A time for silence, a time to speak

SpeakMaybe this is part of why I'm a poet: I'm an external processor. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" wrote EM Forster. Me too. I write my way to understanding the flow of my emotional life. I write my way out of the hurricane. 

When I had my strokes, I wrote about them here, and about the journey of exploration that followed -- the medical journey (we never did figure out what caused them) and the spiritual journey of seeking equanimity in the face of that enormous unknown. 

When I had my miscarriage, I wrote a cycle of ten poems -- and rewrote, and revised, and polished -- as my path toward healing. And then I shared them here, because I hoped they would help someone else who was navigating those same waters.

When the body involved is my own, when the story involved is my own, I can share openly when the spirit moves me. Because living an authentic spiritual life in the open is a core part of my spiritual practice, and because my words may help others.

And I know, from emails and comments over the 15+ years of this blog, that what I write does help others. That many of you have found comfort and strength here. That when I am willing to be real, that can call forth a mirroring authenticity in you.

But sometimes the story isn't mine to tell. I remember conversations about this when I was getting my MFA at Bennington (20 years ago) -- how do we chart a responsible path through telling the stories of our lives when those lives intersect with others?

I'm not talking about maintaining silence to protect someone who abuses power or causes harm. I'm talking about -- for instance, stories I don't share here because they're about my son. He wants to tell his own stories, and that's as it should be.

I make a practice of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try not to hide my sorrows or my joys. For me that's part of the spiritual work of being real, which in turn allows me to be a clear channel for the poetry and the other work that comes through me.

But there are some stories that need to stay behind drawn curtains, for the sake of others' privacy. Maybe they will emerge in poems, some years hence. Or in essays, written with the distance of time. Or in a eulogy offered someday in a shaking voice. 

What we see of each other is only ever a partial revelation. As Kate Inglis writes, "Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience." Be kind: you never know the story that someone is choosing not to tell.


Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candleThis week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means "You shall command." (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That's a mitzvah that we still fulfill, with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, "The candle of God is the soul of a human being." When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us -- we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it's so beautiful to me. We are God's candles. There's a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn't just to be a lamp: it's there to remind us that it's our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, "you shall command" -- the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, "you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot." Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot -- holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah -- lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah -- contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, "Who makes us holy in connecting-command." The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that's another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God's candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light -- we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let's recap: our souls are light -- we're God's candles. The mitzvot are light -- they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we're dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brich hu chad hu, "Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One." 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it's Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it -- to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot -- so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and is cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

 


Kate Inglis' Notes for the Everlost

Everlost...By the time you're an adult, you're rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.

Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down -- that's normal. Your falling out with faith -- that's normal too...

I was browsing in a bookstore one day before lunch with a friend and my eye lighted on Notes for the Everlost: a Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis. When her twin boys were born prematurely, one survived and the other did not. Out of that trauma emerged this volume: part memoir, part "handbook for the heartbroken." It is dazzling. It is searing. It is holy wow.

Someday, you'll get as far as suppertime before consciously remembering. You'll be adding butter to rice, worried you've burned the almonds again. Your mind will chatter, as minds do:

Power bill

Snow tire appointment

Pretty sunset

Meeting tomorrow

Skype keeps crashing

Suddenly, putting on an oven mitt, you'll remember you ate a bomb.

The baby died

If you had asked me whether I wanted or needed to read a book about grief, and more specifically a book about a kind of loss I honestly cannot wholly imagine (and don't really want to -- who wants to imagine something this unspeakably painful?), I would probably have said no. I would have been wrong. I did need to read this book. It is a beautiful, real, raw, unflinching exploration of grief and loss -- and it manages to offer some redemption, not with platitudes or pretty words but with authenticity. 

I found that I couldn't read it all in one sitting. It's like poetry -- sharp, aching poetry -- and I found that the best way for me to consume it was to dip into and out of the book. To pick it up, read a few paragraphs or a few pages, and then set it down again. 

We sit outside by the creek. Josh and Kari tell me about someone who told them once, trying to normalize grief, that the aftershocks of loss never get better. We decide that's not true at all. We remember how it felt when it was new. And we know how it feels now. They say Liam's name, and I say Margot's name, and we all feel warm... we eat and talk while the fire burns high into the tree canopy, and they say Liam, and I say Margot, and together we decide being open is the way to better.

I've never experienced the kind of loss that Inglis chronicles here. I know that none of the loss I have ever known comes close, objectively speaking, to the grief she describes. But I feel at-home in her words, because I know what grief has been like for me -- the different griefs of my miscarriage, a loved one's illness, my divorce. Each grief is its own shape and color and dimensions. No two of mine have been the same as each other. None of mine are the same as hers. But I recognize my own heart in Inglis' words.

I commend this book to anyone who grieves, or has grieved, or might someday grieve. Inglis is wry and real and her words humble me and give me hope.

All we can do is be good company to one another, marking the most ancient of conditions: birth, love, longing, loss. Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience. We might as well share in the payment of it.

We might as well indeed. May all who grieve be comforted.

 

For those who are interested, here's an excerpt from the book.


Worth reading: on ethics in the Jewish world

Lately there's been a lot in the press about Jewish ethics systems failing -- in Jewish clergy associationsday schoolssummer camps and campus contexts. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus has written an op-ed on this subject, calling for systemic change. Here's a taste:

...Whether alleged misconduct relates to sex, money, administration, asymmetric power or other ethics infractions, the Jewish context vastly raises the stakes. Alleged misconduct, or responses inviting fairness critique, can exacerbate emotional and spiritual damage when identity, values or faith are on the line. Ethics systems for clergy and schools teach and model ethics, so those systems especially must be above reproach.

Too many confirmed reports, however, depict Jewish ethics systems failing. Reports show whistleblowers gaslighted or shunned for seeking justice. Investigators lacking proper training commit flagrant fairness violations, even deciding matters without speaking to complainants. Confirmed offenders are sheltered to avert shame, or perhaps for career or political reasons.

Too many hurdles. Too little expertise. Too little proper support. Wrong understandings of justice and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to victims’ courage that they come forward at all... It’s time to end the damaging and sometimes dangerous practice of Jewish institutions policing their own ethics. Jewish life needs a new and functionally independent ethics regime.

Read the whole thing: Jewish ethics demands an independent path forward. Deep thanks to R' David and to the Jewish Week / Times of Israel for this essay. May the changes called for here come to pass, speedily and soon.


A blessing for taking up space

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The Torah rolls, the two trees moving from side to side in parallel, their spool of parchment unrolling from one side and rolling up on the other. There's a rhythm to rolling a Torah: stretch and pull and glide, stretch and pull and glide. I am standing in front of the scroll, though the text is upside-down to me. Opposite me is the Torah reader who is rolling. Stretch and pull and glide.

I've been watching as others came up to Torah to blindly choose a verse and receive a customized blessing. At first when people said I should go up too, I demurred. I'm a visitor in this synagogue, it's not my place to seek blessing now! They wouldn't take no for an answer. So here I am, eyes closed. I breathe, and after a while I say, "There." I point the yad at the scroll.

The rolling stops. I open my eyes.

Though I don't know it in the moment, I've landed in parashat Terumah. The yad is pointing at a verse about the dimensions of the enclosure around the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our ancestors were instructed to build and to carry with them in the wilderness. It's Simchat Torah and I've just chosen the words that will become my blessing for the new year.  I feel a pang.

I've landed at the start of the building of the mishkan, among endless weeks of measurements and dimensions. What if there is no blessing for me in these words? But I should've known better than that. The blessing that I receive is exactly the blessing I most need, rooted precisely in the phrase where my yad fell: 100 cubits. It's a blessing for taking up enough space in the world.

Life teaches many of us, in so many ways, not to take up space. Not to be loud. Not to be visible. Not to shine too brightly, lest our light provoke jealousy. If we're flowers, we'd best not grow too tall, lest the lawnmower chop us down. Women in particular learn this lesson in insidious ways about our bodies (only desirable if they are small in appropriate ways) as well as our souls.

Anavah, humility, is sometimes rendered as "no more than my place, no less than my space." I understand the spiritual value of making sure I'm not taking up all the air in the room. But the value of making sure I'm not shrinking too far? Making sure I'm not hiding my light? Making sure I'm able and ready to take up space in the world? The thought is literally breathtaking.

I don't remember the words of the blessing. I do remember the room receding, the whole world seeming to shrink for a moment to the intimate space of encounter: the giver of blessing, the scroll between us, and me. I remember wondering what it would feel like to truly take up the 100 cubits to which I am entitled. I remember laughing, joyously, with tears of gratitude in my eyes.

 

With gratitude to the giver of blessing, and to the Giver of Blessing, and to my spiritual director for evoking this memory this week.

 


Reflections on an innovation retreat

Retreat

This week I participated in a rabbinic retreat focusing on innovation, and it was honestly one of the best retreat experiences I've ever had. The planning committee consisted of seven Rabbis Without Borders fellows who spent the last several months putting the retreat together (though our participant pool broadened beyond that group). We began the retreat with getting to know each other more deeply, creating a container for our time together, agreeing to kavanot (intentions) and processes.

One night Rabbi Mike Moskowitz taught us texts of chiddushim, innovations or new ideas. He began with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun ("ah, but over the sun, that might be another matter!") and brought us to the idea that each of us contains a part of the divine Soul and therefore each of us has unique Torah to uncover in partnership with the Holy. Another night, for Rosh Chodesh Adar, he taught texts about gender and clothing and what it means to reveal who we truly are.

One day Naomi Less from Lab/Shul led a stunning morning service that pushed some of our boundaries (in good ways), and brought some of us to tears (in good ways) and introduced us to Josh Warshawsky's gorgeous Ha-Meirah. It inspired really good conversations afterwards. Naomi also taught two fantastic sessions on Storahtelling and on innovation writ large, including some great text study that took us deep into the history and purpose and possibility of reading Torah aloud in community.

A propos of Naomi's beautiful shacharit -- and the retreat writ large -- I was reminded again that there is almost nothing in the world that brings me more joy than singing prayer in harmony with people whom I know and care for, and who care about our tradition's words and their meanings as much as I do. It is much of what I love about singing, much of what I love about prayer, and much of what I love about togetherness all in one. I know I've said that here before. I suspect that it will always be true.

Steve Silbert taught a session on the spiritual art of sketchnoting, gently and skillfully bringing us into his Visual Torah work and his practice of using images to learn and to teach. I came away with a new tool in my rabbinic toolbox, and also with ideas for how to incorporate his Visual Torah methods and practices into my teaching and my rabbinate. He brought wisdom to all of our sessions, too -- in his professional life he does facilitation work that overlaps a lot with some of the spiritual work that we do.

We held a related pair of sessions on innovation. In one we explored ritual innovations that we've tried, and why we've tried them, and how we brought them into being, and what kinds of responses arose from those whom we serve. In the other we explored what works, how we measure what works, what it means for a spiritual innovation to "work" anyway, how we balance qualitative and quantitative analysis, the appropriate role of entrepreneurial language in spiritual life, and more.

At our closing session we talked about what we're taking away from this retreat, teachings and melodies and grounding and connections. And we talked about next time, assuming that there is a next time -- and we all agreed that we want this to be a beginning, not a one-off. We brainstormed about what made this retreat so sweet, and how to replicate its sweetness, and what kinds of things we want to do together in days and months and years to come, and where we might go from here.

The conversations around all of these subjects continued on into meals and downtimes. One night we sang the whole Grace After Meals with gusto. One night we played a special edition of Rabbi Pictionary, created just for us! Those who were with us as teachers and "presenters" were also present with us during the retreat as friends and colleagues, which feels significant. In the closing session several people talked about the gift of experiencing a genuine absence of hierarchy, and posturing, and ego.

And that was all the more special because we consciously didn't erase our differences. Our group of participants came from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, ultra-Orthodox, and trans-denominational settings. Our approaches to halakha, to prayer, and to practice are as diverse as that set of labels would imply. There was a genuine sense that we were all there to learn from and with each other, a pluralism that was both real and deep. Everything we did together felt both real and deep. 

And that's the ineffable thing I can't quite describe. It's like singing with friends in really great harmony. Though harmonies at least can be recorded. Listening to them afterwards isn't the same as singing them in the moment, but it gives a sense of the beauty. This kind of real friendship, collegiality, and connection can't be put into words in a way that doesn't sound corny. So I guess I'll accept sounding corny. It's a small price to pay for a really terrific few days, and the promise of more to come.

 

This is the work for which we received funding from the Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm grateful to the Katz family for their fiscal support and to Bayit for providing the fiscal container within which the retreat could unfold.

 


Rabbinic innovation retreat

51048601_10216090303282329_1622317702997606400_nI'm off to Pearlstone retreat center again today for a rabbinic innovation retreat co-planned by a handful of my Rabbis Without Borders hevre and Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

Over the next few days we'll hang out, schmooze, learn, daven (pray), sing, draw, laugh, experiment, and have fun together.

We'll study texts of chiddushim (new insights/ innovations) with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, experiment with Storahtelling with Naomi Less, and learn the spiritual art of sketchnoting from Bayit's Visual Torah expert Steve Silbert.

We'll also spend some time playtesting innovations -- trying micro-innovations together, talking about what works and what doesn't, exploring how we know when an innovation "works" and what it means to apply measures and metrics to spiritual life. (This work dovetails with the Innovation Cohort that Bayit plans to establish this year -- for more on that, see section 5 of First Build.)

The retreat is generously funded by support from The Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm looking so forward to the learning and praying and playing and experimenting that we will do -- and to the learning and growth that I know will follow. 

To those joining us at Pearlstone: travel safe, can't wait to be with y'all soon! And to everyone else, stay tuned; we'll share gleanings from our work together as we are able.


Right speech beneath the sapphire sky

MishpatimYou must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

There's a very similar instruction in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus 19:16, "don't be a talebearer.") Speaking ill of someone has a name in Jewish tradition: lashon ha-ra, evil speech.

Jewish tradition holds that lashon ha-ra is equivalent to murder. Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that "Lashon ha-ra kills three: the one who speaks it, the one spoken of, and the one who hears it." 

Maybe you know the parable of the man who gossiped and then went to a rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi took a feather pillow, cut it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away. And then he said, "lashon ha-ra spreads even more thoroughly than these feathers." Because speech, once heard, can't be un-heard.

The worst form of lashon ha-ra, our tradition teaches, is motzi shem ra, telling lies about someone. That's false tale-bearing -- the thing explicitly forbidden in this week's parsha, Mishpatim. That word means rules, or laws, or justice-commandments. This week's parsha is packed with justice-commandments. 

Torah is made up of both narrative, and legal material (commandments, ethical instructions). And I know that for many of us the stories can be more compelling than the legal sections. The stories are interesting, or thought-provoking, or occasionally distressing. The lists of laws can leave us yawning, especially when those laws seem out of date for today's realities.

Like "If an ox gores someone" (Ex. 21:28) -- I mean, who among us has an ox, these days? Though of course that verse is really about responsibility for someone else's harmful behavior, and tradition teaches that ultimately we are all responsible for each other. Still, I've noticed over the years that in our Torah discussions, people often engage more with story than with law.

That's why often, when we reach this portion in the Torah each year, I focus on the beautiful tale of Moshe and the elders ascending to God and their vision of the floor that was like bricks of sapphire. It's poetry: there's so much meaning to be found and made there! I love that story. I love singing Nava Tehila's setting of one of those verses, as we've done here today.

But I think Torah is wise in juxtaposing our poetic stories with our prosaic laws. Poetry doesn't mean anything -- beautiful visions of God's presence don't mean anything -- if not grounded in ethical behavior. Without the emotional and spiritual safety that come from right conduct and right speech, pretty visions of holiness are hollow at best and spiritual bypassing at worst. 

One of my favorite teachings about the tchelet, the thread of blue that winds through our tzitzit, is that it reminds us of the Sea of Reeds -- our place of liberation. And it reminds us of the sapphire pavement upon which God is described in this week's parsha. And sea and sky can be mnemonics, reminding us of tzitzit, which remind us of mitzvot, including right action and right speech.

May every glimpse of sea and sky and tzitzit remind us that the path to the sapphire heavens and the Holy One of Blessing must be paved with ethical choices. Otherwise our holiness is false and even dangerous. We may yearn for celestial brickwork of sapphire, but what really matters is building a community of holiness, right speech, and ethical choices here on the ground.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Humbled and proud to share First Build with all of y'all

Today I get to share with y'all something I've been working on a lot behind the scenes -- something that makes me feel proud, and humbled, and grateful.

I'm writing to share First Build, the first annual report of Bayit: Your Jewish Home:

 

First Build

First Build: Bayit Impact Report 2019 [pdf]

 

First Build reflects many hours of work -- and more importantly, it reflects an enormous amount of heart and soul and commitment on the part of the friends and colleagues with whom I've been blessed to midwife Bayit into being.

Here you'll find our mission and our vision, our guiding principles, our hopes and dreams for what the Jewish future can be and how all of us -- including each of you reading these words right now -- are an integral part of building that future:

...If Judaism calls everyone to be a builder, then Judaism must look and act the part.  A Judaism of “everyone” must be passionately egalitarian and inclusive. If Judaism is a house, then the house must be big enough for everyone, with rooms and other vibrant spaces for all, with wide hallways and some open floor plans.  A Judaism of building must develop and distribute building tools, and use the right tools for the right jobs. And the house, the building methods and the tools all must evolve as the world evolves...

Here you'll find descriptions of what we did during our first year, from bringing a volume for mourners to the cusp of print, to beta-testing a ritual resources website, to our first social justice initiative, to the blog where we've been sharing weekly posts exploring Torah through a building-focused lens:

...Bayit’s work begins with four keystone initiatives: print publishing, spiritual resources to build experiences, a destination blog for blending wisdom and how-to practicality of building, and an innovative social justice partnership...

Here you'll find blueprints for what we aspire to build in our second year, from an innovation cohort and pilot program, to a retreat for clergy, to a Visual Torah publication, to a pilot program on college campuses:

...Year One focused on foundations.  Second Steps will raise rafters, expand “research and development” networks, bring forward new books and resources, and launch pilot programs for colleges, congregations and clergy...

You'll find information about our fellow-travelers, our advisors and teachers, our organizational partners. Here you'll find also our foundational documents, bylaws and ethics materials, as well as a list of our donors and supporters, because we believe in transparency and accountability above all.

I am humbled and overjoyed to be a part of Bayit. I am incredibly proud of what we've built so far -- and also of how we've built so far, with integrity and care and compassion, with rotating leadership to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to serve, with openness to outside opinions and new perspectives, with an eye always on whether what we're building is in service of our animating principle that everyone can be a builder of the Jewish future and that that future belongs to everyone.

I know that annual reports are often dry corporate documents. This one isn't. It's full of hope and heart (and beautiful sketchnotes by Steve Silbert, too!)

I hope you'll read it, and be inspired, and let us know how you want to take up your tools and build with us.

Download it now from our Annual Reports page: First Build: Impact Report January 2018


Gratitude for Mary Oliver

I watched as a wave of sadness passed through my online sphere last week with the news of Mary Oliver's death, and I felt that sadness, too. Sadness that the poems of hers we have are now the only poems of hers we will have. Sadness that such a luminous, attentive, real soul has left this life. 

In a list of the poets whose work most moves me, Mary Oliver ranks high. (So do Jane Kenyon and Naomi Shihab Nye, who have been among my literary lights for decades.) They have in common a certain plainness of speech, and I know that in the eyes of some in the poetry world that makes their work "lesser." But not for me.

As a reader, I yearn for poems that speak clearly, poems that open up some facet of the world whether external or interior (and the best poems do both at once.) And as a rabbi, I crave poems that can serve as prayer, or accompany prayer, or open up prayer, for those whom I serve. Mary Oliver's poems did all of these.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention..." I think part of what makes her poems so extraordinary is the way they manage to speak not only from her heart but from ours. And they wake me up. They remind me to notice, to pay attention, to feel, to live. They are a meditation bell in poetry form. 

"Every morning / the world /  is created..." It could be our daily liturgy. Indeed, I have used her "Morning Poem" as liturgy -- from time to time when I do a poetry service where each of the morning prayers is paired with an English-language poem, and also sometimes just on its own, reading the poem as prayer.

"Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while..." I can't read those words not without hearing them sung in haftarah trope.  (Click through to hear them that way.) I sing them each year on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, when the world is poised on the brink of autumn, when we are poised on the cusp of a new year, and they resonate like a struck bell.

But today the poem of hers that is most speaking to me is "The Journey." "One day you finally knew / what you had to do..."  The journey is difficult. There are voices that demand all the wrong things. But with the hard work of striving for integrity and authenticity the path becomes clear, and there is a kind of luminous hope, and the soul is not alone.

May her memory be a blessing, and may her poems continue to shine.


Joy Ladin's The Soul of the Stranger

51oIX2gmicL._SX332_BO1 204 203 200_You know the feeling you get when you keep putting off something you want to do because you're waiting until you have time to really do it properly, and after a while you realize that letting the perfect be the enemy of the good means that you're not doing the thing at all?

For weeks now I've been meaning to review Joy Ladin's beautiful new book The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. It is so good, y'all.

It is thoughtful and beautiful and clear. It is thought-provoking. It speaks to me on multiple levels at once. It deserves a long, thoughtful, quote-filled review that will entice y'all to go and get a copy and read it for yourself. 

And between one thing and another -- being a solo parent, serving my congregation, navigating this moment in my life when my parents are aging and far-away and my kid is here and very present -- I haven't had the spaciousness to write that long, thoughtful review. I still don't. So I'm giving up on that plan, and instead, I'm writing this.

Joy begins the book by exploring the power of binaries in the early creation stories (including, but not limited to, the gender binary.) She writes about gender and loneliness, about Genesis and transgender identities, about what it means that Torah teaches we are made in the image of God. She writes:

Torah doesn't tell us what being created in the image of God means, or explain how human beings are similar to the invisible, disembodied, time- and space-transcending Creator of the Universe. That, to me, is the point of reading God and the Torah from a transgender perspective: to better understand the kinship between humanity and the inhuman, bodiless God in whose image we are created, a God who does not fit any of the categories through which human beings define ourselves and one another.

Holy wow.

The second chapter looks at trans experience in the Torah, and here Joy does something that really moves me: she opens up what it means to have trans experiences, even for those of us who identify as cisgender. (Her exploration of the Jacob and Esau story is truly stunning, and I don't want to spoil it for you with an excerpt that won't do it justice -- take my word for it, read the book.) She writes about leaving our households of origins and about the journey of becoming, in Torah and in the lived Torah of human experience. She writes about wounds, about the nightmare of gender, about the stories we carry with us.

Joy writes in chapter three about different visions and understandings of God. She unpacks Maimonides' insistence that our words always fall short in describing God, and then makes a move that I think my teacher Reb Zalman z"l would approve: she talks about how even though "words cannot help but misrepresent God," we need words for God, and we need to be in relationship with the One Who those words attempt to describe. Of course, God is ultimately impossible to pin down or name -- as the story of the Burning Bush reminds us, God Is Becoming Who / What God Is Becoming, and so are we.

Chapter four explores life outside the binaries, the experience of being exiled "outside the camp," about the Talmud's long-ago recognition that human beings come in more varieties than the binary of M/F would imply, about messy human lives unfolding beyond binaries of all kinds and the spiritual implications of that reality for all of us who live it. She writes about Torah's concept of vows, and what it means when we make promises to ourselves, to each other, and to the Holy One about who we are.

And in the final chapter, she writes about knowing the soul of the stranger -- about what it feels like to be a "problem," and what it's like to be different -- about the existential and experiential condition of being a stranger -- and about how that condition might give us a new way to have compassion for God, a minority of One.

I wish I had the time and space to unpack each chapter for you with pull-quotes and words of praise. Each of these chapters stands up to rereading, to underlining, to sharing passages excitedly with friends. (My own copy already has dogeared pages, underlined passages, and exclamation points in the margins -- a sure sign of a book to which I will return.)

If you're interested in scripture, Jewish tradition, or spiritual life, I commend this book to you. If you're interested in gender and sexuality, I commend this book to you. It is beautiful and audacious and real. It's enriched my understanding of my tradition.  It's given me new lenses for reading Torah. It's given me new appreciation for the holy journey of becoming in which we all take part -- including, or especially, my trans and nonbinary congregants, loved ones, and friends. I am grateful.

 


Tu BiShvat cold snap

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One of the people with whom I work in spiritual direction lives somewhere considerably colder than where I live, and they mentioned recently that it was 40 degrees below zero there. Massachusetts gets a lot colder than south Texas (where I was born and reared), but 40 below is not a temperature I've ever experienced.

Hearing that number made me think about the seasonality of Jewish holidays anew. Of course our festival calendar is rooted in the seasons, and it was created by people who had no idea the southern hemisphere existed -- which poses challenges, e.g. working with Pesach's spring imagery when that season is actually autumn where you are.

And I've noted before that Tu BiShvat in particular can be a strange holiday to celebrate in New England. In Israel the almond trees may be blooming -- in south Texas where I grew up things are blooming -- but here in Massachusetts the world is almost always covered with a thick layer of snow at this season.

But that disjunction between the climate where the festival originated, and the Diaspora climate where I live now, is even more extreme for those who live in less temperate climes even than this. What can it mean to celebrate the sap rising when 40 below is the place where Fahrenheit and Centigrade match?

I think the answer has to do with understanding the rising sap, the coming spring, as a spiritual opportunity rather than something one can feel in the softness of the air or the scent of trees in bloom. It's spiritual sap that's rising. Tu BiShvat comes in deep winter to tug our hearts and souls inexorably toward what's coming next.

When we affirm the sap rising in us at this season, we're not talking about literal trees -- though once we get through this cold snap and start having warmer days I expect to see people tapping sugar maples! We're talking about a sense of nourishment, a sense of hope for the growth and the blooms that will come, a sense of possibility.

Even here where it's 7 below, our spiritual sap is rising. Even in subpolar climes, our spiritual sap can be rising. Where do we feel growth, where do we feel hope, where do we feel the pull toward liberation? What do you hope will grow in you as we enter the spiritual runway toward Pesach, toward freedom, toward becoming anew?

 

Image: the tree outside my window, seen through frost flowers.

 


How can we keep from singing?

Sea-rananIn this week's Torah portion (Beshalach), the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. Upon experiencing that miracle, Torah tells us, three things happened: 1) they felt yir'ah, awe, and 2) they felt emunah, faith and trust, and 3) they broke into shirah, song. (And for me, the Torah is always both about what happened to "them" back "then," and also about us here and now: our journey, our spiritual lives, our emotional possibilities.) Some of the words they sang found their way into daily Jewish liturgy:

 מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!

Who is like You, God -- majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?

And when we sing these words each day, we're called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member -- to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.

The daily liturgy specifically mentions joy. "They answered You [and so we too answer You] with song, with great joy!" As the psalmist wrote -- the words that are inscribed over our sanctuary doors and over our ark -- "Serve the One with joy, come before God with gladness." (Psalm 100:2) Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, but once we emerged through the sea we became servants of the Most High. Slave or servant: the same word -- עבד / eved -- but the emotional valance is completely different.

Torah tells us that while we were in slavery, we experienced קוצר רוח/ kotzer ruach: constriction of spirit / shortness of breath, both physical and spiritual. Without breath, without spirit, it's hard to sing. And I want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes genuine joy is hard to come by. Sometimes life's constrictions -- depression, or grief, or loss -- steal our breath and our song. Pretending otherwise would be spiritual bypassing, using spiritual life to pretend that everything's okay when it's really not.

And. Every day our liturgy gives us the opportunity to remember -- to really re/member -- awe and trust and song. The Hasidic teacher known as the Sfat Emet writes that thanks to our faith and trust the Shechinah (God's own Presence) came to dwell within us, and our faith purified our hearts and then we were able to sing. He goes on to say: in fact that's the whole reason we were created in this world in the first place: to bear witness to life's miracles, to be redeemed from constriction, and to sing. 

I want to say that again, because it's so radical. The whole reason we were created is to notice life's miracles, to be redeemed from life's narrow places, and to sing. "Everyone else has a purpose, so what's mine?" The Sfat Emet says: awe, and liberation, and song. Our purpose isn't to get promoted, or to climb the social ladder, or to rack up accomplishments. "If you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free!" Our tradition says: the experience of freedom will naturally lead us to song.

Our daily liturgy reminds us of the Exodus. We remember it again in the Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a remembrance both of creation and of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat exists to help us re/member our liberation. Today we're freed from the workday, the weekday, ordinary labors, ordinary time. Today we can bask in a sense of awe and wonder: "Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!" And from that place of wonder, "how can we keep from singing?"

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel this morning during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) It echoes the themes in Answering With Joy by Rabbi David Markus. Each week he and I study the Sfat Emet together with our fellow builders at Bayit, so maybe it's not surprising that this week our divrei Torah are quite parallel!

Art by Yomam Ranaan.


I Sing

I sing to God with my muchness
my much-too-much-ness
my awkward, oversized emotions
everything over the top

I sing to God
with my enormous tender heart
pouring out too many words
even if no one reads them

I sing to God
with my belly, my softness,
with every ounce of flesh
I was taught to hide

(the psalmist didn't say anything
about sucking in my tummy,
and holding my breath
is the opposite of singing)

I sing to God
even though my range is too small
even though my voice breaks
even though my heart breaks

anyone who wants me
to take up less space
doesn't deserve my music
but I sing anyway

 


This poem arises out of a creative (mis)reading of Psalm 46 verse 2 -- usually translated as "I will sing to God while I exist," or "I will sing to God with what is within me," it can be creatively translated as "I will sing to God with my much-ness."

On a semi-related note, my favorite setting of this verse is by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, and is online here


The gift of bread

Challah

On the Friday of my son's winter vacation, I was home with him doing the things we did during winter break (board games, gingerbread house, youtube videos.) I was home and I had time on my hands, so I made challah. I hadn't baked challah since Rosh Hashanah. I'm a working mother, primary custodial parent to a third grader: most weeks I buy challah at the co-op, or in a pinch we make motzi over whatever other kind of bread we have in the house, an English muffin or a croissant or two. But during winter break I had the spaciousness, so I got out my Bennington pottery bread bowl and I made a batch of challah.

My son wanted round challah, because he likes it better than the braid that's traditional among Ashkenazi households during the year. I didn't feel quite right about making the spiral-shaped round challah that I make for Rosh Hashanah: that's a special shape for that one time of year! But we compromised: I found a new shape in my challah book (A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer) that takes its inspiration from the sun. It came out beautifully. My son devoured it, declaring it the best challah ever. "You bake way better challah than they have at the store," he told me, and I beamed. "I wish you made challah every week."

This week I am trying a new rhythm to my Friday. This morning while getting my son fed and dressed and packed up for school, I started a batch of challah dough. By the time we left for school and work, it was sitting in the newly-washed bread bowl, covered and rising. After a few hours of work, I'll drop by the condo again (it's a mere five minutes from the shul) and shape the loaves. At the end of my lunch break, I'll put them in the oven. At the end of my work day, I'll take one of them on a pastoral visit to someone who is ill -- I kneaded prayers for healing and comfort into the dough. The other challah will be for my son and me.

If this works, I want to make it a practice. I miss baking challah. My first job after college was working at the bookstore here in town, and I organized my schedule so that I could have Fridays off to bake challah each week. (That was 1996, and that's when my now-ex-husband -- at the time, my boyfriend -- gave me the enormous Bennington pottery bowl I use for bread dough even now.) But in the decades since then, life has expanded to fill the space I give it, and I haven't made time for regular baking in years. Baking challah feels good. I love the way the dough feels in my hands. I love praying, sometimes singing, while I knead.

There's an alchemy to baking bread. Flour and water, salt and yeast -- and, okay, in this case also oil and eggs and a little bit of sugar -- transmute into something beautiful. Baking challah is a comfort to my neshamah, my soul. And it's something beautiful to place on my Shabbes table tonight, alongside the candlesticks that were an ordination gift, alongside the blue kiddush cup I bought myself when I moved a few years ago, alongside the blue-and-silver handwashing bowl I received from a friend who is a Jewish Buddhist nun. May our hopes rise like challah dough, and be met. May all be nourished, may all be fed, may all be loved.