This week's portion: birthings

Paradigm shifting and Hasidut

Part 3 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 can be found here.

Paradigm shifting: How might we/you draw on these sources for our own spiritual path? For the world of Jewish Renewal? What teachings/practices might be adapted/surrendered to? What might be creatively recast? Are there elements that can’t be (easily) absorbed? What do we learn from these "unassimilable" elements (or roughage)? Why study them nonetheless?

There's much in the sources we've studied which speaks to me. There's also some material here which doesn't speak to me (yet), or which requires the kind of reading that Wendy Doniger describes in her convocation address [.pdf] -- a "hermeneutics of retrieval, or even of reconciliation."

What speaks to me most plainly is the passion for God, the yearning for devequt (cleaving-to-God), the often intricate pathways toward sanctifying holidays which might otherwise slip by unheralded. I know that having studied these texts will change my relationship with Purim next year, with Pesach, with Shavuot, with the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av, with the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. As my relationship with the wheel of the year is deepened, I am more invested in learning, and in teaching what I've learned.

What challenge me most strongly are these texts' occasional assumptions about non-Jews and about women. (They were clearly written by, and for, Jewish men whose views on women and outsiders don't match mine.) But this challenges me in almost all of my immersion in Jewish texts, from Tanakh through Talmud straight through the Hasidic masters. I'm with Wendy on this one: we owe it to our texts to read them first with an eye to what they are, then we owe it to our political and personal sensibilities to wrestle with the texts, and then we owe it to the texts to find a way to return to them and read them not blindly, but still with love. That I read these texts with love is always a given.

What I see as the essential truths in these texts are truths that I desperately need. I believe they are truths that the people I teach desperately need, too, whether or not that need is clear to them. (It's my job to make that need clear even as I work to fill it.) We need to enliven our holiday practices, to access these deep meanings which are hidden in plain sight. Jewish Renewal is experiential; we can offer profound encounters with the tradition and with God, but in order to do that, we need to know (to borrow a classic Hasidic metaphor) the keys to the doors of God's palace. These texts can be some of those keys, and to discard the keyring because some of what it holds doesn't accord with contemporary post-triumphalist or gender/sexuality sensibilities would be short-sighted.

My challenge as a Jewish Renewal rabbi is to continue to plumb these wells for the profound spiritual sustenance they can offer, and then to give over these teachings in a way which neither does violence to the original texts nor to the audience before whom I place the words. One way I hope to do that is by studying the texts myself, generating my own translations, and teaching them in my congregation at appropriate moments. Another method of integrating these texts into my spiritual life and my teaching is the process of turning them into poems, and sharing those with as wide an audience as my poems can reach.

Ultimately, the process of wrestling with complicated texts can also yield its own rewards. As the Me'or Eynayim has written, "You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called her Torah." (Okay, he didn't phrase it in quite those words. But I'm pretty sure it's what he was saying.) That's a life's work, and it's work I'm grateful to be beginning to do.