Eden Speaks

I understand now why you had to leave.
Your souls are honed, refined, the more you search
for meaning and connection. Here with me
humanity's the only thing that couldn't

grow. But did God ever stop to think
how much I'd miss your sweetness once you left?
How lonely I would feel, remembering
your laughter and your song? It's true, sometimes

you visit on Shabbat a little while.
But mostly you forget my roses' scent.
No one comes to taste my flowing spring.

Still, a drop of hope moistens my earth
and nurtures blossoms waiting to burst free
the moment when you knock upon my gates.

 


 

I'm not sure what sparked the idea of writing a poem in the voice of the Garden of Eden.

This poem draws on Zoharic images of Shechinah (the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God) -- the rose garden, the flowing spring in the middle of Eden. Also on the idea that Shabbat is a "foretaste of the world to come," a taste of Eden, when we allow it to be.

One way of understanding our exile from Eden is that it is a necessary component to the birth of human consciousness -- that when we ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we became capable of growth and change. Still, I'm struck by the idea of Eden missing our presence and our touch, which had not occurred to me until I started working on this poem.


Grief and comfort

There's a feeling that sometimes comes with grief: how can the world be functioning normally when I am feeling this?

I've heard it from others many times. I've felt it myself many times, too. How can the world just keep turning, how can everyone around me just keep doing their normal things, when I am carrying this sadness in my chest? What do you mean, grocery store checkout lines and traffic and airline delays and after-school activities are all exactly as they were before? Why isn't the world around me showing some recognition of the fact that I feel as though there is a black hole of grief occupying my heart?

Maybe that grief comes from something on the national scene: the unspeakable losses of the wildfires in California, or the seemingly endless onslaught of mass shootings and the fear that no trauma will be severe enough to change our nation's policies around guns. Or maybe it comes from something closer to home: a marriage coming apart at the seams, a loved one who is sick and will not get well, a beloved whose suffering cannot be balmed. There's a sense of injustice: it's not fair. This shouldn't be.

Suffering raises questions of theodicy: how could a God Who is good and just allow suffering? These are some of the oldest religious questions we have. They're also evergreen: after the Pittsburgh shooting my eight-year-old asked me that question. Spend time with Jewish sacred texts, from the Tanakh (Hebrew scriptures) to Hasidut (18th century mystical-devotional texts) to 20th century postwar philosophy, and you'll see a variety of answers. Sometimes none of them satisfy the aching heart.

I told my son that God gives us free will, which means we can choose -- including choosing to harm. But it also means we can choose to care for each other. Of course, some of what we suffer seems simply built in to the fabric of human life, like illness. Sometimes someone falls ill and cannot be healed. And that hurts. I think it's supposed to: the hurt we feel is proportional to our love for the person who is ill. Sometimes loving someone means hurting for them and with them. Compassion: suffering-with.

I also told him that I believe that when we weep, God weeps with us. (Of course this is metaphor, but all of our language about God is metaphor. Kids have an easy fluency with metaphor that adults sometimes lose.) This is (some of) what our mystics mean when they speak of Shechinah going into exile with us, weeping for Her children. Loneliness, betrayal, injustice, sickness, suffering: all of these are exile. God accompanies us in these human griefs, and puts Her arm around us, and cries too.

When someone is sick and won't get well, or when a mass shooting cuts lives short -- there is no magic spell that will lift these griefs and injustices from the world. (One Jewish understanding of moshiach, "the messiah" or "the coming of the messianic age," is the emergence of a time when injustice and human suffering will be no more. We're not there yet.) But we can feel with each other and weep with each other -- as God, the One Who Accompanies, feels and weeps with each of us.

In the throes of grief, sometimes there is no comfort. All we can do is accompany each other. But in time, we grow new skin over the open wound. In time, we can hope to find gratitude even in our grief. As we mourn a loss, we may also feel gladness: how glad I am to have had that relationship, even if it's now over. How glad I am to have known this beloved, even if they are now gone. This happens, if it happens, in its own time -- it can't be rushed. But it is my hope for all who grieve.

That's maybe more plausible for intimate griefs: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one. When it comes to public griefs like a mass shooting, our grief can (must) spur us to build a safer and more just world. But whether the grief is personal or national, it may not be linear. Give yourself the time you need to feel, and to recover -- which may happen more than once, and may not happen in the order you expect. May we all feel, and be, accompanied in our grief, and as we heal and begin again.


As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)

 


Building lessons from Toldot -- and amazing sketchnotes by Steve Silbert

One of the coolest things about the parshanut (Torah commentary) series we're doing at Builder's Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home) is that our friend, colleague, and fellow builder Steve Silbert is sketchnoting each week's d'dvar Torah. Each week a different builder writes the d'var Torah, mining the parsha for teachings that can fuel and inspire us in our building work, and each week it's amazing to see how Steve opens up our words visually.

This week I'm "on," and I wrote about Rivka and parashat Toldot -- and I absolutely adore what Steve did with my words. Here's a glimpse of what I wrote -- this is one of the pieces of the essay that I like best, and it's part of what inspired Steve's sketchnoting this week:

 

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Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

...This week’s Torah portion is called Toldot, “Generations.” All of us who seek to build the Jewish future do so on the foundations laid by previous generations. It’s on us to honor the foundations they placed, even as we open ourselves like Rivka to surprises — and embrace new interpretations, spiritual technologies, and ideas that our forebears couldn’t have imagined...

...We may no longer drink from the literal wells of our ancestors, but their spiritual wells still flow — especially when we delve into them ourselves to ensure that they’re still open. All who seek to build Jewish life can draw new sustenance from old sources, laying pipe to bring reach hearts and souls that are thirsty for meaning. We can deepen our ancestors’ wells, drawing up vision and hope, new interpretations and new practices, for each other and for generations to come....

Read the whole thing here: Rivka's Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot. (And if you aren't already following Builder's Blog, you can use the "Follow Blog By Email" link in the right-hand sidebar to sign up -- and I hope you will.)

 


Living our Jewish values, all the days of our lives

Sarah's lifetime -- the span of Sarah's life -- came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, which means The Life of Sarah, or perhaps The Lives of Sarah. It's a poignant name for the Torah portion, because the portion begins not with Sarah's life but with her death. This week we read how Avraham purchased a burial place for his wife, and buried her.

There is no way to read those lines today without thinking of the eleven who were killed during Shabbat morning services last week at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The days of their lives were cut short by hatred and by the ready availability of guns. They were killed in a house of prayer because they were Jews.

We are not the only community to be targeted in these ways. I think immediately of the massacre in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in 2015, and the massacre in the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012. 

And we are not the only community that now feels afraid. The fear we feel now as Jews in America is connected with the fear felt by our Muslim neighbors, and our queer and transgender neighbors, and our immigrant neighbors, and our neighbors who are people of color. The cancer of bigotry and white nationalism that has infected our nation damages all of us.

And at the same time, this shooting is scary in specific ways for us as Jews. We carry the trauma of the Holocaust. We carry the trauma of centuries of dispossession. Our fear is linked with the fear that so many others feel -- and it is also our own, unique to the story of our people.

And yet here we are in synagogue. Here we are, coming together in song and prayer, searching for meaning, striving for the taste of the World to Come that Shabbat offers us each week. Here we are in Jewish community. Because no amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop being Jews. No amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop singing and praying, learning and studying, standing up for the immigrant and the refugee, loving the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

If I have to die for those values, I will die for them. But far more important to me is my willingness to live for those values, and for those values to live in me. The best way I can honor the lives of the eleven who were killed last Shabbat is by living my Jewish values with all my heart and with all my might all the days of my life. And that means speaking up for the disempowered, and welcoming the refugee, and "walking my talk." Halakha, the term usually translated as "Jewish law," can also be translated as "our way of walking." To be a Jew is to aim to walk a path of righteousness. 

"Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm," says the Song of Songs (8:6), "for love is strong as death." Granted, love can't make death disappear. No matter how much the Pittsburgh shooting victims were and are loved, we can't bring them back to life. But love persists beyond death. Even when someone has died, we can continue to love them -- our love persists as long as we draw breath. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we die, our souls return to their Source, to the wellspring of hope and love that we feebly name as God. We come from Love, and when we die we return to Love.

And while we live, it is our job to love. It is our job to love one another -- in Auden's words, "We must love one another or die." How do we love one another? One answer comes from Cornel West, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." Because I love, I demand justice not only for myself but for all. Because I love, I will work toward liberty and justice for all. Because I love, I will work toward a world where we have banished hatred and bigotry, slander and cruelty, xenophobia and white nationalism, racism and prejudice. We may not get there in my lifetime, but we have to keep trying.

That's the best response I can offer to the tragedy of the Tree of Life shooting last Shabbat. We honor their memories by being who we are, being Jews walking a Jewish path, all the days of our lives. And we honor their memories by working tirelessly -- once Shabbes is over -- toward building a world redeemed.

Let us seal God's presence into our hearts so that we are not afraid. Let us seal God's presence into our arms, to strengthen us for the work of bringing justice to this battered world. Let us take comfort in our togetherness. And tonight when we make havdalah, let us rededicate ourselves to being a light in the darkness and building a world of greater justice and love.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Faith in fantasy on Imaginary Worlds

Avatars-000270712412-sips6x-t500x500I'm a relatively new listener to Imaginary Worlds, a podcast about science fiction and speculative fiction and fantasy. But I've become a fan in recent weeks, which is especially delightful because I had the opportunity to be a guest on the podcast this week.

The latest episode -- episode 104 -- is a roundtable discussion featuring me, Alwaez Hussein Rashid (whom I've known for many years -- we first met in early blogging years, when he was posting at a blog called Islamicate), and Unitarian Universalist Minister Oscar Sinclair. Here's the description of the episode: 

Science fiction has not always been compatible with religion -- in fact many futuristic settings imagine no religion at all. But sci-fi and fantasy have long fascinated people of different faiths because the genres wrestle with the big questions of life. I moderated a discussion between Minister Oscar Sinclair, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Alwaez Hussein Rashid about why SF worlds intrigue and inspire them.

We talk about the stories that inspire us, religion in SFF worlds and in our own, faith and narrative, the big questions that SFF and theology both invite us to pose, and so much more. I get to give shout-outs to some of the works I've loved recently, including Becky Chambers' Wayfarers books (which imagine some beautiful religious rituals, especially in the third book), and Rihanna Emyrys' gorgeous short story Seven Commentaries On An Imperfect Land -- and to ponder theological questions like, is humanity on a trajectory toward redemption (and what does that even mean)? 

The episode is about half an hour long. You can listen at the podcast webpage (where there's also a list of all of the books and shows and movies and sources that we reference) or on soundcloud. I'm deeply grateful to Eric Selinsky for including me, and to my fellow panelists for a fabulous conversation!


Excerpts from a continuing conversation

This month marks fifteen years since I started blogging. I'm not alone in that milestone; I am blessed to have made several friends in early blogging days who are still blogging even now, and whose creative and literary lives continue to intertwine with mine. That may be part of why my sense of blogging as an art form is necessarily conversational. 

Recently I reached out to those fifteen-year blogging friends: Beth Adams of The Cassandra PagesDave Bonta of Via Negativa, Lorianne DiSabato of Hoarded Ordinaries, Dale Favier of Mole, and Natalie d'Arbeloff of Blaugustine. The question that animated the beginning of our conversation came from Dave: "Why the hell are we still blogging?" 

 

Buried-Temple

Buried Templeby Natalie D'Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.

 

Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.

Dave: At some level, it's easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I'm an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I've been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other's sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I'm OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I've enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn't say I'm competitive, but Luisa's commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there's Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren't mining it for blog fodder. 

Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message.  There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media.  Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling...or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.

DaleI didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days... I’ve outlived some of my personas -- I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be :-) But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”

Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.

BethI think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!

 


Morning conversation, two days later

"But why did he do it?" my son asks me this morning in the car on the way to school. "It couldn't be just because he hates Jewish people."

"Some people hate anything that's different from them," I say, carefully, feeling my way into the words. "It may be that he hates us just because we're not like him."

"That's bad," my son observes.

"It is," I say, nodding. "But the shooter did say something, before he went into the synagogue with his gun, about being angry that Jews are welcoming refugees into our country."

Then I realize I'm not sure my son knows what that word means. "A refugee is someone who comes here fleeing war or danger, someone who comes to our country looking for a safe place to live. The shooter thought that welcoming refugees was a bad thing that Jewish people do. But we think it's a good thing, it's something to be proud of about who we are."

"That's why we give tzedakah," says my son, his voice more certain now.

"It is," I agree.

 


From hope to horror and back again

On Friday, I stood with friends and children, townspeople and college students, on the town green. We were holding up signs that said things like "Trans people matter" and "trans rights are human rights." Some of our signs were painted in rainbows, others in the colors of the transgender flag. Every car that drove by honked and waved and gave us thumbs-up signs of solidarity.

Among the hundred or so participants I saw some who I know to be transgender and some who I know to be cisgender, some who were young and some who were older, some who I know to be religious people like me and some who were probably non-religious. I saw rainbow hats and facepaint. I saw togetherness. I saw hope in our affirmation that even if the current administration succeeds in changing the legal definition of how gender works, we will stand up for our transgender friends and family and congregants and community members, and we will support them and help them thrive in all the ways that we can. 

On Shabbat morning, I emerged from synagogue to the news of a horrific shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter screamed "all Jews must die" before opening fire.

It's hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance between the feelings of hope and togetherness that carried me into Shabbat, and the feelings evoked by news of this latest act of murderous hatred carried out against my fellow Jews in a house of prayer. 

I was talking with my therapist recently about the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the ways I'm noticing it now not only in those whom I serve but also in myself. As a kid, I used to lie in bed and make plans for what I would grab in my suitcase if "they" came after us again and we had to flee for our safety. (Usually my answer was "my loveys, my diary, and my cat.") I don't think I grew up in a particularly Holocaust-focused household; I was just an ordinary Jewish kid in the 20th century. But of course I grew up with knowledge that anti-Jewish hatred exists and is deadly and might someday endanger my family and me.

To be clear: I don't think my family and I are in danger. I routinely wear a kippah around town, and have never been met with anything other than warmth or occasionally well-intentioned curiosity. I feel safe, and I think the rest of my family is safe, too. Unless someone who hates Jews and has a gun walks into their synagogue and opens fire, though I'm pretty sure their big-city synagogues in Texas have armed guards outside them already for precisely this reason. (And I hate the fact that many synagogues across the nation feel the need for armed guards for this reason, but in this moment, I understand why they do.)

I know that many people are in far more danger than I am right now. Queer and trans people are in more danger. Muslims and people of color are in more danger. Immigrants and refugees are in more danger. The children who have been imprisoned in cages in south Texas are in a kind of danger I can barely bring myself to comprehend. I'm white, and I live in a town that feels safe -- as safe as anywhere can, these days. A town where a hundred people gathered together on a Friday afternoon to chant and cheer and embrace our transgender community members and promise them that we will stand by them in their time of need. 

And I'm still a Jew whose mother and grandparents barely escaped Europe before everyone else in the family was sent to the death camps. Acts of violence against Jews awaken ancestral collective trauma in me, as they do in many of those whom I serve. We can't help wondering whether this is the beginning of another Holocaust, another slide into fascism and national xenophobia. The Holocaust claimed eleven million lives: six million Jews, and five million who were queer or Roma or otherwise "undesirable." Will it happen again? Is it happening again even now? Many Jews wake and sleep and live with this fear.

What can we do but continue to work toward a world of greater justice and righteousness? What can we do but reach out to comfort those who mourn -- and then continue existing, and davening, and singing, and hoping, and building toward the better world our tradition teaches us is possible? What can we do but continue learning and praying, naming our babies and celebrating our adolescents' coming of age, marking lifecycles and festivals with music and hope and tears and even, when we can manage it, joy? We have to persist. We have to keep hoping in, and building toward, a world that is better than this one.

And we have to keep standing up for others who are in even more marginalized positions than are we. We have to be upstanders who help those in need. Those of us with white skin, like me, need to use the privilege of that skin to stand up for people of color who feel attacked and afraid. Those of us who are cis-gender, like me -- whose sense of self fits with the gender label we were given at birth -- need to use that privilege to stand up for transgender people who feel attacked and afraid. We who have safe places to live need to stand up for refugees who are fleeing in desperate search of safety. We need to stand up for each other.

I don't want to be writing about hatred and xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, or pipe bombs, or a shooter walking into a synagogue and opening fire. But this is the world we're living in, and I can't ignore that. All I can offer is this: as Jews, we need to keep being who we are, and we need to stand in solidarity with others who are also frightened and at risk. We need to build a world where this kind of hatred is a thing of the past. Right now it's hard to believe that such a world will ever be possible, but we have to keep building toward it. Because the alternative is accepting that what's happening now is okay, and that's unbearable.

 

In case it's helpful, here's what I sent to my synagogue community.


On embracing the globe

The president has been ranting about globalists. I did some research into why the "globalist" label is considered anti-semitic, and what it means to be a globalist, anyway. And then I wrote an essay for the Forward, and here's a taste:

 

...The connection between globalists and Jews is, in part, the old anti-Semitic smear that Jews are not truly loyal citizens of any nation. Hitler described Jews as “international elements” that “conduct their business everywhere,” thus harming and undermining good people who are “bound to their soil, to the Fatherland.” Use of globalist as a negative term can be a dog whistle for the far right: those who recognize its roots in Hitler’s philosophy recognize that it’s an encoded way of denigrating Jews.

Some people speak interchangeably of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I absolutely identify as a cosmopolitan — someone who aspires to be a citizen of the wide world, with an awareness that in an interconnected community, we have ethical obligations even to people who live differently than we do... So does that mean I’m a globalist, too?...

 

(Spoiler: yes. Yes, I am, and proudly so -- and I believe that Judaism demands no less, and I wouldn't want to be otherwise.)

Read more in the Forward: Yes, Ranting Against Globalism Is Anti-Semitic.


All the tools you need to write that world into being...

When Moshe ascended to heaven, he saw the Holy One of Blessing writing the words of a Torah scroll as does a soferet, with quill and gall-nut ink, and painstakingly adding filligree and crowns to the letters.

Moshe asked the Holy Blessed One, "Why are you taking the time to do that? Surely You could just think the scroll into being perfect and complete."

The Shechinah answered him, "I do this to teach you that it is worth taking the time to beautify what you create. Also, I know that on the hooks of these crowns, your students and their students and the students of their students will hang interpretations for generations to come."

Moshe asked Her, "And are the interpretations important?"

"Yes," said the Holy One. "They are part and parcel of what I am writing now. Indeed: without them, My Torah is not complete."

Moshe was puzzled. "Then why don't You include the interpretations Yourself, and give us a Torah that's finished?"

The Shechinah smiled. "Because if I gave you all the answers, that would be too easy. And because it is precisely in wrestling with this text, to find and create meaning in every generation, that you and your descendants will make My Torah your own."

"What will be the reward for making Your Torah our own?" Moshe asked.

"Sometimes your children who interpret Torah will be lauded for their creativity and bravery, and sometimes they will be vilified."

"Can't You speak into being a world in which no one would ever be vilified for the study of Torah?"

"Just as the Torah requires your voices in order to be complete, so the world requires your efforts toward love and justice in order to be complete. But all the tools you need to write that world into being, I place in your hands."

"You're sure You can't do that for us?" Moshe asked one more time.

"Shhh," said Shechinah to him, smiling gently. "This is what I have decided."

 

This is a creative re-visioning of a passage from Menahot 29b


Your name

The syllables of your name
light me like a chanukiyah

I spill over, a brimming cup.
It's more than I can say:

more than all the prayers
and songs, poems and letters

posts and status updates
than are made in the world.

I want to say your name
pleading and marveling

cherishing and rejoicing
in every tone and every key.

It is honey on my tongue,
music for all my days.

 


 

Another poem in the Texts to the Holy mode: a love poem that could be spoken to a human beloved or to the Beloved we name as God. These notes arise out of the latter reading.

 

Your name - Jewish tradition sometimes speaks of God as "The Name" (Hashem, one of our names for God, literally means "The Name"), and the kaddish in all its forms refers to God's "Great Name," as well. 

[A] brimming cup - see Psalm 23, "my cup overflows." 

[M]ore than I can say... more than all the prayers / and songs - see the words of the kaddish. (Also of interest, though not directly related, is this terrific piece by Cantor Andrew Bernard about the sounds of the kaddish.)

[Honey] on my tongue - Torah, which is sometimes understood as one long name of God, is compared to honey.  

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate! 


Psalm for Ginko's Back Room

 

For a cascade of kittens
making improbable leaps.

For tiny feet
ascending my shoulders.

For their language of mews
and rumbly purrs.

For paws opening and closing.
kneading invisible dough.

For short pointy tails
and radar-dish ears.

For all of these, God of fluff
and pounce, I give thanks.

 


 

Earlier this week I visited Oberlin College, where I did a lunch-and-learn with students, and offered a poetry reading, and taught a one-shot psalm-writing workshop. 

During the psalm workshop, we did a generative writing exercise focusing on something immediate for which we could feel gratitude, and then did another writing exercise geared toward reshaping what we'd written into a psalm. 

That morning I had visited Ginko's Gallery, which has a back room where kittens are fostered and socialized and prepared for adoption. (It's affiliated with CATSS, Community Action To Save Strays.) When I did my own writing exercise, this is what emerged. 

It is not great literature, but I quite like the epithet for God in the final couplet, so I figured I'd share.

Thanks again to Cleveland Hillel and to Rabbi Megan Doherty for inviting me to town, and to Ginko's for the opportunity to cuddle some tiny felines!


On denominational and spiritual diversity at @YourBayit

I wrote a post for the About Bayit series on Builders Blog, about one of the facets of who we are, our spiritual differences and why they matter to us. Here's a taste:

...The organization’s founders have roots in, and a track record serving in, every major branch of Judaism from Reform to Orthodoxy.  Some of us are proud denominational Jews. Some of us self-identify as post-denominational or trans-denominational Jews. Some of us are both / and Jews, identifying as denominational Jews and as part of the transdenominational Jewish renewal movement. We grew up secular, religious, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. Those of us who are rabbis attended both denominational seminaries and transdenominational seminaries. Those of us who are laypeople come from backgrounds that span the denominational spectrum too.

Beyond our denominational diversity, we’re also spiritually diverse. Some of us are mystics who write love poetry to the divine, and some of us are rationalists who find most mysticism uncomfortable. Some of us experience God through music, some through liturgy, some through philosophy, some through poetry, and some aren’t sure we experience God at all...

Read the whole thing here: Denominational and spiritual diversity.

(And if you haven't yet subscribed, please do -- just go to Builders Blog and there's a place to enter your email address in the sidebar so you'll receive posts via email. We've just launched a series of weekly Torah commentaries through a building-focused lens that promises to be amazing, and we'll be sharing other kinds of things there in months to come, too. Join us!)