Returning to Rabbis Without Borders

Rwb_logoI'm heading south today for the annual gathering of Rabbis Without Borders fellows at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. This will be my third annual retreat. It's always fun to reconnect with this group of colleagues in person.

Like my ALEPH community, RWB spans denominational boundaries. Rabbis Without Borders fellows come from backgrounds ranging from Reform to Orthodox and everything in between. And like my ALEPH community, we're consciously pluralistic, and deeply invested in the work of co-creating a Judaism which will serve the future's needs. 

This year I'm giving back to the community a bit more than in years past. With Rabbi David Markus, I'll be co-leading a Renewal-style weekday morning service on Monday. We're planning a mixture of weekday nusach, beloved melodies, and new uses for Nava Tehila's Livnat HaSapir.  We'll also be offering a session with Rabbi Evan Krame of The Jewish Studio, themed around a four-worlds look at the ecosystem of Jewish innovation. (That ecosystem is being talked about a lot on our Listening Tour.)

Speaking of which, we'll also be holding informal Listening Tour conversations with groups of RWB colleagues over the course of the retreat. We already have hundreds of pages of notes from the stops we've already made, and every time we sit down with people to talk about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future, I come away more energized about the work we're doing in ALEPH. (So RWB colleagues, if y'all want to share your perspectives on the renewing of Judaism, come and find us.)

If past years' experiences are anything to go by, those of you who follow me on Twitter are likely to see an upsurge in my posting there over the next several days. (This year's retreat is themed around Exploring Rabbinic Risk-Taking -- if that interests you, keep an eye on @rwbclal and #rwbclal.) I expect that when I get home late on Wednesday night I'll be physically tired, but the tiredness will be balanced by the energizing experience of learning, talking, and davening with this great group of hevre.

Community without borders: gathering with RWB

Rabbis-without-bordersI'm returning today to the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore for the Rabbis Without Borders Fellows alumni retreat. This will be my second year attending the alumni fellows retreat (fellows alumni? alumni fellows?  people who've completed the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship) and based on my experience last year, I know I'm going to have a good time.

RWB Fellows are smart, thoughtful, interesting people. They approach spiritual life in meaningful ways. And because they come from across the Jewish denominations, they're all already ready and willing to learn and dine and daven and connect with people who "do Jewish" differently than they do.

Last year I wrote:

"What does it mean to be a rabbi without borders?" people ask. "Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Do you travel the world?" Not in the sense of accruing more stamps on my passport. The travel is between perspectives and viewpoints, not between nations.

Longtime readers know that I went to a transdenominational rabbinic school where students and faculty from all of the major streams or denominations of Judaism learned together. There are three such seminaries now, though I believe that ALEPH was the first, and ALEPH is unique in its explicitly Jewish Renewal orientation. Anyway: my whole adventure of rabbinic school learning was a transdenominational one. My primary context for rabbinic community has always involved people from different Jewish backgrounds with differing Jewish practices.

For that reason, although I knew I would enjoy the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I wasn't sure how groundbreaking or new it would feel to me. After all, sitting around a study table with Jews ranging from Reform to Orthodox was already a familiar part of my worldview, and so was the assumption that there is a multiplicity of valid paths toward truth.

So maybe it's not surprising that my experience of RWB/Clal has been in many ways parallel to my experience of ALEPH. It's not so much that the passionate pluralism of RWB feels new, as that it's a delight to discover another transdenominational rabbinic hevre (community of colleagues and friends) who share my ideals and my yearning to bring Judaism and God-connection to those who thirst.

(Here's the whole post from last year: On my two rabbinic communities, Rabbis Without Borders and ALEPH.) Everything I wrote then holds true now. I experience a lot of common ground between these two rabbinic communities... and both of them feel "borderless," in the sense that we transcend and include a variety of viewpoints and practices, and also in the sense that we are geographically dispersed; our community transcends borders because what connects us isn't geographic or doctrinal, it's heart and attitude and soul.

I'm looking really forward to reconnecting with this group, and to coming away with new ideas and new Torah percolating in my mind and my heart. The fellows alumni retreat is self-run; different fellows will offer sessions, text study, davenen, and so on. I don't know, going in, which sessions will resonate most with me -- but I know that the conversations will be grand, and I know that I'll come home enriched and ready to bring new wisdom to the community I'm blessed to serve.

This Year's Revelation -- at Zeek

I have a new essay in Zeek. In this piece I draw on classical midrash and on Rabbis Without Borders thinking (as I did last year in the essay Being Meir) to make the argument that Torah belongs to all of us, no matter who we are -- and that God calls us to rise above the binaries which polarize us. Binaries within the Jewish community, binaries between us and other communities, binaries in the American political system -- what would happen if we could transcend those?

Here's a taste of the essay, a passage talking about the revelation at Sinai:

All of us were there. All of us heard.
 And what we heard, we heard according to our ability to understand. Torah comes to meet us wherever we are. Torah comes to lift us up, wherever we are. Torah comes to inspire us, wherever we are. And because each of us hears according to her or his own temperament and inclinations, we don’t always understand Torah in the same ways. But Torah doesn’t belong only to those who read it this way, or those who read it that way. Torah does not belong to religious liberals any more than it belongs to religious conservatives. Torah trumps those categories.

According to our midrashic tradition, God gives Torah to all of us — regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, age, race, creed, color, class, political party — and it belongs to all of us, wherever we are.
 oes that seem too radical? Look back at the beginning of the midrash: God’s voice divided itself into every human language. For all that our tradition privileges Hebrew, revelation didn’t happen only in that language.

Revelation came in every language, because revelation belongs not only to Jews but to all creation. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels; each religious tradition hears revelation on the channel to which we are attuned. The necessary corollary to that, of course, is that each religious tradition contains at least some ultimate truth. If some facet of the Infinite is revealed to each religious tradition, then it’s no longer possible to say that we have it right and they have it wrong.

Torah isn’t just for us, no matter how “us” is defined. [...]

I hope you'll click through and read the whole piece: This Year's Revelation.

Comments welcome.

On my two rabbinic communities, Rabbis Without Borders and ALEPH

Stamp_mini"What does it mean to be a rabbi without borders?" people ask. "Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Do you travel the world?" Not in the sense of accruing more stamps on my passport. The travel is between perspectives and viewpoints, not between nations.

Longtime readers know that I went to a transdenominational rabbinic school where students and faculty from all of the major streams or denominations of Judaism learned together. There are three such seminaries now, though I believe that ALEPH was the first, and ALEPH is unique in its explicitly Jewish Renewal orientation. Anyway: my whole adventure of rabbinic school learning was a transdenominational one. My primary context for rabbinic community has always involved people from different Jewish backgrounds with differing Jewish practices.

For that reason, although I knew I would enjoy the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I wasn't sure how groundbreaking or new it would feel to me. After all, sitting around a study table with Jews ranging from Reform to Orthodox was already a familiar part of my worldview, and so was the assumption that there is a multiplicity of valid paths toward truth.

So maybe it's not surprising that my experience of RWB/Clal has been in many ways parallel to my experience of ALEPH. It's not so much that the passionate pluralism of RWB feels new, as that it's a delight to discover another transdenominational rabbinic hevre (community of colleagues and friends) who share my ideals and my yearning to bring Judaism and God-connection to those who thirst.

In an ALEPH context, we come together across our differences of interpretation and practice beneath the common umbrella of Jewish Renewal. We share a yearning to revitalize Judaism (or Judaisms), respect for the groundbreaking work of our forebears (among them Reb Zalman), an investment in deep ecumenism, and a unique blend of feminism, progressive values, and neo-Hasidism. In a RWB/Clal setting, the umbrella is klal Yisrael, the Jewish community writ large. Though the qualities which are most central to Jewish Renewal aren't necessarily focal points in RWB, it seems to me that both communities come together across our differences of interpretation and practice to jointly serve the Jewish community in all of its forms, and to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world. We are, you might say, responding to the same divine call.

In RWB we gather with the utmost respect for each other's perspectives and training. We don't gloss over the places where our practices and comfort zones differ. And we act in the good faith that each of our forms of Judaism is one piece of the Jewish puzzle, one partial truth within the greater truth which belongs to the Jewish community as a whole. For me as a Renewal rabbi, of course, the same metaphor holds true with regard to the religious world -- Judaism has one piece of the truth, Christianity has another piece, and so on, and so on. (I think many RWBs agree on this one, too. Day before yesterday I learned some amazing Hasidic texts with RWB Hanan Schlesinger, who taught -- drawing primarily on the Sfat Emet -- that our real challenge is finding Torah, which is to say finding truth, everywhere. Not only in our own tradition, but everywhere. How beautiful is that?) This is a pluralism which feeds my soul.

And I believe it's a pluralism which the world desperately needs. So much of the news we receive speaks in stark black and white, particularly about religious differences, but reality is far more nuanced and subtle. Truth and meaning aren't the unique purview of any community; as Reb Zalman likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels and each tradition receives revelation based on how we're attuned. I believe that there are glimmers of truth even in worldviews with which I deeply disagree (though sometimes it stretches me mightily to try to find them). And I can seek to open the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom and tradition even for those with whom I have substantial differences. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has so eloquently argued, you don't have be wrong for me to be right. I'm more interested in what connects us than in what divides us: across the different branches of Judaism, and across our various politics, and across the varied manifestations of our human family tree.

One of the questions which I think animates this Rabbis Without Borders community is: how can we bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world? What sustenance can we draw forth from our living well which might feed people's hearts and souls in years to come?

EarthIn Jewish Renewal we often speak in terms of paradigm shift. When the Temple fell, there was a transition to rabbinic Judaism, which wasn't always easy or comfortable but was utterly necessary in order for Judaism to continue to thrive -- that was a paradigm shift. Reb Zalman has argued that we're experiencing another paradigm shift now, in which we must come to see Judaism, humanity, and our planet in a new way. (The last century's massive destruction, including Hiroshima and the Shoah, is one side of the paradigm shift; seeing our planet from space, that beautiful blue-green ball suspended in blackness, is another piece of the shift. Both of these together call us to co-create new responses to the new challenges at hand.) I believe that the work my Renewal and RWB colleagues are doing, striving to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world, is part of the tikkun (healing) which this new paradigm shift calls forth.

In RWB (and I think also in ALEPH), the borders we cross are those of perspective and practice. We don't all have the same answers. We don't all maintain the same practices. Some of us daven in gender-segregated spaces, and some don't. Some of us maintain deep attachments to the classical halakhic system, and some don't. Some of us are comfortable with substantial liturgical variation, and some aren't. Some of us daven every word in the classical siddur at lightning speed; some of us soak ourselves in slow contemplative liturgical chant. (And some of us do both on alternate days!) We dress this way and that way. We eat this way and that way. But we're united in our belief that we are part of the same enterprise, and that without compromising our ideals or our practices we can work together to bring healing to Judaism and to bring Jewish wisdom to the world.

The fact that I've found not one but two rich spiritual communities of colleagues and teachers who are driven by these passions, who share these commitments to traditional depth and intellectual / spiritual breadth, and who are both willing and able to draw on a variety of different wisdoms (whether within our own tradition, or across many traditions) in order to serve God and to serve the needs of our communities -- it's incredible. I am so blessed.


For more: see RWB FAQ: What is a Rabbi Without Borders? and Kol ALEPH: What is Jewish Renewal?

RWB alumni retreat, first 24 hours, in gerunds

12278089923_16b7820e76_nSeeing friends from my RWB cohort again.

Meeting people from the other rabbinic cohorts.

Putting faces with Twitter handles and email addresses.

At an icebreaker, "outing" myself as a reader of speculative fiction.

(Also as a congregational rabbi and a writer.)

Watching the Superbowl with a room full of rabbis.

Hooting and hollering at the football and the commercials alike.

Sipping whiskey with a friend from far away.

Davening shacharit (morning prayer) b'tzibbur (in community).

Remembering, all in a flash, davening in that same room four years ago.

Meeting people whose work I have long admired.

12297025174_2d2bba1757_nHearing from heads of the Republican and Democratic Jewish organizations.

Talking, in small groups, about political pluralism and whether / how it's possible.

Chatting about poetry with a fellow-poet rabbinic school friend.

Studying Hasidic texts of passionate pluralism.

Being amazed by their radical welcome and openness.

Studying texts on how blessings turn the forbidden into the permitted.

Tweeting back and forth with RWB fellows who are here, and RWB fellows who aren't here (and tagging it all #rwbclal).

Enjoying dinner conversation about growing up as geeks who love Judaism.

Being with other rabbis who are thoughtful about our rabbinates.

Sitting by the fireside surrounded by quiet conversations and laptops.

Thinking about finding the partial truth in things with which I disagree.

Making midrashic message-driven trash art out of broken cell phones, paint, beads, and clay.

Returning to my room, exhausted from a long day but grateful to be here.

Taking Nyquil and heading for bed.

Back at Pearlstone

The last time I was at Pearlstone, I was still a rabbinic student, and I was here for two weeks of ALEPH rabbinic program intensive study. It was my first rabbinic school residency as a mom, and our son was less than a year old -- which meant that first Ethan (for a few days before he went to TED Global and gave the TED talk which led to Rewire), and then my mother, stayed with me and took care of the baby while I was in class.

Then Now

Then, and now. What a difference 3.5 years makes.

I had some extraordinary experiences here. It was here that I wrote the mother psalm which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," which to this day is one of my favorite poems in Waiting to Unfold! And it was here that I first got the chance to introduce my mom to my rabbinic school community and vice versa -- a nice prelude to my entire mishpacha attending my rabbinic smicha the following winter.

Last time I came to Pearlstone, we drove down, encumbered by all of the gear required for a two-week trip with a baby: pack-n-play, quilts, stuffed animals, you name it. (And then had to purchase one item we hadn't thought of -- with no bathtub in the room, we resorted to giving baths in an inflatable rubber duckie which Ethan found at a local store.) Last time, I had to ensure that our preferred brand of baby food had the right hechsher to enter the dining hall. 

This morning I watched cartoons and played board games with our son, ate a delicious breakfast cooked by my spouse, and then traveled solo to Albany, on my flight, and through the Baltimore airport where I met up with three other Rabbis Without Borders. Together we drove to Pearlstone. And in about half an hour, this year's RWB Alumni Retreat will begin.

I'm looking really forward to a few days of learning, (re)connecting, strengthening friendships, and being lovingly challenged to think outside of my usual boxes. It feels a little bit strange to be here without the loved ones who surrounded me last time I was here. But I'm really excited to see members of my RWB fellows cohort, and to meet rabbis from the previous cohorts who I have until now only known online. I'm really grateful to be part of this hevre (community of friends.)

A Jewish Renewal / Rabbis Without Borders take on the Pew study


In the wake of the recent Pew study on Jews in America today, I can't help wondering: how many "Jews in the pew" jokes can reasonably be made in the span of a week? Okay, that's not really the question. But the editors at Religion Dispatches asked a provocative question in response to the study and in response to the dialogue around that study in the Jewish community thus far: Pew and the Jews: So What?

They asked a handful of smart and thoughtful people to respond in brief, among them J.J. Goldberg, Jay Michaelson, Ruth Messinger and Shaul Magid. I'm honored to be in this company as well. My response begins:

As a Jewish Renewal rabbi, I'm interested in the renewing of Judaism. I take a post-triumphalist stance toward other traditions even as I seek to lift up what's beautiful in my own. As a Rabbi Without Borders I aim not to worry about communal dilution, nor to work from a narrative of erosion. (That's part of how RWBs self-define.) Wearing both of these kippot, I find reasons for hope in the Pew study...

You can read my whole response here: Opportunity Knocks in Pew Study. And don't miss the other responses linked from the main page -- all are thought-provoking and add something valuable to the conversation.

What are we here for? To love, and to help others love.

The assignment was to "Select a text, any text, and any type of text, that makes you happy," and to bring it to our Rabbis Without Borders Fellows gathering, and to teach it to one person. Since this was a rabbinic gathering, and we can generally assume that everyone in the room shares a certain body of rabbinic knowledge and Torah wisdom, I decided to reach into a different quiver. I brought a beloved poem by Thomas Lux. (Find it in his book Split Horizon, Mariner Books, 1995.)


An Horatian Notion

The thing gets made, gets built, and you're the slave
who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,
then pushes the block, then pulls a log
from the rear back to the front
again and then again it goes beneath the block,
and so on.  It's how a thing gets made—not
because you're sensitive, or you get genetic-lucky,
or God says: Here's a nice family,
seven children, let's see: this one in charge
of the village dunghill, these two die of buboes, this one
Kierkegaard, this one a drooling

nincompoop, this one clerk, this one cooper.
You need to love the thing you do—birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever —and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own.  Inspiration, the donnée,

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up!  Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth's core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.

—Thomas Lux

For me, the heart of this poem is these three lines: "You make the thing because you love the thing / and you love the thing because someone else loved it / enough to make you love it."

Continue reading "What are we here for? To love, and to help others love." »

Emilia Zhivotovskaya on cultivating happiness

"Happiness is something more than simply the absence of neurosis or sickness," said Emilia Zhivotovskaya. "To build a flourishing life, you want to minimize -- not eliminate! -- the negative and build the positive." Emiliya spoke with my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows today about positive psychology and about happiness. (Those of you who follow my Twitter stream may have gotten some glimpses of her remarks -- I did a lot of tweeting during her presentation.)

"Practicing lovingkindness meditation actually changes us," Emiliya told us. "When we feel loved, the body calms down, and cardiovascular health improves." (She cited some studies about the vagus nerve, lovingkindness, and compassion.) I can't speak to the science of her claims, but I know that the spiritual practices I've taken on have changed my lived experience of my world; I'm not surprised to hear that practices such as lovingkindness meditation actually change the people who practice them.

She had some interesting things to say about what she called "negativity bias" -- the ways in which we're hardwired to experience negativity differently than positivity. Imagine that you write a blog post or offer a sermon and you get five pleasant comments and one nasty one: what sticks with you more deeply? If you're like me -- like most of us -- you'll remember the negative comment, the nasty email, the hateful review, far longer and in more detail than the positive ones. What's that about? Emilia suggested that evolutionarily we're wired to experience bad more strongly than good. Maybe this goes all the way back to tasting unfamiliar berries on the savannah.

The human brain seems to default to negativity (as she notes, when was the last time you were kept awake at night thinking about things that are awesome?), and overcoming that default state takes some work. Happiness requires effort. Most of what she said here was pretty intuitive to me: "To become happier: consciously practice positive thoughts, feelings, actions." Positive emotions, she argued, broaden and build; negative emotions narrow and focus. So a person who's inhabiting negative emotional space will experience both literal and metaphorical tunnel vision; and a person who's inhabiting a positive emotional space will experience a broadening of perspective, an opening of the heart. Both of these states can be self-reinforcing.

Emiliya noted that "[w]hen people express gratitude before going to bed, they sleep better." (Seriously! Studies have shown!) I love that. Gratitude is probably the practice I've worked the hardest at cultivating in my own life. (See Totally optional poem: Gratitude, 2007; Modah ani with floating rainbows, 2011; this four worlds gratitude practice, 2012; and lessons in gratitude from a three-year-old, 2013.)

I find myself thinking about a lot of these ideas in terms of what kinds of grooves I want to be carving on my heart and in my mind. We're all creatures of habit. I try to cultivate the habit of seeing myself, and seeing everyone around me, through generous eyes. I try to be kind to myself to and to everyone around me. I try to say thank-you to God, at least every morning and every night, for the many blessings in my life. This sounds a little bit corny, I know! But I've found that when I make a practice of saying thank you, when I make a practice of trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, when I stop to notice what's beautiful in my life and in the world, I am calmer and kinder as a result. I am a better person, a better mom, a better rabbi, a better spouse. And the more I do those things, the more well-worn that path becomes in my mind and heart, the easier it is to keep doing those things.

After our day of discussing happiness, meaning, and the searches for both (in our own lives and in the lives of the people we serve), we walked to a Persian restaurant and savored some excellent food and fine conversation. Remembering Emiliya's exhortation to end one's day with gratitude, I'll close with this: I'm grateful for the opportunity to connect with these colleagues; to do this learning; to have off-the-cuff conversations about congregational life, Hasidut, Torah, science fiction; to walk the warm spring streets of this blinking, busy city after a long full day; to retreat to my hushed hotel room for a good night's sleep.

On arriving in the city one last time

One of the things I'll miss about this Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, when it formally ends after this week, is the routine I developed this year of driving to the train station and taking Amtrak into the city, then walking to the hotel where RWB puts us up. I've loved the feeling of having a regular city routine: I know my way around Penn Station now, I know how to walk to the hotel, I know my way around this hotel, the rooms are familiar...

I lived in this city as a kid, for one year. My parents, bless them, had always wanted to live in Manhattan. And the year I turned ten, they were able to; so we did. One of my brothers stayed in my childhood home and house-sat. We moved into a Manhattan apartment for a year. I attended a posh city girls' school. Our building had a doorman, and an elevator that went very, very high. (Or at least it seemed that way to me; I was nine when we got here, and had lived my whole life in a standalone limestone house with a Spanish tile roof.) New York amazed me then. It still does.

I used to think I would move here when I grew up. And the city is an incredible place, full of life and vibrancy. There are more people on this one island, not to mention in the other boroughs of this vast interconnected cityspace, than I can honestly imagine. I love walking past all of the different restaurants and stores and food carts, the stoops and windows and doors. I love seeing all of the different kinds of people one encounters in any city in the world. I know now that living here isn't my path -- I love my small mountain town too much -- but I always love dipping in to the river of New York.

When I arrived this time, I walked through a corridor of greenery on my way to the hotel. Apparently that block is a floral district of some kind, and now that it is May, the block is fully decked out for spring: standing plants, walls of wooden vases and birchbark flowerpots. I think the greenery is particularly noticeable because it's against the backdrop of all of this noise and exhaust and commotion, these tall buildings stretching toward the clouds. It was funny to suddenly be surrounded by green, just as I am at home at this season.

On the morning of my departure, our son solemnly told me to have a good time in New York City. "Some day I could take you there," I offered. "We could take a train to the big city, and go see some other kids whose mommies are my friends, and then go to a big museum where you can see dinosaur bones." His eyes grew large as saucers. "We can?" he breathed, as though I had just told him we could fly to the Moon. "Really, mommy?" Really, I promised. We really can. Not today, but maybe one day soon.

So I know I'll be back, New York; I've promised my son that I'll show him some of your wonders. (He's actually been here before, twice, but doesn't remember either trip. This time, though, I suspect he'll engage with the city in a whole new way.) For now, I have a couple of days during which I get to relish being part of this fabulous cohort of rabbis from across the different streams of Judaism: two days of conversations, meals, learning, collegiality, and the rare gift -- for the mother of a three year old -- of being entirely on my own, free to peoplewatch, to walk at an adult's pace, and to enjoy the company of colleagues and friends.

Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness

We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?" This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.

That's author Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Intriguingly, this book is the homework for this week's Rabbis Without Borders Fellows meeting. When our cohort of rabbis meets for the final time, we're going to be talking about happiness. I've written before about cultivating joy, but happiness and joy aren't quite the same. This book is the first real reading I've done in the field of hedonics.

What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life?

...In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal -- writing down at least five things for which they were grateful -- enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy -- things for which you are grateful...

82When I reached this section, in one of the early chapters, I felt a zing of recognition. Gratitude in each day -- articulating gratitude for the day's blessings -- these are among the most central spiritual practices of my tradition. When I say the modah ani each morning in the shower; when I pray the morning blessings (in either the traditional or alternative form); when I lie in bed at night and silently thank God for my home, my spouse, my child, my family and friends, my meaningful work; when I ask our son at the dinner table what was his favorite thing that happened that day -- these are daily gratitude practices. As far as I'm concerned, Ben-Shahar's right on.

This book does a nice job of balancing citations and references with actual practices for cultivating practices. Among the practices, Ben-Shahar suggests meditation, along with exercises such as mapping one's life (how do I actually spend my time) and creating an integrity mirror (a list of the things which are most meaningful and pleasurable to me, annotated with how much time I actually spend on each of these things each month.) He draws both on Freud (who argued that we are fundamentally driven by the need for pleasure) and on Victor Frankl (who argued that we are motivated by a will to meaning, and that striving to find / make meaning in life is the primary motivating force of human life.) He writes:

While the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.

Whatever sorrows we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive. Yes; I resemble that remark. This is more or less my base state; anything other than this is a deviation, for me. (For instance, those months of postpartum depression early in my journey into motherhood.) On the whole, I operate from a place of good will and good feeling, rather than the opposite. Is this why I feel pretty happy, most of the time? Or do I generally feel happy because I'm operating from a place of good will and good feeling? (Or am I able to operate from that place of good will and good feeling because I'm generally happy?) I'm not sure which way the arrow of causality points, and I'm aware that privilege plays into my ability to feel this way (I don't have to deal, e.g., with being short on spoons.) Regardless, I'm grateful to fit Ben-Shahar's description of someone who's happy.

Continue reading "Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness" »

New essay in Zeek about moving beyond binaries

I'm delighted to have an essay in Zeek once again. This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rabbi Irwin Kula and to the text study session in which he led my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at our February gathering. The essay (like the text study session) looks at the Talmudic figure of Rabbi Meir as a paragon of post-triumphalism and a role model for striving to see through / beyond binary distinctions.

Here's a taste:

Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was none equal to him. He was the best mind of his generation, bar none. Why, then (the sages ask) was the halacha not fixed according to his insights? Because his insights were so deep that no one else could fathom them. “He would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and supply plausible proof.”

The categories of tahor and tamei, clean and unclean (or, susceptible to ritual impurity, and not-susceptible to ritual impurity), were foundational to the sages of the Talmud. This was one of the primary binary distinctions through which they understood their world. And Rabbi Meir saw right through it.

A lot of progressive Jews are squeamish about the whole idea of tahor and tamei. (I’ve been there myself: what do you mean, the blood my healthy uterus generates every month makes me unclean?) Our discomfort with that system may get in the way of appreciating just how radical Rabbi Meir was.

But try this on for size: imagine looking at a staunch Republican and being able to see the Democratic values that person nonetheless holds. (And vice versa.) Imagine someone who could perceive the relativism beneath the most fundamentalist exterior — and the fundamentalism to which even the most relativist may be prone. In our modern paradigm, I think these are translations of what Rabbi Meir did and who he was in the world.

You can read the whole thing at Zeek: Being Meir.

Daily April poem: a triolet


Above the city, rabbis talk
laughing in a rooftop bar.
I lost my scarf, our crosstown walk --
above the city rabbis talk
of love and colleagues, get a lock
on each others' guiding stars.
Above the city, rabbis talk
laughing in a rooftop bar.



This triolet (written to a NaPoWriMo prompt) was inspired by a nightcap at the Gansevoort with a handful of my fellow Rabbis Without Borders. It's a bit flimsy -- there's not a lot of substance to it; I'm curious to see if I can write a triolet with a bit more gravitas -- but it was fun to write, and I figured y'all would enjoy a poem that's not about religious practice or my three-year-old for a change.

Edited to add: for those who are curious, here's no NaPoWriMo defines the form: "A triolet is an eight-line poem. All the lines are in iambic tetramenter (for a total of eight syllables per line), and the first, fourth, and seventh lines are identical, as are the second and final lines. This means that the poem begins and ends with the same couplet. Beyond this, there is a tight rhyme scheme (helped along by the repetition of lines) — ABaAabAB."


Truth from multiplicity: Rabbis Without Borders text study

For the building is constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict. -- Rav Kook, Olat Raya, Vol. 1, p. 330

This quote appears at the top of a study sheet called Religion and Politics: Some Orienting Texts, which we worked with on the second day of our third Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting. We began with the simple question: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?

We brainstormed some answers. It could be the third Temple, yet to be built; it could be Olam ha-Ba, the World to Come; it could be our own community; it could be the world at large. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield noted that Rav Kook can be read as focusing on the body politic of the Jewish people / the classical notion of the ingathering of the exiles, and also on individual human experience, and also on universal human experience -- all at once. (He also noted that we need to read Rav Kook's words both as theology and as poetry, which is, as y'all know, one of my favorite points of intersection.)

Rav Kook moves from "the building" to "the truth of the light of the world." It's arguable that he's talking here about truth itself. He could mean truth inside a single person; truth inside a people or community; truth inside all people -- and in all of these understandings, he's saying that truth will be built "from various dimensions and approaches." Truth is multivariant. Truth is in the future tense. It will be built, which means it isn't built yet. For Rav Kook, absolute truth does exist -- but it's emergent. It's not present, not fully -- and any claims about it must bear in mind that truth is a work in progress.

Imagine, said Rabbi Hirschfield, that at moments of our greatest political passion we understood simultaneously that there is real truth -- and, that truth is a work in progress. There may be an inclination to say "There's a truth but we're not there yet" -- but the idea of "we're not there yet" means there's a fixed "there" which we know we're heading toward. And for Rav Kook, by definition, when we get there, wherever there is, it will be different from whatever we can possibly imagine now. This took on a lot of resonance in the context of our two-day conversations about religion and politics. How might my relationship to politics change if I approached politics via the lens Rav Kook offers here? Brad continued:

Imagine that you're at a bus stop and it's starting to rain. So you get on a bus, not certain that it's going where you want to go... If you board the bus with questions for the driver, and interest in your fellow riders, and a keen interest in what's going on outside the windows, you'll be taking a very different ride from the other guy on the bus who thinks he knows exactly where he's going.

(This sparked several tweets which connected this bus metaphor with Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.)

What I find so beautiful about this Rav Kook passage is the idea that truth is always emergent, always becoming, and always being-built out of multiple approaches and ideas and souls. In order for truth to be built, we need all of our "variegated souls and backgrounds."

Rav Kook is clear that "the building" requires all of us. And in the end, peace cannot be built (between any "us and them," whoever that is for you) without the existence of difference and conflict; otherwise there's nothing to bridge between. Peace can't be built without all of us, without the multiplicity of opinions, without the "variegated souls and backgrounds which enrich wisdom and bring about its enlargement." And ultimately, even the existence of difference and conflict -- for Rav Kook -- is only an "appearance." On a broader or deeper level we're part of something much bigger in which our differences are contained.

From this text, we went on to a text from Exodus Rabbah in which some sectarians challenge R' Simlai, "Are there not many deities in the world?" After all, they point out, the word Elohim -- one of our names for God -- is clearly a plural word, so that must imply that there are plural gods! R' Simlai offers a grammatical answer: the Torah text may use a plural-sounding word for God, but the verb which goes with it is singular, so obviously God is One. His disciples are dissatisfied with this. So another rabbi, R' Levi, offers the teaching that the voice of God was heard by each individual according to their own capabilities. At the moment of revelation, each person heard what they were able to hear. (In Reb Zalman's frequent framing: God broadcasts on all channels, and each of us receives on the channel to which we are attuned.)

The point is: for the Rabbis, the claim of a singular God is not disproven, but is in fact proved, by the multiplicity of revelation -- and the multiplicity of revelations are geared toward the capabilities of those who receive. If we believe in a singular God, then the more manifestations of God there are in the world, then the closer we come to the truth of the claim of the existence of that infinite One.

Or, as Rav Kook has it, "the building" of ultimate truth can only be built through our variegated souls and backgrounds. It is not despite but through our most passionate political and spiritual differences that truth can be built. (It is not despite but through the multiplicity of revelations that Oneness can be accessed.) It is in and through our differences that we access the One.

You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism

We need to see that everyone who is not just like us is not some kind of restoration project, just waiting for us to "fix" them and turn them into poor imitations of ourselves. Do we really want a world of people who look, think, and act just like we do? That's not spiritual depth or religious growth, but simply narcisissm with lots of footnotes.

You-dont-have-be-wrong-for-me-brad-hirschfield-paperback-cover-artThat's the kind of wisdom I've come to expect from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is one of the co-presidents of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Along with the other co-president, Rabbi Irwin Kula, he teaches at our Rabbis Without Borders fellows retreats. On my way home from our most recent retreat, I started reading his book You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.

I knew that R' Brad identifies as Orthodox, and I had a vague sense that his spiritual trajectory had been quite a journey. But I didn't realize quite how broad that journey was until I began reading this book. In the early chapters he describes his falling-in-love with Orthodoxy; his desire, as a senior in high school, to study for a year in Israel; and his immersion in the culture of the settlers of Hebron.

I visited Hebron back in 2008 (see A day in Bethlehem and Hebron), but I didn't go into the settlement, and I didn't meet anyone who lived in that part of the city. Early in this book, R' Brad offers a stark and unflinching description both of what drew him into the movement -- and what caused him to leave. This is the longest quote I'll offer, but I don't want to abridge it any further, because this is such a powerful recounting, and it's a voice I haven't seen in print elsewhere. R' Brad writes:

I was a pilgrim who had finally reached his destination. I felt whole. Complete. This was what God wanted. This was what God had commanded: Brad Hirschfield, nice Jewish boy from the North Shore, standing at a tomb in Hebron, surrounded by one hundred thousand Palestinians who hated my presence there, singing Hebrew prayers.

I know it may sound ridiculous now, but then I didn't question it for one moment. There was not an inkling of doubt.

[The settle underground] began advocating for an increasingly harsh response against violence directed at Jews....Most of this made sense to me. Jews were being killed for settling in what had once been Jewish homes. This was our land, given to us by God.

For two years I gave myself over to Levinger and his group and the militant arm of the settlers' movement. When settlers Menachem Livni, Shauli Nir, and Uzi Shabaraf (whom I knew, although I was not in Hebron that day) fired into the Hebron Islamic College and killed two Palestinian children, I really felt sick...

Most of my group felt it was a tragic mistake, but they also thought it a natural result of continuous violence against us...No one questioned the wisdom of building the Hebron community in light of what had happened.

I found myself outside the fold. I stopped going to Hebron. I had no idea how to discuss how I felt with anyone within the settlers' movement. And I had no desire to talk to anyone outside about it, either... I was no longer a pilgrim. I didn't quiet know what I was.

It's so easy for those of us outside of a particular fold to castigate those within, and vice versa. And that's true whether the fold is the settler movement, a religious denomination, a community, a subculture, a nation. This book opened up for me both some of what might draw a person into religious fanaticism -- and also the unique lessons such a person could bring with them upon, mercifully, exiting that world for one which is more expansive and pluralistic.

After 9/11, he writes, he realized that he needed to confront his own past, to begin writing and speaking about his experiences as an ardent young settler. "Religion had flown those planes into the Twin Towers, and I had practiced a form of that religion. It is the religion of pilgrims, of people who see no way but their own way, and treat people who do not support them as mistakes that need to be erased," writes R' Brad. Near as I can tell, he's dedicated his rabbinate to teaching that there is another way.

Continue reading "You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism" »

R' Irwin Kula on the Rabbi in the Public Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first video vort: on the bedtime shema

One of the things we did together at the second meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders fellows cohort was work together, in small groups, on making video vorts. "Vort" is the Yiddish word for "word;" a vort, in this context, is a word of Torah, a wee spoken-word teaching.

I haven't experimented with video. The other social media we'd been talking about -- twitter, Facebook, etc -- are pretty solidly in my wheelhouse, but video is a new one for me. And it turned out to be fun. Maybe because we were doing it together, as friends and colleagues, and all of us were stretching ourselves in one way or another.

Several of us showed our videos to our cohort, and talked about them -- who we thought the audience of each one was meant to be, what worked and what we could do better next time, etc.  Showing my video to my cohort emboldened me, so I decided to share it here, too, even though it isn't perfect.

Embedded below: Two minutes of me talking about one of my favorite mitzvot, the bedtime shema. I describe the mitzvah, explain how it manifests in my life, and talk about how I know when it's working.

If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can watch the video here at YouTube. Let me know what you think: is this a useful way for me to share occasional very short teachings here?

Rabbis Without Borders: Who is your Torah for?

800px-Hebrew_Sefer_Torah_Scroll_side_viewThe last couple of days I've been at the second meeting of my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. It's been grand to see everyone again. One theme of our session was the rabbinate and expanding technology -- social media, its uses and misuses, who is our audience and how can we serve them, etc. I enjoyed the session with Allison Fine, author of The Networked Nonprofit; she had smart things to say. But as someone who's been active online for 20 years, and active in the Jewish blogosphere for almost a decade, I think I came to that conversation with a relatively high level of competency. So I was more excited about the other learning we did together.

For me one central question of the session came from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: who is your Torah for? Over the course of his session, he said several things which resonated with me. He urged us to try to live in a way which acknowledges the need for walls, but keeps the walls lowered as much as we can bear. ("Walls keep us safe," he agreed, "but they can also become prisons.") He exhorted us to live in a mindset of abundance. To recognize that the spiritual and the material are always interconnected. To strive to live in a spirit of both/and rather than either/or -- and to bring the same compassionate both/and response to ourselves that we bring to the world.

We studied a short text from Talmud (tractate Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) about the question of for whom the Torah was meant. And R' Brad noted the fairly remarkable truth that although that text was written during a time when Jews were tremendously persecuted (and by and large had a lot of understandable anger and anxiety around that), the Talmud still presumes that the Torah is not ours alone, that access to God is not ours alone, and that anyone who studies Torah (in the language of the text, even an idolater) is as elevated as the high priest. Here are a few of the gems from that Torah study which I tweeted as it was happening:

The most iconic Jewish text we have (Talmud) was written not in Hebrew but the English of its moment: Aramaic.

Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) teaches: there's no boundary b/w Torah and the peoples of the world. ALL of them.

In my wished-for world, the full dignity of the ultimate outsider is affirmed along with the full dignity of the full insider.

I think it's easy for people today who don't have familiarity with Aramaic to feel as though the Talmud is a kind of walled garden -- a Jewish treasure to which they don't have access. But R' Brad reminds us that Talmud was written in the vernacular of its day; it was meant to be accessible. It wasn't an ivory tower text designed only for the insiders. Beyond that, there's a thread in our texts, if we are willing to look for it and follow it, which reminds us that the wisdom we've been blessed to receive is not ours alone. This is the kind of post-triumphalism which drew me to Jewish Renewal, and which I also find in Rabbis Without Borders/Clal. R' Brad continued:

Of course you teach the Torah you most need. But it doesn't end there.

The unfolding #Torah of our lives is also a sacred text.

I "use Jewish" to serve people. That's who my #Torah is for.

The idea that we teach the Torah we most need to learn is one which was already very close to our hearts. And so is the idea that the unfolding Torah of our lives is a sacred text -- different from the written Torah we find in our libraries, but also holy. And the idea of "using Jewish" to serve people -- bringing Jewish wisdom, Jewish tools, to bear on the work of serving God and serving humanity -- is also close to my heart. We were all asked to ponder, and to answer, the question of "who is my Torah for?" As soon as I heard the question, my answer arose in me.

Glass-of-waterMy Torah is for anyone who is thirsty. Anyone who's thirsty for connection, for community, for God. Anyone who wants to make their lives holy or to become more conscious of the holiness in the everyday. Anyone who wants access to the rich toolbox of Jewish wisdom and traditions and ideas which I am blessed to have as my yerusha, my inheritance.

And then I thought: that would have been my answer ten years ago when I started this blog, too. I started writing VR for anyone who was thirsty, as I was, for connection with God and with tradition. Maybe especially for those who felt marginalized, who didn't perceive that they had a place at the table but yearned to be welcomed in.

That in turn raises the question for me: has that changed? Should it have changed? In the last ten years I've gone from being an aspirant to being, thank God, an ordained rabbi. I've gone from being someone who felt that I was outside-looking-in to being someone who feels blessed to have access to these incredible riches of tradition.

But I think my answer is actually still the same as it was. Maybe this is integral to who I am. My Torah is for anyone who yearns. I have better access now to the tools my tradition gives me for helping to connect people with meaning, to connect people with God. But I still want my Torah to be for anyone who's thirsty. "Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy, come and celebrate the Passover with us." That message from the Passover haggadah has long been one of my favorite things; and I think it shaped me more than I know. My Torah is for you who are reading this, whenever this is, whoever you are.

To shame someone is to shed their blood

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

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

-- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 58b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejecting erosion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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