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Top Ten of '05

Not long ago, Hugo Schwyzer posted his 2005 top ten list -- his ten favorite blog posts from the (Gregorian calendar) year which will be ending shortly. (He did it in two sets of five.) I thought that was a neat idea, so I'm following suit.

I tried to be at least a little bit balanced: there's some Torah commentary here, some musings sparked by high points in the liturgical year, one retreat report, some lifecycle stuff, some thoughts on belief, some explorations of prayer. A year of Velveteen Rabbi, in a nutshell.


My Top Ten Posts of 2005

On Va'era. "What's interesting to me is that after a few plagues, Pharaoh seems willing to listen. He even acknowledges that God is righteous and he is in the wrong...but Moses knows that the repentance won't stick. And sure enough, it doesn't; in the first lines of next week's portion, God explains that he has hardened Pharaoh's heart. What's up with that? If Pharaoh were willing to let the Israelites go after only seven plagues, why does God harden his heart and require the rest of the story to unfold as it does?"

As God Is Holy. "Holiness is something we both make and find. True in our dwelling-places; true in text study. Is Torah inherently holy? Depends on who you ask. I'd say there's some holiness in Torah, and that further holiness accrues through our study. Holiness is that which aligns us with God.  (Here, as always, I'm using "God" as shorthand. I'll try to explain what I mean by "God" another day; "holiness" is proving slippery enough!)"

Story and Truth. "Every few years it seems there's a new controversy about whether or not the Exodus 'really happened."'Is there historical record of Israelite slaves in Egypt? Can we explain the parting of the sea scientifically? How on earth did these nimrods manage to be lost for forty whole years in a desert that's honestly not that big? And, maybe most importantly, what does it mean for our faith if this story turns out not to be historically 'true'? What does it mean for Jewish peoplehood if our creation narrative, the story of how our ancestors became a unified people in covenant with a redeeming God, didn't actually happen?"

Continue reading "Top Ten of '05" »

More on Chanukah

Chanukah has two stories: one about a military victory, the other about a flagon of sanctified oil that miraculously burned for eight days. I love the second story: it's ripe for contemporary interpretation, and its message is appealingly universalizable. Rededication of holy places! Light in the darkness! That stuff is right up my alley. But the more I learn about the first story, the war story, the queasier it makes me. I've been trying for days to articulate my mixed feelings about the Chanukah stories, and to figure out how I want to relate to this complicated narrative yin-yang.

The story of the Hasmonean revolt as chronicled in Maccabees is challenging for me. It's a lot messier and less pleasant than the sanitized version I learned as a kid. When people brandish that narrative at this season, as a rallying-cry against assimilation, I want to ask, "have you actually read the story you're trumpeting?" Because while Antiochus was clearly a schmuck, the Maccabees met violence with violence, slaughtering their coreligionists who had assimilated into Hellenized society. That's not a story I want to champion.

Of course, neither did the rabbis. The books of Maccabees aren't in the Jewish Bible, which might be an indication of some mixed feelings about this story from way back. And the sages of Talmudic times made a conscious decision to shift focus away from the military story and toward the parable of the oil. Maybe they, like me, were uncomfortable with the implications of celebrating violent zealotry. Maybe they wanted to teach us to privilege the spiritual over the historical. Or maybe they were worried that being seen as militaristic and liable to engage in guerilla warfare would have been dangerous for the Jewish community in those days.

Regardless of the practical reasons for the paradigm shift, changing the focus of the story has repercussions for us spiritually. We turn away from glorifying the clash of swords on shields, and celebrate instead the increase of light in a time of darkness, the sanctification and restoration of a holy space after hope was gone. The holiday becomes about faith and en-light-enment, symbolized by the rededication of the Temple -- which in turn can lead us to ask which of our connection-points with God need rededication at this season. I like the newer story, but I can't shake the feeling that I should be engaging with the older one, too. Only trouble is, every time I do so, I like Chanukah less.

I'm not alone in this wrestle. In her post moving past two-mindedness, Danya of Jerusalem Syndrome suggests that a mature relationship with this holiday should seek to integrate the two stories and our two responses to them. She writes:

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God Godself deserves. Is there any reason that I can't be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemming the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous?) survival?

Or, to put it another way, perhaps our question is not, "How can we possibly celebrate God and miracles if God didn't save our pure souls from the evil hands of others?" but, rather, How might we celebrate God and miracles while acknowledging the many complex ways in which our own hands have impacted history?

(Read her whole post here.) I think she's right. Honestly, there's real resonance in the place where the holiday's two stories meet: the end of the military campaign, the moment of darkness before the Temple's lamps were re-lit. This year, that's the moment I find myself returning to, as I seek to reconcile one story with the other. Chanukah shows us that God is present even in the darkness, even in places human actions have desecrated, if we will only strike a spark and believe. Chanukah teaches us that even where death and bloodshed have hidden God's presence, we can rekindle compassion and wisdom again.

And maybe there's something we can learn from the way the two stories fail to mesh for us, the way the seam between them shows. Chanukah is proof that when the old stories fail us, we can craft new ones, and find God therein.

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Rodger Kamenetz on dreams

Back in November at the URJ Biennial, I had the pleasure of hearing author Rodger Kamenetz speak about dream interpretation from Genesis through the rabbis, and about the revelation dream within Judaism. I posted some notes on his talk, though my notes were necessarily limited because he spoke on Shabbat afternoon when I didn't have my laptop with me.

This week I learned that he's started a blog, talkingdream -- and in his second post, he offers us the chance to read (and comment upon) the first chapter of his book on dreams. Here's a tiny taste:

At the dawn of the Enlightenment, as modern ideas challenged faith everywhere in Europe, one rabbi, Nachman of Bratzlav, diagnosed our contemporary spiritual condition. He called it "second degree hiding." He said: Not only is God's face hidden from us, but it is hidden from us that God's face is hidden from us.

We too live in a time of the hiding of God's face, but it’s gone on so long, we don’t even know it. We rarely feel deeply how much we have lost. Except perhaps in our dreams.

Read the chapter here. Let Rodger know what you think. And welcome him to the blogosphere! I couldn't be more thrilled that he's here.

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Muslim blogging awards

Nominations are now open in the Brass Crescent Awards, created by and City of Brass.

Many religious blogospheres have their own blogging awards (in the J-blogosphere, the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards come to mind.) But though the Brass Crescent awards are meant to honor and celebrate the Muslim blogging community, there's a category for "Best Non-Muslim Blog" ("Which blog writen by a non-muslim is most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialog with muslims?") -- and the award creators point out that for the most part "any blog is eligible for any category, including blogs authored by non-muslims. In defining the Islamsphere, we are not relying solely on adherence to the faith, but an affinity for parts of the diverse cultural fabric that Islam embraces and is embraced by worldwide."

Regardless of whether you have favorite blogs to nominate, keep an eye on the nominations post. It's a great way to get a sense for some of the insightful thinking and terrific conversations happening in the Muslim blogosphere.

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Finding home

Over at qarrtsiluni, they're posting a series of pieces on the theme "finding home" -- maybe particularly resonant as many of us navigate the waters of family and sense-of-place at year's end.

I'm never quite sure how to describe quarrtsiluni. Is it a literary magazine? (Kind of; the rotating editorial staff works wisely and humbly with contributors.) A group blog? (Kind of; many of the bloggers who contribute have come to know one another over time.) Maybe it's best to stick with their own explanation: "an experiment in online literary and artistic collaboration." The title, you may remember, comes from an Alaskan Inuit word for "sitting together in the darkness, waiting for something to burst." Isn't that what we're all doing (at least in the northern hemisphere) at this time of year?

Anyway, they've done me the honor of printing one of my poems there: Home Body, from my as-yet unpublished collection Manna. Enjoy -- and if you've got work that suits the "finding home" theme, by all means send it in. I'd love to see your voices published there, too.

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How Chanukah feels

A friend asked recently what Chanukah feels like. Not about its history or its literature or its liturgy, but about how it feels to celebrate.

On the first night, as night's darkness rises, there are just these two wee flames: one on the shamash and one on the first candle in the chanukiyyah. We stand around the candles and sing three short blessings: one for kindling the holiday lights, and one for the miracles of ancient days, and one offering thanks for being alive in this moment. And then the little lights just gleam there, tiny against the world of dark outside the window.

When I was a kid there were games of dreidl to be played, and presents to open. I would choose one gift each night from the gaily-wrapped pile on the sideboard. Then, and now, the holiday meant eating latkes, of course -- it wouldn't feel right to turn the calendar page at the end of December without at least once standing over the stove watching potato pancakes sizzle, then eating them topped with a dollop of early autumn's homemade applesauce. But mostly, for me as an adult, Chanukah is a holiday of small pleasures. A little bit more light, every evening at nightfall. A momentary feeling of warmth, of gratitude, at having made it through the darkening days. Maybe, if I'm lucky, a flash of awareness that I can rededicate the holy places in my own life as the Temple was rededicated of old.

Chanukah feels like a box of chocolates I get to enjoy at just the right pace: one at a time, stretching the box out to last a whole week, parcelling out the sweetness bite by bite. The gradual increase of light each night -- from two tiny flames to a blazing candelabrum -- mirrors the days' gradual lengthening in this hemisphere at this season. And regardless of the holiday's historical origins, when we celebrate light in the darkness, it is small, and sweet, and bright.


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A touch of silk

I remember, as a girl, sitting in shul (we belonged to Agudas Achim then) next to my mother's father. His name was Dr. Isaac Epstein, though family and coworkers alike called him Eppie. I remember his tallis: blue and silver and white, as most were in that shul in those days. But his was bigger, and silkier, than the ones made available for members to use. Best of all was the long silky fringe along the bottom edge. The four corners had the requisite long tassels, with a waterfall of soft threads in between. I used to comb my fingers through the fringes as he prayed, savoring how the silk felt on my skin.

I remember sitting beside him in shul a few years later, following along diligently in my siddur. I remember knowing that he was proud of my Hebrew skills. It made him happy that I could zip through the Shabbat morning service the way he did. Even then, I remember fiddling with the fringe on his tallis a little. If he noticed, he didn't say anything; I guess he didn't mind.

When he was buried, I remember his brothers from the Masonic lodge placing a blue and white tallis over his simple pine coffin. But that was a plain donated one, not the one he'd used in life. His soft silk tallis went to his oldest grandson, my oldest brother. This fall, when I was in Texas, my brother gave it to me.

At my shul we say kaddish at Shabbat for our loved ones whose yarzheits will fall in the coming week; this morning that list included Eppie, whose yarzheit is 26 Kislev, the second day of Chanukah. Eppie, thoracic surgeon, reared in smalltown Russia, married in Prague. Eppie who almost became a rabbi, but chose the path of secular learning and medical school instead. Eppie whose stories expanded my horizons in a way that continues to shape who I am and who I want to become. (I've blogged about him before.)

I had the privilege of leading services this morning. For the first time since I became bat mitzvah in 1988, I did not wear the bone-on-bone Phyllis Kantor handwoven tallit which my parents gave me as my bat mitzvah gift: I wore Eppie's tallis, instead. Throughout the service I kept touching the silk, marveling at its texture. When it came time to gather the four corners of the tallit together (as we recited "Bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth...") I let the fringes slip through my fingers for an instant, like I used to do.

I thought about how proud Eppie used to be that I could davven shacharit with fluency, and how proud he would be to see me now. Wrapping myself in a prayer shawl always feels to me like enfolding myself in a tangible manifestation of God's presence; today, the tallis felt a little bit like a tangible touch from my grandfather, too.

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Jewish With Feeling

51XlOMRFYTL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Jewish With Feeling, the latest book by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (co-written with author Joel Segel) was the final text on the syllabus in my Deep Ecumenism class. My review in a nutshell: this book is solid and informative, an excellent introduction to Reb Zalman's work and a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to revitalize her/his Jewishness.

Here's a more detailed response to the book, which aims both to touch on the book's major points (connecting with Judaism, prayer and God-language, the nature of Shabbat, the meaning of mitzvot, why post-triumphalism matters) and on some of the passages which moved me most (among them, one about Shabbat clothing, one answering the question "Why be Jewish?" and a particularly timely one about how Jews can relate to Christmas.)

Reb Zalman begins Jewish With Feeling by identifying the religious drive I think is at the heart of Renewal: "We want to be Jewish with awareness, to 'do Jewish' in a way that satisfies our souls."  Yet many of us have experienced a Judaism that not only fails to satisfy our souls, but fails to take into account that we have souls which need satisfaction. What to do? He thinks we need a less dogmatic and more experiential approach to Judaism, one that  "doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unite in love and awe with a vital, living universe... [and] also recognizes that no static philosophy, no one-size-fits-all Judaism, can express the entire range of our inner growth."

We need to learn to listen to our hearts and our neshamot. "The problem is that our ancient faiths have become oververbalized and underexperienced. We talk too much and feel too little." Reb Zalman's solution is aimed at helping us to feel more, and to bring those feelings to our encounters with, and immersion in, religious life. That's the book's theoretical grounding; from here on out, he talks about the specifics of how to get there.

Continue reading "Jewish With Feeling" »

On-call prayer

Help me be present tonight
without fear or expectation.
Help me release the baggage
of my week, freeing
my shoulders.

Help me fold my ego gently
and tuck it in a drawer
where it will be safe
and unobtrusive.
Ride in my pocket, God.

Don't give me more
than I can handle.
Don't take it personally
when I crave excitement,
then change my mind.

Shelter this ship
through the longest night.
Remove the sorrows
of sailors and passengers.
Help us reach the dawn.

Edited to add: this poem appears in my latest chapbook of poems, chaplainbook, which can be found online here.

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Vayeshev: Torah and couture

What's up with all of the clothing symbolism in parashat vayeshev?

First we learn that haute couture can inspire powerful responses: Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat makes his brothers so jealous they sell him into slavery. Then there's the outer garment which Potiphar's wife grabs as she orders him to lie with her -- which, when he flees, tears away and is left in her hands, the "proof" she uses to condemn him. As this commentary notes, Joseph gets a costume change to match every change of his fortunes. Like Clark Kent tearing off his mundane garb in a phone booth, Joseph changes his look every time he enters a new role.

The Hebrew for the multicolored coat is כתנת פסים (k'tonet pasim); the word in the Potiphar story is בגד (beged), "garment." A quick dip into my Brown-Driver-Briggs tells me that the three-letter root בגד means "garment, clothing, raiment, robe" when it's a noun...and "act or deal treacherously" when it's a verb. Okay, there's definitely something interesting happening here. Potiphar's wife's attempted treachery (בגד) leaves her with a robe (בגד) in her hands. And though Joseph's tunic isn't a בגד it leads to his brothers' betrayal, hinting at the synonym for clothing that the text doesn't use.

Given the resonance between the two kinds of beged, why doesn't the text use that word at the start of the story? Why is Josph's multicolored garment a k'tonet? This commentary notes that k'tonet is the name of the garment worn by the High Priest, and it's also the name of the garment God stitches for Eve and Adam out of skins. Are we meant to infer that Joseph prefigures the High Priest in some way, or to compare him with Adam? (Some commentors note that when Joseph was presented with temptation, he remembered Adam's error, and his fear of punishment kept him on the straight and narrow.)

Reb Tirzah Firestone notes here that another figure in Torah wears a k'tonet passim: Tamar, also violated by a sibling. "These Technicolor coats carried some heavy karma," Reb Tirzah writes. "In both stories, the jackets are the props spelling specialness that ends in sibling violence." She sees special resonance in Joseph's shift from k'tonet to beged: the k'tonet is "the garment of our identification, our story line. Our story might be about our greatness; it might be about how much we have suffered or the way in which we have uniquely suffered, it doesn't matter. These identities, like the k'tonet passim, keep us  special and hence, keep us separate." Joseph relinquishing that garment -- and, later, relinquishing his beged in order to keep his honor -- is a sign of his transformation.

Scott, a rabbinic student I met at Elat Chayyim last summer, spun a drash on the root בגד: that our clothes, the externals we don before venturing into the world, can disguise our true selves. In this sense, the professional or personal armor in which we gird ourselves is a kind of treachery, a concealment of our vulnerability before each other and before God. Indeed, this commentary argues that "BeGeD is one of Torah’s great puns; its very root means betrayal and deception, for the role of clothing is to hide and conceal."

So is Torah trying to subtly suggest that we all become nudists? Doubtful. Meaningful though it may be that mikvah immersion, for instance, is done naked -- a way of being present to God's Presence without any external stuff coming between us -- life can't be lived in that kind of immersive connection all the time. But this week's story reminds us that though our garments can say things about who we want to be, they can also cause trouble...and that our actions, whatever they may be, speak louder than the robes we (do or don't) wear.

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The strange soap opera of Vayeshev

This upcoming Shabbat we're reading from parashat Vayeshev, which contains within it the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. It's a veritable soap opera: the "well built and handome" foreign slave who rises to prominence; the lascivious wife who demands sexual favors, and who tears away his clothing to use as evidence against him when he denies her; the slave cast into prison for the crime he refuses to commit. Can't you just hear the swirling music as the camera zooms in on Joseph's stricken face at the end of the episode?

Well, actually, Joseph never shows much emotion at all, even when things go radically wrong for him. In this post I'm going to look at the pivotal moment of Joseph's refusal, and then explore one of the story's recurring phrases to see what that motif can tell us about how Joseph stays so calm in times like these.

Potiphar's wife's demand is startlingly direct: "Lie with me." Joseph's response, in turn, is strangely pragmatic. "Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?" (JPS translation) Is it just me, or is that kind of an odd response? Mostly he's explaining why he doesn't want to wrong Potiphar; that adultery is a "sin before God" is almost an afterthought.

Continue reading "The strange soap opera of Vayeshev" »

Worth a read

Thoughts are swirling around my head which I hope will coalesce into blog posts shortly. Meanwhile, here are some treats from my aggregator, posts I found especially resonant or interesting today.

Naomi Chana hits one out of the park with Redeemer of Israel. She has smart things to say about why it's fun to lead prayer services, why it amuses her when people say she's become "more observant" of late, and especially about redemption:

The nouns "redeemer" and "redemption" are almost impossible to use in English without evoking Christian imagery, but the original Hebrew goel was a redeeming kinsman, responsible for continuing a lost bloodline or buying back lost ancestral land. God becomes Israel's goel only by an extension of this very human example. And so I need to speak very precisely when I say that, for me, there is something redemptive about leading prayer.

Those of you for whom this week is the lead-up to Christmas, or who just enjoy incarnational theology, should read the latest post over at Dylan's Lectionary Blog, which is called  Christmas Day: the Feast of the Nativity. She makes a really interesting point about what Christmas is -- and what it isn't:

Many times in my youth, I heard that Christmas is the time when God bridged the gap between heaven and earth, or between spirit and flesh. But that's not what the Incarnation did for us. Creation did that for us.

Also fascinating, on the Christmas front, is Feminarian's post Updates. The first part is a kind of personal miscellany, but then she starts talking about the whole question of whether churches ought to skip services on Christmas Day this year:

We need to let go of our biases about it being a day of family, a day of presents, a day of celebrating peace and goodwill. Guys, it's a festival celebrating the most holy of occasions: the incarnation of the living God. It's not about us at all, remotely. It's a day when we should be coming before the throne with fear and trembling, not able to fathom what great love caused this God to do this thing for us.

So I am sorry that it is inconvenient, tiring, and anti-family. But it's Christian. Jesus didn't want us to spend time with our families. Jesus did plenty of great work while he was exhausted. Jesus freaking incarnated.

It's not my theology, for obvious reasons and in obvious ways, but I love the phrase "Jesus freaking incarnated."

In other news, Hasidic Rebel is back, which is very exciting. He was one of the first J-bloggers I read (you should pardon the phrase) religiously, and when he stopped blogging I worried that perhaps he had been "outed" in his community or that something had gone amiss. Fortunately for him and for us, those fears were unfounded, and he's back with his usual terrifically trenchant commentary on Hasidic life. In Journeys of Faith part III, he writes:

[W]hen a Chasid is presented with challenges to his faith to the point that it makes sense to discard those beliefs, one of the greatest traumas through which he has to pass, is how to fill the vacuum of uncertainty. It's not a simple matter of substituting non-belief for belief. For the Chasid there needs to be an alternate reality, one that can provide equal security about one’s purpose, and provide a plausible and satisfying description of how the universe and beyond functions, if it's to take the place of traditional Judaism.

It has taken me years to finally accept that I will most likely never find those certain answers. And to be okay with that.

Another long-lost blogger who has returned, however tentatively, to the blogging fold is the Soen Joon, the woman behind One Robe, One Bowl -- formerly Andi of Ditch the Raft. She's blogging cautiously, slowly, from her new vantage point on the road she hopes will lead her to Buddhist ordination. In her latest post, Weight I, she observes wisely that though words can be a lifeline, they can also get in the way.

There is a reason why, despite the restriction of silence on Zen retreats, the Zen Master is always available for a conversation. Words have power. Words, when used correctly, have a counter-weight equal to silence. The right words can keep us from falling over the wrong edge.

But the catch is that the words we need are not necessarily the words we want.

It makes me endlessly happy to be surrounded by so many thoughtful people, who say such thought-provoking things. Enjoy their words.

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Why Aleph (part 1 of ?)

A few months ago I promised a post about why I chose the Aleph rabbinic studies program. But once I started thinking about the question, it became clear to me that my answer was complicated. The reasons why I chose Aleph are many and varied, and redacting them into one blog post would probably result in something too lengthy to inflict on the blogosphere. So instead, I've decided to post bits of the answer, one at a time. Think of the posts in this periodic series as beads on a string; they go together, but they're also worth considering one at a time. Here's the first one.

I first considered the rabbinate the summer I was nineteen. My late adolescence had been spent at a Reform congregation, and I spent that summer as a counselor at a Reform summer camp, so the Reform seminary seemed like the obvious choice. Trouble was, by the time I finished college I wasn't sure it was right for me -- and I wasn’t sure what was.

Though each major denomination had qualities which appealed to me, none felt quite right. I could imagine the Judaism I wanted to help create: vibrant and vital, grounded in history but unafraid of change, capable of making Judaism's prophetic call to justice a universal one. The Judaism I wanted to dedicate myself to would involve my heart as well as my head, and my spirit most of all. But where was this Judaism to be found? I wanted a traditionalist passion for texts, matched with a progressive exegetical bent; I wanted the pioneering spirit of the Reform movement, the liturgical sensibility of the Reconstructionist movement, and the unabashed joy of Hasidic worship.  How could I choose a seminary -- and, more, a denomination -- to live and learn in when my desires were so patchwork?

In hindsight, the answer's easy. With patchwork religious needs, one belongs in a place where different variants of Judaism are lovingly stitched together. The people who make up the Renewal community come from every conceivable Jewish background (and many non-Jewish ones, too). In the Aleph program, my desire to draw on what excites me from across the Jewish spectrum is not only tolerated, it's celebrated. We're expected to learn the breadth of Jewish tradition well enough to take up the holy work of carrying it forward and shaping it with our own hands.

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Tefillin in winter

Laying tefillin is simpler in summertime. When I'm wearing some light sleeveless linen thing, my arms are already bare; wrapping my left arm with the leather retzuah is a tactile experience, but it doesn't take any preparation. Now, though -- now I have to tug at two layers of thick winter wear, a turtleneck and a heavy wool sweater, to scrunch them up my arm far enough that the bayit, the little box containing the words, rests at the strongest part of my bicep. (That I haven't worked out lately also makes the supposed bulge of bicep harder to find, but that's another issue entirely.)

This morning I was hyper-conscious of my tefillin, in part because of the sensation of the leather and in part because my left arm was cold! It didn't distract me badly, but I was definitely aware of it, and when I was finished there was a certain pleasure in yanking my sleeves back down.

The cold shouldn't be a surprise, since I started laying tefillin last spring when there was still snow on the ground. But acclimatization matters -- the same snowy day that feels chill at the start of winter (compared with the warmth that preceded it) can feel almost balmy at winter's end. It's written in the Shulkhan Arukh that one who is suffering from the cold is exempt from the obligation to lay tefillin, but I don't really have any desire to invoke that clause -- I'm not really suffering, just kvetching. And I regard tefillin as an informed choice, not an obligation per se. (Besides, I really like tefillin. I'd miss the experience if I gave it up until the snow melts.)

Incidentally, snow and tefillin have interesting symbolic resonance, at least according to The Mystical White Snow, an article by Rabbi Boruch Leff. Rabbi Leff draws a fascinating connection between white snow and the Zoharic teaching that God wears all-white tefillin. (Ours, he says, are black, representing how we absorb revelation; God's, in contrast, are white, because God reflects all wisdom and guidance.) Wacky.

Anyway. Having all of this on my mind made it especially entertaining to find the following image in my blog aggregator today:

(Image via Jerusalem Syndrome.) Does this make her Rosie the Davvener?

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Doing dialogue

Jewish-Christian dialogue outside the denominational mainstream is apparently about to take a leap forward. Synagogue 3000 and folks from the Emergent church are planning a meeting next month:

Synagogue 3000 (S3K) and Emergent have announced a ground-breaking meeting to connect Jewish and Christian leaders who are experimenting with innovative congregations and trying to push beyond the traditional categories of "left" and "right." This will be the first conversation that brings them together to focus on the enterprise of building next-generation institutions.  Leaders from across the United States will gather during the inaugural session of the S3K Leadership Network's  Working Group on Emergent Sacred Communities, which takes place January 16-17, 2006, at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, California...

...S3K Senior Fellow Lawrence A. Hoffman, (Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life, forthcoming 2006) stressed the importance of building committed religious identity across faith lines. "We inhabit an epic moment," he said, "nothing short of a genuine spiritual awakening. It offers us an opportunity unique to all of human history: a chance for Jews and Christians to do God's work together, not just locally, but nationally, community by community, in shared witness to our two respective faiths."

That's from this article -- thanks to The Revealer for spreading the word. Blogger Shawn Landres, who is involved with S3K, is tracking some of the response. Perhaps not surprisingly, the planned meeting is drawing ire from more conservative or traditionalist folks who feel threatened or disturbed by the prospect of the interfaith collaboration.

From what I've read about the emergent church (movement? denomination? phenomenon?) I see some similarities between the way they're trying to restore and revitalize Christian communal life and the work that Jewish Renewal is trying to do within Judaism. It sounds to me like these folks hope to connect with one another, learn from one another, pray beside one another, study texts together, break bread together, and respectfully disagree together. I wish I could be there; as I said in a comment on Shawn's blog, this sounds like the kind of event I would really enjoy.

Some years ago, Reb Zalman offered a course called "Deep Ecumenism" to a group of rabbis and rabbinic students. (The telecourse I've been taking this fall is, in many ways, an outgrowth of his original workshop on the subject.) One of the comments he made in that class was,

I have learned a lot when I was dealing with Trappists or Hindus or with other people. I'd like you to have the opportunity to learn that way too. And then, to also be able to teach. A passuq [verse] that is good to have as your motto is: haver ani l'khol asher yira-ukha, 'I am a friend to anyone who respects and honors You, God, who is in awe of You.'

I've taken that verse to heart during my first few months of hospital chaplaincy, which is necessarily powerfully ecumenical work. It's easy to get bogged down in our divergent doctrines and theologies, but if we can acknowledge our differences and put them aside, we can learn tremendous things from one another. Three cheers for the people from S3K and Emergent who are brave enough to begin the conversation.

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The Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Last year a dear friend gave me a copy of The Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Music & Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit. Rabbi Summit teaches ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University, where he is also director of the Hillel Foundation, and this book inhabits the intersection-point between his fields.

Like me, Rabbi Summit grew up first Conservative and then Reform; unlike me, he went on to pursue ordination at HUC and, later, to spend several months studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. (He describes his relationship to the Jewish community as "polymorphic.") His goal in this book was to explore Jewish liturgical music: what we do, why we do it, and how what we do (or don't do) shapes and is shaped by our sense of Jewish identity.

Rabbi Summit uses music as a prism for looking at the worship practices of five Boston-area congregations: Renewal havurah B'nai Or, Reform congregation Temple Israel, Tufts University Hillel, Modern Orthodox congregation Shaarei Tefilah, and Hasidic Congregation Beth Pinchas run by the Bostoner Rebbe. In each of these congregations, he explains, he was a kind of participant-observer. On the one hand, each was an important part of his own religious journey at some point in his life, and he davvened with them as he worked on the book; on the proverbial other hand, he was also an ethnographer there conducting research. His simultaneous insider/outsider status shapes the book in fascinating ways.

Over the course of the The Lord's Song in a Strange Land he explores the nature and role of Jewish liturgical music, how Shabbat is celebrated in communities ranging from Reform to Hasidic, and the difference between individual melodies and the nusach melodic system. For someone interested in Jewish music, in liturgical leadership, and in denominational differences -- like, say, me -- this book is a fantastic read.

Continue reading "The Lord's Song in a Strange Land" »

Being a global voice

Last year I attended a daylong Global Voices conference in Cambridge, Mass., which brought together bloggers from around the world. That event resulted in the creation of the (succinct and powerful) Global Voices Manifesto, and in Global Voices Online, which I read voraciously and with great pleasure.

Today they're holding the second annual Global Voices conference -- this time in London, England. I can't be there in person, but I'm there in spirit. I'm also there virtually; I'm listening to the live webcast via iTunes, and in irc chat I'm toggling back and forth between reading the conference transcript and listening to metaconversation between bloggers around the world, most of whom, like me, aren't physically there but want to be a part of the conversation. (There's information on webcast and chat stuff here.) The conference is also being "liveblogged" -- text and photographs -- here, by a blogger who's not physically present, either, but is listening the same way I am!

At the first GV conference I was struck by Hoder's notion that blogs can act as bridges, windows, and cafes. I wrote last year about my hopes that Velveteen Rabbi can be a "bridge blog" -- not so much via showing a slice of American life to the rest of the world, though I suppose I occasionally do that, but through sharing my take on Jewish life and Jewish ideas with readers who span the religious spectrum. Listening to the Global Voices folks talk about the work they do and the work they hope to do strengthens my hopes that blogging can connect us in unprecedented and powerful ways. I think blogs have tremendous potential to link us both across the physical globe and across the gulfs that separate us religiously.

Here's my favorite part of the Global Voices manifesto:

We seek to build bridges across the gulfs that divide people, so as to understand each other more fully. We seek to work together more effectively, and act more powerfully.

We believe in the power of direct connection. The bond between individuals from different worlds is personal, political and powerful. We believe conversation across boundaries is essential to a future that is free, fair, prosperous and sustainable - for all citizens of this planet.

While we continue to work and speak as individuals, we also seek to identify and promote our shared interests and goals. We pledge to respect, assist, teach, learn from, and listen to one other.

A powerful set of aspirations, and one to which I also subscribe. Let me echo the request I made last year in my post about the first Global Voices con: "if any of my readers who don't usually comment would like to pipe up and introduce yourselves, or if any of my regular commenters want to say more about who you are, I would love that." Take a moment to connect, with me and with the other folks reading this. Let's enjoy the pleasure of one another's company from our many physical places, religious perspectives, and walks of life -- and let's be mindful of our remarkable good fortune in being able to meet one another in this way.

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Encounter with Enlightenment

We've been reading and discussing Robert Carter's Encounter With Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics in my Deep Ecumenism class. It's an occasionally dense read for a student unused to thinking in philosophical terms, but for a reader willing to devote some time offers worlds of insight into the relationship between ethics and enlightenment in Eastern thought -- and into the ways in which Buddhist teachings about enlightenment might be understood to mesh with Jewish teachings about encountering God.

Earlier this fall I posted some thoughts on Sufism (arising out of our study of William Chittick's excellent book Sufism: A Short Introduction) which sparked fascinating converstion here; I thought I'd do the same with my response to reading Carter. In this post I'll draw out some of the ideas that interest me most in his book, among them thoughts on dualism and non-dualism, assimilating one tradition into another, self and no-self, and connection with ultimate reality.

Continue reading "Encounter with Enlightenment" »

There and Back Again

Last winter we went to India. I kept a journal, and posted a travelogue when I got home, but for some months I didn't write anything else about the trip. This fall, that changed: I wrote an essay about the India experience, and how it both impacted and was impacted by my Jewishness and my involvement with Buddhism. It's called "There and Back Again" and it's been published here.

Here's a teaser:

JuBu is a patchwork identity, but it may be the closest I’m going to get to a label that doesn’t itch. I want I-Thou relationships and a fundamental consciousness of nonduality at the same time: if that doesn’t make me some kind of pushme-pullyou, I don’t know what would.

On my better days, I see an appealing complementarity in the two impulses. On the one hand, the distance between God and world, waiting to be bridged; on the other hand, an awareness of how illusory those categories, and that distance, really are. The prophetic (Jewish) call to action balanced by a (Buddhist) sense of how my actions in the world shape my karma. Two traditions ought to give me two useful lenses through which to see the world, ensuring that I can always keep things in perspective and in focus.

That was the theory. But would it carry me through my first trip to India intact?

There and Back Again: A JuBu's Passage to India is published in the December 2005 online edition of Zeek. Enjoy!

(And hey, get your friends and loved ones subscriptions to the print edition for Chanukah. They're a fine magazine and they offer their online edition for free; fourteen bucks isn't a lot to pay to help keep them going.)

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