Poetry by the sea

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It's always a joy to visit Temple Beth El of City Island. For years I've been wanting to attend their annual Shabbat by the Sea -- and this year, on August 26, I will! Weather permitting, we'll meet for Kabbalat Shabbat at the seaside home of two members, Ken Binder and Steve Roth, who live at 2 Bay Street on City Island. (In case of rain, we'll meet at the synagogue instead.) 

This year, Shabbat by the Sea will be preceded by a spiritual poetry reading by yours truly. I'm planning to share some poems from my newest published collection, Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press 2016) as well as from the as-yet-unpublished manuscript of my next collection, Texts to the Holy, love poems for the Beloved (many of which were shared here in early form.)

All are welcome (though donations will be gratefully accepted before Shabbat begins). If you're near City Island, I hope you'll join us! Plan ahead for traffic and finding parking. Poetry reading at 5:45, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7 (join us in the kabbalistic custom of wearing white to greet the Shabbes bride), lavish oneg to follow.

 


Join me for Shavuot at Isabella Freedman!

13178057_10154012469395781_6052018367941507131_nIn 2010, I was blessed to be able to spend Shavuot at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. (I wrote a little bit about the retreat: The Torah of Our Mothers, Reb Zalman Shavuot 5770, 4am, and Morning prayer, on retreat and after.) 

This year the Shavuot retreat -- co-presented by ALEPH -- features a lineup of some wonderful Jewish Renewal teachers and leaders. I'm honored to be one of the teachers at this year's Shavuot retreat.

I'm organizing a delegation from my synagogue to go down to Isabella Freedman, and as members of an ALEPH Network community we get a discount on registration. But the retreat isn't just for self-identified ALEPH folks -- it's open to everyone, and it is a tremendous experience. If you've ever wanted more out of Shavuot but haven't been sure how to find it, come to Isabella Freedman. Join us at the mountain. And get ready for some beautiful Torah to come down.

Learn more, and register, here at the Hazon website


Teaching at the ALEPH Kallah

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I've just registered for this summer's ALEPH Kallah in Fort Collins, Colorado! 

Kallah is ALEPH's (usually) biennial week-long gathering. (Last year we held the Getting It... Together retreat instead, so it has now been three years since the last Kallah.) Reading about Jewish Renewal can be interesting and even compelling, but there's nothing like experiencing it for yourself. Kallah is an experiential deep dive into Jewish Renewal. It's an opportunity to spend a week in Jewish Renewal community, sharing learning, meals, heartfelt and innovative davenen (prayer), art and music, spiritual experience, and more.

The class and workshop guide is now online: Kallah 2016 Class and Workshop Guide. ("Class" means a four-day class -- every morning, or every afternoon; "workshop" means a one-day workshop. So you can sign up for a four-day morning class and a four-day afternoon class, or one four-day class plus four one-day workshops, or eight one-day workshops if you truly want the smorgasbord experience.) I highly recommend clicking on the interactive pdf file and reading through the whole catalogue. I'm excited about what I've signed up for, though I also wish I could clone myself so I could experience more!

I'm teaching at the Kallah this year -- or at least, I will be if enough people sign up for my class. For those who are interested, here's the description of what I'll be offering:

TURN IT AND TURN IT (THE MIDRASHIC PROCESS)

Midrash are interpretive stories (the name comes from the Hebrew לדרוש, to interpret). Midrash speak in a multiplicity of voices as they open new facets of Torah... and diving deep into Torah is one of the most perennial “Joys of Jewishing!” In this class we’ll begin by exploring classical midrash to examine how they work, then we’ll delve into contemporary midrash (in a variety of forms: poetry, music, film), then learn the midrashic process from the inside out as we write our own midrashic texts, embroidering our voices onto the ongoing tapestry of interpretation.

If writing your own midrash sounds like fun, I hope you'll join me. Enrollment in my class is limited, so sign up now!

I've also signed my son up for the Kids' Kallah -- a fabulous daycamp offered in conjunction with the Adventure Rabbi. I am so excited at the prospect of introducing him to my Jewish Renewal community, and introducing them to him in return. (I have fond memories of the Kallah seven years ago which I attended whie pregnant; I imagined, then, what it might be like to someday bring my kid to Kallah. And now I finally get to do so!)

Early-bird pricing is still in effect; if you register before April 14, you get 5% off. Read all about it and register now!

 

I've posted a fair amount over the years about different experiences with the ALEPH Kallah; if you're so inclined, you can read those old posts via my ALEPH Kallah tag.


In three weeks: a Shabbaton in Las Vegas

VegasOver the weekend of April 8-9 -- three weeks from this coming weekend -- I'll be the scholar-in-residence for a Shabbaton (a Shabbat retreat) hosted by Congregation P'nei Tikvah in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

The weekend will feature a Friday night dinner as our kabbalat Shabbat experience; a Shabbat morning Torah study and brunch; and a Saturday evening poolside havdalah and dessert gathering -- complete with poetry reading!

I'm looking forward to meeting members of the P'nei Tikvah community, and to spending time with my host there, Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, who I have known for many years through OHALAH, the association of Jewish Renewal clergy.

This isn't officially part of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, but on Shabbat afternoon there will be some conversations about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future even so.

If you are in or near Las Vegas, I hope you'll consider joining us for the Shabbaton! The organizers are asking people to sign up (and pay) by April 1, so -- please let them know if you're planning to join us.

(From Las Vegas I will be moving on to the California stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, so if you're in southern or northern California, stay tuned for more information there.)


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.


Teaching in Tikshoret

This winter, ALEPH is launching a new adult education program called Tikshoret: Contemporary Connections in Jewish Learning. (The name tikshoret comes from the Hebrew root which means connection -- the idea is that these classes will connect participants with our tradition's many riches.) The classes will be offered online via zoom videoconferencing, will be relatively brief (a few sessions, rather than a full semester), will be affordable (an accessible taste of Jewish Renewal Torah), and should be a lot of fun. And fortunately, our first Tikshoret class is being taught by someone who won't mind if we're still working the bugs out of the system as we go -- me. 

Feb 17, 24, March 2 & 9 – 8-9:30pm Eastern (US) Time

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts
Instructor: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rachel-squareThe psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We’ll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others’ work, we’ll close by davening together once more.

Learn more about Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Cost: $125

SIGN UP TODAY BY CLICKING HERE

All are welcome. If you would enjoy writing a handful of psalms, I'd love to have you in the class!

Upcoming classes will be taught by Shoshanna Shechter-Shaffin ("Eve and Lilith: Secrets of the Creation of the Divine Feminine"), Hazzan-Magid Steve Klaper, Rabbinic Pastor Dr. Simcha Raphael, and Rabbi David Zaslow -- more information about each of those classes will appear on the Tikshoret page on the ALEPH website, so check that out (and when you go there, a window will pop up inviting you to join the ALEPH mailing list -- that's the easiest way to ensure that you'll get updates on forthcoming programs and events.)


The freedom seder, feminist seders, and transformation

Yesterday afternoon I gave a talk as part of Colorado University's second biannual Embodied Judaism Symposium, "Freedom Seder: American Judaism and Social Justice." I spoke about how Rabbi Arthur Waskow's historic 1969 Freedom Seder helped to pave the way for the feminist seder movement and for a broader shift in how we understand seders and the story at their heart -- and about how that work was, and is, a core part of Jewish Renewal.

For those who are interested, here are the slides from my talk. Video should be forthcoming on YouTube -- stay tuned!

 

 
Thanks again to the folks at CU for inviting me to speak. It was an honor to represent ALEPH among such luminaries as Professor Riv-Ellen Prell (Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota), Professor Adam Bradley (Founding Director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at CU-Boulder), and Rabbi Arthur himself.

Off to Colorado

I'm traveling to Colorado today for a very brief visit (flying west today, and back east on Friday -- truly short and sweet!) in order to speak at a Colorado University Embodied Judaism Symposium on the Freedom Seder (about which I posted recently.)

I've grown accustomed to going to Boulder once a year for the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy, and a couple of summers ago I traveled there in August for the Remembering Reb Zalman memorial. But it feels a little bit strange to be going there for a purpose other than davening, learning, and reconnecting with my Jewish Renewal hevre (beloved colleague-friends).

Of course, I do expect to see some of my hevre at this symposium. The conference is honoring Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who has been a part of Jewish Renewal from the beginning. And there are some wonderful Jewish Renewal folks who call Boulder home, some of whom will probably be joining us. But this symposium is an academic enterprise, not an explicitly spiritual one, and it's open to a broad audience, not just Jewish Renewal clergy.

Colorado University is graciously putting me up at the Boulderado, a beautiful old hotel in downtown Boulder. That feels like a strange kind of homecoming too, because my first several OHALAH conferences were held there! (I still have fond memories of a late-night liturgy class there in the hotel bar.) I suspect that as I walk through the building, I will perennially feel as though I am almost glimpsing old friends and dear teachers just out of the corner of my eye.

If you'll be at the symposium, I hope you'll come up and say hi! Once the event is over there will be guided tours of the Freedom Seder exhibit and the exhibit on the work of Reb Arthur, and I imagine I will be hanging around there chatting with whoever wants to talk. I'll post my slides on Friday, so stay tuned...

 


Symposium on the Freedom Seder

EmbodiedjudaismThe very first time I went on a Jewish Renewal retreat -- a week-long retreat at the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality, which was then in Accord, NY -- I spent my mornings studying Jewish meditation with Rabbi Jeff Roth (now of the Awakened Heart Project) and my afternoons talking tikkun olam /healing the world with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center. I knew Reb Arthur's work already because I had read his book Godwrestling. I suspect that's where I first learned about the Freedom Seder.

The Freedom Seder was held on the third night of Passover, April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, in the basement of a Black church in Washington DC. About 800 people took part, half of them Jews, the rest Black and white Christians. (If you're interested, the text of the original 1969 haggadah is available online -- and here's a terrific NPR piece: In Freedom Seder, Jews and African Americans Built a Tradition Together.)

This November, the Freedom Seder and its legacy will be celebrated at Colorado University in Boulder with their second biannual Embodied Judaism Symposium, Freedom Seder: American Judaism and Social Justice on Thursday, November 12 from 4:30PM – 6:30PM on the CU-Boulder campus. The symposium will explore American political activism and religious practice in the wake of the 1969 Freedom Seder.

I'm honored to be included among the speakers at that symposium. Reb Arthur will be there and will speak about the original Freedom Seder and its impact on twenty-first century struggles for social justice. I'm planning to speak about how the Freedom Seder used the particularistic Jewish language and frametale of the seder in order to express a vision of justice and a world redeemed, as well as the impact of the 1969 event on the last few decades' worth of feminist seders.

Adam Bradley, Associate Professor of English and Founding Director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at CU-Boulder, will explore how the 1969 Freedom Seder’s core principles of grassroots social action, prophetic vision, and cross-racial collaboration are linked to the burgeoning hip hop culture of the mid-1970s. And Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, will address the cultural politics of the Freedom Seder and how the event challenged particularist understandings of Jewish ritual, recasting Jewishness as a radical platform for building bridges across race and religion.

I'm looking really forward to this symposium and to hearing what all of the other presenters have to say. If you're in the area and this sounds interesting to you, please join us! The Embodied Judaism Symposium is free and open to the public. However, space is limited, and RSVPs are required, so please email CUJewishStudies@colorado.edu or call 303.492.7143 to reserve a spot.


Glimpses of Beyond Walls

The Kenyon Institute has released a beautiful video about Beyond Walls, the spiritual writing program for clergy in which I was blessed to teach this past summer.

If you can't see the embedded video, here's a link to the video on YouTube.

Watching the video reminds me of what a lovely experience it was to teach there. If you're curious about Beyond Walls, the video will give you a good sense for what the program was like.

I won't be teaching at Beyond Walls in summer 2016 -- it's at the same time as the 2016 ALEPH Kallah -- but I'm planning to return in 2017, for sure.


Whatever gets in the way...

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When I was an MFA student at Bennington many years ago, I had a poetry mentor named Jason Shinder who used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

He was talking about poetry, of course...Whatever is getting in the way of my creative life doesn't have to be an obstacle. Seen from a different vantage, it's a doorway in.

I've come to see this as a profound spiritual teaching, too...

That's from the beginning of my latest piece for The Wisdom Daily: The Gift of Recognizing What's In Your Way. I hope you'll click through and read!


On being a blogging rabbi

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Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller.

On Friday morning at Beyond Walls I gave a talk about being a blogging rabbi. I talked about how I began Velveteen Rabbi, the journey through rabbinic school and becoming a congregational rabbi, the gifts and shadow sides of blogging as a clergyperson, how blogging is part of my spiritual practice, living spiritual life in the open, how to begin blogging, and why I still think blogging is worth doing.

Here are the slides from that talk. In general I try to use slides to spark the things I say, rather than to contain all the words I'm going to say, so the slides aren't a reconstruction of the talk -- but they'll give anyone who was there some visual cues for remembering what I talked about, and for those who weren't there, they'll offer a glimpse of some of what I had to say about the clerical blogging life.

 


More from Kenyon

Last night Marie Howe gave a poetry reading. I'm a longtime fan. I still remember a commencement address she gave at the Bennington Writing Seminars some years ago, and I read an excerpt from her poem "What the Living Do" every year during yizkor (memorial) services at my shul on Yom Kippur.

Her reading was lovely -- from the serious (including the aforementioned poem, of course; and she also read one of my very favorite Jane Kenyon poems ever, "Let Evening Come") to the raucously hilarious (I can't wait until that Mary Magdalene poem is published so I can point y'all to it.)

Today may be my most densely-packed day of the week. From morning meditation to teaching all morning; to an afternoon book-signing along with Marie, Rodger, and Amy Frykholm; to teaching an evening workshop; to leading the evening meditation -- it's going to be a very full day, but a sweet one.

There's much about the experience of this retreat which feels familiar to me. Being in a temporary  community of people who seek to be spiritually open is familiar to me from ALEPH. Sitting down at meal tables and talking about writing life is familiar to me from long-ago Bennington residencies.

But when I've done writing retreats in the past they've been secular, so the integration of writing and spiritual life is a new adventure. And when I've done spiritual retreats in the past they've been Jewish, so being in spiritual community also with Christians of various stripes is also a new adventure.

I'm grateful this morning for the modah ani melody running through my head; for those beloved to me who while physically distant are nonetheless in my heart; for breakfast table conversations about prayer gear and retreat centers, and for discovering more about how interconnected we all already are.


First post from Beyond Walls

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I'm spending this week at Kenyon College as faculty for the Kenyon Institute's first-ever weeklong writing workshop for clergy, spiritual directors, and seminarians, Beyond Walls.

Last night at dinner I enjoyed a delightful dinner table conversation which ranged from "what we hope to get out of this week" to different weekly lectionaries, different death and funeral practices (I mentioned the hevra kadisha, or volunteer burial society, about which I first wrote in 2005: Facing impermanence), and the idea of "liturgical east." It was a lot of fun. (The fact that I find these conversations endearing and enjoyable is probably a sign that I have chosen the right line of work!)

I'm here this week to teach blogging, which I think is going to be neat. For advance assigned reading I chose six thoughtful, thought-provoking, interesting blog posts to share with my students. It occurred to me that y'all might be interested in seeing the advance reading too, so I'm sharing the links here:

Eucharistic Mitzvah, Tertium Squid

Struggle, Ima Bima

Psalm 75, Yedid Nefesh

Finding an authentic spiritual voice this Ramadan, Wood Turtle

Reflections on Holy Week 2012, The Cassandra Pages

Explicit, tacit, explicitly, 如 (thus) 是

I wanted the assigned reading to feature a range of writing styles; a range of religious traditions; and a range of forms (from the short poem/psalm at Yedid Nefesh to the multipart essay at The Cassandra Pages.) These are all bloggers whose work I regularly follow; three of these six bloggers have become dear friends of mine "offline" as well as online, though we initially met via our blogs, and we continue to maintain our correspondence and our friendship in part through this digital medium.

I'm looking forward to teaching my first workshop this morning, and hope to share some gleanings from my week with y'all as time permits.


A Shabbat in Westchester; a Sunday in Williamstown

CelebratingThis coming Shabbat I'll be the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Westchester Reform Temple women's retreat. The theme for the retreat is "Celebrating Ourselves: Bringing Wellness and Wisdom into Everyday Life," and I'll be offering a talk titled Revealing the Heart's Song.

I'm looking forward to davening with everyone during the contemplative service on Shabbat morning (led by Rabbi Sara Abrams and Cantor Jill Abramson), to sharing some thoughts about the intersection of creative life and spiritual life, and to teaching an afternoon writing workshop ("Writing your own song of the heart.") I'm also looking forward to taking one of the afternoon's other workshops, too -- maybe "Soul Collage" or "Care from the Cupboard."

I'll have copies of 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold available for anyone who wants them. (And if you don't carry/spend money on Shabbat, you're welcome to take a copy home and mail me a check afterwards.) This promises to be a lovely day, and I'm honored to be able to be a part of it. If you're one of the women of Westchester Reform Temple signed up for this daylong retreat, I look forward to meeting you this Shabbat!

StjohnsOn Sunday I'll be speaking again, this time alongside my dear friend Reverend Rick Spalding, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown. After their 10am morning service there is an 11:15am coffee hour, and at 11:30, Reverend Rick and I will take turns speaking about our religious traditions' relationships to "creation care," which is to say, the religious imperative to care for our planet.

A Q-and-A session will follow our formal remarks, and I will probably have copies of my books there as well if anyone's interested in buying one. All are welcome -- not only members of that church, but the general public as well.


Beyond Walls faculty spotlight

BarenblatSpotlightI'm honored to be the subject of the Faculty Spotlight in the latest issue of Beyond Walls, the online journal dedicated to the program of the same name in which I'm teaching this summer. Here's a taste:

I think of Velveteen Rabbi as akin to an intimate coffee-table conversation, even though I know that my words are going out to thousands of readers. Through the blog I invite people in to my virtual home. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup, and listen to this beautiful Hasidic teaching I learned about the holiday cycle. Or here's a piece of Torah with which I'm struggling this week: how do you approach these verses? It's a back and forth, and I welcome conversation with my readers.

Read the whole thing here: Faculty Spotlight | Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. (I also really like the graphic they put together to accompany the piece -- now with the initial typo fixed!)

Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon is a summer program at the Kenyon Institute designed to assist clergy in becoming more confident and expressive writers to both congregational and external audiences. Read about it and sign up now at their website.


Poetry of sacred time - a reading in Pittsfield on 3/26

At 1pm on Thursday, March 26, I'll be sharing some poetry at Knesset Israel synagogue (16 Colt Road) in Pittsfield. (Some of you may remember that I was supposed to give this reading back in the fall; it was postponed because I had to turn my attention instead to a funeral.) The reading is presented by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires:

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires will present a reading of poetry by author Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.  The reading will dip into the wellsprings of Jewish sacred time.  Rabbi Barenblat will share Torah poems, motherhood poems, and poems which engage with Jewish liturgy and with the unfolding of our festival year.  Q & A and book signing to follow. Cost $3.

I will have copies of 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold (my two Phoenicia Publishing titles) available for sale, as well as a few copies of Keeping Faith in Rabbis (in which I have an essay) and perhaps a chapbook or two.

And for those who are interested in these kinds of things -- don't forget that my next book-length collection of poems, Open My Lips, is due from Ben Yehuda Press later this year. That whole collection is themed around Jewish sacred time.

All are welcome; I hope to see y'all there!


In the Begining Was the Word

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I had a lovely time teaching psalm-writing a few days ago. Eight people participated in the class, including some of my former students from the Inkberry days!

Now I'm gearing up for the other Berkshire Festival of Women Writers event in which I'm participating -- In the Beginning Was the Word: Reading and Panel Discussion by Women Writers of Faith -- which will be tomorrow (Monday) evening at 7pm at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge.

In her book The Nakedness of the Fathers, poet Alicia Ostriker writes, “By the time the spiritual imagination of women has expressed itself as fully and variously as that of men, to be sure, whatever humanity means by God, religion, holiness, and truth will be completely transformed.” This multigenre reading and panel discussion will feature four Berkshire women writers—with backgrounds in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism—whose work is influenced by their faith, either overtly or just beneath the surface. The participants will each give a short reading and speak about the intertwining of their life in writing and their life in faith.

Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She was cofounder and executive director of Inkberry, a literary arts center that served the Berkshires from 2000 to 2009. She is author of three poetry collections: 70 faces: Torah poemsWaiting to Unfold, and the forthcoming Open My Lips. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi, and in 2008 her blog was named one of the top 25 on the Internet by Time. She serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Hannah Fries is an editor at Storey Publishing in North Adams and assistant poetry editor at Terrain.org. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in American Poetry Review, the Massachusetts ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College.

Liz Goodman is the pastor of the UCC congregation in Monterey. She has a M.Div. from Harvard and a B.A. in creative writing from Colby College. Her publishing has mainly been professional, and her writing projects are most often in service of her ministry, but the short story still haunts her and is something she gets to from time to time.

Sokunthary Svay is a writer and musician from New York City. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, her family fled Cambodia to a Thai refugee camp, where she was born. Her writing has been anthologized in Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time, and she has also contributed articles to Hyphen, a San Francisco–based Asian American arts and culture magazine.

For a map and venue contact information, you can click through to the event description on the BFWW website. I hope to see some of y'all there!


Disagreement for the sake of heaven

9Adar_LoRezEng_180I had the opportunity to do something really neat last night -- to participate in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. What's 9 Adar? Glad you asked:

The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

There have been a variety of 9 Adar events in various places over recent days and weeks. (The ninth day of the lunar month of Adar was actually a few days ago; our event happened a few days after the date itself, but was nevertheless part of the same "Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict" initiative.)

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, though he's no longer there; he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:

The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?

(Korach, you may recall, was the fellow in Torah who rebelled against Moses' authority; he argued that the whole congregation was holy, so why did Moses hold himself above everyone? Moses said okay, fine, let's put this to God and we'll see who God prefers; and the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers.)

We began by going around the virtual room and each of us offering a few thoughts about Korach. Here's more or less what I intended to say in my opening remarks about Korach and his story:

I find that when I'm teaching Korach to my b'nei mitzvah students, they universally take his side. "What's so bad about Korach? He just didn't want all of the power to be in Moses' hands. And who elected Moses leader, anyway?" -- that kind of thing.  I know that I have at times felt great empathy with Korach -- and yet I've noticed that over the last 15 years my empathy for Moses has risen and my empathy for Korach has decreased, and maybe that's a function of me becoming a rabbi, or maybe it's a function of me just getting older, I don't know!

For me, the Korach story is a useful illustration of how not to handle conflict in my congregation. If someone becomes angry with me and how I'm doing things, and I respond with my own defensiveness, then I'm setting the stage for some kind of disaster -- the earth might not literally open up and swallow anyone, but there could be hurt feelings, damaged reputations, etc. We have to find a better way of settling our disputes.

For me the critical question is: was Korach actually acting out of a sense that everyone in the community is holy? Or was he jockeying for more power of his own? If it's really about his own ego and self-aggrandizement (e.g. he wanted some of Moshe's power), then it makes more sense that the earth swallowed him up -- because his makhloket (argument) wasn't really l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven).

For me that's what this all boils down to: how to keep our disagreements (including those around Israel/Palestine) for the sake of heaven, instead of for the sake of me being right and you being wrong.

"If the argument is based in love and mutual respect for one another, then it's an argument for the sake of heaven," said Rabbi Kolakowski, quoting the Satmar rebbe. "The way to tell if someone's a zealot and is just arguing for the sake of arguing is, how does that person lead their life in general? Does he argue about everything, or is it only when it's something important and for the sake of heaven that he gets excited and speaks up?"

Rabbi Suskin began by noting that she feels strongly ambivalent about Korach. It's hard for us as moderns not to feel some sympathy for the position of "we're all holy here" -- and yet our commentaries on Korach are pretty strongly negative. It's difficult to do with Torah what we want to do with other kinds of stories, and tell the story from the point of view of the "bad guy" and thereby redeem him.

She pointed out that the rabbis suggested that the reason that Korach's argument was not for the sake of heaven was that when he protested that "all of the people are holy," what he was really saying was not that we all have the capacity to be holy, but that in and of ourselves, without doing anything, regardless of what we do, we're holy. She argued that it's not really Jewish to say "I'm holy no matter what I do; no one can judge me." We're part of the community; our behavior impacts those around us.

From there we shifted into talking about what it means for disagreement to be holy -- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- the Talmudic stories of Reish Lakish and of Kamza and Bar Kamza -- the obligation to rebuke, and also the obligation to recognize where people are and to speak to them in a way that they will hear -- finding the partial truth in opinions with which we disagree -- and more! Here's the video of our conversation, which ran for about 65 minutes:

And if you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it on YouTube - 9 Adar Interdenominational Text Study. If this sounds like fun to you, I hope you'll go and watch.


Women in Religion at Williams College

E017fc0450ca91fbce474a3b6c82452987af1dbf-1This Thursday evening I'll be participating in a panel discussion featuring female religious leaders, moderated by my friend Reverend Rick Spalding (the head of chaplaincy at Williams College, my alma mater.) The discussion will be at 7pm on March 5 in Thompson Memorial Chapel, the big stone chapel that's right on route 2. Here's how the event is described on the college calendar:

The Williams College Feminist Collective is hosting a panel of female religious leaders to discuss their careers and how gender has played a role in their religious lives and careers. Panelists including Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Reverend Beth Wieman, and Chaplain Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim.

I'm delighted to take part, for a variety of reasons. During my own time at Williams I was one of the creators of the Williams College Feminist Seder, so it's neat to be invited back by the current feminist students' group. Also, I know Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim from the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, at which both of us were alumna facilitators last year. I'm looking very forward to meeting Rev. Beth Wieman. And it will be fun to talk with them, for a public audience, about our religious vocations and our lives as women and how those things intersect.

If you're in or near northern Berkshire county, join us -- the evening is free and open to the public.