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A Heart Afire, and an interview with the Rebbe

A Heart Afire is a book about early Hasidism, coauthored by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Natanel Miles-Ypez. I read it last summer and knew I wanted to review it somewhere; and back in the fall, before the baby was born, I also had the chance to interview Reb Zalman for a sidebar piece intended to accompany the book review.

The review and the interview are now both online at Religion Dispatches. Here's a taste, first of the review:

The book presents “diverse stories and teachings from across the spectrum of Hasidic spirituality” and the authors’ desire is to “lead the reader up to [these stories], like an attendant at a mikveh (ritual bath)—waiting while one dips—then providing them with a towel as they are led out.” This isn’t an academic exploration of Hasidism; these stories are meant to be an immersive experience.

...Schachter-Shalomi’s ecumenism peppers these pages despite their intensely Jewish focus. In a digression from an early chapter about the Baal Shem Tov’s life and “enlightenment,” Schachter-Shalomi writes that people often ask him about his own theophanies and he always wants to answer, “I’m not Rinzai, I’m Soto!” (In Zen Buddhism, he goes on to clarify, “the Rinzai school talks about ‘sudden enlightenment,’ whereas the Soto school recognizes gradual enlightenment[.]”) The Hasid who uses Zen parables to make a point about his own spiritual life: that’s Reb Zalman in a nutshell.

And here's a related tidbit of the interview:

I’m struck by the “deep ecumenism” here — how you draw on Buddhist, Christian, Sufi, Hindu teachings in order to illuminate Hasidic thought. Do you think that risks alienating more traditional readers?

It was a conscious choice. We could have eliminated these things and gotten more kudos from the frum [Orthodox] world. But the frum world has this material available! Along with exhortations for switching back to an older paradigm, to more halakhic behavior and so on. I was not interested in that.

When I was reading things like Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy or William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I noticed that those people have good material from Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, but nothing Jewish...

Read the whole thing here: Better Hasidism Through Zen Buddhism (And Sufism and Science Fiction...) And once you've read it, feel free to leave a comment either there or here!

Another mother poem (for Read Write Prompt #119)


Old political cartoons
punctuate the pink walls.
Our waiter wears black tie,
brings out dish after dish:

steaks the size of dinner plates
and homemade noodles
and lettuce with vinegar,
sweet onion on the side.

We cap the day
with bright limoncello
and a wobbly walk on cobblestones
like Europe, refracted.

By breakfast -- coffee,
medialunas smeared with dulce,
watching the city wake
through wrought-iron doors --

two cells have collided
inside me, beginning
their long journey
into the wide world

and we set off on foot
to explore,
never dreaming
what adventures lie ahead.

This week's readwritepoem prompt, let's get it on, invites us to take sex as our theme -- specifically, "the haphazard nature of getting it on." As it happens, this week marks a year since our vacation in Argentina, which is where and when Drew was conceived. So that's where my poem for this week wound up going.

Although Drew only barely appears in the poem, I see it as another in my series of mother poems. It's the prelude to this whole rollercoaster.

(If you're interested in reading about Argentina, by the by, I posted three times about our stay there: A taste of far away, Shabbat morning at the Libertad, and A day on the ice.)

As usual, you can read other peoples' responses to this week's prompt by checking out the comments at this week's Get Your Poem On post.


On Jewishness, media, and intertextuality

The latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures is a special issue focused on Supernatural. I don't watch SPN, but I read Line Nybro Peterson's essay Renegotiating religious imaginations through transformations of "banal religion" in "Supernatural" because -- as you might imagine -- media representation of religion is a subject which is of some interest to me. (I keep meaning to write an essay about clergy and chaplains as seen through the lens of television -- Shepherd Book and Father Mulcahy and Brother Cavil, from Firefly, M*A*S*H and Battlestar Galactica, respectively -- but I haven't had the time. Maybe in a few months when Drew's in part-time daycare...)

Peterson talks a fair bit in the essay about representations of religion in pop culture -- for instance, our common notion of what angels look like. "We know that angels have white wings and are surrounded by light, perhaps even a halo," she writes. "We know this because of the constant circulation of the concept in society, from Christmas tree decorations to popular culture."

I know what she means, but I also think there's something slightly problematic about her presumption that "religion" necessarily means Christianity. Angels in Judaism are an entirely different thing than what Peterson describes. (Arguably it's more apt to speak separately of angels in Torah, angels in the later books of the Hebrew scriptures, angels in midrash, angels in medieval Judaism, and angels in kabbalah, since Judaism's concept of angels has undergone many metamorphoses over the centuries! But my point is, the Christian concept of angels isn't the only one out there.)

I'm not the only person thinking along these lines. coffeeandink's response to Peterson's essay, Religion !=Christianity, which I recommend reading alongside the Peterson piece, argues that Peterson's article "has a lot of interesting points, but its basic framework is the kind of privileged assimilating universalization that underlies so many discussions of religion in the Christian-dominant West."

Continue reading "On Jewishness, media, and intertextuality" »

Pesach PSA

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.


As the first seder approaches, I wanted to offer a reminder about the new edition of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. If you're looking for a soulful haggadah which aims to marry tradition and creativity (and is chock-full of excellent poetry, to boot) this may be the haggadah for you!

Anyway, you can read all about it at the post to which I just linked. I hope everyone's Pesach preparations are going well -- I'm grateful this year to be doing seder at my sister's house, which means she's doing all of the physical prep work and all I have to do is get myself emotionally and spiritually ready for my favorite holiday of the year! And it'll be Drew's first Passover -- which makes me happy even if he won't be conscious of the holiday at all, and hey, by next year he'll be ready for his first taste of homemade matzah balls...

Radical Torah repost: Priestly ordination: doing, hearing, walking

Some of you may remember that I used to write divrei Torah for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah, and that last year I reposted all of them here. Well...almost all of them. It turns out I never reposted my d'var for this week's portion, Tzav! So I'm reposting it now. This was written in 2006, and originally appeared at Radical Torah. Enjoy.

Smicha: the word means "lean, lay, rest, support." It's a laying-on of hands. We use it today for the ordination of rabbis, but in this week's Torah portion we see the word's older usage -- the anointing of Aaron and his sons, the first Israelite priests.

It's an intense ceremony. It requires Moses, and Aaron, and Aaron's sons; vestments and anointing oil; a bull of sin offering, two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread; and the witnessing power of the entire community, gathered at the Tent of Meeting. Three animals will be leant-upon, then slaughtered, then consumed by mouth and by fire. Of these sacrifices, perhaps the strangest and most intense is the ram of ordination -- leant-upon, slaughtered, and its blood used as paint upon Aaron and his sons' right ears, thumbs, and big toes before the fat parts of the ram (and the breads from the basket) are held up as an elevation-offering and burnt.

Earlier in the portion we read that we are absolutely, positively not to eat blood; it belongs to Adonai, and anyone who eats it is to be cut off from his kin. Blood is a symbol of life-force in a visible and visceral way. As we will learn, contact with blood makes us tamei, charged with the power of spiritual impurity. And here, blood is used to mark Aaron and his sons as priests for all time.

I imagine it was still warm when Moses painted it on. According to God's instructions he anointed each man with blood in three places: the ridge of his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. Why these three places? What can we learn from this esoteric ritual that speaks to our lives?

Continue reading "Radical Torah repost: Priestly ordination: doing, hearing, walking" »

Another mother poem: for readwritepoem prompt #118


I want to burn that bra
my husband says, plucking

at my nursing-compliant
weird fetish brassiere

this new-mother costume
matronly as a girdle

all night I fumble to reveal
what the baby gropes for

my breasts have become
utilitarian as beer kegs

and if we dare to touch
the infant alarm goes off

someday he'll move on
to cereal and applesauce

and I'll cup my curves
in turquoise and magenta

will I recognize
the woman in the mirror

stretch marks faded silver
beneath unfamiliar silk?

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is a word cloud, from which I took the words fumble, costume, mirror, turquoise, magenta, cup. I always enjoy word cloud prompts -- the found words tend to send me in directions I wouldn't have gone in on my own.

This is another in my ongoing series of mother poems.

Before the baby was born I remember reading After making love, we hear footsteps by Galway Kinnell with a wry smile -- but had no idea how soon it would resonate. Anyway, I suspect his poem inspired the "infant alarm" couplet on some level.

As usual, you can read other people's responses to this week's poetry prompt by going to this week's Get Your Poem On post.


ALEPH rabbinic program Q and A

I get emails pretty often from people who want to talk with me about the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. I love talking about ALEPH! But I've noticed that the same questions tend to be asked each time. And especially now that there's a baby in my life, I don't always have time for lengthy conversations. So I decided to write down my answers, on the theory that this way, I can point people to them, and if we have a conversation afterward it can be a more in-depth one from the get-go.

I want to stress upfront that I'm making this post as an individual, not as a representative of ALEPH! These are the questions I'm most frequently asked, and this is how I answer them. If you asked these questions of other ALEPH students, you might get different responses -- and if this is a path you're considering, I encourage you to do just that.

Why did you choose ALEPH?

I went on my first retreat at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center, in the summer of 2002. (It was then an independent retreat center in the Catskills; it's now the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman.) When I came home from that week, I told Ethan that I'd met the teachers I'd been looking for all my life -- that someday I wanted to be a rabbi like these people were rabbis.

That was my first experience with Jewish Renewal, and it was amazing. Corny as this sounds, that week of learning and prayer opened my heart and my soul in ways I had only dreamed of. I want to be a Jewish Renewal rabbi because Reb Zalman's teachings about paradigm shift speak to me, because I value Renewal's ecumenism, and most of all because I want to be a part of the movement that reinvigorated my relationship with God and with Jewish tradition.

What's the program like? How does it work?

Each student works with a committee of mentors, including a Director of Studies (who has to be a member of the ALEPH rabbinic va'ad) and a Mashpia(h) (Spiritual Director), to navigate the program's requirements. A minimum of sixty credits is required for ordination, and most courses only confer a single credit; the program takes a minimum of five years of full-time study to complete. (Most ALEPH students aren't in the program full-time, so for most people the timeline is substantially longer than that.) And completing those sixty credits is a prerequisite for smicha (ordination) but it isn't the whole of the process.

Continue reading "ALEPH rabbinic program Q and A" »

Reb Nachman on holy disagreement

In the Halakha and Paradigm Shift class I'm taking this spring, we were asked to choose among a list of texts to translate and teach. The central question we were asked was, how might this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process, the study of halakha and the creation of halakha? I wound up working with a short piece by the Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov, from his work Likkutei Moharan. It's a fairly mystical text -- not something I would have associated with halakha, which I suspect is part of the point. Reb Nachman writes (what's in parentheses below is my attempt to contextualize/explain; the translation is my own):

Know that the world was created through opposition. In order for the world to be created, there needed to be a vacant space; without that space, all that could exist was the Ein Sof (Without End, e.g. God's limitless infinity) and there was no place in which the world could be created. So divine light withdrew itself to the side, and God said "Let us create a vacant space," and within that space God made all of creation, the days and the middot (divine qualities), by means of God's speech, as is known: "In the words of God, 'Let us make the heavens and the earth,' etc."

This is the essence of our disputes too: were all the wise scholars of one opinion, there would be no place for creating the world! Only by means of the opposition between them, as they disagree with one another and pull toward one side or the other: by means of this, they create a vacant space (which is like the vacant space within God which was a prerequisite for creation), a withdrawing of light to one side, and within that space is the creation of a world by means of speech.

All the words which they speak are for the sake of the creation of a world within the space between them. Wise scholars create all things by means of their words, as is written (Isaiah 51:16), "And say to Zion, you are my people." Don't read "my people (עַמִי)," read rather "with me (עִמִי)" -- (imagine God saying) just as I formed heavens and land with My words, so you have done the same.

As is written in the introduction of the Zohar: one needs to bring light, but not to speak too much, only as much as is required for the creation of the world. Remember, when divine light flowed into creation, the vessel of creation couldn't tolerate that increase of light, and the vessels shattered, and in the breaking of the vessels the klipot (shells or shards) came into being. So if one speaks too many words (it's like the excess of light at the beginning of creation), and through this one may cause a kind of cosmic breakage. This is what happens when light increases too much: the vessels break, and the klipot come into being.

Reb Nachman opens with the assertion that creation required opposition. Before God withdrew God's-self and created an empty space within God's-self (in the Lurianic cosmogony -- Rabbi Isaac Luria's narrative about the creation of the universe -- this is called tzimtzum, which one of my college professors called the "bagelization" of God) there was only undifferentiated divinity. In order for the cosmos to come into being, there needed to be differentiation and duality.

Torah tells us that God created the universe with divine speech: "'Let there be light,' and there was light." Just so, Reb Nachman teaches, we too create universes with our speech. When Torah scholars disagree with one another, a space is created between them, and in that space, the world of halakha comes into being. Like God, we too create worlds with our words.

In the classical kabbalistic conception, tzimtzum was followed by an influx of divine light which was followed by the breaking of the vessels. God's light was too powerful for the vessels to hold, and creation shattered; our task is to find the sparks of holiness which remain in the shards of our world and to lift them up. Here, too, Reb Nachman draws a parallel between God's actions and ours. Our words can be like divine light in the good way -- we can illuminate and create -- but they can also be like divine light in a destructive way. If we speak injudiciously, we may cause breakage.

How can this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process? I understand Reb Nachman to be saying that differences of opinion are a holy and necessary part of what we do. If we are all in accord, then there's no movement and no change. If we disagree (in a respectful and productive way), then the tension of our disagreements makes space for creativity. It's only when we pull in different directions that we're mirroring God's divine act of creating the world. It's almost Hegelian: we need thesis and antithesis in order to move forward.

I also understand Reb Nachman to be offering a word of caution. We need to speak and to disagree, but not too much, lest the force of our disagreement cause destruction. We need the tension between one viewpoint and another, but if we become too strident, the vessel of the system we're co-creating may shatter.

For Reb Nachman, halakha isn't just a system of legal opinions and interpretations; it's also a means by which we mirror God's very creation of the cosmos. Pretty cool, eh? I'll be teaching this text to my class in a week or two, but would love to talk about it before then (Drew permitting, of course -- my online time still isn't what it used to be :-) so if you have thoughts in response, please chime in!

Poem published in Qarrtsiluni

If you're interested in smart, thoughtful, creative literary work on the web you probably already know Qarrtsiluni, the literary journal whose name comes from an Inupiaq word meaning "sitting in the darkness waiting for something to burst." The current issue is focused on Health, and has featured some fantastic material -- I'm especially struck by the recent poem Sarcoma by Marilyn Taylor, and also Marjorie Saiser's poem Loving My Daughter in the Mountains.

I'm pleased to be able to say that I have a poem in the Health issue, too, which has just gone live. It was written a few years ago, after my second stroke, and was inspired by a series of five photographs at the Williams College Museum of Art (learn more here.) The poem is called "Body," and it begins:

Tradition calls
for parchment, stuff
capable of surviving
stitches made from
tendons and glue.

The body too
is a scroll, scribed
in circles...

Read it (or listen to it) here: Body. And then feel free to leave a comment, either there or here...

Another mother poem: anticipatory psalm two


I forgot to hang the feeder.
The cat never settled on the couch
to watch the chickadees and juncos
at their perennial cocktail party.
Next year you'll be old enough
to notice as they congregate.
For now, settle into your stroller
and listen: as the equinox approaches
the woodpeckers are waking.
You can't see the trees' distant fingers,
too far and fine for your new eyes,
but a trillion twigs are turning nubbly
like grapestems denuded of fruit
and inside lurk embryonic leaves.
On your eighth day, flakes fell
thick and fast, coating hills
which haven't yet been bared, but
soon the snow will seep into soil
revealing the pale and sun-starved lawn.
Your short life has held only winter.
As you can smell milk when I hold you
I can smell the earth warming, the mud
laced with shreds of last year's mulch,
the spring I know is almost here.

This week I wound up working on another mother poem which draws inspiration both from the slowly turning round of the seasons and from the psalms. In some ways this is a follow-up to Anticipatory Psalm 1, and it takes the same form as that poem. I'm not sure why these psalms are arising in a single block of text, rather than in stanzas, but I tried this one both ways and I'm happier with it like this even though it's not the shape my poems usually take.

I think that my recent motherhood poems are more hopeful and less dark than some of the earlier ones were. There are good reasons for that. As we've moved beyond the "fourth trimester," many things are becoming easier. Drew's colic is largely over; the moments of sweetness are increasing. And the antidepressants my doctor prescribed seem, thank God, to be working. I'm grateful for all of those things. Parenting a newborn is still challenging, of course! But it's feeling more manageable now than it was.

I didn't manage to write to this week's readwritepoem prompt, but as usual, you can read what other people wrote (both for the prompt, and -- like this one -- poems which diverge from our assignment) by going to this week's Get Your Poem On post.


A rabbi by any other name...

Religion Dispatches is one of my favorite online journals. They publish religion-related essays daily. (Learn more about them.) As a contributing editor to Zeek, I have some understanding of how hard it is to come up with smart, thoughtful material, so I'm always impressed with RD. Which is why I'm delighted to be able to point to my first contribution to their digital pages: an essay about the Sara Hurwitz rabba controversy.

In early March, just six weeks after Sara Hurwitz was granted the title of "rabba" -- a feminized version of "rabbi" -- that title is in jeopardy. Hurwitz, an Orthodox Jew and one of three leaders of an Orthodox congregation in Riverdale, was ordained last year by Rabbi Avi Weiss. At the time the Jewish world took note, though it wasn’t until she was given the titular equivalent of rabbi that the controversy really began...

Read my whole essay: Sara Hurwitz’s ‘Rabba’ Title Sparks Orthodox Jewish Condemnation. And feel free to leave a comment either there or here if you have thoughts or questions.


This morning, while our son was lying on his back on a quilt on the floor of his nursery practicing his kicking, I went out to the garage to get a hammer. In tidying his things, I had unearthed the mezuzah which my brother Brad gave to us on the day of his naming ceremony, and I wanted to affix it on the doorpost of the nursery.

Every mezuzah contains the first part of the Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. (You can read the text in Hebrew and English here.) This particular mezuzah is small, brightly-colored, and features illustrations of sports gear: balls of various kinds, a tennis racket, etc. It also bears the letter ש (shin), short for Shaddai, the divine name which can be interpreted to refer either to mountains or to breasts, as you may remember from the commentary to the first mother poem I posted back in December. Some interpret the mezuzah as a sign of divine protection. Others see it as a mindfulness practice, a reminder to be conscious of divinity everywhere we go.

There are two basic halakhic perspectives on how a mezuzah should be affixed. Rashi argued that it ought to be affixed vertically; his grandson Rabbeinu Tam argued in favor of affixing it horizontally. The accepted custom is to compromise and affix the mezuzah diagonally -- and since it's customary for the tilt of the mezuzah to point into the room, I like to think of it as signifying that divine presence is perennially entering.

It's hung at the traditional height, in the upper third of the doorframe -- far too high for our son to reach. I imagine I'll lift him in my arms so he can see it and touch it, someday when he's old enough. (Today I held him in my arms and tried to show it to him, but he didn't seem all that interested.) I can tell him how his Uncle Brad brought it here from Texas one week after he was born, and how I hung it on a beautiful sunny day when the snow was melting and the air was beginning to feel like spring.

I like that our tradition tells us to sanctify our doorways: liminal spaces between one room and another, one place and another, one state of being and another. I like that every time I enter our son's room, I'll have an opportunity to remember that it's a holy place: even when he's fussing, even when I'm entering sleepily in the middle of the night to feed him yet again. And because the Shema speaks about the fundamental unity at the heart of all things, the mezuzah also reminds me that all of the divisions I encounter -- between my old life and my new one, between the familiar and the foreign, even between our son and me -- are ultimately illusory. Deep down, everything is part of God. Even the diaper pail.

Another mother poem: Change


At four in the morning
my body is sleep-heavy
but my heart
isn't an imploded star.

Breakfast tastes good
again, oatmeal
for my milk supply, Clementine
like a handheld sun.

I choose music
over silence, the baby's
Shar-pei soft head
beneath my palm.

My eyes still sting
sometimes, the wide world
reduced to the nursery,
the living room couch.

My pill bottle rattles.
Blessed are you
who revives the deadened,

I say, and swallow hard.

This week's ReadWritePoem prompt was an image, though I didn't write to the prompt -- I wound up "just" writing a poem, this time around.

This is another in my ongoing series of mother poems. If you listen to the recording, you can hear some small sounds from Drew in the background -- he was sitting beside me on my friend Jenn's soft striped couch as I recorded the poem yesterday.

The last stanza contains a reference to one of the blessings in the daily amidah, the standing prayer which is at the heart of every Jewish service. Baruch atah Adonai, m'chayyei ha-meitim is usually translated as "Blessed are you, Adonai, who gives life to the dead," though I think my rendering is also a faithful one.

As always, you can read other people's poems -- responses to the prompt, and off-prompt poems like this one -- by checking out the links at this week's Get Your Poem On post.