This session was led by Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the school of rabbinic studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He began by talking about the statement of principles passed by the CCAR in 1999, which assert that Reform Jews are engaged in a dialogue with God, with Torah, and with the Jewish people. This is different language from the language of autonomy or informed choice, which was used in 1976. "Of course we are independent individuals, but we are not alone, and the religious decisions that we make are made in conversation with other people, with the Torah as we encounter it weekly and during the seasons, and at all times with God."
"If you have any sense at all that there are connections in the world, even on the level of atoms and molecules or people with each other, between you and the mountains and lakes and heavens -- if you believe that there are connections -- I think it's not a big jump to feel that there is a sum of all of those connections, even a Source behind all of those connections. And that's not a bad definition of God. And so the religious life is... trying to experience what those connections are."
He asked us to look at the people sitting beside us, and to remember that that person is made b'tzelem Elohim, bears the image of God. What might we learn of God from that person? Even the annoying person tailgating you on the freeway is in the image of God, and if you look in the rearview mirror long enough, you'll meet God there.
Silence is also a way to meet God, and he noted that he urges his students to write ten minutes a day into their datebooks or Palm Pilots for silence. In order to dialogue with God, it may help to have a sense for God's name. So we turned to page one of his handout; the page is headed Dialogue with God: calling God by Name. Names help us establish which aspect of God we want to address. We, too, are called by several different names. Maybe old acquaintances may call us by names we haven't used in 20 years, which opens up a whole different relationship than the names we use regularly! Just so, our names for God. Some of these we've been using for five thousand years.
He explored a quote from Exodus Rabba in which God says, "I am variously called, in keeping with My various deeds, El Shaddai, Tseva-ot, Elohim, Adonai. When I judge created beings, I am called Elohim, God." We use that name when we want to call upon God-as-judge. (Some talk about when we might want to call upon that aspect of God: when we encounter injustice, when we feel guilt, when we do good deeds...) We talked also about the compassionate aspect of God, Ha-rachaman, which has the root meaning "womb" at its root. ("All human beings are, if you'll pardon the pun, womb-mates!")
He talked about how the judge-name, Elohim, is softened into Eloheinu, which has the suffix meaning "our" on it. Or, in Yiddish, Gottenyu -- God may be the master of the universe, but God is ours. Other names: Ribbono Shel Olam (or, Yiddish, Ribboineh-shel-oilem) -- Master of Time and Space. Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Blessed Holy One; Ha-Makom, The Place; Shekhinah, Presence. (Some of us associate this one with God's indwelling feminine presence.)
On the second page of the handout, we read a series of brachot, blessings, for various occasions. Rabbi Levy pointed out that one of the ways of enjoying waking early is to experience the rising of the sun as a gift from God to us. (This works for sunset, too.) And, just as when people give us gifts, we say thank you and acknowledge the Giver; that's one thing brachot can do. He offered an exegesis of the first six words of the standard bracha (which reminded me very much of Reb Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing), and then we studied several brachot, over everything from hearing thunder to seeing the ocean to encountering someone who is distinguished in worldly learning.
He had some interesting things to say about the blessing we say when we hear of a death, which ends in ...dayan ha-emet, "the true judge." We assert that in some ways we don't know and can't understand, this death is part of God's understanding, part of God's truth. Saying the blessing asserts that there is meaning, even if we can't access it.
Someone asked whether Rabbi Levy feels we should say brachot when we feel the need to address God, or that we should say them in order to help ourselves feel that need in the first place! His answer: "yes." [laughter]
He noted that most of us know how to encounter God on Shabbat, but we may not have a weekday practice that facilitates that connection. The next section of the handout, Spiritual Approaches to an Ordinary Day, aims to help with that. Tips range from saying prayers (modah ani prayer for gratitude, the weekday morning liturgy), breakfast mindfulness, meditations to do while driving the carpool or to work. "Your car is not an alien vehicle. It also can be a place where you encounter God in the world through which you pass."
He asked us to stand and stretch, and as we did so, he gave a little Hasidic teaching: that when one stands, one's head resembles the letter yud, one's torso the letter heh, one's backbone the letter vav, and one's legs the letter heh. So our bodies enact that name of God: we embody God as we move through the world.
We also studied the middle ten blessings in the weekday amidah, the petitions to God we make on weekdays. And he urged us to write down our own additions: for instance, in the blessing where we ask God to help us make teshuvah (repentance/return), what do we specifically want help with there? As we read the blessing where we seek God's forgiveness for our transgressions, what do we specifically want forgiveness for? When we seek redemption from the suffering with which we wrestle, what struggle do we want God to share and to redeem?
Rabbi Levy urged us to speak specifically to God -- and to listen in silence, afterward, for whatever response we may receive. "A prayerbook is not a reading-book; it's something to offer up." And he gave a little drash on praying-while-sitting: I sit on a kiseh, a chair, but that word also means "throne." In a popular Jewish metaphor, God also sits on a throne. So when we pray seated, we're in dialogue with God, an I-Thou interaction, throne to throne! And we offered up, together, the last blessing from that intermediate section of the weekday amidah: Sh'ma koleinu, "Hear our voice."
He ended the panel with the hope, expressed aloud, that as we continue to wrestle with the week's Torah portion and with the practices we discussed, we will find that God is truly in this place. Kein yehi ratzon!