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Lunchtime prayers

Today was mid-unit evaluation day in my CPE class, so we spent the morning reading our self-evaluation papers aloud and discussing them with each other and with our supervisor. Toward the end of the morning, the door to our seminar room opened and in came Rena, the Jewish chaplain who works part-time at Albany Medical Center. "I need to borrow Rachel and Mark," she said.

A Jewish college student who has been in the surgical intensive care unit for about two weeks had taken a turn for the worse, and is once again unresponsive. The family wanted Rena to gather a minyan to pray in the room, in hopes that adding voices and kavvanot (intentions/focus) to the prayer would aid its efficacy -- and that the student, though apparently unconscious, would hear our words. Rena knew that our CPE class meets on Monday, so she came to find us, and brought the two Jewish chaplaincy interns with her to the patient's room in SICU.

Together with two family members, we made up half a minyan. Rena read a prayer for healing, and then we sang the 23rd psalm (to a beautiful melody I had never heard before, though I picked it up as we went along; I'm hoping to get Rena to record it for me soon), Esa Einai (from Psalm 121), and a simple chant I knew for "Ana, El na, refa na la." (That's Numbers 12:13, the astonishingly brief prayer Moses makes over his sister Miriam.) We closed with a mi sheberach, the traditional prayer requesting healing. Throughout we were accompanied by the click and hum of the respirator, moving the patient's chest up and down.

It was a sobering way to spend the first part of our lunch break. But I also came away feeling blessed: humbled and grateful that the family had allowed us into their space and their sorrow for a time, and hopeful that our voices had brought the family some solace. Our supervisor has told amazing stories about people in comas waking up with clear memories of what was said around them, so I hope the unconscious patient heard us, too. Even if the words didn't penetrate on a conscious level, I hope our caring and our intention continue to surround that hospital bed, and continue to provide whatever comfort and peace is possible.

We may not have the power to discern what will become of the person over whom we prayed, nor to definitively affect that outcome with our words -- but we care enough to keep trying, even when we know the situation is out of our hands.

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Our children, our choices

This morning I indulged in my usual Sunday morning pleasure, reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I was struck by the magazine's cover story, The Call: What in God's name American evangelicals are doing in Africa, by Daniel Bergner.

As a portrayal of Christianity in Africa, I think the article is necessarily incomplete. It's a poignant personal story (in fact, it would make an interesting contemporary companion piece to Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, which I really enjoyed) but it gives a limited window into Africa's religious makeup. Much of Africa is already Christian (according to the folks at WorldViews, Christians make up a majority of the population in at least seventeen nations; Christian History Institute said that Christianity is now the faith of the majority on the continent as of 2000) and is under the care of ministers who are African, not American. (Though the Christian Science Monitor tells us Islam and Christianity are growing and blending in Nigeria, which is fascinating in a whole other way...)

Anyway, that aside, what interests me about the Times article is its portrait of a family which has chosen a very particular kind of religious lifestyle. Rick and Carrie Maples heard a call from God, and responded by going to a remote part of Kenya to bring the gospel to the Samburu. As a result, their two daughters -- aged four and twelve -- are along for the ride. And though it sounds like both girls are doing their best to rise to the occasion, and the older one takes some real pleasure in the intercultural encounter, it also sounds like the girls are struggling. That has to be a challenge for their parents. How would one begin to gauge whether the good accrued through encountering a radically expanded world -- and, according to their belief system, through working to spread the gospel -- outweighs the profound isolation the girls are wrestling with?

The article got me to thinking about how our religious choices shape the lives of our children. I'm not sure there's a Jewish analogue to the kind of life-change Rick and Carrie Maples have undergone. The closest I can imagine is the religious fervor of becoming ba'al teshuvah (choosing intense Orthodoxy) plus the displacement of making aliyah (moving to Israel). I wonder whether the children of those who take either of those steps (or both) experience any of the same challenges that the Maples' daughters face?

I suspect the children of parents who make these religious leaps share some common ground. And the same may be true for the parents of children who do so. I recently started reading Beyond Teshuva, a group blog written by a variety of people who have become ba'alei teshuvah. One of the contributors -- Rachel, a student at U. Penn -- wrote a post called Parents and Community, about how she "came out" to her parents about her increasing Orthodoxy, and about bridging the gap between her increased observance and their lack thereof. I find myself wondering what it's like to be her parents -- or the parents of Rick and Carrie Maples.

Perhaps some of you have taken religious leaps that were difficult for your children, or your parents, to accept or understand. I would love to hear about what that was like for you, and whether the Times piece about the Maples family resonated with your experience. And/or, I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on how our religious choices shape our childrens' lives, and how to bear that responsibility wisely and well.

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Meeting the midrash

Another shehecheyanu moment: I translated my first few bits of Talmud today! This morning I started a Talmud tutorial, via phone, with Rabbi Judith Abrams, director of Maqom and author of A Beginner's Guide to the Steinsaltz Talmud. It's the new class I'm taking this term, one more small step into the Aleph rabbinic program.

I had read the introduction of her beginner's guide before our phone call, so I had a sense already of Rabbi Abrams' approach to Talmud. (The book, by the way, is terrific; I recommend it highly.) In her intro, she makes six basic points intended to facilitate Talmud study. The first one is Talmud is a waltz; it's not composed according to Western literary patterns, but what seems at first like chaos is actually pretty structured, and the one-two-three rhythm of opinions will come to feel intuitive after a while. Another is Apply it to your life: the text will come most alive when we discuss it, debate it, and find ways of making it relevant to our own situation. My favorite of these prefatory paragraphs may be The self-esteem issue, where she writes:

I can almost hear you thinking, "Yeah, right! Who am I to write down insights? I don't have any background. I'm not that observant. How could what I think about Talmud be important?" Please stop thinking this way. You need an appropriate amount of self-esteem to study Talmud. If you don't have enough, you'll stifle your voice unnecessarily. On the other hand, if it's too high, you'll fall into the classic Talmud trap: thinking that because you are smart or observant that you are somehow above the Talmud. Learning Talmud requires a balance of humility, bravery, wonder at the glory of the document in your hands, and a pride in ownership, knowing that the texts are yours to explore and enjoy.

That was really useful for me to read before we began. Without even knowing me, she'd hit the nail on the head. I've spent enough time with Torah that I've come to feel comfortable expressing interpretations of and responses to it, but Talmud? Talmud is huge! Talmud is beyond me! Talmud is probably more than I can handle! -- at least, that's what the voice of tremulousness tells me. Fortunately, if this morning's class is any indication, the voice of tremulousness is totally wrong -- and will soon be replaced by the voice of experience, which will remind me that this is a) within my capabilities and b) surprisingly fun.

We spent our time on one passage apiece from each of two midrash collections, written down around 350 C.E. but composed of material which is probably much older. From Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Nezikin we read a paragraph expanding on Exodus 22:20, "Neither oppress nor pressure a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The question naturally arises, why does the Torah mention oppression and pressuring, both? Mekhilta presumes a difference -- that one means oppressing with words, and the other means pressuring on money matters -- and explores what it means that we once were strangers ourselves.

And from Sifra Behar Sinai we read a commentary on a passage from Leviticus 25 instructing us not to oppress our neighbors in land transactions. In expounding on that passage, Sifra lists several forms of verbal oppression we're meant not to engage in, like hassling a repentant sinner by reminding him of his former ways. In a broader sense, this part could be read as an exhortation to relinquish old baggage, not to harass someone for who they used to be or what their ancestors did.

Further, Sifra says, if we encounter someone who is experiencing suffering -- illness, tribulations, or the death of a child, for instance -- we must not do as Job's friends did, blaming the victim as though a moral failing had brought about the tragedy. (Remember that toxic theology we heard so much of after Hurricane Katrina, as though the destruction of the city had a moral valance? Yeah. Maybe the religious right needs a course in remedial Talmud study. They could start with this beginner's guide.)

Anyway. Rabbi Abrams is warm and personable, and her enthusiasm for the text is contagious. It's just a beginning, of course; I can't translate fluently, and I need the back-and-forth instructor/student interaction to help me divine the questions the text presupposes and to understand the responses it offers. Still, the fact remains that I read my first few paragraphs of Talmud today, in the original, and they were intelligible, smart, and occasionally even funny. It's the first step on a lifetime journey, but I'm a lot more excited about the trip now that it's begun.

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Resources for Tu BiShvat

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, is coming up, so I've had the pleasure of spending the morning revising the haggadah that we will use at my synagogue's Tu BiShvat Seder. I'll post a copy of the haggadah once I'm finished tinkering with it. Until then, if you're planning an observance of your own, here are a few nifty resources I've found.

Over at The Coalition On the Environment and Jewish Life, there are two different sets of four questions for the Tu BiShvat seder. (The four question conceit is meant to parallel the familiar four questions from the Passover seder.) We'll be adapting both of these in our haggadah, because I think they're both neat: Ellen Bernstein's Four Questions for Tu BiShvat and Rabbi Larry Troster's Four Questions for TuBiShvat. I like the simplicity of hers, and the way they match the Passover questions in tone. And I like his provocative questions, like "What do I know about the place where I live?"

This holiday is often championed as the Jewish Earth Day, and the holiday's themes lend themselves to a celebration of our responsibility to steward the earth wisely and well. Treading lightly on the earth, using as few resources as possible, is one way of enacting that obligation. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that a little internet sleuthing led me to two different one-page haggadot:

One-Page Flow-Chart Haggadah for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi David Seidenberg

One-Sided Haggadah for a Tu BiShvat Seder from Shir Yaakov at sixthirteen

The flow-chart is pleasing to the eye, and is liturgically solid, but it might not work well for the novice user. It requires some familiarity with the four worlds paradigm, and though it makes lovely sense to me, I'm not sure how it would read to someone who'd never done this before. (If you fit that bill, check it out and let me know what you think?)

The "one-sided" haggadah may be a better bet if you're not already deeply immersed in the esoterica of the holiday. (Despite its name, is actually designed to be printed on two sides of a single sheet of paper, which is then meant to be folded, to suggest a booklet.) I like the way its interior is divided into quadrants, each with a kavvanah, an instruction, and an action one can take.

Of course, the haggadah I'm working on now clocks in at fourteen pages. I like the environmental repercussions of using a single-page haggadah,  but my own liturgical sensibilities aren't that minimalist! As you might have gathered, I'm kind of a magpie where rituals like this are concerned; every time I find something shiny I want to grab it and add it. On that note, if you have favorite readings, poems, prayers, or songs for Tu BiShvat, let me know...

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Ten views

I'm really thrilled with the conversation generated by my recent post Being visible. In the comments on that post, and in other posts which have been sparked by mine, people from across the religious spectrum are talking about issues of religious visibility -- whether that visibility arises through a clerical collar, monastic garb, hijab, 'Plain' dress, or being kavod kippah. Thanks, all, for your input -- it's a pleasure to hear your perspectives on this, and to recognize again that we deal with similar issues even when our observances differ.

In lieu of substantive content tonight, I present you with a meme I picked up from Hugo Schwyzer: Ten Views I Hold Without Evidence.


1) That the world is a fundamentally good place, imbued with the presence of God;

2) That I can do anything if I put my mind to it;

3) That my cat really is the prettiest in the world;

4) That the Green Bay Packers will be a good football team again;

5) That my grandparents, of blessed memory, check in on me sometimes and smile;

6) That someday we'll see a sequel to Serenity even though it didn't earn much in theatres;

7) That someday I'll get a book-length collection of poems published;

8) That Orthodox women will be ordained rabbis within my lifetime;

9) That I will visit all seven continents;

10) That things are getting better, humanity is becoming more enlightened, and someday we will finish the work of creating a perfect world.



If you do, or have done, this meme, drop me a link in the comments. I'd enjoy seeing your list.

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An Iranian in Israel

Today Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan is en route to Israel. He acknowledges that landing in Tel Aviv entails breaking a cultural taboo; having an Israeli stamp on his passport may mean he won't be able to return to Iran for a long time. But he seems excited about the chance to visit, and to offer a window into Israeli life through Iranian eyes.

As a citizen journalist, I'm going to show my 20,000 daily Iranian readers what Israel really looks like and how people live there. The Islamic Republic has long portrayed Israel as an evil state, with a consensual political agenda of killing every single man and woman who prays to Allah, including Iranians.

I'm going to challenge that image.

Showing Iranians what the "real" Israel is like isn't his only agenda; he also hopes to give Israelis a more nuanced and complete picture of who Iranians are.

As a peace activist, I'm going to show the Israelis that the vast majority of Iranians do not identify with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, despite what it looks like from the outside.

I'm going to tell them how any kind of violent action against Iran would only harm the young people who are gradually reforming the system and how the radicals would benefit from such situation.

Part of what I love about Global Voices is how, reading it, I learn about the delightfully complex realities of others' lives via blogs from around the world. Reading blogs can be like travelling to places one has hardly even imagined. Of course, actually going to new places in person is even more fun (and more valuable). Really meeting one another can be lifechanging.

Thanks to his blog, we''ll be able to eavesdrop on his travels, see some of what he sees, and discover what misconceptions will be dispelled on both sides. Thanks, Hoder, for bringing us along for the ride.

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The seven-minute davven

I really like wearing tefillin. There's something about the act of removing them from their velvet pouch, unwinding them, rewinding them around my arm and head. There's something about how I think about the act, and what it means to me. There's something about how tactile it all is, the way the leather feels, its faint scent. And there's something about the way the process feels, independent of its intellectual associations. I it. A lot. Trouble is, I don't get to do it very often. Tefillin are only worn for weekday morning davvening, and my schedule doesn't always permit me to pause for a whole morning service.

But at Ohalah earlier this month, one of my colleagues told me about something Reb Zalman came up with when he was working as teacher of environmentalism (and proto-Renewal) at Camp Ramah: the seven-minute davven. According to the story I heard, he went around to the different cabins and assigned them different periods of time for morning davvening. For one bunch (were they particularly rowdy or hyper, I wonder?) he pronounced seven minutes as the time they were obligated to spend with tefillin on.

"What can we do in seven minutes?" they asked. He told them to don the tefillin, say a blessing or two, say the full shema, and spend a little while talking with God -- and then take the tefillin back off. The basic structure of shacharit (morning prayer) involves four parts: first the psalms, songs, and blessings of p'sukei d'zimrah, then the section of the service that centers around the shema, then into the Amidah (the central standing prayer which many take as an opportunity for connection and conversation with God), and then a wrap-up. The seven-minute davven is a highly condensed version of that.

So this morning, that's what I did. I said a few of my favorite early blessings (modah ani for gratitude, asher yatzar for the body and elohai neshama for the soul, baruch she'amar for God Who speaks the world into being), I said the full shema, and then I stood by the tall sliding doors that lead to our deck (which looks out right now on a beautiful snowscape) and I spoke with God about my gratitude, about my hopes and needs for the day, and about some larger dreams and fears for the season to come. And then I took off my tallit and tefillin, made myself a cup of tea, and sat down to check my morning email.

I did miss parts of the service that I didn't say (mostly other morning blessings; for whatever reason, I get a lot out of the birchot ha-shachar, which is probably why they proved such fertile ground for poetry), but it felt good to do the grounding, calming, and connecting work of wearing my tefillin. And I came away with ideas for liturgical things I'd like to work on. Coincidence? Maybe. But I can't help thinking there's something about morning prayer that opens me up. One way or another, this is a good way to start my day.

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This year's visit

This past Shabbat was a special one for me. Not just because we started a new book of the Torah in the lectionary cycle, but because my shul had a special guest. (Actually, two.)

As longtime readers may remember, my father, who lives in south Texas, makes a habit of visiting the Berkshires every winter. It's a chance for him to enjoy a little cold weather, and to spend some time with his daughters. This year's visit came at the tail-end of last week. He and I walked around south county (found a great רעד סאקס baseball cap at this shop), went to the root cellar at Caretaker Farm to get the week's distribution of winter vegetables, took in some typical local entertainment in nearby Shelburne Falls...and, on Shabbat morning, went together to Congregation Beth Israel.

My father hadn't seen me read from Torah since I became bat mitzvah in 1988. To my great pleasure, we had more than a minyan -- seventeen adults, in fact, including one of our recent b'nai mitzvot -- so we were able to take the Torah from the ark. I read about the birth of Moses, and how his mother hid him in a basket in the reeds at the edge of the Nile, and how Pharaoh's daughter found him.

As it turned out, my father wasn't the only honored guest at Shabbat services this week. My dear friend David R. a pillar of the community, was in a car accident a few months ago and has been flat on his back ever since, recovering from broken ribs, wrist, and spine. His doctors gave him permission to sit in a chair for a few hours on Saturday morning, and he chose to spend those hours with us at shul!

It was a real treat for me to show off my shul to my father: our beautiful building, our terrific rabbi, our warm and generous community. And it was a real treat for me to show off my father to my shul, too -- and to introduce him to David, who's been an important part of my time at CBI. Thanks for coming to town, Dad.

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Being visible

At CPE on Monday we got to talking about visible signs of vocation: specifically, the clerical collar that many Christian clergy wear. No one in my group wears the collar on Mondays when we are in class together, though it turns out some of my colleagues wear one on-call -- sometimes. Why only sometimes? The collar, they tell me, sends a complicated series of messages (both to insiders and to outsiders), and one can't be sure how those messages will be perceived or received. And there is also a question of whether wearing a symbol that sets one apart is the best way to serve God, and whether the symbol's visibility feeds ego sometimes instead.

(Thanks to the blogosphere, these notions weren't new to me. Desertpastor's post What does a clerical collar say? asks some good questions, and Preston's terrific post More on the clericals explores the dynamics of being a wheelchair-bound priest and how the two signs, wheelchair and clerical collar, send different messages to the hospital community he serves.)

Neither Judaism nor Islam has an analogue to the clerical collar, though my Muslim colleague and I joined the conversation by speaking about his beard and my kippah. In both of our traditions the markers of devoutness are democratic. They're not limited to clergy, but are symbols of piety that are open to everyone. (Well, where "everyone" means "men." We'll come back to that.) Of course, beards can also be fashion statements, so they're not necessarily religious symbols. And being a part of his face, his beard goes with him everywhere. My yarmulke is a little different. Unlike a clerical collar, it's not a sign of ordination; but like my Christian colleagues with their collars, I wrestle with questions of when to wear a kippah, and why, and what it means when I do.

Continue reading "Being visible" »

Jewish bloggers at JTA

The wild and wooly world of Jewish blogs is featured in a new article at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency site: Sermonizing mingles with sex talk as Jewish surfers pick up blogging, by Rachel Silverman. (The headline threw me for a moment, but she means "surfers" as in "web-surfers," not guys in wetsuits paddling out to sea...)

At times, the chatter between American Jews can seem hushed, even silent.

While questions about assimilation, Israeli politics and Jewish identity swirl overhead, many American Jews maintain an arms-length complacency about it all.

But a post, click and hyperlink away, the burgeoning blogosphere offers a forum for Jewish conversation...

The article features a few bloggers who've been in my aggregator for ages, and a few who were new to me. To my great pleasure, I'm in there too.

Thanks to blogging, Rachel Barenblat, the theology student behind the Velveteen Rabbi blog (, has become close to a Buddhist nun in Korea and a Baptist minister in San Antonio.

"I've come to feel very much like these people are my friends," says the Massachusetts resident, 30. "That we're sitting around a virtual coffee table."

Soen Joon and Real Live Preacher, I'm thrilled that she picked up on my comment about our friendship! (Regular readers here probably could have made the leap between "Buddhist nun" and "San Antonio Baptist minister" and the two of you, but I wanted to offer links in case anyone finds their way here from the JTA article and wonders of whom I spoke.)

Because I spent several years after college working as a journalist, I always enjoy being interviewed; it still feels novel to be the one answering the questions instead of the one scribbling madly. This interview was fun not only for that reason, but also because Rachel's questions got me reminiscing about how VR started, musing about why I blog, and paging through my favorite posts to give her a sense for the subjects I love best. (That I had written a Top Ten of '05 post just before she called was a big help in that regard.)

There is one note I want to add. Though Rachel quoted me on cross-blogosphere friendships and on the occasional acrimoniousness of the blogosphere, I don't want to give the sense that those two are equivalent impressions for me. Though I've received nastygrams in response to VR, they've been few and far between. Mostly, blogging has enlivened my life with conversations, and I have y'all to thank for that.

Anyway, it's a nifty article; go and read, and enjoy.

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Home again

The theme at Quarrtsiluni the last few weeks has been "Finding Home," and the editors have published some tremendous work. Like The Homeless Life, a musing on monasticism by Soen Joen of One Robe, One Bowl:

I prepared for "homelessness" literally. I pared a lifetime of books, clothes, pictures, school things, junk, and letters down to two boxes I left at my parents' house in the States. I brought a small box of Korean language texts and Buddhist scriptures with me to Korea, along with one pair of pants, several shirts, a sweater and a winter nun's robe. Then I showed up at my teacher's temple...

Or Zooming Into Home, by Beth of The Cassandra Pages:

The traveler's trajectory is so privileged: a line between two points, this stop an insignificant, momentary deviation. But for the locals, this place is a zoom with a final thud, as the map tack goes in to stay. A mile away from the exit, life is lived not on a vector between distant places, but in circles that bring us back again and again to that specific spot we call "home"...

There's so much that I could link to: Natalie's visual poem, Trix's marriage of image and words about Union Station, Dale's musings on home and roads and the familiar that kicked the whole theme off. Maybe it's not surprising that we generated so much good work, given the theme's resonance. Sense of place, finding home, roots and wings: for whom among us do these not loom large?

Home is a major motif in my writing, so when the editors announced the theme, I sent a handful of poems their way. To my delight, they published one fairly early: Home Body. And now they've posted another: Visit. The timing is fortuitous; the poem was written after one of my father's winter visits to the Berkshires, and he's preparing now for this year's iteration -- I pick him up at the airport tomorrow.

I'm honored to be in such fine company. Read all the "Finding Home" posts here.

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Thinking ahead

It's way too early to be thinking about Passover.

Seriously. I'm feeling vaguely blindsided by the fact that Tu BiShvat is less than a month away, with its mystical seder and wintry environmentalist observances. After that comes Purim, rowdy Purimspiel and suggestive poppyseed cookies and all. Pesach might as well be years from now.

Except -- guess what? -- I'm thinking about Passover. It's my favorite holiday. And this year I'm planning to release a new version of my haggadah. I didn't put out a new one last year, for a variety of reasons, but this year I've got all kinds of awesome new stuff to add, and I'm jazzed about it already.

Which is why I'm turning to you, dear readers. I learned a few really great melodies at Elat Chayyim last Pesach and I want to include them in the haggadah. I'm on a Mac, and my budget for software is zero. What I need is freeware which will let me create simple sheet music, and save each piece as a graphic which I can import into Word. Do you have suggestions?

Witnessing my first smicha

Several of you have asked me to post about the Aleph smicha (ordination) ceremony I was fortunate enough to attend a week ago. It moved me deeply, which makes me want to chronicle it both for myself and for you. I feel some trepidation in so doing, though; I'm new to the program and I know I can't do the ceremony justice. I offer here some impressions and memories, and hope this post will be received in the respectful spirit in which it was written.

A congregation made up of colleagues, teachers, family, fellow students, and friends rose and sang as the processional came in: first Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, then the four directors of the Aleph ordination programs (Reb Marcia Prager, the dean; Reb Daniel Siegel, director of spiritual resources; Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, director of the rabbinic pastor program; and Hazzan Jack Kessler, director of the cantorial program), followed by the six musmachim (students/apprentices) who would receive smicha that day. The six of them sat on a raised platform at the front of the room.

First we prayed mincha, the short afternoon prayer service. Reb Zalman was the prayer-leader, draped in his beautiful rainbow tallit, and he did something wonderful with the amidah: we chanted the first three blessings together in Hebrew, and then for each of the latter blessings he spoke extemporaneously on the blessing's theme. We sang the final blessing for peace to the familiar tune of "Dona Nobis Pacem," in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and English.

Continue reading "Witnessing my first smicha" »

Common prayers, common ground

I have long wanted to read Harvey Cox's book Common Prayers. Cox is a Christian theologian who serves as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. For the last fifteen-plus years he has been married to a Jewish woman, and engaged in helping to rear their Jewish son -- and he has also maintained his own identification with the Christian community, and his own Christian faith.

Common Prayers is Cox's exploration of Judaism, from his unique outsider/insider perspective. (If you want a taste, one chapter has been published online: A Christian Observes Yom Kippur.)

This review, written by Andrew Silow Carroll and published in The Forward, does an excellent job of encapsulating some of what makes the book great, and also some of what makes it controversial. Carroll writes, "Mr. Cox describes his intention in writing 'Common Prayers' as three-fold: to help Christians better understand Judaism, to explain how Judaism has strengthened his understanding of his own Christian faith and, perhaps most controversially, 'to question the idea that a Jewish-Christian marriage necessarily dilutes the substance of either or both of the spouse's faiths.' For this Jewish reader, the book fulfills a fourth if unstated goal: helping Jews better understand their own faith through the perspective of a learned outsider."

The part Carroll calls controversial -- Cox's feelings on intermarriage -- is something I'll come back to towards the end of this post. But first I'd like to explore what Cox says about Judaism, because his observations are excellent.

Continue reading "Common prayers, common ground" »

Falafel, and new friends.

The principle that when one's a blogger, one need never have coffee alone again has been reconfirmed! Over the course of this conference, I've had the pleasure of meeting several readers of this blog, among them a bunch of students in my program (and one faculty member -- turns out Reb Goldie reads me! I feel so cool.) I've also gotten to meet with a few folks from outside the program, who graciously came to the Boulderado to connect in person.

On Sunday, I got to have lunch with Joey (of Mas'a Haruach) and her girlfriend Miryam. They took me to Falafel King in the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, which turns out to offer truly splendiferous falafel and shawarma, and we talked about our respective journeys. They knew more about me than I did about them, so we corrected the information imbalance; I learned that Joey is in the process of converting to Judaism, and that Miryam is a lay leader at her shul. We talked about religious paths, the internet, our  families, and the entertaining implications of wearing a kippah to a tattoo parlor on Shabbat. It was great fun.

I didn't have the presence of mind to ask someone to snap our photo, alas, though there's a lovely photo of Joey and Miryam here. Thanks for the falafel, y'all! Let's do it again next year.

10th of the lunar month

Today marks another one of those fascinating calendrical convergenges: Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim feast commemorating Ibrahim's near-sacrifice of his son, and 10 Tevet, a minor Jewish fast day which marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar's armies. The confluence offers an opportunity to think about hunger, about tzedakah (usually translated as "charity," though the Hebrew root means justice or righteousness,) and about our walls.

Yesterday, Reb Arthur Waskow (of The Shalom Center and Tent of Abraham) spoke about Eid and 10 Tevet falling together. He reminded us that Eid celebrates a Muslim story that twins our own, though in the Jewish version of the story it was Isaac who was bound atop Mount Moriah, not Ishmael. Both peoples derive a continuing practice from the ram in the brush, though we do so differently. Judaism focuses on its horns, which we use even now as a call to mindfulness; Islam focuses on the whole sheep, giving rise to the Eid practice of slaughtering a sheep in commemoration and giving a third of the meat to the hungry. Eid, therefore, is a call to mindfulness of those in need.

On an (unintentionally) related note, BZ of Mah Rabu suggests that 10 Tevet offers an opportunity for awareness that leads to action. He argues that American Jews should consider this fast day a chance to contemplate and make reparations for suffering within our "city walls," e.g. here at home, and calls us to repent for the millions of Americans living in poverty and hunger, without homes or health care.

This morning in conversation Rabbi Chava Bahle offered the insight that 10 Tevet is an opportunity to think about our walls, both personal and communal, and to make a conscious choice to rise out of the siege mentality which pits "them" against "us."  I find her teaching on this tremendously resonant. How does our memory of Nebuchadnezzar's attack fit with our sense that in today's world we are called to have boundaries which are permeable? In Jewish tradition the mitzvat ha-borei, the "mitzvah of the Creator," is to love our neighbors, our "Others," as ourselves; what are our obligations, financially and emotionally, toward those inside and those outside our communal walls?

I wish those who celebrate Eid a joyous festival, and those who are observing the fast of 10 Tevet a meaningful remembrance. May this combination of holy days help us to become aware of those in need, impel us to do what is necessary so that all may have sustenance, and allow us to reconsider how we want to interact with the walls we erect.

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When the ballroom doors opened, the sound of singing poured out into the foyer. The student body of the four Aleph ordination programs -- rabbinic pastor, rabbinic, cantorial, and (the newest addition) spiritual directorship/hashpa'ah -- was gathered inside, singing "bruchim ha-ba'im b'shem Adonai" (and the feminine version, "bruchot ba-ba'ot..."), "welcome are you who come in God's name." They sat in a great circle, around a smaller circle of outward-facing chairs.

One by one, the new students (I think there were fourteen of us) walked through the double doors into the ballroom. We each stood a moment beneath a rainbow tallit, held up by four posts festooned with ribbons, breathing the experience in. And then we took our seats in the inner circle of chairs, facing out toward the outer circle where the students sat and sang.

We introduced ourselves -- who we are, where we're from, what program we're each beginning. Then the current students circled us slowly, singing to us, pausing to clasp our hands and hug us and welcome us quietly in their own words. Friends and strangers murmured blessings in my ear, and if I was a little bit weepy by the end of that part of the ceremony, at least I wasn't alone.

Then we joined the larger circle, and the six students who would receive smicha later in the day moved into the center. One by one, six current students rose to give them each a blessing. The blessings were personal, deep, revelatory, powerful. After each, we sang a little bit, as if to seal the words and their intent. At the close, those six on the cusp of ordination stood beneath the chuppah together, arms around one another, and we showered them with blessings and with song and with applause.

There's a sweet symmetry to having one ceremony for these two purposes: welcoming new students, and celebrating those who are about to relinquish student status. All we who are crossing the threshold, whether coming or going. How tremendously fortunate I am to have such good role models walking ahead of me; how blessed I feel to be on this path.

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Off to Ohalah!

Tomorrow morning I'm off to Boulder, Colorado for the eighth annual Ohalah conference (at the really spiffy-looking Hotel Boulderado). The word Ohalah is an acronym for "Agudat HaRabbanim L'Hithadshut HaYahadut," which translates to "Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal." In addition to rabbis, the gathering will also include Renewal rabbinic pastors and cantors, students in all three of those disciplines, and other Renewal-minded Jewish professionals.

I'm looking tremendously forward to the experience. Though I met many current and prospective smicha (ordination) students at Elat Chayyim last summer, this will be my first chance to spend time with everyone all together, and to meet many of the folks who have received smicha through Aleph. This will also be my first chance to see a smicha ceremony -- I imagine that will be a powerful thing to witness.

I won't be blogging this conference the way I did the URJ Biennial. The Renewal analogue to the Biennial is Kallah; Ohalah seems more like a guild gathering or family reunion. This gathering is designed to be a way for Renewal rabbis and students to connect, and isn't meant to be a public phenomenon in the same way the Biennial is. That said, though I won't be liveblogging, I may eventually write about some of the things I learn, or some of my reactions and responses to the heady intellectual and spiritual atmosphere I expect to encounter, so stay tuned.

Since I'll be away, blogging will likely be light over the coming week. Thanks for understanding; see y'all on the other side!

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Three excellent blogs

We're finally winding down from our annual new year's gathering, which brings some forty-odd people (yeah, the "odd" is intentional) here for several days. We cooked up a storm, we went on walks, we feasted and conversed, we sang, we rolled back the rugs and danced, we built a ger -- it was wonderful, exhausting, and totally the highlight of my season, as always.

I'd like to return to my usual blogging ways today, but tomorrow I'm off to a conference (about which more shortly) and I'm scrambling to clean the house and tidy the chaos of new year's, and to do laundry and print out travel documents and generally get ready for my trip. So in lieu of drafting something insightful of my own, I'll extol three of the terrific blogs I've added to my aggregator in recent days.

My friend Margaret recently pointed me to In the Barren Season , a blog by "Persephone," an Orthodox Jew who has been struggling to become pregnant for a very long time.

There is so much that is the same about infertility, no matter what one's faith. And yet there are things that are unique about the experience of being childless while observing taharat hamishpacha, of trying to complete testing and treatments without violating halacha... I hope all of these blogs very quickly become motherhood stories. But I also hope that other women out there like us are gaining from our stories, whether it's information about halachic options, or just the knowledge that they are not alone.

She's pregnant now -- with twins, baruch hashem! -- and her blog is a fascinating read.

Another recent discovery, found via the comments over at Baraita, is On Chanting, "In which I talk about chanting Torah, singing, life, you name it." The anonymous author has been posting a series of reflections on the High Holiday worship experience; one of my favorites is her short post about serving as gabbai:

Trying not to trip over the many layers of white fabric draped around my body (skirt, blouse, parachute-sized tallit), I ran up the side steps to the low, deep stage. It felt, oddly, like a living room that just happened to have one wall missing, a thousand people in upholstered seats in its place. To the left were the musicians, instruments resting carefully at their sides as they waited for everyone to assemble at the bima. At my right, a row of folding chairs was filled with nervous, whispering teenagers getting ready to chant haftarah...

And, in a departure from the kind of blogs I usually link to here, I want to recommend Teju Cole, the exquisite and powerful travelogue of a Nigerian-American man visiting Nigeria for the first time in a long while. The writing is stunning, and the photographs beautiful, but what really strikes me is the way this blog wrestles with the question of what it means to go home again, and whether one ever really can:

The muezzin’s call has never sounded so pure in its music. The call to prayer floats across the valley that separates our house from the minaret. A gentle music that rouses me on my first morning back home. There is still no electricity. Natural light leaks into the living room. I make tea. Cockerels' crows, from another direction, skitter over the crier's melismatic Arabic. A smell of cooking smoke in the distance, as though the smoke were hands lifted in prayer.

That's from one of my favorite posts there so far, though the author might prefer me to quote the one that begins, "The most important thing to know about Africa is that it is normal..." Anyway, it's a gorgeous read. Honestly, all three of these are terrific; I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

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JIB nomination

Nifty news; this blog has been nominated for a Jewish and Israeli Blog Award, in the Best Religion Blog category. Some of the other nominees are among my favorite reads, so I'm honored to be in that grouping.

Here's a list of all the nominees (on the Jerusalem Post site -- they cosponsor the awards with Israellycool.) Like I said last week about the Brass Crescent awards, the JIB awards are a great way to fill out one's blog aggregator -- there are a lot of good Jewish blogs listed here.

So if you found your way here via the nominee listing, welcome! I hope you'll stick around. If you want to get a sense for what this blog is about, my most recent post -- Top Ten of '05 -- is a good encapsulation.

Voting will begin on January 9th. On that date, it will be possible to vote at the main JIB Awards page. Enjoy!