbi Arthur Green (or "Reb Art," as he has asked us to call him) begins the weekend with a beautiful teaching about the shema. First he tells us that if his Torah sounds familiar and like Reb Zalman's in many ways, it's because over the decades of their friendship Reb Zalman's Torah became part of him. (After Reb Zalman's earthly deployment ended, Reb Art wrote a beautiful piece about his relationship with Zalman -- My mentor, teacher, dear friend.)

The shema, he points out, isn't a prayer, because it has no atah, no You. It's not spoken to the One, there's no I/Thou interaction. In the shema, everything is One; there's no "us" and "God," there's just the unity of all things. Atah, he notes further, is spelled aleph-tav (the first and last letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet -- what in Greek would be the alpha and omega) and heh, which is the letter of breath and of Shekhinah. Put those together and you get atah, connoting "from beginning to end, enlivened with spirit"!

But the shema has no atah. What it has is unity. And the first line of the shema is sandwiched between the love-prayer of ahavah rabbah / ahavat olam ("a great love," "an eternal love," which our liturgy teaches God has for us), and the love-prayer of the v'ahavta ("And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart..."). Love leads us to oneness; oneness leads us back to love.

The final paragraph of the shema speaks of tzitzit, the fringes which are intended to remind us of the mitzvot. Reb Art notes that tzitzit is a feminine word, but in the paragraph we chant daily we say the words u'ritem oto, "you shall look upon (masculine) it." It, or perhaps him, not her. (I usually gloss over that when I sing the rendering in English.) So what is the oto on which we're meant to look, if not the tzitzit? His answer is -- God. And he gives us the image of holding up the tzitzit like fringes in a curtain: we're on one side looking at God, and God's on the other side looking at us.

 

4.

At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, Rebbitzen Eve leads us in an imaginal exercise of filling our innermost hearts with light and then sharing that light with a loved one, and then she kindles the Shabbat lights. She also leads us in a shehecheyanu -- an extraordinary moment of bittersweet celebration. I don't think anyone else would have had the chutzpah to suggest reciting that blessing which thanks God for keeping us alive until this moment. But when Reb Zalman's widow begins the bracha, all of our voices ring out with hers.

Shir Yaakov and Reb Sarah Bracha lead a song-filled Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is exactly the right gentle ramp I needed in order to transition from home to here, from anticipating this weekend to actually being in it, from workweek to sacred time. Shir Yaakov notes, as we begin, that this room in which we are sitting -- the room in which I was ordained! -- is full, so full, of history and memories. That's the starting place from which our prayers will arise.

For me the sweetest parts are singing part of Lecha Dodi to the melody of the bati l'gani niggun which Reb Zalman wrote in memory of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, his rebbe; and singing Reb Shlomo's psalm 92 variation ("The whole wide world is waiting, to sing a song of Shabbat..."); and singing some of Shir Yaakov's own melodies which I know from the Shir Yaakov / Romemu soundcloud but had never gotten to daven with him. At the end of the service, after the people who are in active mourning say the mourner's kaddish, Shir Yaakov quietly reads Reb Zalman's translation of mourner's kaddish. Hearing it read aloud in this place in this moment gives me chills.

I am so grateful to be in a room with so many of my hevre, my beloved friends, all of us singing and davening and rejoicing together. Seeing Reb Zalman's sons dancing in the impromptu hora line which snakes through the aisle. Adding my voice to the multipart harmony of our prayer.

 

5.

And always there are the moments which defy description, which seem banal when written down but are glorious while they're happening. Discovering the small teepee on the hotel grounds (it's always wintertime when we're here for OHALAH; I'd never explored the gardens before); standing in it with friends and declaring it to be our ohel, our tent, which with intention we can transform into a mishkan, a dwelling-place for God; a few precious late evenings sitting with friends in the bank of Adirondack chairs in the night breeze, talking, connecting, laughing, telling stories, just being together. These are gifts beyond price.

 

6.

Shabbat morning services are delicious. First Reb Arthur (Waskow) weaves a beautiful Torah discussion about the second paragraph of the shema. Then Reb Marcia (Prager) and Hazzan Jack (Kessler) lead a delicious psukei d'zimrah, the songs and psalms of praise designed to open up the heart. I especially love their use of part of "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising" (by Emmylou Harris) as a melodic container for the morning blessings. Also singing Psalm 150 to the tune of Miserlou, a melody which I associate with Pulp Fiction. (It suits the psalm surprisingly well.)

My friend Reb Hannah (Dresner) leads shacharit proper with tremendous sweetness. As I hear her sing, I remember how Reb Zalman used to beam when she led davenen. He loved how she refracts and translates Hasidut into her own feminine idiom. During the Torah service I'm honored with the opportunity to participate in leyning, chanting Torah. I chant, in Hebrew and English, the verses which I translated in the post Cut away the calluses on your heart. I offer a blessing for removing those hard places which obstruct our openheartedness -- and also a blessing for those who may be feeling as though their hearts are already raw, and who need salve and comfort in order to retain the openness with which we want to greet the world.

Reb Nadya and Reb Victor (Gross) lead us in the concluding prayers. Reb Victor tells some stories about Reb Zalman. And Reb Nadya leads us in an amazing Ein Keloheinu ("There Is No One Like God") interspersed with la illaha il'Allah ("there is no God but God.") Reb Zalman's, and by extension Jewish Renewal's, post-triumphalism and deep ecumenism were among the things which first drew my heart and soul here. This juxtaposition of our language for this truth about divinity, and our cousins' language for the same truth, is a beautiful illustration of the deep ecumenism which I so prize.

 

7.

14760651190_b0d3dce299_nSunday morning, 10am, the Boulder Theater. As the crowd gathers in this beautiful art deco building, Reb Zalman's voice is pouring out of the speakers, singing songs and niggunim, while a slide show of his life is cascading across the big screen.

Reb Tirzah (Firestone) opens the event with words of welcome, and her presence helps to hold the container in which the whole event unfolds. Father Matthew Fox offers a stunning opening benediction which is also a reflection on Reb Zalman's life and work. Charles Lief, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the president of Naropa University where Reb Zalman for years held the World Wisdom Chair, speaks beautifully about Reb Zalman's breadth of knowledge and of passions. (Truly, he says, it was more of a World Wisdom Loveseat, because Rebbitzen Eve was always by his side sharing her wisdom, too.)

Hearing Reb Art (Green) talk about Reb Zalman, his importance, his work, his legacy, is incredible. "When his soul reached heaven," he says (or something along these lines -- I'm paraphrasing), "God did not ask him why he was not Yochanan ben Zakkai, founding a new way of learning in a time of paradigm shift. God did not ask him why he was not the Arizal, master of kabbalistic wisdom. God did not ask him why he was not the Baal Shem Tov, bringing devotional practice to the people. God did not even ask him why he wasn't Reb Zusya, the holy fool!" Because Reb Zalman was all of these and more.

Throughout the event, spoken word reminiscences are interspersed with song. Hearing Hazzan Richard Kaplan sing is incredible, especially when he sings the Baal Shem Tov's Yedid Nefesh and closes his eyes and is visibly transported to other realms. He takes us there with him, and I remember how Reb Zalman used to love to listen to him bringing life to these old and deep Hasidic melodies. His singing becomes the vehicle which carries us aloft.

Singing along with Shir Yaakov and the band as they play his Or Zarua is the first thing that really cracks my heart open. "Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, joy" -- surely Reb Zalman sowed seeds of light wherever he went, and now in whatever realm his soul inhabits, surely there is joy. The whole theatre is singing, and I know I am not the only one singing through tears.

That's not the only time that weeping overcomes me. When Rebbitzen Eve gets up with the piano and band and sings "Here's to Life," by Artie Butler, a torch song of love and embracing life to the fullest -- when she walks over toward his big rebbe chair, sitting in a spotlight at the edge of the stage, empty but for the rainbow tallit he designed -- my tears fall again. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of her loss.

When we watch the (never-before-broadcast) video of the address "The Emerging Cosmology," given at the Roundtable Dialogue With Nobel Laureates in Vancouver ten years ago (which explains why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu and other luminaries were seated on stage), I laugh and clutch at my heart. His fur streiml! His joking about looking like someone from Fiddler on the Roof, and then breaking into song! His Star Trek "mind meld" answer to the teenaged girl who asks him a question! And in between all of these sweet things, a powerful teaching about post-triumphalism and organismic thinking and how we need to care for our world.

We close with a Sufi zhikr, a practice in which we remember God through chanting divine names, which breaks my heart open even wider. We are singing three lines, interwoven: bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, "in the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful;" ya salaam, ya shalom, may there be peace, God of peace; and a chant which Reb Tirzah tells us she wrote quite recently. "Reb Zalman asked if I would write a niggun when the time was right, to these words," she tells us, and then speaks the words tehi nishmato tzrurah bitzror ha-chayyim and they pierce my heart clean through, because they are a line from El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer we sing only in mourning. "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Murshid Allaudin Ottinger, a senior dervish of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, leads us in the zhikr. The full band plays: piano, violin which calls out like a human voice in jubilation and in grief, clarinet soaring high, three hand-drummers on different drums. The entire building is packed and we all rise and we sing and the melodic lines braid together. We are hand in hand, or arms around each other, or standing separately but swaying together as we sing: to one side, to the other side, forward. In the name of the One. Peace, God of peace. May his soul be bound up in eternal life. The zhikr builds and builds and I can feel how our singing and our prayer and our memories and our love are lifting Reb Zalman's neshamah higher and higher.

When the event ends my face is wet with tears and my heart is as wide-open as it can be. I am out of words, but I am so grateful, and so full of love.


What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?

RebRachelReadsTorahPeople ask me sometimes what rabbinic school was like. My short answer is "amazing -- really hard -- and one of the best things I've ever done." But maybe a longer answer would be interesting to those who read this blog.

Disclaimer: this may not be characteristic of everyone's experience; I was a rabbinic student, so I can't speak to the experience of students in ALEPH's other programs; and of course the program continues to evolve, so students today may have some different experiences than I had. That said...

The ALEPH rabbinic ordination program is low-residency, which means that students and faculty live all over the world and come together a few times a year for intensive "residency" periods. In between those in-person gatherings, we learned together in other ways. (When I first started the program, half of my classes were held via conference call; by the time I finished, we were using videoconferencing instead.) Years before coming to rabbinic school I got an MFA in writing and literature at Bennington, and that's a low-residency program too, as many creative writing MFA programs are. It was great preparation for the ALEPH learning experience.

Each ALEPH student works with a Director of Studies (a member of the ALEPH ordination programs va'ad) to establish a committee of mentors who will help her or him navigate the program's requirements

A minimum of sixty graduate-level classes is required in order to be a candidate for rabbinic smicha, and when I was a student, ALEPH offered about 60% of those classes. For the other classes I needed, I pursued learning at other institutions; entered into small-group learning with ALEPH-approved teachers (I have fond memories of translating and interpreting the Me'or Eynayim with two friends and with Rabbi Bob Freedman); and also often engaged in structured one-on-one tutorial learning with a local rabbi friend (once that learning had been approved by my Director of Studies -- which generally required a syllabus and at least one major paper.) Most semesters, I took two ALEPH classes and two classes elsewhere, or three ALEPH classes and one elsewhere. But the majority of my learning was done in an ALEPH context.

It's also worth mentioning that the 60-course minimum is just that -- a minimum. Often the va'ad imposes additional requirements tailored to the learning trajectory of the student. (Which makes sense; we all come to this with strong suits and weak suits, and they aren't all the same.) Our dean, Rabbi Marcia Prager, likes to say that the va'ad isn't merely graduating students -- they're developing colleagues.

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Jewish With Feeling


51XlOMRFYTL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Jewish With Feeling, the latest book by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (co-written with author Joel Segel) was the final text on the syllabus in my Deep Ecumenism class. My review in a nutshell: this book is solid and informative, an excellent introduction to Reb Zalman's work and a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to revitalize her/his Jewishness.

Here's a more detailed response to the book, which aims both to touch on the book's major points (connecting with Judaism, prayer and God-language, the nature of Shabbat, the meaning of mitzvot, why post-triumphalism matters) and on some of the passages which moved me most (among them, one about Shabbat clothing, one answering the question "Why be Jewish?" and a particularly timely one about how Jews can relate to Christmas.)

Reb Zalman begins Jewish With Feeling by identifying the religious drive I think is at the heart of Renewal: "We want to be Jewish with awareness, to 'do Jewish' in a way that satisfies our souls."  Yet many of us have experienced a Judaism that not only fails to satisfy our souls, but fails to take into account that we have souls which need satisfaction. What to do? He thinks we need a less dogmatic and more experiential approach to Judaism, one that  "doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unite in love and awe with a vital, living universe... [and] also recognizes that no static philosophy, no one-size-fits-all Judaism, can express the entire range of our inner growth."

We need to learn to listen to our hearts and our neshamot. "The problem is that our ancient faiths have become oververbalized and underexperienced. We talk too much and feel too little." Reb Zalman's solution is aimed at helping us to feel more, and to bring those feelings to our encounters with, and immersion in, religious life. That's the book's theoretical grounding; from here on out, he talks about the specifics of how to get there.

Continue reading "Jewish With Feeling" »


Encounter with Enlightenment

We've been reading and discussing Robert Carter's Encounter With Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics in my Deep Ecumenism class. It's an occasionally dense read for a student unused to thinking in philosophical terms, but for a reader willing to devote some time offers worlds of insight into the relationship between ethics and enlightenment in Eastern thought -- and into the ways in which Buddhist teachings about enlightenment might be understood to mesh with Jewish teachings about encountering God.

Earlier this fall I posted some thoughts on Sufism (arising out of our study of William Chittick's excellent book Sufism: A Short Introduction) which sparked fascinating converstion here; I thought I'd do the same with my response to reading Carter. In this post I'll draw out some of the ideas that interest me most in his book, among them thoughts on dualism and non-dualism, assimilating one tradition into another, self and no-self, and connection with ultimate reality.

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Another week at Elat Chayyim

Elat Chayyim, for me, is like Miriam's Well, which (midrash teaches) followed our ancestors in the wilderness. The well contained such mayimei chayyim (living waters) that drinking from it nurtured both body and soul; it conferred Torah wisdom and insights, quenching thirst in all four worlds at once. I've just returned from a week-long Elat Chayyim retreat, and as usual, I feel steeped in tradition and enlivened by my learning.

I had three purposes in going on retreat. One was the pleasure of returning and dipping into that well. The second was Reb Shaya Isenberg's course Sharing Spiritual Wisdom: A Course in Deep Ecumenism. Thirdly, last week was a gathering-time for those involved with Aleph's various ordination programs, and I wanted to meet the rabbinic students and the other prospective applicants who were there.

This post is quite long (over seven thousand words) so read at your leisure. Herein you'll find class notes, conversational anecdotes, descriptions of the various prayer services, and (come Friday afternoon) a story about jumping in a river, among other things...

Continue reading "Another week at Elat Chayyim" »