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I used to love my black satin cat mask. It was quilted, sleek to the touch. It had almond-shaped eyeholes and stiff silver whiskers. I wore it with a black leotard and tights and a tie-on satin tail. I was wearing it the year my parents took me to meet the witch.

She wasn't a real witch, of course. I don't think my parents knew any Wiccans or Pagans, then or now. No; this was a friend of theirs, who dressed up every year to entertain kids like me. But I didn't know that. My father assured me she was "real," and -- filled with glee -- I believed him.

I remember faux fog and spooky cobwebs on her lawn. She wore all black and a tall pointy hat, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. I asked her what it was like to be a witch, and she answered me according to children's logic. Maybe that's why I can't remember her answer anymore.

For years after that I felt a frisson every time we drove past her house, even once I knew she was really just a lady in a witch costume. I felt sophisticated and worldly because I had sat on her couch drinking apple juice and eating candy corn. The borders between real and make-believe were different then.

In recent years I've come to appreciate the symbolism of Samhain, the overlap between Samhain and Dia de los Muertos, and how the notion of connecting with those beyond the veil is paralleled in some of the Jewish observances of the lunar month of Heshvan.

Halloween is kind of a non-event for me these days. I'm spending the evening quietly at home. No costumery; no jack-o-lanterns; no trick-or-treaters, because we live at the top of a long dark hill on a short dark street in a neighborhood with no kids. I'm cooking myself supper (salmon in sake and soy, with spinach and brown rice), listening to the wind in the trees -- having a contemplative Halloween, I suppose. That's fine by me.

Still, I wonder how many of us crave the kind of Halloween I remember from when I was a kid: a night to allow ourselves to live in imagination, to enjoy the way it feels to suspend our disbelief.

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Conversation with R' Feibush Heller, z"l

Sometimes the material I'm reading for my rabbinic school classes speaks to me on levels beyond the intellectual. That's when I find these ideas weaving their way into the poems I'm working on.

Like this one. Which I shared with my classmates, and they liked it, so I'll share it with you:


Stacking wood, I'm thinking
about Meshullam Feibush.
How can I separate
from the insidious desires
of the temporary self, that voice

which whispers "today I want
warmer socks and a box of truffles
and praise from the people around me
and an easy shortcut
to everything I don't yet know?"

It's not so simple
to dedicate myself to wisdom,
to the river of conversation
flowing always toward Eden,
to the work I know the world demands.

Tough luck, the rav says.
I'm telling you how to taste paradise:
not despite everything
that’s appealing or uneven,
shards unwilling to reassemble,

but because in multiplicity
we can train ourselves
to notice both sides of the coin,
the radiance and the source
and how they are one.


R' Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh was an early Hasidic rabbi, and most of the ideas in this poem are drawn from my understanding of his work. You can read about him and his circle, and get a taste for his teachings, in the book Uniter of Heaven and Earth by Rabbi Miles Krassen, a.k.a. Moshe Aharon, with whom I am blessed to be learning this fall.

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A day in the life

I got up early to dash to synagogue so I could borrow a volume of Talmud for one of my classes. Then Torah study at the coffee shop (I am blessed to meet with three rabbis and a cantor for coffee and learning each week; we're working our way slowly through Isaiah this year.)

Then home for my liturgy class, which met (over conference call) until noon. We talked mostly about the blessing for light which precedes the shema, in its morning and evening forms, and how that piece of liturgy evolved, and how we would approach different aspects of it if we were creating our own siddurim today.

After a bite of lunch, and a chance to natter with Ethan about the Auslander book we both just finished, I plugged back into Skype for hevruta (paired study.) I spent two and a half hours on the phone with colleagues in two other towns, laboriously working our way through about a page and a half of the Me'or Eynayim for the class on the Chernobyler which meets again tomorrow morning.

And now it's approaching 5pm and I've been actively immersed in Torah since 8 this morning. I feel awesome. My brain is also dribbling out my ears. I think it's time to listen to some Bjork and warm my hands on a mug of ginger tea; the useful part of my day is just about done.

When I imagined rabbinic school, in the days before this adventure began, I'm not sure I realized how many different kinds of days rabschool would include and entail. I like this kind of day -- overfull, but in a good way.

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Hey, want to hear more Hoffman?

Lately I've been reading a lot of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Also some Tzvee Zahavy and some Ismar Elbogen -- but mostly I'm reading Hoffman. He writes:

Of all the books that line the shelves of a Jewish library, it is the Siddur, not the Talmud and not even the Bible, that Jews know best. The prayer book is our Jewish diary of the centuries, a collection of prayers composed by generations of those who came before us, as they endeavored to express the meaning of their lives. To know the prayer book is to know our history from within.

...It can equally be called the spiritual "tel" of the Jewish People. A tel is an archaeological term for a mound of earth that turns out to house successive layers of civilization that have been covered over by the sands of time. Archaeologists dig deep into the dirt to retrieve secrets of the past buried in its physical detritus: clay pots, stone slabs, fragments of homes, jewelry, and even old toys...

That's from the introduction to the first volume of the My People's Prayer Book series. We'll be reading four volumes of that series over the course of the liturgy class I'm taking; this week I've been working my way through the first one, the volume on the Sh'ma and her blessings. (This blog post won't dip into the body of the book, though -- just the opening chapter.)  I've written before about how Hoffman compares Jewish prayer to jazz, a theme he takes up here too:

What the melody line is to jazz, the thematic development is to rabbinic prayer. For instance, the Sh'ma must come before the Amidah, not afterward.... Jewish prayer has its own proper structure, played out in time, first one theme and then another, until slowly but surely the whole service is completed, like a piece of jazz that starts somewhere, goes somewhere and ends somewhere, albeit with no predictability regarding each and every note the performers choose in executing the pattern.

Hoffman asserts that the rise of poetry in our liturgy arose as prayer became more standard. As Jewish prayer became less free-form, the yearning for "something new every day" got channeled into poems. I think immediately of Ezra Pound's dictum, oft-quoted at Bennington, that poets must "make it new" -- take the stuff of ordinary reality, and wreak whatever alchemy is necessary to bring something new to life in and for the reader. Prayer needs to do this, too.

Continue reading "Hey, want to hear more Hoffman?" »

New terrain

I used to think only rabbis could serve on batei din. (That's the plural form of the term. Beit din literally means "house of judgment;" a beit din is a rabbinic court.) That turns out not to be true. In the liberal corner of Judaism where I make my home, a beit din needs to include a rabbi, but two of the three members can be knowledgeable laypeople, or student clergy. Batei din are convened for a variety of purposes. The first one I served on came together to witness and formalize a conversion to Judaism.

Giyyur (conversion) is a major undertaking, not to be entered-into lightly. Maybe that's part of why I was a little bit nervous the first time I served in this role. I wanted to live up to the responsibility of being part of that transition. I'd read the person's spiritual autobiography, but would I be able to come up with appropriate questions to ask during the conversational part of the ritual? How would I feel, listening to this person talk about their journey and the reasons for their choices? What would it be like?

In the car on the way there I reminded myself that this experience really wasn't about me, and that no one would be judging my participation. It's funny how familiar the anxiety was; I remember feeling something similar before my first wedding, before my first funeral, before my first on-call night at the hospital. Reb Goldie Milgram has written about the need for those who serve on a beit din to spiritually prepare themselves for the work, and as I drove I thought about how to prepare myself to really be present.

The rabbi who had convened the beit din created sacred space through song, through silence, through pouring mint tea into beautiful handmade teacups for all of us. I felt awe when the new Jew was enfolded in a tallit for the first time. We drove along winding dirt roads to a secluded source of natural waters -- one of the most beautiful natural mikva'ot I've ever seen. I can still hear the splash of the immersion, and the words of the bracha, and the way everyone chorused amen!

Although we never left the general region I call home, the adventure took us along an utterly spectacular road I had never before seen. That seemed fitting, somehow. There's always more to explore, more to learn, even on terrain I think I know by heart.

I drove home marveling at the beauty of creation -- both the outer world around us (the mountains that day were truly afire) and the inner world each of us inhabits (our hearts and souls can burn with just as much radiant beauty as these Berkshire hills.) The fabric of my day had been subtly and irrevocably altered, and everyone's smiles continued to radiate in and through me. What a source of blessing.

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It's been brought to my attention that the livejournal feed for this blog hasn't updated since October 11, although a handful of posts have gone live since that date. I'm not sure what I can do about that. I don't own the lj feed, so I can't edit it, and it's not clear to me why it doesn't seem to be working. (Well, apparently, there's an RSS parser error -- an invalid token at line 338, column 31, byte 21023 -- but that knowledge doesn't really help me.)

Anyway. If you read this blog via livejournal syndication, I'd like to ask you to pipe up and let me know (via comment on the blog itself) if/when this post comes through. But apparently you can't, because you won't see this post in the first place. (See above.) Bummer.

Well, hey, as long as I'm talking about RSS, I'll mention that the Progressive Faith Con Blog has moved to a new WordPress home. Kindly update your blogrolls and your aggregators/feed readers to point to Progressive Faith Blog Con Blog -- that's where we'll be posting the info on the forthcoming (second biennial) con, as soon as those details are hammered-out.

I now return you to your regularly-scheduled afternoon.

Edited to add: Many thanks to those who speedily responded to this post! I have taken your advice and made some judicious edits; here's hoping RSS will now flow smoothly again...

Awareness week

One of the Pop!Tech 2007 talks that Ethan liveblogged a couple of days ago struck a chord with me: Dialogue with/in Islam. The session was moderated by Dr. John Esposito, who noted:

In contrast to Judaism and Christianity, Islam was invisible to most of us as we grew up -- we didn't see mosques in our communities, or hindu temples. As a result, we have very little context for understanding struggles within Islam. "Imagine a bunch of Buddhists watching northern Ireland -- what is it about those Catholics and Protestants and the way they go at it?"

It's a good point. Growing up as a Jew in south Texas I had some understanding of Catholicism, and I knew a little bit about the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, but Islam was not only opaque to me -- it was invisible. In the absence of personal connections, it's easy to view Islam as a vast, confusing, belligerent monolith.

And that view can lead to some troubling things. The week we're now beginning has been christened Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week by the American religious right. The right wants us to mentally link Islam and fascism, and to view Islam through that lens.

I'm not going to dissect the event or what's problematic about it (though I will link to this post, in which Ali Eteraz does just that.) But I do want to suggest strongly that the whole paradigm of "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" is built on misunderstanding -- which I think is inexcusable, given how easy the internet makes it for us to meet one another and to learn.

A trio of rabbinic leaders who I admire spoke recently at the national gathering of the Islamic Society of North America. Though I can't seem to lay hands on Reb Arthur Waskow's remarks, he's published the remarks of his two fellow speakers: Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus on "Upholding Faith; Serving Humanity"; Rabbi Eric Yoffie's prepared remarks. Rabbi Yoffie said:

[T]he time has come put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.

The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak, from their heart and in their own words, about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.

The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.

The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders, and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.

What better time than now? I welcome the religious right's call to make this coming week an "awareness week" -- a week to become more aware of Islam and of Muslims, of the places where our traditions and values intersect, and of the ways in which we can build bridges and forge connections.

Read Shahed Amanullah's month-long daily blog series Hungry for Ramadan, and read Islamicate; read Sunni Sister and Rickshaw Diaries; read Akram's Razor and City of Brass. Leave comments and strike up conversations. Don't let the fears of the religious right define the terms of our interactions. This week, let's build and celebrate awareness of relationship and common ground.

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The Chernobyler's opening words

The Chernobyler's commentary on Genesis begins with a riff on the very first word of the Torah, בראשית / bereshit (usually translated as "In the beginning...") He writes:

It was through the Torah, called "The beginning of God's way" (Prov. 8:22), that God created the world; all things were created by means of Torah.

The thicket of references and allusions in the Hebrew is like poetry. I keep trying to expound on it here, and my words run away from me. Maybe the thing to draw out of this first sentence is the idea that God created the world with, in, and through Torah.The word for world, alma (that's Aramaic; the Hebrew analogue is ha'olam), has resonances both spatial and temporal. With and through Torah, the Holy Blessed One created spacetime. Torah is the fabric of creation.

Since the power of the Creator remains in the creature, Torah is to be found in all things and throughout all the worlds.

כח הפועל בנפעל / Co'akh ha'poal b'nifal is a beautiful phrase. Rabbi Art Green renders it as "the power of the Creator remains in the creature;" in class this morning we rendered it as "the power of the maker is in the made." But what does that really mean? That an afterimage of God's power ripples through creation, even to the present moment. That we too have the capacity to create worlds with our actions and our speech. That our DNA is a reflection of God's DNA, in some metaphysical sense, and we carry forth in our very bodies that which was given in the beginning.

So too in the case of man, as Scripture says: "This is the Torah, a man..." (Numbers 19:14), as will be explained.

In context, the quote from Numbers means something very different. ("This is the Torah [of what to do when] a man [dies in a tent...]") But the Chernobyler takes these three words, זאת התורה אדם / zot hatorah adam, and by re-placing them he changes their meaning. This kind of use of prooftexts is an art form: a patchwork, a collage, a remix. He grabs snippets of sourcetext and spins them in new directions, like a musician recontextualizing lyrics from one song by mashing them with music from another (or writing a new song around them.)

And since God and Torah are one, the life of God is present in all things. "You give life to them all." (Nehemiah 9:6)

Torah and the Blessed Holy One are one. It's a gorgeous assertion: that the essence of Torah, deeper and wider than any written material we can imagine, is the essence of God. And if creation came into being with and through Torah, then that essence of God pervades and permeates creation. What enlivens all beings, all reality, is that spark of God which is the truest Torah.

The first four lines of the text Me'or Eynayim by the author who has come to be known as The Me'or Eynayim (Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl), ladies and gentlemen -- italicized translations from Rabbi Art Green's translation, which I highly recommend. Reb Nahum was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, and one of the first disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch; he was in on the ground floor of Hasidut, and this text is an open door to those early days. I'm excited to enter it, and to see what I find there which will inform my own practice and understanding.

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Ladybug, ladybug

A day always comes in late October -- usually a sunny day, unseasonably warm -- when suddenly there are ladybugs in and on our house. It almost seems they spontaneously generate. One day there aren't any; the next day, they're climbing happily on our ceilings and our south-facing windows, an aggregate perpetual motion machine.

We're not alone in this. Pretty much everyone I know in northern Berkshire gets ladybugs in the fall. As pests go, they're not very...pesky, really. They don't bite or sting; they don't eat our food; they don't damage our dwelling. They just flit around, little red dots with black spots on, like somebody's peculiar idea of wall and ceiling decoration.

Ladybugs are coccinellidae. Some people consider them good luck charms, or at least signs of good luck soon coming. (Evidently this is so in Northern Europe, Russia, and Turkey, among other places.) A cursory search yielded a range of stories and proverbs about ladybugs. (This fable is kind of disturbing.) Some species are migratory. Others overwinter in structures -- like, say, south-facing houses.

When I noticed a few of them gliding around the interior of the windows in our living room, I stepped outside. That was kind of surreal. Everywhere I look, ladybugs are darting through the air, like falling leaves only with slightly more direction and volition. The house is, predictably, covered with them; they crawl quickly across the blank canvas of the clapboards. It's easy to anthropomorphize, to presume they're on their way to someplace very important.

Apparently the ones we get here are Asian ladybird beetles (Harmonia axyridis), introduced to the United States some time ago because they like to eat aphids (and other things which in turn eat our crops.) I don't actually mind them; they're kind of charming, in their way. Years ago I wrote a prose poem in the form of a Talmudic debate about what to do with the ladybugs. I can't find the poem anywhere on my hard drive, though; it exists now only as tiny fragments of memory.

Standing outside even for a brief moment, I find myself also adorned with ladybugs. As they whiz past me, one lands on my arm, another on my wrist, three on my sweater, one on my hair. I brush them off carefully when I come inside. Tiny bright harbingers of autumn! They remind me to enjoy the sun of these sweet Indian summer days before the cold I know is coming.

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The lull of Heshvan

A teaching from the end of the first week of DLTI, last summer, a year-plus and a lifetime ago: Jewish holidays don't emerge out of nowhere like blips on the radar screen. We don't "attend" services (rather we serve, we are serving) just as we don't "observe" holidays (the year flows organically from one to the next.)

I've been thinking of that over the last few days, as we've entered the lunar month of Heshvan. Many of the rabbis and rabbinic students I know joke that Rosh Hodesh Heshvan (the festival of the new moon marking the start of the month of Heshvan) is their favorite Jewish holiday...because it ushers in a full month with no Jewish holidays in it at all!

It's a joke, obviously, but there's truth in it too. In all seriousness, there's something valuable in the way this rhythm unfolds. After the nonstop work (both spiritual and, for clergy, practical and intellectual and logistical) of the month of Tishri, the prospect of a month with no holidays is incredibly appealing.

Going from being so intensely "on" to being "off" for a while can generate a kind of spiritual whiplash, but the break is much-needed...and I think there's spiritual wisdom in taking a breather at this point in the year. We need some downtime in order to process the new insights and new awareness that may have arisen during our celebrations of the new year, the aseret y'mei teshuvah ("ten days of repentance"), the week of Sukkot, and its three capstones of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

I'm reminded of a teaching I copied down during the middot class I took this summer.  In Ezekiel 1:14 we read about how the holy creatures (hayyot) wax and wane (ratzo v'shov.) But hayyot can also be read as hiyyut, life-force -- which teaches us that life's energy is always waxing and waning, coming and going, going forth and returning. Going from the manic energy of Tishri to the lull of Heshvan is an instance of this kind of shift. Spiritual life never holds still, but there's a kind of stillness that can emerge in the balance between the ups and the downs, the intense periods of spiritual activity and the quiet periods of rest and integration.

I'm looking forward to seeing what arises for me as the current moon waxes and wanes, as the Days of Awe recede further into my past, as the autumn leaves fall, as we move through the darkening days toward the zenith of the solar year. The spiritual seeds we planted during Tishri and the Days of Awe are settling into the earth, getting comfortable in their snug dark home. They, and we, need the coming winter in order to be able to germinate in time, to lead us toward spring.

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Morning blessings for body and soul

At the end of our first liturgy class yesterday, we spent a short while looking at two blessings from the first part of the morning liturgy, the matched set of אשר יצר / asher yatzar ("Who formed the human body with wisdom...") and אלהי נשמה / elohai neshama ("My God, the soul that you have placed within me...") One blessing for the body, one for the soul: a matched set. (As the classical saying goes, tefilah bli kavanah, zeh kmo guf bli neshamah: "prayer without mindful intention is like a body without a soul.")

I've blogged about each of these blessings a little bit before, though it's been a couple of years since I last wrote about either. (Here: Sanctifying the body and Elohai neshama, both posts from 2005.) My classmates offered some beautiful insights about each of these prayers.

For instance, the blessing for the body uses the word חלולים / chalulim, "ducts" or "tubes" or "openings." (In context: "Who formed humans with wisdom and created a system of ducts and conduits within them.") A chalal is a flute, so this blessing evokes the ways in which our bodies are like flutes through which the ruach ha-kodesh ("holy spirit," more or less) flows. (I'm reminded of that Rumi poem I blogged just before last Yom Kippur, specifically the lines comparing us with instruments.)

Or, on the blessing for the soul: in speaking about the purity of the soul God breathed into each of us, this blessing does something gorgeous with onomatopoeia. Its string of feminine-ending words, each with an aspirated heh at the end, obligates us to focus on our own breath in order to articulate our words about God's breath, and in so doing to be mindful of the ways in which both we and God breathe holiness into the world. (That insight is courtesy of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.)

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School sestina

My first class of the semester began last night, so I wanted to spend part of yesterday afternoon on poetry as a way of reaffirming that my rabbinic work needn't keep me from giving time and energy also to poems. I found myself somewhat obsessed with the reality of school about to begin, though, and had a hard time focusing enough to get into my usual poetry headspace.

Following the dictum of "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," I took my fixation on starting school and used that as the springboard for this poem: a rabbinic school sestina.

I'm a big fan of sestinas. (I posted one here a couple years ago.) The constraints of the form are like a word game -- one that works neatly with free verse, which is what I generally write. Of course, what I generally write is still pretty different from this, so this may or may not appeal to those who like my other poems. Still, I figured I'd share; I hope you enjoy.


Brace yourself, folks! My fall semester is on the verge of beginning.
Monday nights: Jewish identity in modernity, a.k.a. enlightenment history.
Wednesday mornings: liturgy of weekday and Shabbat, the nuts and bolts of prayer.
Sunday evenings: a study of Hasidic texts and how they shape spiritual practice.
As-yet unscheduled: a tutorial in Rashi, the classic medieval commentary,
And the exegesis of the Me'or Eynayim of Chernobyl, a Hasidic rabbi.

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Before Sukkot began, I was at shul to meet with my rabbi, and happened to see the etrogim he'd purchased, sitting on a table. Our shul ordered three this year. I asked whether anyone had any intention of preserving them when the festival had ended, and sure enough, no one did. So when I was back at shul for Hebrew school on Simchat Torah, I took away the etrogim. In previous years I've only had the one etrog to play with. This year, since I would have four at my disposal, I decided it was time to try making etrog marmalade again.

The inside of an etrog is quite beautiful, but there's a lot of pith. (This one actually has more fruit and less pith than some of the others I sliced into; some of them seem to be mostly pith, with just a little starburst of fruit in the center.) Before the marmalade-making began, I read every citrus marmalade recipe I could get my hands on. Several suggested using fruit and rind but eschewing the pith, since pith may impart a bitter flavor to the jam. Of course, pith -- and seeds -- also contain natural pectins, and the first time I tried making this stuff my marmalade didn't set, so I wasn't sure I wanted to leave out anything that might help with that process. Besides, if I cut away all of the pith I would hardly have had any fruit left.

Continue reading "Marmalade" »

Rejoicing in our story

We gathered at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College: members of my shul and members of the shul up the road. Some of us had celebrated Shavuot together, so there were familiar faces.

A local musician had brought a car full of big beautiful drums, and he led us in some drumming and singing to get the spirit flowing. I wound up playing a plastic tambourine so enthusiastically I came home with a bruise on the heel of my left palm. A young man from my shul lit the festival candles, and we all said the blessing together.

We removed all of the Torah scrolls from the ark -- big and small, Torahs of all sizes -- and made seven hakafot, processions around the room. Before each hakafah one of the two rabbis present called or sang out the blessing, and then started a song. We sang and drummed as the scrolls were carried and danced around the room. For the first few circuits, we made a kind of London Bridge out of our raised hands, and the scrolls were carried between us. When I was handed a scroll, I waltzed it around the room, holding it close. One person hoisted his scroll into the air the way we lift a bride or groom on a chair at a wedding.

And then we took one scroll into the bigger room, and stood in an enormous circle with all the children in the middle, and passed around a box of surgical gloves, and then unfurled the entire Torah. Each of us helped to hold it up, in our gloved hands. It took a surprisingly long time, and a lot of space, to unroll it all. (A full-sized Torah stretches almost the length of a football field, I'm told.) It amazed me: not only the beauty of the words and the calligraphy, but the graphic design of it, the places where white space shapes the feel of the text. Black fire on white fire.

And we retold the story, looking around the scroll and cherrypicking highlights, reminders of how our narrative has gone in the year that's just ended. We chanted two aliyot from the very end of the scroll -- Moses dies, and the Israelites mourn, and Joshua ben Nun has the spirit of wisdom that Moses transmitted to him; he will lead the people forward, though there will never be another like Moses. And then before the fact of having finished could sink in, we chanted the very beginning of the scroll: suddenly the world is entirely brand-new, ruach elohim hovering over the face of the waters, and God sees what has been created and calls it good. Evening and morning, the first day.

Going from the end to the beginning always knocks me flat. Every year we read this same story, but every year we are different, and see the old story through new eyes. And what seems like the end is always already the beginning. We live in linear time and we live in circular time. We hit the same highlights each year, holidays and seasons and anniversaries, but each year we're in a new place, a new twist in the spiral of our lives.

And then we sang while we rolled the scroll back up, restoring her to her usual form. And then it was time for dessert, and I quietly slipped away.

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Reflecting on The Tribe

Image from this gallery of press stills.

A few weeks ago at the Idea Festival, Ethan saw a short film called The Tribe as part of a talk by Tiffany Shlain, the film's producer and director and also co-author (with her husband Ken Goldberg.) The film just became available on iTunes for $1.99, so I picked it up. It's a short film -- eighteen minutes, an auspicious number! -- about Jewish identity in America today.

If you've got an interest in Jewish identity, and two bucks to spare, it's worth downloading. (My favorite moment may be the one Ethan first told me about -- roughly three minutes and fifty seconds in to the film, there's a visual representation of the many kinds of Jews in America today, including the Renewal Jew, who is depicted as a hippie Ken doll sitting in lotus position.)

Ken doll? Well, yeah. All of the denominations are represented by Barbies and Kens, because one of the threads of the movie is the creation of Barbie and the question of what, exactly, "looking Jewish" means. As the voiceover says, early in the film, "A Jewish woman created Barbie. Maybe Barbie can explain something about how this generation responds to being Jewish today." (Hear the film's opening lines here in this trailer.)

There's stuff I like here. The Barbie representation of the various denominations is, yeah, cute; the data about just how small a percentage of the world Jews make up, and the scrolling history of persection, are pretty sobering; and there's a prose-poetry performance piece at the end, in the voice of a Jewish woman reclaiming what it means to "look Jewish," which I quite like. (It's by Vanessa Hidary, who calls herself "The Hebrew Mamita." Her website seems to be down at the moment, though here's an article about her.)

There's also stuff here that I question. The film bites off more than it can chew in eighteen minutes. Contemporary Jewish identity in all of its incarnations? Barbie and the problematics of gender, appearance, stereotypes and assimilation? The intersection of Jewish identity, religion, and culture -- and how the existence of the state of Israel relates to Jewish American identity? There's just no way to explore these deeply in such a short piece. Granted, I'm not sure the film aims at a coherent philosophical argument; it works on associative levels, not intellectual ones. Still, I could wish for less breadth and more depth.   

Trickier for me is the fact that although there are nods to the fact that some Jews actually find spiritual sustenance in our Jewishness, most of the contemporary Jews in the film are "cultural" Jews rather than Jews who self-identify as religious. It may be that I'm not quite in the film's target audience, in that sense.

But it's a well-done piece, visually interesting (Shlain likes using found footage, which adds an interesting referential layer to the whole thing) and definitely a conversation starter. I like the fact that the filmmakers' stated intention is "to spark an ongoing open discussion about what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st Century." If you download it, I'd be curious to know what you think. And, it seems, so would they.

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The pause of the 8th day

Today is Shemini Atzeret, which means something like "the 8th day of pausing" or "the pause of the 8th day." Eighth day refers to the seven-day festival of Sukkot, which has just ended. Shemini Atzeret is a kind of lagniappe, a bonus, an extra. Shemini Atzeret is the moment when, after a week of hanging out together, God says "wait, no, you don't have to go yet, do you? Stay for a snack! One more cup of tea!"

(In Israel and in the Reform world, today is also Simchat Torah, the day of "rejoicing in the Torah," when we read the very end of the Torah and then immediately cycle back around to the very beginning. Our central narrative is a kind of mobius strip, a continual spiral, which shifts in meaning each year as we change and grow. More on that later today, I hope.)

So, Shemini Atzeret: what's the deal? What does it mean for a seven-day holiday to have an eighth day? (Isn't that kind of an oxymoron?) During the middot class I took this summer, Reb Elliot taught some beautiful texts about atzeret. One of them is this set of teachings from the Slonimer rebbe, found in Netivot Shalom (I paraphrase):

There are two days of atzeret during the year. The word's root means "stop," so these are days of holy pausing. The Holy One of Blessing says to those who engage with God, heyyu atsurim iti, "be those who put on the brakes and slow down with Me." This is our time to be with the Beloved at the end of an intense cycle of spiritual work.

Just as Shavuot (the moment of revelation at Sinai) comes after the 49 days of Counting the Omer, so does Shemini Atzeret come after the 49 days of Elul + these weeks of Tishri. Each of these days is a kind of atzeret, a pause, a day of extra connection with God at the end of a long journey.

On Shemini Atzeret, as we dismantle our sukkot, we realize that the whole world is a sukkah. We may be moving back indoors to our solid, well-constructed houses, but that shouldn't mean losing access to Sukkot's insights about fragility, openness, and permeability.

It is taught that the smooth parchment between the letters (of Torah) is holier than the letters; for each letter has its own holiness, but the parchment contains the holiness of all the letters. Just so, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret, the culmination of the two holiest periods in the year, are the smooth parchment which contains all the holiness of the days we've just completed.

I love the idea that after seven-times-seven-weeks of spiritual work, what God wants most is for us to linger just a little longer... and I'm unsettled and ultimately inspired by the notion that however holy our words may be (and Jewish tradition loves words, no doubt about that!), the silence -- the ineffability -- the pause in time -- the blank parchment that contains them is even holier.

P.S. Here's a shiny little gematria: סוכה / sukkah has the numerical value of 91; יהוה / YHVH has a value of 26 and אדני / Adonai has a value of 65. 65 + 26 = 91, so dwelling in the sukkah means dwelling in the integration of those two divine Names, the Name that connotes immanence and indwelling-in-the-world and the Name that connotes ultimate transcendence. Now that the festival of Sukkot is over, it's our job to integrate those two aspects of God in our ordinary lives.

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Falling leaves

Today is the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshana Rabbah. I wrote a post about Hoshanah Rabbah last year, complete with an extemporaneous prayer for rain. This year I'm feeling a little bit disconnected, spiritually wiped-out from the long span of holiday consciousness that started with the new moon of Elul seven weeks ago. Maybe because I'm hovering on the edge of a new semester I feel distracted, not entirely here. I'm too busy anticipating what's coming to feel rooted in what's happening now.

My solution? I return to the sukkah with my laptop. I'll work from out here for a while. It's the last day of the festival, after all. This weekend I'll beat the rugs that have been living out here all week, and drape them over the railings of the deck to air out before being folded and stowed in the garage. (We'll use them at midwinter, to line our ger.) I'll untwine the autumnal tinsel garland and coil it for next year. But for now, I can sit outside, listening to the constant pulse of crickets singing and to the rattle of warm wind in the trees. I can take the time to notice how it feels to be sitting in this open-air house, inside and outside at the same time.

I watch leaves falling, spiraling lazily from the still-mostly-green forest overhead, and I think about the leaves of the aravot, the willow branches we beat against the ground today. The practice renders our lulavim unfit for future use, preventing ourselves from holding on to this festival too long. I can't come out here and bentsch lulav next week, because it won't be time for that any more. "To everything there is a season," as Kohelet has it -- Kohelet, the megillah we read during Sukkot. (I can't seem to help adding the Byrds' "Turn, turn, turn.") The autumn equinox has passed. The angle of the earth is turning.

Tonight, at my synagogue's Simchat Torah celebration, we'll do a different kind of turning -- from the end of the Torah to its beginning. "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." The planet turns, the cycle of the seasons turn, and our central story turns. Endings are always also beginnings. Dismantling the sukkah will be the first step toward putting it back together again next year. But for now, it's time to accept that the leaves are falling. I knock my aravah against the table and watch its leaves flutter to the ground.

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A very full slate

My fall semester is about to begin. (Cue both excitement and trepidation.) The excitement is typical; I love the fall feeling of going back-to-school, its aura of shiny new possibility. The trepidation is less familiar to me, though I understand it. Last spring I took fewer classes than I had intended, for health reasons, and this term I plan to take more classes than ever before. Some part of me feels anxiety: can I carry this full a load? Only one way to find out, I guess.

The five classes span a broad range of subjects. As I begin my third year in the program, I'm starting to pay more attention to course distribution. I need to balance courses in Tanakh, Exegesis, History, Philosophy, Halakhic Literature, Kabbalah/Hasidut, Liturgy, and "Various" (everything from practical rabbinics to spiritual direction to world religions.) I'm also trying to stay on top of my documentation -- I just spent a couple of hours adding material to my "Learning Overview" binder. It's a good thing I find filing and sorting and list-making so satisfying.

This term I'm taking one history class (on the haskalah/Jewish Enlightenment) and one liturgy class (on the liturgies of Shabbat and weekday.) The other three classes are -- well, either two in Hasidut and one in exegesis, or the other way 'round. One is a class in Hasidic texts, one is a class in Rashi (an early medieval exegete) and the third is a class on a Hasidic Torah commentary which could either be filed under exegesis or under Hasidut depending on which eye you use to look at it.

For those who are interested, descriptions of each class follow beneath the extended-entry link. Does all of this mean I'll be blogging less? Maybe; though I think it's likelier that the rhythm of my posts will remain constant, and these new classes will shape the substance of what I blog about. In any event, I begin on Monday. It's almost time to dive in.

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