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October 2004
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December 2004

Linguistic lightbulbs

On my way home from chorus rehearsal tonight, I was thinking about the last thing my choir director said to us as we were leaving: to wit, that next week we'll be working on the Salamone Rossi pieces that are on the slate, Elohim Hashivenu and Eftach Na Sefatai. And I was thinking about how it's a bummer that I didn't manage to study any Hebrew today, because my workday went straight through chorus.

Last week I ignored grammar in favor of learning my Torah portion; last night I picked up my First Hebrew Primer again, and had to try to relearn the conjugation of the imperfect tense, which I had forgotten in the interim.  Though in my high school French classes the term "imperfect" denoted past action curtailed ("I was slicing pears when the cat mewed to be let in," e.g.), in Biblical Hebrew "imperfect" describes all actions which are not completed: I will, I would, I might, I usually... Anyway, I've been copying conjugations into my notebook in hopes that writing the forms repeatedly will engrain them in my brain. And In the car, on the way home tonight, I was considering copying out some conjugations while watching the Packers game. As if to get in the spirit of things in advance, as I drove my brain started trying to conjugate one of the sample verbs my textbook provides: פתח, "to open."

And I realized that the first person singular, imperfect tense, is אפתח: eftach. As in, the first word in the title of the Rossi piece I'll be practicing this week.

Learning Hebrew is unlike learning other languages, at least in my experience, because there's so much Hebrew with which I'm familiar in a liturgical context. As I work my way through this grammar, I keep running into words I know: ימלך/yimloch (which I know from phrases like "Adonai yimloch le'olam va'ed, God will reign forever and ever") or תפתח/tiftach (see "Adonai, sefatai tiftach, O God, open my lips"). I knew the words from prayers, but I didn't know how they fit into the larger puzzle of syntax. And suddenly, ding! a little light goes on in my head and I understand a phrase I already knew (like a familiar bit of a prayer, or the title of this choral piece) more fully.

When these little linguistic lightbulbs go off, I can begin to imagine what it will be like -- years from now, I'm sure -- when I know Hebrew well enough that these resonances are clear to me automatically...


It's the first Sunday of Advent. Today my friend Peter and his congregation lit the first candle in the enormous evergreen wreath that hangs from the vaulted ceiling of their church. Next week, two candles. Then three. Then four. And on Christmas Eve near midnight, they'll light the central candle, the final light, from which flame will be brought down to light the small tapers of everyone in the room.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of Jesus, who is naturally a problematic figure for most Jews, I love this Advent ritual. It speaks to me. November has been a dark and in many ways difficult month; in my own personal world I feel the need for light, and when I steel myself to listen to the news it's clear the larger world needs some light too. This lighting of candles to celebrate the gradual revelation of spirit is a metaphor made manifest. Last year I was at Peter's church on Christmas Eve, and the experience of watching the light come down from the rafters and fill the room, tiny flame by tiny flame, was powerful.

Of course, my people too have an incremental candle-lighting ritual at this season. Chanukah, known alternately as the festival of lights and the festival of (re)dedication, begins on the 25th of the lunar month of Kislev, which this year corresponds to the evening of December 7th. I'm working on a Chanukah post or two, which ought to be ready for posting by then. But what I'm thinking about today is, is it appropriate for me to find meaning in somebody else's candle-lighting ritual? Knowing that the Advent wreath symbolizes hope for the incarnation of God in the person of a figure I don't regard as savior, ought I to take pleasure in it?

Continue reading "Advent" »

Thoughts on Vayishlach

I spent a cozy Friday evening with my tikkun, practicing today's Torah portion. I have some thoughts about this section of parashat Vayishlach. The first thing that strikes me is that Dinah is identified as daughter of Leah before she's identified as daughter of Jacob. ("Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land...") Rashi writes, "Because of her going out, she is known as daughter of Leah. For Leah, too, was an 'outgoer,' as it is written: 'And Leah went out to greet him.' Regarding Dinah it is said, 'Like mother, like daughter.'" Is this an indictment of Dinah's "going out"? If so, is it also an indictment of Leah's "going out" to meet Jacob? Is Rashi implicitly arguing that women should stay home, out of the public sphere?

Earlier in this portion, we read that when Jacob met with his estranged brother Esau he brought his eleven children. But Jacob had twelve children; why does the text say eleven here? Naturally, there's a midrash which answers the question: Jacob hid Dinah in a box so Esau wouldn't see her beauty and wish to marry her. Rashi chides Jacob for hiding Dinah, arguing that had Dinah been allowed to interact with Esau he might have abandoned his wicked ways. This seems to be an argument against sequestering women, which suggests to me that what Rashi says about Dinah "going out" is not an argument to keep women out of sight. Unsurprisingly, it pleases me to see that it's possible to read one of my tradition's most important commentators as arguing in favor of female visibility.

Of course, it's also possible to find voices arguing against female visibility, both in antiquity and today. This post at Parshablog uses syntactical interpretation to argue that Dinah went out with her arms bare, and that this is why Shechem raped her.

Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is famously predicated on the notion that the encounter between Dinah and Shechem wasn't a rape at all, and that it's possible to read Dinah and Shechem's encounter in other ways. My JPS translation says Shechem "took her and lay with her by force," true, but after that it says "Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly." As Dan Rosan notes, that last phrase in the Hebrew actually says, "he spoke to the maiden's heart." The text doesn't tell us how her heart responded, and that seems to be the omission which sparked Diamant's midrashic novel.

To me, the central question of the portion is this: if Dinah was raped, are the subsequent actions of her brothers justified? Some commentators seem to valorize those actions: A Simple Jew argues that Levi was thirteen when he and Shimon slaughtered the Hivites, and that this is the origin of what we today call becoming bar mitzvah. (The sources of that interpretation are cited here.) Honestly, my reaction to that is a heartfelt oy. I am profoundly troubled by the awareness that children are conscripted to kill today; how could I feel good about the notion of Levi slaughtering a village at thirteen? 

In contrast, though, Shammai Leibowitz focuses on Jacob's response to his sons' actions. He notes that Jacob chides them here for the slaughter on a pragmatic level, but later on (in parashat Vayehi) he curses his sons for killing innocents. Instead of giving them a blessing from his deathbed, he hurls furious imprecations. His reading seems to suggest that what Shimon and Levi did was not morally acceptable, even if it was technically justifiable.

This reads to me as a parable about how violence escalates: one man perpetrates a violent act on one woman, and in retaliation all the men of his tribe are killed and the women and children are enslaved. I think it's a story about the desire for vengeance, and I think it's possible to read the text as encoding the message that this is not right action. (Jacob's curse of his sons reads to me as a pretty solid condemnation of what they did.) Though I can see value in the brothers' intent to protect Dinah,  for me that value is negated by the needless violence her brothers perpetrate in her name.

A few times this week I've stepped back and thought, "What a bizarre story to include in our holy scriptures. What is this doing here?" But I think part of what makes Torah interesting is that it reflects human nature, and sometimes human nature is violent and troubling.  I think there's merit in examining this story for traces of ourselves, reflecting on what bothers us about this portion, and considering how it might be possible to respond to violence in a God-conscious way. 

Giving thanks

I try to pause every night, sometime between brushing my teeth and falling asleep, to list for myself the things for which I am grateful that day. It's my end-of-day ritual. Some days the list feels rote, but I maintain the practice anyway, because I want to cultivate feelings of gratitude.

Yesterday was a good day for that practice: (American) Thanksgiving, a holiday which centers entirely around gratitude. Well, and around food. Since Ethan and I both love to cook, Thanksgiving is one of our favorite holidays. We like feasts.

Yesterday we had a total of ten at our table. In typical fashion we had food for at least twenty, including two turkeys that we smoked in our barrel smoker, two pans of dressing, two kinds of mashed potatoes (I especially liked the chipotle sweet potatoes recipe we nabbed from this week's Queer Eye), half a dozen different vegetables, homemade challah, and eventually six pies and a cake. For ten people. What can I say -- we like abundance. In fairness, we didn't make everything ourselves; our feast was potluck. But we went a little overboard, as we always do. I think that's part of the fun. (So is the certainty of good leftovers.)

When we sat down with our laden plates, all eyes turned to me to say a few words before we ate. I knew that our table included Jews, Christians, and at least one adamantly unchurched agnostic, so my challenge was to speak words that would resonate for everyone. I said a few words about being mindful of, and thankful for, the many blessings in our lives, particularly each other and the tremendous spread of food before us. I encouraged us to reflect on our feast's origins: the earth that produced it, the people who stewarded that process, and the ultimate Source from which all blessings flow. I felt pretty good about it. Hopefully it was loose enough to keep everyone at the table comfortable, but strong enough to help everyone actually focus on feelings of gratitude for a moment before digging in.

The day eventually wound down; after cooking, feasting, laughing, talking, hugging, and saying farewells, we spent the evening simmering turkey bones for stock and relaxing on the couch. A fine and low-key end to a really good holiday.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Actually listing all of the blessings in my life is nigh-impossible: they're too many. But if I were to make that list, it would include this blog and its community of readers. So thank you for being here! I wish you many blessings in the year to come, the perspective to notice them as they're happening, and the ability to give thanks.

Whole Lot of Torah Going On

My friend the rabbi will be out of town this upcoming weekend, spending Thanksgiving with family, so I volunteered to lead services on Saturday morning. I swing by shul this morning to pick up a printout of the Torah portion for the week.

This week we're on Vayishlach, so I'm reading Genesis 34:1-31: the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob. She is raped by Shechem son of Hamor, who then decides he wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons are angry, but they hide their anger, and tell Shechem that if all the men in the tribe of Hamor become circumcised, they'll allow Dinah to marry in. The mass circumcisions happen, and then Jacob's sons attack and slaughter them all in recompense for the rape. It ends with Jacob chiding his sons for bringing trouble on him (slaying and plundering just aren't nice things to do), but the sons counter, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"

If I had nothing else to do this week, I could probably spend the whole thing reading commentaries and working on preparing my Torah discussion. This is a fascinating, fascinating story and I'm sure there's a ton of commentary on it. (I'd love to reread Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent", for instance, which tells the story somewhat differently from Dinah’s point of view; and it would be fun to learn what traditional commentators have to say about this portion, too.) Of course, I don't have the luxury of being a fulltime Torah scholar, especially not during Thanksgiving week. And what time I do have is likely to be devoted to learning the Hebrew, because this Torah portion? Is huge.

Seriously. It's at least twice as long as anything I've read before, maybe three times as long. The Torah portion handout for the congregation (Hebrew in one column, English in the other) fills both sides of a full 8.5 x 11" page. The synagogue administrator handed it to me with a smile and I swallowed an eep and said, a little weakly, "Gosh, that's a long one."

The first thing I did was go to the synagogue library to pull the tikkun from the shelf. (It's an enormous leather-bound volume which pairs printed text-with-vowels and Torah-calligraphy-style vowel-less text in facing columns.) This way, once I can read it fluently with vowels, I can switch over to the Torah-script side of the page and practice reading it as it's printed in the scroll. Honestly, even the fact of this book is a little daunting: it's huge, covered in red leather embossed with gilt, and there's not an Engish character in it anywhere. (I was proud of myself simply for finding this week's portion.) The facing pages are filled with more columns of Hebrew in still different typescripts; I know they're commentaries of some kind, but no way is my Hebrew good enough to understand them. For some of my readers (rabbis, rabbinic students, yeshiva students) this kind of thing is old hat, but it's new to me, and it's a stretch.

I'm a little bit intimidated by the prospect of reading this much Torah. I keep staring at it, nervously, wishing I had more than five days to learn it in.

Another part of me is amused at the size of this thing. If I want to be competent at this, the Universe seems to be saying, then I'd better step up to the plate. And what time better than the present?

I guess I know what I'm doing with my tomorrow afternoon. And my Wednesday. And Friday.



I've been absent from the blogosphere for a few days in part because my grandmother-in-law passed away. I only knew her for the last dozen years of her life, but she was pretty remarkable during those years. Well into her early nineties she still cooked, insisted on washing dishes at Thanksgiving, and crawled around on the floor to play with her great-grandchildren. She was an amazing lady.

Her passing took a week, from the time she stopped eating and drinking (no hunger strike, just a kind of unwillingness to deal with ingestion) to the end. During that time her daughters stayed by her bedside, holding her hands, telling her it was okay to go. Many of her grandchildren came to see her that last weekend, and though she wasn't really verbal anymore, I'm told she met their eyes and smiled.

My last interaction with her was in the spring. We were in Boston for BloggerCon II and swung north to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday at a favorite restaurant. She proudly withdrew from her purse the birthday cards her family had sent, to show them off (though I'm not sure we knew we had been the ones to send them), and when the waitress brought the birthday cake with the big "9" and "5" candles on it and teased that she didn't look her age, her social graces were intact enough for her to respond graciously.

Hers was my first Christian funeral, so it was my first open-casket viewing. I couldn't seem to help thinking in clichés when I saw her body. It was like seeing a perfect wax-museum replica of her. The features were hers, the hands were hers, the hair was hers, but it was not her anymore. I guess there's no way to have an original reaction to seeing the shell which used to house a person.

The minister was tall and graceful, and she spoke warmly about the life we were celebrating. I was impressed by her ability to weave anecdotes and tidbits (I do not think she knew my grandmother-in-law well) into a eulogy that felt meaningful. The singing reminded me again that I love hymnals, and I love being able to sightread simple harmony.

The graveside service was very brief. The headstone was already there from the passing of her husband some thirty-five years ago. I was prepared for the liturgy to be unfamiliar, so I was struck by the difference I didn't know to expect: we did not lower the casket into the earth, and we did not fill in the grave ourselves. (In Jewish tradition, helping to fill in the grave is considered the final act of lovingkindness one can tender.) I hadn't realized how accustomed I was to closing with this process, each person moving a symbolic shovel-ful or handful of dirt.

The traditional Jewish blessing said upon hearing of a death is Baruch dayan emet (Blessed is the true judge). The notion of God-as-judge isn't very comfortable for me, but I know that by any metric that matters, my grandmother-in-law's life was righteous and good. She was warm and generous to me from the moment we met. Her kindness, practicality, eye for bargains, and all-around joie de vivre live on in her children and grandchildren, and I feel lucky to have known her. Zichrona liv'racha: may her memory be a blessing.

Blogging for Peace

Welcome to new readers who found their way here via Real Live Preacher! Kick back, take off your shoes, have a cup of tea, stay a while.

And my sincere thanks to everyone who's been participating in the conversation on my most recent post; this is my idea of a good time, and I'm especially delighted that the tone of our conversation is so genial despite our differences.

I have a few posts-in-progress on my hard drive, and hope to polish one of them up for public consumption soon, but I've been a little overwhelmed by the confluence of a couple of freelance deadlines and the onset of fundraising season at the nonprofit I run, so for now, a link to something cool:

Blogging for MidEast Peace. A new phenomenon called BloggerCorps is hoping to link up volunteer bloggers with nonprofits who want help getting blogs going, and their first project is with OneVoice. They're looking for volunteer bloggers in New York, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah; learn more and opt in here.

Liberals and conservatives

Why is it that religious progressives seek interaction with, approval from, and common ground with religious conservatives, but not vice versa? (For the purposes of this post, and in fact in general in this blog, please assume that when I capitalize Conservative I'm talking about the Conservative Movement, and when I use the miniscule "c" I mean opposite-of-liberal.)

I can't say for certain how this one plays out in other traditions, but in Judaism there's a complicated dynamic between the denominations. I know a bunch of Jews from liberal backgrounds who make a conscious effort to learn more about (small-c) conservative/traditional liturgy and observance (witness Shira's decision to learn to davven from the Artscroll, or, heck, any number of posts at Baraita) but I'm not sure I can call to mind an instance of a religiously-conservative/Orthodox friend or relative saying, "Hey, you know, in the interest of preserving the unity of k'lal Yisrael [the greater Jewish community] I ought to learn how those other guys pray."

Obviously this is anecdotal, and readers can probably give me counter-examples. (In fact, I really hope you will.) And please don't misread me as saying that conservative or Orthodox Jews don't care about the rest of us or don't have an interest in dialogue; the mere existence of people like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would disprove that nonsense in a heartbeat. What I'm saying is that it seems to me that liberal Jews often feel like we should be reaching out to conservative Jews, and I'm not sure that feeling is mirrored on the other side of the divide.

Continue reading "Liberals and conservatives" »

"Oh my darling..."

This morning I stopped by the store to fetch a few necessaries and was drawn out of my intended orbit by the pyramid of blond wooden boxes bearing gleaming orbs: the first clementines of the season, waiting to rattle the ride home in the back of my car, to be withdrawn from their yellow plastic shopping bag, to kiss my palm with spray when peeled, and to disappear into my mouth one succulent section at a time, inspiring a silent shehecheyanu for the first sweet, tart, tiny oranges of the year.

(inspired by elck's beautiful one-sentence blog entry, here. edited to add: he's collecting one-line story posts here.)

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Have you ever slowed down with the intent to appreciate a flavor: fresh strawberries hot from the field, smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, spicy gingerbread iced with fondant? Ever taken an eternity to savor a crisp in-season apple, an ear of sweetcorn with butter, a bowl of rich mushroom-barley soup? Every now and then I have a yen to do that with prayers.

I've been reading an excellent book by Rabbi Marcia Prager called The Path of Blessing, which I will post about when I've finished it and taken some time to digest it. Anyway, there's a chapter about each word in the standard bracha formulation. (Don't think there's a chapter's worth of stuff to say about ברוך/baruch/"blessed"?  Think again.) It's making me think about how much I gloss over when I speak blessings and prayers.

The thing is, even though the practice of making blessings is designed to enable us to savor a moment, it's rare that I take proper time to savor a blessing. And if that's true for a sweet, dense little truffle one-line prayer, it's more true for longer parts of the liturgy. I've seen a fascinating chart of esoteric meanings one can read into the amidah, resonances of each word, kavvanot (intentions) to hold while praying each phrase -- but when I'm actually saying the prayer, I can't remember that stuff. Even in my shul where we pray at (what strikes me as) a reasonable pace, I can't stop and hold each word.

And most of the time, honestly, that's cool with me. But every now and then I think it would be really neat to take an hour to davven the amidah: really get inside every word, meditate on all the resonances. The closest I’ve come is at Elat Chayyim, where I've experienced interpretive and contemplative shacharit (morning prayer services). We took one line from each of the morning prayers, chanted it repeatedly to get inside it (and get it inside us), and then faded into silence to sit with the prayer for a  while. It's not my everyday mode of praying, but I've loved it every time I've done it.

That it's not my everyday modus operandi (modus davvenandi?) is actually important, I think. Slow and focused prayer takes a lot of energy. But I suspect really sinking in to contemplative prayer once or twice could help remind one not to davven at lightning speed in general, just as eating a good meal mindfully can remind one not to be satisfied with bolting food as fast as one can.

Maybe the answer is that I should try offering to run a contemplative/interpretive morning service once in a while at my shul. (Yeah, in my copious spare time.) And if anyone shows up, I could teach some simple chants, and we could spend a while studying prayers, and we could davven really slowly, as though any given prayer were an ice cream cone we were trying to stretch with as many tiny licks as possible. I think it would be fun. The question is, would anybody else?

Amidah tensions

Friday night, Jeff invited us to reflect on the tension between personal prayer and communal prayer before praying the amidah. The Talmud, he told us, presents two conflicting ways of looking at the amidah. (Yeah. Disagreement in the Talmud. What a shocker, eh?) On the one hand, the amidah is regarded as the replacement for Temple sacrifice, intended to strengthen our communal connection with our source; on the proverbial other hand, it's also regarded as the time to stand before God and speak the personal words of our hearts.

I'm familiar with the tension; I relate to the amidah differently at different times. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and wrap my tallit tighter around me and talk silently to God, and don't want to use any set words at all. Sometimes I use the set sequence of blessings as a springboard for my own prayers on those same themes, kind of like this. (Still haven't tried these, though.) Sometimes I want to read familiar words along with everybody else, and let the words wash over me without thinking too hard about their relevance or resonance. Fortunately, Judaism assumes that one's experience of a prayer will change over time, and that different interpretations of a prayer can coexist. In The Synagogue Survival Kit, author Jordan Lee Wagner writes,

"There are as many personal ways of understanding a prayer as there are people. For each phrase of a prayer, there are many midrashim (homiletical textual studies) with new insights, many even conflicting with one another. By reading collections of other people's insights you get to pick and resynthesize, or create your own. And your own perceptions will not be stable over time. The only thing that remains stable is the outward form of the prayer. This is true of the entire service and every prayer in it. Judaism does not require or expect adherence to any particular insight or interpretation. In fact, the tradition desires the opposite."

Wagner's point that the outward form of the prayer remains constant while internal interpretations of it change is an interesting one to me, because there's actually a line in the amidah which hasn't remained constant across the denominations, and it's one that's tricky for me. It's the line that expresses hope for restoration of Temple service in Jerusalem -- a goal I can't begin to imagine desiring.

Continue reading "Amidah tensions" »


This blog exists to focus on Judaism. I don't intend to change that. But yesterday's election shook me so profoundly that I feel compelled to respond to it in words. We'll return to our usual religion-related programming first thing tomorrow. Meanwhile, my nutshell reaction to the American election is this: given the state of our economy, given the quagmire in Iraq, given the hash that Mr. Bush has made of our international reputation, I am stunned that he won the presidency. And I am scared and saddened to realize how out-of-step I apparently am with the majority of people in my country.

Continue reading "Mourning" »

Election Day approaches

We're almost there. For many of us, this is occasion for some fear and trembling; much depends on the outcome of this Presidential election, and I suspect that the acrimony which has marked the election season to date will mark the weeks which follow. I dread the prospect of a long, drawn-out, post-Election-Day legal battle for the White House.

Many excellent blogs focus on politics, and it's not my intent to encroach on their territory. (They say that God and politics are the two subjects one should never bring up at a dinner party; as I commit the former faux pas all the time, there's no need to compound my sin!) But since Jews strive to sanctify every moment with blessings, let me share with you a bracha for voting, which I learned from my rabbi Jeff:

. ברך אתה יהוה אלוהינו מלך האולם אשר חנין לאדם דעת להבין בלבחר
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher chonein l'adam da'at l'havin v'livchor.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has graced human beings with thought, enabling us to understand and to choose.

My friend David, whose Hebrew is better than mine, points out that the word for "to choose" (לבחר/liv'chor) shares a root with "election" (בחירה/b'chirah). The same relationship exists in English, of course, but we don't often use "elect" that way anymore, at least not in colloquial speech. It's good to be reminded that choice is at the heart of this enterprise.

Anyway, in a similar vein to the blessing for voting, the folks at the Shalom Center just sent out an excellent Prayer Before Voting, which I will share below.

Continue reading "Election Day approaches" »