Previous month:
October 2008
Next month:
December 2008

Rivka's questions, our answers (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

In the early lines of parashat Toledot, Yitzchak pleads with God because his wife Rivka has not yet conceived. God responds, the text tells us, to this plea; Rikva does conceive -- but she feels the dangerous struggle in her womb, and she says, "If so, why do I exist?"

The story continues from there in the way we have all come to recognize: the promise that her younger son will rule over the elder, the birth of hairy Esau and grasping Jacob, the twin birthright stories, the trickery.

But as a reader I'm reluctant to move on, caught by the moment of Rivka's anguished cry. I imagine her tossing and turning on a bed of blankets, trying to find comfort despite the palpable struggle of the child (she does not yet know there are two) in her womb. Perhaps she fears miscarriage, or that her baby will tangle itself in the umbilical cord as it thrashes inside her.

And so she cries out. If this is happening -- and it is happening; the struggle inside her feels like it may kill her -- then why does she exist? Why has her life led her to this moment?

Continue reading "Rivka's questions, our answers (Radical Torah repost)" »


A tray of pumpkin challah rolls, rising.

I try to begin and end every day with gratitude: for whatever the day may hold, and then has held. Modah ani l'fanecha: I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. That's the most basic daily prayer I know.

As a fan of ritual I enjoy the many rituals of Thanksgiving in our house, starting with spending Thanksgiving Eve peeling potatoes and baking challah rolls. But beyond that, and beyond the pleasure of setting a pretty table and filling it with family and friends, I love also that we take a day off from our ordinary lives just to focus on being thankful.

And, yes, to eat (widely and well!) and schmooze, to drink wine by the fire, to watch football, eventually to simmer turkey carcasses into soup as the evening wanes. But even more than fine dining or hospitality, gratitude -- thankfulness -- is at Thanksgiving's heart.

I'm thankful for the food we're preparing, for the many hands which labored to bring it forth (and the  hands laboring now to get it the final steps of the way from supermarket to table!) I'm thankful for the sunlight and the soil and the divine abundance that came together to produce every potato and butternut squash and brussels sprout.

I'm thankful for my family and friends, for our home, for our sustenance on every level of being. I'm thankful for my colleagues and teachers, in ALEPH and elsewhere. "For my teachers, and my students, and the students of my students," as we say in the kaddish d'rabanan -- and for the teachers of my teachers, too.

I'm thankful for all of you who read this blog; for those who comment often, and those who comment rarely, and those who comment never at all. I'm thankful for all of you who keep blogs of your own, some of which I read daily and some of which I read from time to time and all of which enrich our world.

Happy Thanksgiving, gang. May your tomorrow (and all the days that follow) be filled with abundance of all kinds.

If you're looking for a creative Thanksgiving prayer of gratitude, Reb Zalman has revised his short and sweet Thanksgiving prayer, which can be downloaded as a pdf from this post on his blog.

Technorati tags: , , .

GVO and RHR on Israel

Some powerful (if difficult) Israel stories have come across my aggregator today. At Global Voices Online there's a roundup of posts about the impending demolition of a straw and mud mosque built by an Israeli Bedouin. Not for the first time I'm struck by how politicized the question of building permits inevitably becomes.

International and local activists spent the night waiting for demolition crew to come and destroy a new straw and mud mosque built in an unrecognised village of Wadi el-Naam, Israel.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Interior Ministry officials say the structure, built by an Israeli Bedoiun and other volunteers, is illegal since it was built without permission and in a place not designated for construction...

The post features a quote from blogger Jerusalem Gypsy which I found particularly resonant. (Looks like JG is a regular at the Jewish Renewal minyan in Jerusalem, Nava Tehila, about which I've blogged before...) Anyway, read the Global Voices post here: Israel: Straw and Mud Mosque to be Demolished.

Meanwhile, Margery G., one of the participants in the Rabbis for Human Rights Human Rights Trip to Israel, has a post called Instructions for Planting which juxtaposes a description of the experience of planting trees on Palestinian land with a description of the experience of planting trees in Israel. Her post begins with instructions for planting in the Occupied Territories:

1. Find a non-profit, like Rabbis for Human Rights, that can buy the trees.

2. Scrounge up whatever hand tools you can find.

3. Bring out a group of Israelis and Internationals who can help Palestinians plant and shield them from harassment by the settlers and the army

4. Be on time. The separation barrier now separates many villages from their land and the Palestinians can only get through to their fields at certain times of the day...

These instructions are juxtaposed with instructions for planting in Israel, and the difference between the first set of instructions and the second set of instructions is stark and powerful.

On a slightly more hopeful note, my friend David forwarded me the New York Times article Palestinian Forces Dilute Hebron's Volatile Brew. May the peacemaking continue.

Technorati tags: , .

This week's portion: pulling the strings


Trickster Rebecca, I wish you'd known better
than to pit your sons one against the other

like Isaac and Ishmael, jostling and angling
for the lone blessing in their father's hands.

If you had taught your bookish son, the one
who stayed in the tent weaving stories

and your rough red-bearded hunter
whose heart chafed against being indoors

to see one another as sides of the same coin
think how much drama we could have been spared!

Then again, blind Isaac may have seen more
than we know. He tried twice to shame Jacob into truth.

God must have told you we need this tension
to shape the Israel we're meant to become.

In this week's portion, Toldot, Rebecca feels her sons quarreling in her womb. They quarrel once they're out of the womb, too: Jacob tricks Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the blessing rightfully due him as the elder son.

The younger brother getting the blessing that ought to have been due the elder is a theme in the book of Bereshit. Apparently God favors the underdog, and acts to subvert the dominant power structures of the day. In this case, God hints to Rebecca before the boys are even born that "the older shall serve the younger" -- making her, perhaps, culpable for Jacob's trickster behavior as this story unfolds.

Reading this today, I find myself thinking about expectations and blessings, parents and sons. To what extent were, and are, Jacob and Esau externalizations of their parents' various qualities? Torah tells us that one parent favored one son and the other parent favored the other: apparently that dynamic is as old as the stars. What does it mean that our tradition has for so long valued the intellectual accomplishments of Jacob, and spurned the earthy offerings of Esau?

I'd like to think that some good came out of Rebecca's subterfuges -- at least for Jacob and his progeny. But I flinch at the parental favoritism, and I wonder how Esau's children would tell the tale.


Technorati tags: , , , .

What if we give it away?

Last week's Sunday Times magazine featured a profile of Lewis Hyde written by Daniel B. Smith, called What is Art For? Lewis Hyde is a colleague of Ethan's at the Berkman Center. He's a poet (I especially like his This error is the sign of love) and he's written a few books, among them The Gift, which came out in 1983 and has never been out of print. That book "tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy." Hyde was inspired to write The Gift by the experience of reading the anthropologist Marcel Mauss:

Mauss was a scholar of the old polymathic sort -- a sociologist, a linguist, a historian of religion, a Sanskrit expert, a philosopher. His essay on gift exchange drew on the work of the seminal turn-of-the-century ethnographers Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski to explore aboriginal societies in which the person of consequence -- the man or woman who is deemed worthy of adulation, respect and emulation -- is not the one who accumulates the most goods but the one who disperses them. Gift economies, as Mauss defines them, are marked by circulation and connectivity: goods have value only insofar as they are treated as gifts, and gifts can remain gifts only if they are continually given away. This results in a kind of engine of community cohesion, in which objects create social, psychological, emotional and spiritual bonds as they pass from hand to hand.

The blogosphere is a gift economy: we share our words and ideas freely, and "repay" one another with hat tips and links and comments back and forth between our online spaces. (This is hardly a new idea; smart people have been writing about the high-tech/online gift economy at least since 1998.) So is media fandom (I'm thinking both about story exchanges and overt gifts of vids or podfic recordings, and in a broader sense about the whole phenomenon of creating fanworks in a community context). So is the online poetry/literary world, from prompt communities like ReadWritePoem and Totally Optional Prompts to collaborative 'zines like Qarrtsiluni. In all of these worlds, we create and strengthen community by sharing our creativity.

Continue reading "What if we give it away?" »

Faith[Works] and me

I'll be ringing in Shabbat tonight in an unusual way: by reading poems, and telling the story of how Judaism and poetry come together in my life and work, as part of the Faith[Works] lecture series at Bay Path College.

My sense is that this will be a coffeehouse kind of atmosphere; we're meeting in a fireplace lounge on campus. So my intention is to speak pretty informally about the things I've done -- journalism, poetry, the feminist seder project, Inkberry, ALEPH -- and how they fit together in my life. And, every few minutes, I'll pause and read a poem that comes out of that period of my life or speaks to the themes I'm trying to highlight. Poems from/about Texas, and from/about Massachusetts. Poems from What Stays, my second chapbook (which came out of my time at Bennington.) Poems which arise out of my immersion in Jewish Renewal. Chaplaincy poems from chaplainbook. The Torah poems I'm writing now.

It's a fun way to plan a talk. Or a poetry reading. I think what I'm doing will be a little bit of each -- hopefully with enough narrative throughline to be informative for those who are considering working in any of the fields I've known, and enough poetry to make the evening feel like the kind of dip into creativity which will feel appropriately Shabbosdik to me. (In service of that goal, I'm planning to take a travel Shabbat candlestick set along, too.)

The talk is intended for the Bay Path community, and hasn't been promoted off-campus, so I probably shouldn't send a flood of readers their way. (How many of y'all live in/around Western Mass, anyway?) But I'm looking forward to the chance to share some of my work -- and to meet the students who will be there, and to find out how religion and creativity and vocation matter to each of them.

Technorati tags: , , .


Over the last few days I've drafted a few different blog posts about things I'm studying now -- Rambam's Mishneh Torah and the ins and outs of the obligation to recite the shema; assorted historians talking about the Deuteronomists -- but have discarded them as insufficiently interesting to post. So you're getting a poem, instead, arising out of my Qur'an class.

We've been reading excerpts from "The Bezels of Wisdom" by Ibn Arabi, a Sufi mystic and philosopher. It's good stuff, though chock-full of mystical allusions. (It helps to read the text along with an interpreter.) The way Ibn Arabi makes use of repeated phrases and ideas put me in mind of one of my favorite poetic forms, the pantoum. So I took the phrases which leapt out at me from his text, and from them wove this poem.

The poem loops back in on itself a lot. If it makes sense, the logic is more associative than discursive -- but read slantwise, for the constellation of ideas and images it contains, I hope there's something interesting and even beautiful there. Those are the characteristics of Ibn Arabi's work I was trying to highlight.

Continue reading "Knowledge" »

This week's portion: in the same key



They come together to bury their father
in the cave where Sarah's body lies.

(No one imagines the vaulted church
turned mosque with painted ceilings

or the synagogue, or metal detectors
to keep armed men from getting through.)

Isaac and Ishmael wash him with water
and sprinkle sand on his eyelids

so his visions in the world to come
will derive from the land he loved.

Isaac's memories of having a brother
and then losing him without explanation

Ishmael's memories of aching thirst
before his mother saw the spring

go unmentioned, the bones of their past
buried beneath the drifting sands.

Outside the cave the women wail
two families grieving in the same key

not yet the ancestors of enemies
Abraham's dark eyes in every face.

This week's portion, Chayyei Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah. Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in Hebron in order to bury his wife there. At the end of the portion, Abraham himself dies and is buried in that same cave by his sons.

I've been reading reports from the Rabbis for Human Rights North America trip to Israel this week, including accounts of their time in Hebron, which reminds me of my own trip to Hebron this summer.

Atop the cave of Machpelah, a church was built. That church later became a mosque, which now shares the building with a synagogue -- though Jews are not technically allowed to visit the mosque (nor non-Jews to visit the synagogue) since the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.The visit to that space continues to resonate in me, and is at the heart of this week's Torah poem.

This poem let me imagine Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father. It's poignant enough simply as a story of sons experiencing loss. When I overlay that with the knowledge of how history would play out between Ishmael and Isaac's descendants, it becomes even more powerful for me. When you read this story, what do you imagine?


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011; it also appears in Before There Is Nowhere to Stand, Lost Horse Press, 2012.


Technorati tags: , , , , .

Radical Hospitality (Radical Torah repost)

A d'var Torah on parashat Vayera, written in 2006 for the now-defunct Radical Torah.

At the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God appears to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, immediately on the heels of Abraham's circumcision. (Well, we read about one right after the other. Though one exegetical principle holds that Torah needn't necessarily be read in a linear way, the simple linear reading allows for the interpretation that God is here paying the first recorded pastoral care visit, a notion which pleases many of the chaplains I know.)

Then, Torah tells us, Abraham looks up and sees three men standing nearby. Immediately he leaps into action -- apparently whatever discomfort he's still suffering is minimal, or is mitigated by his strong impulse toward hospitality -- and rushes to greet them, bowing low and urging them to come, wash their feet, rest, and dine with him.

Later in the portion (at the beginning of chapter 19) the men are referred to as malachim, angels. But when they first appear to Abraham they have the aspect of ordinary men. Abraham's fervent hospitality, in other words, is his usual modus operandi. He's not offering these guys the royal treatment because he perceives them to be messengers of the Holy Blessed One. He just genuinely wants to make these men feel welcome.

Continue reading "Radical Hospitality (Radical Torah repost)" »

Jewish/Muslim conversation at Islamicate

My friend Hussein is hosting a conversation about Jews, Muslims, and Orthodoxy at his blog Islamicate. His post comes in response to a post by Abu Noor, who spoke first about the notion of reform or reformation within Islam, and then wrote:

The different possible approaches for a religious tradition in coming to terms with modernity are most easily understood by looking to the Jewish tradition of Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative approaches as well as all the various twists on those three main distinctions that have developed.

Hussein agrees that instead of speaking in terms of a Reformation within Islam, it may make sense to use the analogy of the Jewish denominations, though he has interesting qualms with the notion of orthodoxy within Islam. He writes:

I do not think that we can begin using the term "orthodox Muslim" as a descriptor. Where as the Rabbinic tradition in Judaism functions as a way to determine "correct belief," the literal meaning of "orthodox," we have not had that sort of the authority universally recognized in Muslim traditions...

We have a lot to learn about the experience of others, and about our own history and diversity. Once we've begun that level of exploration, as we are now, I think we can decipher what best to call ourselves in our different communities of interpretation.

In a comment on his post, I've made the argument that Judaism is historically more concerned with praxis than with belief (I think of R' Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man and his point that behavior may in time create faith or create a space in which faith can arise.) I also had a few things to say about Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism and the different relationships between them in Israel and in the Diaspora.

If you have thoughts on this, hop over to Islamicate and join the conversation. Hussein's post is here: Jews, Muslims, and Orthodoxy.

Technorati tags: , , .

Amos and Hosea: northern prophets of anger and love

Some of you may remember that I'm taking a Biblical History class this fall, part II of a two-semester course which began last spring. During the first semester, we looked at the time period between Abraham and the first Temple period; in this course we're starting there and moving forward, focusing in large part on the era of the prophets.

Each week, a different student presents material in class. Last week was my week to present, and my assigned subject were the prophets Amos and Hosea. My aim was to explore their two prophetic books through academic, devotional, source-critical, and feminist/gender studies lenses. 

I figure some of y'all might be interested in the presentation, so here it is! (And just so you know, I won't be offended if you glance at this and go "tl; dr" and move on. I'll be posting some Torah commentary later in the day which will be more accessible, I promise... :-)

Heschel on the role of the prophet

I want to start with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The Prophets:

"The prophet is a person, not a microphone. He is endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness -- but also with temperament, concert, character, and individuality."

Heschel also tells us that prophecy "may be described as exegesis of existence from a divine perspective." In other words, it was the prophet's job to offer a God's-eye view on the world. Heschel tells us that the prophet's "fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God."

Reconciling man and God wasn't always easy. Nowhere is this more clear than in the writings of Amos and Hosea.

Continue reading "Amos and Hosea: northern prophets of anger and love" »

On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam

In my Qur'an class, we've been reading Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (commonly called Ibn Rushd; also known as Averroes, a Latinate distortion of Ibn Rushd), specifically his "Decisive Treatise Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy."

Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and dialectical theology. On the request of the amir Abu Ya'qub, who reigned in Morocco in the late 1100s, Ibn Rushd took on the task of rendering Aristotle's work in a way that would be intelligible within a Muslim framework. In 1182, Ibn Rushd took on the position of chief physician to Abu Ya'qub in Marrakesh; he was also engaged, during those years, in writing the Decisive Treatise, a fatwa which aimed to answer the question of "whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by the Law, or prohibited, or commanded -- either by way of recommendation or as obligatory."

Some of you may recall that I've been reading Rambam in my Codes class. Rambam (the name is an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; in Arabic he's known as Musa ibn Maymun, and in Greek as Maimonides) was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher. Like Ibn Rushd, he was born in Cordoba (in 1135), and like Ibn Rushd he later moved to Morocco. (Rambam also lived in Egypt.)

Both men were doctors. Both men were philosophers. Both men were religious leaders. And both men argued against the stance that philosophy (the science of the day) was incompatible with religious belief. On the contrary, they argued, the truths of reason and philosophy are entirely consonant with God's revelations to us. It is incumbent on us as people of faith to seek to know God, and one of the ways we seek to know God is through understanding God's creation using every tool available to us -- including philosophy.

(I'm not the first person to make this leap. Jacob Bender has a lovely essay about Rambam, Ibn Rushd, and Aquinas called Lessons from Three Wise Men: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas. So it's not a new connection, but it's a new one for me, and I think this is so cool.)

Continue reading "On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam" »

Thursday morning miscellany

There are a bunch of things I want to point y'all to, but haven't had the wherewithal to draft a complete post about each of them. So hey, you get a Friday Thursday morning miscellany.

Ellen Bernstein, who does fabulous work around Judaism and the environment, has written an essay called Finding God Outdoors, now online at Zeek:

Jewish identity and ecological identity may seem like strange bed-fellows. Yet our identity is our sense of our self: who we are: what grounds us in our selves and the world. Knowing who we are implies knowing who we are relative to others. How we are different, and, just as importantly, how we are similar.

Beliefnet has posted an interview that Cathleen Falsani did with President-Elect Barack Obama back in 2004:

I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.

And participants on the Rabbis for Human Rights North America human rights trip to Israel are blogging about their experiences. Through their posts and photos, I'm encountering the landscape again (both physical and emotional) after three months away, and it's incredibly powerful for me. Here's a taste of one post:

Arik Ascherman indicated the trees on the windy hillside before us. "This is the battle for the land," he said. The "combatants" in this struggle are the olive trees before us. A few rows belong to Palestinian farmers, the ones right next to them, in protective barrels, were planted to by settlers. On the other side of the road, it was the same -- a stand of olive trees in barrels and another stand without: Palestinian and settler, settler and Palestinian.

(That's from Carol Towarnicky's The Battle for the Land.)

And on an entirely unrelated note, there's the fabulous G!dcast -- short animated commentaries on the parsha of the week, each created by someone new. They're short, accessible, visually interesting -- and they also manage to draw deeply on the deep tradition of commentary and midrash. This week's animated short has smart things to say about the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar, so...go and watch!

Technorati tags: , .

This week's portion: silence


Abraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Abraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Abraham avoided her tent,
didn't lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Abraham saddled his ass
and took Isaac on their final hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Abraham's eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.

This week's portion, Vayera, contains the story of the annunciation of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham lying to King Abimelech about Sarah's identity, the birth of Isaac, the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a dispute between Abraham and Abimelech about a well, and the binding of Isaac. This portion is unbelievably rich with story.

We read the story of the akedah (binding of Isaac) each year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It feels different to me in this context -- as part of the weekly lectionary; part of the regular rhythm of Torah stories -- than it does when we're pulling it out of its usual setting in order to read it on a festival. Still, no matter when you encounter it, it's a tough story. (I've been reading it, and commentary upon it, in my Qur'an class too. In that text, the son Abraham nearly sacrifices is not named, and I'm fascinated to learn that early Qur'anic commentary tended to follow the Jewish interpretation that the son in question was Isaac, while later Qur'anic commentary switched to seeing the son in question as Ishmael...)

Anyway. This poem explores one possible understanding of the story: that Abraham blew it bigtime. It's not the dominant interpretation, in the classical tradition, but it's an interpretation that resonates strongly for me. Maybe another year I'll write a poem that looks at it a different way. That's part of the joy of reading Torah year after year, and part of the joy of this poetry practice: the stories will always come 'round again, and who knows how they'll look to me next year or in five years or ten years down the road?



Edited to add: see also The Akedah Cycle: A Sermon in Poetry for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.

Technorati tags: , , , , .

With apologies to Dr. Seuss. And Rambam.

This morning, while studying Rambam, my hevruta partner and I got a little bit punchy. The ins and outs of when one should and should not make a recitation of the shema (called kriat shema) are arcane and detailed. Whether and how to recite the shema at the top of a tree, on a construction site, riding on a donkey, atop a wall: there are halakhic answers to all of these and more.

"It makes me think of Dr. Seuss," I quipped. "Would you, could you, in the rain? Would you, could you, on a train?" Okay, maybe it's only funny to us, but we were rolling on the floor. So I figured I'd share.


(With apologies to Dr. Seuss. And also Rambam. And my friend Yafa, who had nothing to do with this at all; her name just happens to rhyme.)

I'm the Rav
Call me Yafa.

That Yafa!
That Yafa!
I do not say
kriat shema!

Do you say kriat shema?

I do not say it, Reb Yafa.

Would you say it here or there?

I would not say it anywhere.
I do not say kriat shema
I do not say it, Reb Yafa.

Continue reading "With apologies to Dr. Seuss. And Rambam." »

Going forth into something new (Radical Torah repost)

With this post, I'm all caught up; from here on out, I'll try to repost my Radical Torah commentary each week as the parshiyot unfold, but won't have to make multiple RT posts in a single week again. Thanks for bearing with me -- and thanks to those who emailed me to say that RT was down and that you missed these commentaries; that means a lot.

Here's what I wrote about last week's portion for Radical Torah in 2006.

"Go you forth," "Go out of your land" (or maybe "Go to yourself") -- so begins this week's parsha, Lekh Lekha. God calls Abraham forth to leave what's familiar and comfortable to him -- his origin, his roots, his old patterns of behavior and belief -- and to venture forth into an unknown world, to journey toward the place where God will bring him. Through this journey, God promises, he will make of Abraham a blessing.

This took place, the text tells us, when Abraham was 75 years old. No spring chicken, Abraham. When God deemed him good and ready, then the call came. We may not hear so direct an exhortation in our own spiritual lives, but who could fail to be moved by the notion that when we have matured as far as we can on our own, God calls us forth to venture into a new phase of becoming? The whole human process of growing up is mirrored in Abraham's leap from the familiar into the unknown.

Of course, that's not the only way to read the beginning of the parsha. On the surface level, God instructs Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father's house -- to be a literal wanderer. God also instructs him, in at least in one Hasidic understanding, to leave his earthiness behind and to move into an entirely new state of consciousness.

Continue reading "Going forth into something new (Radical Torah repost)" »

Continuing adventures in etrog preservation

Despite this toxic etrog warning at The Jew and the Carrot, I wanted to make something out of my etrogim again this year. They're so beautiful and fragrant that I couldn't bear to just throw them away. So nu, it's possible that our etrogim are pesticide-laden; I still couldn't resist. Besides, whatever I make was likely to be a condiment, something we'll eat in small bites. I decided it was worth the risk.

Last year I made etrog-ginger marmalade, which was tasty although flawed; it's somewhat bitter, and also denser than I really wanted. (I was afraid of winding up with fruit sauce again, so I cooked it for too long. Whoops.) In some ways my most successful etrog preservation to date was the spicy blueberry-etrog jam I made two years ago, which was delicious. But maybe because the blueberries provide the dominant color and flavor notes, it was slightly dissatisfying as a mode of etrog preservation. It felt like I was putting the fruits to good use, but the end result didn't feel like etrog.

Still, the combination of sweet and spicy made me happy, so this year I decided to try something wacky and new: a sweet and spicy etrog pickle.

Continue reading "Continuing adventures in etrog preservation" »

Ilán Stavans on eros, Hebrew, translation, and language

Sometimes there are happenings in my town that I just can't pass up. When I saw that there was a lecture happening at my alma mater called "Resurrecting Hebrew: How an Erotic Dream Led Me to Reflect on the Lasting Power of the Sacred Language" -- by Ilán Stavans, no less, whose work I've admired for years -- how could I fail to attend?

I first encountered Stavans' work back when I was a student at Bennington. As the culmination of an independent study on Jewish literature, I wrote and delivered a paper called What makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway? I drew heavily on the Jewish Latin America series which Stavans edited -- a useful reminder that the Ashkenazic immigrant story with which most north American Jews are familiar is only one side of the coin. (For a taste of what Stavans has been writing and thinking lately, I recommend Resurrecting and Embracing Hebrew, published at Nextbook.) Anyway: I went to hear Stavans speak at Williams. He didn't disappoint.

The official bio says that Ilán Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. (That's a mouthful.) He's most recently author of Resurrecting Hebrew, "the story of how Hebrew was rescued from extinction to become the living language of a modern nation," as well as two collections of short stories and 15 works of nonfiction. (For more on the new book: Amherst College Professor Ilán Stavans Publishes Book on Reviving the Hebrew Language.) Here's the blurb that got me in the door:

As Stavans tells it, a dream of a beautiful woman speaking an unknown tongue sent him in search of a language he later discovers to be Hebrew. The quest for his own forgotten tongue becomes the search for the man who led the revival of Hebrew at the end of the 19th century, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Journeying to Israel to learn about this amateur lexicographer, Stavans finds that the modern vernacular of spoken Hebrew has absorbed the politics and structure of Arabic, English and even Russian. Surrounding the story of Ben-Yehuda, Stavans finds questions about the role of language in contemporary Israeli politics. All the tensions between the Diaspora and the idea of a "promised land" pulse beneath the surface of Stavans' intellectual and personal search for origins of Modern Hebrew.

"I was born and raised in Mexico," Stavans began. "It's so exciting to be here now, in the wake of Obama's victory. Obama means respect for the English language! The war on syntax will be over."

"I'm reluctant to put my finger on exactly how a book is born. I originally committed to writing a book about the Hebrew alphabet. I thought I would wait for inspiration, the first line or image or metaphor to come to me. Editors would ask, where is the manuscript? And I would do what writers do best: I would lie. 'It's coming!' Until the editor's frustration became mine."

"And then I had a dream."

Continue reading "Ilán Stavans on eros, Hebrew, translation, and language" »

On Transformative Works


My first experience with writing liturgy came when I was in college. A group of women gathered in a dorm room where we argued passionately over words and metaphors. The question was how to retell the Passover story -- the central narrative at the heart of Jewish peoplehood -- in a way that would speak to us.

What were the critical pieces of the original haggadah text that we wanted to preserve? Where did we want to make radical changes? How would those radical changes sit with us, year after year? One year we excised all of the God-as-king language, preferring instead to use feminine God-language in both Hebrew and English. Another year, we shifted all of the language of sovereignty to metaphors that reflected immanent power rather than transcendence: instead of King or Queen we wanted to celebrate our source, wellspring, creator.

The Williams College Feminist Seder Project is only a memory now. The college community there doesn't feel the need for a specifically "feminist" seder anymore... though I'll bet the standard seder they do there now is still shaped by the ripples my era of students set in motion. (That's how it goes with third-wave feminism.) But the work of creating my own Passover seder has shaped the way I think about Pesach, and about liturgical language, and about creativity, and about my place within the broader sphere of Jewish life.

I'm grateful to the women of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, because they taught me how to take up the tools of transformation in my own liturgical life. Transforming the text of that beloved ritual was transformative for me.



In the years after college, I didn't belong to a congregation. I hadn't yet found Jewish Renewal, and my dreams of the rabbinate seemed improbable at best. But I wanted a connection with Judaism.

Because the feminist seder project had been so formative for me, I tried my hand at writing other pieces of liturgy. I wrote a seder for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. I wrote prayers for Sukkot and for Chanukah. I wrote, and then performed, a baby-naming ceremony for the son of two dear friends. When my sister became pregnant with her second child, she asked if I would write and perform a baby-naming for him, too.

Writing my own prayers and ceremonies helped me feel engaged. I was shaping my own quirky, idiosyncratic Judaism. I started writing about the fact that I was doing that, and encouraging other unaffiliated Jews -- other Jews on the fringes: intermarried folks, queer folks, those who didn't have a congregational home or who felt that there might not be a place at the Jewish table for them -- to write their own liturgies and prayers, too.

I took my MFA at Bennington. At the end of my time there, one of my beloved advisors (the poet David Lehman) suggested that I try my hand at writing prayers and psalms. Although I'd thought I was keeping my Jewish self and my writerly self somewhat separate, he saw right through that flimsy divide.

Active Jewishness is a writerly thing. We're obsessed with texts, and our tradition includes the strong expectation that each of us will be in conversation with those texts all our lives. Sometimes that conversation takes highly creative forms, so there's a sense that creativity is a legitimate way to respond to the texts we hold dear. All of this was fermenting in me in 1999, the year I was first introduced to fanfiction and fanvids: transformative works of a different kind.

Continue reading "On Transformative Works " »

Leaving the ark (Radical Torah repost)

As noted earlier this week, I'm reposting my old Radical Torah divrei Torah here, since RT seems to have disappeared. (It's such a bummer when a beloved website goes offline and takes so many people's writing with it!) After this post, I'll post my d'var on Lech Lecha -- this week's portion -- and then I'll be caught up with the weekly reading cycle. Anyway: what follows is my d'var Torah on last week's portion, Noach, from 2006.

A midrash reads: Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, "I entered with God's permission, as it says, 'Go into the ark' (7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?" The Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, "Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission," as it is said 'Come out of the ark.' Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: "If I had been there I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out."

Noah is a fascinating character. On the one hand, he's held up as an exemplar: righteous among the men of his generation, keeper of the world's animal biodiversity, the only one permitted to survive the deluge. On the other hand, he's seen sometimes in a pretty negative light; one thread of commentary suggests that he only looks righteous in comparison with the wicked layabouts who populated the world in his days.

He's also, as the midrash cited above implies, fairly passive. When God declares the coming Flood, Noah doesn't ask why, or attempt to defend humanity; he just sets about building his craft. And after the flood, he seems to be fishing for an excuse to stay aboard. He's become comfortable there. He's familiar with every plank of the floating home he constructed, and he can't bear to leave.

I can't help feeling some empathy for the guy in that regard. Imagine what it must have felt like, to realize that the waters had receded and that it was time to leave the place he had built and begin a new life. To do the hard work of beginning again.

Continue reading "Leaving the ark (Radical Torah repost)" »