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July 2005
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September 2005

Happy World Blog Day!

It's World Blog Day 2005. (Thanks for the reminder to join in, Haitham!) The idea behind World Blog Day is simple:

In one long moment In August 31st, bloggers from all over the world will post a recommendation of 5 new Blogs, Preferably, Blogs different from their own culture, point of view and attitude. On this day, blog surfers will find themselves leaping and discovering new, unknown Blogs, celebrating the discovery of new people and new bloggers.

The ability to connect with bloggers of different stripes -- whether that means people who see my faith differently than I do, or people of different faiths, or people from other places -- is one of the coolest things about the internet, so I was gung-ho about World Blog Day as soon as I heard about it. The challenge, of course, was choosing just five blogs to profile!

In the end I made three lists: 5 Jewish blogs which differ in perspective from mine, 5 religion blogs which showcase other traditions, and 5 blogs that offer insight into countries which are not my own.

Continue reading "Happy World Blog Day!" »

Oy vey, indeed.

My heart sank when my aggregator netted me the headline A guide to dating Jews earns author 'Nazi' tag, and the first lines of the story didn't improve my mood any: "Kristina Grish has been described as a 'Nazi' and little better than a prostitute. Her crime: writing a light-hearted, non-Jewish women's guide to understanding Jewish men." Grish wrote Boy Vey!, "the shiksa's guide to dating Jewish men," and now she's getting slammed by Jews who are trotting out the tired old claim that interdating will finish the work that Hitler started. Again, from the Observer article:

Pamala Moteles, also from Jerusalem, sees the book as part of a 'terrible trend' that forced her to leave America for Israel. This 'will spell the doom of the American Jewish community: the aggressive hunting of Jewish men by gentile women and the lack of interest expressed by Jewish men in Jewish women,' she wrote.

She accuses the author of encouraging the breakdown of 'Jewish heritage by cultivating a situation in which 'Jewish' children will be raised by mothers of different religions' and of being hostile to Jewish women.


Look, I haven't read Grish's book, and I doubt that I will; it looks like the kind of single-girls'-guide that just doesn't interest me. But for crying out loud, people: this is humor. Laugh a little. And -- more importantly -- boy, howdy, am I sick and tired of hearing people claim that the American Jewish community is doomed because so many Jews today marry non-Jews. This is hurtful, it is alarmist, and it is nonsense. 

Continue reading "Oy vey, indeed." »

Interreligious harmony

My friend Soen Joon ("Helpful Zen" -- that's her new name; I still think of her as Andi, of Ditch the Raft) sent me a letter from South Korea where she's beginning the long road to Buddhist ordination. As much as I love email's immediacy, there's something special about a paper letter, especially one that's travelled so far.

On the back page of her letter, she transcribed some quotes from Venerable Song-Chol (renowned Zen master and patriarch in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the tradition in which she's hoping to be ordained.) Here's my favorite one:

The world is a single home, and all of mankind is one. Forget such useless discriminations as "self" and "others," and forget national, racial, and other barriers. Treat those of other religions as members of your own, and those of other nations as your compatriots.

To harm others is to harm yourself, and to help others is to help yourself. Treat the sick as if they were yourself, and serve the anguished in every way you can.

...With a pure heart, let's all help one another and trust one another. Let's respect one another and love one another, and let's harmonize as one.

        -- Venerable Song-Chol, from Echoes from Mt. Kaya

His ecumenism is pretty remarkable. From the first line of the passage, he's teaching a planetary worldview. It's the polar opposite of the kind of insularity that so often troubles me in religious communities; in his exhortation to forget national and racial barriers, venerable Song-Chol reminds us of our common ground. I understand that common ground Jewishly as our common Ground of Being, the Source from Which we all come and of Whom we are all reflections -- but I think he would agree that our commonality is a truth that transcends the metaphors we use to describe it.

His words about working with the sick will serve me well when I begin my CPE rotation in a few weeks, I think -- and they neatly circumvent a natural human impulse where suffering is concerned. It's easier to face illness if I reinforce the boundary between the sufferer and me, but that's not what he advises.

Indeed, this whole passage urges the opposite: that we break down boundaries, that we resist the temptation to make anyone  into an "other." Instead we should help and respect, trust and love one another, that our many musics might blend into one song. Man, the world needs more religious leaders cut from this cloth.

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Abundance and retribution: parashat Ekev

This week's Torah portion (Parashat Ekev) has great stuff in it -- including what most Jews know as the second paragraph of the Shema, which begins:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late...

(That's the first verse, Deuteronomy 11:13; the passage runs through 11:21. You can find it in Hebrew alongside slightly antiquated English by scrolling slightly on this page.) If you grew up Reform, you may not recognize Deut. 11:13-22 as part of the Shema -- indeed, you may not realize the Shema extends past the first paragraph. The original Reform liturgy excised the latter two paragraphs; my 1960 edition of the Union Prayer Book skips them altogether, and they weren't in Gates of Prayer when I was in high school, either.

I suspect the early Reform liturgists were troubled by the direct causality of the traditional prayer's second paragraph. Drought and famine are equal-opportunity tragedies, and who could countenance an understanding of God which holds that lack of rain is God's punishment for idolatry?

Continue reading "Abundance and retribution: parashat Ekev" »

Keeping awake

This morning I spent a few extra moments with the birchot ha-shachar, the fifteen blessings (derived from Talmud) which fall early in the morning liturgy. After blessing God Who gives us discernment to tell day from night, Who frees the bound, Who creates me in divine image, Who wipes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids (and so on), I added gratitude for the days just past and for the morning now beginning, for this and that tiny facet of my ordinary life. The rest of my davvening was relatively quick and by-the-book, but my lingering on gratitude stayed with me all day, sweetening my outlook.

There are at least a dozen good answers to the question "why pray" (and I subscribe to several of them, depending on the time of day and phase of the moon) but heightening and cultivating gratitude is one of the best ones I know. Slowness is another, or maybe intentionality. I judge the rest of my weekdays by how much I accomplish, but davvening operates differently. It's not about how many psalms I can recite in a given span of time. It reminds me to notice and to be thankful for the holiness of this moment right now. And this one. And now this one. Prayer requires me to be awake, not in a mug-of-caffeinated-tea way, but an eyes-really-open way.

I've been having a conversation with several blogging friends about why we blog. I have plenty of answers to that one, too -- it keeps me thinking about Judaism; it offers me conversations; it allows me the enrichment of writing, and then the enrichment of sharing that writing -- but maybe the best one overlaps with these reasons why I pray. Because it helps me notice things, and appreciate them. Because it requires me to stop and pay attention. Because it keeps me awake.

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[Comic] Book of Esther

J.T. Waldman's new graphic novel version of the Book of Esther has just been released. The book is bilingual (each page features the text in beautiful Hebrew script, and in classic-comic-font English) and the illustrations look gorgeous. No simple story grid here -- almost every page features figures bursting out of the frame, the story erupting through the constraints that try to hold it still. Which, now that I think about it, is entirely appropriate for the Purim narrative.

You can scroll through chapter 1 and chapter 2 online. The website also includes a handy guide to the story's subplots, an introduction to midrash for those who are unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition of exegetical storytelling, and a shout-out to the art sources which inspired the illustrations, mostly Persian works from the 600-400 B.C.E period. And for the text fiends among you, there's a guide to the citations that are footnoted in the panels.

Graphic novels. Jewish texts. This is like chocolate and peanut butter, y'all.

Looks like some folks think the Jewish graphic novel is experiencing something of a renaissance. Some of my favorite graphic novels are Judaic in nature (though, naturally, others aren't) but this new Book of Esther is the only one I know which translates Torah into graphic novel form. (If the intersection of religion and comics interests you, you might groove on this Islamicate post, Muslims and the Book, about Islamic graphic novels. Or, for that matter, my posts about Joe Sacco's Palestine and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis; neither is about religion per se, but both have some religious significance, and they're both terrific reads.)

For now, a hat tip to the folks at Jewschool for alerting me to this tasty treat.

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Blog sestina

Unless you're a Jane Siberry fan, the phrase "Everything reminds me of my blog" probably won't make you chuckle the way it does me. (Hey, I don't have a dog for everything to remind me of.) But if everything does remind you of your blog and you want to know where your blog ranks and who links to you, Blogpulse is a fine place to go. They offer this blog profile thing; I've spent a while lately exploring mine, feeding my ego with the nifty graphs and charts that show that people actually read VR. Using the recent posts feature, I found a list of ten words I apparently use often: blogosphere, rabbinic, sanctuary, wage, canvas, translated, ancestors, problematic, compares, informal. It's almost a found poem, isn't it?

For a lark, I decided to turn it into an actual poem. If these are words I repeat, I reasoned, I should choose a poetic form that makes use of repeated words: why not a sestina? Sestinas repeat six words, not ten, so four of the above terms didn't make it in -- I leave it to you to figure out which ones they are.


In this web of words and links, a sanctuary
For those who like conversations informal.
No showy stained glass: our screens serve as canvas
Showcasing creation. Our truths, translated
From original settings, let each reader compare
Her way to mine and that of my ancestors.

Continue reading "Blog sestina" »

Taking a leap

This morning I drove an hour-and-change for an interview. The local Clinical Pastoral Education program that I blogged about last spring has since closed up shop; the minister who ran it has moved to Kansas, and there's no longer a CPE program in Berkshire County. The nearest one now is at Albany Medical Center.

The drive was mostly familiar: route 43 all the way to the interstate, a solid forty-five minutes of curving country road, at this time of year lined with trees and brush, cornflowers and Queen Anne's Lace, through half a dozen tiny New York towns. Then a quick stint on two separate highways, a cruise through Albany on a pair of busy roads lined with beautiful old brownstones, and Albany Medical Center loomed before me. It's an imposing set of buildings, spanning a teaching hospital and a medical college -- a little bit intimidating at first glance.

As I walked across the pedestrian bridge from the parking garage to the hospital, down the long halls to the Pastoral Care office, I passed an elderly couple walking, the woman leaning on the man heavily. I passed a man and a little girl holding hands, the girl practically skipping. I passed a white-coated doctor, intent in conversation with someone wearing green scrubs and carrying a clipboard. I passed a woman in purple scrubs, sitting on a bench, talking on her cellphone. I passed a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair, oxygen tubes running into his nose; he repeated "too many people" tremulously as they wheeled by me. I wondered what all of their stories were, and whether these spaces, these scenes, would come to be familiar.

Continue reading "Taking a leap" »

Beyond genocide

The four prints are large, roughly two feet by two feet, and exquisitely-detailed. The first, "Afghanistan," features Islamic arches and calligraphic detail; the second, " Armenia," shows lush riverbanks and distant Mount Ararat through a kind of round windowpane. The third ("Bangladesh") features lotus blossoms, tigers, masks; the fourth ("Cambodia") evokes its story with faces, dancing figures, a mandala of color. They are the first four in a series of twenty-five proposed pieces exploring genocide, using the text of the kaddish yatom (the mourner's kaddish, Jewish prayer for the dead) as a starting-point. The series is by Amy Fagin, and it's called Beyond Genocide: illuminations for our era.

And indeed, each includes lines from the kaddish, written in classic Hebrew calligraphy. (Fagin has spent decades crafting custom ketubot, and her mastery of Hebrew is clear.) But the Armenian print also features swirling lines in Armenian; the print focusing on Bangladesh (and the violence that mars Indian/Pakistani history) offers script which looks to me like Hindi; the Cambodia print offers text in what I assume is Khmer. Fagin learned the intricacies of three new alphabets in order to make these pieces which simultaneously honor the dead and call us to engage with the living. She writes:

Each illumination is a visual story which represents a culture or civilization which has been threatened or extinguished by the violence of genocide....These penetrating illuminations recognize the greatest achievements of humankind and our most violent crimes. They help the viewer to see a personal and individual reflection of our common legacy of genocide. They inspire us to look deeper into the lessons of our past so that we can free ourselves from perpetrating this massive violence upon one another in the present.

As the globe draws closer to true understanding of our inter-being, we recognize that each individual desires to live in peace, without fear of domination, neglect, or annihilation. Each one of us can live with dignity and honor by cultivating genuine appreciation for each other, respect and awe for the astounding beauty and complexity of the world we live in.

Limited-edition prints of Fagin's work are on display at Congregation Beth Israel for the next four weeks; she will speak about them tonight, after services (service at 7pm; talk around 8:15). Their installation was timed to coincide with Judaism's communal day of mourning, Tisha b'Av, which begins tomorrow night at sundown as soon as Shabbat ends (and which I blogged about earlier this week.)

The rabbis teach that Tisha b'Av can be seen as a counterpart to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we stand before God as individuals, cementing our own process of teshuvah (re/turning or repentance) in order to repair the personal distance we may feel between ourselves and our Source. But before we can do that as individuals, we need to do it as a community, and Tisha b'Av offers the opportunity to stand before God as a group and collectively mourn the loss of connection-with-God which the fall of the Temple represents.

For me, our disconnect with God is manifest in the many ways that we harm each other. And the more violence we create, the more entrenched we become in our separateness from our Source -- and the harder it becomes to remember that things could be, should be, any different. There is no purer or more powerful sign of that disconnect than the kinds of genocide Fagin chronicles and memorializes in her artwork.

If you are near western Massachusetts, or will come here in the coming month, stop in and spend a while gazing at these exquisite and powerful pieces of art...and regardless of where you are geographically, I hope you will join me in taking Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to mourn not only the past suffering of the Jewish people, but also the suffering of everyone wounded by the inhuman violence of genocide, through history and now. May we bring an end to genocide, soon and in our days.

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Israeli blogs on Global Voices

I just posted a roundup of the English-language Israeli blogosphere over at Global Voices. The roundup offers a snapshot of some of the interesting conversations happening in that part of the blog world this week.

Writing it took a while, because there are only a few Israeli blogs in my regular reading list, and those I usually read tend to showcase politics which match mine. Looking for a diversity of Israeli voices -- some pro-disengagement, some anti-, some talking about other issues altogether -- was a fascinating way to spend my morning. My aim was to represent a range of political opinions, and to offer a glimpse into Israeli life, without linking to anyone whose views are stated in a hurtful or hateful way. Let me know if you think I succeeded.

Anyway, feel free to check out my roundup, and while you're there, enjoy the wealth that Global Voices has to offer. I learn amazing things about different parts of the world every day through reading GV.

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My recent reading has included a post about credos from Kasturi at Not Native Fruit, and a revisioning of the Nicene Creed by Sandy of Number Five Looks Just Like You, which begins:

We know that one name of God
is Father-Almighty,
Creator of Heaven and Earth,
source of all that is seen and unseen...

The confluence of their posts got me to thinking about the sets of words by which we define ourselves as individuals and as communities. Is there a difference between a creed and a credo? The two terms seem interchangeable, though I can't seem to shake the connotation that creeds are communal and credos personal. (As I write this post, I also can't seem to shake the melodies of the various "credos" I've learned over the last decade or so of choral singing, but that's a different problem entirely...)

Late last year I bookmarked this post by desertpastor, about nineteenth-century American philosopher and author Elbert Hubbard. Chris offers Hubbard's credo:

I believe in the Motherhood of God...
I believe that God is here, and that we are as near Him now as ever we shall be.
I do not believe He started this world-a going and went away and left it to run by itself...
I believe we are now living in Eternity as much as ever we shall...

Hubbard's progressivism surprised me. (That he lists Whitman as a contemporary prophet isn't surprising; there's definitely something Song of Myself-esque happening here.) Above all, I was struck by how much of Hubbard's creed I can agree with, despite our  religious differences. How many of you have had the experience of standing in a house of worship not your own, and joining the congregation in speaking only the parts of their creed which you also believe?

Continue reading "Credo" »

Mourning and redemption

The saddest day in the Jewish year is approaching: Tisha b'Av begins Saturday night at sundown and lasts until nightfall on Sunday. The day commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and a host of other tragedies besides.

For many, the mourning process begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, three weeks prior, which commemorates the breaching of Jerusalem's city walls as the precursor to the Temple's destruction. The customs of mourning intensify as 9 Av draws nearer. (During the Nine Days leading up to the holiday, many Jews refrain from any activity which would give cause to say the shehecheyanu.) And then on the day itself, it is traditional to eschew everything which brings pleasure -- food, wine, sex, studying Torah (except for depressing bits like Job and Lamentations) -- as we mourn the destruction of the Temple and our condition of exile from God.

Some communities place more emphasis on the first of those; others, on the second. It's a difference that matters tremendously to me.

Continue reading "Mourning and redemption" »

Condemning terror

I join elfsdh at Apikorsus 2.0, Danya at Jerusalem Syndrome, Jonathan at Head Heeb, and Rebecca at Mystical Politics (among many others) in mourning for Michel Bahus, Nader Hayak,and sisters Dina and Hazar Turki -- the Israeli Arabs killed in an act of terrorism by a religious wacko IDF deserter on a bus in Shfaram.

What that man did was terrorism and it was murder. And although the gunman claims to share my religion and to cherish the same holy teachings that I hold dear, what he did is a complete perversion of Jewish ethics and Jewish teachings. I will not allow him, nor others like him, to claim that his appalling act is consonant with Jewish tradition. I applaud the Orthodox Union for condemning his act in such strong language, and hope that the other denominations will follow suit.

I pray that the violence not escalate, and that we not allow his deed to further poison our hearts against one another. May the One who makes peace in the high heavens spread a shelter of peace over us, over all of the children of Isaac and Ishmael, and over all creation.

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Mas'ei: borders and land

All week I've been wrestling with this upcoming Shabbat's Torah portion, and wrestling also with the question of whether and how to blog about it. I'm reading from Parashat Mas'ei, Numbers 34:1-12, in which God instructs Moses to speak to the Israelites about the borders of the land of Canaan they're about to enter and inhabit. Which means that there's pretty much no way to blog this Torah portion without blogging about Israel.

I normally don't blog about Israel, for three reasons. 1) The last thing the internet needs is another American Jew spouting off about a country where I've spent a grand total of ten days, especially a country everyone else talks about so much. 2) On a related note, I think American Judaism fixates on Israel; I do my small part to shift our focus to some of the many other facets of Judaism by posting about them. And 3) my opinions on Israel are reasonably unpopular in mainstream American Judaism, and I get tired of fighting about it.

But I searched the Jewish blogosphere high and low, looking for someone interpreting these verses of Mas'ei in some way other than Rashi's traditional reading (that God gave us the land and therefore it is ours in perpetuity, end of story) -- or at least someone acknowledging that the traditional reading is problematic for liberal Jews today. I found nothing. Somebody has to point out that there are other ways of approaching these verses of Torah; I guess that somebody is going to be me.

Continue reading "Mas'ei: borders and land" »

Reading the Qur'an 1

This summer, several friends and I decided to read the Qur'an together. I wanted to have a sense of Islam's holiest text, and now seemed like a good time to take that project on. I browsed these different translations a bit, and in the end I read the Penguin Classics Edition, translated by N.J. Dawood. (If this post about translations and secondary sources had been available to me before I began, I might have chosen one of the versions that islamoyankee recommends...)

I was intrigued by the areas of overlap I see between the Qur'an and the Torah -- and also the places where the Qur'an shifts or contradicts what's in the Torah. Though this intersection between our texts doesn't entirely explain our family history, I think it's at the heart of our relationship, especially when we're telling the same story from different points of view. Take Abraham (or Ibrahim): in both versions he's an iconoclast, and is father of both Isaac and Ishmael/Ismail, but in the Qur'an we see him praying that God will make Mecca secure, and thanking God for the gift of both of his sons. A different reading than I'm used to.

I'm mindful that I'm approaching the Qur'an without context, which limits my understanding. I don't speak Arabic (it's on my to-do list, but I need to master Hebrew first) and I don't have a clear sense of the lenses that Muslims use to understand and interpret the Qur'an. (I'll talk more about that at the end of this post.) Still, I hope there's something valuable in my response to what I've read.

This is the first in a loose series of posts which will address some of the areas of overlap and disjunction between the Torah and the Qur'an which I find most interesting. If you have responses, please comment; I hope the conversation will continue to shed light on these two traditions! As Pir Inayat Khan wrote, "There is no difference in the destination; the only difference is in the journey."

Continue reading "Reading the Qur'an 1" »