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First full day at Kallah

The thing that's surprised me so far about Kallah is how dense the schedule is. I'm used to smicha week and to Elat Chayyim, where generally there's only one thing I'm supposed to be doing at any given time. Here the schedule is far more packed: in the morning, there's davening from 6:30-8am, and also breakfast from 7-8am. In the afternoons, I have to miss mincha (afternoon prayer) in order to grab an early dinner at 5:30 so I can make it to rehearsal at 6:30 -- I'm singing in a pickup choir led by Linda Hirschhorn, which is a joy. (The music is gorgeous, it's all a cappella, and she's teaching it without using the piano -- just with her voice. She's quickly topped my list of choral directors I'm glad to have sung with.) And rehearsals run halfway through maariv (evening prayer), too. I've missed several programs, some impromptu art-making, and (I think) a bunch of short films, and it's only day one! It's impossible to do everything here.

Today was the first full day. Breakfast, then a dash to davening (I chose the outdoor service led by the folks from Nava Tehila, the Jerusalem Renewal congregation I love so much), then my morning class with Reb Arthur, then lunch, then I did some homework and took a catnap which I sorely needed, then the BeShT class which lasted for three hours, then a race back to the dining hall for the fastest dinner in known history and I zipped back to rehearsal. And by 8pm? I decided I was done; there were four different evening programs happening, and instead I opted to hang out quietly with a friend. I needed downtime more than I needed more stimulation. Self-care can be tough at a retreat like this -- there's so much going on! so many people I want to see! -- but I'm not a true extrovert, and I need to know my limits if I want to make it happily through two weeks of this intense retreat spacetime.

It's been great to see friends: both folks from the smicha programs (many of whom are here, almost all of whom will be here next week) and folks I've met in other contexts. Yesterday I ran into two good friends from the 2004 Reb Zalman retreat at Elat Chayyim! We haven't seen one another in five years, but it doesn't seem to matter. And I've met some lovely new people, too: applicants to the ALEPH rabbinic program (I spent lunch today chatting about the program with a guy who'd just submitted his application), and other fascinating people who are in one of my classes or another, or who happen to be sitting wherever I plunk down my mealtime tray.

There's a latenight music thing happening now, but I'm not going; instead I'm about to put myself to bed. The alarm's going to go off awfully early tomorrow, after all, and I want to make it to breakfast before I dash to daven. Now I just have to choose which of the four different shacharit options I want to try to attend...

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Tomorrow morning I'll wake at an ungodly hour to make it to the Albany airport in time for a 5:45am flight. (Ethan, bless him, is driving me to the airport.) I'm off to the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University for the ALEPH Kallah, the biennial gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement. I've never actually been to Kallah before, so I'm incredibly excited -- I've heard wonderful things, and of course, four years into this ALEPH rabbinic program journey I'm perennially eager to see my friends and teachers again.

After Kallah, I'll stay in Ohio for smicha week, the annual week-long intensive for ALEPH ordination students. (I missed smicha students' week last summer because I was in Jerusalem; I blogged a tiny bit about it when I went two years ago.) I'm looking forward to meeting new folks at Kallah, but part of me is most eager to relax into the smaller community of the various ordination programs. We'll be about 85 people this year, plus faculty -- large enough that our gathering will feel remarkable, but small enough that (I hope) I'll be able to spend quality time with folks I want to see.

I expect that blogging will be light while I'm away, though I'll try to post once or twice if I am able (and if there is internet access -- one never knows!) Have a great few weeks, all, and if you're going to be at Kallah, please come and tell me hello.

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Entering the summer semester

The last few weeks have offered a blessed respite from coursework. I can't remember the last time that happened: usually one semester ends as the next is beginning (and if there are final papers to be written or translation projects to be undertaken, we're scrambling to complete them even as we try not to fall behind on the next semester's new offerings) so this little break has been a real mechaieh (life-giver) for me! But it's almost time to get back to the work of fulltime learning again.

Next week at the ALEPH Kallah I'll be taking two courses: a course on Eco-Judaism taught by Reb Arthur Waskow, and a deep immersion in the writings of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) taught by Reb Burt Jacobson. During smicha week, the annual week-long intensive for ALEPH ordination students which follows right on the heels of Kallah, I'll be taking two more courses: a spiritual direction class focusing on intercessory prayer taught by Reb Shohama Wiener and Reb Nadya Gross, and a course on liturgy/poems/stories for illness, healing and death taught by Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan.

At least two of the four (and possibly all of them) will continue with teleconference sessions once we're home again. (More information on all four of these classes can be found beneath the extended entry link.)

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This week's portion: fruit


in God's hands
the staff of my body
and brings forth almonds

not a sign
that I am favored
or especially fit
for divine service

just garden-variety
the blessing
of whatever comes

This week's portion, Korach, tells the story of the rebellion of Korach, who argued that surely the whole people Israel could be holy and therefore a priesthood wasn't necessary. In this week's Shalom Report email, Reb Arthur Waskow gives over a teaching from Martin Buber, to wit, that "Korach thought the whole people was holy regardlesss of how it acted...It could kill, or worship gold, or rape the earth -- it could do anything, thought Korach, and still be holy." Moses understood, Reb Arthur explains, "that the people had to become holy, always and over and over -- had to act to make holiness out of ordinary life."

Anyway, that's a bit of a side note, because this week's Torah poem arises out of a piece of the story which comes after Korach's rebellion. God tells the Israelites that the head of each tribe should take his staff and carve his name on it, and then all of the staves are placed in the tent of the covenant. The following morning, Aaron's staff has burst into bloom. For me, rereading the text this year, that was the most resonant image, so it's what sparked the Torah poem. How does the image (how does the poem) sit with you?


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How I read the Bible

I've been tapped to answer the question of what books or scholars have most significantly impacted how I read the Bible. (The post so many books, so little time includes links to many others who've done this meme.)

The first scholar I'll mention is Rashi, whose commentary on Torah is considered central and foundational by pretty much the whole Jewish world. (You can find a weekly dose of chumash -- a.k.a. Torah -- with Rashi's commentary here at Chabad's Daily Study page, though it may not be very accessible; Rashi has a very particular way of engaging with the text, and he works so often with wordplay that he doesn't necessarily translate well.) It's often helpful to consider the question, "What's bugging Rashi here?" In other words: what leapt out at him, when he read the Torah text, which demanded his interpretation? His economy of language is pretty dazzling, though I think it also makes him trickier for the novice reader. Rashi isn't foundational to me, per se, but he's a basic part of the Torah-study enterprise. If you want to understand Torah Jewishly, Rashi is one good place to start.

Alicia Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions was deeply formative for me. This book had a huge impact on me. I'm also a longtime admirer of Ostriker's poetry, but this book really knocked me out when I first read it. She delves into foundational Biblical texts and, in conversation with those texts, offers a combination of autobiography and some of the finest contemporary midrash I know. This is a classic of Jewish feminist scholarship and I can't recommend it highly enough. (As a side note, Ostriker's recent For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, which I reviewed for Lilith when it first came out, is also top-notch and really worth reading, especially if you are a religious liberal who doesn't want to abandon the Bible to fundamentalist interpretations.)

The third scholar I'm going to mention is Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, who's usually known as the Me'or Eynayim, "The Light of the Eyes" -- that's the name of his best-known work, which is a running commentary on Torah, written through his sweet Hasidic lens. I spent a semester studying his work a while back, and wrote about him from time to time (here's one of those posts: Meor Eynayim on hospitality and going forth.) One of my favorite quotes from him is, "You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah, a light not revealed except through struggle. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called his (her) Torah." (The gender-neutrality is my own translation, naturally.) I love the playfulness, the expansiveness, and the depth of his commentary. Most of his work is available only in Hebrew, but if you prefer English, I can recommend Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl: Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes. If you're new to Hasidic ways of reading Torah, though, you might want to find a good teacher to study it with!

Number four is Everett Fox, whose translation The Five Books of Moses is not only clear and lucid but captures the gorgeous wordplay of the original Hebrew text in a way that no other translation I've seen has done. The footnotes are also excellent, but the reason I keep returning to this text is that Fox perennially shows me new ways of understanding the old words, and that's incredibly valuable to me. I recommend this translation highly. (The JPS is my standard bilingual edition, and sometimes I peek into the Oxford Study Bible or the JPS Torah Commentary series for additional perspectives, but for direct engagement with the Hebrew text rendered into creative and startling English, nobody beats Fox.)

And the fifth piece I'm going to mention is not a book but an essay, which I read quite recently but which has become one of the lenses through which I read Tanakh. It's an essay by Wendy Doniger which she offered as a convocation address at the University of Chicago in June of 2008. Here's a quote:

We need to balance what literary critics call a hermeneutics of suspicion -- a method of reading that ferrets out submerged agendas -- with a hermeneutics of retrieval, or even of reconciliation (to borrow a term from the literature on the aftermath of genocidal wars in Africa and elsewhere).... And then we can begin to read our own classics differently, with what the philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur called a second naiveté: where, in our first naiveté, we did not notice the racism, and in our subsequent hypercritical reading we couldn’t see anything else, in our second naiveté we can see how good some writers are despite the inhumanity of their underlying worldviews. If their works really are great literature, they will survive this new reading.

Doniger's speaking most directly about literary criticism, but to my mind her message is tremendously relevant when it comes to reading and rereading Tanakh. As a Jew and a rabbi I need to be able to read the Bible critically and devotionally: to keep my eyes open to the problematic passages, its sexism, its racism, everything in it which troubles me -- and also to allow myself to look beyond what's problematic in order to draw from the deep well of intellectual and spiritual sustenance which my tradition has always found there. Anyway, you can find her essay online here: Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf].

Thanks for tagging me, J.K. Gayle; I'm sorry to see that since you tagged me last week you've left the blogosphere, but I appreciate the posts and conversations, and hope that you'll return to us someday.

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A blessing of butterflies

She now knew the butterfly effect could produce a loon in her office.

But did the converse also hold true? She closed her eyes and concentrated, and the room filled with the rush of fluttering wings. One brushed the side of her face, impossibly gentle. When she opened her eyes, they were gone.

Almost. One bright monarch perched on the tendril of wisteria which snaked its way up her house, around the outside of her window, as though it wanted to bloom inside. The monarch regarded her solemnly, its wings moving like breathing, and then it lifted into the air and flew away.

What we breathe out, the trees breathe in. What they breathe out, we breathe in. The notion satisfied her. Butterflies breathe, and mint plants. The lettuces beneath their mesh, and the rabbits which skirt them, hungry.

Sometimes the internet seems to breathe. One person posts, and then another in response. She could sit solitary at her computer, facing the green world outside her windows, and never feel entirely alone. The thrum of conversation is perennial. We pick up the threads and follow them to the center of one labyrinth or another, and then we are gone, but the labyrinth remains.

The woman in leggings and a striped hand-me-down shirt scuffed her feet against the floor, contemplating the posting of comments, the flapping of tiny wings.

With her bright visitors gone, it seemed as though she ought to feel bereft, but she didn't. She felt blessed.

This is the fourteenth post in an online came of Consequences. Each post begins with the last line of the previous post; is (meant to be) 250 words long; and is on the theme of the individual within the community, or something along those lines.

Previous posts: No man is an island, Entire of itself, A part of the main, To belong, Be-longing, Expats, or la vie en rosé, Ex-hale, No Contest, Consequences, Consequences 10, Consequences 11, Follow the consequences, and Consequences 13. The series will conclude at Hydragenic, where it began, in a day or two.

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Isn't it nice to be home again

I'm home from my week in Texas! My family had a grand old time on South Padre Island; I'll miss my parents and siblings, not to mention the sun and the sand and the rish-rush of the waters.

Blogging may be lighter than usual for a while: I'm home for six days and then I'll depart for the ALEPH Kallah which is followed immediately by smicha students' week (the week-long intensive learning program we do each summer.) All good things, but oy, I could use a week or two to decompress in between!

Today my primary goals are email triage and laundry and relaxing into being home again, even though this feels like a brief visit to my normal life rather than a chance to settle in. Thanks for bearing with me, gang.

Heading for the Gulf Coast

It's been a nice quiet Sunday: pancakes and the Times, throwing together a quiche for tomorrow morning (we're hosting old friends for brunch), folding laundry, cleaning house. I backed up my hard drive this weekend, and charged my phone and aging ipod for travel, since I'm off to Texas tomorrow to spend the next week with my family. I'll make it as far as San Antonio before I sleep; Tuesday morning we'll load up a caravan of vehicles and head for the Texas coast!

It's a bit over a year since last time I was in Texas, so I'm really looking forward to the trip. Seeing my parents and my siblings and their children is always a treat, and I'm jazzed about getting my annual fix of Tex-Mex cuisine and big Texas skies. Plus, ocean -- last one of those I had the pleasure of dipping into was the Mediterranean Sea, my final weekend in Tel Aviv last August. It's more than 15 years since I immersed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, so I'm looking forward to that, too.

I hope there will be internet where we're staying; I intend to keep up with my discipline of writing a Torah poem each week, and I'd love to post that here, along with (maybe) whatever other small musings arise. But I doubt that I'll keep up with reading my blog aggregator, and I may not be blogging much from the road. Thanks for understanding, and I hope y'all have a lovely week!

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Offering God compassion (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. Enjoy!

The story of Miriam being struck by snow-white scales is a veritable soap opera. Miriam and Aaron, we learn, are jealous of Moses because he married a Cushite woman, and because Moses has the Divine ear in a way that his siblings do not. "Aren't we special too?" Aaron and Miriam ask.

God is incensed by the question. He calls them on the carpet for doubting their brother's primacy and the purity of his ability to hear the voice of God, and then presto! -- when God departs, Miriam is afflicted with white scales. Moses is so startled that he bursts into spontaneous prayer, "el na, refa na la!" (Please, God, heal her!)

In the end God decides to leave Miriam outside the encampment for a week, as punishment, and when she is brought back into the fold she is healed, and the Israelites go on their way.

Why are Miriam and Aaron jealous of Moses' marriage -- what it is about the Cushite woman in particular who rubs them the wrong way? Why does God respond with such fury to the suggestion that God has spoken through Miriam and Aaron too, and not just through Moses? Why is only Miriam afflicted with tzara'at, and not her rebellious brother as well?

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This week's portion: apart


The people wailed
every clan apart

no one sought
her sister's arms

bundled in nostalgia's
snug swaddling clothes

until God rose up
in our whining image

and quail rained down
we ate ourselves sick

too busy gorging
to be grateful

shreds of bitterness
in our clenched teeth

Toward the end of this week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, there's a story about the children of Israel bewailing the lack of meat in their lives. (This is Numbers chapter 11.) They get whiny; Moses gets angry; God becomes furious, and rains down quail six feet high all around the camp. The people gather everything they can reach and begin to consume, but before they've finished their meal, they're struck down with a plague.

To me, this year, this reads as a morality tale about unhealthy cravings, ingratitude, and overconsumption. So that's the direction this week's Torah poem went in. I'm curious to know, how does the story read to you? And what do you make of the brief episode of prophecy which is contained within it, which didn't make it into the poem but is a fascinating digression from the narrative?


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On divisions in the J-blogosphere, and President Obama's Cairo speech

1. About Haveil Havalim

Most weeks I try to submit something to Haveil Havalim, the Jewish blog carnival. (I hosted Haveil Havalim #36 back in 2005; it's been ongoing since 2004.) It's always interesting to see what is happening in certain corners of the Jewish blogosphere.

I say "certain corners" because it has always seemed to me that Haveil Havalim skews to the right. The Jewish blogs that I read -- Jewschool, South Jerusalem, A Big Jewish Blog, Judaism Without Borders, Mah Rabu, On Chanting, Every Day and Every Night, The Jew and the Carrot, Sustainable Judaism, JSpot, Shalom Rav, Rabbis for Human Rights North America -- don't tend to be represented there. The blog carnival is opt-in only; I guess progressive Jewish thinkers don't tend to submit posts. I don't know why that is: do progressive J-bloggers not know that the carnival is there? Do we not feel represented by it, and therefore not feel inclined to join in? Do we feel awkward about self-promotion? Do we feel uncomfortable expressing our political views in a space which tends not to include the voices of progressive Jews? (That last resonates for me. I only rarely submit political posts to the carnival; mostly I submit Torah posts, because those seem less likely to spark confrontation.)

Anyway, the most recent edition, hosted by Esser Agaroth, dedicated a whole section to "The Big Speech" -- President Obama's recent remarks in Cairo -- which made me realize again that I'm coming from a very different place than the majority of the folks who submit their material to Havel Havalim. Ben Yehuda framed this section of the carnival by comparing the President to Pee-Wee Herman, and suggesting that Pee-Wee knew more about his chosen subject than President Obama does about his. As I browsed the links in that section of the post, I was amazed by how foreign I found most of the responses to the President's speech. Our perspectives differ so strongly that we don't seem to have heard the same words. 

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A slow Shabbat

This week I got the kind of quiet, restorative Shabbat that doesn't come along too often. We had an unexpected crowd for services on Shabbat morning -- a local gentleman wanted to say kaddish for his wife, and came with a large handful of friends -- but by the time we finished the schmoozing which follows the kiddush, we were down to the usual minyan or so, and that's who sat down to learn in our weekly study session.

We read short texts from Talmud about the vows of the nazir (which I posted about in last week's Torah poem) and talked about how to balance the tension between two Talmudic opinions. One holds that the nazir should be understood as a sinner (the Torah notes that at the conclusion of the nazirite period, the nazir brings a "sin offering" -- why would that be necessary if there weren't some sin inherent in the stringencies of this choice?) and argues that one who denies himself the pleasures of wine or food or companionship "sins" (the Hebrew word literally means "misses the mark") in not taking advantage of the bounty of creation.

The other opinion holds that the nazir should be understood as holy (the Torah specifically refers to the nazir in this way) and argues that the sin-offering described in Torah is meant to be brought only when the nazir has inadvertently broken the nazirite vow by coming into contact with death. The Talmud, of course, does not offer a tiebreaking view; that's not its way. The point is that there's merit in each opinion, and that we each need to navigate our own balance through the opposing texts. This, said my rabbi, is where Judaism is found: not in the Torah, but in the rabbinic wrestling with and reframing of what Torah gives us. Anyway: interesting stuff, especially in light of recent conversations here.

Shortly after I got home Ethan returned from his travels, and we lounged on the couch and caught up on the last few days of each others' lives. And there was some napping, and some reading in bed (I'm working my way through a recent edition of Best American Travel Writing, edited by Tony Bourdain), and a midafternoon snack of Greek yogurt with a sliced peach and handful of sweet blackberries. Mostly the day was characterized by slowness: davening, schmoozing, learning, hanging out, connecting, resting. What Shabbat is supposed to be.

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This week's portion: nazir


I don't want to eschew
fat grapes bursting on my tongue
raisins sticky-dark sweet

to lose the sensation of
emerging from the funeral parlor
blinking in the wet sunlight

to set myself apart
never raising my glass in song
unthreaded from the tapestry

so I settle into the chair
I tip my head back, close my eyes
and relish the clench of towel

afterward, I toss my head
to feel the swish, the gift
of air on the back of my neck

and all the oaths
I haven't uttered
crackle salty on my tongue

This week's Torah portion, Naso, contains much to work with. The prose d'var Torah that I posted earlier this week (a Radical Torah repost) focused on the ritual of the sotah. This week's Torah poem, in contrast, rose out of a different part of the portion: the laws of the nazir (sometimes rendered "Nazirite" in English), someone who takes on particular stringencies as part of a vow to God.

Because it is no longer possible to end a term as a nazir (the Torah ritual depends on making sacrifices at the Temple which hasn't stood in two thousand years), rabbinic authorities today discourage the taking-on of these vows in the strongest of terms. Judaism has never been a tradition of asceticism. But I found the images in this part of this week's Torah portion deeply evocative, and they sparked the images in this week's poem.

Does anything about the idea of the nazir speak to you, either in a positive way or a negative one? What does this poem, or this Torah portion, raise for you?


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Bread and bitter water (Radical Torah repost)

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

This week's Torah portion, Naso, features one of the most fascinatingly bizarre rulesets in Torah: the ritual to be performed if a husband suspects his wife of adultery.

The sotah ritual is strangely magical. The priest mixes "sacral water" and earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. The woman suspected of adultery must bare her head, and she holds the couple's meal offering in her hands. (When else do women hold offerings to Adonai?) The priest offers a series of blessings and curses -- if the woman is innocent let her be immune to harm; if she is guilty may her belly and thigh sag -- and the woman echoes them with an "amen." And then the curses are written down, the ink dissolved in the water which already holds a smidgen of earth, the offerings offered, and the woman drinks. If she is innocent, the text tells us, she shall bear children; if guilty, the curse will come true, and she will bear her iniquity.

That this is a problematic text for women today hardly needs reiteration. There is no analagous ritual to be performed by a woman who suspects her husband of straying. Female sexuality here is apparently owned by men, both husband and priests, and the text seems to presume feminine guilt. But this passage is not irredeemable, and a variety of thinkers have spun the straw of this text into exegetical gold.

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Read write prompt #77: opposites attract


The clouds were cotton-candy pink.
My first evening in the city of gold
I hadn't thought to prepare a toast.
I walked the unfamiliar streets.
People brought roses.
In the distance, dark cypress spikes.
I admired the handwritten names
and limestone buildings gave way.
After dark, when the night sky
yielded to desert, cut by a cement ribbon
only barely lighter than the hills
snaking, separating here from there,
I walked on a carpet of herbs.
I wanted to turn to you and say
a rainbow of paper lanterns gleamed
isn't it beautiful, isn't it strange
as though fireflies circled the deck
but you were too far away to reach.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem fascinated me. The challenge was to write a set number of lines about a happy memory, and a set number of lines about a sad memory, and then interleave them into a single poem.

When I sat down to write, both of the memories that came to mind were from last June: one of a night at home spent celebrating with our friends and family, and the other of the first night that I spent in Jerusalem. (That second memory isn't so much a sad memory as a bittersweet one; I remember being amazed and awed that I was actually there, but also feeling the deep ache of being far from Ethan and knowing that we wouldn't see each other again for two months.)

I think both memories have a wistful quality. I changed a couple of words to make the syntax work, but otherwise, this is a faithful attempt to live up to the exercise in question. I think it's stylistically different from what I usually write (maybe especially from the Torah poems I usually post here) -- but I really enjoyed the process of writing it, and I'm fascinated by how it turned out. Does it work for you?

Oh, and I borrowed the title from a Wim Wenders film. Thanks for the loan, Wim.

(If you want to read the other poems submitted for this prompt, go to ReadWritePoem on Thursday -- there will be a "Get Your Poem On!" post, where we'll all leave links to our submissions in the comments.)


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