Previous month:
April 2004
Next month:
June 2004

On Holy Presence

A happy Pentecost to my Christian readers! May your holiday -- celebrating, as I understand it, the day when Jesus' followers felt the Spirit descend, and in a kind of temporary antidote to the Babel phenomenon were able to speak "about God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11) in a language everyone could understand -- bring you as much joy and sense of embodied spirituality as my holiday brought me.

Clearly Shavuot and Pentecost are cousins (not least because Pentecost is a reinterpretation of the preexisting Jewish holiday). Pentecost closes out the seven weeks of the Easter season; Shavuot closes out the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer which began with Passover. Both holidays celebrate an outpouring of spirit from our Source into creation. They're both holidays of revelation.

The lesson I take away from Shavuot is that God's revelation of Torah -- of teaching, of a path toward holiness -- is both constant and eternal. Shavuot is significant because it reminds us to stop and mindfully receive what we've been given, but even on the days when we don't consciously think about the holiness in our world, that holiness is still there, waiting for us to wake up. And one lesson I find in Pentecost is that when God moves us, we can communicate across divisions.

Here's hoping our holidays at this season encourage both of our peoples to wake up to the beauty and meaning in the world -- and to speak transgressively in the best ways, bridging gaps between people with our words.


The world keeps getting weirder. Witness the Christian Exodus plan to relocate Christians to a Southern state with the express purpose of seceding and forming a Christian nation.

There's a temptation to indulge the glib reaction of "Good riddance!" Clearly these folks and I disagree mightily about the direction we want our nation to go in. They want prayer and creationism in public schools, and it won't matter how often people like me argue that public schools need to be accessible to everyone, without religious bias. They'd like to amend the Constitution to deny civil marriage rights to gays and lesbians, and it won't matter how often people like me argue that civil marriage should not be legislated on religious lines. This isn't a Christian nation -- we maintain a wall of separation between Church and State here. I think that's a good thing; they don't; and it appears there's no chance of dialogue between my viewpoint and theirs. I can see why some folks say that those who want to live in that kind of Christian nation should go start one someplace else.

On the proverbial other hand, I think America's particular genius (at least in theory) is the notion that people of all races, creeds, and religions can co-exist. Once we start splitting on religious lines, I fear that intolerance and misinformation will win out over human connection. And any nation which bases its existence on the belief that one path to God is right and everyone else is an infidel is playing with fire in a way that troubles me. History teaches that religious fundamentalism and democracy don't mix. I don't think it's possible to simultaneously privilege members of one religion over others and preserve rights for all. I wonder whether this kind of "Christian" nation at our border would create problems we currently can't imagine. (I'm putting "Christian" in scare quotes because I resent the implication that fundamentalists get to define Christian practice and priority. I suspect many Christians find this Exodus project as distressing as I do.)

There's also the problem that anywhere these folks choose to settle will necessarily already be inhabited. What would become of people who disagree with this movement who are unfortunate enough to inhabit whichever Southern state this group decides to steamroller? What of their rights? This strikes me as a pretty clear mimicking of the Free State Project -- which has yielded mixed reactions in New Hampshire. And the Exodus folks have a new twist on the FSP idea: they want to secede from the Union and become their own nation. To me, this plan is deeply problematic, and it highlights the growing divide that I worry may tear our country apart.

That's the real problem, I think: increasing polarization and divisiveness, with little or no hope of respectful dialogue. And without the dialogue, how can the situation change?

All Night Long!

My Shavuot experience began at eight yesterday evening, as ten of us congregated at shul for the evening service. At nine, I kicked off the study session with a Ten Commandments lesson, in which we read Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood at Sinai," read the Ten Commandments as they appear in Torah, and then brainstormed our own list of commandments/precepts for our community and our lives. Our discussion ranged from the nature of Torah (Feld has some beautiful ideas about what happens when the written text meets the intent/energy of the reader) to our most deeply-held beliefs about how to live. In the end, we came up with thirteen precepts, some of which mirror the Torah closely, others of which are purely our own.

Peter, a professor of literature at Williams, taught a lesson on the Book of Ruth. He read much of the story to us, pausing to lead discussion about the story's motives, the characters' motives, the trick of inclusio (repetition of key words and images, which the original audience -- used to hearing these things aurally -- would have known to listen for).  We looked at motifs of emptiness and fullness, at the various strengths of Naomi and of Ruth, at generosity (shown by Ruth in sticking with Naomi, and by Boaz when Ruth is gleaning in his fields). And we looked at that fascinating benediction at the end of the story, in which the village folk wish Ruth to be like Tamar: what does it say that both Ruth and Tamar are praised by the tradition, when they behave in such unorthodox ways?

Rich, a friend who I ordinarily see at the community-supported organic farm in town, taught a lesson on ways of reading ancient rabbinic texts, particularly the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud). I never knew that he'd gone to grad school in religion; he doesn't talk about it much, and he says it feels like something that happened to him in a former life, but he still led a fascinating discussion based in an article he'd published eighteen years ago. We looked at Talmud's particular density and logic (it takes some work to learn to see the logic there).

Barbara, an afficionado of Israeli folk songs, taught us three of her favorites. It was nice to cleanse the palate with some singing after the heady intellectualism of the Talmud lesson. We continued the singing theme as Liz spoke to us about her experiences with chant and meditation, and taught us three Hebrew chants based on prayers.

Between each of these we broke to stand up and stretch, to kibbitz, to nosh on fruit and cheesecake. I shared the really cool thing I learned from Islamoyankee at Islamicate, that Islam too has a tradition of all-night study and prayer on the holiday commemorating the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet (pbuh). I love it when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael turn out to be cousins after all.

Jeff taught a lesson on "Unnatural Judaism" -- looking at whether or not Judaism considers itself to be "natural," e.g. part of the natural world. We read, and discussed, short texts from Exodus, Genesis, Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, the Babylonian Talmud, and Maimonides' A Guide for the Perplexed.  Topics covered ranged from the nature of the yetzer ha-ra (the so-called "evil inclination" -- we decided that it is desire), how God's plan for creation changes over the course of Torah, why God handed out free will in the first place, who benefits when we perform mitzvot, and this wacky idea that in order to fulfil one's true nature one needs to accept discipline to transcend one's nature.

My friend Seth taught a lesson on Jewish humor: its essential characteristics and typical subject matters, what makes it funny, what makes it work. He told dozens of Jewish jokes, some of which had us rolling in the aisles, and then invited us to tell our favorite Jewish jokes, too. Apparently our humor is smart, is often a defense mechanism, often blends pride with self-deprecation, and often simultaneously glorifies and pokes fun at Talmudic logic. (After having studied some wee snips of Talmud, we found the Talmudic jokes especially hilarious. Or maybe it was just the late hour...)

My friend Sandy taught a lesson on strong women in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically Abigal and Bathsheba (the two wives of King David). The differences in their stories are pretty fascinating, and to me it looks like a parable about how power corrupts; when David is ascending to power he attracts a virtuous wife, but when he's already in power and sees a woman he wants he acts wrongly to take her and God is displeased. Then we read the story of Jael killing the general with the tent peg, which is far bloodier (and more sexually suggestive) than I remembered.

And I closed out the night by looking at part of this week's Torah portion: the story of the sotah, the test administered to a woman suspected of adultery. When I started preparing my lesson, I thought this was one of the weirdest (and least feminist) passages in the Torah; by the time I'd read half a dozen commentaries, I was starting to see it as surprisingly subversive of patriarchal authority. (Dr. Blu Greenberg's commentary on this is excellent, and Judith Abrams has some interesting things to say about it as well.)

And then it was very nearly five in the morning! The five of us remaining at that hour joined hands and I led us in a meditation serving as a modified kaddish de rabbanan, the special kaddish we say after Torah study, and then we hugged and cleaned up the cheesecake plates and coffee cups and went home. I don't envy Jeff, who had to lead a morning festival service at 9:30; for my part, I sang the morning blessings in the car, driving home in the mist and the rising light, and then I slept until eleven.

I never imagined that we would actually study until dawn. (Inviting Sandy and Seth clearly qualifies as stacking the deck; they're geeks like me, plus they're night owls.) I'm tremendously grateful to the friends and fellow congregants who taught lessons. My only regret is that I missed my planned AIM study date with Naomi Chana; we were supposed to meet online at three. Maybe next year...

Anticipating sleep deprivation

The practice called tikkun leyl Shavuot comes from the kabbalists of Tzfat, who decided that the way to celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Sinai was to stay up all night studying. (A tikkun is a healing, as in the phrase tikkun olam, healing of the world. Leyl Shavuot just means "Shavuot Night.") Some have argued that the advent of coffee had a lot to do with the institution of the custom.

One midrash explains that the Israelites slept late on the morning they were meant to receive the Torah, and Moses had to awaken them, so in order to avoid a repetition of that problem the mystics opted stay up all night instead! Another compares the covenant of the Torah to the covenant of a marriage. At Sinai, the story goes, the Torah (bride) and Israel (groom) were joined in eternal union. Just as a bridegroom was expected to stay up all night in feverish preparation for his wedding, the mystics kept a vigil of study until dawn brought their Scriptural bride. Another interpretation is that Torah is the ketubah, or marriage contract, between God and the people Israel--in which case Shavuot is our collective wedding anniversary. Yet another tradition holds that the skies open for an instant in the middle of the night, and all prayers uttered then will be answered.

The original tikkun leyl Shavuot practice was developed, in medieval years, into a recitation of verses from every single parasha (weekly portion) of Torah, along with other special excerpts, the entire book of Ruth, and some sections of the Zohar which compare revelation with union. In many Orthodox and Hasidic communities, the practice still holds, according to that very blueprint.

As part of the pendulum swing back towards reclaiming traditional observances, liberal communities like mine are increasingly adopting the practice...though we usually focus more on study than recitation, and we may define "Torah study" fairly broadly. To most of us, studying fewer texts in a deeper way sounds more satisfying than glossing over the surface of eight hours of recitation. (We don't have the stamina, or the chops, for the traditional recitation-fest.)

Contemporary commentators see a natural progression between the medieval observance and the way many communities hold their study sessions now. "What is unfurled in this sprawling canvas teeming with texts is the implicit affirmation that each and every aspect of Judaism is but a branch of the original tree of life planted by God at Sinai," writes Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. "The freedom to interpret the infinite meaning of God's words is the sap which has sustained and yielded this luxuriant growth."

Many commentators, Zalman Shachter-Shalomi among them, have noted that while God's role was to give the Torah at Sinai, the role of the Israelites was to receive it...and that just as Passover enables us to re-live the Exodus as if we ourselves had been freed from slavery, Shavuot enables us to re-live the experience of receiving the Torah as if we ourselves had stood at Sinai. We affirm that our freedom has a positive, active connotation: we're not just passively freed from slavery, but we actively free ourselves towards mature, adult engagement with our tradition.

As reasons to lose sleep go, this is a pretty good one, I think.

Morning practices

Two ideas are starting to collide in my head. One is the notion of opening oneself to Judaism; the other is about Judaism as a discipline.

The first comes from Hasidism, Tradition, and Spiritual Freedom, in which Roger Gottlieb reviews books by Adin Steinsaltz and Zalman Shachter-Shalomi. Gottlieb does an excellent job of explicating each man's work and showing it in the context of his life. I'm intrigued by Gottlieb's statement that "[Steinsaltz] does not want to make it [the tradition] accessible to us, but to make us accessible to it." When I read that, I thought, 'What would it mean to make myself accessible to the tradition?'

The second comes from a conversation I had this morning, about first conscious thoughts upon awakening. One of my fellow meditators expressed envy that Jeff, our rabbi, is "naturally" inclined to wake up with the מדה אני/modeh ani on his lips. Jeff responded that it wasn't a natural inclination; it's something he's ingrained in himself through practice. Which led to a conversation about how Judaism, like meditation, is a practice we impose on ourselves. Because we believe God has commanded us to do so, or because it enriches our lives, or both. Regardless, observance isn't a question of nature; it's a question of discipline.

Putting these two ideas together: I think developing a regular practice -- whether of study, prayer, meditation, or simply saying blessings -- is what makes us accessible to the tradition. It creates an openness in us where the tradition can fit. (At the same time, of course, I think we need to work on making the tradition accessible to the unschooled. Half of the process is personal; the other half has to happen on a larger scale.)

I like the feeling of alignment which comes when I manage to start my morning this way. My fantasy version of myself (the one who's always wise and mature, does everything right, takes good care of herself and everyone else, writes like a dream, can touch her toes without wincing, calls her mother regularly, and spreads joy wherever she goes ;-) starts every day with some kind of spiritual practice. In reality, I manage it once or twice a week, which I figure is better than nothing! If this interests you, you might enjoy Reb Goldie Milgram's guide to finding your own Jewish morning spiritual practices.

(Re)Reading Leviticus 18:22

Recently, a few readers have commented on my posts about gay marriage, wanting to know how I can reconcile my ardent Jewishness with my deep-seated support for GLBT rights both civil and religious.

One reader kindly requested that I read Leviticus 18:22, שאת-זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תִעבה הוא, "With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination." (transl. Everett Fox.) Here's the thing about that passage, though: different people translate it differently, both the actual words and the implications thereof.

Some interpret the passage literally, arguing that it says men must not lie with men, period, end-of-story. There's historical precedent for literal interpretation. But it seems to me that literalism is an all-or-nothing proposition. If one interprets that passage literally, one must also regard as טמא/tamei (ritually unclean) anyone who touches a weasel, a mouse, a gecko or monitor lizard. (Until sundown, anyway.) When a man dies without a son, the literalist must order his brother to marry the newly-widowed woman so she can bear a son in her deceased husband's name. These are, after all, the laws.

Most Jews today would argue instead that we should follow the reinterpretation of these laws established by the Rabbis and sages. The crowning achievement of the Rabbinic age was the shift from reading Torah literally (the Torah says we must sacrifice so many animals on such a date each year, therefore we must do so) to reading it metaphorically (since there is no Temple, we can fulfil the mitzvah by reading about the sacrifices instead). According to this mindset, halakhah evolves, and Torah can be reinterpreted to meet a changing world. That's the viewpoint I favor.

How do I reinterpret Leviticus 18:22? For one thing, the verse takes on nuances when read in context. Leviticus 18 begins, "What is done in the land of Egypt, wherein you were settled, you are not to do; what is done in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you are not to do; by their laws you are not to walk." (transl. Fox.) Ritual prostitution was part of Canaanite religious culture (and part of Egyptian religious culture, too). So it's arguable that Leviticus 18:22 refers to same-sex temple rituals


  -- imitating other nations in a way that was ritually impure -- and not to the identity we know as queerness today, which is a relatively new historical phenomenon.


If you scroll down far enough on that page, you'll find an encapsulation of some of Rabbi Arthur Waskow's thoughts on this. Arthur cites two alternate meanings for the passage:

- "Do not lie with a man as if it were the same thing as lying with a woman." That is, when two gay males have a sexual encounter, they should continuously be aware that it is different from a male-female coupling. It might be interpreted to mean: "Set up a parallel set of institutions for dealing with this kind of sexual relationship, different from those that apply to sexual relationships between a man and a woman."

- "Do not sleep with a man as if it were with a woman." That is, if two males engage in a sexual act, neither should pretend that the passive partner is like a woman. They should be fully aware of their sexual orientation and maleness, i.e. they should come out of the "closet" and recognize their gayness.


His interpretations are unorthodox, but they fit within the framework of Rabbinic exegesis, and they resonate for me. (As the page notes, most people gravitate towards interpretations of Leviticus which jive with their preexisting religious beliefs; I'm no exception.) This article on the art of interpretation does a pretty good job of explaining how and why people of faith can disagree so widely on what that one wee little verse means.

Homosexuality And Judaism also sheds some light. I'm especially interested in the section entitled "The Biblical and Talmudic Positions on Homosexuality," which begins, "The Bible does not condemn homosexuality in general, but it does condemn three things: homosexual rape, the ritual prostitution that was part of the Canaanite fertility cult that was apparently, at one time, in Jewish practice as well, and homosexual lust and behavior on the part of heterosexuals." The paper goes on to provide an excellent overview of the last several decades' worth of scholarship and interpretation, from both traditionalist and liberal points of view.

My goal is not to convince people who read Leviticus in a traditional way to suddenly start reading it in a liberal way. Instead, I want to show some of the range of possible readings of the text. I believe that we are each entitled to interpret Torah in accordance with the teachings which resonate for us, but we can't have genuine dialogue on the subject unless everyone agrees that multiple readings of Leviticus exist.

This talk of Leviticus may seem like splitting hairs. It is said of Torah, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it," and surely we can each tilt the text so that its words suit our needs. Here's what it really comes down to for me: I believe that each of us is created b'tselem Elohim, in the image of God. That includes my gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters. Therefore, I must approach them in what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou way, allowing the spark of God in me to relate to the spark of God in them. And once I've done that, I can not condone a literalist reading of Leviticus which denies their existence or their humanity.

I regard the Torah as divinely-inspired, but written down by human hands. God may have whispered it to Moshe atop Sinai, but by the time it reached parchment, it had already been translated from God's infinite speech to limited words humans could understand. Humans are fallible; we bring ourselves to what we write, even when we're inspired by God. To me, Leviticus 18:22 is more a reflection of the social/cultural mores of the time when the Torah was first transcribed than it is a reflection of God's will regarding what we know today as queerness.

Regardless of your stance on this, I recommend reading this essay by a gay Orthodox rabbi. Being a traditionalist who is deeply attached to halakhah, he wrestles with this in ways that I don't. I found his words moving, and his conclusions powerful.

There's a famous saying which goes, "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halakhic way." The Torah says disobedient children should be stoned to death; but that's an outdated commandment from another era, and some scholars have argued that it was never meant to be followed in the first place. So the Rabbinic tradition found a way to mitigate it; to continue to cherish the text in all its possibilities, while structuring normative halakhah in such a way that no disobedient child would die under a hail of rocks. Just so, the contemporary incarnation of the Rabbinic tradition wrestles with Leviticus 18:22, and many denominations of Judaism have reached the conclusion that the verse can be read in alternate ways -- that queer Jews are whole Jews, and should (indeed, must) be able to live whole, joyous, sanctified Jewish lives.

Today is a historic day in Massachusetts: marriage  licenses are being granted to gay and lesbian couples statewide. There's a Hasidic teaching that when two people marry, the coming-together of their individual holy sparks creates a fire greater than the sum of its parts, and the happiness it generates ripples throughout the four worlds. May every couple seeking marriage today, and in the days to come, know happiness together -- and may our world, and all the worlds above, be blessed by the light of their joy.


The argument that Biblical homophobia was actually condemnation of idolatry, of pagan homosexual prostitution practices, has been argued in a variety of places. You can find it online in Rictor Norton's A History of Homophobia, "1 The Ancient Hebrews" 15 April 2002,


Foucault had a lot to do with the shift from thinking about homosexual actions to postulating a homosexual identity independent of particular arts. Here, have some excerpts from History of Sexuality.


Arthur talks about this here  -- scroll down to his email of 17 May 1996. To get a real sense of his views, though, I recommend Down-to-Earth Judaism; he takes the better part of 3 chapters to fully explore his ideas on Jewish sexual ethics.

Reasons to say שהחינו/shehecheyanu

Seeing the first hummingbirds of the year hovering outside my window. Maybe they were looking for the rhododendron we dug up, which used to be planted there and would have bloomed at this season. Maybe they were hovering near the feeder. Maybe they just wanted to say hello.

Seeing our red fox yesterday afternoon, darting into the bushes near our driveway. Pausing my car, as she paused in the brush, and staring each other down for a mesmerized while. Then, seeing three deer, transfixed by my headlights, alongside Green River Road late last night.

Eating raspberry sorbet in a sugar cone while walking down Main Street in new Birkenstocks which, it turns out, now come in narrow, so this year's pair actually fit my feet.

Do these small blessings stand up to the horrors in the news, or to the horrors I know aren't making it into the news but are happening anyway? No. But Zagajewski's right: we must try to praise the mutilated world.

Journeys and sparks

I've been emailing with a reader named Shmuel, who suggested to me that while shuls like mine can pursue various innovations to get people to try services, people will only return if they really want to. He pointed out that if one feels grateful for the blessings of the week, and if one believes God is responsible for those blessings, then it's natural to spend a few hours connecting with God and expressing that gratitude -- but many people don't seem to believe in God, or to believe that praying the liturgy is the way to nurture and express feelings of thankfulness.

I think he's probably right about that. So now what? Part of me would like to figure out how to convince other people to approach the liturgy (and our Source) with an open heart, because I think there's tremendous holiness to be found there, and I think the continuity and connection of praying regularly can temper frustrations and sadness, can make life measurably sweeter. Why wouldn't I want to share something that good?

But another part of me remembers that it took me years of distance from congregational Judaism, and a journey catalyzed by reading The Jew In The Lotus, to find my way to a Jewish experience that is sustaining. Maybe each of us has her own variation on that journey, and it's not my place (or within my power) to boost anyone to a new place on that path unless they're ready to be there anyway.

Our prayerbook includes this short meditation from Likutim Yekarim 15b:

When you pray, you are like a bed of coals.
After prayer, as long as a single spark remains,
A great fire can be kindled again.
But if that spark dies, there can be no fire.
Cling to God always,
Even at times when you feel unable to reach God.
This is how you may preserve that single spark
So that the fire of your soul is never extinguished.

Different people may have different ways of protecting our own sparks, and congregational prayer might not be the best way for everyone to keep that flame alive. (I've certainly had some liturgical experiences which seemed designed to dampen my flame altogether; though I've had others which set me totally alight.) Maybe what's most important to God is that we keep our holy connections burning. If we do that in shul, that's great. If we do it in meditation, that's great. If we do it through walking in the woods, as Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is said to have done every day, that's great too. What's important is that we keep our sparks alight. (Yes? No? Maybe?)

Lag B'Omer

So today was Lag B'Omer, the Thirty-Third Day of the Omer (the Hebrew number thirty-three is denoted lamed-gimel, which spells lag). It started last night at sundown, and ended at sunset today.

Custom has it that no weddings take place during the Counting of the Omer, because of a plague that struck the disciples of Rabbi Akiva during this period. The exception is on Lag B'Omer, when weddings do take place, because on that day during the plague, nobody died.

Jeff explained this on Friday night at services, before we counted the Omer that night. First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren't laughing any more.)

Here's hoping for a day when we turn on the radio, or check our news aggregators, and don't hear a single thing about Iraq, Israel/Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where conflicts have been brewing -- not because the world isn't paying attention, but because the killing has finally stopped.

Why A Minyan?

Since this post, I've been contemplating why having a crowd in shul matters. Haven't I been known to argue that the Temple altar has been replaced by the home table; that Judaism is something we can, and should, practice in our homes? Short answer: sure. But home-based Judaism is complemented by congregational Judaism. And although a home ritual can be perfectly valid done solo or in a family context, a synagogue service needs a crowd in order to feel right. In fact, it needs a minyan.

The Torah reading can't happen without a minyan, for instance; we can discuss the parasha, but we can't actually open the scroll and read it without a quorum of ten. I'd like to think that there's a reason the Rabbis declared it that way: that they knew some kind of communal energy accrues when there's a critical mass present. That we davven better together (though one can pray just fine alone).

One can pray just fine alone; but I've noticed that I don't, much, unless I go to shul to do it with other people. Sure, I chat with God once a day, but that's not the same experience as settling into the arc of the liturgy, start to finish. It's like yoga, which I technically know how to practice, but which I never do alone: I need to join a class or my mat languishes unrolled. Alone, I can always find excuses not to engage; but if I'm meeting other people at a designated time and place, the obligation makes me show up, and once I'm there I'm glad.

Prayer is also qualitatively different in a crowd. When I'm depressed, for instance, singing familiar prayers with other people soothes me in a way that singing them alone doesn't. In Friday's erev Shabbat service, I found temporary respite from my anger about the abuses in Iraq. Praying for peace with my compatriots won't actually change the situation, but it will change me, at least for a while. That's a spiritual transformation I'm not capable of accessing alone.

Praying with others is an antidote to isolation, and that might be another reason the Rabbis legislated the need for a minyan: to keep us from splintering off and practicing our different Judaisms alone. We need to keep speaking to each other, because we need each other to pray with. Like a parent whose will mandates that the children share the estate, thereby ensuring that familial connection remains, the Rabbis mandated that the children of Israel study the Torah together and pray the liturgy together, ensuring the continual re-creation of our communal bonds.

Varieties of religious experience: walking

Meditation was really good today, although only Jeff and I were there. First, our usual breathing/mindfulness practice: focusing on the breath, today imagining each inhalation as energy moving up into the heart and head and each exhalation as energy moving down to fingertips and toes. Then, a walking meditation, slowly slowly slowly moving from foot to foot, noticing the shifting of weight and the way that walking, like breathing, involves the whole body.

We walked outside the sanctuary, along the slate patio edged with new grass, surrounded by marsh (cattails, leafy brush) and trees (birch leaves fluttering in the wind, and the enormous willow I've been watching all winter, now luxuriant with fronds). Each step I was thinking, "I'm breathing. I'm walking. I'm -- birds!" I'm not sure I've ever heard so many birds in my life. It was like being inside an aviary.

The leaves were luminous in early sun, the birds were ridiculously loud and varied (have they just migrated back? are they louder in the morning? am I just more aware during meditation?), and when Jeff started singing our niggun I knew our time was up and we moved back into the sanctuary to take a few final centering breaths and to reawaken to the so-called real world.

It was a spectacular way to start my day. I'm still buzzing.

Getting people in the doors

I grow heartsick when I think about the implications of American soldiers torturing Iraqis, so I'm focusing closer to home today, on a question that came up in a meeting last night at my shul: how do we get people to come to shul?

Like most mainstream American synagogues these days, my shul has wildly fluctuating attendance. During the Days of Awe, we routinely pack the sanctuary; the rest of the year, Shabbat attendance oscillates between four and twenty. Our rabbi is good-natured about it (I suspect it's futile, maybe counterproductive, to rail against disinterest) but it obviously pains him, and on reflection it bums me out too. Our services are fun, but I don't know how to communicate that to the people who don't come.

Friday night services are short and sweet: an hour plus the oneg (kiddush/socializing) afterwards. Saturday mornings are longer, verging on three hours. I suspect the length is daunting to people who, like me, have endured some excruciating services.

But our service, while long, isn't boring, at least to me. Because we're such an intimate crowd, worship is participatory; everyone sings along as best they can, because we need every voice in the room. (It's not always melodious, but it's heartfelt.) In lieu of the Haftorah reading (which few in our community have the Hebrew, or the stamina, to follow in a focused way), we have weekly Torah study, which tends to be engaging and interesting. (Also, people are welcome to come and go, if they can't last the whole way through. I'll bet most don't know that, though.)

I like our services a lot, and I think some of the absent congregants would like them, too. They'd probably like Shabbat a lot better than they like the Days of Awe -- that's the rub. People who come only for the High Holidays often don't have the stamina for the Festival services, because let's face it, Festival services are long, and it helps to be spiritually "in shape" from attending services at other points in the year. So they're overwhelmed, and they don't come back until the next Days of Awe. The situation perpetuates itself.

Shabbat services, done right, are a pleasure. They're by turns restorative and energetic, familiar and challenging. (Of course, the more often you come, the more familiar the liturgy gets, and the easier it is to slip inside it.) I think many of our congregants would dig what we do. So my question is, how do we get them in the doors?

Part of the problem is, many people just don't think of services as something they want to do regularly. When planning weekends, either we think about social pleasures (hanging out with friends, seeing family) or we think about chores (shopping, laundry, gardening) -- we don't think about reserving Friday evening or Saturday morning for worship. Maybe we carry the baggage of bad childhood services: services we didn't get, services we didn't enjoy, services where time seemed to slow to a crawl. So we expect not to enjoy shul, and therefore we don't come. Can that mindset be changed?

As we approach summer, this dilemma is going to magnify. I'm part of the problem: in winter I'm happy to attend Shabbat morning services, but in summer my husband and I have a ten-year tradition of spending Saturday mornings at our community-supported farm. Last year I ran into a local minister picking cherry tomatoes there, and he commented to me that Caretaker Farm is some of the holiest ground he knows. I entirely agree, because it's so lovingly-stewarded, and because it's such a focal point for genuine community connections. But that means I'll be missing Saturday morning services more often than not...

In a way, though, summer's exactly the wrong time to drop out of shul. If you buy my theory that one should be "in shape" for the Days of Awe, that one can "train" by attending services semi-regularly in the months leading up to Rosh Hashanah, then summer is precisely when we should be drawing people back in. Showing them the sweetness of prayer, the old words, and the new. Weaving them in to the community.

How do other shuls do this? How can we reach the 150 people in our network of small towns who come twice a year and no more, to convince them to give a Shabbat service a try? I know we can't expect them to become regulars, but if half of them would drop in even once a month, it would make a huge difference in our community, and might even make a difference in their lives. But how do we get there from here?

Putting on my other hat temporarily

Believe it or not, blogging isn't the main thing I do -- my primary work is running a literary arts nonprofit called Inkberry. We offer writing workshops (both in-person and online), a reading series, and some nifty online community stuff for writers.

Our first online workshop of the summer is Writing Mysteries and Thrillers. We're offering a special deal: ten percent off tuition on this workshop if you mention that you heard about us through our "blog whisper campaign." If you've ever wanted to try your hand at mysteries or thrillers, check us out! We've got two poetry workshops happening online next month, but the mystery/thriller workshop (which starts Monday) is the one I'm most psyched about right now.

If you think this is cool, feel free to spread the word.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled Judaic programming.