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March 2007
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May 2007

PSA: RHR is coming to town

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, will be in Williamstown tomorrow, May 1st. He'll be speaking about Jewish Values, Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College. His talk, at 8pm, is free and open to the public; it's preceded by a 7pm reception/fundraiser with a suggested donation price of $100.

I imagine most of you reading this know RHR already, but in case you don't, their About Us page says:

Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) is an organization of Israeli rabbis committed to defending the human rights of all people in Israel and in the territories under Israeli control: Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, young and old, rich and poor, citizens and foreigners...

RHR-North America is a rabbinic organization dedicated to education, advocacy, prayer, and action in support of human rights.  Our initial focus has been on supporting the work of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.  New initiatives are now underway focusing on human rights in the United States as well.

(As far as those "new initiatives" in the United States go, I'm especially moved by RHR-NA's campaign to stop torture. This should be such a no-brainer; why aren't we all up in arms about it already?) My rabbi tells me, further, that RHR is the only organization of rabbis in Israel that includes Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis.  RHR "lobbies for economic justice, creates educational materials, provides support for Palestinian families facing home demolitions, and protects Palestinian farmers' access to their farm land."

There's a bio of Rabbi Ascherman at the RHR site here. His previous work has included setting up homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and serving as a rabbi for both college communities and kibbutzim; he's been the executive director of RHR since 1998. In 2004 he stood trial in Israel with two other defendants for blocking bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes. (Susannah Heschel wrote an article about that, which you can read here. Also of interest, on a related note: this open letter from a multitude of rabbis on the subject, and Rabbi Ascherman's court testimony from the trial.)

I'm planning to go hear him speak. If you live nearby, you should, too. (And if not, stay tuned; hopefully I'll be able to blog some portion of his remarks...)

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Through a stereoscope, darkly

As a kid, I had what we called a lazy eye: one eye wandered, without volition. Eventually a pair of surgeries were required to correct it. As a result, I spent a lot of time at opthamologists' offices with an opaque plastic circle over first one eye, then the other, trying to explain and understand what I saw. My eyes offer different pictures of the world even now -- color tones vary slightly from one eye to the next. (When I'm using both eyes in concert, the dominant eye chooses the color palette.)

That turns out to be a good metaphor for how I'm relating to the ongoing investigation of my health. Through one eye, I see a reality in which the strokes suggest something sinister, and merit continuing exploration with every tool at our disposal. Through the other eye, I see a reality in which the strokes arose out of a combination of hormones, hypertension, and medication, which means they were a one-time thing (okay, a three-time thing), and now that we've addressed those factors they suggest no reason for continuing concern.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it's difficult to reconcile those two views of the world. It's like looking through a stereoscope at two pictures that don't actually match. Trying to focus my eyes on both at once gives me a metaphorical headache. Among other things, this has a fascinating effect on my prayer life. Sometimes it's difficult for me to pray with kavanah because I'm not sure where I'm praying from. (Maybe that's why I resonated so strongly with the Hasidic teachings about equanimity that I blogged about a few months ago.)

We'll be visiting a new specialist in a few weeks, but as the days of the Omer stack up I'm beginning to grapple with the likelihood that these strokes may always be cryptogenic. That answers simply may not exist to be found. In theory I came to terms with that kind of uncertainty last year while working as a hospital chaplain. But learning it internally, applied to my own body and my own life, proves to be its own challenge.

Counting the Omer takes on particular poignancy this year because my appointment with the new specialist falls on the 7th of Sivan. (Following Reform practice I don't observe a second day of Shavuot, but the timing still strikes me.) As we commemorate the ongoing revelation of Torah at Sinai, I'll be hoping for a different kind of revelation -- even as I remind myself that I can't guarantee the revelation that I seek. And neither could our ancestors; who knows what the Israelites thought they were going to get from the Holy Blessed One at Sinai? My task is to be open to revelation in whatever form it takes.

And isn't that always true? On some level we want concrete answers and instructions, simple ones we can understand. Real revelation is messier than that. That's something I value about our holy texts -- that they speak in a variety of voices, that they offer new insights when seen through different lenses. I need to learn to see my body in the same way, to become at least a little bit more comfortable with mystery.

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Ekphrastic poetry reading

I blogged  a few months ago about an ekphrastic poetry project called The Moon is Broken, a collaboration between Inkberry and the Williams College Museum of Art. Ten poets were asked to curate "image-poems" out of the museum's collection of black-and-white photography; each of us then wrote a poem in response to, or in dialogue with, those images. The poems and the images hang together now in the round gallery. It's a terrific exhibit, and one I'm proud to be involved with.

This Sunday, nine of the ten poets involved will gather at the museum to read our work. The reading is at 2pm, in the gallery where the exhibition is hung. Each of us will read the poem s/he wrote for the exhibit, plus one or two short poems if there's time (we've been allotted five minutes apiece, tops.)

My contribution is a poem in five short sections (each relating loosely to one of the photos I chose) which arose in equal parts out of the photographs and out of my late-December hospital stay. If there's time, I may also read something from chaplainbook. (One of the poems from that collection can be read here, and another was published at qarrtsiluni here.)

If this sounds like fun to you, please join us! Driving directions can be found online here, and I would happily nip out for coffee or a drink or a nosh after the event if anyone's around.

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The people in my neighborhood

Conventional wisdom holds that the blogosphere is chockablock with controversy, hasty soundbytes, ill-formed opinion, and snark -- and that may be true enough, as a generalization -- but it's not at all the case in the part of the blogosphere (or the overlapping Venn diagram of several blogospheres) where Velveteen Rabbi is located. Case in point: my friend Peter has tagged me as a thinking blogger. I'm honored to be on his list of five thoughtful and thought-provoking blogs, and delighted to be spurred toward sharing five thinking bloggers' urls with y'all.

I took this as an opportunity to point to some of the blogs I enjoy most which aren't about religion, for a change. Of course, some of the blogs I thought to tag, like qarrtsiluni -- the epitome of a thinking person's blog! -- didn't make the cut, because there's no singular blogger behind the magazine to respond to the tagging. (So instead, I'm just mentioning it here, on general principle.) With no further ado, five thinking bloggers whose work I deeply enjoy:

  • modal minority. Teju writes smart, erudite, thoughtful posts. Sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction. Sometimes photo-essays. Sometimes about world events. Often about the landscape of his head and heart. Recent standouts include in a loaning and mwashah.

  • via negativa. Dave writes with wit, humor, and clear vision about the world around him, particularly his home of Plummer's Hollow. His photographs and essays bring his world to light. He also curates "smorgasblog," a running sidebar which quotes from blog posts which have struck him recently -- like this meme, in microcosm, every day. Here's a list of his favorite posts from last year.

  • mole. There's a deep love of poetry here, and of humanity with all of our oddities and idiosyncracies. Dale's scenes from massage school and his musings about Buddhism especially resonate for me. I've never been able to figure out how to link directly to his posts, so just go to his blog and read the last few, whatever they are at the moment when you see these words.

  • The Middlewesterner. Tom's a writer's writer, a poet and storyteller. For a while he posted daily verses; these days we're reading a series called "From Morning Drive Journal" -- here's a recent favorite -- which excerpts journal entries from 2001. He interviews folks and tells stories. There's no other blog in the world quite like this one.

  • Feathers of Hope. Pica and Numenius describe themselves as a magpie and a geographer, respectively; this blog, which they share, moves comfortably from baseball to gardening to the details of the animal and vegetable worlds. Words and sketches. Good stuff. Here's a recent highlight: Sketching our way through Colorado.

If you've been tagged, consider yourself invited to spread the meme; choose five thinking bloggers you'd like to recognize, and link back to the original post which served as this meme's genesis. Meanwhile, enjoy the links, all! It's a pleasure to be in such a thoughtful corner of the blogosphere. These are the people in my neighborhood; won't you be my neighbor?

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Poetry and tikkun olam

The Elizabeth Freeman Center provides support, in a variety of forms, to victims of domestic violence in our county. The center is named for Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman, the enslaved African American who successfully sued her owner, one Colonel Ashley, for her freedom -- thereby setting the stage for the abolition of slavery here in Massachusetts two years thereafter. I first learned about the center back when I was editing The Women's Times. I've admired their work ever since.

This spring they're partnering with Inkberry, the literary arts center I co-founded, to offer a poetry workshop for survivors of domestic abuse. The workshop is called "Standing Tall," and I am the instructor. The first session was today.

We talked about writing in general, and poetry in particular; about writing as a tool for healing; about writing for oneself, to express what needs to be said, versus writing for an audience; about different kinds of poetry, and why one might choose either form or free verse. We talked about what the practice of writing poetry might specifically offer to them, and about creating a safe space in which to share our words with one another. We talked about what poetry is, and why it matters.

Throughout, I was awed by the strength and courage of the women around the table. Emily and Sandy and I founded Inkberry out of a belief that writing can be transformational; that the hunger for self-expression spans every imaginable social and economic divide; that when we strengthen the connections between writing and life, and help others to find their own unique voices, our own lives are enriched. Today's workshop reminded me of all of those things.

This workshop is an incredible chance for me to braid together two vital strands of the work I love -- spreading a love of poetry and empowering others to take up their pens, and pastoral care for those in need. It's an honor for me, and a good reminder that social justice work comes in a variety of forms. As the old protest song has it, we need not only bread, but also roses, too.

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Walking Makes the Talk

I knew joining Jewish Seminarians for Justice was a good idea. Already, the simple act of telling colleagues that the group exists and that I'm a part of it is putting me in touch with some amazing stuff. Like this project, spearheaded by Rabbi Karyn Berger, which seeks to spark conversation and transformatoin among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim seminarians:

Walking Makes the Talk is aimed toward Christian, Jewish and Islamic seminary students (or recent graduates). The project aims to send 30 students to Poland and Bosnia to visit Holocaust sites in an attempt to engage in interfaith dialogue about genocide, racial/religious hatred, and the dangers of inter-sectarian hate.  (We will also learn about the Armenian genocide in Turkey -- but because discussing the genocide is illegal in Turkey, we cannot visit Turkish sites as an official group.)

Physically experiencing the realities of genocide -- going to the place where a genocide occurred, talking to survivors or to those who navigate the aftermath -- can open new vistas of understanding between people. Participants will engage in a curriculum not only of discussion and text study, but also one which incorporates art, poetry, and music as means toward learning. Upon returning home, each participant will be required to commit to one public service project, in his or her own faith community, which will involve connection with another faith community.

Sounds powerful, and potentially transformative not only for the participants but for their communities as well. "If we want to prevent genocide, the way to do it is not after-the-fact, not once it's already in-progress," Berger says. "Ultimately, the way to prevent genocide is to learn to appreciate and love our differences. We need to change the way we understand each other."

Common experience creates a well-laid foundation for dialogue. Walking Makes the Talk offers the possibility of communication and understanding among up-and-coming leaders of various faiths... The program is designed to help us move our communities from discussion to action. It will help create a group of men and women who are committed to social change and aware of our interconnections, who recognize the power of individual and communal action to ensure the well-being of all people, regardless of sexuality, ethnicity, or religion.

Ready to apply for one of those thirty positions? Not so fast -- right now the project is just getting on its feet. In fact, it could use your help in getting underway. Reb Karyn is looking for people who want to be involved in any way -- spreading the word (psst -- feel free to share this blog post far and wide), fundraising or grant applications, organizational work, community outreach, marketing and PR, and so on. Once the program is ready to accept applicants for the overseas program, she'll be looking for people to help screen applicants. There's interest in making a documentary film about the project as it unfolds, so if you're interested in film-making you can lend a hand there. Basically, it sounds like any and all assistance is welcome.

I should note, too, that while the overseas program is designed especially for seminarians and theology students, the project which supports the overseas program is open to anyone. No matter where you are in the world, or what kind of work you do, if this project excites you, let Reb Karyn know -- she'd love to have you on board. She's reachable at her firstnamelastname at

She says: "Dream big; the door is open; we can create the future we want to see!" Kein yehi ratzon..

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First round of JIB voting

The first round of voting in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards has begun! This blog has been nominated for a "Best In Class" award, in the category "Best Jewish Religious Blog." The voting process is strangely complicated, but here are the instructions:

You may vote 1 time in each award type and sub-group during this round. Go to the voting page, select the award and the sub-group you wish to vote for. Voting will be open for 1 week, through Sunday April 29.

There are four groups of nominees for "Best Jewish Religious Blog" (groups A, B, C, and D). Velveteen Rabbi is in group B. So when you go to the voting page, and when you select "best in class" and then "Best Jewish Religious Blog," if you would like to vote for this blog, choose group B. (And if you would like to cast a vote for one of the other religious blogs nominated, obviously, be my guest!)

I've suggested that next year the committee should consider changing the rules so that no one can nominate her or his own blog. I think the whole process would be both more exciting and more constructive if we were obligated to recognize one another's wonderful qualities, instead of succumbing to the temptation to pat ourselves on the back. If you agree, let the committee know. :-)

Meanwhile, though, that's next year; this year, it's time to celebrate the broad and fascinating range of posts and blogs that have cumulatively been nominated, and to vote in the categories that matter to each of us. If you have time, I recommend reading the lists of best all-around nominees, best in class nominees, best post nominees, and specialty awards nominees to get a sense for just how broad and diverse the J-blogosphere can be. Mazal tov to all of the nominees!

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Abrahamic baby blessings

How many baptisms feature blessings and prayers offered by Jews and Muslims alongside the words of a Christian pastor, godparents, and community? This morning, the twin sons of my friend Thurman  -- who was the initial instigator of the Progressive Faith Blog Con, and who co-midwifed the first con into being with me last summer -- got an extra-special welcome into their community, the broader community of faith, and the world.

The baptism was at the Church of Our Saviour, a pretty little Episcopal church in Secaucus, New Jersey. The vicar, Reverend Mark Lewis, led a lovely service -- with a somewhat unusual twist. After the boys were formally named and baptized (on contact with the water, they laughed in apparent delight), I was called to the baptismal font at the back of the church where everyone was crowded around, and I offered this prayer:

Our God and God of our ancestors! Sustain these children through their parents' loving care. May their parents rejoice in their growth of body and soul. May their parents have the privilege of raising them, educating them, and encouraging them to attain hearts of wisdom. And let us say, Amen.

As you are wrapped in the arms of those who love you, so may your lives be wrapped in justice and righteousness. As we embrace you today, so may you embrace your tradition. As you startle to the world around you, so may you remain ever open to the whole world you encounter. As you cry for food and comfort now, so may you one day cry out to correct the world's injustices. As your eyes fill with wonder now, so may you always be filled with wonder at life's everyday miracles.

I closed with the priestly blessing, in Hebrew and in English. Then I stepped back into the throng, and Hussein stepped forward. He whispered the adhan (call to prayer) and sura fatiha (first sura of the Qur'an) into their ears, quietly, and then offered an extemporaneous prayer for the boys, their parents, and their community.

At the time of the blog con, Thurman was anticipating parenthood. (I remember offering a prayer for his wife's safety, and for the twins', at some point during the con.) By the end of the weekend, after we had learned and talked and prayed together, he asked whether Hussein and I would consider playing a part in his boys' naming/welcoming ceremony many months hence. Today that request bore fruit.

Afterwards, nearly everyone present came up to us to thank us for being there, to talk with us about our respective religions (Hussein and I laughed that we had each inadvertently been promoted -- people kept calling him Imam, which he is not, and calling me Rabbi, which I am not yet!) and to express how moving they had found our contributions to the ceremony. I found it moving, too. It was wonderful to witness the welcoming of Thurman's boys into their home church -- and to be able to play a part in welcoming them into a broader religious world.

Connecting with blog-friends in person is always a pleasure, and today's connection was especially sweet. It's not every day I get to walk this kind of ecumenical talk. I believe that our lives are enriched when we can encounter each others' religious practices respectfully, with awareness both of our differences and of our common ground. Today gave me an opportunity to live out that practice, and it was sweet indeed.

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Panim photos and conversations

My fellow retreatant Adam Stein has posted photos from the Panim rabbinic student retreat on his website: Panim davening, Panim talent show (although, alas, no photos of Rhonda and me singing our filk about Jewish Renewal to the tune of "The Boxer"!), Panim havdalah, and Panim sessions. (The photo at the top of this post is one of Adam's; he graciously sent me a few of these for my own flickr stream.) Of course, the photos offer only an incomplete picture of the experience, but they're beautiful, so if you're interested, check them out.

Speaking of that retreat, there's been some really fascinating conversation about different modes of prayer, gender, and liberal and Orthodox Judaism in the comments thread of my Prayer at Panim post. The conversation is still going, so if you'd like to join in, please do. (Within the usual bounds of respect, please. Remember that I consider the comments space here to be like a friendly gathering in my living room, and choose your words and tone accordingly. Thank you kindly.)

As we approach Shabbat this week, some part of me is wondering: what are my fellow retreatants doing now? How is each of them preparing for the coming of the Sabbath bride? Every time I go on retreat at Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman, I come away more connected with more people across the broad spectrum of our community, which is pretty neat. Well, anyway: an early Shabbat shalom to all!

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Tiferet squared

During the journey of Counting of the Omer, we're given the opportunity to embody and uplift particular divine qualities. In the Kabbalistic understanding, each of the seven weeks of the Omer relates to a particular sefirah, and the seven sefirot also map to the seven days of each week. The first week of the Omer relates to chesed, love; the second, to gevurah, boundary. The third week is steeped in tiferet, which integrates the previous two. (Here's a teaching from Jay Michaelson on chesed, gevurah, and tiferet.) Today is the day of tiferet in the week of tiferet. Compassion squared.

I learned from my teacher Reb Yakov (who teaches, maybe not coincidentally, at the Tiferet Institute!) that we can see these qualities unfolding in Torah's account of creation. On the first day there is light, an emanation of chesed, love. On the second day, the waters are drawn apart -- that's gevurah, strength and boundary. On the third day the waters are drawn back so that land can emerge, and greenery begins to sprout on the revealed land. That integration of the previous two qualities is tiferet, compassion. Compassion requires both the love of chesed flowing outward, and the strictness of gevurah reining in that flow. It's not either/or, but both/and.

True compassion is limitless. It is not an extension of your needs and defined by your limited perspective. Compassion for another is achieved by having a selfless attitude, rising above yourself and placing yourself in the other person's situation and experience.

Am I prepared and able to do that? If not, why? ...Does my compassion come from a sense of duty or is it frivolous? On the other hand: Is my compassion alive; does it resound with vitality, or is it expressed only out of obligation?

So writes Rabbi Simon Jacobson in A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer. I already had compassion on my mind this morning, so when I read Survivors (an essay in four parts) on one of my favorite hospital chaplaincy blogs, I was struck by the synchronicity. Susan writes with deep compassion about the recent Virginia Tech shootings, the death penalty, and how we might respond when tragedy strikes close to home. I offer this piece to you as a taste of tiferet, appropriate reading for today.

Today is tiferet within tiferet, a distillation of compassion. May we all be blessed with the ability to express our most compassionate selves today, and to enact God's compassion in the world, on this seventeenth day of the Omer.

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This week's portion: health, and connection

This week we're reading Parashat Tazria-Metzorah, which focuses on the states of taharah and tumah (usually rendered "purity" and "impurity" in English, though longtime readers of this blog know I prefer using the Hebrew terms, in part because the English words offer connotations I don't think are necessarily correct.)

The portion speaks of how being in a state of tumah, specifically due to childbirth or illness, prevents one from approaching the presence of God. In my d'var at Radical Torah, I explore a way of reading this idea descriptively rather than prescriptively. I muse about my own experiences. And -- with last weekend's social justice-themed retreat still reverberating in my consciousness -- I explore this portion's teachings about those in need:

On a broader level, looking beyond the confines of my own skin, this portion drives me to consider an interpersonal question: how do we treat those in our community who are ill? Especially those with conditions which distress us, which remind us visibly and viscerally of our own fragility? I know from my own experience that being ill can distance me from others and from my sense of connection with God. Do I create that feeling of helpless distance for others, by turning away from those who are sick and in need?

Read the whole thing here: Health -- and connection with God. (By the way, a note to those who asked last week: I'm told the new site design is temporary, and that some of the old site's features -- yes, including bylines again! -- will be returning soon.)

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Prayer at Panim

Probably the most remarkable part of the Panim rabbinic student retreat, for me, was the davenen (a.k.a. tefilah -- loosely, if inadequately, translatable as "prayer.")

A tefilah committee, comprised of one student from each of the participating seminaries, met several times over the phone before the retreat to determine how we would pray together. They tackled major issues, including the length and style of our Torah readings and whether we would have any kind of mechitza. (Short answer: no, although the reality was...complicated.) Each service was led by two or more students, each from a different seminary.

It's hard for me to describe our davenen, in part because it drew on so many different styles of prayer and leadership. We davened mostly in Hebrew, though there was also some English; we davened mostly in song (chant, nusach, niggun, and individual melodies) though there was also some spoken-word. We davened using a range of siddurim, and a range of styles (ranging from the relatively decorous service on Friday morning, which featured a responsive reading or two, to the chaotic wall-of-sound on Sunday morning in which we were instructed to create a sonic tapestry while moving through the psalms, blessings, and songs of psukei d'zimrah at our own pace.)

For me, most of the davenen felt familiar. Almost every service featured at least one choice which wasn't my usual custom in some way, but I'm a pretty flexible pray-er, especially within the context of the broad umbrella of liberal Judaism. (More on that in a moment.) There was a lot of singing and chant, we sang a bunch of niggunim which were familiar to me, and all in all this wasn't entirely dissimilar from the kinds of prayer we do at DLTI. Over the course of the weekend, though, even I was called-upon to stretch and to experience kinds of Jewish prayer which were new to me.

Continue reading "Prayer at Panim" »

JIB nominations are open

Hear ye, hear ye -- the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards are accepting nominations until Thursday.

There's been a lot of talk in my corner of the J-blogosphere about why the JIBs have historically skewed to the right. I figure the best way to make the awards more representative of the full Jewish blogosphere is for more progressive bloggers and blog-readers to nominate the blogs that we care about.

On a related note, Richard at Tikun Olam has written about the awards and about the signs that this year's contest may be less ideologically monochrome than in the past. (Among other things, there's now a matched set of categories for political blogs -- "Best Jewish Left-Wing Political Blog" and "Best Jewish Right-Wing Political Blog" -- as well as a category for "Best Jewish Anti-Establishment Blog." I'm not sure how I feel about the terms "left-wing," "right-wing," and "anti-establishment," but I appreciate the effort toward broader diversity in any event.)

Anyway, if there's a blog you'd like to nominate, you can do so here over the next two days. (My thanks go to the friend who nominated this blog. I'm honored. :-)

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Online classes at Tiferet - join us!

Over the last few months, I've been taking a course called "Jewish Mysticism: Digging Deep into the Uplifting Teachings of Hasidism," taught by Rabbi Yakov Travis. The course is offered jointly through Aleph and The Tiferet Institute, and it's terrific. The discussion is lively, and Reb Yakov has a great deal to give over and to teach. I like the way we're approaching these Hasidic texts simultaneously on an academic level, and on a spiritual level.

And it turns out I really like the virtual classroom webconferencing model (which I can describe best as follows: you know the opening credits to The Brady Bunch, where the screen splits into 12 little windows? It's kind of like that, only instead of Marsha and Carol and Greg Brady, the little windows on my screen show moving pictures of my teacher and my fellow students.) Let me say this: the course I've been taking meets from 9-11pm on a weeknight, which is really not my finest hour, and yet it's engaging enough that I'm wide awake and energized all the way through.

The Tiferet institute is about to offer three short online courses, which are listed here, and I'm planning to take two of them. (The two that meet on weekday mornings in my timezone. Did I mention I'm really not a late-night person?) One of them is:

Zohar on Genesis: Journeying into a Mystical Masterpiece

Learn kabbalistic conceptions of God and humanity as you explore the Zohar's mystical interpretation of creation, the Garden of Eden, and the inner purpose of our ancestors 'journeys. This seminar will lead you deeply into both Sefer ha-Zohar, the masterpiece of the Jewish mystical tradition, and a kabbalistic understanding of the book of Genesis.  Each session focuses on close readings of selected Zohar passages (Aramaic & Hebrew, with English translation). (April 26-June 28 -- see website for full description.)

And the other one is:

Kabbalah From Moses to Madonna: The History, Mystery & Essence of Jewish Mysticism

Kabbalists trace the origin of Kabbalah to Moses’ revelation at Sinai. That secret tradition took on a radical twist when Madonna became its most visible proponent. What could be more bizarre?  However, there is more here than meets the eye.  For Kabbalists, the real truth is always many layers deep. And the greatest light comes from the darkest places.  This seminar takes you on an exploratory journey from the cryptic origins of traditional Kabbalah to the implications of mass-marketed Kabbalah. (April 24-June 26 -- see website for full description.)

If this is the kind of thing that interests you, join us! (Register here.) It would be fun to learn with some of y'all, and (unlike the class I'm taking now, which is for rabbinic students only) these courses are open to the general public.

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Panim. Holy wow.

What an amazing weekend.

I want to begin by listing the seminaries which cosponsored the event with Panim, and which sent delegates to the retreat. I know I mentioned this in my last post, but honestly, it's kind of amazing just to read this list of names and to realize how many different ways there are of being Jewish and of approaching the rabbinate. We came from Hebrew Union College (New York, Cincinatti, and Los Angeles branches), the Jewish Theological Seminary, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, Academy for Jewish Religion, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Aleph, Drisha, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. We spent three days learning together, talking together, and most remarkably praying together.

The retreat was terrific on at least three levels. The programming, first of all -- tzedek (social justice) work hasn't been a focus of my student rabbinate to date, but this weekend was galvanizing for me in that regard. Rabbis Or Rose, Jill Jacobs, and Sid Schwartz offered terrific sessions and workshops, and everything we learned from them felt real, relevant, and powerful. I'm also awed by the range and depth of work that my colleagues are doing, in realms ranging from the American south (hurricane Katrina aftermath) to refugee work in southeast Asia, prison chaplaincy to the fight for a living wage.

Secondly, the community. The major reason I went on the retreat was to meet students from other rabbinic schools, and to represent Aleph in this broader group. I wasn't sure what to expect. How would students from the big denominational seminaries feel about those of us in the transdenominational programs? What preconceptions would we each have about the others' forms of Judaism? How would we relate? Honestly, I was a little nervous. But my fears were unfounded. The leaders of the retreat created a safe container for the experience, and people opened up in remarkable ways. I came away truly feeling that everyone present is a dear teacher, colleague, and friend.

And thirdly, the davenen. We met twice daily on weekdays, and thrice on Shabbat, for prayer -- led by pairs or groups of students from various seminaries, always matched across denominational lines. (For instance, I co-led a service with a Conservative rabbinic student.) I'm not sure I had quite realized, going in, how radical an idea it was to pray together in this way. Different students have wildly different needs, expectations, and comfort zones. This merits a post of its own. Honestly, each of the three aspects I've just mentioned merits a post of its own.

I'll try to offer some reflections on these various aspects of the retreat over the next few days. For now, I'm glad to be home safe and sound (while it's merely raining down at Isabella Freedman / Elat Chayyim, it's pouring sleet here at my house) and am spending a quiet afternoon curled up with my cat, thinking about the weekend that was, and feeling tremendously grateful to be doing the work I'm blessed to do.

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Rabbinic student retreat

I'm heading back to Isabella Freedman in the morning for a long weekend away from home. First, I'm attending a day of contemplative practice (meditation, study, and yoga) designed for rabbinic students and created by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality; then a weekend retreat called Spirituality, Social Justice, and the Rabbinate, under the auspices of Panim, led by Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, and Rabbi Or Rose. Here's the description of that retreat, from the Panim website:

The sources of Judaism are filled with references to the values of din, emet and shalom and more. All of these values point to the need for Jews to attend to the most vulnerable in our midst through acts of chesed, and tend to the social injustice we see in the world through acts of tzedek. How do these principles shape our respective rabbinates? How do we convey these values to the people that we serve? How do we fulfill our professional duties and also "walk the talk" of prophetic Judaism, especially when the two might come into conflict? Is it possible to engage with some of the most controversial issues of our time without causing conflict in our congregations?

The part I'm most excited about is meeting my fellow retreatants. The retreat will include students from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbinic schools, as well as students from the two transdenominational seminaries (Hebrew College and Aleph). We'll learn together, and (arguably more importantly) daven together, and hopefully come to know one another beyond the labels of our various movements and what we perceive those labels to mean.

Of course, this comes at a nutty time. I have to fax in my Breaking the Sefer Barrier midterm today, my Hasidism class begins again tonight at 9pm, I'm teaching Hebrew school this afternoon, and somewhere in there I have to chose a social justice-related text and make 40 copies of it to bring to the retreat...! But all of this scurrying around just means the weekend will feel even sweeter. (That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.)

So expect a few days of radio silence around here. I look forward to immersing in this intriguing new experience, and who knows, maybe I'll have a story or two to tell when I come home!

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This week's portion: holiness and bugs

There's something distinctly funny about listening to Robyn Hitchcock's Olé! Tarantula while studying and writing about this week's Torah portion, Shmini -- specifically, the verses about the tum'ah (impurity) conferred by "swarming things."

In writing this week's d'var for Radical Torah, I found myself musing on kashrut, the upsides and downsides of structure, and -- perhaps thanks to my listening material -- insects. Also the priorities which undergird Torah's instructions about which animals we should, and shouldn't, touch or consume:

This is a text, in other words, which likes its boundaries to remain intact and its categories to be clear. For those who resist the binarism of these kinds of boundaries, this week's portion may pose some challenges. The structure Shmini suggests seems to teach us to pigeonhole everything we encounter into "permitted" and "forbidden," although many of us might argue that this black-and-white thinking fails to notice or grapple with reality's many shades of grey.

Read the whole thing here: Holiness, wildlife, keeping awake.

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The time comes for the Four Questions, and we look around the table. "Who's the youngest one here?"

The answer, obviously, is the toddler in attendance, who just turned two. It's her first seder. I'm the next youngest, so I chant the questions.

All evening, the toddler plays quietly in her chair, or in the living room near enough to see and hear us.

But every time there is singing or chanting she runs back to the table, eyes wide as saucers, listening intently.

"And the one who does not know how to ask: for her you must show the way."

"Can I ask a question?"

"Of course. That's what seders are for."

"How long were the Israelites in Egypt?

"Well, 'another Pharaoh came into power who hadn't known Joseph' --"

"But how long did that really take? I mean, realistically speaking?"

"Wait, I remember -- God told Abraham his descendants would go down into a land not their own and be enslaved for 400 years."

"But lifespans seem to have been different then."

"And don't forget, Moses was raised as a Prince of Egypt. So when he went to tell Pharaoh 'let my people go,' he was talking to Dad."

Had I grown up reading the words, but not knowing the meanings. Had I grown up knowing the meanings, but not asking the questions.

Had I grown up asking the questions, but not learning the stories. Had I grown up learning the stories, but not opening doorways.

Had I grown up opening doorways, but not been brave enough to walk through them. Had I been brave enough to walk through them, but not had company on the journey.

Had I had company on the journey, but not faith in the destination. For all these things and more, I say dayenu!


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On mindfulness and matzah

Unleavened bread reminds us of our basic life requirements and invites us to ask the question: what is it I really need to live?  Freedom means freedom from oppression, but it also means freedom from our addictions.  Passover reminds us to return to the blessings we have, and take careful stock of what we want.

(-- Rabbi Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh newsletter)

Blessing and mindfulness are major parts of Jewish dietary practice, and I value that. There's something powerful for me about pausing to sanctify the food that I eat, and about being aware of what I'm putting into my mouth and why.

Powerful -- though not always in positive ways. Along with every other woman I know (and not a few of the men, too,) I've wrestled with body image, and with the messages popular culture sends about what kind of body a woman is "supposed" to have. It's easy to cross the fine line between being mindful of what I eat, and monitoring my consumption (or, worse, punishing myself for my appetites) in an unhealthy way. There are certain kinds of dietary vigilance which can be spiritually toxic.

Still, being thankful for my food and attentive to what that food is, and where it comes from, and how it was farmed or raised -- these are important parts of my Jewish life. (This is one reason why Caretaker Farm is some of the holiest ground I know.) And Pesach brings Judaism's focus on body and consumption into high relief. A few years ago I blogged some teachings from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg about the symbolism of hametz (leaven) and matzah ("Passover, matzah, dialectics.") My challenge, as always, is to embody that heady theory in a way that uplifts my life.

Because Pesach is a holiday so many of us observe through dietary constraints, it's a great time to make eating a mindfulness practice. Every time we eat this week is an opportunity for remembrance. This week we're meant to relive our exodus from the Narrow Place, our journey from slavery into freedom. And we can remember it, at least for a flash of a second, every time we choose what to put in our mouths -- whether we "keep the Pesach" in a traditional way, or not.

Somewhere in his voluminous writings, Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a teaching about how hunger and eating relate to the four worlds model. If I find myself hungry, he writes, I should ask myself: on which level am I hungry? If it is indeed my body which is hungry, then food will satisfy me. But if I hunger in the emotional world of yetzirah, or in the intellectual world of beriyah, then eating food on the physical plane of assiyah will not satiate my hunger.

In the physical world, this week we set bread aside and eat the flat cakes our ancestors improvised when they left Egypt in haste. (Well -- those were probably more like chapatis or naan or tortillas or soft matzah. Manischevitz's sheets of perforated papery cracker bear little resemblance to what our ancestors would actually have prepared. Whatever; it's still a metaphor, whatever shape it takes.) What does this choice mean in the imaginal realm, in the worlds of emotion and thought and essence?

That we can get by on less than we think. That it's useful to remember how to find holiness not only in familiar shapes (the puff of challah), but also in shapes which may be uncomfortable (matzah, bumpy and flat). That food can satisfy us on emotional and spiritual levels even if its physical form leaves something to be desired. And that it's important to be willing and able to brave liberation even if it's unlike anything we've ever known, even if it means leaving the comforts of our elaborate kitchens behind and grabbing flatbread for the road.

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Faithful friends

The stares surprised me. My brother Charlie, an Orthodox rabbi, wears a kippah, a Jewish head covering, and tallis fringes that hang out of his shirt. His friend Sedar, an Orthodox Muslim, wears a knitted skullcap and a qamis, a long tunic that touches his toes. Charlie is white; Sedar is black.

Though they've been friends for 23 years, I had never ventured out with them until last summer, when the three of us went to a restaurant in Rockville. Double takes from other diners turned into stares.

"It's like we're two sexy women walking down the street," Sedar said.

That's the beginning of an article by Alison Buckholtz, the sister of Charlie Buckholtz. Charlie and I overlapped at Williams. I remember him returning from Israel, my sophomore year, with tzitzit flying and a knit kippah pinned to his curls. [Edited to add: thanks to Adam for correcting me on Charlie's class year!] I think we shared a mentor; I suspect I ran into Charlie somewhere in labyrinthine Stetson Hall, where religion professors' offices used to be.

Anyway, he's an Orthodox rabbi now. And there's a beautiful article about him at -- specifically, about his lifelong friendship with Sedar Chappelle (as it happens, the brother of the comedian Dave Chappelle), who is an ardent member of the Tablighi Jamaat movement within Islam.

It's good to be reminded that orthodox religious practice and interfaith relationships can coexist. (And hey, Rabbi Charlie, if you ever find yourself visiting the Berkshires again, I'd love to have a cup of coffee. Just say the word.) Even absent the Williams connection I happen to have, this is a sweet story. Read it here: Faithful friends.


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