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Announcing chaplainbook!

Since I began hospital chaplaincy work in September, all of the good poems I've written have been hospital poems. This makes sense, when I stop to think about it; chaplaincy work has been profoundly moving, frightening, enriching, and sustaining, and my best poems have always come out of what shapes and changes me.

A while back I got the notion of collecting my chaplaincy poems into a small chapbook. These poems exist in dialogue with one another, and taken together I think they make something more than the sum of their parts. One thing led to another, and I got to discussing the project with several friends and fellow bloggers (many of whom shared the dream of starting some kind of small press), and, well...

It is my deep, deep pleasure to announce the publication of chaplainbook, a small chapbook of chaplaincy poems, the first offering from laupe house collective press.


chaplainbook, poems by Rachel Barenblat.

"Hospital chaplaincy work highlights the central commonalities of sickness, fear, grief, and loss...but also opens the possibility of a sanctified encounter with the sacred. These poems dance and wrestle with the difficult realities of embodied existence, seeking blessing."


One of the poems was previously published on this blog; the rest are new to the world, though a couple will appear in a future issue of The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.

We published the book through Lulu; I ordered a prototype to make sure I was happy with their work, and I am! so now it's available to you, too, should you wish to buy it. You can find it here; soon it will be available via Amazon as well.

This is my third chapbook of poems, and it came together faster than either of the others, maybe because these are poems of a particular nine-month-long experience rather than the top handful of poems from several years' worth of work. These poems arose out of the crucible of Albany Medical Center. I feel profoundly blessed to have spent these months working there, and profoundly changed by the experience of learning to find blessing in such a difficult place. I hope these poems will speak to people engaged in pastoral care work of various kinds -- clergy, chaplains, therapists and nurses and social workers and doctors -- but also to lovers of words, and to anyone who engages with the messy blessings of this embodied existence.

Uncork some virtual champagne with me, if you will. Help me celebrate the birth of these words into the world!

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This week's portion: encountering "impurity"

Parashat Tazria- Metzora is a doozy. This week we're reading about taharah and tumah, terms that can be loosely translated as "ritual purity" and "ritual impurity." Tumah is conferred by childbirth, by eruptive skin conditions and menstruation -- though garments and houses can be afflicted, too, not just human beings.

I used to find it almost impossible to connect with this part of Torah. But over the last year I've joined my shul's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society), and done (most of) an extended unit of CPE, and those experiences have offered me a path in to Torah portions like Tazria-Metzora. That's what I wrote about for Radical Torah this week:

When I have spent a night ministering to a family in crisis -- children of a parent unexpectedly dead of an aneurysm; parents of a child incapacitated by a skiing accident; spouse of someone who is dying, or who is already gone -- I have come away feeling the same kind of wired exhaustion that arose after my first time serving on the chevra kadisha. Dealing with sickness and death leave me a little dizzied, a little fried, as though I'd stuck my metaphysical finger into a socket and gotten charged-up with an energy I can't quite describe. It's not a bad feeling, exactly, but it's not a comfortable one. It's the spiritual equivalent of looking directly into the sun. I come away with my vision temporarily blurred.

This, I think, is one way of understanding what tumah is all about.

Read the whole thing here: Meeting "impurity," and being changed.

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Prog Faith Blog Con schedule update

Over at the Progressive Faith Con Blog, I've just posted the current draft of the weekend schedule for the Progressive Faith Blog Con: Conference schedule draft, v2.1.

If you've been wanting to get a sense for what the Progressive Faith Blog Con might look like, click on over! This draft includes our current thinking on what the panels and breakout sessions will be, the bios of the folks we know will be part of the Saturday evening roundtable, and spaces for several worship/prayer/meditation experiences rooted in the traditions of some of the bloggers we know will be there.

What this draft doesn't include, for the most part, are the names of bloggers who will be facilitating or moderating the panels and breakout groups, and creating/leading the prayer and meditation experiences. We'll be drawing on conference attendees to orchestrate these different pieces of programming; our hope is that as the weekend schedule becomes more definite, more bloggers will commit to coming, which will enable us to put the finishing touches on the plans.

So if you're coming and you'd like to help out with something on the schedule, let us know! And if you have thoughts, comments, or suggestions, drop 'em as comments on the PFCB post -- we welcome input of all kinds.

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My theology, in one paragraph.

My extended unit of CPE is almost over. Nine months seemed so long back in August when I was getting ready, and suddenly I'm working on my final evaluation paper. It's going to be fairly mammoth, I think; there's an entire page of questions! One of those questions asks for my "statement of theology" in a single paragraph.

Poetry has taught me valuable lessons about concision, but it's hard to explain my understanding of God in brief. I've been working on a response, and I keep fighting the temptation to add more to it -- I'm afraid I might be forgetting something important.

For kicks, and because it might spark interesting conversation, and because I think it might be helpful for me to see the paragraph in a context other than my paper draft, I'm posting my draft of that theology paragraph here:


My theology holds that our world is imbued with God's presence, and hence with opportunities to encounter holiness. I believe that each of us is a reflection of God, created in the endless diversity of God's image. I believe that God transcends our understanding and our words -- and that even so, each of us in our finitude partakes of God's infinity, because there is a spark of God in each of us. I believe that doors to God's presence open both in our moments of greatest joy, and our moments of greatest grief. According to my theology, God manifests in the world in a variety of ways on a variety of levels (the four worlds paradigm and the schema of sefirot or divine attributes expressed by the Jewish mystics are two ways of understanding God’s unfolding). I believe that God is available to all of us. As we evolve, as we learn and grow, as we become more compassionate and loving, we grow closer to and we increasingly resemble God. I believe that God is present wherever two of us truly meet one another. I understand God as fundamentally unitary: the Oneness underlying all things, which can inform and transform our existence if we open our eyes.


(Draft, April 24, 2006 / erev 27 Nissan, 5766.) I welcome responses, of course. And if you want to tackle this question too, please drop me a link to what you write. I'd be tickled if "my theology, in one paragraph" became a meme.

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Fun little films, from an intriguing source.

Today a friend sent me a link that made me smile: -- Ben Tap Soul, a 39-second film featuring a guy named Ben Natan tapdancing in tefillin. In part it's the incongruity that gets me, though I also think it says something subtle and valuable about prayer and fun. It's labeled as a "JIF" film -- Jewish Impact Films.

After watching that one a couple of times, I clicked over to their films index page. I didn't watch all the films, but I watched several. At the moment my two other favorites are Passover Noir (2:12 -- funnier if you don't know the "plot" going in. If it confuses you, leave a comment and I can explain) and First Person (0:59), a poem performed by Matthue Roth, artfully animated and well-spoken.

Beneath every wee movie, there's a link to "learn more" (which takes you to their learning page) and, beneath the "do more" header, a series of links to various places around the Jewish internet. The links gave me some clues about the perspectives that underpin the enterprise. Anyway, I got curious, so I delved deeper into the JIF website. The Jewish Impact Films Fellowship, I learned, "was established by leading Hollywood producers to empower the next generation of young Jewish thinkers to use creative media, specifically short internet-based films, to effectively communicate new messaging about Judaism and Israel."

Nu, what are the "new messages" they want to communicate? On their donations page, I found their mission statement, which begins "Let's face it -- public relations for the State of Israel and the Jewish People could be a lot better." On their application page they answer the question "Why are we doing this?" with "Because the Jewish world needs help," and follow that with predictable alarmism about Israel and about the incredible disappearing Jewish community. Oy.

That kind of doom-and-gloom talk frustrates me...and I'm a little annoyed by the notion that better PR is any kind of solution. How about fixing what's broken about both Israel and mainstream American Judaism? (We don't have to agree on what that is -- in fact, disagreeing about what needs fixing could lead to some fruitful and fascinating conversations -- but I'd still rather focus on solutions than on looking better.)

That said, I agree that it's valuable to "provide  an entrée for thoughtful people to re-approach this vast ocean of knowledge and spirituality [e.g. Judaism] with a renewed interest." In the end, I take issue with some of JIF's premises, but I like some of their films.

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"Praise God with lute and pipe..."

Once upon a time I played guitar. Self-taught, mostly, though I took a handful of lessons in fifth grade. In high school I wrote corny songs about the rainforest, and about unrequited love, and played my share of Simon & Garfunkel and Indigo Girls tunes. I did some of that in college, too -- I have fond memories of hanging out in my dorm room with the two first friends I made, singing "Scarborough Fair" in three-part harmony -- but other things came to occupy my attention, and I stopped playing.

This summer I'll be starting DLTI (the Davvenen' Leadership Training Program), a two-year training program in liturgical leadership offered by Aleph at Elat Chayyim. Last summer I was at Elat Chayyim during one of DLTI's training weeks, and the students led all the services: shacharit, mincha, and ma'ariv every day. What they did was awesome (both in the sense of being really cool, and in the sense that means living up to their standards is vaguely terrifying.) Several of them mentioned to me that if one plays an instrument, one should bring it to DLTI and use it in leading services.

Tonight I picked up my guitar again, just for kicks. Once it was in-tune, I found myself playing chords to go with a niggun I learned at Elat Chayyim. And then I thought, you know, if I'm going to try to use this thing at DLTI, maybe I should use it sometime before then. Get myself accustomed to playing in front of a crowd. I wonder if I could use my guitar in shul?

So I went and fetched BeKol Rinah ("With a Joyful Voice", CBI's Shabbat siddur). Mirabile dictu, I can play the chords for almost everything we sing on Shabbat morning! A few prayers seem to me intended to be davvened a cappella. And a few of the things we sing (like the "tzaddik katamar yifrach" section of psalm 92) are tricky for me to play in the range I can sing in. (It's possible I should invest in a capo before I try this. And a guitar strap. And a guitar stand.) But most of the melodies we use work fine with the handful of relatively simple chords I remember.

My shul is perfectly comfortable with instruments -- we have a basket of little tambourines and rattles that we typically use during "Mi Chamocha" and Psalm 150, and the cantorial soloiost we hire during the Days of Awe played guitar last year to great acclaim. I like davvening in a guitar-led service. Leading one would certainly stretch me out of my comfort zone. And it might help prepare me a little bit for DLTI.

Of course, part of me is terrified by the prospect. I'm not sure I can do it, faced with a congregation (even a really small one) and the need to play the right chords quickly enough. But practice would help with that, wouldn't it? And putting the chord changes on post-it notes in my siddur. And it's good to keep growing as a shaliach tzibbur, right?

No promises, mind. But I'm leading services next on the Shabbat of May 6th. Who knows; maybe I'll give it a go...

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Progressive Faith Con Blog!

The Progressive Faith Blog Con now has its own blog -- Progressive Faith Con Blog!

It's a group-authored blog; a handful of us on the planning committee will be posting there to keep folks apprised of conference plans. I imagine we'll also post sometimes about faith and politics and the places where they intersect -- and maybe other stuff too, eventually. Blogs tend to evolve.

David (one of my fellow planners, who works at Faith in Public Life) posted a draft panel schedule yesterday. Since then, emails have been flying fast and furious, and it's already a little out of date -- but still worth taking a look at. (For what it's worth, we're talking about swapping out one of these panels, and changing another one, so that our five panel spots will feature two religion-based panels, two politics-based panels, and one tech-based panel...though as David has noted, in an ideal world the divide between religion and politics panels will be a permeable one, because the two subjects inform each other.)

Anyway. Comments and conversation make blogs fun. So if you're thinking about coming to the PFBC, drop a comment and let us know what appeals to you! We'll post a new draft schedule soon; our hope is to have a full schedule -- including ecumenical worship, blogger dinners, panels, and roundtable panelists -- to post by May 1.

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I arrived at CPE yesterday to the news that we were short a chaplain: my colleague A., slated to be on-call last night, had been called away. The question came right away: "Can you take his shift?"

I remember taking days to psych myself up for my first on-call at Albany Medical Center. I was petrified, afraid I might be thrown a curve ball I couldn't begin to field. My first time I armed myself with references and resources, in case someone asked a theological question or wanted a specific kind of prayer I might not know offhand. That first night, baruch Hashem, the pager never went off; in lieu of navigating crises, I spent the evening having gentle conversations. I remember especially the long visit with a man of eighty-nine -- in for dizziness and shortness of breath -- who blessed me at the end of our talk. It was just what I needed in those anxious early days.

I relinquished the knapsack of books by my second night. My feet and back ache badly enough by the end of a night without the extra weight! But I got into the habit of bringing an overnight bag containing a change of clothes, and my weekday prayerbook, tefillin, and tallit (I like to davven the morning service in the chapel, if I'm able.) And I typically wear my green fannypack when I'm on-call, packed with the things I've found I need while walking the floors: a small English-language edition of tehillim (psalms), a copy of the Mi Shebeirach prayer, a moleskine notebook and pen, cough drops, a diskette for writing verbatim reports, a list of emergency phone numbers, instructions for navigating the hospital communications system, Sudafed, Kleenex, lip balm.

Yesterday morning, after a split second of reflection, I offered to take A.'s shift. Since it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, my little green bag was resting neatly at home, an hour from the hospital -- too far to drive for the crutch of the habitual. I would have to be present to whatever needs arose with only the words in my heart.

As it turns out, I'm profoundly glad I was at the hospital last night. I walked the long night journey with the family of a child who had been in a terrible accident. I was with them as they got the news, as he was rushed from emergency room to operating room, as we waited to see if the bleeding could be stopped. We moved up to the pediatric intensive care unit, and waited some more. After a brief bedside visit, I showed them the chapel, where we all joined hands and prayed. Then we moved down to wait near the radiology lab (at the end of two long basement hallways I had never before walked.) Then, back up to PICU again, for more waiting.

As of this morning when I left, the boy's condition was precarious, but he continued to hold on. And I? I am so exhausted I'm almost dizzy, but I also feel blessed and honored by having had the chance to spend the night with this family, to sit vigil with them and to support them in their first nine hours of the crisis that will consume them now for God knows how long.

It's almost unthinkable to me that I have only one on-call shift left. In these short nine months chaplaincy work has come to feel definitional; the prospect of being a former hospital chaplain leaves me strangely bereft. In a way, taking A.'s shift without preparing myself felt a little bit like graduation. I've come a long way from my first cautious and tentative steps into the swirling waters of the hospital hallways. These days, like Nachshon ben Aminadav, I dive right in. I trust the waters to part and let me through, I know there's an important reason I need to reach the other side, and I try always to be mindful of the wonder of walking along the ocean floor, step after astonishing step.

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This week's portion: strange fire

This week's Torah portion, Shmini, includes the story of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron who offered "strange fire" at the altar of Adonai and were struck down for so doing.

It's a harrowing tale, particularly for those of us who favor the occasional liturgical innovation. Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously drew an analogy between Nadab and Abihu and Reform and Conservative leaders who presume to make changes in Jewish tradition. It's easy to read this as a parable of why Jewish religious practice needs to stay the same: because the Holy Blessed One smites those who dare to make changes in the determined order of things. Easy...but simplistic. And limited. And arguably incorrect.

That's from my post this week at Radical Torah. Which I could summarize, but really, you might as well just read the thing I wrote, right? Here's the post: Why innovative prayer isn't "strange fire". Enjoy!

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Last week I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's been out for some time, and I imagine many of you have read it already; it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2004, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. It was recommended to me by a minister friend, and had been on my Amazon wishlist for a while when my friend Emily gave it to me for my birthday. I sat down to begin reading it the day before Pesach began, and found it so compelling that I invented excuses to pick it up again that day, and again. I had finished it before the time came to make matzah balls for the first seder.

Gilead is a thoughtful and meditative novel. It takes the form of a letter written by Congregationalist minister John Ames, a man of seventy-seven whose heart is failing, to his seven-year-old son. The letter is meant to be a kind of replacement for his presence in the years he knows they won't be able to spend together. John tells his son stories; he reflects and reminisces. When I began the book, I thought that was all it was, and that was okay by me. The writing is clear and fine, and peppered with observations about God, faith and ministry that spoke to me for all the obvious reasons. Like this one:

That's the very strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.

Or this one:

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.

Or this:

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily.... Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position.

How could I not feel immediately at-home in the presence of a narrator who says things like these? John is well-spoken, and the stories he chooses to tell his son coalesce into a vivid and believable life.

Of course, there is more to the book than that. John's grandfather and father were also both ministers, and both fought in the Civil War, though his grandfather came away filled with the righteous fire of the abolitionist and his father came away convinced that no war, however just at its root, can be a Christian enterprise. There are darker stories hidden beneath the benign exterior of the surface stories John tells, like tunnels dug to conceal escaped slaves beneath the dusty streets of a midwestern town. There's another story woven through here, too, about the son of John's best friend Boughton, who Boughton named for John when it appeared John would never have a child of his own. But that one is revealed in skillfully-measured increments, and I would do it a disservice in summarizing.

Robinson's simple and measured prose serves Gilead's narrative. These are deep waters, but there's a lot going on beneath their surface stillness. In a funny way, once the book had grabbed hold of me it was a real page-turner; I was desperate to know what might be revealed next. The book's tone is consistent throughout -- what changed, in the reading, was me.

I feel a natural affinity toward books which show the lives of clergy in interesting ways, like Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning, which centers around a young female rabbi (and which I posted about a while back -- and which, come to think of it, also came to me via my friend Emily.) I have more in common with Rosen's protagonist than with Robinson's, obviously, but there are similarities between a rabbinic life and a ministerial one. I feel kinship with anyone for whom faith is central. And this year I've come to regard the ministers in my CPE program as brothers and friends. Perhaps these are part of why Gilead resonates for me so strongly.

"Readers with no interest in religion will find pleasure in this hymn to existence," wrote the reviewer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This excellent review in the Christian Science Monitor notes that "There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer." Ann Hulbert, writing in Slate, calls it "as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered." The review in the San Francisco Chronicle points out that Robinson is often asked to preach at her home church; after spending a condensed lifetime with her creation John Ames, I can see why.

In a way, I can't say much "happens" in the book. It's a meditative ramble through an old man's life and memory, not an action thriller. In another way, of course, everything in the world happens here: love, loss, death, conflict, sorrow, fear, joy. "There is a balm in Gilead," says the hymn, and after reading this book I can't help but agree.

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Seasonal song

Last night we drove home late from the first night's seder, at my sister's house in Boston. I dozed in the passenger seat; being in moving vehicles often makes me sleepy, and when the hour is past midnight I know better than to get behind the wheel for extended periods of time. I woke in fits and starts, on the highway and at a gas station and as we pulled into our driveway, and was in a kind of daze when we walked into the house around one-thirty. When I got into bed, the window wide open beside us, the last thing I noticed before sleep claimed me was the sound of spring peepers.

When I woke to a new day I had forgotten them, and I didn't remember until I stepped out of the synagogue tonight after the second night's seder. There's a small marsh behind Congregation Beth Israel, edged with pussywillows and cattails and a glorious enormous willow tree, and at this season it's inhabited by untold numbers of tiny frogs, newly awake and alive and singing courtship songs at the top of their tiny amphibian lungs. That's when I remembered, in a flash, that they had sung me to sleep last night and that my last thought of the day had been a sleepy shehecheyanu because I hadn't heard them in almost a year.

One never knows when the last night of anything will be. The last night of late-summer cricketsong, the last night with the windows open, the last night of snow, the last night of spring peepers. Firsts, though, we notice -- and sanctify. This year, the insistent and piercing song of the pseudacris crucifer gave an extra layer of blessing to my Passover, marking an audible onset of spring.

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Haggadah responses

You know what's the best thing about checking my email on the morning of the first day of Pesach? Reading things like this from folks who used the VR haggadah last night (quoted with permission):

I have to tell you this was the most meaningful, thoughtful seder in memory. We went on until 2:30am, talking, sharing, thinking about liberation for the world and sharing what liberation we hope for our individual lives in the coming year. I joked half-way through that no seder that happens in Paris ever gets to the last page of the haggadah because the last metro is at 12:30am! No one reacted to my bon (or mauvais?) mot; they were all too involved in the experience and wanted it to go on and on...

The haggadah provided a wonderful occasion for this communal introspection. Beautiful. Really. Our non-Jewish friends wondered at the more modern interpretations and wanted to know how anyone gets the authority to do this... We explained that this type of interpretation is part of our tradition, that it is incumbent on all of us to be engaged in thinking about tradition in more personal ways...

That's from my friend Lois. Her thoughts and insights helped me create the first version of what is now the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah, back in 2001. I value her opinion tremendously, so this comment means a lot to me.

Here's another one. This is from Tandy, in North Carolina. She and a friend decided that they should just be the seder they wanted to be invited to, instead of waiting for someone else to make it for them. (I know that feeling!) They gathered a table of nine people of mixed religious heritage, all of whom entered Passover with some feelings of inadequacy about being "real Jews," and they downloaded and printed the VR haggadah. Here's what she wrote:

We had a wonderful time! And we learned so much! I kept wishing we'd had a camera so we could commemorate it forever (and, unlike you, I rarely take photos!). Then we could have sent you a pic of nine people and one British pointer, one of whom -- the half-Chinese, half-Lithuanian whole Hawaiian Buddhist Jew -- called her father in Greece while driving here to prepare herself -- she's 30 years old and this was her FIRST seder, ever!

... I could not go to sleep this evening, this morning, without first reaching out to you to say thank you for playing such a generous and important role in this lovely, perfect, first night of Passover 2006, and first seder I've ever hosted.

It was the first annual Half-Jew Seder in Asheville, NC. We've decided it's a tradition we want to continue.

A room full of people who began the evening unsure how they fit into Judaism or what Judaism meant to them deciding, by the end of the night, to continue their new seder tradition: that transformation is awesome, in the original sense of the word, and it fills me with joy. Unlike Lois, Tandy is someone I've never met in person -- we've never even corresponded until today.

I originally created the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Passover because I needed it in my own life, but these days I edit, shine, and revise it as much for you as for myself. I love knowing that it's being used at seder tables around the world, and that it helps others enter into Passover in a meaningful way.

This is a big piece of the work I hope to do as a rabbi someday: introducing people to the Judaism that enriches my life, and in so doing, hopefully enriching theirs. It's a challenge to create liturgies that will both welcome those who are new to Jewish practice, and excite/engage those who've been here for a while. It feels really good to be working toward that, and to have confirmation from some of y'all that it's working.

That so many people downloaded and enjoyed my haggadah blows my mind and leaves me feeling awestruck and humbled all at once. I want to thank each of you, and everyone who posted a comment or sent an email. That people find sustenance in the haggadah means the world to me.

I welcome comments of all kinds, so if you have a reaction to the haggadah, please feel free to let me know! And, again, to all who celebrate it -- in whatever ways -- I wish you a sweet and meaningful Passover.

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Meeting Thandeka again

Today brought the deep pleasure of reconnecting with an old mentor: Ethan and I had dinner with Thandeka.

Thandeka taught the first religion course I ever took, in the spring of my freshman year of college. It was called "The Mysticism of the Self," and in it we explored the nature of God, selfhood, and mysticism in the writings of Augustine and Martin Luther. It was tremendously challenging. I loved it so much I majored in religion.

The following year I took her course "Eve and the Snake" -- a semester-long exploration of the dual creation narratives in Genesis, seen through a variety of lenses. That was my introduction to feminist Biblical criticism; under her tutelage I read Judith Plaskow for the first time. Thandeka inspired my undergraduate thesis, at least in part. She shaped my college experience, and by extension the years that followed.

Many of my friends studied with her; I suspect most remember her with a mixture of reverence and awe. 

Seeing her again after more than ten years was...intense. Each of us told the story of what we have been doing in the interim. Ethan talked about Ghana and Tripod and Geekcorps and Global Voices; I talked about poetry and Bennington and inkberry and Aleph. She spoke about the unlikely blessing of being denied tenure, about teaching at Meadville-Lombard and at Harvard, about The Center for Community Values and her interest in small-group work. We talked about smalltown life, the nature of prayer, affect and embodied experience, communities both in-person and online, progressive faith and the challenges of engaging with difficult political realities.

She doesn't seem to have aged a day. Her mannerisms are the same, her intent gaze and her tenacious listening. The three of us radiated joy at one another for the two-plus hours of our meeting. When we parted, it was with the words "to be continued." I hope that we won't wait another ten years before breaking bread together again.

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Pre-Passover roundup

The closer we get to tomorrow night's seder, the more there is to do and the busier the hours seem! So in lieu of a substantive or creative post from me today, here are pointers to a handful of other people's smart thoughts about Passover. First, one from Radical Torah:

The increased conservativism of the Jewish community has coincided, not surprisingly, with the almost complete integration of Jews into mainstream American society. While we continue to speak of ourselves as a minority, virtually all barriers to our absorption into mainstream American life have disappeared... What are we to make of this disconnect between the stories we tell about ourselves and our current place in American society?

That's from L'harot et atzmo by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a post about the commandment to see ourselves as though we personally had been liberated from Mitzrayim, and what actions are implied by that injunction.

Here's another good one, courtesy of jspot:

It is telling that we are to remember the time when we were victims. It is a very common response to distance oneself from someone we perceive as victim. Cancer patients, victims of a violent crime, or people with a disability attest how others, even close friends, distance themselves. It is as if identifying with them reminds us of our own vulnerability, and would cut through the denial of, “This won’t happen to me.” Actively trying to remember a time of our own -- personal or collective -- victimization is a means of opening our heart and creating the possibility of loving the stranger.

That's from Love the Stranger by Rabbi Mordechai J. Liebling, a post about the injunction to use our memories of slavery productively. Remembering our own victimhood, he argues, can lead to a kind of insular "look how I've suffered" mentality -- or it can help us cultivate genuine compassion for the strangers, the "Others," we encounter every day.

The post I made about my haggadah has long since scrolled off the bottom of the page, so if you're looking for a poetic and progressive haggadah for your Passover seder, here's one last link to The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. I wish you a joyous celebration of the Festival of Freedom, if you celebrate it; may Passover be sweet and meaningful for us all!

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Passover, matzah, dialectics.

In shul this morning we read and discussed an excerpt from Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg's book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. We read from the chapter on Passover -- specifically, a few paragraphs on the multiple meanings of matzah:

Just as shunning hametz [leaven] is the symbolic statement of leaving slavery behind, so is eating matzah the classic expression of entering freedom. Matzah was the food the Israelites took with them on the Exodus. "They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes [matzot], for it was not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared provisions for themselves." (Exodus, 12:39.) According to this passage, matzah is the hard bread that Jews initially ate in the desert because they plunged into liberty without delaying.

However, matzah carries a more complex message than "Freedom now!" Made only of flour and water -- with no shortening, yeast, or enriching ingredients -- matzah recreates the "hard bread of affliction" (Deut. 16:3) and meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their exploitative masters. Like the bitter herbs eaten at the seder, it represents the degredation and suffering of the Israelites.

These two messages about matzah -- that it is the bread of freedom, representing our rush into new life, and that it is "the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Mitzrayim" -- are in every Passover haggaadah. Matzah has two symbolic meanings. It represents our liberation, and it represents what we are liberated from.

Matzah is, therefore, both the bread of freedom and the erstwhile bread of slavery. It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters' values. But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of mtazah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; hametz is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; hametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread.

I love Rabbi Greenberg's point that the binary of either/or is too simplistic. Passover is a holiday that shatters binarisms, pushes us beyond the black-and-white oppositions of slavery and freedom. Neither condition is as simple as a binary system suggests. Both slavery and freedom can manifest in a visible outer way, and an invisible inner way, and the inner and outer need not match. And the most important form of freedom is on the inside, in the psyche.

The halakha [Jewish law] underscores the identity of hametz and matzah with the legal requirement that matzah can be made only out of grains that can become hametz -- that is, those grains that ferment if mixed with water and allowed to stand. How the human prepares the dough is what decides whether it becomes hametz or matzah. How you view the matzah is what decides whether it is the bread of liberty or servitude.

Matzah and hametz consist of the same ingredients. Matzah is made of flour and water; hametz is made of flour and water. The difference is first internal; making matzah is a conscious choice. "Okay," one says to oneself, "this is going to be matzah; I have only eighteen minutes to make it; go!" That act of mindfulness, of kavvanah (conscious intent), is the first thing that matters in turning potential-hametz into actual-matzah. The other thing that matters is the action that arises out of that intention.

In this, I think, making matzah is not unlike making Shabbat. Shabbat is not inherently holier than the other days of the week -- not until we become mindful of it, and with our thoughts and our actions we make it so.

I'm fond of the metaphor which holds that, as we clean our houses of hametz before Passover, we can take the opportunity also for spiritual housecleaning, ridding ourselves of hametz -- that ego which puffs us up -- in the process. Here, too, the notion that hametz and matzah contain the same ingredients has something to teach me. The part of me which is appropriate for the festival of freedom, and the part of me I want to sweep away and burn, are made of the same stuff -- me. What I want to rid myself of is not a foreign object. It's made of the same flour and water, the same Rachel-ness, as the parts of me I want to keep.

The point is subtle but essential. To be fully realized, an Exodus must include an inner voyage, not just a march on the road out of Egypt. The difference between slavery and freedom is not that slaves endure hard conditions while free people enjoy ease. The bread remained equally hard in both states, but the psychology of the Israelites shifted totally. When the hard crust was given to them by tyrannical masters, the matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. But when the Jews willingly went from green fertile deltas into the desert because they were determined to be free, when they refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the hard crust became the bread of freedom.

The Passover journey isn't just a historical journey; it's one we take every year of our lives. And it isn't just an external journey; in order to have true meaning, it needs to change us on the inside, where freedom really matters. The difference between slavery and freedom, between constriction and expansion, is our state of mind. Eaten grudgingly in a state of oppression, matzah is the bread of affliction; eaten joyfully in a state of liberation, matzah is the bread of our freedom.

There is a connection, our rabbi taught today, between Purim and Pesach, the last holiday of the Jewish year and the first holiday of the Jewish year. Both holidays celebrate stories of how we were oppressed, and almost wiped out, but we survived and even flourished. In the Purim story, told in the Megillah of Esther, God's name is never mentioned. In the Passover story, told in the traditional haggadah, Moses' name is never mentioned. There's something to be learned from this apparent disjunction.

Purim teaches us that redemption happens when people take their destinies into their own hands, and transform themselves. Passover teaches us that redemption happens when people trust completely in God, and allow themselves and their circumstances to be transformed. These narratives are mirror images of each other, but both are true -- and the real truth of redemption lies in the dialectical tension between the human-focused Purim story and the God-focused Passover one.

Just like the real truth of matzah lies in the dialectical tension between the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom, and how we continue to be transformed by spending a week in the synthesis between them.

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Rabbi Dennis Ross on Progressive Faith

"We are here this morning because, through our collective efforts, we are agents in bringing our fragile world ever closer to the promise of redemption," Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, told the audience. "As clergy from an array of denominations, we say yes to the call before us. Please join me in prayer: We praise you, God, ruler of time and space, for challenging us to bring healing and comfort to your world."

"Amen," the audience responded.

That was reported by Neela Banerjee of the New York Times, in The Abortion-Rights Side Invokes God, Too, her recent article about Plannet Parenthood's Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. It pleased me both because I have a longstanding interest in progressive religious faith (for obvious reasons) and because I know Rabbi Ross. These days he heads Concerned Clergy for Choice, but he used to be the rabbi at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield, and on Wednesday he gave a talk at Williams College entitled Progressive Faith in the Current Political Climate: Finding the Right Words.

What follows is a partial transcript of his talk. Some is drect quotation; some is paraphrase. (Should be fairly obvious which is which.) He talks pretty quickly so I wasn't able to get everything down; if anything is unclear, it's probably because I wasn't able to transcribe the whole thing!

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Six years of Williams College feminist haggadot

In preparation for the talk I'm giving at my alma mater on Sunday, I dug through my files and unearthed six versions of the Willliams College Feminist Haggadah. Just holding them in my hands is like travelling through time.

I was invited to join the feminist seder committee in the winter of my freshman year. The first feminist seder had been held at Williams in 1992, the year before I arrived, using a haggadah created by Marissa Brett, Joellen Krupp, and Holly Lowy; I worked with Rachel Clark, Dara Eizenmann, Lauren Golden, Holly Lowy, and Marianna Vaidman to revise it for year two. We gathered in a tiny dorm room, leaving our snow- and salt-crusted shoes in the hallway, and had passionate discussions about candle-lighting and hand-washing and blessings for weeks on end.

At last we declared our revisions complete. We took the haggadah to Office Services to be copied and stapled. We scurried around the JRC's kitchen, making tray after tray of potato kugel and shaping a endless number of matzah balls. When the seder rolled around, I remember a few people giving me a hard time -- one woman in particular seemed offended that we wanted to mix the chocolate of our feminism with the peanut butter of her Judaism! But on the whole people seemed moved, or at least intrigued, and the tradition took hold.

These memories -- the talking, the cooking, the ritual -- have limited resonance for those who weren't there. But the pile of bound documents on my desk tells a story that might be more universal. The evolution of our small Jewish feminist community parallels the larger evolution of Jewish feminism, I think. These haggadot are like snapshots of where we were, each year at Pesach-time as our Jewishness, our feminism, and our liturgical sophistication grew.

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This week's portion: Priestly ordination

This week's Torah portion, Tsav, contains a fascinating report about the ordination of Aaron and his sons, done by Moses in the presence of the entire community. It involves the sacrifice of three animals, some fascinating usage of the root סמכ (meaning to lean or rest upon; today it also means to ordain), and a solemnly macabre moment when Moses paints the new priests with blood in three places on their bodies. That's what I chose to focus on in this week's d'var at Radical Torah:

I imagine it was still warm when Moses painted it on. According to God’s instructions he anointed each man with blood in three places: the ridge of his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. Why these three places? What can we learn from this esoteric ritual that speaks to our lives?

The ear was marked because it is a place where the outside world enters human consciousness. Once they were “earmarked” in this way, each new priest would hear things differently; perhaps only holy sounds now would enter, or the sounds that entered would become consecrated in a new way...

Read the whole thing here: Priestly ordination: hearing, doing, walking. Enjoy!

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Speaking at Williams

The Williams College Jewish Religious Center was built just before I came to Williams. Though I have friends who remember carrying the Torahs over from the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel where the Jewish student community had once worshipped, by the time I arrived in 1992 the "wedding cake" building was a fait accompli. (That I initially mis-typed that phrase as "faith accompli" entertains me perhaps more than it should!)

I spent a lot of time in that building, my first semester on campus. I became an erev Shabbat regular; I liked attending services, and the fact that they were followed by a home-cooked Shabbat dinner helped too. (I helped make dinner a few times, despite my complete lack of cooking know-how.)

That spring I got involved with the Williams College Feminist Seder Project. Though by then I'd developed a campus life that didn't involve the JRC much, the Feminist Seder was right up my alley, and became my primary mode of connection with the college Jewish community. The people who were drawn to it all cared deeply about Judaism, about the words we pray and what they mean, and about the holidays we celebrate and the way we celebrate them. I stayed on the committee through the rest of my college career, and even into my first year as an alumna living in town.

What occasions this trip down the proverbial memory lane? The JRC is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year with a lecture series featuring Distinguished Jewish Alumni, and I'm one of them. So if you're in the Berkshires and want to hear me speak, come on over to the Jewish Religious Center on the Williams College Campus for a bagel brunch this Sunday, April 9th, at 11am. (Bagels first, then talk; they've got their priorities straight. I'll speak at around 11:15.) They've given me twenty minutes, followed by a Q-and-A. I'm planning to talk about the history of the Feminist Seder project on campus, and how it led me to ritual revision work, which led me to a book manuscript, which led me to m'saderet (celebrant) work and keeping this blog, all of which led me to rabbinic school...

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The Schocken Passover Haggadah

I think I'm becoming a haggadah collector. This weekend, at Hudson City Books, I picked up a copy of Nahum Glatzer's The Passover Haggadah (a 1989 fourth edition of a 1953 original from Schocken Books; now out-of-print, though there's a 1996 edition available.) I already have a couple dozen copies of the Silverman haggadah (the one I grew up on, which merits its own post at some point, if only for the marvelously dated illustrations), E.M. Broner's The Women's Haggadah, Jewish Lights' anthology The Women's Seder Sourcebook (to which I contributed a reading!), and five years' worth of bound copies of my own haggadah, but hey, one can't have too many prayerbooks, right? (What really pained me was stepping away from the hardback first edition of A Passover Haggadah with Leonard Baskin's watercolors in it. I've added a paperback version to my Judaica wish list, but that coffeetable-book-sized original was beautiful.) Anyway, Glatzer's haggadah is a fine addition to my library.

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