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.


On the Chapel Hill shootings

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The most heartfelt -- and heartbreaking -- piece I've read about the Chapel Hill shootings is this one: My best friend was killed and I don't know why. I commend it to you, along with this NPR piece -- 'We're All One,' Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said in StoryCorps Talk:

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," Yusor Abu-Salha said in a conversation with a former teacher that was recorded by the StoryCorps project last summer...

"There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions — but here we're all one, one culture."

What a terrible shame it is that we are only getting to know these luminous young people on the national stage because they were shot in the forehead, execution-style, in Deah and Yusor's own home.

For my response to the killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, click through to The Wisdom Daily:

My first response to this news is grief. I imagine myself in the position of the parents of the victims, and my heart aches. I can only imagine what their families are going through. (Yusor and Razan were sisters - grief compounded.) Their deaths are atrocious. That would be true no matter who they were. But somehow, their murder is all the more horrifying because the victims were young, and idealistic, and by all accounts were trying to make the world a better place...

...[H]ad the shooter been Muslim, surely the headlines would have been emblazoned with "terrorism." But because the shooter was White and the victims were Muslim, this story gets reported as a "fatal shooting" or a "possible hate crime." Those covering the crime use softer words, as though they could make the reality any less terrible, and as though they could remove our own sense of guilt for living in a society where Islamophobia may lead to senseless violence...

Read the whole thing here: Shock in Chapel Hill - Should We Call It Terrorism?

I'm grateful to the editors of The Wisdom Daily for including me among their roster of contributors, and hope you'll click through and read. (Also, if you're on Twitter, consider following them - @WisdomDailyNews.)


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

Prays-well-with-others

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.

 


Yom Kippur, Eid, and remembrance of sacrifice

Happy_yom_kippur_1This coming weekend, when my community will be observing the solemn-yet-joyful fast of Yom Kippur, the Muslim community will be celebrating Eid al-Adha, "the feast of the sacrifice," commemorating the story of how Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and God provided a sheep for the slaughter instead.

Jewish readers may be nodding along in recognition; after all, we read that story just last week at Rosh Hashanah. (In my community, as in many communities, we read the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

Of course, there are differences in how our two traditions have memorialized this shared story. In Torah, the son who was almost sacrificed is clearly named as Yitzchak (Isaac.) In the Qur'anic account the son is not named, though there is a passage in which the son consents to what is to come, which becomes a model for the virtue of gracefully acceding to God's will.

In the class on Islam I took several years ago, I learned that there are Muslim commentators who  taught that the son in question was Isaac, and others who taught that the son in question was Ishmael. Muslim tradition offers support for both viewpoints; Wikipedia notes that

Though it is generally believed by Muslims that Ishmael was the son who was almost sacrificed, among scholars and historiographers of early Islam there is much debate. There are such persuasive arguments for both, that in fact, it is estimated that 130 traditions say Isaac was the son, while 133 say Ishmael.

(If this subject interests you, don't miss Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael?, which cites a wide variety of Muslim sources on each side of the debate, and also includes both the Torah text and the Qur'an text in English translation.)

I remember learning that classical tafsir (Muslim exegesis / scriptural interpretation) was "polyvalent" -- in other words, it presumed that sacred text naturally supports more than one reading. But as the tradition continued to develop, commentators began to lean toward resolving ambiguities. The Persian scholar al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) argued that the almost-sacrificed son was Isaac. Later commentators, among them al-Tha'labi (11th century CE) and al-Kathir (d. 1373 CE) argued instead that it was Ishmael. Perhaps these later commentators were writing with the intention of further differentiating our communities, and asserting the primacy of their narrative and genealogy over ours.

Today most Muslim sources indicate that the son in question was Ishmael. And Ishmael's willingness to allow God's will to unfold makes him the paragon of islām, the spiritual virtue of surrender or submission to God, from which that religious tradition takes its name. That Arabic word comes from the 3-letter root s/l/m, which connotes peace and wholeness. Peace and wholeness are found when one is able to "let go and let God," to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step lexicon.

Over on this side of the family tree, that same root -- ש /ל/ מ -- is at the heart of the word shalom. And our tradition too contains interpretations in which the son indicates his willingness to be sacrificed. (In my Akedah cycle, poem #2 draws on the midrash which depicts Isaac saying to Ishmael that if God were to ask him to be sacrificed he would not object. In that midrash, God promptly replies, 'This is the hour,' and sets the akedah in motion.) I wondered whether that version were influenced by the Muslim telling of the story, in which the son's submission is a central virtue -- but then I realized that Bereshit Rabbah was written down in the 5th century C.E., and Islam began in the 7th century C.E., so the arrow of causality isn't so clear.

(And, of course, on the Christian branch of this family tree, the son's willing submission to the will of the father is exemplified by Jesus' willingness to die on the cross. But that's a whole other post. Maybe I'll manage to write about that before Easter.)

I spoke in my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Children of Sarah and Hagar) about the the Isra'iliyyat, the body of interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. It seems to me -- in broad generalization -- that during times of tension, both comunities have pulled back from accepting (or even acknowledging) our influences on one another. I'd like to see us instead choose to honor our cross-pollination and interconnection.

UrlOur traditions both hold dear the story which says that God provided a ram for sacrifice in the place of the boy. Jews celebrated that story last week in shul, and will link back to it again at the end of Yom Kippur when we blow a tekiah gedolah on the shofar which reminds us of the ram God provided so that Abraham's son might live. Muslims will celebrate that story this coming weekend, with feasting and prayer and providing food (mutton, from sheep sacrificed in remembrance) for those in need.

In both versions of the story, God sends an animal to stand in for the child. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested that we can read this story as a divine instruction not to kill our children in the name of faith, but instead to pour our zeal into feeding those who hunger. What might our world look like if every nation could take that instruction to heart?

I am perennially moved by the ways our traditions have shaped and informed each other. To me this is one of the most beautiful things about being a person of faith in the world: exploring the differences and similarities in the ways we tell our sacred stories of encounter with the Infinite, and honoring how others' stories have informed and impacted our own.

To my Jewish readers: g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for good in the year to come. To my Muslim readers: eid mubarak, a blessed festival to you!

 

Related:


Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)

 

The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We'd been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!" I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y'all have known me for a while now, so you're probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child's pose, you've had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you've had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It's a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God's hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

"Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear." I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it's always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah's jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

Continue reading "Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)" »


Descent for the sake of ascent: the fast of 17 Tamuz

EJmR3188046On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, "the fast of Tamuz" -- one of Judaism's minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I say "many Jews" because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem's armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.

But I think there's value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b'Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren't certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.

There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.

In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah -- for instance, in the Joseph story, in which "descent for the sake of ascent" is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.

For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn't be a healing.

EMy+barn+This drama plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. And while our modern sensibilities may be offended by the notion that tragedy or trauma is necessary in order for growth or forward motion to appear, I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."

17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b'Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It's not only "my barn" which has burned down -- it's our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It's not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow -- it's all of our lives. We're in this together.

It can be tempting to want to paper over the places that hurt. To look on the bright side, to put on a happy face, to focus on the positive. I do these things all of the time. But 17 Tammuz and the weeks which follow are an opportunity to let ourselves experience moments of descent, together.

17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your "walls," the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? When and how do we come to feel that the integrity of our community has been shattered? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?

The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God's words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?

The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av isn't wallowing in anger and sorrow. It's allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we're willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it's time to climb up.

All of the things I've just written are, I think, true every year as we reach this moment in our seasonal-liturgical cycle. Here is something which is unique to this year:

This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This "minor fast" in our tradition is observed in the same way -- morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in Israel and Palestine -- the murders of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Eyal Yifrah; the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, apparently burned alive; Hamas firing rockets into Israel (see A view from Jerusalem - Israel at war); Israel bombarding Gaza in return (see You can never be emotionally ready).

Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a "Hunger Strike Against Violence." You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (FB, mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English). Some of us who are the talmidim (students) of Reb Zalman are taking on this joint fast in his memory, knowing that he wept for both the children of Abraham and the children of Ibrahim.

Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tammuz, I ask my Jewish and Israeli readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about our Muslim cousins and Palestinian neighbors; whether or not you are observing the Ramadan fast from food, I ask my Muslim and Palestinian readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about your Jewish cousins and Israeli neighbors in turn. May this minor fast day, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.


Morning zhikr on retreat

Quran-and-dhikr-beadsMy cellphone sings me a gentle song at 4:30 in the morning and I roll out of bed.

Ever since our son was born I have maintained that the 4am hour is the hardest time for me to be awake. When we used to have feedings at all hours, the 4am one was the one I dreaded. Earlier than that, and I could pretend that a night of sleep lay ahead; later than that, and I could tell myself that it was morning. But oh, I used to dread the hour between 4 and 5. Not today.

I find my way up the two flights of stairs to the Muslim prayer space. I join the women sitting in a circle on a spacious tapestry. And one of my new friends from this retreat explains that the leader of her Sufi order, Shaikh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, settled on this arrangement of divine names and Qur'anic verses to be chanted in the morning at this hour.

Thankfully there are two copies of the little printed booklet which contains the words of the prayers -- one which our prayer-leader uses, and another which is offered to me. (The other Jew in the room has forgotten her glasses, so I don't feel guilty about monopolizing the transliteration and translation!)

Our leader offers the teaching from Bawa that one should seek with every breath to say a prayer asserting that there is nothing else but God. And I think: kol haneshamah tehallel Yah, "let every breath praise You." And I think of the meditation practice which maps the four letters of the Holiest Name onto every breath: before breathing, yud; inhale on heh; hold the breath vav; exhale on heh. And I think: ein od milvado, "there is nothing else but God." I think: our traditions have this in common.

And then the zhikr begins.

Zhikr (sometimes transliterated dhikr) means remembrance, as in remembrance of God. (I suspect the Arabic word shares a root with the Hebrew zecher, which also means remembrance.) It's a Sufi prayer practice. The last time I chanted zhikr was in 2011, at the ALEPH Kallah with Pir Ibrahim Farajajé and Rabba Deb Kolodny. That was in a Jewish setting; this morning I am profoundly aware that I am a guest, a visitor in someone else's prayer space and prayer context.

I remember the first time I had the experience of praying in a group of only women. I was struck by how our voices blended, how the timbre and tone merged together and our voices interwove like strands in a finely-braided cord. That's what this feels like, too.

We sing the fatiha, which is full of familiar words. We sing divine attributes: merciful, compassionate, forgiver. We sing in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.

We sing invocations of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and I think: I invoke those angels every night when I bless our son before bed!

We sing blessings upon Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Muhammad.

We sing verses from the Qur'an.

And then before the very last remembrances, my friend who is leading prayer -- we have connected with great joy around the fact that her teacher Bawa engaged in regular dialogue with my teacher Reb Zalman, and those dialogues (in printed form) are part of what the students of Bawa study even now -- my friend offers a prayer for those in need of healing, beginning with Reb Zalman, and my heart wells over.

I think of the story of Reb Zalman davening zhikr with the Sufis of Hebron, which has long been one of my inspirations; I think of his initiation into Inayati Sufism and eventual founding of the Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat of Sufi-Hasidim; and I know that he would be gladdened to see two of his students humbly learning from and with our Muslim hevre, study-friend-counterparts.

As we have been chanting, the sky outside the windows has changed color. Dawn has come.

When I leave the prayer space and tiptoe quietly downstairs, my heart is still singing.

 

Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.

 


Thank You, God, for making me a woman

It is morning at the Guest House, a beautiful retreat center which describes its mission as "[creating] opportunities for transformational work and [providing] a nurturing environment for those seeking to develop human potential and enrich the world." I walk down to the Jewish prayer space, a library with a few couches and shelves of books, where chairs have been arranged in a circle and a papercut mizrach (the word means "east" -- it's a piece of art denoting the direction of Jerusalem) leans against one wall. I enfold myself in my rainbow silk tallit and wrap my arm and head, my strength and consciousness, in tefillin. And then I sit down to pray.

I forgot to bring a printed siddur, but that's okay, because I have a digital one. I don't use it often, but I like having it on my tablet and on my phone -- makes it easy to daven wherever I am! But the digital siddur has a few quirks to which I am unaccustomed. One of them is that it features the most traditional version of every prayer text, and that in turn means that as I'm davening the birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, I bump smack into "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has not made me a woman." (And, of course, its companion blessing intended for women to say -- "Who has made me according to Your will.") The siddurim I typically use don't include either of those. In their stead is a single version -- "Who has made me in Your image" -- appropriate for all to recite, regardless of sex or gender expression.

As I encounter these words this morning, I wonder how the Muslim women here would respond to them. Already, on our first evening together, the small group I was facilitating entered into a free-flowing conversation about what women are and aren't traditionally encouraged (or permitted) to do in our traditions. We talked about how people read us as religious women -- how do people respond to a woman wearing hijab? a woman wearing a kippah? What do people project on us based on those signifiers? How are those two religious identifiers similar, and how are they different? How do we respond, as religious women, to places where our traditions have encoded patriarchy as normative? I think I know what rueful smiles I would see on the faces of (most of) my Jewish colleagues if this blessing came up in conversation. I suspect that the Muslim women here would empathize.

I've written before about reclaiming (and rewriting) the "Who has not made me a woman" blessing -- as "Who has made me a woman!" -- during menstruation. I return to that practice almost every month, when I catch myself thinking disparaging thoughts. ("oy, is it really time for this again?") I use the blessing in those moments to remind myself that this female body is sacred and holy and that I am grateful for its many possibilities -- including its capacity to bear and nurture life. When I use that blessing at that time, it's aspirational. The words are meant to remind me to cherish the body I have, even when it's inconvenient. But the rest of the time, I tend to forget that that old line of prayer even exists.

This morning, though, here at this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders -- a retreat which this year, for the first time, was conceived and created as an explicitly all-female space -- I am struck by the sheer ridiculousness of that classical line of blessing. I know its historical context. I can cite the reasons why its authors thought it was entirely reasonable to thank God for not having been born female. But this morning when it pops up on my iPad I daven a blessing of gratitude to God for having made me a woman, and today, a woman surrounded by an exquisite, creative, and powerful ad hoc community of other religious women. Damn right I'm grateful to be a woman! And grateful to be able to learn from, and with, this extraordinary group. How blessed I am.

 

Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.


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.


Daily April poem: a series of lunes

13408287575_f81cbd47bb_nWAKE-UP CALL


Four-thirteen AM:
the call to prayer glides
into my ear.

God is greatest!
Another voice joins the song
point and counterpoint.

I bear witness
that there is no other
God but God!

Handful of stones
thrown into a still pond
make intersecting ripples.

In my bed
I think: hear, O Israel --
God is One.

When I sing
morning prayers I will remember
this sharp yearning.

One by one
the loudspeakers cease crying out.
Listen: church bells.


The day four prompt at NaPoWriMo is to write a lune, a three-line poem intended to do in English what a haiku does in Japanese. They suggested that we work with the form developed by Jack Collum, which features stanzas of three words, five words, three words.

Just last week I was in Jerusalem marveling at the early-morning sounds of the Old City (see Staying somewhere new). That's what sparked this poem. (The photo accompanying the poem is my own.)

You can read about the adhān here at Wikipedia.

"Hear, O Israel -- God is One" is a slight abbreviation of the shema.

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In Akko: Crusader-era ruins and the Jezzar Pasha mosque

13358289154_bf1dcfd468_nAnother new-to-me destination on my family's travels was Akko -- one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites in the region. (Bet She'an has evidence of habitation for about 6000 years; Akko, about 4000 years.) From the city's Wikipedia page I learned that the first settlement on this site was in the early Bronze age, about 3000 BCE. I also learned that "The name 'Akka is recorded in Egyptian sources from about 2000 BCE, with three signs (the initial guttural, "k" and "a"; followed by the sign for 'foreign city.')" How cool is that?

At one time Akko was ruled by Rome; then became part of the Byzantine empire; then spent a while under Muslim rule; then the Crusaders took control. By the 1130s it had a population of around 25,000 and was the biggest city in the Crusader kingdom except for Jerusalem. Eventually the Ottomans ruled there; then it became part of British Mandate Palestine. In 1929 there was a pogrom during which Arab residents demolished the synagogue in the old city. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high again between 1936 and 1939. In 1948, when the city became part of the modern state of Israel, about 3/4 of its Arab inhabitants were displaced. But today it remains a "mixed city," with both an Arab and a Jewish population.

What reading I was able to do before the trip suggested that the relationships between the Arab and Jewish populations here are still complicated: see Arab rock attack at home in Acre, 2013, or The Israeli TV guide to cheap Arab lives, 2014. (Note that those reports come from very different news sources, so they paint quite different pictures.) I'm heartened to read about places like the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center -- though I don't know enough to know how to balance the existence of a place like that against the other stories to which I just linked.

13356256385_92f1ed8d39_nAnyway: given the link that my sister sent out before the trip (Underground Crusader city revealed beneath streets of Acre, Ha'aretz) I suspected Akko was on our agenda for primarily archaeological reasons, and I was right. Here's a glimpse of that Ha'aretz piece to whet your appetite, as it did mine:

Preparing to open a new subterranean section to the public, workers cleaned stones this week in an arched passageway underground. Etched in plaster on one wall was a coat of arms — graffiti left by a medieval traveler. Nearby was a main street of cobblestones and a row of shops that once sold clay figurines and ampules for holy water, popular souvenirs for pilgrims.

All were last used by residents in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled its remains. The existing city, built by the Ottoman Turks around 1750, effectively preserved this earlier town, which had been hidden for centuries under the rubble.

"It's like Pompeii of Roman times — it's a complete city," said Eliezer Stern, the Israeli archaeologist in charge of Acre. He called the town "one of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology."

I know that archaeology is often political -- especially in the "Holy Land;" here's a great article about that, actually: Digging for the Truth -- but I couldn't help being excited at the prospect of seeing ruins like these, especially given that the whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13356287753_a024faee29_nWe began with the Ottoman-era Citadel, and then entered the Hospitallers' Fortress, the vast vaulted halls built and used by the Hospitallers knights during the Crusader era, which had been buried for centuries beneath the Citadel and nearby prison. Our guide explained that the structures above them had caved in during an invasion (perhaps the Mamluk invasion? it's hard to keep track!) and it was apparently easier to just fill the spaces with sand and build on top than to clear them out. So for a time, prisoners in the local prison yard did their exercises on top of these ancient hidden halls.

I've never been much of a Crusader buff. Jews didn't fare well during the Crusades, and that's never been a period of history into which I've wanted to delve too deeply. But leaving aside for the moment the problematics of the Crusades as violent holy wars, this complex of early medieval halls and great rooms is dazzling.

Toward the end of our time in the Crusader complex we walked through a tiny underground tunnel which once served as the sewer conduit between this underground complex and the sea -- and then through the Templars' tunnel, which is believed to have been a secret Crusader escape route which allowed them to flee to their waiting boats on the sea. Running water flowed beneath our feet as we trod on a well-constructed wooden walkway, sometimes crouching beneath a surprisingly low vaulted ceiling, and made our way underground to the shore.

13357463725_8113d7aa81_nWe also visited the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, the Jezzar Pasha Mosque , built in 1781. I hadn't known we were coming to a mosque today, so was wearing short sleeves. The friendly gentleman at the entrance to the compound passed out dark blue cloths which several of us used to cover in various ways in order to be appropriately-respectful. Once we were adequately draped, we stepped inside.

I'm not sure I would have been much of a fan of Jezzar Pasha himself, whose nickname was "The Butcher." (Sounds like he wasn't very nice to his Jewish chief advisor, Haim Farhi.) But the mosque which takes his name, constructed on his orders in a single year, is quite beautiful.

The Jezzar Pasha mosque inhabits a lush, peaceful courtyard where birds sing and a water fountain (with faucets for wudu) flows merrily. The inlay on the outside of the building is gorgeous, as is the green dome. Inside, names of God twine around the building in gold letters on blue, and beautiful inlay and painted ornament rest side-by-side with an LED clock which displays the time until the next prayers.

13357956374_2ae768fa41_nWe spent a while walking around its courtyard, admiring the artistry of the Byzantine and Persian ornamentation, and standing in small groups quietly inside the doors of the mosque (not on the prayer rugs, but on a little wooden area just inside the door which was clearly meant for visitors) just letting the space wash over us.

After visiting the mosque, we walked back to the Crusader ruins -- and heard the adhān about two minutes later, while standing in a small grassy square just outside one of the main entrances to the ruins. We stopped and listened to its haunting melodies. God is great! rolled out like auditory calligraphy, floating on the sea-scented air.

 

All photos in this post come from this trip's photoset, which I'm doing my best to add to each day (wifi permitting.)

 


Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne-mmpb1Longtime readers know that I'm a fan of speculative fiction. For those among y'all who share that interest, I'm here to recommend Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, the first book in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series.

I loved pretty much everything about this book. And I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, because part of the joy of it is seeing how its world unfolds through its twists and turns. But I can say a few things without venturing into spoiler territory, and the first one is: this book has great characters. They are real, whole, complicated people and I come away from the book wanting more -- not because Ahmed didn't give us enough, but because I just want to keep hanging out with them and vicariously experiencing their adventures.

This book also does a gorgeous job of depicting a fantasy world which draws on the tastes and textures and smells and sounds and mythologies of a place which is not Western. Reading Crescent Moon catapults me directly into every time I've been blessed with the opportunity to walk the twisty crowded ancient streets of of Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman. This book isn't set in our world, but it evokes some places which are in our world; it feels true to those places even while it goes above and beyond the lived reality of those places. And the same is true of the book's mythology / folklore / magic -- some of it draws on preexisting stories and ideas (djinn, ghuls), and some of it is Ahmed's own creation.

I like the different forms of religiosity we see here -- most especially the balance between Adoulla and his young companion Raseed. Adoulla's middle-aged, world-weary, and humor-laced way of being religious doesn't always dovetail neatly with Raseed's youthful fiery desire for spiritual purity, and that difference is neither ignored nor resolved; they exist side-by-side. I like the young lioness Zamia Laith Banu Badawi, and her growing sense of kinship with the alkhemist Litaz, despite their differences. We get just enough of each of their stories to make them real and whole -- and just little enough that I really want more of both of them. (Here's hoping they're both in the next book, eh?) And I like that Zamia and Raseed's relationship remains complicated and interesting to the end of the book -- there were a few different easy ways out, and Ahmed didn't take any of them.

And I like how Islam is reflected and refracted in this book. These characters aren't Muslim, precisely, in the same way that Dhamsawaat isn't any earthly city -- but in their ways of interacting with scripture, and their ways of talking about God, they evoke Islam for me as a reader, as I think they are meant to do. Hanging out with these characters makes me think of things I learned while studying Islam (particularly Sufism) in rabbinic school; the quotations from scripture have the same ring, to my ear, as translations of the Qur'an. And I really like the centrality of faith in the way the narrative unfolds. God is all over this book, is what I'm saying, and -- no surprise -- I love that. I find myself thinking of how the Narnia books aren't explicitly Christian, though to a reader who knows Lewis' theology, Christian ideas are visible in the book. (Actually, full disclosure: that was Ethan's insight.) I think this book works with Islam in a parallel kind of way.

I've read a number of really good books lately which work with entirely non-Western mythologies, characters, landscapes. None of them are set in our world, exactly. G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (reviewed here) probably comes closest to our world.  N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology and Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books evoke aspects of this world's histories and cultures in really fascinating ways, but they're not set in this world. (Bear does neat things with an alternate-universe Mongolia, and Jemisin's books evoke ancient Egyptian culture and mythology.) All of these books open up vistas beyond the ones we've known, while also managing to give us new ways of thinking about the world we do inhabit. Come to think of it, that's what good speculative fiction always does, for me. Anyway. If this is the sort of thing you like, this book is definitely one to get. And hey! right now only it's six dollars for the Kindle, making it an easy gamble to take.


New month of Av and Ramadan

18Chodesh tov: a good new (lunar) month to all. Today's new moon brings us into the month of Av on the Jewish calendar. We're moving further into our journey toward the Days of Awe. One week from tonight/tomorrow we'll observe Tisha b'Av, remembering the fall of both Temples and acknowledging the sorrow, loss, and brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world. For me, Tisha b'Av is when we really begin the journey toward the Days of Awe.

Between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks. Rosh Hashanah is the 50th day after Tisha b'Av, as Shavuot is the 50th day after Pesach. Some have the practice of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks -- I wrote about that a little bit in my editor's introduction to Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah. Like the period of the Omer, the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah are a period of introspection and deep soul-work.

As we enter the month of Av, our Muslim cousins are entering the month of Ramadan. (That was true last year, too.) This is the last time that our fast day of Tisha b'Av will coincide with their fasting month of Ramadan for a while. In the coming Jewish year of 5774, we'll have a "leap month" -- a whole extra month, which is to say, two months of Adar instead of only one -- which means that the Jewish holidays will move forward on the Gregorian calendar by a month. The Muslim calendar is purely lunar, not lunisolar, so when we gain an extra month, they don't... which means that our fasting won't be in synch again for many years.

Ramadan+e-belgique+1For me, there is something particularly meaningful about engaging in fasting and repentance on Tisha b'Av when it coincides with Ramadan and I know that the spiritual children of Ishmael are fasting and praying along with the spiritual children of Isaac. Our two traditions have many powerful and meaningful teachings in common. (I'm still grateful for the experience of the Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders retreat back in 2009, which I wrote about in the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.) Especially for those of us who pay attention to the Middle East, it's easy to get caught up in news stories about Jewish-Muslim conflict -- but that's not the only paradigm for our two religious communities. Maybe the experience of fasting alongside one another this Tisha b'Av and Ramadan can help us experience our similarities anew.

Want to know more about this new month on the Jewish calendar? The name Av means "father." One mystical tradition (found in the Sefer Yetzirah) associates this month with the letter tet / ט (which, since Hebrew letters are also numbers, corresponds to the number nine.) This letter is understood to resemble the shape of a womb. I love that the month whose name means "father" is associated with the womb -- what a beautiful encapsulation of the gender-bending (or gender-transcending) realities of God! (The masculine God-name HaRachaman / The Merciful One shares a root with rechem / womb, so there's a way in which our tradition is always engaging in this kind of gender-bending God-talk. I wrote about that a few years ago -- Returning to the divine womb.)

The Sefer Yetzirah also associates different months with different senses. The special sense of last month, Tammuz, was sight; the sense of this month is hearing.

"To hear" in Hebrew means "to understand," to fully integrate into one's consciousness (into one's heart, not only to understand intellectually in one's mind). To hear another is to fully understand his dilemma and emphasize with him...

The sense of hearing is the sense of inner balance. (Imbalance is the source of all fall and destruction). A well balanced ear, a well oriented sense of hearing, possesses the ability to discern and distinguish in everything one hears truth from falseness, as is said (Job 12:11 and 34:3): "the ear discerns words"/ ozen malin tivchan (the initial letters of this phrase spell emet--"truth").

The word Av contains the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, beit, which are the first letters of the words emunah and bitachon, "faith" and "trust." This month we strive to return to our beginnings, to the alef from which all creation unfolds, and to find faith and trust there.

adapted from various teachings about Av at Inner.org

As we move into the month of Av and Ramadan, may we truly be able to hear one another -- not despite our differences but in and through them. May we empathize with one another. May we find inner balance. May we experience faith and trust. And whether or not we fast from eating on Tisha b'Av or during Ramadan, may we fast from unkindness, from ingratitude, from our worst inclinations. May we take advantage of this month and cultivate our hearts and spirits to serve God and to serve the world.

Chodesh tov / Ramadan mubarak!

Here's a blessing for the new month -- in Hebrew, transliteration, and English -- written by Marcia Falk: Prayer for the New Month.


Taking a break from football to go on Hajj

282161_411918928861995_786269551_nOn Sunday evening Ethan and I watched an episode of Outside the Lines on ESPN, about two Muslim NFL players who are making Hajj, the journey to Mecca in Saudia Arabia which takes place during the last month of the Muslim calendar each year. The story is here at ESPN -- I can't embed it, but it's online. It's less than eight minutes long, and it's really worth watching.

Husain and Hamza Abdullah, both of whom are free agents in the National Football League, decided not to sign with anyone this year in order to be able to make the Hajj. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and they decided to do it this year -- I'm guessing both because they could afford to do it, and because they knew it would offer them an opportunity (because of their position as NFL players) to educate Americans about Islam.

And since they were taking the season off from football, they decided to do a thirty-mosques-in-thirty-days road trip. Because why not, right?

I've linked before to 30 mosques in 30 days, a Ramadan travel-and-blogging project undertaken by a pair of Muslim bloggers. It's neat to get some glimpses of two NFL players (and their brother, who went on the road trip with them) who chose to go on that kind of journey. And I love the idea of visiting communities all over the country and seeing both how they differ (from north to south, east to west, urban to rural) and how they are the same (the same commitment to faith and scripture and community.)

I suspect this is a place where the American Muslim experience and the American Jewish experience are parallel. Both of our traditions are minority traditions in this country, and it's easy to imagine that we only exist in certain pockets of the country or that the way our traditions are practiced in one place (be it New York or Los Angeles, Dearborn or Boro Park) is the way they're practiced everywhere. But as a Jew who grew up in the southwest, and who now lives in rural Massachusetts, I have some sense of some of our diversities (different types of buildings, different types of communities, different prayerbook choices and modes of prayer) and of what unifies us across geography and demographics. I get the sense that the American Muslim community is both unified and diverse in many of the same ways. That's part of what I enjoyed seeing in this ESPN piece about these two athletes traveling the country during Ramadan.

Anyway, the Outside the Lines piece is lovely. I'm impressed with these two men, with their commitment to their faith, and with their willingness to be filmed while engaging in this spiritual quest.

(In case you're curious, there are a few Jewish players in the NFL too, though not very many. See, e.g., Schwartzes first Jewish brothers in NFL since 1923.)


Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

New-Moon
A sliver of new moon.

This morning I woke to an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which began:

Tonight (July 19, 2012), as the New Moon glimmers, the Jewish and Muslim communities both enter a solemn month, known to one as Ramadan and the other as Av. In both, fasting takes on great importance as a way of focusing spiritual energy.

During the whole month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As they do, they turn their attention from material gain and physical pleasures to the call of God to serve the poor, to work for justice, to meditate on what is deep joy rather than immediate pleasure...

Jews enter the month of Av with an eye toward its ninth day, Tisha B'Av, a day of lament for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews fast for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset of the next day. This year the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat; so the fast and lamentation are postponed to begin after Shabbat on Saturday night, July 28, leading into Sunday, July 29.

Read the whole thing at the Shalom Center website: When Ramadan and Av unite.

The Muslim calendar is purely lunar; the Jewish calendar is lunisolar. (What does that mean? Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew calendar -- basically, we insert a "leap month" in 7 out of 19 years to keep our spring festivals in the northern-hemisphere spring, and our fall festivals in the northern-hemisphere fall. As previously noted, the rabbis who originated our calendar were clearly not thinking about life in the global South.) Ramadan moves around the solar calendar year; a few years ago it overlapped with the Jewish month of Elul (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, 2009.) And this year Ramadan overlaps with the lunar month of Av.

I had the feeling I had written about that particular confluence before, too, so I checked my own archives. Sure enough, last year Av and Ramadan coincided as well, and I wrote:

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

Read the whole post: Approaching Av...and Ramadan.

To my Jewish friends and readers I wish a meaningful month of Av, replete with awareness of our communal journey from the depths of sorrow (during this last of the Three Weeks and through Tisha b'Av) into comfort and joy. And to my Muslim friends and readers, a blessed Ramadan! May both of our communities find blessing in this month of prayer and reflection, and may this month strengthen our sense of our common ground.


The voices of American Muslim men

All-american-final-cover"Those who seek the divine want to make this world a better place, which first requires that we communicate." That's Congressman Keith Ellison in his introduction to All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.

I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it from my friend Ayesha Mattu, co-editor of Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. (Which I thought I had reviewed here, but apparently I didn't; shame on me! I was blessed to receive an advance copy before publication, and in response I wrote to the book's editors that "[t]hese essays are meaningful, poignant, and powerful. I'm so grateful for these glimpses into the lives of American Muslim women, all of whom feel to me now like cousins I'm glad to finally know." The book merits a full review; I'll try to write one soon.)

Anyway: having savored that collection of writings by American Muslim women, I wanted to also read a collection of writings by American Muslim men. (I've since learned that there is a collection of essays by American Muslim women which is more directly parallel to this one -- I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim -- which I suspect I would also enjoy.)

When my copy of the book arrived, I turned immediately to the table of contents, since I knew that at least one of my friends had an essay here: Hussein Rashid of Islamicate, who I first met at the Progressive Faith Blog Con back in 2006. I read his essay first, with great delight. (More about that below.) Then I read the one by Shahed Amanullah of AltMuslim, who I've likewise known for years; he notes that "[i]n the end, all the PR in the world won't convince our fellow Americans of our worth any better than a typical Muslim can do by simply being a friend to their neighbor." Then the one by Svend White of Akram's Razor, about growing up as a white Muslim kid in Boston. The one by Aziz Poonawalla of City of Brass (who writes that "there's more to integration than making Halloween halal.")

And then I started opening the book at random, reading stories which caught my eye. Jason Moy's "Disable Your Cloaking Device," about making wudu (the ablutions required before prayer) as a captain in the Army, deployed in Afghanistan. Shakeer Abdullah's "Memoirs of a Mighty Mite Muslim," in which he explains (humorously but also with obvious truth) the similarities between Islam and football. Tynan Power's "Stepping Across the Gender Divide," which begins with the story of a trans Muslim man going to Friday prayer before having his gender reassignment surgery. Baraka Blue's "Manhood," which explores how interacting with Muslim men around the world empowered him to own his emotions.

This is terrific stuff. Wide-ranging, diverse, heartfelt, often surprising. I would expect nothing less from any collection of essays by any religion's practitioners. But because Islam is so often misunderstood in America -- especially in this post-9/11 era -- this book's variety of voices and experiences becomes all the more valuable to have in print. (If only I thought the people who fear Islam most would pick this volume up!)

Continue reading "The voices of American Muslim men" »


G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"

9780802120205I still remember how I felt when I first read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in college. Its blending of internet imagination and ancient Sumer, the power of text and the power of code, felt as though it had been written just for me. I felt the same way reading G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.

I've written here about Wilson's work before -- her graphic novel Cairo; her beautiful memoir of choosing Islam and living in Egypt, The Butterfly Mosque -- and given how much I enjoyed both of those, I knew I was going to like this one. But I didn't know how much. (A lot.)

Alif the Unseen interweaves a story about jinn, and about the power of stories, into a story about a young man who's chosen the nom-de-internet Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a "grey hat" hacker who offers his services to those whose online speech is otherwise in danger, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, or pornographers.

I don't want to spoil the book for you -- its twists and turns are so delicious! -- but Alif's programming choices get him into trouble with the dangerous government figure known colloquially as the Hand of God. He and a childhood friend wind up on the run. And his world turns out to be much bigger than he, and likely also the reader, imagined.

As I read, I kept marveling at places of intersection between Willow's religious tradition and mine; the notion that angels are like computers, e.g., devoid of free will. Or the sense that the holy language in which scripture was revealed has its own kind of power, and that the words of holy text are uniquely rich because they contain endless unfolding meaning.

Of course, I'm a religion geek and a rabbi with a longstanding interest in the places where Islam and Judaism mesh; it stands to reason that I would dig that stuff. But I'm also a longtime lover of comics, a SF geek (there's a moment in the book where a jinn archly references the original Star Wars movie, which made me literally laugh aloud), and a denizen of a handful of different online worlds -- and this book works equally well for me on those levels, too.

Alif the Unseen is a gorgeous expression of the post-Arab-Spring world -- which is prescient, since (here's a quote from a post at Wilson's blog:)

The titular character is a hacktivist in an unnamed emirate who battles shadowy, oppressive state security forces using methods both digital and arcane. (There are jinn involved, and ancient texts that are supposed to be hoaxes but aren’t. And at least one car chase.) While I was writing, even I thought I was maybe overdoing it just a little, and assigning too much importance to hackers and internet junkies in the Middle East. But I was fresh off a visit to Cairo, where a group of guys I’d met through Twitter organized a signing for me at a bookstore that was packed to the gills. We talked about comics and politics and the media, and I walked away with my heart pounding, thinking “this is really going to work.” I wasn’t even sure what “this” was.

Five months later, those same kids were overthrowing the government. I finished Alif the Unseen just as Mubarak left office, Tunisia was under new management, and uprisings had begun in Libya and Syria, in what would come to be called the Arab Spring.

Anyway. If anything I've said here appeals to you, you will almost certainly dig this book, as I did. Get a copy, read it, and then feel free to come back here and tell me what you think! I had a blast reading it, and I can't wait to foist it on several friends, Ethan first among them. (Given that he just gave a talk entitled Cute cats and the Arab Spring, I think I can safely say that he's going to enjoy this.)

Still need more convincing? The first chapter of the book is available online: Excerpt, Alif the Unseen. Enjoy!


Rumi service PDF

A number of people asked whether I would be willing to share the liturgy for the Rumi Shabbat service which I led at my shul this past Shabbat. I am happy to do so! The service is attached as a pdf. I welcome responses of all kinds!

 


 

CBI-logo

St_Joan__s_Hamsa_by_lilmoongodess
Rumi Shabbat

 

interweaving the poems of Sufi mystic

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273)

with the Shabbat morning liturgy

 


 

  Download Rumi-Service [pdf, 2MB]


A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

Continue reading "A rabbinic conference call with President Obama" »


Wise voices on Middle East politics and on Torah

If the Days of Awe didn't begin next week, I'd like to think that I would be taking the time to write something substantive and meaningful about what's happening in the Middle East right now. Instead, I'm offering links to a few essays I've found useful of late.

  • On the recent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo: Encountering Peace: The View from Cairo by Gershom Baskin. ("What's needed is stronger bridges, not higher walls.") Baskin writes:

    All of the Egyptians that I have spoken with condemned the attack against the Israeli embassy. The story on the street and among the youth leaders of the revolution is that the leaders of the mobs that torched the Ministry of Interior, the headquarters of the el-Ghad party and the Israeli embassy have been identified as members of the hated former internal security forces. They say that these people are actively working to undermine the revolution and to show that post-Mubarak Egypt is a lawless society where all security has broken down. They hope to hijack the revolution and to bring back the old regime.

  • On Israeli settlers and the so-called "price tag" policy: Price tag -- a violation of Jewish values by Rabbi Barry Leff. ("Jews have been world's favorite scapegoats since 4th century, so they of all people should be sensitive to how terrible it is to make someone a scapegoat.") Rabbi Leff writes:

    [T]he greatest sin the perpetrators of the price tag campaign commit is the sin of hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name. Attacking a mosque – a house of worship of the same God that we worship – and burning Korans that do reverence to many of the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets in the Torah –makes Judaism look bad. It gives our religion, and by extension, our God and Torah, a horrible reputation. It makes Judaism appear immoral, insensitive and disrespectful toward others in the eyes of the nations.

I want also to lift up two posts which focus on last week's Torah portion -- which I think speak deeply, if indirectly, to current events in the Middle East as well.

  • My Father, the Wandering Aramean… by Rabbi Brant Rosen at Yedid Nefesh. His post looks at two different ways of interpreting a verse from Torah (אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, usually translated as "My father was a wandering Aramean" but sometimes rendered in a very different way), and asks:

    These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day. Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify? The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?

  • Milk and Honey by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan at On Sophia Street. This essay offers me a blessing for the continuing journey. Reb Laura offers her own interpretive translation of part of this week's Torah portion ("When you come to a place of spiritual fulfillment, / an inner place that finally feels like “home,” / notice what ripens inside you...") and notes:

    In Jewish thought, the journey of the Exodus is the paradigm for all spiritual journeys.

    We move from the narrow place of slavery, to wander in the wilderness, and finally reach a land flowing with milk and honey... Some days, I feel I'm still in the narrow place.

My thanks are due to the authors of all of these essays, whose words have informed me and uplifted me this week.