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Blowing my own horn (er...shofar?)

Many of my best poems are Judaic, and every year new poems are born out of the Days of Awe and out of Pesach, the two peaks of my religious year. A few years ago I started the tradition of choosing my favorite new Days of Awe poem and printing it on colored paper with a new year message; I send it to friends and family as a holiday card. In another few years I'll have a whole chapbook of High Holiday poems. I have fantasies of a limited-edition printing... (Anyone out there have a letterpress I could borrow for a while?)

Anyway, two of my Elul poems, both previous years' choices for my family poem-card, have been published at Tel Shemesh. The poems are Numerology and Immersion. Enjoy!


More on the Akedah

This site has all kinds of neat audio downloads, among them a recording of the Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah. Maybe if I listen to it while I work, the portion for the second day will percolate into my subconscious and I'll be able to read it effortlessly if I need to? Okay, I didn't think so either, but it's still a useful resource.

I've been reading up on the Akedah, and I'm finding some good commentary. Lippman Bodoff wrote an terrific article called The real test of the Akedah: blind obedience versus moral choice, which argues (among other things) that Abraham had no intention of actually killing Isaac; that the angel speaking at the end of the portion may not know what he's talking about; and that Abraham's real act of faith was acting as though the worst were going to happen while believing that it wouldn't, which Bodoff likens to the leap of faith the Israelites made in crossing the Sea of Reeds.

Lisa Brush has also written a thought-provoking analysis of the Akedah. She notes that we don't call this portion the Testing of Abraham; we call it the Binding of Isaac. So she focuses her attention on Isaac, offering some interesting thoughts on what binds us and on how to use prayer to escape attachment in our teshuvah.

This commentary by Rabbi Jill Hammer sees in the Akedah the teaching that we must allow part of ourselves to die in order to be reborn for the new year. And this d'var Torah includes a fantastic Yehuda Amichai poem about the Akedah: "Every year our father Abraham would take his sons to Mount Moriah/ the way I take my children to the Negev hills where I once had a war..." (Scroll a little ways down to get to the poem.) While I'm on the subject of poetry, check out Alicia Ostriker's poem Rosh haShanah, too. I love those last two lines.

This Torah portion has inspired countless poems, and not a few books of philosophy. Plus there's a ton of midrash (interpretive story) on the Akedah: some argue that Isaac was a boy of sixteen when the incident happened, others argue he was thirty-seven. One says he actually died, and spent three years in Eden being put back together again. And those are just the classics; modern midrash retells the story from Sarah's point of view, from Isaac's, even from the point of view of the ram. "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it," indeed...


Torah prep

This morning I met again with Jeff to talk about Rosh Hashanah. He had mentioned offhand in a religion committee meeting that we didn't need to find congregational Torah readers for the second day of the holiday, because he does that Torah reading himself. A few minutes later, it occurred to me that if I'm preparing to (potentially) stand in for him, perhaps I should chat with him about that.

See, when I've read Torah before, I only did one aliyah (portion of the weekly reading -- think paragraph) each time. But if Jeff reads the whole Akedah story (that's Genesis 22:1-19), does that mean I should be preparing the entire thing?

Continue reading "Torah prep" »


Karate and teshuvah

The first thing I learned from my Sensei was that the study of karate is about the perfection of one's character. Sure, it conveys other benefits; training keeps one in shape, learning discipline is good, the katas are beautiful, and in the event of an unavoidable altercation it's useful to know how to fight. But karate isn't fundamentally about those things.

A few years into my study, Sensei moved away. When he opened his own school, we drove south to learn from him. Every Saturday morning we piled into my car and drove the two hours to the dojo. We arrived just in time to help teach the kids' class, we took the adults' class, sometimes we lunched together, and then we drove home again.

In those days, that was my Shabbat practice. Every Saturday I tried to leave my ego at the door with my shoes, to enter into a headspace where I could be fully present. One of the foundations of our style was the (mental and physical) stance called higo dachi, I-Am-Ready; in hindsight, I can see the parallel with what my Jewish meditation teachers call hineni, the ontological Here-I-Am that's a prerequisite both for mindfulness practice and for connection with God. (Not coincidentally, it's the response Abraham gives to God in the Akedah story, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

My first karate class was ten years ago now; I've been away from the dojo as long as I was in it. These days, my workouts and my sacred space are separate: I go to the Y a few days a week, and I meditate and pray in shul or at home. There's still some overlap for me, though. I say the asher yatzar blessing while jogging on the treadmill, and prayer for me often means singing which is a deeply embodied act. And I've found that in both contexts, I wrangle with my ego in similar ways.

I'm often tempted to look around the weight room, to make snap judgements based on who's lifting how much weight or who's jogging at what speeds. It's hard to avoid feeling lesser when I have to adjust the weights on a Nautilus machine because I'm not as strong as the person who used it before me; it's hard to avoid feeling a smidge superior when I discover I can lift more weight than someone else. Just so, there's a temptation to compare myself with people who have a daily davvening practice, and find myself lacking; there's a temptation to compare myself with people who take less advantage of what prayer offers, and find myself superior. In other words, my ego gets in my way in both of these worlds.

In both cases, there's teshuvah work to be done. I need to stop comparing myself. How I measure up to the progress of others doesn't matter; what matters is whether my practices are helping me to be the Rachel I want to be. Because in an ideal world, everything I do would be about the perfection of my character.

Somehow, I think my Sensei would agree.


But does it work?

A question I'm often asked, by people who know I have an interest in prayer and in liturgy is, "does prayer work?" My usual answer is "yes, but it depends on what you mean by 'prayer' and what you mean by 'work.'" Usually when people ask that question, they're talking about personal prayer. And that often means petitionary prayer: "God, please don't let him be sick." "God, please don't let me get a speeding ticket." "Ana, El na, refa na la." (That's Numbers 12:13.)

But as anyone who's ever prayed over an ill friend or relative knows, it's pretty rare for the prayer to manifestly heal the person in need. Prayer doesn't seem to be able to stop sickness or dying, to end war or famine, or to change the mind of a traffic cop intent on raising one's car insurance premiums. So what gives? How can I claim that it works?

Continue reading "But does it work?" »


August blessings

Blessed are You, Yahh our God, creator of growing things, for making cherry tomatoes that twist off the vine into the waiting palm, each one a benediction for the palate and throat. For the rows of dill at our community-supported farm, as high as my shoulders now and beginning to sag with the weight of seed, where I can stand and talk with a friend while we snip handfuls to take home. For corn from the farmstand down the road, each ear crisp in its silk dress. For peaches we can grill and eat on salads, drizzled in balsamic vinegar. For the cucumber harvest I preserved today, now four gleaming quart jars (and five sweet little jelly-jars) of half-sour dill pickles to open and eat when midwinter's unimaginable snow whisks against the windows of our house.

Blessed are You, Yahh our God, source of life, for making the rains fall in their season (days for reading and writing, for folding laundry and polishing silver) and then following them with sun (daisies to deadhead, the lawn to mow). For the cool night air that slides through our open windows and screen doors, inspiring me to dig out my slippers and put the kettle on for tea. For the Green River swollen and heady with unseasonable waters, glinting today under the reprieve of a cloudless sky. For the crickets, who seem to be chirping more loudly than usual tonight, maybe mindful that the end of their season is coming.


Daily psalm

Teshuvah takes preparation. Just ask Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman, who likens teshuvah to the process of painting her son's bedroom: "One who prepares the walls thoroughly for a week and a half has smooth painting for the day. One who prepares for teshuvah during the month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, will find Rosh Hashanah far more meaningful and effective."

One of the traditional ways of preparing for Rosh Hashanah is reciting Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul. Rabbi Scheinerman offers commentary on the psalm, in four parts, one for each week of Elul. Here's her commentary for this week, which centers on the theme of responsibility.

She's not alone in finding particular resonance in this psalm. Rabbi Benjamin Segal explores Psalm 27 in a short essay that articulates some of the psalm's tensions (between light and fear, assurance and searching) and explores how God's Oneness bridges the psalm's dialectic.

In addition to singing the psalm in the car and in the shower, I'm starting a new tradition of my own: listening daily to Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi's recording of Psalm 27, spoken in his own "heartful and prayerable" words. His voice works like a meditation bell for me, and I really like the language he uses.

In addition to being beautiful on its own, psalm 27 has served as a jumping-off point for writers and artists. Libi Astaire has created a decoupage piece inspired by the psalm, and poet Debbie Perlman published her own psalm on themes that Psalm 27 and its daily recitation evoke for her. Debbie worked as Psalmist-in-Residence at her shul: now there's a job I'd love to have!


Teshuvah season

We've entered the month of Elul: it's teshuvah season.

Teshuvah (תשובה) is often translated as "repentance" or "atonement." Some translate it as "return," as in turning-back-toward God. My dictionary translates it as "answer, reply; return, repentance."

As a kid, I learned that teshuvah happened during the Days of Awe (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I was instructed to find everyone I might have offended in the previous year and seek their forgiveness. That practice has its root in the Talmudic text (Tractate Yoma) which argues that for a sin committed against God, prayer and repentance can atone, but for a sin committed against another person, forgiveness must be secured from that other person before the prayer and repentance can do their work with God.

But there's more to teshuvah than apologizing to people one might have wronged, and the process of teshuvah begins before Rosh Hashanah. A month before, in fact. On the first of Elul. Which is today.

Continue reading "Teshuvah season" »


My first Blessingway

Last night the Rosh Hodesh group of my synagogue celebrated the new moon obliquely: by holding a simple ceremony honoring one of our members who's very near to giving birth. The ritual was suggested by a friend of Jonquil's (the expectant mother), who learned it in midwifery school; it's called a Blessingway.

The Blessingway is a Navajo tradition, but it's been embraced by a wide range of people looking for meaningful ways of celebrating both pregnancy and impending birth. Amusingly, no one mentioned (either in the invitation, or in last night's ritual) that we were adapting a Navajo practice; maybe that knowledge would have made some of the women self-conscious? I imagine our variation would have looked strange to a Navajo, peppered as it was with Jewish references and bits of prayers, but the syncretism worked surprisingly well.

Continue reading "My first Blessingway" »


Sudan relief

Tonight at sundown begins the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe, which we're supposed to spend engaged in a process of tshuvah, turning-towards-God and repentance and transformation. Expect blog posts about that soon, maybe even tomorrow. For now, a Sudan link:

I was pleased to see a (pictorial, attention-grabbing) ad for the Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief over at JewSchool. To date, the JCSR has raised $41,600. (It's a program of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.)

This is good and important work. Click here to donate to the JCSR. Even a small donation will help. Like Pirke Avot says, it's not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.


Recommended reading

There are assorted subjects I'd like to blog about, but I don't have the time to craft cogent posts today -- so in lieu of actually posting thoughts of my own, let me direct you to Naomi Chana's three recent posts on Jewish liturgy, Sarah's Visitor, Who Gives Life (Leave It At That) and The Holy One.

The first is about finding prayer fun; the second, a personal exploration of the weekday liturgy; the third, a historical look at Jewish liturgy. All three are excellent; the third one in particular should be required reading for anyone interested in Jewish liturgy, or liturgies in general. Good stuff.


Elat Chayyim PSA

Elat Chayyim, the transdenominational Jewish retreat center in the Catskills, is offering some new retreats this season, among them a weekend designed for first-time visitors (A Taste of Honey) and a program for interfaith couples and families. (Both fall on the weekend of November 5-7.)

I blogged my last Elat Chayyim visit here. I'm returning for Yom Kippur, and I'm already excited about it. If you've ever thought about going, this fall might be the time.

(Naomi Chana, not you. You should go for a week sometime when they're offering something juicy and textual.) But anyone else who's considered it but hasn't been sure whether they wanted to commit the resources: nu, give it a try! I can vouch for the place; I love it a lot.


The big leagues

I just met with Jeff, my rabbi, to talk about Rosh Hashanah. As regular readers may recall, he and his wife are expecting their second child right around September 15th -- a singularly inconvenient due date, given his line of work!

Our shul hires a cantor for the Days of Awe, and she shares the service-leading responsibilities with Jeff. This year, I'm learning the Rosh Hashanah service, so that I can fill in if he's called away to the delivery room. And even if the baby's born before or after the holiday, he'd still like me to lead part of the service on the second day, and to give the second day sermon.

This is exciting stuff. This is the big leagues.

Continue reading "The big leagues" »


I don't like him either, but...

The rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, Avigdor Neventzal, announced in June that anyone who gives up a part of the land of Israel -- even a single settlement -- to a non-Jew could be the target of a religiously sanctioned murder. And that includes Ariel Sharon, says Jeffrey Goldberg in Protect Sharon from the Right, an Op Ed piece the New York Times ran yesterday.

I'm no fan of Mr. Sharon. I don't like Mr. Sharon's policies (I believe a two-state solution is the only path to peace, and would prefer sacrificing land to sacrificing more lives; I applaud the IDF refuseniks) and I don't like his attitude, either (urging all French Jews to make aliyah was unconsidered at best, and I can see why M. Chirac was offended).

But that doesn't mean I want to see the guy killed. Come on, people: if you don't like a politician, you vote him out of office. You don't assassinate him. Didn't we learn anything from the murder of Yitzhak Rabin? Using religion as a tool to motivate killing is appalling, and that's true whether we're talking about extremist Palestinians advocating suicide bombings or extremist Israelis advocating assassinations.

The Orthodox radicals who want to see Sharon dead would apparently also like to see the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock destroyed, too. Mr. Goldberg notes that this would set off global war between Muslim and Jew -- a goal the radical yeshivas of the West Bank share with Al Qaeda. That this kind of malicious, short-sighted hatred comes out of a branch of Judaism breaks my heart. I hate to see it from Al Qaeda, too...but somehow it's worse coming from people who are nominally related to me, who claim a place in the faith-tradition to which I belong.

I'm reminded again of that wonderful piece that ran in The Onion right after 9/11, in which God plaintively asked humanity, "What part of 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' did you not understand?"


Liturgical chocolates

This morning, on my way back from an early breakfast meeting, I saw a beautiful, ungainly blue-grey bird swooping in for a landing just beyond the little dam at the edge of Pontoosuc Lake. I want to say it was some kind of heron or egret, something crane-like, with legs dangling like landing gear and great wings outspread. As I drove past, I murmured a bracha, a blessing, praising God Who has made such marvels.

Jews have an obligation to pray three times a day (morning, evening, and night). In addition to that, though, we say brachot, blessings, over pretty much everything. (There's even a blessing for going to the bathroom.) Brachot are such a major part of Judaism that an entire tractate of Talmud is dedicated to them.

In general, brachot encourage us to step back and notice the beauty, majesty, and complexity of creation. They're tools for transcendence. We say blessings that we may be mindful of the sacred hidden within the ordinary. It is written in the Talmud (Brachot 35a) that one who eats without first saying a blessing is stealing sacred property. Some even argue that our saying blessings causes God to send more goodness into the world.

Rabbi Jay Stein observes that the bracha is the both the paradigm of prayer and the smallest unit of prayer that exists, and therefore it serves as the most eloquent and powerful form of worship -- and in the lefthand sidebar of that page he's collected fifty-two brachot, from the blessing on building a parapet to the blessing one says after averting potential danger.

I love brachot because they are perfect, bite-sized prayers. They're the box-of-chocolates of the liturgical world, each sweet and small and different. Praying the birchot ha-shachar (morning blessings) when I wake, saying brachot when the world presents me with something beautiful or unexpected, praising the Source of sustenance when I eat: these keep me mindful, aware, awake. Sometimes I use the traditional forms; sometimes my brachot are free-form. Either way, saying brachot elevates my consciousness, even if it's just for a second, and that changes the tenor of my day.

I think I need a bracha for blogging. Maybe Blessed are You, Source of All, for sparking ideas and conversations so that we, Your manifestations, may experience the pleasure of engaging with Your many faces.


No strings attached

Today was Raksha Bandhan, a Northern Indian festival celebrating the ties of siblinghood...literally. On this festival, women tie rakhi (bracelets or decorative strings) around the wrists of their brothers, to signify the enduring bond between them. Apparently in some communities it transcends familial bonds; friends and neighbors tie rakhi and bless one another, as a way of affirming communal connections.

Though some sites indicate that sequined bracelets are de rigeur, most say that ordinary red threads suffice. In my own tradition, there's been some brouhaha about red threads lately: the red string bracelets some "kabbalah devotees" wear to ward off the evil eye. Last week the internet was abuzz with the news that Target was selling red string as a "hot buy" -- in 72-inch increments, because Target always offers a good deal, right? -- but alas, the page no longer exists, probably because Target stopped selling the strings when they were lambasted by Orthodox leaders. Whoops.

I'm not a fan of the current kabbalah craze; I find the Kabbalah Centre cultish and divorced from the rest of Judaism, and I think they essentialize, minimize, and uproot kabbalah from its context. Kabbalah's tricky stuff. Even if one doesn't hold to the traditional belief that students of kabbalah must be at least forty, married, and well-versed in Torah (not to mention male), the subject deserves more respect and more intensive study than red-string-wearing celebrities generally accord it. (Robert Eisen has some interesting thoughts on that, expressed very articulately.) If you want a taste of kabbalah, read Daniel Matt's new Zohar translation, or some Gerschom Scholem, or some Moshe Idel. Take kabbalah seriously enough to learn it in context. Leave the red string bracelets to the folks celebrating Raksha Bandhan.

Speaking of which: if I knew the appropriate greeting, I'd wish my Hindi readers a good holiday. Can any of you tell me the Hindi equivalent of "good yontif"...?


Wrangling with J4J

Charlie from AnotherThink recently asked whether I'd address the question of so-called Messianic Jews and why, if liberal Jewish communities are open to so many new expressions of Judaism and new manifestations of God, "claiming Jesus as Messiah is one of the few faith blendings that can still get you arrested in almost any synagogue in America."

He raises an interesting point. The short answer, I think, is that while  communal definitions of what makes a Jew may vary, most Jews seem to agree that belief in Jesus as the Messiah makes one Christian. (It depends, of course, on what one means by "messiah," about which more anon.) While many of us, myself included, would argue that Christians and Jews can and should learn from each other, our traditions do differ, and Jesus is the crux of what separates us. (Pardon the pun.) But there are larger issues here -- proselytizing, and the nature of religious identity -- and once I start thinking about this stuff, I get twitchy; I learned skepticism of Jews for Jesus at a young age, and I still have strong feelings about their mission.

I pride myself on being liberal and tolerant. On genuinely believing that every faith has a role to play in the world. On seeing my fellow human beings as made in the image of God, all nurturing their own holy sparks, regardless of who or how or whether they worship. I favor empowering people to claim their own spiritual labels. So why don't I like the term Jews for Jesus? Why does the movement (I'll abbreviate it as J4J) make me so uncomfortable?

Continue reading "Wrangling with J4J" »