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February 2007
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April 2007

Off to SXSW!

I'm off to South by Southwest today! Taking a page from Gordon's book, I'll tell you that I look like this, and I'd love to meet any of you who happen to be at the conference -- please come over and say hello.

Gordon's giving me a lift from San Antonio to Austin; he's a fellow panelist on the Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online panel (5pm on Saturday, room 9C), as is my friend Hussein. So are Kevin (who doesn't seem to blog about religion much) and the moderator James. If you're interested in religion online (and if you're reading this blog, odds are good that you are), I hope you'll join us.

Looking forward to seeing/meeting y'all this weekend. Shabbat shalom!

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Up the spiral

One of the good books I've read during these days in San Antonio is The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong's memoir about moving into, and then out of, and then in a different sense back into religious life.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun for five years, beginning in 1962 when she was seventeen. The Spiral Staircase begins with the profound culture shock of leaving the regimented religious life, and entering into the wild tumult of the 1960s. Armstrong weaves together the details of her academic and professional life with their underlying emotional and spiritual narrative of struggle, trauma, and reintegration. And then, in the latter third of the book, we follow her into a new life of writing about the three major monotheistic religious traditions, and a new understanding of what transcendence, practice, and faith might mean.

The T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday serves as an organizing principle for the book. The first section appears after the preface; each chapter is titled with a phrase from the poem, and as the book unfolds, the poem's significance to Armstrong becomes increasingly clear. This is a gorgeous poem which I hadn't read closely in years. It's really worth re-reading. (Go read it now, if you want; I'll wait.)

Continue reading "Up the spiral" »

From sunny San Antonio

The review of God In Your Body that I posted yesterday was written on a plane; in advance of South by Southwest this coming weekend, I'm spending the week in San Antonio visiting my family. As a result, blogging is likely to be light. Instead of spending my days steeping in Torah and rabbinic texts, and dipping regularly into the braided river of my blog aggregator to keep tabs on blogosphere conversations, I'm immersing in family time and in my old hometown.

I'm writing a lot while I'm here, as I always do. I jot notes about the fat mourning doves on the telephone wire, and the early mountain laurel blooms (as sugar-sweet as hyacinth or lilac, and as pale purple, too), and the taste and feel of good homemade corn tortillas with fire-roasted salsa. What it's like to see girls at Starbucks in the afternoon wearing my alma mater's uniform -- how young they look, and how my body still remembers those crisp folds and the squeak of new saddle shoes.

I write about what it's like to see one of my nephews turn sixteen, to walk with my mother along the winding streets of our old neighborhood toward the skeet shooting range, to hear my father's stories about the drive-in that used to abut the Liberty Bar. Every night before bed I type notes and remembrances, details I don't want to lose when I return to Massachusetts again. I try to describe for myself what it feels like to visit the place where I grew up.

But none of this is the stuff of my usual blogging life. And my evening journallings aren't designed for public consumption, anyway; they're more like mnemonic devices, meant to jog my memory later when I want to re-inhabit these days. So I thank y'all in advance for graciously forgiving my relative absence from the blogosphere. If you're going to be at South by Southwest, do drop me a line; I always love putting faces with blog URLs and email addresses! And otherwise, I hope your week is as rich and interesting as mine is proving to be.

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God in Your Body (and mine, too)

I've been meaning to post a review of Jay Michaelson's new book God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice. Short version: this book is smart and thoughtful. It's clear enough, and explains enough, that it doesn't have prerequisites; this could be a satisfying read even if mindfulness, spiritual practice, and Judaism aren't yet familiar subjects. It's also deep enough to hold the interest of people who've been immersing in this stuff for a long time.

I knew I liked Jay's work. I've been a reader of, and subscriber to, Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture -- which he founded; he serves still as chief editor -- for some years. (Full disclosure: a few months ago I joined the editorial board at Zeek, and am blessed now to call Jay a colleague. More full disclosure: Jay published my poem "Asher Yatzar" in the print edition of Zeek a while back, and reprints it in full in an early chapter of God in Your Body. I have to kvell a little -- that's exciting.)

Several of his essays in the online edition of Zeek knock my socks off (Kashrut and Nonduality; How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in My Heart; and most recently, Keep Your Godwrestling: the Uses and Limits of Theology); ditto some of the work he's published at his website, like The Gate of Sadness and Eat Your Way to Enlightenment (which also appears as part of chapter one of the book -- read an excerpt here.) So I went into this book prepared to love it. It did not disappoint.

Continue reading "God in Your Body (and mine, too)" »

Rabbi David Ingber at Zeek

I'm blessed to consider Rabbi David Ingber both a teacher and a friend. I've spent the last two Yom Kippurim on retreats he co-led (here's my post about the 2005 retreat; here are posts about Shabbat Shuvah 2006 and Yom Kippur 2006.) And we cross paths fairly often at Elat Chayyim and Ohalah.

So it was a treat for me when I got to interview him for the ongoing interview series I'm doing at Zeek magazine. We had a fabulous conversation, which I've done my best to condense into a couple thousand words. Here are a very few of them:

"Our generation has a hard time with authority. In some ways it’s a healthy response to religious authoritarianism, but now we find ourselves in a postmodern age where autonomy is the highest value, and we're struggling to articulate what could possibly be the nature of an obligation. What could possibly ground a Jewish life?

"For me it's about having a spiritual practice. To know, 'I've given myself over to this discipline, and I have as my goal the opening of my heart. I trust that my heart will open more, the more I give myself to the practice...'"

Read the whole thing here in the new online issue of Zeek magazine: David Ingber: Shaping an Integral Judaism.

(And while you're there, don't miss Tucker Lieberman's piece Hearing Beneath the Surface: Crossing Gender Boundaries at the Ari Mikveh, and Richard Chess' poem Variations on a theme by Wiesel.)

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Ivrit & francais

On a recent trip to a bookstore in Brookline, I picked up a tiny present for myself: a mini-siddur (travel-sized, for easy davenen on the road!) which is different from any of the other siddurim I own: it's printed in Hebrew and in French. (It's a mini version of this livre de prières.) I was fluent in French fifteen years ago, but I'm awfully rusty now; I figured it would be fun to daven from time to time with a siddur where the vernacular translation was in another tongue, and it might even improve my French.

When I first picked it up I was tickled to see familiar language in, well, unfamiliar language! Béni soit à jamais le nom de son règne glorieux, for instance, for "Blessed be His glorious name, forever and ever" (or, in Reb Zalman's rendition, "Through time and space Your glory shines, Majestic One.") Or Louez l'Éternel. Il est seul digne de louanges in lieu of "Blessed is Adonai, the blessed One."

I've used it a few times, and I've discovered a couple of things. One is that I don't actually need the vernacular side of the page. I often daven some in English when I'm using Kol Haneshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur (currently my favorite), because some of the English text is just so good! (And I love that there's a Mary Oliver poem as a footnote on the page with Yishtabach, at the end of the preliminary service of songs and psalms -- I read it every morning.) But given a siddur where the vernacular doesn't draw me, I can stick to the Hebrew pretty comfortably. That's a nice feeling.

Another is that I have different liturgical needs in English than I do in French. It's clear that this translation is a much stiffer, more gendered version than I'm used to using...but because it's in a language not my own, I don't object to the stilted language, the lack of poetry, or the relentlessly masculine references to a Holy Blessed One I know to be beyond gender. It's not in English, so I don't feel I have to "believe" this exact version of the words in front of me.

This shouldn't feel like a revelation. I often use Hebrew text that isn't gender-neutral, that draws on metaphors for God which aren't necessarily satisfying to me or sufficient for me in English. Then again, when I daven in Hebrew I'm looking for poetry and rhythm, and for connection with the old words we've been saying for centuries. In the vernacular, I'm looking for something slightly different.

Really the oddest thing for me about this prayerbook is all the stuff about the akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, in the early part of the service -- which I'm aware is in Artscroll, but has never been a part of my morning worship. And I'm finding that sometimes when I glance from ivrit to francais, and then reach mentally for a word, I find it in the language I wasn't looking for. But otherwise, using a Hebrew-French siddur doesn't really change my experience much. Go figure.

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Geek alert - sefer barrier stuff

One of the classes I'm taking this spring is called Breaking the Sefer Barrier. "Sefer" means "book;" this is a course designed to help students achieve facility with rabbinic texts. This isn't a course in reading and understanding Hebrew; it's presumed that everyone in the class already has at least some proficiency there. No -- we're focusing on decoding rabbinic Hebrew, which means in large part learning to handle references and acronyms.

(Geek alert: this may only interest about three of my readers, including Talmida...)

Every time I run into a cluster of letters I don't immediately recognize, I need to decide whether it's simply a vocabulary word I don't yet know, or whether it's a number (remember, Hebrew numbers and letters are designated by the same characters,) or whether it's a reference.

The references are the tricky ones. Book titles are usually abbreviated. (CW"S, for instance, might mean Complete Works of Shakespeare -- or Chicago White Sox. Context is everything.) So are phrases. (Think of how a fluent English-speaker knows that FYI stands for "for your information," and that R.S.V.P. expands in French to réspondez, s'il-vous plâit.) So are names. (The acronym RaMBaM expands to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides. For an English-language comparison -- well, when the seventh Harry Potter book comes out, we'll know who R.A.B. is, won't we?) To make things even more interesting, Hebrew abbreviations often use not just first initials, but the first and last letters of a word or phrase.

Daunted yet? To the novice reader, this is tremendously challenging. Every inch of text needs unpacking, and the work of puzzling over it until one can expand it fully is a little bit exhausting. But when I can approach it in the right frame of mind, the treasure-hunt quality is kind

(There's a terrific post about this very subject over at English Hebraica: Something about Hebrew abbreviations, abbreviature, rashei tevot. The coolest part of the post, to my mind, is the reprint of the 1736 text aimed at explaining this stuff to an English audience.)

My shiny new copy of Otzar Roshei Teivot, a glossary of common abbreviations and the titles, references, and phrases to which they expand, arrived in the mail last week. When I showed it off to Ethan, he seemed bemused by our continuing use of antiquated technology. This seems, he noted, like the perfect use for hypertext. Imagine if these texts were all digitized, and each acronym could be expanded to its full meaning with a simple click!

Is anyone out there doing such a thing? I have to admit, part of me yearns for it; and another part of me suspects there's a certain fun to doing it the old way. Or there will be, once I get my skills up to speed...

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Rilke, questions, heart

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

-- from the letters of Ranier Maria Rilke

I'd been thinking about Rilke recently (I love the last line of Archaic torso of Apollo) so it seemed serendipitious when I came across this beautiful quotation from his letters in my aggregator this morning (via this post from Maggi Dawn.)

Patience with everything unresolved in my heart? Don't search for answers? Uh-oh. I've spent much of this year, so far, searching for answers to medical questions, so Rilke's admonition draws me up short. I may be comfortable with religious mystery, but when it comes to my own body, I can't seem to help wanting certainty. (Hence the visit to MGH earlier this week, and the planned return late this month.)

Of course, Rilke's talking about what's unresolved in one's emotional or spiritual heart; he might offer different advice about looking into one's actual organs. Knowing now that my physical heart is sound, I still have to deal with what's unresolved emotionally and spiritually. I still find it challenging to "love the questions themselves." And that's where this quotation moves me most: Rilke's exhortation to "live everything. Live the questions now."

It's easy, when life centers around questions (as it usually does) to become fixated on answers. To focus on the wished-for (or feared) destination, rather than experiencing the journey while it's happening. I can tie myself in knots worrying about what-ifs and if-thens. It's easy to write a different script for each possibility, and lose oneself in the implications of each -- but Rilke urges us toward a different kind of practice. Toward living in the mystery, and finding a way to embrace that mystery, instead of wanting to flip to the back of life's book.

So thanks for the reminder, Ranier Maria. I needed that.

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