Being visible

At CPE on Monday we got to talking about visible signs of vocation: specifically, the clerical collar that many Christian clergy wear. No one in my group wears the collar on Mondays when we are in class together, though it turns out some of my colleagues wear one on-call -- sometimes. Why only sometimes? The collar, they tell me, sends a complicated series of messages (both to insiders and to outsiders), and one can't be sure how those messages will be perceived or received. And there is also a question of whether wearing a symbol that sets one apart is the best way to serve God, and whether the symbol's visibility feeds ego sometimes instead.

(Thanks to the blogosphere, these notions weren't new to me. Desertpastor's post What does a clerical collar say? asks some good questions, and Preston's terrific post More on the clericals explores the dynamics of being a wheelchair-bound priest and how the two signs, wheelchair and clerical collar, send different messages to the hospital community he serves.)

Neither Judaism nor Islam has an analogue to the clerical collar, though my Muslim colleague and I joined the conversation by speaking about his beard and my kippah. In both of our traditions the markers of devoutness are democratic. They're not limited to clergy, but are symbols of piety that are open to everyone. (Well, where "everyone" means "men." We'll come back to that.) Of course, beards can also be fashion statements, so they're not necessarily religious symbols. And being a part of his face, his beard goes with him everywhere. My yarmulke is a little different. Unlike a clerical collar, it's not a sign of ordination; but like my Christian colleagues with their collars, I wrestle with questions of when to wear a kippah, and why, and what it means when I do.

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Witnessing my first smicha

Several of you have asked me to post about the Aleph smicha (ordination) ceremony I was fortunate enough to attend a week ago. It moved me deeply, which makes me want to chronicle it both for myself and for you. I feel some trepidation in so doing, though; I'm new to the program and I know I can't do the ceremony justice. I offer here some impressions and memories, and hope this post will be received in the respectful spirit in which it was written.

A congregation made up of colleagues, teachers, family, fellow students, and friends rose and sang as the processional came in: first Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, then the four directors of the Aleph ordination programs (Reb Marcia Prager, the dean; Reb Daniel Siegel, director of spiritual resources; Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, director of the rabbinic pastor program; and Hazzan Jack Kessler, director of the cantorial program), followed by the six musmachim (students/apprentices) who would receive smicha that day. The six of them sat on a raised platform at the front of the room.

First we prayed mincha, the short afternoon prayer service. Reb Zalman was the prayer-leader, draped in his beautiful rainbow tallit, and he did something wonderful with the amidah: we chanted the first three blessings together in Hebrew, and then for each of the latter blessings he spoke extemporaneously on the blessing's theme. We sang the final blessing for peace to the familiar tune of "Dona Nobis Pacem," in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and English.

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Liminality

When the ballroom doors opened, the sound of singing poured out into the foyer. The student body of the four Aleph ordination programs -- rabbinic pastor, rabbinic, cantorial, and (the newest addition) spiritual directorship/hashpa'ah -- was gathered inside, singing "bruchim ha-ba'im b'shem Adonai" (and the feminine version, "bruchot ba-ba'ot..."), "welcome are you who come in God's name." They sat in a great circle, around a smaller circle of outward-facing chairs.

One by one, the new students (I think there were fourteen of us) walked through the double doors into the ballroom. We each stood a moment beneath a rainbow tallit, held up by four posts festooned with ribbons, breathing the experience in. And then we took our seats in the inner circle of chairs, facing out toward the outer circle where the students sat and sang.

We introduced ourselves -- who we are, where we're from, what program we're each beginning. Then the current students circled us slowly, singing to us, pausing to clasp our hands and hug us and welcome us quietly in their own words. Friends and strangers murmured blessings in my ear, and if I was a little bit weepy by the end of that part of the ceremony, at least I wasn't alone.

Then we joined the larger circle, and the six students who would receive smicha later in the day moved into the center. One by one, six current students rose to give them each a blessing. The blessings were personal, deep, revelatory, powerful. After each, we sang a little bit, as if to seal the words and their intent. At the close, those six on the cusp of ordination stood beneath the chuppah together, arms around one another, and we showered them with blessings and with song and with applause.

There's a sweet symmetry to having one ceremony for these two purposes: welcoming new students, and celebrating those who are about to relinquish student status. All we who are crossing the threshold, whether coming or going. How tremendously fortunate I am to have such good role models walking ahead of me; how blessed I feel to be on this path.


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Tefillin in winter

Laying tefillin is simpler in summertime. When I'm wearing some light sleeveless linen thing, my arms are already bare; wrapping my left arm with the leather retzuah is a tactile experience, but it doesn't take any preparation. Now, though -- now I have to tug at two layers of thick winter wear, a turtleneck and a heavy wool sweater, to scrunch them up my arm far enough that the bayit, the little box containing the words, rests at the strongest part of my bicep. (That I haven't worked out lately also makes the supposed bulge of bicep harder to find, but that's another issue entirely.)

This morning I was hyper-conscious of my tefillin, in part because of the sensation of the leather and in part because my left arm was cold! It didn't distract me badly, but I was definitely aware of it, and when I was finished there was a certain pleasure in yanking my sleeves back down.

The cold shouldn't be a surprise, since I started laying tefillin last spring when there was still snow on the ground. But acclimatization matters -- the same snowy day that feels chill at the start of winter (compared with the warmth that preceded it) can feel almost balmy at winter's end. It's written in the Shulkhan Arukh that one who is suffering from the cold is exempt from the obligation to lay tefillin, but I don't really have any desire to invoke that clause -- I'm not really suffering, just kvetching. And I regard tefillin as an informed choice, not an obligation per se. (Besides, I really like tefillin. I'd miss the experience if I gave it up until the snow melts.)

Incidentally, snow and tefillin have interesting symbolic resonance, at least according to The Mystical White Snow, an article by Rabbi Boruch Leff. Rabbi Leff draws a fascinating connection between white snow and the Zoharic teaching that God wears all-white tefillin. (Ours, he says, are black, representing how we absorb revelation; God's, in contrast, are white, because God reflects all wisdom and guidance.) Wacky.

Anyway. Having all of this on my mind made it especially entertaining to find the following image in my blog aggregator today:

(Image via Jerusalem Syndrome.) Does this make her Rosie the Davvener?


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The Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Last year a dear friend gave me a copy of The Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Music & Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit. Rabbi Summit teaches ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University, where he is also director of the Hillel Foundation, and this book inhabits the intersection-point between his fields.

Like me, Rabbi Summit grew up first Conservative and then Reform; unlike me, he went on to pursue ordination at HUC and, later, to spend several months studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. (He describes his relationship to the Jewish community as "polymorphic.") His goal in this book was to explore Jewish liturgical music: what we do, why we do it, and how what we do (or don't do) shapes and is shaped by our sense of Jewish identity.

Rabbi Summit uses music as a prism for looking at the worship practices of five Boston-area congregations: Renewal havurah B'nai Or, Reform congregation Temple Israel, Tufts University Hillel, Modern Orthodox congregation Shaarei Tefilah, and Hasidic Congregation Beth Pinchas run by the Bostoner Rebbe. In each of these congregations, he explains, he was a kind of participant-observer. On the one hand, each was an important part of his own religious journey at some point in his life, and he davvened with them as he worked on the book; on the proverbial other hand, he was also an ethnographer there conducting research. His simultaneous insider/outsider status shapes the book in fascinating ways.

Over the course of the The Lord's Song in a Strange Land he explores the nature and role of Jewish liturgical music, how Shabbat is celebrated in communities ranging from Reform to Hasidic, and the difference between individual melodies and the nusach melodic system. For someone interested in Jewish music, in liturgical leadership, and in denominational differences -- like, say, me -- this book is a fantastic read.

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Vicarious anticipation

Though the autumn Jewish holiday season is long over now, the Christian holiday calendar is just getting going -- today's the first Sunday of Advent, the four weeks of expectation leading up to Christmas. In honor of the occasion Karen of Kinesis has posted a beautiful poem by Thomas Merton, and Real Live Preacher is talking about a new Advent devotional authored by godbloggers.

Though Advent marks time on a liturgical calendar I don't share, I enjoy it in a kind of vicarious way. It's not hard to relate to the incremental increase of light represented by the candles of the Advent wreath, and the contemplative in me thrills at the prospect of any holiday that's preceded by weeks of spiritual preparation. I like the anticipation of it, even though the incarnation it's anticipating doesn't fit my theology.

I had a long blog post in mind about this -- and then I re-read last year's post on the subject, and realized the post I had in mind is one I've already written. So I'll just point you there: Advent.

(And yes, I'll be off this afternoon for the community Messiah-sing again. I haven't been able to sing with a chorus this year, so I'm especially excited about the chance to lend my voice to a communal song...)


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[URJBiennial] Worship

During the first 36 hours of the Biennial, I experienced three very different styles of worship/davvening. Two out of the three prayer experiences made me pretty happy; all three were interesting and instructive.

In this post I'll speak briefly about each experience -- one led by two people, and one by twenty; one all in Hebrew, one in Hebrew and English, and one in Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino -- and will close with some musings on performance and participation, language, and the range of Reform worship.

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Reader, I married them.

I'm a romantic; I get jazzed every time two people decide to take the leap of faith involved in committing to spending their lives together. I'm also a liturgy geek; I love the endless variations that are possible on the wedding theme. And I'm a poet with a longstanding interest in the potential transformative power of language, so it lights me up when people pay close attention to how the words they speak can change their lives. It stands to reason, therefore, that I would love doing weddings even more than I love attending them. All of the above pleasures apply, plus I get to apply my time and energy to making the phenomenon happen in a way that's simultaneously customized to the two people involved, and consonant with their tradition(s) and their understandings of God.

 

I like all weddings, but last night's stands out, both because it posed such fascinating challenges, and because it was so darn much fun. Last night I married Wendy Koslow (of now-defunct blog The Redhead Wore Crimson) and Joey "Accordion Guy" Devilla. Their story reads like a fairytale. They were introduced by Reverend AKMA at the first BloggerCon a few years back. Despite the distance between Toronto and Boston (and between their two families and backgrounds -- Wendy is Jewish and American, Joey a Catholic Filipino-Canadian) they fell in love. I was thrilled and honored when they asked me to officiate for them, though I knew this ceremony would stretch my skills; it's not like I have a vast repertoire of Jewish/Filipino wedding liturgies to draw on!

I consider myself as a kind of bespoke tailor of wedding ceremonies. I work with the couple to choose beloved things that matter to them and I stitch them into something beautiful and uniquely theirs. Where interfaith ceremonies are concerned, I aim to walk the fine line between honoring each tradition's uniqueness and integrity, and finding ways for our differences to be complementary. But I'd never tried to harmonize elements from two such disparate traditions before; would the seams show?

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Let's talk about funerals.

"Let's talk about funerals." That's what Jeff said to me yesterday afternoon, as we planned to meet as usual for meditation and Torah study this morning.

He's going on vacation tomorrow (I'll be serving as shaliach tzibbur, prayer leader, over the next two Shabbatot), and historically when he goes on vacation he asks one of the region's other rabbis to be on call in the event that a congregant dies. This time, I am on call instead.

It seems, on the one hand, eminently reasonable. I have officiated at baby-namings and weddings; some day I will need to learn the other side of the life-cycle coin. A while back, anticipating Jeff's 2006 sabbatical, we talked about this eventuality; that's why I'm doing my best to enroll in a CPE program this fall. When Jeff goes on sabbatical next winter, I hope to have some pastoral counseling under my belt. But his vacation is nearly upon us; there isn't time to gain new counseling skills now. Which is why this seems, on the proverbial other hand, a little overwhelming.

So this morning, we talked. He told me which congregant to call to set the funeral home and chevra kadisha wheels in motion. How to set up a meeting with the family, and what to say to them when we meet. How to walk them through the funeral day and what it will entail, how to prepare them for things which may be hard (seeing the casket, e.g., or the ride from the synagogue to the cemetary.) How to help them decide what kind of shivah they want to do. How to prompt them for personal stories to use in the hesped, the eulogy.

I have a copy of the CCAR Rabbi's Manual, which contains the funeral liturgy I would need. VirtualCantor.com has a recording of El Male Rachamim, the memorial prayer, which I can learn. But as Jeff ruefully reminded me, the funeral is the easy part. More  difficult, and maybe more important, is the work of helping the family begin to move through their grief.

Last time we I talked about this was April, after my first experience on the chevra kadisha. We agreed that next time our community had a funeral, I would attend, to see what Jeff does and how he does it. Fortunately we've been lucky; there hasn't been a funeral since then.

It's entirely possible we will continue to be so; with God's help, there may be no deaths during Jeff's absence. Deus volent, inshallah, and kein yehi ratzon, I won't need to rise to this particular occasion now. But if someone does die, I will need to tap into the strength I find when I officiate at other, more joyous, life-cycle events; I will need to rise above my fears that I don't know what on earth I am doing, and be present for the family in their loss. If this situation does arise, I must live up to what the community needs me to be.

I know that some of my readers are clergy. How did you find what inner resources you needed to handle your first funeral?


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Altarity

"I've recently noticed that somehow, without much intention, little altars have cropped up everywhere around me. There are three in my office, one in the backyard, one on my bedside table...the windowsill over the kitchen sink...the corner of the living room. Just this week my neighbor caught me setting a new one up by my front door..."

So writes Rachelle of ThursdayPM, in her post Little Altars Everywhere: Recovering She. She talks about what's on her altars -- specifically the newest one, by her bedside -- and what the component parts mean to her, and why she has altars at all. Her post rang some bells for me, and I filed it away to contemplate (and respond to) later.

A few days after I read Rachelle's post, Dave at Via Negativa posted Home and Altar, a meditation on altars in twelve numbered sections. He asks great questions: "What happens to the home when it incorporates an altar? What happens to the altar when a religious sanctuary is converted into a private home?" (He also muses on the Abrahamic tendency to see strangers as incarnations of divinity, the nature of possessions and of ownership, and whether computers connected to the internet have altar-like qualities. Good stuff, and the comments on his post are also really worth a read.)

The confluence of blog posts got me thinking. In a way, my dining table is my altar. The rabbis interpreted the words of Ezekiel -- "I have removed them from among the nations and scattered them; I have become a small sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have gone" -- to mean that in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the home table would become a new altar for offerings to God. When I light Shabbat candles, when I bless bread and wine, my words and intentions are my offerings to God, and my table becomes sacred space.

I like thinking of my table as an altar, a place where connections with God are forged. When we bless and share what we have, our table is graced with a presence beyond our own; our words and intentions become offerings to our Source, playing the role once filled by sacrifice. (That's why we wash our hands with a blessing before eating, and why we salt our double loaves at Shabbat.) Table-as-altar: absolutely, that resonates for me. That said...I have something in my house which bears some resemblance to Rachelle's altar, too.

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Surprises

So I have this friend named David. We went to college together. He and I met during the fall of my freshman year, during the period of time when I was going to the Jewish Center every Friday night. He encouraged me to sing; along with a dozen other friends, we founded the Elizabethans together. In those years we welcomed many a Shabbat by lighting illicit candles and blessing whatever "bread" and "wine" were in my dorm room (often as not, Triscuits and a bottle of Sam Smith's oatmeal stout). This is the same David who gave me my first copy of The Jew in the Lotus (and my second one, after I lent the first one to somebody who decided to keep it). We've been singing together, and discussing theology together, pretty much since we met.

David came to visit on Monday, because it was my thirtieth birthday. I'd already had the shock of a lifetime the previous day, when my wonderful sweetie threw me a surprise "erev birthday" brunch which turned out to include my parents, here from Texas to surprise me! But by Monday evening they were gone again, and I expected a quiet birthday evening featuring friends, cheesecake, and sparkly beverages.

Those expectations were happily met. But before the other friends came by, and before we broke out the champagne flutes, David handed me a bright turquoise gift bag with two birthday cards in it. After I read the cards (one of which noted that a hypothetical baby born when we first became friends would be long past the age of b'nai mitzvah now -- an alarming fact if there ever was one), I withdrew the package inside the bag...unwrapped the tissue paper...and stared at the blue velvet tefillin pouch inside. "You didn't," I said. He laughed at me. "I don't believe you. You didn't!" I said again, though in retrospect I can't imagine why, since obviously he had done.

As you may remember, I've been contemplating buying myself tefillin for a while now, and I very nearly bought myself some that day. But I can't help thinking that, delightful as it would have been to lay my own claim to the tradition, there's something especially auspicious about having them given to me. Maybe I've read too many fairy tales, but it seems like there might be extra oomph in a set of tefillin that come as a gift. Certainly there will be extra joy in putting them on, which I intend to do for the first time tomorrow morning. I'm working from home tomorrow, so could theoretically sleep in...but I think I may set the alarm,  instead. I have a date with my new tefillin, and I don't want to be late.

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The ties that bind.

I learned recently that there's a thriving black market in stolen tefillin and Torah scrolls.

No, really. I discovered this while out to lunch with a friend, who told me that when her house was robbed this past summer, one of the items stolen was her husband's tefillin.

I suggested that the thief saw their velvet bag and assumed it held jewelry. My friend said that had been her original theory, too, until she talked to another friend who's a former prison chaplain. He had some amazing stories about guys who were doing time for fencing stolen Judaic items, especially Torah scrolls and tefillin.

This story struck me both because it's so bizarre, and because I've been fascinated by tefillin lately. To explain why, I want to look at the Shema. Not at the first, and arguably most important, line (which merits its own post at some point), but at the paragraphs which follow. (The first paragraph can be found here, and subsequent paragraphs here, if you scroll through the guy's personal commentary a little.)

This two-part teaching -- the Oneness of our Source, and that we should love God with everything in us -- is central to Judaism. The teaching contains instructions for its own dissemination: it tells us that these are words we should transmit to our children, should speak in our homes and on our travels.  Further, we should manifest the teaching in a variety of physical ways: on the doorposts of our houses, by wearing fringes on our garments, and by binding it as a "sign" or "frontlet" between our eyes. In every case, we are instructed to do these things in order that we may be mindful of God's mitzvot (usually translated as "commandments," though some argue the word's root is more akin to "connections") and do them.

Doorposts: check. I've always had a mezuzah on my front door. Whether you regard the mezuzah as protective amulet, or as a veneration of a pivotal text, it's continued proof that the Jewish tradition values words on the page, which I can't help being pleased by. (And we put them on our doorposts! Religion really is all about liminality!)

Fringes: yes and no. The commandment is generally interpreted to apply only to four-cornered garments (apparently more common in Biblical days than they are now). When I don my prayer shawl, I'm appropriately fringe-y...but I don't wear a tallit katan (lit. "small prayer shawl," the fringed undergarment which would enable me to wear tzitzit all the time). In my experience, that's a practice followed at the Orthodox and Hasidic end of the spectrum, but not over here in the so-called "liberal" end of things. To be honest, it's not a practice I've ever missed. Don't hold your breath waiting to see me in fringes, unless wacky faux-Western garb comes back into vogue.

Frontlets (a.k.a. tefillin): nope. Never worn them. But I'm starting to find them increasingly interesting. For one thing, the word is related to tefilah ("prayer"), making these little leather boxes of words a kind of prayer incarnate.

My first encounter with tefillin came some years back, when my father and I accompanied my grandfather to a weekday morning minyan to say kaddish for my grandmother. I was intrigued by the weekday morning service, which was new to me. Especially startling was the sight of a dozen of the congregation's men, in their short-sleeved dress shirts and Bolo ties, shrugging out of their sportcoats to wrap the leather strap of tefillin around one arm.

At the time, tefillin seemed like an anachronism. That began to change for me in 2002, on my first Elat Chayyim visit. I woke early for "interpretive shacharit" (a morning service which proved to include meditation and chanting: right up my alley) and discovered that many of the people there were laying tefillin. Women outnumbered men that morning, so most of the people binding arm and head were women. I was struck by the sight. I knew intellectually that in most Jewish denominations women now lay tefillin, but I'd never seen it done.

As they wrapped, the women recited a variation on the verses from Hosea that my husband and I spoke in our wedding: "And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness..." (Hosea 2:21-22, JPS translation.) Wow, thought I: what an amazing way to physically remind oneself of one's essential connection with God. The leather binding is a physical reminder of a metaphysical attachment. Like a wedding ring, a signifier of a connection which transcends it.

The image has stuck with me. I find it compelling, although I have mixed feelings. Part of me chafes at the notion that the physical representation is necessary. God is in everything (or: everything is of God; or: everything emanates from God: or, everything is essentially connected with God), so why should we need tefillin to make that connection clear? Wouldn't it be better to arrive at a state of consicousness where one's connection with the sacred is always active, without the "crutch" of the physical representation of that connection?

But the more I think about it, the more I think tefillin are a fascinating workaround, a cosmic string-tied-around-the-finger, a way of reminding ourselves to remember what we always forget. God is infinite and ineffable: we're not. That's the weird miracle of creation and incarnation, that an infinite Source compresses Itself into finitude. Being finite, our minds can't actually grasp God. Maybe that's why someone (we, or God, depending on your point of view) arranged for things like tefillin: because we're fallible, and we need to be reminded.

On a good day, when I wrap myself in my prayer shawl I feel enfolded in Presence. It's a good feeling: connectedness, rootedness, alignment with the source of sacredness from which all things flow. Intellectually, I can tell you that that connection is always there, whether I'm conscious of it or not. But I get wrapped-up in work and to-do lists and the assorted paraphernalia of day-to-day life, and I forget what roots me.  Sometimes donning my tallit is a good reminder.

Tefillin, I think, must work similarly. God is One, and we should love the Source of all being: we want that teaching to inform how we see the world, so we tie it to our foreheads like a helmet-strap flashlight. We want that teaching to color how we work in the world, so we affix it to hand and arm. We do the physical act not because it "actually" matters, but because it's a tool to raise our consciousness closer to God.

And then we untie the straps and put the tefillin back in their bag and get on with our day. Because Judaism is a religion for this world, and study is meaningful specifically because it can lead to action. But maybe the straps leave an imprint that can be felt, if not seen. Maybe since we're finite beings trying to stay conscious of the Infinite, they're a nifty hack of our finitude.