Article about my rabbinic school


There's a lovely article by Rachel Kurland about the ALEPH Ordination Programs in the Jewish Exponent this week. Here's how it begins:

California students call in at breakfast. East Coast students sign on during lunch. European students check in at dinner. Israeli students log in at night. Some even chat at 2:30 in the morning.
The ALEPH Ordination Program is not like any other rabbinical school or seminary. The program teaches people from all over the country and the world. And this year, the school will be teaching more students than ever...
Here's the part of the article which resonated most for me -- these are quotations from the dean of the program, Rabbi Marcia Prager:
 Rather than just living with what Prager called “a schmear of Judaism,” Jewish Renewal embraces all aspects of Jewish expression for the body, mind, spirit and soul. 
“For me personally, Jewish Renewal as an approach to Jewish life has offered us a way to blend tradition and innovation, to bring artistry, creativity, engagement, joy, passion, embodiment, to all the forms of Jewish expression that make up Jewish life,” she said. 
According to Prager, this incoming class is comprised of a generation of students who are passionate about learning and committed to making a contribution to the world for the future of Jewish legacy, and students are attracted to what she called the “heart-centered” learning style of the program. 
She added that students must not only be masters of text but of heart and soul, which is why they choose to study with ALEPH.

Read it here: ALEPH Ordination Programs Welcomes Largest Incoming Class.

(And if that interests you, you might also enjoy a post I wrote last year: What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?)

What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "What was the ALEPH rabbinic program like?" »

How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)

I've just read the most remarkable essay. It was assigned for my Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah class, but it feels to me like the perfect reading for the beginning of Elul, the beginning of the journey toward the Days of Awe when our liturgy will call us to consider life and death.

The essay is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, and it's called "Death as Homecoming." (The essay is published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.) Just think about that title for a moment. Death as homecoming. What does that evoke for you? Can you imagine your own death this way, not as an ending but as a coming-home? Heschel writes:

The Hebrew Bible calls for concern for the problem of living rather than the problem of dying. Its central concern is not, as in the Gilgamesh epic, how to escape death, but rather how to sanctify life.

That's such an important distinction, for me. Of course I can understand the inclination to try to escape death. I can understand the feeling that life is too short, that one wants more. It's a great mythic narrative, the attempt to escape or cheat death. But that's not the Hebrew Bible's way, and it's not Judaism's way. Let death be what it is; what really matters is whether and how we sanctify our time in life.

Our existence carries eternity within itself. "He planted life eternal within us." Because we can do the eternal at any moment, the will of God, dying too is doing the will of God. Just as being is obedience to the Creator, so dying is returning to the Source.

Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity... Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

(The quote about life eternal is from the blessing we recite when we are called up to the Torah. After the Torah has been read, we say "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has given us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us; blessed are You, Adonai, giver of the Torah.") I keep turning Heschel's words over in my mind like a pebble between my fingers: our existence carries eternity within itself. Being is obedience, and dying is return.

Death as homecoming. Of course, it's a homecoming we can't begin to understand. I've been thinking about this lately -- between one holy opportunity to participate in taharah (preparing for burial the body of someone who has died) and two holy opportunities for funerals -- and ultimately I bump up against the mystery of what can't be known.

Continue reading "How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)" »

Approaching a fall semester one last time

My fall semester begins tomorrow. I'm excited about the learning, though a little bit nervous about my ability to balance parenting a toddler, leading a congregation, working in my community, and taking classes again. Balancing parenting and congregational leadership has been a mostly-wonderful new experience for me; now I'm about to add another ball to the ones I'm already juggling.

But wait, you may be thinking: didn't she finish rabbinic school? Indeed yes, thanks be to God! But I'm also enrolled in the ALEPH Ordination Program in Hashpa'ah / Jewish Spiritual Direction Training, and two classes remain for me to complete before my second ordination, as a mashpi'ah, in January. One is a class in Bioethics; along with three classmates, I'll be taking a brief but intense tutorial exploring the essential elements of hashpa'ah as they intersect with bio-ethical issues. And the other is the class which begins tomorrow: Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah.

What's sage-ing? I'll let Reb Zalman explain:

We don't normally associate old age with self-development and spiritual growth. According to the traditional model of life span development, we ascend the ladder of our careers, reach the zenith of our success and influence in midlife, then give way to an inevitable decline that culminates in a weak, often impoverished old age. This is aging pure and simple, a process of gradually increasing personal diminishment and disengagement from life. As an alternative to inevitable senescence, this book proposes a new model of late-life development called sage-ing, a process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible "elders of the tribe."

That's from his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing (written with Ronald Miller), one of the primary texts we'll be reading this semester. (Other texts on the syllabus include Rabbi Dayle Friedman's Jewish Visions for Aging and Gene Cohen's The Mature Mind, both of which also look terrific.)

Reb Zalman's book comes with a set of questions at the back, intellectual and spiritual exercises to help the reader work through her own issues around aging, and as our assignment for the first Sage-ing class we were asked to do the first of these exercises. I found the experience fascinating. I hadn't thought through my own positive and negative associations with aging before this -- and writing about a day in my imagined ideal life as an elder opened up some surprising mental images and imagined possibilities.

Anyway: I'm doing my best not to write scripts about overwhelm during the coming months, but instead to focus on the tremendous blessing of getting to spend some time learning about these things with my beloved colleagues and teachers. One final semester as an ALEPH student. Here we go...

Three scenes from the day of my smicha

The story of my ordination day in three parts. Part one: the ceremony for new and outgoing talmidim (students).

David blesses me with words and with ears.


The student community lines up outside of two doors, the soon-to-be musmachim (those who will receive smicha, who will soon be ordained) in one line and the incoming students (accompanied by current-student "buddies") in another. To the sound of drumming and singing, the musmachim enter the room. Our fellow students are sitting in a grand circle, with members of the va'ad interspersed, and we orbit the inside of that circle, dancing, pausing to hug our teachers as we go. There is a smaller circle of ten chairs inside the big circle, and we ten take our seats in those chairs, facing outward as the bigger circle faces in.

Then the new students are sung in, and after they circle the room they take their seats in the outer circle with the rest of the students and the faculty. One by one, their buddies stand and introduce those who are new to the ALEPH ordination programs. After each introduction we chorus baruch ha-ba (or brucha ha-ba'ah) b'shem Adonai, "welcome is the one who comes in God's name." There are a string of new Davids entering the program, and as we move around the circle with the introductions, our beloved Reb Elliot rises and pretends to introduce the two teachers on his left and right as "David and David." Laughter washes the room.

The new students step forward and stand facing the musmachim, in pairs and trios, and as the community sings we give them blessings for the journey they are beginning which we are about to complete. I bless a dear friend from my DLTI family. I tell her that the smicha program is like DLTI, only bigger and more. I bless her that her journey be as sweet and surprising as mine has been, and that she always have friends with whom to share the path.

And then we musmachim stand and are each met by the one student we asked to bless us. My blessing comes from David, who I have known since I was seventeen. First there is an embrace, and when we step back and look at one another, his gaze says volumes. Then he places a pair of rabbit ears on my head and over the singing and drumming and the sound of the nine other private blessings taking place I can hear the room bursting into laughter. I am laughing so hard I'm almost crying. Then David gives me his blessing -- the story of a young rabbi who yearned to become real, the reality that becoming real can hurt, the Voice which says "You were Real to Me because I loved you. Now you will be Real to everyone." -- and I am crying so hard I don't know how to stop. Laughter and tears, tears and laughter.

To close, we sing Ivdu et Hashem b'simcha -- serve God with joy -- and there is a snaking spiral dance around the room. The spiral dance breaks into circles: one tight group of men kicking and whirling, other pairs and trios and circles interweaving as we sing. My dear friend Simcha and her husband Shawn pull me into their circle dance for a minute or two. We dance and sing and rejoice.

Continue reading "Three scenes from the day of my smicha" »

(My) Psalm 151

The final assignment for our Torah as a mirror for spiritual direction class was to write a psalm to God which expresses what we have each learned and/or experienced in our own lives over the course of the semester, relating to God / Spirit / Truth, as it relates to our emerging roles as mashpi'im/mashpi'ot (spiritual directors.) Here is mine.

(My) Psalm 151


My God
it's not always easy
for me to talk with you
sometimes my stories snarl up like tangled yarn
and all I can be is mute

when I listen to someone else
I can feel Your presence
but when I open my mouth
and want Your words to come through
I still falter like a child learning to talk

Continue reading "(My) Psalm 151" »

The end of an era

In some ways, my journey toward ordination began in 1994 when my dear friend David gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus, a recounting of the true story of a dozen rabbis going to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama to offer him Jewish insights into surviving as a spiritual community in Diaspora. When I read the book, I was amazed by what I learned about Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: his deep Jewish roots, his broad Jewish wings, his ability to make connections between Judaism and other traditions, his passion for deep interfaith dialogue, his passion for God. I hadn't known one could be Jewish like that. I wanted to find teachers like him. Reading that book led me, eventually, to Elat Chayyim and my first encounter with Jewish Renewal. When I came home from that first retreat, I told Ethan, "I've found my teachers. I want to be a rabbi like they are rabbis, someday."

But in a more formal sense, my journey toward ordination began with my first rabbinic school class. In the spring of 2005 I spent Pesach at Elat Chayyim and met with Reb Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, and had my interview. She suggested that I attend smicha students' week that summer as a prospective student, so I could get to know the program a bit better and the faculty and students could get to know me. So I returned to Elat Chayyim that summer and enrolled in one of the smicha classes. I chose one which featured readings primarily in English, one which seemed like a good starting-place for a prospective student, and one which would allow me to discern whether Reb Zalman's interest in interfaith work was shared within the Renewal community. The class was called Deep Ecumenism.

It was an amazing week-long retreat. The class was fantastic. So was the lunch session for prospective students. So was the experience of rooming with three other women in the program (one of whom is now a rabbi; one of whom will be ordained as a rabbinic pastor when I am ordained as a rabbi; and one of whom has, alas, fallen off the map.) That class continued into the following semester; about half of us who'd been in the class met via conference call weekly through the fall and into the winter, continuing to read and discuss and learn together. That was my first rabbinic school class.

This afternoon will be the final session of my last rabbinic school class: the final session of Torah as a Mirror for Spiritual Development, a class on working with the parashat ha-shavua (weekly Torah portion) as a lens through which to do hashpa'ah (spiritual direction). It's hard to wrap my mind around the reality that rabbinic school is almost over. The last 5 and a half years have been so full of learning, studying, new ideas and insights -- Hasidic texts, mishnaic Hebrew, dips into Talmud and Codes and halakha -- retreats with their intense connections (emotional, intellectual, spiritual) and, to balance them, time spent poring over books in my own home office, in hevruta with a buddy over Skype, plugged into my headset for conference calls -- classes and tutorials with teachers local to me, on subjects ranging from Islam to a history of Jewish messianism -- a summer in Jerusalem, studying Hebrew and living with one of my beloved classmates and her family (she will be ordained alongside me in a few short weeks)... it's been a truly incredible journey.

The learning, of course, isn't over. It will never be over. There will always be more learning to do, more insights to glean, more Torah to master. And even after I'm ordained, I'll have a few more courses ahead of me in order to complete the three-year training program in hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) in which I am taking part. But today I will attend my last conference call as an ALEPH rabbinic student, and then I will say a shehecheyanu, and then I will begin preparing myself spiritually as best I can for what's coming on January 9, just two weeks from Sunday! Holy wow. Rabbinic school is really and truly almost over. What a world. I'm not sure I could have imagined, when I began this journey, where I would be now: waking early in the winter dark to make Drew a bottle, then settling in to the rocker in his room with my tallit over my shoulders davening pearls of shacharit from memory as my son plays at my feet. Almost a rabbi at last.

Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within

In 2009 I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which looked at the round of the spiritual year through the lens of Hasidic texts. It is one of my favorite classes I've taken during this whole rabbinic school adventure. (Here's the series of three posts I made at the end of that class: The shape of the spiritual year, The year as spiritual practice, Hasidut and paradigm shifting.)

The group met once after our formal learning was over, during Chanukah, in order to study Hasidic texts about Chanukah. I wasn't able to make the class -- Drew was only a few weeks old -- but I downloaded the recording, and listened to part of it late one night as Drew nursed. But I didn't have the Hasidic texts in front of me, and it was hard for me to internalize the learning without the printed material to look at. Also I was exhausted and overwhelmed and it was the middle of the night! So I saved the mp3 for another day.

Chanukah approaches again, which makes this the perfect time to listen to this recording and take in some wisdom from the Hasidic masters, from my classmates, and from my dear teacher R' Elliot Ginsburg. Here are some gleanings from the first part of that extra class, taught around this time on the Jewish calendar last year. This text comes from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

"The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the Gemara we read about searching for leaven with a candle -- about searching our internal places as though we were searching the deepest cavities of our bodies.

(He's suggesting that there's a connection between our Chanukah candles, and the candle which we use to search for leaven before Pesach, and this idea that our souls are divine candles.)

The mishkan (sanctuary / dwelling-place for God) and the beit hamikdash (the Holy Temple) dwell in the hearts of every person in Israel. This is the meaning of the verse "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8) -- e.g., within the hearts of the people. When one understands that one's life-force is in one's soul, one is doing a kind of personal refinement or spiritual clarification. Every day when we say elohai neshama [in the daily liturgy, we recite "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure"] we're doing that spiritual work. There is a single point of purity in each person of Israel -- though this point is hidden, secreted away. But in the days when the Temple stood, it was revealed and known that our life-force was in/from God.

Once upon a time, there was an externalization of divinity. God's presence in the world was manifest through the Temple, which helped us recognize that God was the source of all life. Today, when that architecture no longer stands, the reality that we burn with divine life-force is hidden to us, and needs to be revealed through doing internal spiritual work.

Now that the mishkan is hidden, divinity can nevertheless be found by searching with candles [as we do on the night before Pesach, and as we do when we kindle festival lights.]

In other words: even without the Temple, divinity can still be found. We just have to search for it. And there may be something about the act of kindling lights which helps us do that internal seeking.

The candles [which we use in our spiritual seeking] are the mitzvot. We search for God by doing mitzvot. The way that we search, with all of our hearts, is to perform the mitzvot with all of our heart, soul, life-force.

We can see the mitzvot as tools of searching. He's not just talking about literal candles and the lighting thereof; he's talking about how each time we do mitzvot, we are kindling a kind of light. Through the mitzvot, we go inward. When we do mitzvot, they act as candles, illumining us. This is not how we usually think about mitzvot, but it may have extra resonance for us this week as we literally illumine the lights of Chanukah.

Continue reading "Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within" »

Smicha preparation and the empty cup

Seven weeks from yesterday, nine of my dear friends and I will receive smicha. In our class there are one cantor, two rabbinic pastors, and seven rabbis. We will all become musmachim together.

We've been meeting regularly via conference call to plan our smicha ceremony, and in one of those calls, we wound up talking about our spiritual preparation for smicha. I'm all too aware that the process of learning everything I need to know in order to be the rabbi I want to be is a lifelong journey; I'm not sure I'll ever be finished becoming. But the smicha ceremony is a marker that I've done the learning which my teachers deem necessary (necessary, perhaps, to prepare me to continue doing the learning which awaits!) It's easy to list the many subjects in which ALEPH requires its students to achieve mastery, to say that I've taken this many Tanakh classes and this many liturgy classes and this many Hasidut classes and so on. But this program requires more than just intellectual learning:

The foundation and center of the Rabbinic Program is the Mystery we name God. We understand Judaism to be the individual and collective responses of Jews throughout our history, both in thought and deed, to the ongoing manifestations of the Divine. In studying religious texts, Jewish history, and the visions and values of our spiritual leaders, we are concerned with how the Divine has been and is now being revealed through Jewish experience. And we are equally concerned with how we -- as individuals and as communities -- respond to Divine revelations in our solitude, in our relationships and in our work.

We expect students to become masters of tradition, in continuous dialogue with our ancestors. But we keep in mind the teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov: "We say, 'Eloheynu v'elohey avoteynu' (and now imoteynu) in that order because our first concern is with how we experience the Divine." We have faith that the still, small Voice will direct our students in each present moment -- as we continually experience Divine direction -- im b'kolo tish'ma-u, if we choose to hear. We pray that they listen, and in their pursuit of Torah, learn how they are being called to the task of integrating spiritual and moral treasures from our heritage into their own lives, that they become messengers to those who seek to drink from the Living Water.

(That's from ALEPH's description of the program.) So one big piece of my own preparation for smicha is getting my spiritual house in order. Trying to enact and embody the prayerful consciousness and the gratitude with which I want to approach the world. Staying in close touch with God.

Although it marks the culmination of a program of study, smicha isn't a graduation. The word can be understood to mean leaning-on, and our teachers will literally lean on us -- a laying-on of hands -- as they confer their blessing and their ordination on us. This is one of those awesome moments when the words we speak change something in the fabric of reality. As at a wedding, when the words spoken by the couple beneath the chuppah change their state of being, so at a smicha -- and we, and our teachers, will stand beneath a chuppah then, as I remember walking beneath a chuppah when our community formally celebrated (at Ohalah, in 2006) the group of us who had entered the ALEPH programs during 2005.

In my understanding, smicha is also a moment of transmission -- of blessing, of something ineffable which I don't know how to describe (and may still not know how to describe even once it's happened!) Before our smicha weekend, one of my classmates is going on silent retreat in the mountains, with a beloved teacher as her spiritual guide, to empty herself out in order to be wholly ready to receive. I'm planning a mikveh immersion at Mayyim Hayyim at the end of December which will be my opportunity to wash away anything I want to leave behind, welcome in the blessings of these six years of study, and seal myself in preparation for what's coming.

Ethan and I used to study karate together. We haven't been karate-ka in many years -- our sensei moved away and over time it became too difficult to drive two hours to reach his school -- but as I prepare myself for smicha, I find myself remembering the story of Nan-in and the empty cup which I first learned from my sensei and from his sensei (may his memory be a blessing.) I want to approach smicha not with a sense of how much learning I've done, but with awareness of how much more learning I still need to do. My cup needs to be empty in order for me to receive.

My dear friend Yafa noted, in last week's call, that yesterday would be seven weeks before our smicha. We count the Omer during the seven weeks leading up to the revelation of Torah at Sinai (which we celebrate, and re-experience, each year at Shavuot) -- why not also use that framework to measure the time leading up to our smicha ceremony? In the kabbalistic model, each week of the Omer is linked with a given sefirah (divine quality/attribute), and so is each day. I'm not sure I have the focus to be mindful of each day over the next seven weeks, especially with everything else that's going on in my life right now (including, um, finishing my coursework!) but I like the idea of seeing how each of these divine qualities manifests in my life over the next seven weeks.

The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, abundant and overflowing lovingkindness. I hope I can bring more chesed into the world this week as I prepare myself to receive.

This week's portion: blessing myself

In my "Torah as a mirror for spiritual development" class, I was given the assignment of writing a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Vayishlach. The question posed to me was "How is God speaking to you through Torah, what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?" Here's my response.

וישלח יעקב מלאכים לפניו אל–עשו...

"And Jacob sent angels (messengers) before him to Esau..."

Jacob knew he had done poorly by his brother, and he was afraid. And he sent gifts to his brother, and he sent his family away in case Esau arrived angry. And when he was alone, having sent his family onward and his possessions toward his brother, he wrestled until dawn.

With whom did he wrestle? The text tells us that he was alone, and that he wrestled with a man. Jacob wrestled with himself: with the part of him that regretted cheating his brother, with the part of him that missed having a relationship with his twin, with the part of him that wanted a different ending to their story.

Continue reading "This week's portion: blessing myself" »

Final semester unfolding

One of the things that's been keeping me busy during this last semester of rabbinic school is working with my colleagues to plan our smicha ceremony. Back in January of 2006 I witnessed my first smicha. It's pretty amazing to reread what I wrote then, knowing now that the next ALEPH smicha ceremony will have my dear friends and me at its heart. Each year the ceremony is slightly different, because each year the smicha class makes choices about how they want their service to flow. There are certain elements which are always present, of course, but there are also things which change from year to year.

My class -- a group of ten in total -- is planning some additions and innovations which I think and hope will be really sweet. Plus, of course, we'll be doing all of the pieces which we've come to cherish over the years we've been attending ALEPH ordinations. Anyway: the ten of us have been meeting via conference call every couple of weeks. It feels a little bit like trying to jointly plan a wedding with nine other partners! But it's holy work, and even when we're disagreeing about one idea or another, the conversations are a lot of fun. Somehow I wound up in charge of the "Who we are" speech and also the printed program (I think I must have volunteered?) so those have been keeping me busy. And I've started to work on my d'var Torah for the smicha ceremony, which will take the form of Torah poems rather than prose.

Meanwhile, I've been trying to keep up with my medieval history reading (and beginning to think about my two final papers for that class, both due on 12/1) and with the reading for my feminist exegesis class (this week I'm reading Ilana Pardes on the book of Ruth.) Fortunately, my parashat hashavua as a mirror for spiritual development class doesn't have a heavy reading load -- though I'm doing my best to stay on top of that too, and this week I have to write a short d'var to offer in class next week. Later this morning I'll meet again with my spiritual direction group (three people who have gathered for group spiritual direction; we'll meet together throughout the coming year) and will continue doing my best to learn on-the-job how to keep our conversation flowing and holy while also respecting the silences which sometimes need to arise.

Beyond that, I'm trying to juggle life and friends and marriage and baby -- and to write one poem each week -- and behind the scenes I've been working on a creative project about which I'm ridiculously excited; more news on that coming soon, I hope. (No, not another baby. The one we've got is plenty, thanks.) Yesterday I turned in the epilogue to my spiritual autobiography -- each applicant to the ALEPH program is required to write a spiritual autobiography, and as we prepare to exit, we're asked to write an addendum or epilogue, something which brings the story of our spiritual lives up to date. Writing that epilogue drove home for me just how much my spiritual life has changed since the summer of 2005.

It's hard to believe sometimes that this is my last semester of school. I have loved this program more than words can express, and yet I find that I feel ready to be done and to see what it's like to enter the next chapter of my life, whatever that may hold. Of course that doesn't mean I'm finished learning; I'm not sure one is ever finished learning, especially in Judaism! But I'm beginning to feel ready to be done with school. Because I'm in the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program, I'll have a few more classes to complete in the year after my rabbinic ordination; once I've finished those, and finished the practica involved with that program, I'll be ordained as a spiritual director in 2012. But rabbinic school qua rabbinic school will end two months from today, on January 9. Pretty wild to contemplate. What an amazing journey this has been.

Seven Miriam stories

One of the classes I'm taking this fall is a two-person hevruta study of feminist Biblical exegesis. We began this class last fall, but it got derailed when I became overwhelmed with physical stuff during the weeks before Drew's birth. Anyway, my partner and I have reconvened our study this semester.

Last year we worked our way through the early parshiyot (Torah portions) in the book of Genesis, each week studying the assigned reading from the weekly lectionary and then studying a variety of feminist commentaries on that text. This year we're focusing instead on several specific Biblical women: one from Torah, a few from Shoftim (in English, the book of Judges), plus two from the megillot (Esther and Ruth), alongside a variety of commentaries and feminist responses to those texts.

In lieu of writing a final paper for this class, I asked the teacher whether I could write a series of poems which respond to these Biblical women, as my other Torah poems respond to the Torah portions we study as we move around the year. I thought I'd share the first of those poems here; it's a series of seven short pieces about the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses.

This poem draws on a variety of midrashic interpretations of the story of Miriam. It's partially inspired by -- though hopefully not derivative of -- Alicia Ostriker's The Songs of Miriam, which appear in Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers. I'd love to know what you think.





I’m nine years old when my mother gives birth.
The women who attend her hasten me out, but
I hear her groaning. When I glance through the door
one midwife presses the heels of her hands
into the hollows of my mother's back.
Then her cries shift. I hear them urge her
to push, push now, pause and breathe, count to ten
then push again. My mother shouts, teeth clenched
and suddenly the room is filled with light.
I never knew labor ended with such glory.


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This week's portion: on going forth

I was given the assignment of writing a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Lech Lecha. The question posed to me was "How is God speaking to you through Torah, what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?" Here is some of what I said in response -- along with some of the wisdom I gleaned from my classmates in the discussion which followed.

God says to me: go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you...and I will bless you; your name shall be a blessing.

When I was seventeen, I left San Antonio, Texas, for a small town in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. I wasn't consciously on a holy journey, but my collegiate adventure was a rollercoaster of individuation and self-discovery.

In college I found my first tribe, a circle of geeks and geniuses and oddballs who became chosen family for one another. I began to explore my desire to help others. (My freshman year I hung a little placard on my door, mimicking Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts. The card read, on one side, "The Doctor is Out" and on the other, "The Doctor is In.")

At nineteen, I realized I wanted to become a rabbi... but I turned away from the rabbinate, fearful that my various unorthodoxies would disqualify me for service. Like Avram, who lied about his relationship with Sarai in order to avoid Abimelech's potential wrath, I have sometimes hidden parts of myself or parts of my life because I have feared the consequences of visibility.

And now, like Avraham (whose name was changed by God; some say that the extra ה in his name represents the presence of Shekhinah)—like Avraham, I need to let those old patterns go.

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Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

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The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

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Yerushalmi on memory & history

The first book assigned for the medival Jewish history class I'm taking is Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It's short but powerful. Because I learn best through writing, I jotted down some of the passages which spoke to me most deeply, and offer them here with some commentary -- if this is interesting to you, please read on!

"The Jews, after all," Yerushalmi writes, "have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories... We should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled."

Yerushalmi writes that "[m]emory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous...Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal." But the Biblical injunction to remember has, he argues, little to do with history or with curiosity about the past. We're commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to remember the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and these are not historical events.

Yerushalmi goes on to argue that in Talmudic times, memory remained essentially ahistorical. Even into the medieval era, the relationship between memory and history in the Jewish community was not one we would recognize today.

We find in almost all branches of Jewish literature in the Middle Ages a wealth of thought on the position of the Jewish people in history, of ideas of Jewish history, of often profound and sometimes daring reflections on exile and redemption, but comparatively little interest in recording the ongoing historical experience of the Jews. There is much on the meaning of Jewish history; there is little historiography. Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking which shaped Jewish priorities and possibilities. Talmudic Judaism was, he argues, the substructure for all of medieval Jewish life and creativity, and the sages of the Talmud were essentially uninterested in history as we understand it today. Exile and suffering were understood as fundamentally religious experiences, occasioned by the Jewish community's sins -- not by anonymous or areligious historical forces.

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My final semester begins

I didn't manage to post about it last week -- things have been a little busy around here, for reasons which are probably obvious! -- but my final semester of rabbinic school has begun. (If you're new to this blog, and are curious about my program, you might enjoy the post ALEPH Rabbinic Program Q and A; you're also welcome to peruse the rabbinic school category of posts here, which collects what I've written about school over the last five years.)

I spent the summer working on my senior teshuvah (legal responsum paper) on the question of working with couples who choose hospital circumcision. It was a terrific project, and a challenging one. I'm grateful to have had the chance to work on it. Anyway, that was due at Rosh Hashanah, so I've turned it in, and am hoping that I won't be asked to revise it further. My fall semester formally began just before the high holidays started up; this fall I'm taking one class, doing one independent study, and finishing up my one incomplete.

My independent study will be in Jewish History and Life in the Middle Ages. ALEPH offered a course in medieval Jewish history last spring, taught by Reb Leila Gal Berner, but I wasn't able to take it because I didn't yet have childcare for Drew. (Last spring I participated in the ALEPH senior seminar, "Halakha and Paradigm Shift," but that was all I could manage in the days before daycare.) This fall I'll work from the syllabus from that medieval Jewish history class; I've just tracked down a bunch of fascinating-looking books, among them Under Crescent and Cross: Jews in the Middle Ages (Mark R. Cohen) and Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Jacob Katz.) I'm going to do all of the reading, then ask Reb Leila for the set of paper topics and write a final paper to show that I've synthesized the learning. I wish I'd been able to take the class with my chevre last spring, but I appreciate Reb Leila's willingness to work with me on an independent study. (I also appreciate ALEPH's general flexibility, which is incredibly helpful now that I'm juggling school and parenthood.)

I'll also be studying some feminist exegesis this fall. Last fall I dove into that subject with a hevruta partner, but then I wound up in the hospital unexpectedly, and then we induced Drew's birth a bit early, and all in all my schoolwork got left by the wayside. So my hevruta partner and I will be finishing that up this fall after the holidays.

And my third class this fall is on Parashat ha-Shavua as a Mirror for Spiritual Development, taught by my friend Rabbi Shawn Zevit. This class is part of the three-year training program in hashpa'ah / spiritual direction. We'll be studying the parashiot (weekly Torah portions) and selected other texts (like Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank's Metaparshiot anthology) for the general themes of spiritual development they represent. The guiding question is, "How is God speaking to you through Torah (or how do you discern God's presence in your life through the parshah or sacred text being engaged), what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?"

Beyond these things, I'll be building a group spiritual direction practice here in my community, and hopefully also doing some writing, enjoying the season, and spending quality time with Ethan and with Drew! I'm really excited about the semester... and I can hardly believe that the end of this journey is actually in sight.

Of course, my learning won't end in January. The journey of Torah study is endless. But this period of formal study is only a few months away from coming to an end -- and while I'm perennially aware of how much I don't know and how much I have yet to learn, I also feel increasingly ready to be done with school. There's value in cultivating a lifelong state of "beginner's mind," but there's also value in acknowledging how far I've come, and acknowledging and honoring the teachers and the community who have helped me get here over the last 5+ years.

I'm starting to feel ready for the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next, whatever it may be. I'm not quite there yet, though! For now, it's time to do some homework for my Thursday class (reading Barbara Breitman's essay "Spiritual Transformation: A Psychospiritual Perspective on Jewish Narratives of Journey")  and then to dive into preparing to lead services on Yom Kippur...

What's changed; what's stayed the same

It's a good thing that maariv (the liturgy of evening prayers) is brief; by the time I went outside, the light was already growing low. Above me, the half-moon of Elul gleamed in the sky. Around me the trees lost their details and became dark silhouettes as I focused on the words in my tiny pocket Koren siddur.

I spent most of today working on my senior teshuvah, the legal responsum each ALEPH rabbinic student is required to write before receiving smicha. I have a complete draft: it still needs work, but I printed it out, and tomorrow I'll read it over and see what I think.

It's been almost five years since I mailed my application to ALEPH. I had already begun learning with this chevre when I took the leap of actually applying to the program; that fall I became a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. I took my first classes. Step by step I started walking this road.

As I davened maariv this evening, part of my brain was marveling at how much has changed for me in the last five years. The siddur from which I regularly pray now would have been intimidating to me then. For that matter, I didn't know much about weekday prayer. I didn't yet know and love the minor mode of weekday nusach.

The modern Hebrew text I translated this morning (with a little bit of help from a dictionary) would have been beyond my means then. So would the very idea of writing a teshuvah. So many of the texts, ideas, and prayers which are beloved to me now weren't yet a part of my consciousness.

I hadn't yet imagined what motherhood might be like.

Of course, there are other ways in which my life has remained blessedly constant since 2005. My marriage tops that list. Ethan and I still live in the same house on a hill in western Massachusetts where we lived then. Most of the people who were important in my life five years ago are still part of my sphere. I'm still writing poems -- better ones now than I wrote then, or at least that's my hope! And I'm still blogging here.

I remember how amazing it felt to be able to call myself a rabbinic student at long last. Every time I said the words I felt a little frisson. It's hard to believe my days of being a rabbinic student are numbered now.

The height of summer

We're in the height of summer. The days may be growing shorter, but it's not perceptible yet. I brought home the first stunning red tomato from Caretaker Farm this week and ate it one day for lunch, diced into pieces and sprinkled with fresh-ground pepper and a few flakes of sea salt. The wisteria which grows up the side of our house beside my office window is in full leaf, and its tendrils are beginning to obscure the window in front of my desk. The evening air smells like newly-mown grass (which, at our house, also means rampant mint and wild thyme.)

Last winter it seemed that summer might never arrive. (This is not entirely uncommon for me, though having a newborn definitely exacerbated that sense in ways I hadn't anticipated.) Now it's almost unthinkable that summer will ever end -- though the goldenrod in our backyard meadow is tipped with bright yellow, and the full moon of Av is waning, which means the rollercoaster ride through the Jewish high holidays is right around the corner.

I've been working on pulling together a cd of high holiday music: some of the nusach and tunes we sing every year, plus a few new melodies we'll be incorporating into this year's services. It was fun to go digging through iTunes for recordings of some of the melodies in question, and to record others myself. Rabbi Goldwasser and I are planning to send the cd out to everyone on the Congregation Beth Israel mailing list, in hopes that it will help people get "in the mood" for the Days of Awe. This year my high holiday pulpit is right here at home; I'll have the pleasure of working alongside my rabbi at CBI. On a practical level it's a relief to know that we won't be traveling anywhere with Drew for the chagim -- and on a spiritual level there's something especially sweet about serving my own home community for the holidays!

The other projects on my plate also have me focusing on the future. I've been working on an essay that's due at the end of August (about which more anon, assuming that it's accepted for publication). And I've been working on my senior teshuvah. The big project required of every ALEPH musmach -- ordinee -- is writing a teshuvah, or legal responsum, to a contemporary question of Jewish law or practice; that's due in early fall, too. And this past Sunday morning, ALEPH's 2011 smicha (ordination) class met over conference call for our first conversation about preparing for smicha.

Each smicha class plans the ceremony anew. There are elements which must be included, but there's also room for creativity. The running joke is that it's like planning a wedding -- for ten people instead of just two! It's amazing and exciting to see that milestone approaching. Of course, we're not there yet. Each of us has coursework to finish; all of the rabbinic students are working on our teshuvot; most of us have at least a few classes left. (I'll be taking one class this fall -- and then, after I'm ordained, I'll still need to finish the hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, which will end in January of 2012.)

One way or another, there's a lot on the horizon. My challenge is to keep all of those balls up in the air without losing track of what's wonderful about this moment right now: the long days and moonlit nights, the call of the veery thrushes in our woods, suppers of salads and fresh corn. So much to savor.

6 tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz


Pearlstone retreat center, home to this year's Ruach ha-Aretz East.

It is the evening of the fourth of July and the sun is beginning to cast low long shafts of light across the grass. A friend calls my name and I veer off the path back to the room, heading instead to a circle of women in the middle of the great grassy oval in front of the main building at Pearlstone. We talk and laugh and sing songs and crack ribald jokes and when I reluctantly rise to return to my room I am beaming. It is the first time since the first night of this two-week retreat that I've taken the luxury of staying out of the room "late," well after Drew's bedtime, and it feels so good to laugh and sing and talk with my chevre, my holy friends.

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