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


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


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.



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 God's transcendence may have withdrawn; we no longer live in an era of overt miracles.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.



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.



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.



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.



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."



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.

Fasting today with Jews and Muslims for peace

10504985_10154414238775171_7317168910845165076_oI don't usually fast on the 17th of Tamuz.

For that matter, I didn't even take on the practice of fasting for Tisha b'Av until a few years ago. (See This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011.) I didn't grow up observing the minor fasts, and I've never taken them on as a practice.

Instead I've tended toward finding other ways of understanding 17th Tammuz. Instead of focusing on the breach of Jerusalem's walls 2,600 years ago, I ponder breaches in the emotional walls which keep us safe, or the internal and interpersonal walls which need to come down in order for genuine connections to form.

But this year there is so much trauma and tragedy in Israel and Palestine, so much grief and destruction and fear happening right now, that I am fasting today and I am dedicating my fast to peace, compassion and kindness in that beloved corner of our world where so many people are suffering.

This was not my idea. Across Israel and Palestine, groups of Jews and Muslims are consciously choosing to fast on this day in solidarity with one another as what was initially called a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and has become part of an initiative called בוחרים בחיים / اختيار الحياة / Choose Life. The idea came from Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli Jew who lives in Gush Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Beit Ummar, north of Khalil (Hebron). Cohen is a poet and a self-identified second-generation "settler kid" who supports the idea of one homeland for two peoples. Abu Awwad is founder of Al Tariq (The Way), which teaches Palestinians principles of nonviolent resistance.

(For more, see the front-page story in yesterday's Times of Israel, Aided by calendar, Jews and Arabs Unite in Joint Fast: West Bank activists organize Choose Life, a shared initiative to combat political violence and promote coexistence.)

Continue reading "Fasting today with Jews and Muslims for peace" »

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.

17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall

One of the five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar is coming up this weekend: 17 Tammuz, the day when we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. On 17 Tammuz we also remember the breaking of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf. (A side note: this year 17 Tammuz falls on a Shabbat, so the fast will be observed on Sunday, the 18th of Tammuz, instead.) 17 Tammuz is the beginning of the "Three Weeks," also known as bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the narrows" or "in tight straits" -- a period of semi-mourning which culminates with Tisha b'Av.

I didn't grow up observing 17 Tammuz or the Three Weeks (or, for that matter, Tisha b'Av.) The Three Weeks aren't universally observed in the liberal Jewish world. (See Do Reform Jews Observe the Three Weeks?)  Some of us are unaware of this fast day, and others may feel some resistance to commemorating it by eschewing food all through the daylight hours of the day. What does it mean to mourn the siege of a city almost two thousand years ago, the breaching of the first wall which led to the fall of the Temple, especially when many of us no longer see the Temple Mount as the axis mundi, the umbilicus of creation, the place where communication with God is uniquely possible?

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests that 17 Tammuz is a day to mourn the ways in which the structures of peace are being dismantled in our time. Hearing that, some of us may think of olive trees uprooted and homes demolished; others may think of the removal of settlers from Gaza. What are the impediments to peace in today's Jerusalem? There's passionate disagreement on that front -- which makes me also think: what are the impediments to peace between and among us, in our community, who see the situation in Israel and Palestine in differing ways? The Talmud (tractate Yoma) tells us the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, "baseless hatred," within our community. Are we any kinder than our ancestors were?

How are the structures of caring and compassion dismantled in our time? The structures of understanding, gentleness, kindness?

Whether or not you are fasting on 17 Tammuz, consider donating what you would ordinarily spend on a day's food budget to an organization which works to effect healing. Combatants for Peace works to create healing and change in the Middle East; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) works to create healing for those who have suffered rape or abuse. Or choose a group in your community which works to alleviate some of the brokenness of our world.

What can we learn from the teaching that Moshe shattered the first set of tablets, broken-hearted at the apostasy of the community he served, on this same day when we remember the breaking of Jerusalem's city walls? Maybe that hope lies in learning how to care for that which is broken. Midrash holds that the children of Israel carried the broken tablets along with the second set of whole ones in the ark of the covenant. That which is broken is still holy, is still deserving of our respect and our care. "There is nothing so whole," said Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, "as the broken heart."

On 17 Tammuz; on every day of the year; may we learn to extend hope and kindness to all who suffer. May we learn that in our very brokenness lies the possibility of healing and transformation.

Preparing for 10 Tevet

This post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully, and feel free to skip this one if you need to.


For many liberal Jews, fasting means the experience of forgoing food and drink on Yom Kippur. Others also observe the custom of fasting on Tisha b'Av, the day which commemorates the fall of both Temples in Jerusalem. These two days are Judaism's major fasts. But there are also five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar. Minor fasts last from dawn until nightfall, and (in the traditional understanding) one is permitted to eat breakfast if one arises before dawn for the purpose of doing so, though one must finish eating before first light.

Of the five minor fasts, one is the "fast of the first-born," observed by first-born males on the day preceding Pesach, in commemoration of the story of the tenth plague and how the Hebrew boys were spared. The other four minor fasts relate to historical happenings, tragedies which still resonate in Jewish memory. One of these falls this week: 10 Tevet (on the Gregorian calendar, this year that's Thursday, January 5), which commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, a siege which culminated in the fall of the first temple in 587 BCE.

What does it mean to fast in memory of the beginning of a siege 2,601 years ago which led to the fall of a temple some thirty months later -- especially when for many of us, the sacrifices which went on in that temple feel so foreign we can't begin to relate to what they meant? And what might Asara b'Tevet mean to someone who eschews the fast itself, or someone who is perhaps only now learning that this minor fast day exists?

We remember the siege of Jerusalem because it was the beginning of the process which led to our exile from that city and from the place where we knew how to connect with God. And though it can be argued that the exile ultimately led to the flowerings of rabbinic Judaism, of a Judaism which is rooted in the portable connections with God which we create and sustain through study and prayer everywhere we go, the exile was still a trauma. I think there's value in recognizing that.

The essay Walls and Gates (on reminds us that "[a] broken wall means vulnerability, exposure, loss of identity." 10 Tevet is a day for recognizing, and mourning, siege which leads to brokenness and damage. For some, that means remembering the siege of Jerusalem long ago and mourning the shattering of that city's integrity. (For others, it might mean mourning the shattering of integrity indicated by Haredi violence in the Jerusalem suburb of Bet Shemesh in recent days.)

For still others, the commemoration of siege which led to brokenness may suggest another, more intensely personal, form of shattering. If your bodily integrity has been compromised, through rape or other sexual abuse, the 10th of Tevet may offer an opportunity for recognizing and mourning the breach in your safety and your wholeness. This profound trauma exists in every community. For me, there is something powerful about also understanding 10 Tevet as a day of remembering, and mourning, this breach of trust and of wholeness which so many suffer -- not instead of the traditional interpretation, but in addition to it.

Fast days are traditionally considered to be days of teshuvah (repentance/return), turning ourselves so that we are oriented toward holiness and toward God. Whether or not your practice includes fasting on the 10th of Tevet, I invite you to spend this Thursday engaged in teshuvah. And I invite you to spend this Thursday -- the 10th day of the lunar month of Tevet -- in mindfulness. Sit with what hurts: whether that's the memory of the siege of Jerusalem 2600 years ago, or the memory of your own experience of being besieged and broken-into, or the uncomfortable awareness that we allow the suffering of rape victims in our communities to remain invisible. Make a conscious effort to open your heart to this suffering.

May our observance of 10 Tevet, whatever form it may take, align us more wholly with compassion and kindness, and may those who have been besieged find safety and healing, speedily and soon.

Tzom Tammuz

Today is the 17 of Tammuz, also known as Tzom Tammuz ("the fast of Tammuz"), one of Judaism's lesser fast days, which inaugurates the "Three Weeks" of mourning which will culminate in Tisha b'Av.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Reflections on 17 Tammuz. Here's a taste:

According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf...

For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

To see how I answered, read the whole essay -- and feel free to comment in response, either on that original post or on this one.

Reflections on 17 Tammuz

Today is the 17th day of Tammuz: a minor fast day in Jewish tradition, inaugurating the "Three Weeks" of mourning leading up to Tisha b'Av. According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf.

The Three Weeks are also called bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the straits." They're a kind of narrows, a temporary and temporal Mitzrayim. During these weeks, many Jews don't celebrate weddings; some eschew instrumental music (a source of joy), haircuts (a nod to vanity), and even saying the shehecheyanu (blessing of gratitude sanctifying time.) These mourning customs are intensified during the nine days of leading up to Tisha b'Av.

I've read some striking and resonant things about minor fasts like 17 Tammuz. In God In Your Body, Jay Michaelson writes:

I approach the five Temple-related fast days by expanding the metaphor of the Temple's destruction to embrace the principle of separation itself. Then I see my fast not merely as mourning, but also as the path to healing...

I draw strength from the knowledge that around me as I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are also fasting on this communal day -- even if my reading of the day's significance is different from theirs. Jews have never agreed on why we do anything; we have four new years, and three names for the Passover holiday. Yet community is built by doing... Secondly, and relatedly, is the aspect of humility in spiritual practice. Every year, I learn from the tradition, even if my relationship to it is no longer as orthodox as it once was...

I approach the five Temple-related fast days in the spirit of practice, and practice requires form. If we only do the practice when we feel like it, it isn't a practice.

Really good points, all. But for many liberal Jews, minor fasts like this one are barely on the map, and ditto the customs of the Three Weeks that follow. In The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that an increasing number of Jews maintain an observance of 9 Av, but not an observance of minor Temple-related fast days like this one. As Rabbi Everett Gendler writes:

There is a practical reason for phasing out certain of the minor fasts, aside from loss of the significance they once had. Now that we have added observances to the calendar -- Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and more -- we need to drop those that mean little to us, lest we fill the calendar up with holidays. If too many days are special, what's special about special days?

He has an interesting point. Many liberal Jews no longer ardently hope for the restoration of the Temple-that-was, preferring instead to embrace the paradigm shift into rabbinic (and post-rabbinic?) Judaism as a necessary turn in the unfolding of history's spiral. For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

There's a kind of slantwise answer in this quotation from Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi:

There is a danger posed by the Three Weeks with its list of catastrophes that befell the Jewish people one generation after another. The danger is a paranoia that declares that everyone else in the world is wrong and therefore their fate is of little concern to us. Instead, we should generalize from our experience and become involved in the universal... The teshuvah for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular. In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens.

It falls to liberal Jews today to turn and re-turn these narrow straits into a container for meaning in a way that shifts our focus to the universal. This drash by Reb Arthur Waskow finds resonance in the teaching that this date marked Moses' shattering of the tablets. He suggests that Moses shattered the tablets just as we today shatter a wineglass at every marriage. The breakage, paradoxically, seals the covenant of the relationship.

Whether by fasting or not, today Jews remember the breakage of Jerusalem's city walls -- the first step toward the destruction of the Temple, and the rebirth of Judaism which ultimately followed. Even as we prepare ourselves in three weeks to mourn the Temple's fall, and the experiences of exile that 9 Av represents, can we see the breaching of those city walls as a kind of sacred shattering, opening the possibility of something lasting and new? When the walls between us fall, and the dust of their collapse settles, what can we create in the new negative spaces that are left behind?

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