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Eboo Patel on the call to pluralism

On Ethan's recommendation, I just spent 42 minutes watching a lecture given on August 8th at the Chautauqua Institution by a man named Eboo Patel, the founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core (you can find his bio here.) Patel is an impassioned believer in the capability of people to find common ground.

America is, he says, the most religious diverse country in human history. In this time of global religious conflict, "what can the American 'city on a hill' model for the world?" Here in America we live in pluralism: "a situation of equal dignity and mutual loyalty." What if, when people thought of America over the course of this coming century, they thought of us not only as a country of freedom and opportunity, but as a country "where we are all accorded, and all offer, equal dignity and mutual loyalty" regardless of our religious background or affiliation?

The question is powerful; his answer is even better.

Patel has extraordinary things too to say about religious identity, social justice, and faith. About people of faith destroying one another in the name of religion -- and "heroes of faith" building a world of mutual respect and understanding. Terrorists, he says, destroy diversity. Heroes build pluralism.

He talks about how religious extremism, and religious pluralism, are both taught: most often, and most effectively, to youth. "If we don't teach interfaith cooperation, we let other people teach religious extremism." Over the course of his remarks, he cites poets Charles Simic, Gwendolyn Brooks, and William Stafford alongside Thich Nhat Hanh, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King. (This guy is my kind of thinker, for sure.)

The vast majority of humanity inclines toward pluralism. We want to live together. That's the way God made us. ...It's written into our spiritual and sociological DNA. Here's the problem: it's not enough to incline toward pluralism... the question is, how do we act for pluralism? How do we speak for pluralism? How do we take a stand for pluralism, and so marginalize the handful of religious extremists in the world that they whip away in the wind?

You can watch his talk online here: Eboo Patel on Interfaith Understanding. (Alternately, if you'd prefer, you can listen to his remarks as a podcast.) Go and listen, and be inspired.

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A Prayer for Voting - from R' David Seidenberg

Reb David Seidenberg (of the terrific has posted a revised 2008 version of his beautiful prayer for voting, in Hebrew and English. Here's the English version:

Prayer for Voting

With my vote today I am prepared and intending
    to seek peace for this country, as it is written:

"Seek out the peace of the city where I cause you to roam
and pray for her sake to Yah Adonai, for in her peace you all will have peace."
(Jer. 29:7)

May it be Your will that votes will be counted faithfully
    and may You account my vote as if I had fulfilled this verse with all my power.

May it be good in Your eyes to give a wise heart
    to whomever we elect today
    and may You raise for us a government whose rule is for good and blessing
    to bring justice and peace to all the inhabitants of the world and to Jerusalem,
    for rulership is Yours!

Just as I participated in elections today
    so may I merit to do good deeds and repair the world with all my actions,
    and with the act of...[fill in your pledge] which I pledge to do today
    on behalf of all living beings and in remembrance of the covenant of Noah's waters
    to protect and to not destroy the earth and her plenitude.

May You give to all the peoples of this country, the strength and will
    to pursue righteousness and to seek peace as unified force
    in order to cause to flourish, throughout the world, good life and peace
    and may You fulfill for us the verse:

"May the pleasure of Yah Adonai our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands for us, may the work of our hands endure."
(Ps. 90:17)

You can find the prayer here; that page includes the English version alongside links to an interlinear Hebrew-and-English version in .doc and .pdf formats. I'm especially moved by the reference to Noah's waters -- as you know if you read this week's Torah poem (or if you keep up with the Jewish weekly lectionary), we're reading the story of Noah this week, which makes this feel all the more timely.

May we be blessed in in the process of democracy -- and in its outcome.

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This week's portion: integration


Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:14)

When the floodgates open
build a boat
with many compartments

here in these cubbyholes
stash your secret fur
your scales, your feathers

put your red in the bow
your yellow in the stern
and your blues at the bottom of the hold

pack a crate of empty journals
pack provisions for the forty days
required for transformation

and set sail
not knowing where on earth
the current will carry you

don't be surprised if you wobble
when you take your first steps
back across the gangplank

when you raise the partitions
every color you'd sequestered
will run together like water

offer all of yourself
on your altar of stone
beneath the varicolored sky

This week's portion, Noah, contains of course the story of the Flood. (Along with some other amazing narratives: don't forget the Tower of Babel! And then, at the very end, the death of Terah, father of Abraham -- the line which gave rise to the rich bundle of stories about Abraham and the idols in Bereshit Rabbah to which I referred in my recent post about midrash and tafsir and Torah and Qur'an.)

Reading the portion this week, I found myself thinking about what it means that the ark had compartments. In a pshat (simple or surface meaning) sense, the compartments are necessary because they keep the animals separate from one another. But I think it also says something about our tendency toward compartmentalization, how we separate the different parts of ourselves, our attributes and affinities.

At the end of the story of the Flood, God offers the rainbow as a sign of God's enduring covenant with humanity from here on out. I like to think we're heading for a time in human history when we'll be able, collectively and individually, to let all of our emotional and spiritual colors shine.


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Abraham and the idols in midrash and the Qur'an

Ask the average Jew to recount stories about Abraham, and odds are good you'll hear a story about how Abraham's father Terah was a seller of idols, and one day the boy Abraham smashed the idols in his father's shop. The funny thing, of course, is that this story doesn't appear anywhere in Tanakh. We know it from the midrash.

Midrash is a form of exegesis, a text that seeks to explain or explore texts from the Tanakh. Midrash writ large is broken into two categories: midrash halakha, and midrash aggadah. My Jewish Learning offers a good introduction to midrash aggadah, nothing that "[w]hen Jews use the colloquial 'it says in the midrash,' they are usually referring to teachings of midrash aggadah, generally those found in a corpus of classical Jewish texts compiled between about 200 and 1000 C.E." That article also acknowledges the centrality of the story about Abraham and the idols:

The best-known rabbinic midrash may be the legend of Abraham the patriarch as a young child in Mesopotamia smashing idols. Not just a simple morality tale about a national hero, the text in Genesis Rabbah suggests that Abraham's selection by God did not come out of nowhere, as Genesis 12 might plausibly be read. Rather, Abraham had independently come to a point where he would be receptive to the voice of a single God.

We studied this passage from Genesis Rabbah in the midrash class I took at the CY this past summer. Here's a taste:

R' Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. "How old are you?" Abraham asked him. "Fifty years" was the reply. "Woe to such a man," he exclaimed, "you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object!" At this he became ashamed and departed.

On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, "Take this and offer it to them." So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, "What have you done to them?" "I cannot conceal it from you," he rejoined. "A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed 'I must eat first,' while another claimed 'I must eat first.' Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick and broke them." "Why do you make sport of me," [Terah] cried out, "have they then any knowledge?" "Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying," [Abraham] retorted.

What chutzpah this Abraham has! I love his snark and his pointed wit. The text goes on to illustrate the innate understanding of the oneness of God which led him to act in this manner; it's a fantastic story. It's also a story which appears in the Qur'an.

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This week's portion: postpartum


Postpartum depression caused the Flood.
God was elated when creation was born
every facet unfolding a reflection
light and darkness, as above so below

But God ached all over, God felt hollow
God walked in the empty garden disconsolate
already nothing was the way God planned it
and Abel's blood cried out from the soil

Could the whole project be a wash?
In God's heart, regret bloomed hot
and a tempest of sorrow rained down on earth

Still, some simple sweetness in us
roused divine compassion like milk
found favor in God's tired eyes.

Maria, from The Sound of Music, would no doubt be pleased: we're starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start!) This week's portion is Bereshit, the first chapters in the book called (in English) Genesis. There's so much good stuff here, it was hard to choose where to hang a poem: on one or both of the creation stories? On the mystical resonance of the days of creation? On the fruit of the tree and the exile from Eden? On the generations of humanity multiplying on earth, or the mysterious Nephilim?

This week's poem arose out of the very last lines of the parsha. God sees how wicked humanity had already become, and regrets creation, and vows to wipe everything off the face of the earth...but that plan is tempered, because Noah finds favor with the Lord. (For more on that, tune in next week! It's a great place to end the portion -- which serves to highlight, for me, how artificial the chapter divisions often are. But that's another story.)

I like imagining God as a new mother, at once overjoyed at the reality of creation (something that's never existed before in quite this way) and also grieving, a little bit, the new distance between God's-self and us.



Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


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Ruh and nafs, ruach and nefesh

I just wrote a paper for my Qur'an class on the Arabic terms ruh and nafs. Ruh is usually translated as "spirit," and nafs as "soul" (or "self.") I was drawn to them because I suspected they would parallel their Hebrew cognates ruach and nefesh. And wow, do they ever! I have no idea how many people will be interested in this, but I figure at least a few of y'all might be fascinated, as I am, so I'm going to share some of what I've learned. If you've been reading VR for a while, you know I'm always looking for interreligious common ground...

Some background: the word nafs appears 276 times in the Qur'an; the word ruh, only 21 times. (The related term rih, wind or power or scent, appears 29 times; but even taken together, rih and ruh don't match the ubiquity of nafs.) Clearly nafs is the more frequent term, and seems also to be the more general term. According to the Encyclopedia Islamica, in early Arabic poetry ruh is used to mean breath and wind, while nafs connotes the self or person but relates to breath and wind too.

Five of the times ruh appears in the Qur'an it's in conjunction with al-quds, forming the phrase "holy spirit" -- which in Hebrew would be ruach ha-kodesh. (Same word-roots. The similarity is even more visible if you transliterate the letter kuf with a q, which some systems do, so: qodesh.)

A couple of notable instances of ruh al-quds: in verse 87 of sûrat Al-Baqarah (The Cow), we read, "We have indeed given Moses the Book, and after him we sent one Messenger after another. We also gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit." (The same line appears again in verse 253 of the same sura.) And in sûrat Al-Ma'îdah (5:110) Allah reminds Jesus of having breathed holy spirit into him. This sense of Jesus as infused with holy spirit seems to me like a borrowing from the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian sense of holy spirit is echoed in a different way in sûrat Maryam (Mary): "She screened herself away from them, and We sent to her Our spirit and it appeared to her in the form of a well-shaped human being." (19:17) Here, the divine spirit takes the form of the angel Gabriel who brings Mary tidings of the Annunciation (and who is also understood to have facilitated the revelation of the Qur'an.) Ruh seems to parallel 'amr (God’s decree from on high), which is also connected with Gabriel.

Those uses of ruh are interesting to me conceptually, but the ones that really fascinate me are the places where ruh is used in descriptions of the creation of humanity, because those are the places where the Qur'an mirrors or draws on the Hebrew Scriptures most strongly.

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This week's portion: mobius


I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah

One of my favorite moments in all the year comes when we read the solemn last lines of the Torah -- these last words from this week's portion, V'Zot HaBrakha -- and immediately read the opening lines of the Torah. Sometimes we do it with two scrolls. Sometimes we unroll a single scroll all the way from end to end, holding it in gloved fingers carefully in a giant circle around the room so we can see it in all of its complex beauty. We read the ending, and then we read the beginning.

It's the original neverending story. Just as the story of human growth and potential never ends, only spirals onward, so our reading of the Torah never ends but we begin again. For me as a lover of story, this says something important about who we are and how we understand ourselves.

 Every year offers us a chance to begin again. Every year that new beginning is informed by who we are and where we've been. One door closes and another one opens. The last words lead to the first words which will eventually, a year from now, lead us to the last words again. And then, again, the first words. One of my favorite moments in all the year.



Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Cider doughnuts


At nine on a Sunday morning
the orchard is quiet, but
as soon as I exit my car
I can smell the sweetness.

I spend too long wavering
over ten kinds of apples,
the red and the green of them
heft and roundness in my palm.

But the best part is the circle
I bite into on my way out the door
scattering cinnamon-sugar
all over my barn jacket.

Crisp and then airy, the hint
of apple cider a tantalizing reminder
of exactly where I'm standing.
I know the blessing should be

borei minei m'zonot, but
I say shehakol because
God speaks these doughnuts
into being one by one

the name of each in God's mouth
like a taste of the manna
that fell like ripe apples
from the tree.

(The blessing one says over foodstuffs made out of grain which are not bread -- crackers, pasta, doughnuts -- is Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei minei m'zonot: Blessed are You, Source of all Being, creator of diverse kinds of grains. The blessing one says over foodstuffs which are neither bread, nor vegetables from the earth, nor fruits from a tree, ends instead with shehakol yihiyeh bidvaro: Blessed are You etc, Who created all things with Your word.)

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A naming for Stellan

Doing babynamings brings me a lot of joy. This is always true. There's a reason we use birth metaphors to talk about possibility, hope, and new beginnings; birth is the most fundamental new beginning there is. And the act of welcoming a child into her/his family and community is one of the sweetest and holiest tasks I know.

Our lives have been intertwined with the lives of our friends Daniel and Emily for a long time. She and I lived together in college fifteen years ago; we co-founded an arts nonprofit, and ran it together for years. After Ethan befriended Daniel in grad school, we introduced him to Emily.

The rest, as they say, is history -- and a new chapter of their history is now beginning. Today I have the deep joy of officiating at the naming of their son.

Stellan Yann Beck. Photo by Daniel.

The traditions of Stellan's household include Judaism, drumming, and hospitality to our large and closeknit chosen clan. We're gathering at their beautiful house in the beautiful outdoors this afternoon to welcome him formally into his extended family, his extended community, and the world.

We figured that some of Stellan's family and friends who are at the babynaming today might want a copy of the naming ceremony. If you're in that number, you're in luck; here it is:

The Naming of Stellan Yann Beck [pdf]

May the blessings that unfold in their household be as many as the stars in the sky.

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Protecting the right to vote

In my judgment, the presidential campaign is over; the American people has made its decision.

But the election itself is NOT over – and no matter what our own individual judgment about the candidates is, we can gird ourselves as citizens and as people of religious and ethical commitment to justice to make sure "Thou Shalt Not Steal" applies to this election.

That's Rabbi Arthur Waskow (who I recently profiled in Zeek!), writing in a recent Shalom Report email. (And this is a rare political post for me, because this is more important than my general feeling that y'all don't come here for my political opinions.)

The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP's effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

That's from an article in the Michigan Messenger last month. During Sukkot we talk a lot about what it means to "dwell" in sukkot. We build, and inhabit, these flimsy, temporary little houses -- but we know we're (most of us) speaking metaphorically about the impermanence of our dwellings. A lot of people are losing their homes in this economic climate, and for those who are enduring the foreclosure process to be intimidated away from voting adds injustice to injury, both for them and for the country.

Republicans in Michigan are training volunteers to challenge voters at the polls. (Learn more about voter challenges, deceptive practices & voter intimidation at  Ugly shenanigans are afoot in Pennsylvania, too, like this spurious flyer circulating in African-American neighborhoods stating that voters who are facing outstanding arrest warrants or who have unpaid traffic tickets may be arrested at the polls on Election Day. (If you're interested, you can listen to that story at, which also recently aired the related Worries about voter intimidation run high.)

Four years ago, the Onion ran a piece called U.S. Inspires World With Attempt At Democratic Election. It's funny and it's painful -- and it's going to be a lot more painful if the coming US Presidential election is marred by votes not being counted, or people being dissuaded from voting because they're harassed at the polls or incorrectly informed that they're not eligible to vote when they actually are.

If you're a lawyer or law student, please consider doing voter protection to ensure that people who are entitled to vote are able to do so, especially if you are in a battleground state. (It's my understanding that Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan top that list, though obviously this is important work everywhere.) You can sign up here.

Herein endeth the PSA. Thanks for reading, y'all.

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Sukkahfest 5769

Back when I was in Jerusalem this summer, I decided that I was going to give myself the gift of attending Sukkahfest at Isabella Freedman come autumn. It would be my reward for making it through the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe): after my first Yom Kippur pulpit, I would get three days of being able to relax into davening and learning and connecting with people during the festival known as zman simchateinu, the time of our joy. I've just returned from that adventure.

On the first night, there were songs and storytelling in the sukkah until late, and then I sat and listened to a man who was giving over teachings about the custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah. (The first night, it's traditional to invite Abraham; in Hasidic communities it's customary to invite the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism.) The man told a beautiful teaching from the BeShT about how the whole world is on fire -- which one could see as a sign of chaos, but the Baal Shem saw it as a sign of how everything that lives burns for God.

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My first Yom Kippur

Ask any rabbi about their first time leading High Holiday services, and I'm guessing you'll get a wry smile and memories of an emotional rollercoaster. It's easy to get overwhelmed with preparations. The High Holiday liturgy is rich and dense. And we know, as clergy, that it's our job to facilitate what's supposed to be one of the most intense spiritual experiences of the year -- but who can guarantee what kind of experience the members of a community will have, no matter how good the shaliach tzibbur's intentions may be or how hard she works at preparing the service she thinks the community wants and needs?

Early in my preparations for my Yom Kippur pulpit at FSU Hillel, I posted to the Aleph rabbinic student email list with a query about what my colleagues (especially the women) wear when leading Yom Kippur services. I knew that the flowy Indian embroidered Shabbat dress I've worn on retreat these last few years wouldn't send quite the professional message I wanted. (I'm young for a rabbi anyway, and I wanted to give the impression of someone who's competent and put-together.) But I didn't want to wear my usual "professional" clergy garb (black suit, pearls, leather shoes) because I've taken on the customs of wearing white, and eschewing leather, on Yom Kippur. What to do?

I got great suggestions from many of my classmates. Thanks to a friend who likes to shop, I found a white linen suit on sale (the nice thing about doing this in September: summer clothes are available at reduced prices!) I have a white tallit. I bought white canvas shoes. But probably the most helpful email I got during that flurry of correspondence came from one of my teachers, Reb Phyllis Berman, who reminded me not to get so hung-up on my wardrobe or on memorizing exactly the nusach which is on my high holiday mp3s that I lose sight of the important spiritual work I need to be doing at this time of year. I can't help anyone else through the Days of Awe unless I've done my own spiritual housekeeping. I needed that. It's advice for which I'm still grateful.

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From God to Verse: the Torah in rhyme

My friend Seth Brown is a mensch and a half. He's a terrific writer: regular humor columnist for a variety of newspapers, author of a few books, occasional render-er of current cultural matters into rhyme. (You should see -- or hear -- what he did with the text of the recent Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.) All of these are cool things,  but the project of his heart over the last several years has been rendering the entire Torah in rhymed verse.

Religious Jews the world over read the Torah each year, devotionally. Seth is not, I think it's safe to say, a religious Jew. And yet he spent five years deeply immersed in this text, as attentive to the nuances of priestly detail in Leviticus and the closing monologue of Deuteronomy as he was to the Torah's famous opening lines. And now he's putting part of his long labors online. Here's how his Torah begins:

In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and all of the earth,
When the world was all wild and waste, and of light on the deep oceans there was a dearth,
And the wind of God hovering over the waters, God spoke and said, "Let there be light!"
And indeed, there was light. And God saw it, that light, and He saw that it was good and right.
After seeing his shining creation, God then separated the light from the dark.
So He called the light "Day" and the darkness as "Night" (and the difference between them was stark).
And then there was a setting and there was a dawning as earth's creation had begun,
There was evening and then there was morning, and that was the first day, so ending day one.

Seth is no Biblical Hebraicist. So to create this version of the Torah, he worked with four translations of the Hebrew text open on his desk at all times. (It's not unlike how zen abbot Norman Fischer created his renderings of the psalms, come to think of it.) Maybe it's not surprising that, as a poet and a humorist, he paid close attention to nuance and wordplay.

But that attention shows. His "In the beginning" echoes the way most of us have come to think of the Torah's somewhat mysterious first word, but he follows it with "when God was creating," the shift into the imperfect tense suggesting an ongoing action. Creation wasn't a one-time thing. God was creating the heavens and the earth then, and God is still creating them now: that's what that choice of tense suggests to me. And Seth made it purposefully. As a poet and a committed student of Torah, I love that. Look at "all wild and waste" -- what a gorgeous rendering of tohu vavohu! The alliteration in the English suggests the Hebrew's rhyme. Yes: Seth Brown is a man who takes words very seriously indeed.

And yet he doesn't take himself seriously, at all. That's part of his charm -- and part of the charm of this quirky and quixotic project, which is really not entirely like anything else I've ever read. I'll wager it's not exactly like anything you've ever read, either. Reading it, I see familiar texts in a new light.

Since Seth started these weekly posts at Rosh Hashanah, this week the newest post is Genesis 3. Here's a taste from late in the chapter, some of God's parting words to Adam:

By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, ’til at last you return to the ground–
For from it you were taken. You are dust, and back to dust you shall return (homeward bound).
The man named his wife Eve, for she was to become the great mother of all of the living.
The LORD God made Adam and his wife coats of skins and clothed them (being somewhat forgiving).

I love the alliteration of "bread" and "brow," and the parenthetical statement about God's forgiveness makes me laugh out loud (and seems right on.)

Im yirtzah Hashem and inshallah, all five books of From God to Verse will someday see print. (I know I look forward to shelving it alongside my other editions.) But for now, Seth is serializing the fifty chapters of Genesis online. Each week he'll post another chapter of the book of Bereshit. So if you're interested in Scripture, or poetry, or especially the intersection thereof, add From God to Verse to your RSS reader. And if there are turns of phrase that particularly charm you, drop Seth a line and let him know I sent you.

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Profile of Reb Arthur Waskow in Zeek

Image of Reb Arthur courtesy of an old issue of New Menorah.

Today is Rabbi Arthur Waskow's 75th birthday. In honor of that milestone, he and I sat down over Skype to chat recently, with an eye toward me writing a profile of him for Zeek. That profile was published this weekend, and here's how it begins:

I first met Arthur in 2002 when I attended a week-long class on tikkun olam which he was teaching at the old Elat Chayyim retreat center in Accord, New York. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a terrific introduction to his life and work...

ZEEK: The four worlds framework has been central to your writing and teaching, so I'd like to use it to shape our conversation. Let's begin in the world of assiyah, action and physicality. During the Carter administration you sought to shape plans for community-based renewable energy; today you're still writing and speaking about the dangers of "global scorching." That you're still working on these issues is inspiring...and also depressing. Have we moved forward at all?

AW: In the Carter administration, the research which showed that there was global scorching and that CO2 had a major impact didn't yet exist. We were working out of concern not about shattering the planet but about the power of big oil. We wondered, would it be possible to create a community-based solar energy industry that would transfer power to people's own neighborhoods and workplaces?...

I had the pleasure of interviewing Reb Arthur early in the month of Ramadan and Elul. We talked about the origins of the Freedom Seder, his early work in sustainable power, and his deep ecumenical work (an inspiration to my own -- he was one of the featured roundtable speakers at the Progressive Faith Blog Con a few years ago.) If you're new to Reb Arthur's work, I hope this piece will give you a sense for who he is and why I admire him. And even if you've been in his sphere for a while, I hope you'll enjoy reading his inimitable turns of phrase.

As the introduction to the piece notes, Reb Arthur was one of my first teachers within Jewish Renewal and within ALEPH, so it was a particular treat to get to interview him and to shape this profile of his life and work.

Don't miss the YouTube video embedded at the end of the article -- if you've never heard Reb Arthur speak, you're in for a treat. Thanks, Reb Arthur, for the teaching and the conversation. Happy 75th birthday, and many more! Read the whole profile here: Hearing the Call: Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

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Serendipity in Tallahassee

I met a woman named Amy at Yom Kippur services in Tallahassee. She turns out to be longtime friends with my friend Loyce, who I met years ago when we were room-mates at Elat Chayyim the week that Reb Zalman was there in 2004. The two of them swept me away for lunch on the day after Yom Kippur.

We drove through Apalachicola National Forest -- tall longleaf pines outside the windows of the car -- to reach Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park [here's its Wikipedia entry], home to one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs.

The springs form the headwaters of the Wakulla River, which runs through old-growth cypress swamp. It's incredibly picturesque: knobbly cypress knees poking up at the edge of the clear waters, trees of all kinds bearded with ubiquitous Spanish moss. Many of the trees and plants down here are familiar to me, as someone who was born and reared in south Texas, but Spanish moss wasn't a commonplace sight where I grew up. It's pretty much everywhere in Tallahassee, though.

What is now state park was once the estate of Edward Ball, an entrepreneur and railroad magnate. (According to Wikipedia, some considered him a robber baron.) He bought 4,000 acres of land and built a 27-room lodge at the headwaters of the river. It's made of Spanish-style stucco with a red tile roof, decorated with wrought iron and marble. Now it's a hotel and restaurant: our destination for lunch.

I had just photographed the signs warning swimmers about alligators, and informing visitors of the need to protect the area's "gentle giants" -- the West Indian Manatee -- when a riverboat glided by and the captain called out, "Did you see them?" Sure enough, at the other side of the river, three grey shapes were visible through the waters: two adult manatees with a baby swimming alongside.

We stood there for a while and beamed and marveled. Manatees! Right there in the river! And then we headed into the lodge, which is funky and awesome. The painted ceiling in the great room caught my eye, as did the framed poster from Creature from the Black Lagoon -- filmed on location at this very spot.

And the dining room has that gracious old Southern feeling, with its high ceilings and big windows overlooking the trees and the river. On the menu I read the story of Old Joe, an 11-foot, 200-year-old alligator who had "never molested man, woman, child or pets," until he was "murdered by an unknown assailant on Sunday night, Aug. 1, 1966." (The taxidermied alligator himself sits in the great room / lobby.) We also chuckled over the reprinted menu from 1946. Amusingly, the dishes on the menu haven't changed all that much, though the prices have gone up a bit.

What a blessing to be able to savor Southern food (mmm, cheese grits and fried green tomatoes) in such a beautiful spot with such companions! It was an unexpected treat -- one of the highlights of my brief trip to Tallahassee, for sure.

And when my flight out was delayed such that there was no way I could make my connection, and I wound up staying an extra night, the folks at Hillel kindly welcomed me for Shabbat: davening, and supper, and the birkat hamazon which we bentsched with great gusto, and even some songs and table-pounding at the table afterwards. Thanks for your warm hospitality, Tallahassee!

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This week's portion: asymptote


Climb the mountain, God said. Look out
over the hills and the desert:

here dark spikes of cypress and cedar,
there scrub and sand pinked by sunset.

This is as close as you get.
Your years of service are over.

Honestly, the striving was the good part:
yearning like a thirsty man for water

meeting setback sometimes with fury
and sometimes with grace

dreaming of vineyards and groves
each house with an oven of its own...

Does it hurt, being so near and so far?
Trust Me: I know what I'm doing.

If you could live to see what's coming
it would break your heart.

This week's portion, Ha-azinu, mostly consists of poetry. (The JPS rendering, which is what you'll find if you click on that link, makes clear that most of the text is verse. It's quite lovely.) I thought about responding to the poem in verse of my own. But as I reread the parsha, it became clear to me that the hook which was calling out for adornment was the prose at the end of the portion, in which God tells Moshe to ascend Mount Nebo in order to see the land to which God has been leading them -- and that Moshe can look, but not touch: this is as far as he's allowed to go.

What a poignant moment! Though rereading it this year, I was struck by how sometimes yearning has its own sweetness, different from the sweetness of culmination. As a psychological and emotional truth, that idea resonates for me. And when I think of what comes next in the story of Tanakh -- from the conquest as chronicled in Joshua, through the complicated history of the land in our day -- I can see how it might have been a blessing for Moshe to die when he did. He got the pleasure of yearning toward the goal, without the challenging reality of reaching the goal and realizing how much work is still to be done.


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Hineni: Here I Stand

During the Musaf (additional) service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it's traditional to recite a prayer called Hineni, "Here I stand." It's an outpouring of hopes written by an anonymous medieval cantor, and I find it tremendously powerful. (Here's a translation of the traditional text, with some commentary.) This prayer is traditionally sung not with, or to, but for the congregation by the cantor, hazzan, or shaliach tzibbur (lit. "messenger of the community" -- the community's representative before God, e.g. the person leading prayer.)

This year I'll be reciting it on behalf of a community for the first time. I'll be chanting the traditional Hebrew text, but as a way of getting inside it and taking its message to heart, I wrote something (a prayer / a poem) which presents its themes and ideas in my own words and metaphors. This is not a translation -- rather an interpretation. I offer it for anyone else who's davening Hineni this Yom Kippur. Feel free to use it in whatever way is meaningful for you.


Here I stand
painfully aware of my flaws
quaking in my canvas shoes
and in my heart.

I'm here on behalf of this kahal
even though the part of me
that's quick to knock myself
says I'm not worthy to lead them.

All creation was nurtured
in Your compassionate womb!
God of our ancestors, help me
as I call upon your mercy.

Don't blame this community
for the places where I miss the mark
in my actions or my heart
in my thoughts or in our davening.

Each of us is responsible
for her own teshuvah.
Help us remember that
without recriminations.

Accept my prayer
as though I were exactly the leader
this community needs in this moment,
as though my voice never faltered.

Free me from my own baggage
that might get in the way.
See us through the rose-colored glasses
of Your mercy.

Transform our suffering into gladness.
Dear One, may my prayer reach You
wherever You are
for Your name’s sake.

All praise is due to You, Dear One
Who hears the prayers of our hearts.

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Balancing the scales

One of my favorite Hasidic stories is about the rebbe who kept two slips of paper in his pockets. On one was written, "for you are dust and to dust you shall return," and on the other, "for my sake was the world created." I find a lot of resonance in the notion that we're all always carrying both of these ideas around with us at once. On the one hand, the ego insists that I am important, that I am the center of my own experience. And on the proverbial other hand, I know I'm only an insignificant speck in the grandeur of the wide universe.

I thought about this tension a lot when I was beginning my hospital chaplaincy internship. On the one hand, who on earth am I to imagine that I might have something to say to people who are experiencing the intense adventures of birth and death, people who are struggling or suffering in profound ways? (That's the "I am dust" end of the spectrum.) And on the other hand, who am I not to reach out when there are human connections to be made? Really meeting one another, even in moments of difficulty, seems to me to be exactly what we're here in this life for. (That's the "for my sake was the world created" end of things.)

The Days of Awe are a time of year when this tension is much on my mind.

We have now come full circle in our studies of the months of the year, returning to the first one, Tishrei. Its astrological symbol is Libra (Moznayim), the scales. Traditionally, these are seen as the scales of judgment upon which the Almighty weighs the deeds of each person on Rosh Hashanah. But perhaps it can be seen differently: as a scale of balance, of reconciling two opposites, of knowing how to weigh the Rebbe's two slips of paper in a balanced manner. To know how to avoid despair and fatalism; and equally to avoid the arrogance of thinking that I am master of my fate and none can stop me.

That's from Rosh Hashanah - Tishrei (Months), a post at Hitzei Yehonatan last year around this time. We've entered the month of Tishri, the month which contains Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Hoshanna Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (This month is seriously loaded with holiday goodness. Fortunately for the sanity of rabbis everywhere, next month is wide-open and empty.) Scales seem like an appropriate symbol for the time of year when it's traditional to focus on teshuvah, the hard thinking and hard work of figuring out where we've missed the mark and who we want to be in the year to come.

We're balancing our sense of ourselves on a set of scales. Holding the tension between thinking too highly of ourselves, and thinking too poorly of ourselves. Between imagining that we're completely insignificant, and imagining that we're the be-all and end-all of everything. Because the truth of the matter is, we're neither. Jewish tradition calls us to an awareness of being in-between. When we can hold both of these ideas in balance without skewing to one side or the other, then everything's in alignment. Balanced and complete.

As we approach Yom Kippur, which begins on Wednesday night, I wanted to point again to the Grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur I posted two years ago at this season. It contains links to liturgy, poems, music, divrei Torah, and other holiday-oriented material; I hope it's helpful to anyone who needs such things at this time of year.

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A different kind of Rosh Hashanah

Kampala skyline. Photo by Ethan, 2001.

This morning Ethan forwarded me a link to Glenna Gordon's essay Rosh Hashanah in Uganda:

"There's a man here with one leg, five women, and thirty-two children," Sarah Shambe tells me, on the day of Rosh Hashanah, as we walk away from Eid prayers to her two-room home in a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. Sarah spent the morning praying in an open field with thousands of other Ugandan Muslims. Now that the praying is done, she fills me in on the neighbours.

I didn't know Sarah before about an hour ago, but now she's invited me to her home. This is after prayers where small kids ate ice cream in shades of bright pink and pastel orange, and music played in the background while friends and relatives greeted each other, and everyone wore their best clothes for Eid, and people prayed in a clearing under the clouds in front of the Kampala skyline.

This is how I spend my Rosh Hashanah in Africa: observing Eid.

It's a terrific essay, illustrated with beautiful photographs. (Of the many places where Ethan has traveled, Uganda is high on my list to visit someday. It looks beautiful.)

Gordon's piece reminded me of Jessica and Ari's Seders in Mali, an essay about the challenges of preparing seder in a village in Mali, from ritually "selling" one's hametz (leaven) to using seder texts which presume that we re-enact our memory of adversity from a place of plenty in a place where plenty can't be taken for granted at all.

I love reading these stories of holiday observances in places that are far from here. This is an engaged Judaism, one connected with the wide world, flexible and creative enough to taste echoes of Manischewitz in sweet orange Mirinda and to savor the opportunity to experience familiar festivals somewhere unfamiliar and new.

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This week's portion: this poem


That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 31:22)

This poem aims to cover everything
that could ever happen to you. It includes
instructions for celebrating festivals,
the manumission of slaves, building altars,
the punishment of disobedient children;
descriptions of how the cosmos came to be
and how our holiest sites should recapitulate
the orderly progression of God's attributes.
This poem seems to have all the answers
but it doesn't even have all the questions.
This poem doesn't tell you how to feel
when you're sitting in shul and wishing
the sun would break through the clouds.
This poem contradicts itself often.
This poem has a lot to say about television,
the internet, the stories we tell ourselves
about who we really are in the world
though it says all of these things obliquely.
Those who understand, understand: that's
the way this poem shakes out. This poem
is written in intricate code, each letter
secretly a number and each number symbolic
of something incredibly important, though
we've forgotten at least half of the meanings
we once upon a time knew by heart. This poem
weighs heavy on our shoulders, it ties
our insides in mystical knots. Sometimes
this poem tastes like wildflower honey
and other times like homemade ink
dissolved in water that hasn't been stirred.
This poem is old-fashioned. This poem
is being written right this second,
each breath a new letter on the unrolling page.

This week's portion, Vayelekh, is the shortest portion in the Torah: just the thirty verses of Deuteronomy chapter 31. It's part of Moshe's final address, and the thing that really leapt out at me as I read it this year is that it refers to itself both as "this teaching" (the Hebrew word is Torah) and as "this poem" (the Hebrew word there is shirah, poem or song.) The use of the word Torah isn't all that surprising. But the use of the word poem fascinates me. So that's what sparked my poem this week.

There's something slightly overwhelming about a week in which we communally read the story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael (Rosh Hashanah Day 1), the story of the binding of Isaac (Rosh Hashanah Day 2), and this section of Moshe's final speech to the Israelites. But that's part of the rollercoaster ride of reading Torah. It's always a narrative running from beginning to end, and it's also always something we can dip into and out of asynchronously.

And, like poetry, Torah may speak to us in different ways at different times, depending on where we're at and what we bring to the experience of reading or hearing the text. I hope this poem speaks to you this week.


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