Previous month:
April 2006
Next month:
June 2006

Yad by yad

Brad opened the door of the Excursion and showed me a cardboard box filled with beautiful carved pieces of wood. As I moved my hands through the pile, they made music, like wooden xylophone keys. "This one is purpleheart," my brother told me. "This one's rosewood." The wood colors ranged from pale yellow to a dark stripey brown that was almost black. Red and golden, ash and oak and mahogany. None are stained -- only varnished with a clear coat to protect and showcase the natural colors of each kind of wood.

My middle brother has been a woodworker for all the years I can remember. The enormous mahogany dreidel he made for me when I was in high school is one of the most oft-commented-upon objects in my home. (When I first brought it to the Berkshires I was living with half a dozen college friends. I left it on a coffee table and later found my housemate Aaron turning it over in his hands, marveling at its grain and heft. When he looked up at me he said, wonderingly, "very big Jews have been here!")

On the final night of this trip to San Antonio, my whole family went out for Mexican food at El Jarro del Arturo. The guacamole was great; the ceviche, even more so; the chance to clink glasses and talk with my family, better still. But best of all was standing in the muggy late evening under the parking lot klieg lights, choosing a yad made by my brother's own hands.

It felt a little bit like choosing a magic wand; I couldn't resist asking whether any of them had phoenix-feather cores. (The answer was, alas, no.)  Once I had made my choice, I showed it off to my nieces who I know are Harry Potter fans. "Swish and flick," I said, giving it an experimental slice through the air, and the girls giggled and suggested I try "wingardium leviosa."

It was hard to pick just one. They're glorious. In the end I went with one of his two-handed yadayim -- instead of having one pointer end and one end with a finial and a silver chain, this one has a pointer at each end, one right-handed and one left-handed. I've never seen another like it.

"Good choice," my brother said. "That's one of my favorites, too." The two hands, he noted, can symbolize a kind of yin and yang, which makes me like it even more; I love the idea of reading Torah with a pointer that symbolizes the bridging of opposites. Earth and heaven, sacred and profane, the written text and the truth that flows through and beyond it: my little two-handed yad hints at all of these.

And, I think, at the way no one does anything of import single-handedly or alone. Next time I read from Torah, I will bring my beautiful rosewood two-handed yad -- a Brad Barenblat original -- and I like to think it will bring even greater-than-usual sanctity to my engagement with the words, and greater joy.

Technorati tags: , , .

This week's portion: portable holiness.

I'm off to Texas this week to celebrate one of my mother's milestone birthdays. I'm looking deeply forward to going.

My family spans the denominational divide; we belong to every synagogue in town. But my parents are affiliated Reform, and in honor of Mom's birthday we'll all attend erev Shabbat services together at their congregation, Temple Beth El. We joined right after I became bat mitzvah; I spent my adolescence there, was Confirmed there, taught in the Hebrew school there. And this Shabbat I will be delivering the d'var Torah there -- a tremendous honor for me.

If you're going to be at Temple this Friday evening, you might want to skip my post at Radical Torah this week; the five-minute d'var I wrote doubles as my RT post! But if you're not joining us for services, or if you want a sneak peek at Friday night's d'var, be my guest:

When it was time to break camp, the Torah tells us, Aaron and his sons would take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark with it. They would cover that with leather, and then with a cloth of pure blue. The table and its accoutrements -- bowls, ladles, jars, tongs and fire-pans, libation jugs -- would be wrapped in cloths of blue, violet, and crimson, and then in tahash, a yellow-orange leather (the word is sometimes translated as dolphin skin). Everything precious in the sanctuary, in fact, was wrapped first in cloth and then in skin, and loaded onto a set of carrying poles for easy transport.

These mentions of fabrics and skins may remind us of the Torah portions we read earlier this spring, which described in loving detail how the Mishkan should be constructed. An astonishing quantity of text is dedicated to the tabernacle and its details. In this week's portion, we learn that the instruments of sacrifice were wrapped not just in cloths but in b'gadim, garments -- a word that ordinarily denotes what people wear. These pieces of the sacrificial system were treated with the same respect as human beings! How can these passages speak to us today, so many centuries distant from a model of interaction with God which required libations and blood, incense and gold?

Read the whole thing here: Portable holiness.

Technorati tags: , , .

First Monday of ordinary time

I don't mean "ordinary time" in the Christian sense, naturally. Though I suppose if its deep meaning is "measured or numbered time," today counts...and it's certainly a strange kind of ordinary, in the absence of what had made Mondays extraordinary for so long. Today is the first Monday after the end of my extended unit of CPE. It felt strange not to begin the morning by driving the curving roads to Albany, not to ask my colleagues how their Sunday sermons had gone, not to settle in for a day of school.

Charles, bless his heart, reminded me in a comment yesterday that I had promised to do something special today, something meaningful or restorative or just-for-me, to keep from feeling glum on account of not being with my fellow chaplains all day. So this morning I drove down to the beautiful spa at Cranwell; I have a gift certificate there which I've been slowly using up, and today I tried my first Pilates class.

I like it. Not as well as I like yoga, but there are some similarities. Mostly it felt good to make time for exercise, which I'm not good about doing. (Someday I'm going to blog about the list of disciplines I wish were actually everyday occurrences in my life -- writing, prayer, and physical activity chief among them. Exercise for my mind, spirit, and body.) After class, I spent a little while in the womens' spa, which is free with class participation.

Ten a.m. on a Monday is not a busy time there; I had the place almost to myself! I sampled the steam room, and the sauna, and spent a little while lolling in the beautiful tiled hot tub. It felt like a kind of mini-mikvah, despite the lack of a witness or of living waters. I made a bracha and dunked four times, once for each of the four worlds, holding in my heart some of the actions, emotions, thoughts, and essence of the CPE program I've just completed. It was a sweet kind of closure.

And then I took a nice cool shower, and drove home listening to good music, and opened up the Torah to this week's portion, and got to work.

Technorati tags: , , .

The chaplainbook story

Several people have asked me to blog about my experiences assembling and publishing chaplainbook. This is a bit removed from my usual subject matter, so it may not be of interest to all of you.

I'll put the story beneath the "Continue reading..." link (though that won't impact folks reading this via aggregator or livejournal) -- anyway, if you're not interested in laupe house, or my thoughts on the long tail, the ramifications of print-on-demand publishing, and how I think POD relates to the blogosphere, kindly skip this one. I'll post about Judaism again soon!

Continue reading "The chaplainbook story" »

Report from rab school, nine months in.

People often ask me how my rabbinic studies are going. My usual answer is "really well, but really slowly." That often yields me a look of surprise, especially from folks who belong to my synagogue and who've seen me filling in for our rabbi during his sabbatical stints. I can lead services and read from Torah with reasonable facility; surely that means I'm almost done? (Heh.) Nope. I'm near the beginning of this road. Leading services and reading from Torah are a great start, but they don't qualify me for the rabbinate by a long shot.

My program requires me to achieve competency (if not mastery) in a variety of subjects: TaNaKh (the Hebrew Scriptures), exegesis (scriptural commentaries), history (Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval, modern), philosophy and theology and Jewish thought, halakhic literature (Talmud et cetera), hasidut (mysticism), practical rabbinics (pastoral care, spiritual direction, life-cycle rituals, "davvenology" a.k.a. liturgical leadership), liturgy (its history and structure and flow), pedagogy (how to be a good Jewish educator), and world religions. That this sounds like tremendous fun to me is, I think, a sign that I'm on the right path.

Still, I've got my work cut out for me. Because I'm still the executive director of Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded in 2000, so far I've only been able to take a couple of classes at a time. At this rate, working my way through that grid of requirements is going to take a decade. I plan to be more of a fulltime student in the fall; meanwhile, I'm filling my summer with Jewy goodness.

Continue reading "Report from rab school, nine months in." »


2015: Edited to add - here is ALEPH's formal statement on the resurgence of Marc Gafni.

Once upon a time there was a restaurant where we loved to eat. The proprietor/chef was a big, burly fellow with a brilliant smile who clearly loved to cook and to share his food with people who enjoyed it. He always greeted us with a smile and a hearty handshake or arm clasp. Sometimes he brought us little treats at the table. He made specials for us that weren't on the menu -- I can still taste that wide, flat pasta with wild mushrooms and truffle oil! We didn't really know the guy, but he made beautiful food with generosity of spirit, and we were fond of him.

One day we read in the paper that the guy was in jail for beating his wife. We were horrified -- first to think that something so terrible had happened to the pleasant blond hostess who seated us, and then to realize that we had been so wrong about the man. His cooking was so sublime, and his air of geniality so palpable, that we thought we knew him. Realizing the enormity of what we had not known was painful.

The liberal Jewish blogosphere is abuzz this week with the news that a noted teacher, Marc/Mordechai Gafni, has been ousted from the congregation he helped to found -- and has fled Israel for the United States -- on account of three charges of sexual and psychological abuse. 

Continue reading "Betrayal" »

This week's portion: rest for the land.

Parashat Behukkotai begins with a promise and a threat. If we keep God's commandments, Torah tells us, good things will come; if not, then we will know all manner of ill fortune. This  is followed immediately by the point that if we fail to obey, once we're in dire straits the earth will create obedience for us -- it will take the sabbatical rest we blindly refused to give. In other words, the commandment at the heart of this passage is the one from the start of parashat Behar, about ensuring a sabbatical year for the land.

What would it mean to follow these commandments today? How can, or should, we read these passages? I aimed to address these questions in this week's d'var for Radical Torah:

[W]hen we read this week's portion metaphorically, we find teachings that can inform our lives even in today's world. Torah tells us that we must care for the earth in which we are planted -- that this commandment is the very ground of our ethics, and of our prosperity. Just as we must afford human beings the chance to rest each week, to connect with holiness and to experience joy, we must afford the earth a regular chance to rest, and must treat it as a holy creation of our holy God. If we do these things, we will know deep abundance -- both literally (because earth well-tended produces more and better fruits) and spiritually (because treating the earth wisely and well puts us in a different relationship with the ground upon which we walk...and the ground of being Who sustains us.)

Read the whole thing here: The importance of tending the earth.

Technorati tags: , , .


My poem "Mystery" has just been published in the current edition of Qarrtsiluni, as part of the theme "an opening in the body." (I let my anonymous co-editor decide whether or not to run it; it didn't seem fair to slot in my own work just because I'm co-editing this time around!) Read it here.

The poem also appears in chaplainbook. It was written toward the end of my hospital chaplaincy internship, inspired in part by a conversation with Rabbi Judith Abrams about doctors being the high priests of our day and in part by encountering a surgeon very late one on-call night.

"An opening in the body" will be our theme through the rest of May, so if you have submissions that relate to that theme (however you understand it), please send them our way.

Technorati tags: , , .


Today was my last day of CPE. We gathered in the Alumni Room, the wood-paneled library where we met on our very first day back in September, and spent the first part of the morning speaking some final words in turn. I talked about how I can no longer access the feeling of looking around the room and seeing strangers. These men have become so dear to me, and so familiar. We've been through so much together. They are my brothers, every one of them.

I started to cry when I said I would have to make some kind of special plans next Monday; otherwise the day is going to stretch so miserably empty! It's been deeply sustaining for me to spend one day a week with others who are walking a road very like the one I'm on. Especially since my rabbinic program is geographically dispersed -- we come together at certain times of year, we study together in various ways, but I don't have classmates where I live -- it has been truly wonderful to have fellow-travelers.

Many of us said that this has been among the best experiences of our lives. I think everyone agreed that it's been life-changing. Most of us were there because we were obligated to be; our seminaries or superiors or ordaining bodies required it. None of us expected to love the work, and each other, the way we did. I certainly didn't expect to find holiness in the halls of that hospital. And I can still remember the day of my first on-call, a million years (or nine short months) ago. I met two old college friends for a soda in Albany beforehand, and we sat on the strip of grass outside the hospital. I was nervous, so afraid I might not be able to handle what would come...

My colleague Steve will be going on a pre-ordination retreat in the fall, and he spoke this morning about how someone told him that would be the most stressful time of his life. "Get real," he said in reply. "I've sat with parents who don't yet know that their child has been killed...Nothing I go through in the ordination process will compare with that." He's right. No matter what stresses lie ahead of me in the months and years to come -- and I can be pretty type-A, so I'm no stranger to stress -- the work I've done in CPE puts my petty stresses and frustrations in perspective.

Because here's the thing. God is present with each of us. God is present any time we meet each other truly. God is present when we are born and God is present when we die. I've had the profound honor of escorting an untold number of strangers through some of these passages in their lives, and I have come to know deep in my bones that God is with them, God is with me, no matter what. This work has been a deep, deep blessing. Ma nora ha-makom hazeh indeed -- how awesome and holy is this place, the place where we come together in our vulnerability and our commonality, our fear and hope and love.

The day seemed to speed up as it went on. I gave everyone copies of chaplainbook -- that was a pleasure, giving the work to the people for whom it was written. (It's rare that poems have so direct an audience.) Several family members arrived to join us -- as did Clara, the one other woman in our cohort, who had to drop out in January for personal reasons and who I hadn't expected to see again! (That was a joy.) We put on a skit that gently satirized the program and our relationships with one another, which elicited much laughter from the chaplaincy residents and staff. And then we gathered for lunch (glorious halal Pakistani food) and the awarding of diplomas.

At the little diploma ceremony, Harlan made reference again to the Wizard of Oz, which he'd used as a frametale for our journey on the first day of class back in the fall. I didn't realize then how appropriate a metaphor it is. Each of us is the Scarecrow, with more brains than we know. Each of us is the Tin Man, with all the heart in the world. Each of us is the Cowardly Lion, filled with boundless courage. And each of us is Dorothy, able to find our own way home when the journey ends.

Saying goodbye to my colleagues was hard. We'll try to connect again, but it won't ever be like this -- the common context of walking the halls together day after day will be gone. We'll relate in terms of what we did together once upon a time, through the prism of distance and memory. The tapestry of our togetherness is ending today, and it can't be replicated. Often when I leave a retreat at Elat Chayyim I feel like it will take me a while to really re-enter my ordinary life, and like I'm not quite the person I was before. I felt that today, but more so. At Albany Medical Center I've taken risks, had conversations, said prayers, walked paths I couldn't have imagined before. And CPE is over.

As I began to walk toward my car the enormity of that loss, of this change, struck me, and I started to cry again. On my way down the long hall a woman I didn't know saw me crying, and stopped me to ask, "are you okay?"

I thanked her, and said that I was all right. "Are you sure?" she asked. I nodded, and found it in me to really smile, and drove the hour home.

If you want to relive my journey, you can read all of my CPE/pastoral care entries here.

Technorati tags: , , .

Mindful Jewish Living

A while back I received a pre-publication copy of Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice, a new book from Aviv Press by Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater. (Read an interview with him about the book here.) The Foreword to the book is by Sylvia Boorstein; it offers a good encapsulation of what we will find in the pages to come. She writes:

This is a book about looking with your own eyes -- looking with all the organs of physical sensation as well as the mind and heart -- looking with full attention at every moment so that life is continually revealed as sacred, inspiring a just and compassionate response. And it is most particularly a book that celebrates looking with eyes that are directed, supported, nourished, encouraged, and informed by Judaism.

R' Slater spends a lot of time, early in the book, talking about mindfulness: what it is, why it's important, how to experience it Judaically. He defines mindfulness as "the capacity to see clearly, with calm and awakened mind and heart, the truth of each moment of our lives." Who could fail to connect with that aspiration?  "When I see my life with the greatest clarity, I experience the presence of God in each moment, even in pain and failure," he writes. "I feel joy in being an expression of God's intent in creation." I like that as a description of the peculiar grounded joy I sometimes find in hospital chaplaincy work, a joy that can be puzzling. When I look at it through R' Slater's description, it makes sense in a new way.

Mindfulness, R' Slater writes, isn't just a habit of navel-gazing. It's a practice, a discipline, which helps us look beyond our particular reality to see the reality of all life. Many of us may have found our way to meditation or to mindfulness practice via Buddhism, but R' Slater makes the apt point that Jewish practice too is a mindfulness regimen. Through the matrix of mitzvot we can become conscious of every action; through making brachot we sanctify what we do. "Mindfulness as a practice leads to a life of constant teshuvah -- return to the truth of the moment."

Mindful Jewish Living is organized topically, with sections on Meditation, Torah, Avodah ("Service," though it's also often translated as "Prayer"), Hesed ("Lovingkindness") and Teshuvah ("Return"). The book doesn't read like a textbook, but it's surprisingly dense; I could easily derive a long blog post from each chapter, and at some point maybe I will. For now, some little tastes -- dips of honey to entice you to buy the whole jar.

Continue reading "Mindful Jewish Living" »

This week's portion: on grain and offerings

This week's Torah portion, Emor, includes a series of instructions pertaining to grain-offerings and to counting the days between one offering and another. That's part of the focus I chose for my Radical Torah post this week -- the counting of the Omer, and commandments about sharing harvest:

From Pesach to Shavuot, the festival of our liberation to the festival of God's revelation, we count seven times seven weeks. On the fiftieth day our ancestors brought grain to the Temple in Jerusalem. Because we are no longer grain farmers, and no longer operating in the old sacrificial paradigm, we bring the offering of our open hearts to a meeting with God wherever in the world (wherever in all the worlds) we are...

Read the whole thing here: Making our offerings count.

Technorati tags: , , .

A match made in heaven?

I felt a pang when I saw the Jewish Week article Retreat And Advance: As funky Elat Chayyim closes its doors, some wonder if it will be replaced by a more upscale Jewish retreat center. The piece describes how at the end of this summer Elat Chayyim will move in with The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. "Removing the Torah will be the final act by Elat Chayyim’s leaders before they close the retreat center’s doors, bringing to an end a grand experiment in the spiritual renewal of Judaism," Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes.

Bringing to an end? It's true that the Freedman Center has historically been more mainstream in its programming than Elat Chayyim. The two centers have different stories of how they came into being; they've served different segments of the Jewish community. But I don't think they're necessarily dissimilar, at least not as they move forward. In 2003 the Freedman Center started the Adamah Fellowship, an internship that blends organic farming with Jewish contemplative practice -- a program that could have come right out of the Elat Chayyim catalogue.

I think Ms. Nussbaum Cohen's article overstates the situation when it paints Elat Chayyim's move as an end to Elat Chayyim. Indeed, the marriage could do both organizations good. Having two Jewish retreat centers within a couple hours of each other seems like a division of both community and resource; this might enable both to flourish more than either one could have done alone.  I attended a terrific Yom Kippur retreat cosponsored by the two retreat centers last fall, which gives me confidence that the two organizations work well together. I see this change as a merge, not a closing; a new chapter, not an end

Perhaps I see the situation through the rose-colored glasses of my deep desire for this match to work. I can't speak highly enough of Elat Chayyim. My adult Jewish life was sparked there and has been nourished every time I've returned. Elat Chayyim taught me how to davven, opened my heart to deep experiences of holiness, brought me into community, and set me on the path toward the Aleph rabbinic program. So obviously I'm biased. But I also think, and hope, that this shift will be a source of blessing.

If you want to experience a retreat at the funky old Elat Chayyim site, this summer's your last chance; browse the calendar and see what appeals. (I'll be there July 17-23 for the start of the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute.) Do come this summer; it's going to be tremendous! But I think the program will be tremendous when it becomes the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman, too. Change doesn't have to be scary. As Rabbi Jeff Roth, co-founder of Elat Chayyim, taught a few years ago during an erev Shabbat service:

Once there were a big wave and a little wave in the middle of the ocean. The big wave was crying, and the little wave asked why. "If you could see what I can see," the big wave said, "You'd know that ahead of us are rocks. We're going to crash on the rocks and die!" The little wave offered to teach the big wave something that would remove his fear, and first the big wave asked if it would cost anything, or if he would be required to chant a bunch of mantras and stand on his head, but the little wave said no and that in fact it was only six words. So the big wave said, "Sure, teach me." And the little wave said: you're not a wave, you're water.


Technorati tags: , , .

New poem

Tom Montag's blog The Middlewesterner is remarkable. He posts a poem each day, alongside vignettes from midwestern life that impress me with their realness and their acuity. He also posts poems every Saturday by poets other than himself, and I'm honored to now be counted among the folks whose work has made his Saturday Poem series.

This weekend Tom printed my poem "Into the Earth". It's part of my as-yet-unpublished book-length collection Manna; this is its first publication anywhere, a little world premiere! Feel free to click over and read it, and if you enjoy, drop a comment there or here. He's looking for "poems of place," so if you write those, let him know.

You can find my poems in a few other terrific blogs with regular poetry-posting schedules: heresluck reprinted "Sometimes Still Warm" in her Monday Poems series, and Hugo Schwyzer reprinted "Mother Psalm" as a Thursday Short Poem. (Both of those come from What Stays, my second chapbook, which you can purchase by dropping me an email. You're also more than welcome to pick up a copy of chaplainbook...nothing makes this poet happier than being read.)


Edited to add: Hugo has reprinted "Into the Earth" as a Thursday Short Poem, so it's appearing in two different (wonderful) places this week. Thanks, Hugo!

Technorati tags: , , .


This week I had the opportunity to engage in a new mitzvah: shmira, sitting with the body of someone who has died, keeping watch. In the traditional Jewish understanding the soul remains near the body until interment. In order for that soul not to feel abandoned, we arrange for people to sit with the body. I took the 2:30-5:30am shift last night.

On Wednesday I had gathered with six other members of the chevra kadisha to do taharah, the ritual cleansing, blessing, and dressing of the body. This was only my second time doing this work (I wrote a long essay about my first experience, just over a year ago) and it was both like and unlike the first. This time I knew the woman who had died, which made it harder in some ways; this time I had nine months of hospital work under my belt, which made it easier.

Shmira is another of the tasks carried out by the chevra kadisha. Traditionally the shomer or shomeret spends the time reading psalms. I did begin by reading psalms, quietly aloud, first psalm 23 in Hebrew and then others in English. I spent some time also studying tomorrow's Torah portion (I have taken on a slightly more ambitious reading than I usually do -- all of Leviticus 18 -- and I should be able to translate it as I go, which is gratifying.)

I am far from a night owl, as those who know me well can attest. The hours before dawn are not my finest ones. So I spent part of the night reading a novel (my friend Naomi Novik's second book, which is easily as marvelous as her first). Since the man who was shomer during the shift before mine told me that the widower had left word that he wouldn't mind if we napped, I imagine he won't mind that I read a little fiction during the wee hours to keep myself alert.

I talked a little bit to the woman whose soul I was accompanying. I thanked her again for her kindness to me during the years I've been a part of Congregation Beth Israel, and assured her that she is well-loved and will be missed, which I think she knew even as she made the decision to eschew heroic measures in the hospital on Monday. The atmosphere in the room was sweet and peaceful, though a little bit charged.

My replacement ran late, so I sat a while in meditation. My thoughts turned to the realization that someone, I don't know who, did this for my grandparents (of blessed memory.) I know that one of my cousins serves on the chevra at his synagogue in Dallas, which means he has done this, too. There's a deep comfort in knowing that so many others have done this, as I do it now, and that someday someone will do it for me. Not because it makes sense, but because it has meaning.

There's more I'd like to say about that, but words aren't coming as smoothly as they might. (I'll blame that on the sleep debt.) What matters is, this feels important to me, and I'm glad I did it.

I drove home at seven as the glorious light of early sun gilded the newly-greening trees and hills. The words of the morning blessing for gratitude rang even clearer than usual in the face of how I had spent my night. I am grateful to You, Eternal; you have returned my soul to me this morning; great is your faithfulness!

Technorati tags: , .

Holy time

Being on-call at the hospital is like Shabbat, in certain ways.

An on-call shift begins in late afternoon and continues through to the following day. Vayehi erev, vayehi boker: and there was evening, and there was morning. This isn't the way we mark time on our secular calendar, but it is the Jewish way of marking time.

An on-call shift, like Shabbat, is a break from ordinary life. (This is true for me in a way that it can't be for fulltime hospital chaplains.) On other days I have my daily routine, but being on-call changes the tenor of time. During on-call shifts my regular obligations and to-do lists recede: the only important task is spending time with people. On-call time moves at a different pace.

I spend most of my on-call shifts praying, either overtly (offering prayer aloud for, and with, patients and families) or internally (repeating the words of Moses' healing prayer, "el na, refa na la," as I walk the halls.) On ordinary days I don't pray without ceasing.

I spend most of my on-call shifts trying to connect with people in a deep way. Hospital chaplaincy is about engaging with the embodied theology of (in Anton Boisen's words) "the living human document," manifesting the listening ear of God for people who need to be heard. It is the I-Thou impulse spun into practice. Being on-call offers continual opportunities to study the lived Torah of human existence. This kind of study sanctifies.

Being on-call, like Shabbat, requires me to make a havdil, a separation, before I can return to the ordinary consciousness of my week.

Of course, being on-call is not Shabbosdik in several important ways. My on-call shifts don't come every seventh day. When on-call I do not rest; being on-call is work. I'm on-duty, I'm expending effort, I'm "on." (Then again, congregational rabbis might say the same about Shabbat.) When on-call I do not gather with other Jews to pray. I do not celebrate sanctified time with a communal meal. I rarely sing, I do not dance, I am not lifted by joy.

Well, the joy comes sometimes. When a security guard blesses me in the middle of the night, or a family member hugs me at the end of a visit, or I see something that moves me in a patient's eyes. And I sing to myself sometimes, snatches of prayers and chants. One night I sat late in the chapel playing liturgical melodies on the piano, unable to verbalize my prayer.

I have never been on-call on Shabbat. Perhaps if I were, the resemblance between chaplaincy and Shabbat would dwindle, and I would resent the patients and staff for taking me away from my regular retreat time. But because I do this on weeknights, some weeks it's like getting Shabbat twice. Two installations of extra-holy time.

Maybe on-call shifts feel to me like Shabbat because I've grown to love them, and because I'm always a little bit sorry to see them go.

(500 words)


Technorati tags: , , .

This week's post: reinterpreting what hurts

A while back, when Massachusetts first started offering same-sex marriage licenses (huzzah!), I posted (Re)Reading Leviticus, my explanation for how I can reconcile my queer-friendly politics with my love of Torah. This week, I'm exploring those same themes again.

This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, contains that tricky verse, Leviticus 18:22, which declares lying with a man as one lies with a woman to be to'evah. In this week's post at Radical Torah, I begin by asserting that the verse needs to be read in context:

There's a staggering difference between reading the verse as a pithy one-line aphorism (along the lines of the position parodies), and reading it embedded in the chapter where it belongs. The chapter is book-ended by exhortations to the Israelites to avoid imitating the other peoples around them. It begins, "What is done in the land of Egypt, wherein you were settled, you are not to do; what is done in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you are not to do; by their laws you are not to walk." (transl. Fox.) And the final six verses of the chapter state clearly (and repeatedly) that the Israelites are to avoid defiling themselves through these behaviors in which the nations on this land before them engaged...

I argue that the verse may mean something very specific (not what we think of as "queer" identity today), that it may be saying something about mindfulness and power dynamics, and that there are ways of reading it beyond the purely literal (indeed, the rabbinic tradition has a deep tradition of doing just that -- when was the last time you saw a disobedient son stoned to death?)

Read the whole thing here: Ways to redeem one problematic line.

Technorati tags: , , .

Preaching what we practice

I had coffee this morning with Bernice Lewis, fabulous singer-songwriter and longtime friend. We talked about this and that: the new album she recorded recently in Nashville, poetry publishing projects, retreats and immersion, how I've enjoyed my hospital chaplaincy work. Then we got to talking about yoga.

"It drives me crazy," she said, "when somebody tells me 'I tried a yoga class once, I didn't like it.' Tried a yoga class once?!" Bernice has been practicing yoga daily for more than thirty years. "What does that even mean? What kind of yoga class, you know? Who was teaching it? What level was it at? ...and anyway," she said, "yoga isn't something you like or hate; it just is. It's like saying you didn't dig...I dunno, the color yellow." You need to find the class that's right for you, she explained, at the right level and with the right atmosphere and led by someone who guides you through the experience so you can come out feeling good about it and about yourself. Deciding on the basis of a single class somewhere that the entire phenomenon isn't for you -- that approach misses out on so much great potential for transformation.

"I know what you mean," I said. "I feel that way about Judaism." When someone tells me they tried going to synagogue once and didn't like it -- what does that even mean? What kind of services: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Hasidic, Renewal? Who was the shaliach tzibbur (prayer-leader), and what was their style? Was it a teaching service, or did it presume preexisting immersion? "There's a progression to the liturgy," I said, warming to my subject. "You ramp up to this elevated place, and then there's all this great stuff, and you ramp back down," and Bernice shrugged and said she believed me but she'd never learned that in shul. "That's exactly it," I said. "It's like going to a yoga class without understanding the flow between the postures."

"If there's one thing I could get people to understand about yoga," Bernice said, "it would be this: it's not aerobics or even Pilates. Take on a daily practice, even if it's only ten minutes. It will change your whole day; it can change your life." I thought of Reb Zalman's seven-minute davven, and smiled.

Technorati tags: , , , .