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July 2006
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September 2006

Vacating the premises

Despite his stated qualms about the correlation between going on vacation and e-mail backlog, Ethan and I are going on holiday. We'll see old friends, enjoy the Maine coast, and savor some of what Bar Harbor/Acadia has to offer before returning home again.

(An admission: the photo above isn't from Maine. It's actually from Sicily last summer. What can I say -- my photostream is short on images of the coastline and the sea. Perhaps this trip will rectify that.)

Anyway: I'll be offline for six days. I wish you all an early Shabbat shalom, and a heartfelt chodesh tov / a good new-moon to you. Feel free to continue conversations in the threads of recent posts, and I'll catch up when I'm home again. See you on the flipside!

The lens of lovingkindness

Last week one of the members of my hevruta (paired study group, though actually we meet as a foursome) brought a beautiful text, a fitting prelude for the ramp-up to the month of Elul: a passage from Likkutei Moharan, the primary collection of teachings of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. I can't think of anything better to be reading as we enter the season of teshuvah, turning and re/turning to orient ourselves toward God. Seriously -- this text knocked my socks off, I'm barefoot over here. Check this out:

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

(Translation courtesy of Arthur Green.) This is a radical teaching. It's easy to judge generously people I know and love, people I recognize might be imperfect but whose goodness clearly outweighs their flaws in my mind and heart. It's a lot harder to apply that same generosity of spirit to someone I don't care for. There are political figures, for instance, whose priorities and decisions I find repugnant; is Reb Nachman really saying that I need to regard even those policy-makers through rose-colored glasses? And -- crazier still -- that when I change the way I view someone, using lenses of hesed (lovingkindness) instead of din (judgement), that person's inner character may change in response to my kindness, even if we never interact?

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This week's portion: potential and reality

This week's Torah portion, Shofetim, contains a stirring speech meant to be delivered by officials to young soldiers on the eve of battle. The speech singles out anyone who has built a house, but not dedicated it; planted a vineyard, but not harvested it; become betrothed, but not yet wed. Any man in these shoes, Torah says, should be sent home to fulfil his life's potential instead of going into battle to fight.

That speech sparked my d'var Torah this week at Radical Torah. Here's a little taste:

A vineyard planted but not harvested is a place of future fruitfulness. The vines have been chosen and cultivated, watered and weeded, and now they must be stewarded until they are ready to bear their grapes. And a grape-grower's responsibility doesn't end when his grapes are harvested; then comes the obligation to carry the fruit to market, to press the grapes into juice and guard it into wine, to elevate the wine in blessing... A man who has planted vines but not harvested them is poised in potential, and he deserves to enjoy the fruits of his labors (both literal and metaphorical).

Read the whole thing here: Turning potential into reality.

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Reb Z on teshuvah

As I may have mentioned, I'm taking a course called Reading Reb Zalman this summer, so I'm spending a fair amount of time working my way through much of the Shachter-Shalomi oeuvre.

Right now we're reading A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation: Teachings on the Modern Meaning of T'shuvah -- it's something of a companion piece to the Yom Kippur Katan book I reviewed a few weeks ago. This reading is definitely well-timed -- it's a timely way to prepare for the month of Elul and the process of teshuvah (contemplation and atonement) we're all about to embark on. What follows are a few teachings drawn from that text which particularly resonated for me.

(Incidentally, I recognize that this is the third post in as many weeks about Reb Zalman's work; my apologies to anyone who finds this tight focus repetitive. The blog tends to reflect what I'm reading and thinking about, and right now I'm reading an awful lot of Reb Zalman...)

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This week's portion: the God we know

In this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, Moses warns the Israelites against giving in to the temptation to worship "other gods whom you have not experienced" (elohim acherim asher lo-y'datam.) That phrase leapt out at me, and sparked this week's d'var Torah over at Radical Torah.

Here's a taste:

Our culture privileges direct experience; it makes sense that in this area of our lives, we feel a particular longing for something we can access in our hearts. We want God to be at the center of our practice. We want our practice of mitzvot to follow from a preexisting closeness to God, not the other way around. We want, as this week’s Torah portion suggests, to be in relationship with a God Who we already know.

Read the whole thing here:The God we know.

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Ghost in the Machine?

To my great pleasure, I've been invited to participate in a panel at next year's South by Southwest. The panel is called Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online, and is slated to feature James McNally (who came up with the idea in the first place), my friend Real Live Preacher, and other fine and fascinating folks who have smart things to say about religion in the blogosphere. (And, of course, me.)

Here's the panel description:

Sex, politics, and religion: the three things you're not supposed to talk about with people you don't know. And yet we find lots of all three on the web, although religion is arguably the least visible. How does the blurring of the boundary between public and private space online affect the way we talk about spirituality? How do online faith communities differ from traditional offline ones? All this and more...

SXSW is in Austin, which isn't far from my family in San Antonio. I know they'd be delighted if I had a good excuse to visit south Texas next March! But in order for that to happen, the panel has to make it through the balloting process. So if you're so inclined, please head over to the SXSW Interactive Panel Picker and cast a vote for our panel. You can find it in the "Community" section (also in "Miscellaneous.") Thanks, gang!

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A review worth reading

The Sept/Oct 2006 issue of Tikkun contains some terrific material, including a review of Reb Zalman's Jewish With Feeling, written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

The part that really got me was this:

I am obsessed with God and dabble in mitzvot when it suits me. And therein lies the danger of post-tribal Judaism. It can become a religion of dabblers.

This is where the Copernican revolution of Reb Zalman's theology is most clear. Just as Copernicus proved that the Earth circles the sun rather than the sun circling the earth, Reb Zalman's theology has Judaism circling God rather than God circling Judaism; instead of neo-tribalism or academic theology, he offers a heartfelt and heart-opening theology rooted in his personal encounters with God...

Because God is a verb, Reb Zalman's God isn't Jewish. She may put on tefillin, but then goes on to say Her rosary, spin Her prayer wheel, repeat Her mantrum, and recite Her ninety-nine names. And, if we are to play this out fully, may well spend a bit of eternity doubting Her own existence...

His point about the "danger" of post-tribal Judaism is somewhat more nuanced, read in context. (It follows some really interesting stuff about uniquely American Judaisms, a digression which includes the fabulous line "If Judaism were really about what Jews do, our dietary laws would revolve more around Chinese food than kashrut." Hee!) I think it's intriguing, anyway, and worth paying attention to on a lot of levels. If he's right that post-tribal Judaism runs the risk of opening the door to a kind of deep ecumenism that no longer places a premium on Jewish experience of God, what does that mean for us? How do, or should, we navigate that shift in a way that's at once true to our post-tribal values and true to our understanding of covenant?

And I think he's right that putting God at the center of our Judaism (rather than putting Torah or mitzvot -- the traditional paths to God -- at the center) can be a radical move. This is excellent stuff, so check the review out in the current issue of the magazine. (For the sake of comparison, my review of the book is here.)

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"Whoever puts on a tallis..."

First thing this morning I wrapped myself in tallit and tefillin and stepped outside onto the deck. The sky was bright and the sun was brighter, and the wildflower meadow sparkled with butterflies. As I made my way through shacharit, the rise and fall of cricketsong accompanied me.

I love being able to davven surrounded by the leaves of the trees that flutter in the wind like sign-language applause.

When I went to the post office, later in the day, I found that a colleague had sent me a Yehuda Amichai poem, called "Symbols," which resonated so strongly that I'm reprinting it here to share it with all of you. The lines about the finitude of squares are especially powerful, and I really like the way the poem's closing image turns something ordinary into something sanctified...



Whoever puts on a tallis when he was young he will never forget;
Taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
Spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold.) Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in hide-and-seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon
of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black-and-white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off.
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

-- Yehuda Amichai

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This week's portion: what we crave

This week's Torah portion, Ekev, contains some gorgeous and fabulous passages. Here we find the exhortation to offer blessing after we have eaten and been satisfied; we find a reminder of what God really wants from us; we find the lines we recognize from the second paragraph of the Shema. But rereading the parsha this week, I was struck by a verse reminding the Israelites not to melt down foreign idols, keep their precious metals, and thereby become ensnared in coveting.

That's what I chose to focus on in this week's d'var for Radical Torah:

It's almost a Buddhist teaching. When coveting enmeshes us, we can so easily become caught. And in a strange way, it feels good. It's a familiar groove to slip into, wanting what the dominant culture values. And wanting feeds more wanting, and before we know it our cravings have overgrown the longing for connection with God. One's heart can only long for so much at any given time, and when the heart is busy longing for what sparkles it is not longing for righteousness and for God.

Read the whole thing here: What we crave.

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(Re)Turning to God at moon-dark

"In every aspect of life we need to do periodic maintenance, a checkup," writes Reb Zalman. A monthly version of that checkup used to be part of regular Jewish practice, enacted through the liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan -- "Little Yom Kippur," an observance on the cusp of the new moon.

In an ideal world, we would begin each month keeping close tabs on our spiritual selves. But as the month wears on, there's some dulling of concern, some backsliding, and by the end of the month maybe we're making mistakes in our spiritual lives. The ritual of Yom Kippur Katan is meant to pull us back to right action again.

"There's a teaching that at the end of each period, day, week, month or year, we must do what we can to clear our system of evil imprints," he says. For instance, on Thursday evening -- the night before erev Shabbat -- you might stop to look back on the week soon ending. Remember what mistakes you made. Admit them, own them, and set an intention not to recommit them. (According to the traditional metaphor, the mistakes of the week are sealed at Shabbat, so this needs to be done before week's-end.) Make teshuvah: align yourself in the right direction again.

We do this kind of internal accounting once a year, at minimum: on Yom Kippur. But it doesn't have to be a once-a-year phenomenon. Some of it we can do daily, every evening, after saying the bedtime Shema. Some of it we can do weekly, on the eve of erev Shabbat. And some of it, at least according to tradition, we can do monthly. Reb Zalman offers some beautiful teaching on this theme in the booklet-and-cd Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of T'shuvah.

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The Shabbatot immediately before and after Tisha b'Av all have special names. Last week was Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision (or Prophecy); this coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu (the Shabbat of Consolation,) named after the first words in this week's Haftarah reading, "Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem."

Depending on your familiarity with Hebrew, those words may or may not resonate for you. But if you're a choral singer, odds are good that you -- like me -- recognize the English translation and immediately associate it with melody. "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God!" (If you don't know it, you can listen to a snippet, via RealPlayer, here.)

Years before I had much interest in Isaiah, or in which prophetic reading had been matched with which Torah portion, I joined the town-gown chorus in a performance of Handel's Messiah. I've since sung it many times; these last few years I've taken great pleasure in joining an impromptu pick-up chorus (and pick-up chamber orchestra, too) in running the first section of Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, for an audience of whoever feels like listening.

As a result, I can't read the opening words of this week's Haftarah without hearing the dulcet tones of some tenor or other crooning, "Comfort ye..." Something tells me I'll be spending this Shabbat humming classical music. (It should go without saying that although I really like this piece of Handel's -- I think it's his best work, and his most singable -- I don't share his interpretation of what these verses from Isaiah represent.)

The seven Haftarot between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah -- beginning this week, with Shabbat Nachamu -- are readings of consolation and comfort, meant to offer reassurance after the bleak tone of the Three Weeks leading up to 9 Av. (Thank God; I don't know about y'all, but after trying to face the sorrows of the world on Tisha b'Av I could really use a little comfort right about now.)

Rabbi Shefa Gold has asked the question, what does Shabbat Nachamu have to do with feeling comfortable? Her response: the deep place of comfort that God offers and we seek is comfort so deep that we can live with discomfort -- not live with other people's pain as if it needed no healing, but live with the discomfort we bring into our own lives if we seek to make healing happen. (Reb Arthur reports her teaching here.) As Shabbat Nachamu approaches, may we be blessed with that kind of deep comfort, and with the ability to take action that it engenders and bestows.

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This week's portion: finite language, infinite truth

This week's Torah portion, parashat Va-etchanan, begins with an injunction to the Israelites neither to add to, nor to subtract from, the Torah of God's commandments. It's a fascinatingly problematic passage, inasmuch as the book of D'varim is already a retelling that reframes some of what's come before (for instance, the aseret ha-dibrot, those famous ten utterances, reappear in this week's portion in a slightly different form from the last time we read them.) Besides, post-Biblical Jewish tradition is built on the foundation of augmenting the words of Torah with more words, and more words on top of those! So what can we make of this passage?

That's the question that fascinates me this week, so it became the basis for my d'var at Radical Torah.

Maybe the injunction against modifying God's commandments is a kind of koan. The text tells us not to augment or modify the word of God -- and yet it's arguable that in trying to concretize God's speech, we can't help changing the nature of that speech, if only into something we can fully express and understand....

Read the whole thing here: Finite language, infinite truth.

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Tisha b'Av roundup, and a story

Tisha b'Av is the one day of the year when most Torah study isn't permitted -- at least not in the traditional Jewish understanding. We can study Eicha or Eicha Rabbah, or Jeremiah or Job, but we're not supposed to delve into parts of Torah which might bring us joy, since joy is dissonant alongside the awareness of suffering that this day represents.

I often see blogs in terms of the lived Torah of human experience, the holy texts of our lives as they unfold. So is reading one's blog aggregator antithetical to Tisha b'Av? I'm in no position to decide that for anyone -- but should you be online today and browsing the blogosphere, and wishing for reading that explores the themes of Tisha b'Av, here are some links to blog posts I'm finding valuable today:

Elf at Apikorsus Online has a comprehensive roundup of Tisha b'Av-related posts from the last few years. She links to folks across the religious spectrum: here are posts from rabbis and laypeople who practice Judaisms ranging from Orthodox to Reform, exploring the day through a wide variety of lenses. It's especially useful, and interesting to me, that she breaks the roundup into sections: first "general" (a miscellany of excellent posts), "the contemporary problem" (how commemorating 9 Av is different in the modern world than it used to be), "liturgy" (how and why the traditional liturgy is fraught for many modern Jews), and "personal reflections."

At Radical Torah, Aryeh Cohen offers a view of Lebanon through the lens of Tisha b'Av, exploring the midrashic notion that God looks to us in order to learn how to mourn, and asking difficult questions about the ethics of what's happening in Lebanon these days.

And at Soferet, Avielah offers a transcript of a teaching by Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein entitled The transformative call of Tisha be-Av 5766. I was particularly struck by how R' Marmorstein links a teaching about the words רעה (ra'ah, wicked) and טוב (tov, good) in the Biblical story of the spies to the Baal Shem Tov's teachings about the need to love one's shadows. (If that's a little dense for you, Avielah's recent post Crush is more personal and perhaps more accessible.)

Speaking of personal and accessible, a story. Last night toward the end of the study session which followed our service, a congregant asked an unanswerable question about how we can respond to suffering. In response, I said something like this:

It's always my temptation, at times like these, to find a way to look on the bright side. I want to find a way to make things better, to turn from despair to hope, to argue that everything's going to be okay and that we can make the world a better place. But I don't think that's the right answer for tonight. On erev Tisha b'Av, we can't go there yet. Our obligation tonight is to witness the brokenness of the world. Maybe by late tomorrow we can begin moving toward a place of hope, but for now all we can do is sit with the awareness of what's broken.

As today wears on, may we find ourselves capable of sitting with the sorrow of Tisha b'Av without yielding to the temptation to put a band-aid over the suffering. Today we are all hospital chaplains, ministering to the world with presence and the willingness to face what hurts even when it hurts more than we think we can bear. And by tonight, may we find a way to move through this, and to rededicate ourselves to the work that awaits.

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The nadir of the year

I've never been comfortable with Tisha b'Av. When I was growing up, my family didn't observe it; I knew it only as a figure of speech, one that suggested an eventuality unlikely to come to pass (as in, "yeah, sure, that'll happen -- maybe after Tisha b'Av," a phrase we used year-round.)

In my adult life I've come to understand the holiday intellectually, but it still challenges me emotionally. I understand why the destruction of both the first and second temples was devastating, but I see that tragedy as the catalyst which allowed Rabbinic Judaism to arise and flourish -- a painful death, in its time, but one that gave rise to a new birthing of Jewish life and potential. After the temple fell, we learned to see ourselves as a theophoric people, bearing God with us wherever we roam. Today we sanctify not space, but time. I wouldn't return to the days of the temple; how then can I legitimately grieve its destruction?

That's been my line, the last several years. But one of the best things about being a rabbinic student is that I am often called to question where I stand and why, and to push the envelope of my comfort zone. Because my rabbi is on sabbatical at the moment, I'm responsible for leading Tisha b'Av services at my shul this week. It's time for me to stop equivocating, and to find a way to relate to this uncomfortable day, because I need to be able to lead my congregation into a meaningful observance.

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