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April 2007
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June 2007

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

I packed two outfits for Shabbat dinner. I'd like to say this is because I checked the weather forecast and want to cover my bases, but really it's because I can't decide, and since I'm traveling in my own car I can easily bring both possibilities and continue to waffle for a while -- or show them both to my sister and get her advice. (I can't help suspecting that wardrobe questions plague female clergy in a whole different way than they do men. Rabbi Debora Gordon seems to think so, too.)

Anyway, I packed my new (elegant, smart-but-appropriately-reserved) outfit to wear on the bimah on Saturday, and nice sandals which match all of the above. I packed an assortment of kippot. I packed my laptop. I packed a little something edible to thank my sister for hosting us all weekend. I packed my tallit and siddur and guitar. I think that's everything!

So I'm off to Boston for my niece's bat mitzvah weekend. I'm looking so forward to seeing my parents, all four of my siblings, many of my nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins -- to celebrating Shabbat with my extended family -- and of course, most of all, to mincha and maariv and my niece's formal entry into this next phase of her Jewish life.

I won't be online much over the next few days. Take good care of the internet while I'm gone; see you on the flipside!

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On liturgy and ambiguity

I've been slowly working my way through Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Her book The Cloister Walk is one of my very favorite religious memoirs. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography offers engaging meditations on place, spirituality, and small-town life. I often carry my pocket copy of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work in my purse for re-reading. And I also really like her poems. So I expected to like this book -- and I do, though it's more like a collection of little bite-sized chocolates than it is a full literary meal. It lends itself to being read in bits and pieces, which is helpful, since that's the kind of time I've currently got!

Anyway, in the chapter called "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity," Norris says a lot of things that really resonate for me. Here's a taste of the story at that chapter's heart:

When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed -- I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.

This passage charms me because it rings so true. I know a lot of people who might say, as Norris did, that doubts and intellectual frustrations distance them from religion; and I also know a lot of people who might respond, as the monks did, that doubt is no problem at all, and that the way to deal with doubt is to keep practicing. Regular prayer can effect subtle and thorough changes, but the only way to understand that is to take the leap of beginning to pray.

Later, Norris writes,

If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be "repetition." Repetition as Kierkegaard understood it, as "the daily bread of life that satisfies with benediction." Repetition as in a hymn such as "Amazing Grace," or the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between.

The more I inhabit Jewish liturgy, the more I understand what Norris is talking about here. (Clearly this is true of liturgy qua liturgy, not merely hers or ours or anyone else's.) There's something in the repetition of words that invests both the words, and the silences between them, with new meaning. Later in this same passage, Norris notes that weekly church attendance came, in time, to shape the days between Sundays in much the way that a repeated poetic refrain shapes the feel of a poem. I know the feeling.

She tells the story of a seminary student arguing with an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The student asked what to do when he couldn't affirm certain tenets of the Creed; the theologian responded, "Well, you just say it." The student, distressed by this answer, queried again, "How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?" And the theologian replied, "It's not your creed; it's our creed." In other words, these aren't your own words, written just for you and tailored to be something you can affirm easily. These are the words of our community. Simply saying them is important, and links us across both time and space; and saying them changes us, gradually; and it matters that we say them even if they don't perfectly fit what we think we believe.

Probably my favorite passage in the essay is this:

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend. And once I realized that this was all it was -- that in worship, you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject -- I had a way through my impasse. I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend -- isn't that the truth! And I love her insight here that liturgy and poetry intermingle in this way. Often, I think, liberal religious folks want to demand of our liturgy that it appeal to our minds, to our politics, to the ideas and values we hold dear -- and there's a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, it's worth remembering that liturgy isn't only, and isn't always, meant to express something timely and agreeable; it's also meant to connect us with our history, with other people, and with some of the deepest emotions we know how to feel. It's not always meant to be comfortable, or to be something to which we can assent intellectually.

Granted, great poetry isn't necessarily usable as liturgy; the two serve different needs, in the end. But I think there's common ground. We allow our poems to be associative, complicated, resonant in ways we don't necessarily understand; how might we be changed if we treated our liturgy likewise?

On a related note, Eric Selinger at A Big Jewish Blog has announced a project called Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest Of Us, and wants to hear what poems, quotations, and other snippets of text you would put in a siddur of your own:

What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.

Drop him a comment and weigh in; I'm expecting interesting stuff.

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Coming of age

My rabbi is fond of saying that a b'nai mitzvah is a lifecycle event not merely for the kid who's becoming bar or bat mitzvah, but for the entire family. That seems true to me, especially when I think about the next bat mitzvah I'll be attending -- and facilitating! I've alluded before to tutoring my niece Emma toward becoming bat mitzvah. We've been working together for nine months, and the culmination of that work is almost upon us. She's getting a great Jewish education at Rashi, so we've been able to study in an advanced way. Using a seven-chapter curriculum I've written over the course of the year, we've worked together in person, via telephone, and via email and Google chat. I've been surprised, moved, and challenged by her questions and her insights.

I may write more about that process at some point. What I'm thinking about lately, though, is the sense in which this bat mitzvah is a kind of coming-of-age not just for Emma, but also for me.

Seven years ago, when my sister was pregnant with her son, she asked me to create and officiate at a customized naming ceremony for him. I had done that work for and with friends, but never for a family member before; I was honored and thrilled. I'm not sure now how many people gathered in my sister's living room for that ceremony -- maybe forty? I know it felt like a big deal to me. It was my first chance to do for and with my family the kind of work I already knew I wanted to do with a wider community.

Now I'm a rabbinic student with a lot more experience leading a community in prayer. Good thing, too; this time we'll be 125 people, spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and observance. We are affiliated Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and Renewal. Some of us are unaffiliated. Some of us are alienated from religion in general and/or Judaism in particular. Some of us are non-Jews. Some of us have a regular davenen practice; others dread their rare visits to synagogue because the experience is so opaque. What we have in common is a love of my niece, and the desire to be present as she formally marks her entry into a new phase of her life.

Leading a transdenominational community in prayer -- especially an ad-hoc community that has never gathered in this form before, nor will gather in this way again -- using my own homegrown siddur -- and, while I'm at it, sharing guitar responsibilities with another family member, with whom I've never before played -- and doing it in front of my parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins...? It's a little overwhelming.

It's also incredibly exciting. Leading davenen is something I deeply enjoy. There's a kind of alchemy that happens sometimes, when the combination of people and intention, music and words, creates something indescribable that's far beyond the sum of its parts. I hope I can facilitate that.

And I hope I can maintain awareness of what really matters here: not my feelings, but helping my niece stretch herself in a space that's safe and comfortable enough to feel nurturing, and challenging enough to help her grow. This mincha / maariv / havdalah service will be a havdalah writ large in Emma's life, a moment of sacred transition from one sweet thing to the next. If I feel strong emotions -- at seeing (helping) my niece come of age religiously, and at showing my family a different side of who I am and what I do -- I guess that goes to show we're never really finished with coming-of-age.

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A barrier of a different color

You know how it is when you have a project deadline hanging over your head, sometimes it's all you can think about, even when you're trying to think about other things?

This afternoon we've been catching up on the Sunday Times and our blog reading while keeping an ear on the Indy 500 -- neither of us is really watching it, but it's on in the background. My ears keep perking up, because the sportscasters keep referring to something they're calling the "sefer barrier."

In my world, "sefer" means book, and "breaking the sefer barrier" is the name of a  class I've been taking in decoding rabbinic texts. The phrase is much on my mind at the moment -- tomorrow morning first thing I need to dive deep into my sefer barrier final project, due on Wednesday. What on earth does the Indy 500 have to do with breaking the sefer barrier?

Well, nothing. It turns out they're actually saying SAFER barrier -- a steel and foam energy reduction barrier, a way of making the race, well, safer than it used to be. A very different kind of barrier, in other words. But I'm kind of entertained to think that while my fellow rabbinic students and I struggle with this final project, a whole different community of people is encountering a sefer (safer) barrier of their own...

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Holiday weekend

The day I swap out my wardrobe, winter for summer, is one of the holidays of my year.

There are other days like it, of course. The day I take the ficus tree and geraniums outside to spend the season absorbing sun without the mediation of glass, washed by genuine rains. The first pedicure of the season, at the Korean nail shop in the mall, and the liberation of leaving thick wool socks behind. The day we bring the oscillating fan out of retirement, and relearn how to sleep beneath its quiet hum. The first time Ethan mows the lawn, making the glorious green world redolent of clipped grass.

But there's something about changing clothes that makes the new season feel to me like it's really settled in. Like impending summer is no longer just flirting with us. The turn of season is truly here.

The first step in the process is folding the laundry. Clean laundry piles up in our household more often than I'd like to admit, especially when we're overwhelmed or overscheduled. So I spend some quality time in the laundry room, matching sleeve with sleeve, thinking about my favorite short laundry poem. All of the winter clothes have to be put away -- turtlenecks stacked, sweaters on their shelf, corduroy and velvet and wool on hangers -- before anything can be moved.

Then I start carrying things back and forth. A heavy armload of winter wear moves into the attic closet; on the return trip I bring cotton and linen, surprisingly smooth against my skin. Flannel shirts and thick dresses travel one way; Ghanaian batiks move the other. It's time now for linen overalls, not polarfleece ones. I unpack the t-shirts from their boxes, and replace them with sweater after sweater after sweater. Already it's unthinkable that I could ever have worn any of this woolen armor; just picking it up and folding it makes sweat prickle on my skin.

In the fall, I know, when nights grow cold and we restore our heavy handmade Ghanaian patchwork quilt to our bed -- when the smell of woodsmoke means a fire in the fireplace, not chickens smoking on the grill -- I will go through this process in reverse. Rediscovering all of my cold-weather gear will feel like a birthday and Chanukah and a shopping trip all rolled into one.

But right now, that moment is impossibly far away. It's my own personal beginning of the summer season, and I am thankful that the wheeling round of the year has brought us to this moment again.

Shabbat shalom.

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Zohar lesson from erev Shavuot

The lesson I taught the other night at our tikkun leyl Shavuot was called "Zohar and the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning." I based it on a teaching from Daniel Matt's 1983 translation of the Zohar (the "Book of Splendor" -- there's a bilingual version of the Zohar online here), the germinal work of Jewish mysticism.

The packet I handed out included several texts: a passage that Matt calls "The Hidden Light" (you can read the very beginning of it online here, but that's hardly satisfying, so I'll append the whole passage to the end of this post -- it's about 570 words and is really worthwhile), three excerpts from Torah which are cited in the Zohar piece (the birth of Moses in Exodus 2, the description of Moses "irradiated" and glowing in Exodus 34:29-34, and the first three days of creation as described in Genesis 1), and the footnotes to the Zohar piece (which are extensive and fascinating.)

One of the things I really like about this translation of Zohar is that it is formatted like poetry, and the visual prosody shapes the way the text reads. It's allusive, rich, and strange -- qualities I think are less daunting in poetry than in prose. We talked some about that, and about the origins of the Zohar (both the traditional understanding that it dates back to the 2nd century C.E., and the contemporary scholarly understanding that it was written by Moses de Leon in the 13th century) -- and then we read "The Hidden Light" and the Biblical pieces I had attached to it, and talked about what questions and issues they raise for us.

Since we were studying this together at a late-night tikkun, I opened the conversation by noting the part of the passage which talks about studying Torah at night. Maybe we're more sensitive to a particular kind of light, the light of wisdom and insight and real illumination, when we're not engaged in looking at visible light. When there's sunlight, we're caught up in what ordinary light allows our eyes to see, but at night maybe our eyes are opened in a different way.

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Wednesday morning, 3 a.m.

This year, my little shul banded together with the shul up the road for a joint tikkun leyl Shavuot (late-night Shavuot study session.) We met at 8pm at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center -- good common ground. After a sweet evening service, we settled in for a series of six lessons:

  • "Song of Songs and Ruth: Two Songs of Love" with Cantor Robert Scherr;

  • "Continuing Revelation and Liturgical Change" with Karen, a fellow congregant from my shul;

  • "Zohar on the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning" (my humble contribution to the evening);

  • "Could Christian Traditions Have Impacted Shavuot?" with Rabbi Steve Gutow;

  • "Growing the Torah to Include the Lives of Gays and Lesbians" with Rabbi Jeff Goldwassser;

  • and "Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter: the Potry of Stanley Kunitz" with Rabbi Joshua Boettiger.

In between lessons, we schmoozed, and noshed on all kinds of goodies. Dairy is traditionally associated with the festival of Shavuot, so of course we ate that -- excellent Italian-style homemade cheesecake, e.g. (Though my favorite dairy treat this year had to be the espresso milkshakes. What could be more ideal for late-night learning?)

At least twenty people were present at the start of the night -- a terrific crowd for our small town. Though we tried to be timely, a few of our lessons ran a little overtime; we were just having too much fun learning with and from one another! We studied until just before two, and then had a sweet wrap-up -- we gathered again in the sanctuary (by now only about nine strong), removed the Torah from the ark, and passed it from one person to the next, an embodied symbol of the revelation and the covenant we share. We sang "Esa einai el he-harim" ("I lift my eyes up to the mountains"), our nod to the Sinai story, as we danced and cradled the scroll around the room. And then together we read a kaddish de rabbanan, the form of the kaddish recited after Torah study, with that paragraph I so love:

On the community of Israel, upon our rabbis and their students, and on all the students of their students, and on all who engage in Torah here and elsewhere, may there be peace for them and for you, grace and kindness and mercy and long life, and plentiful nourishment, and salvation, from our God in heaven, and let us say: Amen.

And then we grinned, and hugged, and did a spot of cleaning-up, and then I drove home under the amazing starry night sky humming my favorites among the niggunim (wordless melodies) we had sung over the course of the night.

I didn't take any notes; for once, I was too busy being present to act as transcriber. I can tell you that our lessons dovetailed as though we had designed them together; that the themes of the night included revelation, time, history, Torah, language, poetry, and the garments in which mystical experiences may be clothed; and that I came away feeling awed, moved, and deeply connected with my community and my Source.

Sometime soon I hope to post about my own teaching. I'll type up the passage from Zohar that I taught, and the questions and prompts and references it raised for me. For now, though, it's time for a holy Shavuot nap -- at least a few hours before I begin the new day! If anyone's reading this in the middle of the night, I hope your tikkun has been as delicious as ours was -- and to everyone, no matter when your eyes meet these words, I wish a sweet and joyous Shavuot.

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Shavuot verses

We've counted our seven weeks of seven days between Pesach and Shavuot, between one once-upon-a-time spring harvest offering and the next, between liberation and revelation. Shavuot begins tonight at sundown -- whee!

In celebration, I offer a poem, written a few years ago and collected in my as-yet-unpublished book-length mansucript Manna. Chag Shavuot sameach -- wishing a joyful festival of Shavuot to all.




I'm thirsty for davening
in this gritty desert
of car wrecks and cell phones.
Every person killed
keeps the promised land
blocked to our passage.

Who knows the path
to short-circuit
this wandering?
Some days manna falls
but others we're back
to toil, scratching
like chickens in the dirt.

If I was there at Sinai
to sign the ketubah
God offered, black fire
on white, most days
I don't remember.
Everyone forgets the unity
we started with.

This year
when our anniversary comes,
God, I want to stay up
all night
to feel the letters
traveling up my hands
into my heart.

I want to sing holy at dawn
with the birds
in the willow behind shul
who open and close each day
with praise.


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This week's portion: Ways of counting - at Jewess!

The folks at Jewess are inaugurating a new series they're calling "Parsha Posts" -- divrei Torah from women's perspectives. The first one was published today; I'm honored to have been asked to write that first d'var, on parashat Bamidbar.

[T]he first thing God says to Moses in this book of Torah is, "take a census."

More specifically, the instruction is to take a census of the community by clan, listing the names of every man over twenty who is able to bear arms. Taking a census was generally associated with conscription for war, or at least with military readiness. The census which gives this book of Torah its English name, "Numbers," is concerned only with the fledgling community's ability to fight. It appears that only men who can carry weapons "count."

How can these verses have resonance for us as women?

My answer to that question can be found here: Bamidmar: Ways of counting. (And I'd love to hear your answers, too -- feel free to post them as comments here, or over at Jewess.) Shabbat shalom!

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Returning where we've never been

This post was initially written as a combination paper and sermon last year. It's long -- about 3000 words -- but as we approach Shavuot, when Ruth is traditionally studied, I wanted to share it here.

A young widowed woman, an outsider technically forbidden to enter into the house of Israel: Ruth seems an unlikely figure to star in her own book of Torah.

There's some emotional baggage weighting the relationship between Moab and Israel. In Deuteronomy we read that Moab and Israel must remain separate. Though the grandchildren of Edomites and Egyptians are permitted to join the community, Moabites and Ammonites never can, because of their former cruelties. Yet in this story Ruth, a Moabite woman, enters Israel as a foreign daughter-in-law, and becomes the ancestor of King David. There's a turnabout, a significant shift which the story never explicitly addresses but which is nonetheless at the story's heart.

On the surface, the book of Ruth is a simple one, a short story about a young woman who follows her mother-in-law into a new world and whose kindness is repaid a thousandfold. But there's more to Ruth than the pshat (surface) narrative. In Ruth's actions and their repercussions we can find teachings about how to transgress -- literally, to cross over -- wisely and well.

Ruth begins in the days when the chieftains ruled, a Wild West era of unlawful action. There has been a famine in the land. Elimelech ("My God is King") took his wife Naomi ("Pleasant") out, away from Bethlehem ("the House of Bread.") He fathered two sons in the foreign land of Moab, but then he died. These sons married local women, and then both of them died, too.

All of this is effectively prologue. When the real story begins, Naomi is in dire straits. Her husband and sons are dead, and though one daughter-in-law has sworn to stay by her side Naomi is unable to see Ruth's presence as a blessing. The two women journey empty-handed to Bethlehem, a painful homecoming for Naomi. "Do not call me Naomi," she chastises her old friends. "Call me Mara,  for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty." Naomi renames herself "Bitter," feeling devoid of hope and utterly alone.

To her credit, Ruth doesn't say, "Stop wallowing!" (Ruth also doesn't say, "What am I, chopped liver?") Ruth simply cares for Naomi, compassionate even in the face of her mother-in-law's inability to recognize her loyalty. In poet Alicia Ostriker's midrashic retelling, Ruth muses[1], "Greeted with joy on her return by her townspeople, she announces that she is empty. It is I then who must fill her."

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Contemporary psalms

This Wednesday, Inkberry is offering a workshop in writing contemporary psalms, taught by Ray McGinnis, author of Writing the Sacred: A Psalm-Inspired Path to Appreciating and Writing Sacred Poetry (Northstone, April 2005). The workshop will "explore the psalms as a doorway to spiritual self-expression by inviting people to discover the poetic forms and themes of the Hebrew Psalms and draw upon these to help articulate their own longing for the sacred."

The class will meet from 7-9pm at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown; the cost is only $15, and you can register online here (or by emailing Inkberry.) If I didn't have to attend my Hasidism class on Wednesday night already, I would join this one-shot workshop in a heartbeat. This sounds like a delicious opportunity -- if you live in or near western Massachusetts, I hope you'll participate.

Over the last several years I've written a number of poems that find common ground with prayers and with psalms. (Some can be found in chaplainbook.) Here's a recent one -- written for the siddur we'll be using at mincha/maariv/havdalah the weekend my niece Emma becomes bat mitzvah, just a few short weeks from now!

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Ghost in the Machine podcast

Remember the Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online panel of which I was a part, back at South by Southwest in March? The podcast of our session is online! (You can listen to the mp3 online, or download it, as you prefer.)

For those of you who weren't able to attend SXSW this year, here's your chance to listen to Gordon (Real Live Preacher), Hussein (Islamicate), Kevin (, James (Consolation Champs) and me hold forth about religion online. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so; if this kind of thing is your cup of tea, I hope you will too.

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Break on through

The final project for "Breaking the Sefer Barrier," the class I'm taking with Reb Daniel Siegel on decoding rabbinic texts, has three parts: 1) work with a passage from our source text (expand all of the abbreviations and references, and translate the text into readable English), 2) point the text (e.g. add vowels and punctuation, and expand abbreviations into the appropriate phrases), and 3) write a short paper about what intrigues me in my passage, and how I would go about learning more if I wanted to research the subject in question.

Our source text for the semester was Sefer Ta'amei Haminhagim, which means "The Book of the Reasons for the Practices." It's a halakhic text, but not one of the biggies. "Breaking the Sefer Barrier" is meant as a prerequisite to Aleph's classes in the progression of classic codes, Rambam and the Tur and the Shulkhan Arukh and so forth, so the idea was to work with a text that  offers the challenges of a halakhic sefer (lots of acronyms and abbreviations, inconsistent forms of citation and reference, etc) but isn't one of the major codes we'll be studying later.

At the start of the semester, just cracking the book was daunting. And the midterm kind of kicked my ass. So when I settled in to begin my final assignment, I was prepared for a tough afternoon. I spent a few hours with my Otzar Rashei Teivot (compendium of acronyms) and my Jastrow dictionary, and -- get this -- it paid off! I haven't yet begun the second task in the assignment, scanning the text and then adding nekudot (vowel markings -- definitely not my strong suit) or, for that matter, the third task (short paper.) But I have a rough translation of my passage, and I've identified the parts that are quotations and references. I've more-or-less completed step one.

Looked at one way, it's such a puny accomplishment. I translated a single paragraph of a halakhic sefer; big whoop! By the time I was done my head was spinning and my neck was stiff and I felt like I'd run an intellectual marathon.

But looked at another way, it's kind of awesome. It's easy to feel like I'm not progressing in my language skills, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't have done this three months ago. Slowly but surely, I'm learning how to draw sustenance from this well.

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Faith and trust

My friend the Feminarian is having some trust issues with God. She writes:

Every time I tell God: OK, I'll put this living situation in your hands. You know I’m very confined and sad living in our current place, and here's this opportunity (new apartment, the house, etc), and God, I'll just trust you that what’s best will happen.

And then every time I lose the thing I want. God and my desires don't line up. And I don't mean it in a whiny way. I mean that it's really hard to trust God when every time I give something to God it doesn't work out.

It is really hard when something one desperately wants doesn't come through the way one wants it to. (I'm guessing each of us has something that fits into that category -- or something we fear will fall into that category eventually.)

Reading this post highlighted for me how important I think it is that we be able to say these things. That even seminarians, who will someday (God willing) be clergy, be able to admit that there are times when our relationships with God feel strained or painful -- when a great disappointment, or deep wound, cuts at the quick of our ability to feel connected with God. Every person of faith deals with these issues at some point, on some level, and as clergy we need to be able to say, "I know what that feels like; I've walked that stretch of road, too."

Last night I listened to a live webcast of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and his remarks dovetail with these issues in some interesting ways:

One important quotation from Chazal [our sages of blessed memory] which directly relates to this issue, the power of thought to determine [what arises], is this simple two-word phrase, machshavah mo'elet, which means "thought works." Or "thought helps." The question is, what does it help?

The Sages say that sometimes, if you think too much about something happening, that will help that it shouldn't happen! The example given is, a person plans too hard to finish a tractate of the Talmud by a given date. "I'm going to learn this tractate by Rosh Hashanah." Very likely if you decide to do that, you're not going to do it...that thought itself might backfire! It would result in the very opposite. Instead of helping it happen, the thought can help it not to happen.

The Gemara goes on to say, what does thought help to happen, and when does thought actually project an energy that prevents something from happening? Chazal say, that's a function of yirat shamayim [fear, or awe, of God]...

I have complicated feelings about the notion that getting what we want, or not getting what we want, comes down to yirat shamayim -- that if I don't get the outcome I'm looking for, it's because my awe of God was insufficient. That may be an interpretation that doesn't translate well into a liberal religious mindset. Still, I like the idea that our thoughts change reality, if only in a certain way.

Much of Rabbi Ginsburgh's talk centered around two key terms, emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust). If I've got this right, he defined faith as believing that whatever arises comes from God, and is therefore good. Trust is an attitude that presumes that God is good and that God wants us to understand the good in all things even if that good isn't readily-apparent to us in our limited human consciousness. (Intriguingly, he said at one point that faith and trust are closely-linked, and at another point that they can work in opposition to one another. There's subtlety to these definitions that I'm surely missing -- if anyone can enlighten me, please do.) Anyway, he went on to say:

If I had very large perspective on reality -- the whole world, all of history -- I would understand that all is good. I don't see my previous incarnations; I don't see where I'm coming from or where I'm going, so I can hardly fathom what's good for me and what's not good for me...

Faith means, no matter what happens, I believe it should be good and I accept it with joy. As Chazal [the Sages] say, when something bad happens you have to bless Hashem with the same joy that you bless God when something good happens. The whole distance between this world and the World to Come is that in this world there are two different blessings, one for good things and one for bad things. But the spiritual motivation of saying the blessings should be the same... and in the world to come, there will only be one blessing. It will all be the blessing of the good, because it will all be good in our eyes.

I'm fascinated by the notion that in the world to come -- in messianic time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete, when all the holy sparks will be lifted up, when the ultimate tikkun will have been made -- we will offer only the blessing for good things. In the world we know, we are called to bless God sometimes in joy and sometimes in sorrow, but in days to come we will fully understand the fundamental goodness of all things.

I know I often have an impulse to put a band-aid over suffering. It's hard for me to simply sit with something that hurts, whether it's in my own life/practice or in someone else's, and that's something I need to work on. (Boy, did my year of chaplaincy work teach me about that.) But I wonder whether there's a way to strengthen our own faith and trust, our emunah and bitachon, even while we acknowledge our very real moments of feeling distant from God. To acknowledge what's broken even as we assert what's whole.

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Toward a new Jewish domestic agenda

If you could talk to the presidential candidates, what would you tell them?

That's the question my friends at JSpot are asking today:

Seventeen men and one woman are seeking the nomination of their parties for President of the United States. In the coming months, they will develop and present their platforms and priorities.

Many Jewish organizations are taking advantage of this opportunity to present their agenda on behalf of the Jewish community. But is their agenda also your agenda?

As American Jews, we have a broad range of priorities. Child Care. Civil Rights. Education. Environment. Health Care. Housing. Immigration. Katrina/Rita. Seniors. Wages...

The plan is simple. Thousands of Jews come together to create a domestic agenda that represents our interests. We send this agenda to every presidential candidate and request a written response. As candidates reply we publicize their views on our websites, via email, and through the press.

If you want to see a presidential campaign where the candidates address your concerns, you have to tell them what you think. Interested? Click here to add your vote.

As American Jews we need to tell our political candidates what matters to us: not just where they stand on "the Israel question," but what stands they're willing to take on critical issues like education, civil rights, the environment, and health care. It's easy to speak out: just click here, select the 5 issues that matter most to you, and provide your name and contact information.

Once the community has had a chance to vote on the issues that matter to us, all seventeen presidential candidates will be sent a copy of the petition, showing what we care about. As candidates reply, we'll keep you posted on what they say.

Think it's time to let our presidential candidates know that American Jews care deeply about domestic issues? Click over and make your voice heard. (And if you have a blog of your own, feel free to reprint some or all of this post. The more, the merrier!)

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For the good

"One who says 'Your mercy extends even to bird's nests,' and 'for the good which You do shall Your Name be remembered,' and 'we give thanks, we give thanks,' -- he is silenced."

That's a verse from Mishna: tractate Brakhot [here in Hebrew; here in English], chapter 5, mishna 3. Jeff and I spent some time on this verse on Friday afternoon. Translating it was easy enough, but decoding its meaning took a little effort.

First of all, some context: in this part of Brakhot we're talking about ha-tefilah, "the Prayer" -- a.k.a. the amidah, the central prayer of Jewish worship, which is offered daily (on the pattern once established for korbanot, the offerings which drew us near to God) and is always spoken while standing. So the opening words of this verse could be expanded to, "If someone is standing before the congregation as the leader of communal prayer, leading the amidah, and he says..."

What's wrong with the three phrases offered as examples? Hard to say, though they aren't part of the prayer as we know it. Of course, in those days the prayer wasn't necessarily fixed in the form we currently know. (The Talmud records passionate debate about the relative merits of using a fixed form for the words of the tefilah, versus allowing each pray-er to hold forth extemporaneously on the amidah's set themes.) One could read this mishna simply as an admonition against adding unnecessary verbiage...or maybe it's a prohibition against adding these particular phrases to the liturgy. These phrases may be examples of specific heresies, troubling to the rabbis in Mishnaic times but long since lost to us. Maybe each of those phrases evoked a whole host of images and associations; we'll never know.

Pinhas Kehati, in his commentary on the Mishna, offers an interesting suggestion about that second statement, "for the good which You do [to us] shall Your Name be remembered."

The problem, he suggests, lies in the implication that we praise and remember God's name only because of the good which arises for us. If I thank God for the things in my life which I know to be blessings (my family; my home; my husband; my community; my teachers) -- well, that's a fine start, but it's insufficient. The tradition teaches that I should also thank God for the things in my life which don't appear to be blessings, for even the events which are difficult or painful. It's not right to thank God for the good stuff and curse God for the bad stuff. For one thing, I never know what might be difficult for me today but turn out to be a blessing in hindsight; and besides, the whole good/bad binary is enmeshed in mochin d'katnut, limited human consciousness. That's not how God sees.

Were I to lead the community in prayer with the presumption that only those acts of God which are comfortable for me are worth remembering -- then, the Mishna teaches, I should be removed from my post and replaced with a leader-of-prayer who can praise God for the full spectrum of human experience. My task, today and every day, is to muster gratitude and reverence in response to even things which make me sad. It's a humbling responsibility, but a beautiful one. May it be so.

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Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer.

Okay, show of hands, folks: how many of you have any idea what Lag b'Omer is (without clicking on that convenient link)? Those who grew up with the holiday don't get to answer; what I'm curious about is, how many of us who didn't grow up observing Lag b'Omer have any idea what the holiday means?

If you're having that slightly squirmy feeling of having forgotten something you're sure you knew when you were twelve, here's the explanation I offered my mother this afternoon:

Literally, the name means "the 33rd day of the Omer." -- remember, "counting the Omer" means counting the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. Once upon a time, we counted the days between spring planting and spring harvest. More recently, we think in terms of counting the days between liberation and revelation, because we understand freedom not only as freedom-from but also freedom-toward.

In traditional Judaism, the counting of the Omer is a kind of semi-mourning period, and Lag b'Omer marks either an end to, or a pause in, the mourning. Some say we're mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, who were killed by a plague because they didn't treat one another with respect; the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer. Today, children observe Lag b'Omer by playing with bows and arrows, a way of remembering the students who fought amongst themselves.

Some say that what it's really about is, Rabbi Akiva supported the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman occupation. Many of his students followed him in supporting that revolt, and were killed. The so-called "plague" which ended on Lag b'Omer is a euphemism for the ill-fated rebellion. (In that case, kids play with bows and arrows as a symbolic re-enactment of the fight against Roman oppression.)

Still other people say we celebrate because Lag b'Omer marks the yarzheit of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, one of Rabbi Akiva's students who did survive the plague, or the revolt, or whatever --he was the ostensible author of The Zohar. And still other people say that the manna which fell from heaven during the Israelites' wanderings in the desert began to fall on the 18th of Iyar, which is the 33rd day of the Omer, so we're celebrating that.

Oh, and in case you've lost track of the days of the Omer, today is the 30th day, which means Lag b'Omer is this Sunday. One way or another, there's apparently no consensus on what the holiday means. My handy copy of Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays (have I recommended that book lately?) offers all kinds of conflicting opinions on the nature and duration of the mourning period, and hence on the nature of Lag b'Omer as a break in the mourning. And, of course, in liberal Judaism the days of the Omer aren't observed as a mourning period at all, which makes Lag b'Omer a different kind of holiday altogether.

Here's another interpretation -- one I quite like: Lag b'Omer can be understood as a kind of Jewish May Day. "There's an old German and English custom of shooting bows and arrows at demons on May Day," Strassfeld points out, which does seem strangely kin to the bow-and-arrow theme of Lag b'Omer as it's traditionally celebrated. And Rabbi Everett Gendler -- one of the rabbis whose commentary flows down the side margins of The Jewish Holidays -- offers the following:

For more than a decade, we (my wife, our daughters, and I) have held an annual May Day - Lag b'Omer celebration up in our small hayfield. Selecting a Sunday more or less near both dates -- with, of course, allowance for New England's inclement spring weather -- we've invited friends and neighbors to join us for a variety of outdoor activities. Most distinctive is a ritual procession around the periphery of the field, each person carrying some freshly cut winter rye, while at the head of the procession is carried a recently-cut, eighteen-foot-high tree with eighteen ribbons stapled to it near the top (the chai motif.) Also at the head of the procession is carried a keter -- a crown for the May/Omer pole -- constructed earlier in the week from freshly cut branches. Attatched to it are brightly-colored pieces of fabric inscribed with appropriate verses from the Bible, from Chaucer, or from e.e. cummings, or whatever choices our fantasy may dictate that particular year...

I love the idea of celebrating May Day and Lag b'Omer together. Both festivals are often observed with bonfires, picnics, and outdoor merriment (the First Jewish Catalogue calls Lag b'Omer "a day of outings and midnight bonfires," which sounds pretty consonant with May Day celebrations, to me.) Certainly in this season, at this latitude, we're all eager to find a reason to savor the great outdoors. It's been a few years since we and our local circle of friends last celebrated May Day, but I think next year we might just have to establish a Lag b'Omer / May Day tradition...

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Words from Rabbi Arik Ascherman

"Rabbi Arik is always there with his hands in the earth, doing the work, being part of the action, with the people, in relationship," said Rabbi Joshua Boettiger in his introduction to a talk by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who spoke in the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College last night. What follows is an imperfect transcription of Rabbi Arik's remarks. It's long (about 4000 words!) but worthwhile, especially for those interested in human rights, justice, and the Middle East.

In the Jewish calendar we're in the midst of sefirat Omer, counting from Passover to Shavuot. Many reasons and explanations are given for this counting -- among them that we're counting the days toward Sinai. Liberation is not complete without Sinai.

What was that revelation about, what was being said to us? The midrash tells us many people heard many different voices, everyone heard it in their own way. But when I think about that, about the way that I grew up -- in Erie, Pennsylvania -- what was taught to me by my rabbis, parents, teachers, community, was that a basic part of what it means to be a Jew is to be concerned about universal human rights and social justice.

When I first spent time in Israel, my first big shock was to find out that bagels were not readily available -- what kind of Jewish state was this, that you couldn't get bagels? It's not a problem anymore, but it was at the time. But the more profound shock was when I discovered that these values that were axiomatic on my part were not necessarily shared by all Israelis, particularly religious Israelis. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons that community has increasingly been socialized into a volatile mixture of extreme nationalism and particularism. Most secular Jews believe that this is the true religious Judaism because that's what they see reflected by the "authentic" representatives of Judaism!

At Rabbis for Human Rights, if our first mandate is to rectify human rights abuses, then our second and no less important mandate is to try to introduce into people's intellectual universe that there is an equally authentic, equally textually-based, equally Jewish humanistic understanding of Torah.

Continue reading "Words from Rabbi Arik Ascherman" »

This week's portion: the bodies we are

When I read this week's portion, Emor, I was drawn to the passages prohibiting imperfection from coming before God. No animal could be offered to God if it were imperfect in any way -- and, similarly, no one could serve as a priest in the Temple, making those offerings manifest, if he harbored any physical imperfections at all. What a striking text.

We can read it allegorically, as a set of metaphors for the importance of wholeness. We can read into it instructions for how to make offerings on the altars of our hearts today. But even these readings don't remove what I find most challenging about the text, and those challenges were one focus of my d'var Torah at Radical Torah this week:

This text is problematic precisely because it privileges a kind of perfection in which ordinary people can't partake. A single burn scar, one leg barely longer than the other -- these are the kinds of imperfections to which we are all heir. Who among us has a body altogether free from blemish, symmetrical in every regard? And who among us has escaped all emotional or psychological damage on this front -- has reached adulthood without ever once disparaging her or his body for the ways in which it fails to live up to our age's supposed ideal?

Read the whole thing here: The bodies we are.

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