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November 2003

The ties that bind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Door Closed?

Over the last few years, I've been realizing how insular Judaism can be, especially compared with Christianity. It seems to me that Christianity is designed to be open-door, and Judaism isn't.

I'd argue that there are legitimate historical reasons for this difference. Historically Christianity has sought converts, while Judaism hasn't (though it's hard to say whether that's a cause, or an effect, of Judaism's communal insularity). Historically, Jews were often persecuted, and closed ranks to protect themselves, while (broad generalization alert) Christians weren't. One of these religions has been dominant, culturally, while the other is a subculture and has turned inward (with elaborate entry rituals) the way subcultures do.

Judaism's relative insularity makes some sense. But lately I'm more interested in the products of that insularity than the reasons for it.

The assumption of inward focus, of being an island of "us" surrounded by a sea of "them," permeates every aspect of Jewish life and culture. One of the ways that insularity manifests is in our liturgy: in the set prayers, orders of prayer, and conventions of prayer one finds in congregational worship.

This is a place where Jewish and Christian practices diverge radically, at least in my experience. Christian services are generally in the vernacular, and hymnals make the music plain even to first-time visitors -- while Jewish services require a surprising amount of foreknowledge (of Hebrew, of melodies, of each congregation's particular customs of standing and sitting, reading and chanting).

I think about this a lot. Because words are what I work with; because I care a lot about the prayers we use; because I think one of Rabbinic Judaism's coolest innovations is this idea that we don't need a Temple Altar in order to reach God, we can reach our Source by a combination of words and mindful intent.

I think the Jewish liturgy has a tremendous amount of potential: it can serve as a ladder towards a state of higher consciousness, towards a sense of connection with God. But too often people don't know how to use the ladder, and feel as though it doesn't reach the ground they're standing on. Is the problem with the ladder, or with the people who don't know how to reach its rungs?

Both, if you ask me. And I think that any workable solution to this dilemma needs to address it from both sides: fine-tuning the ladder of the liturgy so that it's accessible to the people who want to climb it, and providing teachings that help people learn to use the ladder better.

Changing the liturgy is a sticky subject, and my relationship to this issue is complicated. On the one hand, I'm relatively comfortable with Hebrew (and the odd bit of Aramaic now and then), and I love the prayers I grew up on. I know that the standard Jewish liturgy was developed over a long period of time, by rabbis who were deeply invested in both preserving and transforming what had come before them. I don't want to argue in favor of scrapping tradition: that's short-sighted and ultimately fruitless.

On the proverbial other hand, I know a lot of people who aren't comfortable with Hebrew or Aramaic. Who don't know the prayers or the melodies. Who don't feel that delicious, deep connection with the sounds of Jewish synagogue worship. Who find the set liturgy at best a little baffling, and at worst completely alienating. And although some of these people (like my spouse and his family) aren't Jewish, others are. I know plenty of Jews who find synagogue worship impenetrable.

The question, I guess, is this: for whom is synagogue worship designed? Is it designed to be an experience that anyone can gain access to, or is it designed for insiders who already know their way around?

Seems to me like all too often it's designed for insiders. Sure, anyone could theoretically become an insider; spend a few years learning Hebrew, go to shul every week until the liturgy starts to look familiar, engage in Torah study, yadda yadda. But that's an awful lot of work for a sense of religious community and connection, and given that a fair number of modern-day folks don't seem to miss religion when they don't have it, I think these hurdles are keeping people away. They're effectively blocking the doors.

Some might argue that this is okay. That Judaism is an elite kind of thing; that we don't need or want the active participation of people who don't care enough to learn how we do things.

Lately I find, increasingly, that I disagree with that viewpoint. The Jewish establishment is fond of trumpeting the fear that intermarriage and assimilation are going to ruin us -- to which I answer, "No, it's this habit of blocking the door that's going to ruin us, if anything will." (And I'm not convinced that Judaism is headed for ruination; I've had some exciting, vibrant, progressive, passionate Jewish experiences of late. Sometimes I think the doomsayers are being drama queens. But that's another train of thought, best saved for its own blog post...)

Impermanence and thanksgiving.

Once again, the festival of Sukkot is passing me by.

We didn't celebrate Sukkot when I was growing up, although two of my brothers now build sukkot (lit. "booths" -- temporary shelters, roofed so you can see the stars) in their backyards every year, and leaf them with fronds from south Texas palms.

For many years after leaving Texas I didn't miss Sukkot; why would I miss a holiday I had never known? Lately, though, since I've started studying the wheel of the year (and since the Jewish rituals manuscript has come to occupy the front spot on my desk), I've been wanting to do the Sukkot thing.

Like Shavuot, Sukkot started out as a harvest festival, a time to bring harvest offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. (Some scholars argue the booths or tabernacles, the sukkot themselves, originated as temporary harvest shelters, so ancient Israelite farmers could live in their fields while they made the most of this abundant season.)

The Temple's long-gone, and I suspect most modern-day Jews a) don't farm and b) find the whole notion of ancient sacrificial Judaism a little off-putting. But there are other ways to see Sukkot, and as a holiday I think it holds a lot of potential. It's a harvest festival, a festival of Thanksgiving (without the slanted-American-history connotations of the Pilgrims story), and it's a great occasion to muse on food and shelter and to nurture feelings of gratitude towards our Source.

There's also a Biblical link between Sukkot and the Exodus from Mitzrayim (the Narrow Place): "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month shall be the Feast of Booths...for seven days you shall dwell in booths; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in booths so that your generations will know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt." (Leviticus 23:33-44.) Even if we don't actually dwell in our sukkot, building them and eating in them links us with our ancestors (literal or symbolic) who took brave steps out of comfortable captivity towards scary, but necessary, spiritual freedom.

I like the custom of inviting ushpizin, spiritual guests, to join one for a meal in the sukkah. (Traditional folks invite Biblical patriarchs; some feminists invite the matriarchs in addition or instead; others invite the spirits of grandparents or ancestors.) And then there's that whole cool lulav and etrog thing, where you shake the Four Species (willow, date palm, myrtle, and citron) in all six directions while blessing the Source from whom all blessings flow. It's the kind of thing I'd expect to see in a neo-pagan ritual, and I'm always tickled to find it in Judaism.

What I find most meaningful about Sukkot is that it takes intellectual lessons (our lives are impermanent; we are fragile beings in fragile dwellings, striving for balance with our world) and embodies them. Although I live in a house which I did not build myself, during Sukkot I can put my hands to building. Although I live under a roof which keeps out rain and snow (and when it doesn't, I call the roofer to fix it), during Sukkot I can eat meals under the sky. Although I often invite guests to join me for meals here, and I sometimes feel the remembered presence of my ancestors, during Sukkot I can invite guests both living and dead, mindfully and with intent.

Every year I mean to build a sukkah, and every year something gets in the way and I let the idea lapse. I'm starting to think I'm missing an opportunity for something really cool here, though. Sukkot involves carpentry (we like carpentry in my house), food and hospitality (it's a rare week when we don't have guests anyway), and some genuinely neat ideas. Next year it might really, finally be time to build ourselves a sukkah.

And for those of you who do build one, I offer a few blessings: kavvanot (intentions) for Sukkot.


How thankful I am for the sturdiness of my dwelling, which protects me and gives me the illusion of permanence.

How thankful I am for the chance to enact the mitzvah of building a sukkah, to connect me with all who labor with their hands.

May this sukkah be a place of joyful welcoming, reminding us that even in a flimsy structure with leaky roof we can still share what we have with others.

May this sukkah increase my compassion for those who live at the mercy of the elements, and my intention to help the homeless and needy in my own community.

There is no Temple, and I do not farm: I cannot make a harvest offering as in days of old. My offering to You is the work of my hands and the openness of my heart.


Hag sameach: happy holiday, all.


On High Holiday music.

This past week I had two very different liturgical experiences. I spent Shabbat Shuvah weekend at Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, and I went to Yom Kippur services at the congregation I just joined here in North Adams. (Technically it's a Reform shul, though the congregation was Conservative for a century, so they tend towards a Hebrew-intensive kind of Reform-ness.)

I'm a big fan of Elat Chayyim, in part because I really like the way they handle prayer services. Services are egalitarian and creative; they do interesting things with God-language; they often incorporate meditation into their davvening (they regard prayer as, among other things, a vehicle for becoming more spiritually awake). They also sing a lot: often chants based around one line or one phrase from a particular prayer, and always melodies that are easy to learn and follow.

My little shul uses a fair amount of song in our Shabbat services...but I learned this year that we handle the Days of Awe in a special way. We hire a cantorial soloist to lead us in song. And I didn't like that one bit.

My problems with the cantor were twofold. First, half the time she sang for us rather than with us, and I don't like having someone else pray on my behalf. (I'm interested in a grassroots kind of worship, in which the rabbi or chazzan is there to lead us, not to do things for us.) And secondly, she was using ornate, flowery melodies that most of us didn't know and couldn't guess, so even when she was trying to lead us in song, we weren't following very well.

Because I'd just come from Elat Chayyim, where the chants and niggunim are so intuitive and everyone sings everything, the contrast was remarkable.

I know that a lot of people like having a cantor, especially for the High Holidays. And I expect my rabbi was happy to have someone to co-lead services with him; leading a congregation through the intense and intensive Days of Awe has to be exhausting, and I'm sure it's nice to have someone to share that burden with.

I know that there are special melodies, a special nusach, for the Days of Awe. And I imagine that the cantor probably loves singing this stuff, because it's the only time of year she gets to do so. If you train to be a cantor, and you learn all of these different melodies for different liturgical seasons, you probably want to use them all, right?

But as a worshipper, I have to say, it really put me off. Because when I'm spending a whole day in shul, I want to be involved. I want to be singing. And since I didn't know many of the the melodies our cantor was using, I couldn't follow along. Half the time I just sat there, trying not to be surly, looking at the words and humming the easy melodies I've encountered in other congregations under my breath.

Now and then we returned to a melody that everyone knew. And then our voices rang out, and it really felt like a holiday again. Which was great; but it served to highlight how frustrating the rest of the experience was.

So I want to argue against the use of flowery High Holiday nusach. I think it perpetuates a kind of disempowerment. Only the people who happen to know the special melodies can participate, and everyone else is left silenced and subdued: hardly conducive to feeling involved or even uplifted by the shul experience. And isn't that what we're there for?

Welcome, and introductions.

116018762_9ec11817f3_c (1)Welcome to the blog of Rachel Barenblat, known to friends as the Velveteen Rabbi. The title comes from a postcard by Jennifer Berman which hangs over my desk. It depicts a bearded guy clad in robes and kippah and tallit, standing beside a big wooden block with a letter "R" on it (such as one  might find in a child's playroom), and his word-bubble says, "When can I run and play with the real rabbis?"

As many of you probably realize, that's a reference to the classic Margery Williams book The Velveteen Rabbit, in which a toy rabbit yearns to be "real." Over the years since I first found it, the postcard has become shorthand for how I see myself, at least as far as Judaism is concerned.

Let's get one thing straight from the get-go: I'm not a rabbi. I'm just an ordinary Jew, where by "ordinary" I mean "passionate, idiosyncratic, and more than a little unOrthodox." I might throw "involved, excited, sometimes frustrated, always committed, and by turns deeply reverent and completely irreverent" into the mix, too.

My roots show a variety of denominational stripes. I became Bat Mitzvah in a Conservative shul, was Confirmed in a Reform temple, and lately find spiritual sustenance at Elat Chayyim, a retreat center affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement. (Rabbi Arthur Waskow once described the Renewal movement as "feminist Hasidism," which is an interesting encapsulation, though probably one that deserves its own blog post...)

In college I majored in religion, and veered close to pursuing graduate work in the field (either a PhD in Judaic Studies, or the rabbinate), but I chose door number three instead. Today I'm a writer (primarily of poetry; also of essays, assorted book projects, and my own homegrown Jewish rituals and liturgies). Definitely not a rabbi, although I often feel like a Velveteen one: hovering at the periphery, forging my own weird path, yearning for authentic involvement, and constantly learning things about myself through my wrestle with the tradition and with God.

I like thinking about Judaism. I believe that it is incumbent on every Jew to engage with Judaism for her/himself: it's both an obligation and an opportunity.  I think there's a lot more to Judaism than meets the eye, especially the eye of someone who's unaffiliated or disaffected or frustrated with mainstream congregational Judaism as s/he's known it thus far.

I like writing about Judaism. Hence, this blog. I welcome dialogue, assuming it's well-mannered and respectful. (Disagree all you want; we'll make more. Just disagree politely, in what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou spirit, please.)

I'm not sure yet precisely how frequently I'll post here (my guess is more often than monthly, less often than daily) or precisely what arc these posts will follow. The blog will probably take a while to grow into its eventual form. If you're interested in free-flowing, far-ranging, sometimes geeky conversations about Judaism, you've found a good place for them.

Thanks for stopping by. May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.