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May 2004
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July 2004

Darfur news

The Holocaust museum suspended normal operations to call attention to Darfur. This is an amazing story, and it gladdens me (as much as anything relating to the tragedy in Sudan can be gladdening). If remembering the Shoah is an imperative with any meaning, it must impel us to act against other genocides. Bravo for the folks at the Holocaust Museum who recognized the parallel, and who made the decision to make a statement about it. Now if only that could lead to action and aid...

On an unrelated note, I'll be blogging about my Elat Chayyim retreat soon, hopefully tomorrow, as soon as I edit my notes into readable form! Thanks to all who wished me a good trip, and who have asked how it went. More soon.

And I'm off!

I'm off to Elat Chayyim this afternoon, for a six-day retreat with Zalman Shachter Shalomi. I've admired Reb Zalman for a decade (I've linked to this story about Zalman among the Sufis before) -- I can't quite believe I get to meet him, much less study with him! I won't be blogging from the retreat (indeed, I won't have any contact with the outside world), but I imagine I'll post about it when I get back.

In other happy news, I just landed my second wedding-officiating gig! Another interfaith couple, who I really like over the phone, who are smart and thoughtful and engaged with some interesting ideas. They, too, are getting married in October. Here's hoping that JP application comes through; otherwise I'm going to have to do some work to convince the state to license me to marry twice in one month.

Have a great week, all. See you on the other side.

Midrash, mirrors, moons.

This morning in shul we had a special second study session because it's Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the festival of the new moon marking the beginning of the month of Tammuz. We studied passages from Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, a staggeringly rich collection of the exegetical stories known as midrash. We focused on stories relating to the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:1-4)...specifically ones that show the role of women.

One midrash tells us that the Israelite women refused to give up their golden earrings for construction of the idol, and that therefore God gave Rosh Hodesh "as a holiday to women, and in the world to come, too, they will be rewarded for their firm faith in God. For, like the New Moon, they are monthly renewed."

Jeff asked whether any of us perceived a connection between the "monthly renewal" of women and the fact that the women didn't contribute to the making of the golden calf. My answer was, maybe because of our own cycles we know that when the moon seems to disappear, it will always return. Just so, even when God seems to disappear from our lives, we know the Presence will always return. And that's why the Israelite women didn't give up their gold: because they knew Moses' disappearance, and the concomitant apparent disappearance of YHVH, was temporary. That God, like the moon, would return. As God always does.

We also looked at a midrash which tells us that the Israelite women wanted to contribute to the making of the Tabernacle, so they came to Moses with their cloaks and their mirrors. Moses was reluctant to accept the gifts, but the women said, "Why should you reject our gifts? If it's that you don't want to adorn the sanctuary with things we use to enhance our charms, here, have our cloaks, which we use to conceal ourselves. If it's that you don't want anything which might technically belong to our husbands, here, take our mirrors, which are obviously ours alone." Moses balked because the mirrors are tools of sensuality; but God rebuked him, saying, "These mirrors are dearer to Me than other gifts," and explaining in some detail how the mirrors and the sensuality they connote led directly to the growth of the Israelite people. I like the sex-positive message encoded there; and I like that the women brought gifts which reveal and gifts which conceal, a thematic thread connecting the mirrors and the garments. And I like Jeff's observation that in that midrash Moses represents the status quo, the preexisting gendered social order, while God is pointing the way toward an ideal in which women's contributions are valued as much as men's.

Tammuz has some negative associations (Moses smashed the first tablets during Tammuz; sacrifices ceased in the Second Temple during Tammuz; Nebuchadnezzar breached the walls of Jerusalem, you guessed it, during Tammuz), so traditional Jews begin a mourning period on 17 Tammuz which culminates on 9 Av next month. Interestingly, those 22 days of mourning are balanced by 22 days of rejoicing between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Sukkot.

Some regard Tammuz as a month of hidden light. Because of the fasting and mourning which traditionally takes place later this month, it's easy to think of Tammuz as a dark month...but in truth, the light is there, just hidden. Like the new moon: only a sliver of light is visible to the naked eye, but the moon's still there. Like God, who may seem absent in world news or in our own lives, but whose light is never gone, only hidden, waiting to shine.

May God Bless and Keep the Czar...Far Away From Us!

A friend alerted me recently to the Presidential Prayer Team, an apparently independent organization whose goal is "to enlist 1% of the American population or 2.8 million people, to pray for the President, both this administration and future administrations."

On the one hand, I pray regularly, and I'm not averse to the notion of praying for the President. Sure, it sounds a little hokey, but I do believe that prayer can change things (it can change me, even if it doesn't measurably change the world in a way I can perceive). Praying for the President might be a good idea, even if my flip and off-the-cuff temptation is to pray him right out of office. (Those who've seen Fiddler on the Roof will recognize this post's subject header and its relevance.)

On the other hand, their statement of faith doesn't exactly include me, or anyone like me. Apparently only Christians are invited to pray for the president through this initiative. Not very welcoming, is it?

If I were going to join a national prayer movement, I would want it to be multifaith by default. The fact that they don't want me -- well, that's their loss, though it's kind of frustrating. It bugs me that so many people seem capable of forgetting that this is not a Christian nation. (I've blogged about that before.) And it always bothers me when I'm willing to accept the legitimacy of someone else's faith/path/way of prayer, but they're not willing to accept the legitimacy of mine.

Their FAQ tells me "The Presidential Prayer Team does not involve itself in determining who is praying accurately or who should and shouldn't pray," but I disagree. If they're only open to people who believe Jesus is the Christ, then they are determining who should pray on their team. Which makes me feel both invisible and unwanted. If they're only open to Christians, why don't they call themselves "Christian Presidential Prayer Team"? If they're going to claim to be open to the whole nation, then they ought to be open to everyone.

Music and mysticism

I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson in concert last night, with the Richard Thompson Band. All four band members are consummate musicians, and they play well together. The set included a number of my favorites (among them Outside of the Inside, a searing and intense indictment of fundamentalism). I liked seeing how obviously the band members enjoy each others' company and abilities; every time one of the other guys played something particularly tricky or beautiful, Richard would grin for a moment, as if to say "I'm so glad to be playing with you!" Their pleasure in the music was infectious.

It's gotten me thinking about how music and spirituality connect for me. All of my best worship experiences have involved music -- maybe because I'm a singer and I love to use my voice. When everyone in a room is singing, when the harmonies are good, when the kavvanah (focus/intent) is there: God is in that room, and I'm aware of God being there. What I'm realizing, as I think about it, is that this goes both ways for me. My best worship experiences involve music -- and my best musical experiences border on worship. There's something in really good live music which transcends the ordinary, which lifts me up. The experience borders on the mystical.

Maybe I'm predisposed to find God in great music. Maybe Richard's mystical tendencies shine through in his performances (he is, as this piece notes, a Sufi). Or maybe there's something inherently sacred in good music, joyfully performed, for the pleasure of a room full of strangers who, for two and a half hours, almost feel like friends.

History of the religious blogosphere?

I'm working on an article about women in the religious blogosphere. As a result, I'm wondering which religion blogs have been around the longest, and whether any of the longest-running ones are written by women. I'd also love to know about godblogs from the early days of the blogosphere which have vanished. Comment if you've got info?

More on Korach

This week's Torat Chayim at the URJ features some excellent commentary on parashat Korach, specifically on the notion of Sheol:

"You might think that Sheol means hell. After all, it's down there. It would appear that the shortest way to get to Sheol is just to fall in if the earth opens up. So most people assume that it must be the same as hell. And we all know what it's like down there.

The only trouble with that explanation is that it is an anachronism. When the Torah was written, there was no idea of hell, at least not among the Jews..."

Read the whole thing here.

On Korach

This week's Torah portion is a doozy: Korach. The text tells us that Korach and his followers assembled "against Moses and against Aaron and said to them: Too much is yours! Indeed, the entire community, the entirety of them, are holy, and in their midst is YHWH! Why then do you exalt yourselves over the assembly of YHWH?" Korach, it seems, rebelled against his lot in life; he wanted to be high priest, or perhaps he believed the Children of Israel should be a nation of priests, each capable of making offerings to God.

To make a long story short, when Korach and his followers made fire and incense offerings to God, the earth opened to swallow Korach and his followers and their households, who went down alive into Sheol. Then God caused a plague, which Aaron appeased with incense (but not before another 14,700 people died). Then there's the strange and beautiful story of Aaron's staff bearing flowers and almonds (which deserves its own blog post at some point). The remainder of the portion deals with the nature of appropriate offerings to God.

I find this parasha problematic. Because deep down, I agree with Korach that our entire community is capable of becoming holy. And my modern sensibilities are appalled first that all of Korach's followers' households vanish into the earth, and then by the plague that kills more than fourteen thousand others. The punishment strikes me as seriously out of proportion to the crime. What should I make of this parasha?

True, the part of me that likes a good story has to admit that there's something gorgeously dramatic about causing the earth to swallow Korach and his followers on the spot. (To me it echoes the whale swallowing Jonah.) This strikes me as fertile ground for midrash: what precisely is Sheol? Where did Korach and his followers go? Did they ever die, or are they still underground somewhere/somehow?

The author of this commentary observes that only five Torah portions are named after peple, and that each of these people has a revolutionary and important role. Two are rebels whose plots were foiled (Balak and Korach), two make the world better for the Israelites (Pinchas and Jethro), and one saves the world and then sets it sinning again (Noah). That puts Korach in pretty interesting company.

What was Korach's sin? Was it the hubris of believing that he didn't need priestly intercession to reach God? (In that case, maybe he was just ahead of his time; arguably he presaged the post-Temple era, but neither God nor the Israelites were ready for that.) Was it his jealousy of Moses and Aaron, or challenging God's plan for the Israelites? Was it trying to usurp the role of high priest (showing that he didn't really believe everyone was equally holy: he just wanted the job for himself)?

This commentary tells us that Rashi interprets the first two words, Vayikach Korach ("Korach took"), to mean that Korach took himself outside of the community in order to attack Moses. According to this view, his sin was removing himself from the community, rather than challenging authority in a legitimate way.

This commentary cites Y. Leibowitz's argument that the real issue here is the nature of holiness. It is the responsibility of the Israelites to strive toward holiness, to sanctify themselves; Korach's error was declaring that holiness was innate to the Israelite people. Being an Israelite, Leibowitz says, does not make one automatically holy; holiness arises through righteousness, and takes some work.

I'll close by pointing you to Richard Hirsh 's commentary, which explores contemporary discomfort with this story, and observes that the story continues to be resonant today as the Jewish community struggles to define what we want to be and who takes part in that process of self-definition. He sees fascinating resonance between the Korach story and the question of how and whether informed laypeople gain agency in shaping the Judaism of the years to come.

Presence and absence. And L'Engle.

I'm still reading L'Engle, this time The Irrational Season, the third of her Crosswicks journals. This volume is more concerned with theology than the previous two had been.

I'm four chapters in, and already three short passages have lodged in my mind. The first is, But if I cannot see God's love here on the Upper West Side of New York where we seem to have done everything possible to destroy the beauty of creation, it is going to do me very little good to rejoice in beauty in the uncluttered world of the country.

Since I myself have chosen "the uncluttered world of the country," I felt a flash of recognition. It's easy to see creation as holy on a day like today, when the vista of our valley spreads out green and beautiful around me; when the season's first pint of fragrant strawberries, fresh from local fields, has made the journey to my kitchen counter; when our red fox darts across the driveway, crossing my path down to the dirt road and the beaver pond. I have a harder time maintaining consciousness of God in cities where trees are hemmed in with asphalt, where people don't look each other in the eye...and an even harder time when I look at the wider world and consider slow-motion genocide in Sudan, slag heaps, slums.

My tradition and my personal theology both tell me that God is present even in the terrible things that we do to one another; God is present even in despair (though it may be the definition of despair that one becomes unable to perceive that Presence). But this is hard for me to grapple with...and leads to the second L'Engle quote I've already copied out: The only God who seems to me worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand....[A] comprehensible God is no more than an idol.

I'm with L'Engle on this one (and with Maimonides, for that matter.) Anthropomorphic language is easy, but incorrect; we see God in whatever garments we drape Mystery in, but we can't see what's beyond the cloak. God is incomprehensible, and it occurs to me that so is faith. Faith can't happen intellectually; it's not something one can understand. It doesn't make much sense to look at the broken world and persist in believing in God, and yet.... Maybe that's part of what we're here for: the leap of faith, and the leap of becoming active participants in creation. Faith is a conscious choice; healing the world is a conscious choice; and both derive meaning from the possibility of their opposites.

The third L'Engle quote I've copied comes from a chapter about marriage. She's referring to the periodic conflicts that she and her husband have endured, but I read it as an excellent message about dark times in general: I've learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won't stay submerged. To me, there's something oddly hopeful about that sentiment. There will always be a next time when God seems absent...but sunrise is also always already on the way.

With the real rabbis

I have dear friends who are expecting a baby in September, right around Rosh Hashanah. This is excellent news! There's only one complication: he's the rabbi of my shul, and the Days of Awe are his busiest time of the year.

We hire a cantor to work alongside him during the Holidays, because our attendance jumps to about two hundred and the Festival services are long. Still, even with the cantor on-hand, things could get complicated; if his wife goes into labor during the holiday, he'll be in the hospital with her, not on the bimah (pulpit). And if they have a brand-new infant, or if they're on pins and needles waiting for a late baby to drop, he'll be on tenterhooks even if he's in shul.

So I offered to lend a hand in whatever way he needs. I like helping out with services; it's fun for me, and it challenges me; it keeps me involved and engaged.

His response? He wants me as backup shaliach tzibbur (services-leader) for Rosh Hashanah, both days. All four services (the first eve, the first day, the second eve, the second day). Which means I'd have some role in leading services, and might even give one of the sermons, even if he's there the whole time.

I am absurdly excited. And terrified. (It's one thing to lead services for the twenty regulars who show up on an average Shabbat; it's another thing to lead services when the synagogue is packed, when part of one's responsibility is to give people a sufficiently meaningful experience that they might want to return sometime.) And honored.

I mentioned this to my friend Emily this morning, who joked, "You're finally getting to run and play with the real rabbis!" Indeed.

I also just offered to read Torah in July, for the first time since I became bat mitzvah. I'll read one section of the portion, each of the two weeks when I'm leading services next month. (Plus, you know, lead services, and prepare the d'var Torah / discussion.) That in itself is a little exciting and a little scary; but somehow it seems entirely normal, compared with the fact that I've been given the opportunity to step up to the plate for Rosh Hashanah.

Wedding thoughts

I hate to admit that my mother was right about this, but sometimes I wish we had a recording of our wedding. I remember many things about the day: the cluster of women in the hotel suite helping me dress, the feelings of awe mingled with joy mingled with disbelief. I remember the thrill I got at the sight of my soon-to-be husband in his tux. I remember standing arm in arm with my father just before he walked me down the aisle, feeling impatient and afraid of missing my cue until he squeezed my arm and I realized how hard it had to be for him to let go of this last moment. I remember exchanging rings. I remember the photographs. I remember the dancing. I remember the hora. I remember lifting my parents up on chairs. I remember the red wine and strawberries awaiting us in our room when we finally called it a day.

But I've lost some details of the ceremony. Although I know that our rabbi spoke earnestly and with humor about marriage in general and us in particular, I don't remember a word that he said. Although I know which friends we asked to read which Marge Piercy and John Berger poems, I can't remember how they sounded. Although I know what arrangements my former madrigal ensemble sang, I wish we'd preserved their voices...and the voice of my dear friend David, who chanted the sheva brachot.

A wedding is a turning-point, a liminal moment. It's a chance to stand up with one's partner and create a lasting connection in front of one's friends and family, one's community, and God. I love weddings because I'm a sap; but also because I'm a poet with a strong belief in the transformative power of language. Weddings are among the few times when people really pay attention to what they're saying -- and really believe that the words they speak change something.

Today I learned that there's an opening for a Justice of the Peace in my town, so I sent off for an application. It's no guarantee of anything, of course, but I'm excited about applying. The wedding I performed last year was one of the most empowering experiences of my life; acting as מסדרת/m'saderet (literally, "she-who-orders" -- officiant/celebrant) for Tony and Lindy is similarly satisfying work. Becoming a JP would help me in my ongoing quest to help other people and couples and families engage with Judaism through crafting life-cycle rituals that genuinely have meaning for them...

...and sending off for the application seems like a fit way of celebrating our wedding anniversary. My middle brother asked me this morning, "Has it been six long years or six short years?"

"It's been six good years," I told him. And it is true.

Good morning

As I drove into town for meditation this morning, I entered cloud, and remembered as I drove that this often happens in summer: I wake to sun, overlooking mist in the low valleys, and then as I drive into the low valley which holds our town the fog closes in.

During our walking meditation, on the slate patio behind the synagogue, the sun slowly emerged. When we began, visibility was limited to a patch of green and some cattails at the edge of the marsh; by the time Jeff called us back inside with our niggun (wordless melody) the majesty of the mountains had emerged and everything was green and gold and blue.

Just now I mis-typed "walking meditation" as "waking meditation." A fortuitous slip! I think that's what mindfulness practice is all about: waking.

בקר טוב/Boker tov -- good morning!

Good books

"To be whole, as many traditions teach, is to make manifest a unique face of God in the world." So writes Mary Rose O'Reilly in The Barn at the End of the World, a beautiful memoir which traces her trajectory from Catholic novice to Quaker Buddhist shepherd-apprentice. I find that quote especially resonant as it relates to depression; if wholeness enables us to reflect God, then it makes sense that feelings of brokenness would make God feel further away.

Many of the writers whose work I most enjoy seem to have an interest in wholeness and in its opposite. Maybe that interest follows from the human condition, and arises in anyone leading an examined life? Lately I've also been rereading Jane Kenyon, and it occurs to me that the two writers have something to say to one another. (Jane has some stunning poems about depression: I especially recommend "Having It Out With Melancholy," from Constance.) Had Jane and Mary Rose met, I imagine they would have talked about rural life and faith, about God and work and poetry.

Madeleine L'Engle, too, might have enjoyed being in on that conversation. I've been reading her Crosswicks Journals, published thirty years ago and still marvelously relevant and resonant. I like getting a glimpse inside her life, her creative process, her wrestle with faith. There's a marvelous moment in the second Crosswicks journal (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother) where she observes that many people seem to believe that in order to be a person of faith, one must feel that faith all the time. If she manages to genuinely believe for two minutes out of the average month, she points out, she considers it a month well-spent.

It's fun to imagine the three of them sitting down for tea and theology, sharing favorite poems and koans. There was a meme going around the blogosphere for a while about the five people one would most wish to invite to dinner. (My answers today, for what it's worth: Rinde Eckert, Miriam the Prophet, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard, and John Jerome.) I like this new spin on the idea, though: if I could sit in on coffee klatsches between my favorite writers, or between magical embodiments of my favorite books, what would I overhear?