Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"

UnetanehThis morning I was asked a question about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we pray on Rosh Hashanah. How do we make sense of "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" when something truly awful happens? For instance: a teenager is killed, God forbid, in a horrific accident. How can we reconcile our horror at this kind of trauma with a sense of a loving God? What does it mean to assert that God "seals" such a fate for us? Let me say upfront that I don't have "the" answer. But here is an answer.

Earlier in that same prayer, we read "You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." That line says to me that we're not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. (This isn't Santa Claus, who "knows when we've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake!") The Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

Every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with every thing I do, and every thing I don't do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbor. God doesn't write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it "reads from itself" -- or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the television show of our own lives.

Later in that same prayer, we read "But teshuvah (repentance or re/turn, turning toward God), tefilah (prayer / self-examination), and tzedakah (righteous giving) avert the harshness of the decree." The prayer doesn't make the claim that these three things can change what's going to happen; but they can ameliorate it. They can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year -- no amount of teshuvah, tefilah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. Or if, God forbid, a teenager on her bicycle is struck by a car -- no amount of repentance, prayer, or righteous giving can change that shattered reality for her or for her family who remain to mourn. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can change how we experience the reality which is. They can change our experience of the world. 

Continue reading "Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"" »

#BlogElul 23: Love

Blogelul2013Connecting with God is all about love.

I know that assertion seems strange to some of us, but I really believe that it's true.

Every morning we sing that God loves us with a great love -- ahavah rabbah ahavtanu. "You have loved us with a great love." Your love for us is so great that You give us Torah, a collection of stories and ideas and teachings to live by, as a parent lovingly gives their child stories and ideas and teachings to live by.

(I've been reading Heschel's Torah Min HaShamayim / Torah From Heaven recently, so I can't help being aware that I've just articulated the kind of view that Rabbi Ishmael would have espoused. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, would argue that Torah is supernal and is inherently, mystically, holy -- the point isn't that it's rules to live by, the point is that it offers access to God. Well: either way, I suppose, Torah is an expression of divine love for us.)

Every night we sing that God loves us with an unending love, a forever love, a love which spans worlds. Ahavat olam beit Yisrael amcha ahavta -- "You have loved the house of Israel with an ahavat olam, an unending love!" Or, in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro's beautiful poem, set to music so lovingly by Shir Yaakov, We are loved by unending love. (I love that setting and that melody. We'll use it at our evening services during the Days of Awe this year at my shul.)

God's love for us is unending and infinite. I believe that the whole of creation, from the most microcosmic particles to the vastest galaxies, is an expression of divine love. God so overflows with divine love that God brings creation into being in order to have somewhere to direct that love, in order to have conscious beings with whom God can be in loving relationship.

And the Days of Awe are all about love. Even the parts which seem, on the surface, to be about justice and repentance. Because God loves us, we are always already forgiven...but that doesn't obviate our need to do the work of teshuvah, to repair what's been broken in our selves and our relationships and our world.

FingerpaintingA few weeks ago when the Wednesday morning coffee shop clergy met (to read some of the aforementioned Heschel) we wound up in a conversation about our liturgy and whether/why it matters. One of my colleagues offered the metaphor that all of our fine liturgies, our prayers, our melodies, all of the high pomp and circumstance of these most elevated services of the year...are like a finger-painting a child proudly brings home to the parent. And because that parent loves their kid, they say "How beautiful, sweetie! I love it! I'll hang it on the fridge!"

No loving parent would ever say "Wow, that's a terrible drawing; what kind of artist do you think you are? You should be embarrassed to even bring that into my house." We try so hard to have grand high holiday services, to follow all of the rules and the customs of our communities, to make these services as perfect as possible. And sure, our efforts matter. But God isn't up there somewhere muttering to Himself, "what terrible artists. They should be embarrassed to even bring that into My house." God is the loving parent Who says, "How beautiful, sweetie -- you made Me a service! I love it! I'll treasure it."

Because God knows we're doing the best we can do. With our services -- with our spiritual lives -- with our lives writ large. And God loves us even though we make mistakes all the time, and even though our art isn't so great. We are loved by unending love. Even if we haven't set foot inside a synagogue since last Yom Kippur, even if we've been steadfastly ignoring God and forgetting to check in every day and every week and every month, even if we've screwed up royally. We are loved. And because we are loved, we have the strength to love in return.


#BlogElul 20: Judge | On why God-as-judge challenges me, and why I still need the metaphor


One of the predominant images in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

One of the most challenging images (for me) in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

It's so easy to think of the human judges who have not ruled justly, and to project our anxiety about unjust human rule onto God. To respond with reactivity: I don't want to be judged. To buy into that ugly old line which says that Judaism is a religion of stern and strict Law (while Christianity, the unjust saying goes, is the corrective, a religion of Love.) Ugh. No offense intended to my Christian friends and loved ones; that's just such an appalling (and incorrect) oversimplification.

What fascinates me this year is this: even though I know better than to swallow any of that old negativity, it still crops up in my consciousness. I still struggle sometimes with the metaphor of God as judge.

But it is a metaphor. As surely as any of our terms for God are metaphor. God isn't really a Father or a King or a Judge, a Mother or a Beloved or a Wellspring. And at the same time God is all of those things and more. God is the limitless ein-sof of the kabbalists' imagining, that infinity without-end which human minds can't possibly grasp. And God is every one of the qualities we find in the sefirot as they flow and chain and spiral into creation; God is boundless love and boundaried strength and the balance between the two, God is endurance and humble splendor and generativity, God is immanent in all creation. God is masculine and God is feminine and God is neither and God is both. And God is Friend...and God is Judge.

God-as-judge can be a powerful metaphor -- but we have to remember that it's only a metaphor, and that it isn't the only metaphor. If God is a judge, S/He is the Judge Who rules with the perfect balance of strength and compassion, discernment and mercy.

When we hear that a person has died, the traditional response is Baruch dayan ha-emet, usually rendered as "blessed is the True Judge" or "blessed is the Judge of Truth." Rabbi Marcia Prager taught me that since the word emet, truth, contains the first, middle, and last letters of the alef-bet (א, מ, ת), we can creatively read  Baruch dayan ha-emet as "Blessed is the judge of beginnings, middles, and endings." Perhaps that's one sense in which God is our Judge: God is present, with clarity and discernment, as our lives begin and unfold and end.

And God is that moral force which calls us to be our best selves, which pushes us to recognize when we are falling down on that job, which goads us to notice how we could be better in the year to come. At least once a year we all come before the One and have to make a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls. As much as I love the personal metaphors for God -- Mother, Beloved, Parent, Source -- I recognize that there's a certain kind of awe-some trembling in which I don't necessarily engage when it comes to those more intimate metaphors. At this season, I need God to be a Judge so that I can meet that aspect of God Which helps me to judge myself.

Judge is a partzuf, a face or form or visage or mask through which we can relate to the Infinite. It's not the only mask God wears, but it is one of the ones we most often call upon in our High Holiday liturgy. What role does this partzuf serve for us? What is it that we need to call forth in ourselves which we can only call forth when we find ourselves face-to-face with this aspect of God?

#BlogElul 16: Change

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven..."


Many of us sing that song (in its setting by The Byrds) during Sukkot, the festival of harvest and impermanence, which begins four days after Yom Kippur. The megillah (scroll) assigned to that festival is Kohelet, after all -- known in English as Ecclesiastes -- which is the source of that bit of scripture.

We may study Kohelet during Sukkot in particular, but impermanence is a reality all year long. Change is a constant. Even when things appear to be standing still, subtle change is always unfolding.

I'm particularly conscious of this at this time of year, when the glorious greenery of the Berkshire hills begins to shift. Early in August, the first yellow or red maple leaf blows across my line of sight. I always feel a pang. I love the long days of summertime, the golden light, the abundance of flowers and leaves and vegetables and fruits. I'm not ready!

But I know that part of what makes the Berkshire summers so glorious is that they don't last forever. (In the words of House Stark, for any Game of Thrones among you: Winter is coming.) We don't live in the tropics; the days here shift, longer to shorter, warm to cold, and then back again. The real beauty is in the rhythm of the constant change.

Seasons are cyclical; human life is linear, more or less. (Though my good friend Reb Jeff wrote a beautiful post recently about how human life isn't really as linear as we tend to think -- Contrast and Commonality -- which I highly recommend.) There are cycles and circles and recurring themes in every human life, but outside of science fiction we experience the arrow of time going in one direction. We're all growing older, every day; moving further away from the transition into this life, and toward the transition out of this life. But as with the seasons, part of the work of this life is learning to find the beauty in the change, instead of getting too attached to any stage along the way.

I love having a not-quite-four-year-old. This is a charming, fun, funny, exuberant, wonderful age. There are moments when I think: I wish I could hit a cosmic "pause" button and stay with this age, because I love the person our son is right now! I love the cuddles and the silly songs and the goofiness and the earnest sweetness. But then I remember: if I could somehow pause him at this age, I wouldn't get to experience the blessings (and challenges, and frustrations) of what comes next. And what comes after that.

In parenting, it often seems that the only constant is change. I remember when he was an infant and I would become exasperated because just when it seemed we'd "figured him out," and knew how to soothe and comfort him, something would change and the old techniques wouldn't work anymore. The changes are different now than they were then, but change is still the constant.

Though I like to think that love is the real constant. Change is inevitable, change is always unfolding -- but our ability to love one another remains. Our sages teach us that this month’s name, Elul / אלול, can be read as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי / “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. (That’s from Song of Songs.) The Beloved, in this case, is God; this is our month for remembering that we can experience God not only as King and Ruler and Judge (the metaphors so prevalent in the traditional high holiday liturgy) but also as our Beloved and our Friend. This is the month when God walks in the fields with us, yearning to connect with us Friend-to-friend, Beloved-to-beloved. Life is change, but love always remains.

God is in the tragedy too

On the evening of the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a post called God is in the helpers, in which I cited the Reverend Kate Braestrup's articulation that God is not in the disaster: rather, we find God in our response to disaster. God, I wrote, is not in the trauma, but in the helping hands.

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, replied to me privately to say that while he agrees with me that it is better to look for God in the helpers than in a tragedy, he's hesitant to follow me into the idea that God cannot be found in the tragedy itself. His gentle note spurred me to approach this again, now that some time has passed and I can begin to relate to the tragedy in a different way.

Where is God in that?

Human life is marked with sorrow. One natural response to sorrow and tragedy is to demand: where is God in this? As a rabbi, I have been blessed (and painfully challenged) with that question. I remember ministering many years ago to a woman who had suffered a grievous trauma, who turned to me and spat, "Where the F*&! is God in that, huh?" And all I could say, in that moment, was: I hear you. And I honor your pain.

When I am wearing my pastoral care kippah, I can say: we find God not in the trauma, but in the ways we care for each other. God is not in the shooting or the bombing, but in the hands which cradle and nurse the victims back to health -- and the hands and hearts which cradle and care for those who grieve.

I resist the notion that God is the mighty string-puller and that we are His marionettes -- that God is "up there" choosing when a child is killed, or when a tsunami drowns thousands, or when some damaged and broken person plants bombs at the finish line of a marathon. God does not "do that to us." I do not accept the image of God as traumatizer or batterer, the Big Man in the sky who abuses humanity at His own whim. For me, God is most fundamentally found in the love and compassion we show toward each other, not in the tragedies which we encounter.

And yet God is in the fire; in the hurricane or earthquake; even in the gunman or the shrapnel or the bomb. Depending, of course, on what we think we mean by saying "God is in..." anything.

Continue reading "God is in the tragedy too" »

Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)

Back in early 2009, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Adler for Zeek. My interview with her ran in the spring 2009 print edition of Zeek, the Sex, Gender, and God issue. (I posted about that here at the time.) Zeek no longer does a print edition, and I'm not sure it's possible to buy that back issue anymore, so in advance of Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler's keynote presentations at the OHALAH conference next week, I'm reprinting the interview I did with her. (As it happens, I did the interview by phone from OHALAH, so there's a sense of things coming full circle for me!)


Rachel Adler is one of the foremothers of Jewish feminism. In 1971, she published an article entitled "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman" in Davka magazine. Many now consider that article to have been the springboard that launched Jewish feminism into the world.

Adler's "Engendering Judaism" is a germinal classic of Jewish feminism. She was one of the first theologians to read Jewish texts through the lens of feminist perspectives and concerns -- work she's still doing today, as a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College Rabbinic School.

I spoke with her from the hallowed halls of the Hotel Boulderado where I was attending the annual meeting of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- a profoundly feminist organization which owes its existence in part to her work. We talked about entrails (she's working on a reading of Mary Douglas' work on Leviticus), congregational politics, the new Hebrew edition of "Engendering Judaism," and her hopes for the future of Jewish feminism.

Our conversation made me realize just how far we've come, and how grateful I feel to be living and learning in a time when Adler's work is part of the liberal Jewish canon. --Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Your roots are in Orthodoxy; today you teach at Hebrew Union College. Can you give us a nutshell version of how you moved from point A to point B?

ADLER: Actually I'm a 5th generation Reform Jew, but became Orthodox in my late teens. I was Orthodox for more than twenty years, but eventually returned to Reform Judaism. I joke that I am a round-trip baalat teshuva.

51qPmncYryL._SS500_ZEEK: "Engendering Judaism" came out in 1998 -- more than ten years ago now. Do you still consider it to be a radical text?

ADLER: Yes. In Engendering Judaism I propose a basis for a progressive halakha -- a pro-active, rather than reactive, halakha which is formed at the grass roots level. I also propose a wedding ceremony which is egalitarian and halakhically feasible. And I propose that our sexuality is part of our divine image. All of these things still strike my students as radical.

ZEEK: You've argued that until "progressive Judaisms" attend to the impact of gender and sexuality, they can't engender Jewish life in which women are equal participants. Have you experienced hostility to this view, either from within progressive Judaism or from folks outside of this sphere?

ADLER: Orthodox Jews don't make pronouncements on what progressive Judaisms need to be more progressive. It's progressive Jews who sometimes pay lip service to the need for egalitarianism, and then when it comes to think tanks or executive positions in Jewish institutions don't include women.

ZEEK: You've raised the point that relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. Thinking in terms of "Women in Judaism" suggests that women are a kind of add-on to the normative body of Jewish tradition, in maybe the same way that studying "Women's literature" implies that literature writ large is necessarily in the purview of men...

ADLER: Actually I footnoted this point. It was made by another scholar, Miriam Peskowitz. Most academic disciplines now view gender as an area for scholarship by both women and men. That makes sense, since gender,both feminine and masculine, is a changing variable, affected by social and historical context.

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

ZEEK: On a related note, you've written that you're interested not only in critiquing androcentric structures but in healing Judaism -- that your goal is not judgement but restoration. Does this tie in with the ethical task I just mentioned?

ADLER: Absolutely. Judaism is not a system on which I'm passing judgment from a distance. It is my home in the universe. I'm concerned that I and other women be full and equally privileged residents in our home.

Continue reading "Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)" »


I promise to try to begin and end each day with gratitude.

I promise to try to remember to say thank you for everything which sustains me: morning shower, cup of coffee, the reheated leftovers of the meal my husband lovingly made last night.

I promise to do my best to pay attention to the world: the illimitable stream of beauties and surprises and sweetness, and the endless unfolding of sorrow and hurt.

I promise to try to find the blessing in everything.

I promise to try to relate to each person everywhere as a holy being who merits my respect.

I promise that I will try to be kind, and I will try to keep my heart open.

I promise that I will try to be compassionate with myself when I fail to live up to these promises, when I have to pick myself up and try again, and again.

In return, God promises me this breath, and the next, and the next -- until such time as my breathing comes to an end. God promises me this moment.

God promises to continue speaking creation into being and breathing life into all things.

God promises to stream blessing into the world.

God promises to take me where I need to be, even if it isn't always where I want to go.

God promises to be in relationship with me always, even though I can hardly grasp what that relationship would mean.

God promises to listen when I speak, even if God can't talk back.

God promises that I will never be alone.


This week in our b'nei mitzvah prep program we're studying brit -- covenant. As Jews we understand ourselves always to be in perennial communal covenant with God, a covenant which is symbolized by our keeping Shabbat and practicing brit milah. I believe we're also always in individual covenant with God, too, and I'll be inviting the students to write their own personal brit with God. I didn't want to ask them to do something I hadn't tried first myself, so here is mine.

Sex, Gender, and God at Zeek

The spring 2009 print issue of Zeek magazine is on the theme of Sex, Gender, and God. Guest-edited by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the issue features essays by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser ("Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?"), Rabbi Elliot Kukla ("Lepers and me"), Rabbi Julia Watts Belser ("Speaking of Goddess") and Judith Plaskow ("Why Feminist Theology Matters"), among others. Also poems by Eve Grubin and Alicia Ostriker, and visual art by Elyse Taylor, Bara Sapir, Rachel Kantor, and many others.

My contribution to the issue is an interview with Rachel Adler, author of the classic Engendering Judaism. Rachel and I spoke about how Engendering Judaism is still a radical text, how she came to self-define as a theologian, and what gives her hope for the future of Jewish liturgical creativity, among other things. Here's a taste:

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

The whole interview is available in the print edition of the magazine. You can subscribe to the print edition of Zeek here. Thanks to everyone involved with putting out the issue; I hope y'all enjoy!

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On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam

In my Qur'an class, we've been reading Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (commonly called Ibn Rushd; also known as Averroes, a Latinate distortion of Ibn Rushd), specifically his "Decisive Treatise Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy."

Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and dialectical theology. On the request of the amir Abu Ya'qub, who reigned in Morocco in the late 1100s, Ibn Rushd took on the task of rendering Aristotle's work in a way that would be intelligible within a Muslim framework. In 1182, Ibn Rushd took on the position of chief physician to Abu Ya'qub in Marrakesh; he was also engaged, during those years, in writing the Decisive Treatise, a fatwa which aimed to answer the question of "whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by the Law, or prohibited, or commanded -- either by way of recommendation or as obligatory."

Some of you may recall that I've been reading Rambam in my Codes class. Rambam (the name is an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; in Arabic he's known as Musa ibn Maymun, and in Greek as Maimonides) was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher. Like Ibn Rushd, he was born in Cordoba (in 1135), and like Ibn Rushd he later moved to Morocco. (Rambam also lived in Egypt.)

Both men were doctors. Both men were philosophers. Both men were religious leaders. And both men argued against the stance that philosophy (the science of the day) was incompatible with religious belief. On the contrary, they argued, the truths of reason and philosophy are entirely consonant with God's revelations to us. It is incumbent on us as people of faith to seek to know God, and one of the ways we seek to know God is through understanding God's creation using every tool available to us -- including philosophy.

(I'm not the first person to make this leap. Jacob Bender has a lovely essay about Rambam, Ibn Rushd, and Aquinas called Lessons from Three Wise Men: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas. So it's not a new connection, but it's a new one for me, and I think this is so cool.)

Continue reading "On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam" »

First theomorphism class

I'm taking a class this summer with Shaiya Rothberg on theomorphism. The class aims to explore the image of God in Jewish tradition. Does God have an image? Well, that's the open question. In general, if you ask Jews whether God has an image or a body, the answer is "of course not!" Sure, Torah frequently speaks in those terms, but those passages are meant to be read metaphorically. (If this subject interests you, read on; what follows is a recap of the remarks that opened class, before we got to the hevruta/paired text study.)

God doesn't have an image: that's the standard answer because we're products of the Maimonidean tradition. Rambam (a.k.a. Maimonides) was deeply influenced by Aristotelianism, and also by Islamic thought. His Guide to the Perplexed regards the anthropomorphism in Torah as completely metaphorical. There's a sense that matter, physicality, is "lower" or less valuable than mind/spirit. God is understood as pure form/intellect, transcending the material stuff that one can perceive using physical senses.

We've inherited that idea, and we've also inherited a lot of ideas from the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the beginning of the academic study of Judaism in the nineteenth century. (Think Biblical criticism, documentary hypothesis, all that jazz.) That generation of scholars got to determine the meaning of Jewish sources and how they would present those sources to the world, and they were deeply invested in this idea of a formless God. That was a period of time when "mythology" was a dirty word. Mythology, paganism, anthropomorphism: all of that stuff was seen as inferior.

Continue reading "First theomorphism class" »

Theodicy meme

Iyov tagged me to respond to a theodicy meme which goes as follows:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

Whew. While I'm always pleased to see the blogosphere engaging with weighty questions, I can't really imagine answering these in a satisfying manner in a single blog post!

I don't think these are the right questions to ask. I get hung-up on the first phrase of the first question: "if the nature of God is..." If I had to try to characterize the "nature" of "God," the best quick answer I can offer is that God is multifaceted and arguably ultimately unknowable, at least through intellectual means.  The framing of the question seems to presume a pretty limited conception of God, and for me a sincere exploration of theodicy requires some different assumptions.

I took a powerful class on theodicy last summer. It helped me realize that we've always struggled to reconcile our understanding of a just and good God with the realities of suffering as we experience them. Over time, our responses to these questions have shifted as our paradigm has shifted. The Biblical answers to these questions differ from the Rabbinic answers to these questions which differ from the kabbalistic answers to these questions. (And so on.) I take comfort in the notion that our responses to these questions can shift, have shifted, must shift as we change and grow, both as individuals and as a community.

For me, the question to ask is not "how could God allow suffering," but "given the reality of suffering, how can we respond in a way that is whole and holy?" How can we respond to suffering -- our own, and others' -- with love and compassion? Near as I can tell, suffering is part of existence. Why that's the case isn't an especially compelling question for me. I'm much more interested in what we do about it; how we relate to one another, and to God, given the reality of injustice and suffering in our world. Sure, we can put God on trial for allowing suffering to occur...but while we're at it, we'd better do the same for ourselves.

I'm not big on tagging people to follow memes. If you find these questions compelling, or if you'd like to take this ball and run with it (in whatever form), please do, and drop me a comment so I can check out your response. Thanks for the tag, Iyov; this was a thought-provoking way to begin my day!

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Body and soul

The rabbis said "the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah," meaning that the commandment is rewarded by the nearness to God that the one who performs it feels, the joy of spirit that lies within the deed. This indeed is "a greeting of the shekhinah," and without it the commandment is empty and lifeless, the body-shell of a mitzvah without any soul.

-- The Me'or Eynayim on a verse from parashat Vayera (as translated by Art Green)

How can I try to ensure that the mitzvot I do have both body and soul?

The question presupposes that I'm doing mitzvot in the first place. I hope that I am; I mean to be; but too many times I've let the perfect become the enemy of the good. One of the most insidious forms the yetzer ha-ra ("evil impulse") takes for me is the whisper that if I can't do something right, I might as well not do it at all. If I can’t take the time to daven all of shacharit, slowly and with intention in every prayer, I might as well just skip it and try again tomorrow. Or if I can't make the time for a long visit with someone who is sick or sad or suffering, I might as well let them be and wait until I really have the time to engage before I call. I have a perfectionist streak, and my yetzer ha-ra knows that.

How to work around this? The practice of doing small mitzvot even when I don't have the space or the ability to do large ones. Even if I can't daven for an hour every morning, I can try Reb Zalman’s suggested practice of the seven-minute daven, which at least gets me plugged-in and connected. I can't feed all the hungry in our town, but we can open our home to a friend in need of respite and soul-care. And so on. There is always -- there will always be -- more work to do in the world and on myself. So my imperfections are no reason to throw in the towel. (Take that, yetzer ha-ra.) And neither is losing the kavanah (intention or focus) I meant to bring to any given mitzvah.

During meditation minyan, my rabbi used to remind us that in mindfulness practice, it's natural to lose focus. The mind runs in circles like a puppy; we can't change that. So when focus vanishes, he told us, just recognize that reality and let it go, without self-castigation; return to the breath and try again. It's as true when I'm trying to do mitzvot as it is when I'm trying to meditate. The yetzer ha-ra would prefer that I sink a bunch of time and energy in kicking myself for screwing up, so I've got my work cut out for me.

I would like to be someone who is perennially conscious of God’s presence in all things. Spiritual muscle memory helps; I'm working on training myself to respond to the world in grateful and mindful ways, but sometimes it's slow going. One way or another, the work of "ensoulling" mitzvot is, for me, a form of mindfulness practice.

Of course, as something becomes commonplace or familiar it can fade into the background. For a while I wanted a shviti desktop image, so that every time I looked at my computer screen I would be reminded to keep the divine presence before me. In lieu of an actual shviti, I've been using an image of the ceiling from an old Budapest synagogue. Which was terrific until it became like wallpaper. Now most of the time my eyes scan right over it, which means it loses its mnemonic power. That's human nature -- or the yetzer ha-ra at work; pick your paradigm -- and it requires me to be creative in reminding myself of God.

I know I'll slip up. What's important is how I pull myself back to the focus I'm aiming for. In Yosher Divrei Emet, the text I've been learning on Sunday evenings, R' Meshullam Feibush writes that it doesn't so much matter whether we manage to truly achieve devekut (full cleaving-to, or union with, God) -- what matters is that we continue to strive toward it, even knowing it may be out of reach.

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The Faith Between Us

Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal: a former wannabe Catholic priest and a self-described "failed Jewish mystic." Close friends. Co-authors of The Faith Between Us, a book which charts their dialogue about everything from marriage proposals to veganism, parables and mysticism and the pursuit of authentic religious faith. Both men have long literary pedigrees; they've been regular contributors to McSweeney's and Killing The Buddha, and Peter is one of my colleagues at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Together, they fight crime. Okay, no, they don't. But they've written one hell of a book.

This book began with what has become, for many of us, a not-so-innocent and not-so-simple question: Do you believe in God?

We're nervous even to ask; simply posing the question reveals something about you, if only that you're earnest enough to care. And answering in either direction, yes or no, can often feel like a great risk, depending on the company you keep. This kind of exposure can be embarrassing. The question catches us with our, yes, Proverbial pants down.... We step carefully around the question: Do you believe?

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

In the introduction, Scott and Peter talk about existing "on the religious fringe" as undergrads, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. (I know the feeling.) And about studying theology in graduate school, yearning to reconcile the desire for intellectual integrity with religious devotion that was unquestionably irrational, but was powerful nonetheless. (Yep. I know that feeling too.) And they talk about their friendship, and what it opened up for and in them.

Continue reading "The Faith Between Us" »

Conversation with R' Feibush Heller, z"l

Sometimes the material I'm reading for my rabbinic school classes speaks to me on levels beyond the intellectual. That's when I find these ideas weaving their way into the poems I'm working on.

Like this one. Which I shared with my classmates, and they liked it, so I'll share it with you:


Stacking wood, I'm thinking
about Meshullam Feibush.
How can I separate
from the insidious desires
of the temporary self, that voice

which whispers "today I want
warmer socks and a box of truffles
and praise from the people around me
and an easy shortcut
to everything I don't yet know?"

It's not so simple
to dedicate myself to wisdom,
to the river of conversation
flowing always toward Eden,
to the work I know the world demands.

Tough luck, the rav says.
I'm telling you how to taste paradise:
not despite everything
that’s appealing or uneven,
shards unwilling to reassemble,

but because in multiplicity
we can train ourselves
to notice both sides of the coin,
the radiance and the source
and how they are one.


R' Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh was an early Hasidic rabbi, and most of the ideas in this poem are drawn from my understanding of his work. You can read about him and his circle, and get a taste for his teachings, in the book Uniter of Heaven and Earth by Rabbi Miles Krassen, a.k.a. Moshe Aharon, with whom I am blessed to be learning this fall.

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Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)

Remember that contemporary theology books meme that was making the rounds of the religious blogosphere a while back? Were I doing that meme now, there's another book I would plug -- Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I've been assigned the task of reading sections from Rabbi Gillman's book for a forthcoming theodicy class, so this afternoon I donned a baseball cap and pulled up a big purple Adirondack chair and sat in the sun on our deck reading and underlining.

There's a lot of really good stuff here -- and I've only read a small handful of chapters so far. In this post I want to highlight some of the issues raised in the book's introduction; if there's interest, maybe I'll post more about other parts of the book later on.

One of the first ideas that caught my eye is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's formulation that we identify with the Jewish community by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Kaplan's work focused on belonging, whereas more traditionalist critics insisted that behaving was primary. "What is particularly striking about the dispute is the absence of any prominent modern thinker who is willing to make the case for the primacy of believing," Gillman notes.

Historically, the enterprise of systematizing Jewish belief has been somewhat alien to Judaism, and the thinkers who did engage in this work did so in a language other than Hebrew. (Even Maimonides wrote most of his work in Arabic, Mishneh Torah notwithstanding.) "[W]hereas the Jewish legal tradition -- not surprisingly for a system of law -- exhibited a great deal of inner consistency and coherence, Jewish theological positions have been wide-ranging and diverse." In other words, we're great at expounding upon the commandments, but not so hot at outlining belief. Maybe precisely because Christianity makes belief so foundational (think "credo"), Judaism explicitly doesn't, or hasn't.

Continue reading "Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)" »

On liturgy and ambiguity

I've been slowly working my way through Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Her book The Cloister Walk is one of my very favorite religious memoirs. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography offers engaging meditations on place, spirituality, and small-town life. I often carry my pocket copy of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work in my purse for re-reading. And I also really like her poems. So I expected to like this book -- and I do, though it's more like a collection of little bite-sized chocolates than it is a full literary meal. It lends itself to being read in bits and pieces, which is helpful, since that's the kind of time I've currently got!

Anyway, in the chapter called "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity," Norris says a lot of things that really resonate for me. Here's a taste of the story at that chapter's heart:

When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed -- I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.

This passage charms me because it rings so true. I know a lot of people who might say, as Norris did, that doubts and intellectual frustrations distance them from religion; and I also know a lot of people who might respond, as the monks did, that doubt is no problem at all, and that the way to deal with doubt is to keep practicing. Regular prayer can effect subtle and thorough changes, but the only way to understand that is to take the leap of beginning to pray.

Later, Norris writes,

If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be "repetition." Repetition as Kierkegaard understood it, as "the daily bread of life that satisfies with benediction." Repetition as in a hymn such as "Amazing Grace," or the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between.

The more I inhabit Jewish liturgy, the more I understand what Norris is talking about here. (Clearly this is true of liturgy qua liturgy, not merely hers or ours or anyone else's.) There's something in the repetition of words that invests both the words, and the silences between them, with new meaning. Later in this same passage, Norris notes that weekly church attendance came, in time, to shape the days between Sundays in much the way that a repeated poetic refrain shapes the feel of a poem. I know the feeling.

She tells the story of a seminary student arguing with an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The student asked what to do when he couldn't affirm certain tenets of the Creed; the theologian responded, "Well, you just say it." The student, distressed by this answer, queried again, "How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?" And the theologian replied, "It's not your creed; it's our creed." In other words, these aren't your own words, written just for you and tailored to be something you can affirm easily. These are the words of our community. Simply saying them is important, and links us across both time and space; and saying them changes us, gradually; and it matters that we say them even if they don't perfectly fit what we think we believe.

Probably my favorite passage in the essay is this:

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend. And once I realized that this was all it was -- that in worship, you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject -- I had a way through my impasse. I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend -- isn't that the truth! And I love her insight here that liturgy and poetry intermingle in this way. Often, I think, liberal religious folks want to demand of our liturgy that it appeal to our minds, to our politics, to the ideas and values we hold dear -- and there's a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, it's worth remembering that liturgy isn't only, and isn't always, meant to express something timely and agreeable; it's also meant to connect us with our history, with other people, and with some of the deepest emotions we know how to feel. It's not always meant to be comfortable, or to be something to which we can assent intellectually.

Granted, great poetry isn't necessarily usable as liturgy; the two serve different needs, in the end. But I think there's common ground. We allow our poems to be associative, complicated, resonant in ways we don't necessarily understand; how might we be changed if we treated our liturgy likewise?

On a related note, Eric Selinger at A Big Jewish Blog has announced a project called Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest Of Us, and wants to hear what poems, quotations, and other snippets of text you would put in a siddur of your own:

What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.

Drop him a comment and weigh in; I'm expecting interesting stuff.

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Faith and trust

My friend the Feminarian is having some trust issues with God. She writes:

Every time I tell God: OK, I'll put this living situation in your hands. You know I’m very confined and sad living in our current place, and here's this opportunity (new apartment, the house, etc), and God, I'll just trust you that what’s best will happen.

And then every time I lose the thing I want. God and my desires don't line up. And I don't mean it in a whiny way. I mean that it's really hard to trust God when every time I give something to God it doesn't work out.

It is really hard when something one desperately wants doesn't come through the way one wants it to. (I'm guessing each of us has something that fits into that category -- or something we fear will fall into that category eventually.)

Reading this post highlighted for me how important I think it is that we be able to say these things. That even seminarians, who will someday (God willing) be clergy, be able to admit that there are times when our relationships with God feel strained or painful -- when a great disappointment, or deep wound, cuts at the quick of our ability to feel connected with God. Every person of faith deals with these issues at some point, on some level, and as clergy we need to be able to say, "I know what that feels like; I've walked that stretch of road, too."

Last night I listened to a live webcast of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and his remarks dovetail with these issues in some interesting ways:

One important quotation from Chazal [our sages of blessed memory] which directly relates to this issue, the power of thought to determine [what arises], is this simple two-word phrase, machshavah mo'elet, which means "thought works." Or "thought helps." The question is, what does it help?

The Sages say that sometimes, if you think too much about something happening, that will help that it shouldn't happen! The example given is, a person plans too hard to finish a tractate of the Talmud by a given date. "I'm going to learn this tractate by Rosh Hashanah." Very likely if you decide to do that, you're not going to do it...that thought itself might backfire! It would result in the very opposite. Instead of helping it happen, the thought can help it not to happen.

The Gemara goes on to say, what does thought help to happen, and when does thought actually project an energy that prevents something from happening? Chazal say, that's a function of yirat shamayim [fear, or awe, of God]...

I have complicated feelings about the notion that getting what we want, or not getting what we want, comes down to yirat shamayim -- that if I don't get the outcome I'm looking for, it's because my awe of God was insufficient. That may be an interpretation that doesn't translate well into a liberal religious mindset. Still, I like the idea that our thoughts change reality, if only in a certain way.

Much of Rabbi Ginsburgh's talk centered around two key terms, emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust). If I've got this right, he defined faith as believing that whatever arises comes from God, and is therefore good. Trust is an attitude that presumes that God is good and that God wants us to understand the good in all things even if that good isn't readily-apparent to us in our limited human consciousness. (Intriguingly, he said at one point that faith and trust are closely-linked, and at another point that they can work in opposition to one another. There's subtlety to these definitions that I'm surely missing -- if anyone can enlighten me, please do.) Anyway, he went on to say:

If I had very large perspective on reality -- the whole world, all of history -- I would understand that all is good. I don't see my previous incarnations; I don't see where I'm coming from or where I'm going, so I can hardly fathom what's good for me and what's not good for me...

Faith means, no matter what happens, I believe it should be good and I accept it with joy. As Chazal [the Sages] say, when something bad happens you have to bless Hashem with the same joy that you bless God when something good happens. The whole distance between this world and the World to Come is that in this world there are two different blessings, one for good things and one for bad things. But the spiritual motivation of saying the blessings should be the same... and in the world to come, there will only be one blessing. It will all be the blessing of the good, because it will all be good in our eyes.

I'm fascinated by the notion that in the world to come -- in messianic time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete, when all the holy sparks will be lifted up, when the ultimate tikkun will have been made -- we will offer only the blessing for good things. In the world we know, we are called to bless God sometimes in joy and sometimes in sorrow, but in days to come we will fully understand the fundamental goodness of all things.

I know I often have an impulse to put a band-aid over suffering. It's hard for me to simply sit with something that hurts, whether it's in my own life/practice or in someone else's, and that's something I need to work on. (Boy, did my year of chaplaincy work teach me about that.) But I wonder whether there's a way to strengthen our own faith and trust, our emunah and bitachon, even while we acknowledge our very real moments of feeling distant from God. To acknowledge what's broken even as we assert what's whole.

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Up the spiral

One of the good books I've read during these days in San Antonio is The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong's memoir about moving into, and then out of, and then in a different sense back into religious life.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun for five years, beginning in 1962 when she was seventeen. The Spiral Staircase begins with the profound culture shock of leaving the regimented religious life, and entering into the wild tumult of the 1960s. Armstrong weaves together the details of her academic and professional life with their underlying emotional and spiritual narrative of struggle, trauma, and reintegration. And then, in the latter third of the book, we follow her into a new life of writing about the three major monotheistic religious traditions, and a new understanding of what transcendence, practice, and faith might mean.

The T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday serves as an organizing principle for the book. The first section appears after the preface; each chapter is titled with a phrase from the poem, and as the book unfolds, the poem's significance to Armstrong becomes increasingly clear. This is a gorgeous poem which I hadn't read closely in years. It's really worth re-reading. (Go read it now, if you want; I'll wait.)

Continue reading "Up the spiral" »


It is written: I have set the Lord always before me (Ps 16:8). Shviti ("I have set") is related to the word hishtavut ("sameness"). Whatever happens to a man, it should be all the same to him -- whether people praise him or insult him; and so for all other matters... No matter what happens, one should say: This comes from God; if He deems it proper to do so [then that is sufficient for me.]

Man's intentions should be solely for the sake of heaven. As far as he himself is concerned, however, there should be no difference to him. This is a very high degree [to attain]...

(From the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, Zava'at ha-Rivash, ed. Kehot, cited in The Religious Thought of Hasidism, Norman Lamm.)

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that, having set God always before me, I should respond with equanimity to whatever arises. Whether someone praises me or insults me, whether the food before me is good or bad -- whether readers  like my writing, or quibble with my interpretations; whether the text of my body is legible, or opaque to understanding -- I should acknowledge that God is the source of whatever is. If God is always before me, then I can find blessing in all things, even those which appear at first glance to be negative.

But if I school myself to simply accept whatever is, then will I lose my impulse toward improving anything, either internally or externally? I think the BeShT would say no; equanimity doesn't equal inaction. Lamm writes that  with regard to oneself, one should cultivate this kind of studied indifference -- but one must always do what is right, helpful, and satisfying for the other, "for the sake of heaven." If one is occupied with devekut (cleaving to God), ego recedes...but dealing righteously with one another remains important, maybe because interactions with one another are one way we can approach God.

One of my favorite meditations on the Shviti is a four-line chant: "It is perfect / You are loved / All is clear, and / I am holy." (There's a beautiful black-and-white graphical rendering of it here, drawn by Morty Breier.) The four lines of the round can represent the four letters in the Name, and/or the four worlds.

How does equanimity manifest in the four worlds? In the world of assiyah, action and physicality, everything is perfect -- maybe not according to our limited understanding, but from God's point of view. In the world of yetzirah, emotions and the heart, we are loved -- as our liturgy reminds us daily. In the world of briyah, thought and intellect, all is clear -- all obstacles to understanding are products of mochin d'katnut, small consciousness, and not ultimately real. And in the world of atzilut, essence, God is all that exists.

In light of these teachings, the clamor of ego and the inclination toward gratification are simply things to notice and then release. If I keep God always before me, then equanimity naturally follows.

Shabbat shalom.

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Contemporary theology

I've been tagged by PamBG to try my hand at the "contemporary theology books" meme that's going around.

Trying to answer these simple questions has awakened me to how few of the books I hold dear are theological texts. I could easily recommend titles relating to Torah study or to Jewish practice, but theology qua theology turns out to be a challenge for me.

My choices are fairly idiosyncratic, and say at least as much about me as they do about contemporary Jewish theology! So I welcome suggestions and discussion in the comments section of this post, if anyone is so inclined.

Three of the most influential works of contemporary Jewish theology:

  • Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology by Arthur Green. Rabbi Green uses the lens of Jewish mysticism to explore the nature of God and the levels of access toward God to which we can strive. This book offers a framework for seeking God, organized into four sections which relate to the four worlds, four levels of soul, and four letters of the Tetragrammaton.

  • Standing Again at Sinai: A Jewish Feminist Theology by Judith Plaskow. I'm not sure this counts as "contemporary" anymore -- it came out in 1991 -- but it had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world, and it certainly had a tremendous impact on me as a Jewish woman. This is one of the germinal texts of Jewish feminism, and still really worth reading.

  • I'm having a tough time choosing a third essential text, so I'll offer a couple of options for those wanting an overview of this field: Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, ed. Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman, and The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies, ed. Rifat Sonsino. 

Three lesser-known books almost everyone should read:

A bonus fourth rec: The Volcano Series by Alicia Ostriker. This collection of poems is also a powerful work of contemporary Jewish theology. These poems engage with God on a variety of levels; many consciously evoke psalms, and wrestle with questions of divinity, theodicy, gender, and ruach ha-kodesh.

I'd love to see answers to this from any of you. If you've done this meme, please drop me a comment and point me to your post; and if you haven't done it, and would like to, please consider yourself tapped.

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