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This week's portion: thinking about sacrifice

If you're coming to Bnai Or this morning to daven, you might want to skip this post; this is the d'var Torah I'm going to offer there! But if you're only coming for the Lunch-and-Learn afterwards, or if you're not able to make it to Boston's Jewish Renewal congregation this Shabbat at all, read on. When I wrote this, I wasn't thinking about the fact that Lent was about to begin on the Christian calendar; I'd love to know how/whether any of this resonates for those of you who are giving things up for Lent...

What do we think of when we think about sacrifice?

Maybe we think of giving something up. "Everyone must make sacrifices in time of war." If I give up something I want, then I'm proving my virtue. "God, I love you so much I'll give up chocolate."

Or maybe it's that old idea of the bargain: "God, if You'll just get me that promotion—make her love me—make him well again—I'll give up television for six weeks. Or I'll give up wrongful speech and gossip. I'll give You anything if You just..."

But that's not what the Hebrew word קרבן connotes.

In Hebrew, those three letters are a root which means to draw near. (In Arabic, the same is true.) The adjective karov means "near." The noun kiruv means a form of outreach (usually made by religious Jews to those they perceive to be nonreligious) aimed at enabling someone to draw closer to God.

That's what a korban was: a way of drawing closer. Our ancestors took it as a given that everything in creation belongs to God. Given that everything we own and everything we don't own already belongs to the Holy Blessed One, what can we offer to God such that the act of offering it will draw us closer together?

Continue reading "This week's portion: thinking about sacrifice" »

G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque

A while back I reviewed a graphic novel caled Cairo by G. Willow Wilson (along with Barry Deutsch's Hereville.) I'm here today to sing the praises of Wilson's latest work of nonfiction / memoir: The Butterfly Mosque. (That link goes to the paperback edition, which isn't yet out; when my friend Cate, who'd read the book in hardcover, recommended it to me I picked it up for Kindle. And oh, wow, am I glad I did.)


Wilson is an American Muslim who now divides her time between the US and Cairo (read her standard bio here.) In college she became mysteriously ill (I know what that's like -- though my illness came in my early 30s, not my 20s) and the illness slowed her down. It gave her an opportunity to ask big questions about her life. And she became conscious of the fact that although she had been reared in a nominally Protestant but basically secular home, she couldn't help believing in God. The trinitarianism of Christianity didn't appeal to her; she found much to like about Judaism, but perceived it as a religion into which one really needs to be born, rather than to convert. (I disagree with that understanding, but that's another post for another time.) But Islam called to her, and after college she went to Egypt, having secretly chosen Islam in her heart.

The Butterfly Mosque is in one sense a religious memoir, the story of a woman seeking and finding her faith. In another sense it's a classic travel narrative and the story of becoming someone who can bridge between two worlds. Wilson opens a window into her experience: how she and her room-mate had no idea how to shop for food in Cairo until a friend of a friend led them by the hand through the souq, how she began to spend more and more time with that friend, how she came to realize that in a strange way they were courting, how they finally expressed their intentions to one another. The scene where she tells Omar that she wants to be with him -- and then admits aloud for the first time in her life that she is a Muslim, and he can't help breathing "thank God!" -- is poignant and funny and sweet. (For more tastes of the book, here's a link to the excerpt which was published in the Times: Engagement in Cairo.)

But part of what I love about this book is that most of the book takes place after that. Choosing Islam, moving to Egypt, navigating the unfamiliar waters of a bustling developing-world city completely unlike what she had known before, falling in love -- all of those are prologue to the bigger story here, which is a story about fully coming to inhabit her Islam in the Middle East in a post-9/11 world.

Continue reading "G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque" »

Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul


This essay was originally published on 9/15/09 as Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, back when Zeek had a web partnership with Jewcy rather than with the Forward. But the formatting on that original piece has gone wonky and it's become nigh-unreadable, so I'm reprinting it here.

It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.

I've chosen Psalm 27, since the month of Elul is fast approaching and it's customary to read the psalm daily during that month of spiritual preparation. We read two English translations, one from JPS and the other from my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. "Yah, You are my light," Reb Zalman begins. We talk about the psalms writ large and what it’s like to pray them.

She opens her vinyl-covered pocket Qur'an to surat An-Nur, "The Light," and I open the translation I brought with me. "Allah is the Light of the heavens and of the earth," begins Fakhry’s translation. We talk about what each of us thinks it means to speak of God in these terms. The sky over the lake turns pink and then darkens. When we turn to go inside, the meadow is filled with fireflies.

Continue reading "Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul" »

70 faces events in Boston this weekend


This weekend, Drew and I will be heading off to Boston to spend a few nights with my sister so that I can do a trio of events around 70 faces! Here's a reminder of our schedule for the weekend:

  • "Lunch and Learn" reading/discussion after services at Bnai Or, the Jewish Renewal congregation of Boston, March 12 (after services - noonish.) I'll also be giving the d'var Torah during the service, which will feature some poetry as well. All are welcome to attend the service (which will be accessible & engaging), which begins at 10am, or just to come for the lunch-and-learn; if you can, please let me know if you're planning to come so I can let them know roughly how many visitors to expect! And bring a bag lunch. Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick Road, Newton Centre. (Directions.)

  • Reading/conversation about my journey with the women in the Sisterhood of Temple Aliyah, March 13, 11am. Event will be in a private home. For more information contact adenacb (at) verizon (dot) net.
  • Reading/signing in the parlor of the the Unitarian Universalist church in Arlington, sponsored by the Jewish Connections group, March 13, 2:30pm. 630 Mass Ave, Arlington Center. (Parking is on the other side of Mass Ave in municipal parking lots -- both directly across Mass Ave and diagonally across the Arlington Center intersection, with an entrance on Route 60/Mystic Street. Parking is free on Sundays.)

(Here's a list of all of the events happening as part of my 70 faces book tour.) If you're able to join me for any or all of the above, please do. I'll have books to sell, and I'm always happy to meet people who are interested in Judaism, poetry, or the combination of the two!

Links of interest - on Rep. Peter King's hearings, Islam, and America

You've probably heard or read that Representative Peter King is slated to begin holding hearings tomorrow which purport to investigate the extent to which, as he claims, Muslim radicalism is on the rise and when push comes to shove Muslims aren't really "American". I don't have the time to write a cogent essay of my own before I have to fetch Drew at daycare in half an hour, so in lieu of any eloquence of my own, here are a few links to essays and articles I've found valuable:

  • Peter King's Obsession, an OpEd in the New York Times:

    Not much spreads fear and bigotry faster than a public official intent on playing the politics of division. On Thursday, Representative Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is scheduled to open a series of hearings that seem designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. His refusal to tone down the provocation despite widespread opposition suggests that he is far more interested in exploiting ethnic misunderstanding than in trying to heal it.

  • Setting the Record Straight on Sharia, an interview with Intisar Rabb, a member of the law faculty at Boston College Law School where she teaches advanced constitutional law, criminal law, and comparative and Islamic law. (This is a more general article about Sharia, Muslim religious law, but I think it's relevant.) She writes:

    Sharia is the ideal law of God according to Islam. Muslims believe that the Islamic legal system is one that aims toward ideals of justice, fairness, and the good life. Sharia has tremendous diversity, as jurists and learned scholars figure out and articulate what that law is. Historically, Sharia served as a means for political dissent against arbitrary rule. It is not a monolithic doctrine of violence, as has been characterized in the recently introduced Tennessee bill that would criminalize practices of Sharia...

    Sharia historically was a broad system that encompassed ritual laws, so in some ways it is like Jewish law that has rules for how to pray, how to make ablution before prayers—that sort of thing. There are also broader principles that Sharia tries to embody, such as justice and fairness.

  • Stoking irrational fears about Islam by Eugene Robinson:

    King offers no support for his insinuation that Muslim Americans are giving aid and comfort to terrorists; to the contrary, Muslim clerics and worshipers in this country have been vocal in their rejection of jihadist rhetoric and violence. And unless King believes Muslims are clairvoyant, why would he expect them to be any better than Christians, Jews or anyone else in identifying lone-wolf gunmen or bombers whose private torment becomes obvious only in retrospect?

    Security hearings that focus exclusively on Muslim Americans serve only to amplify the rumblings of Islamophobia that seem to become louder and crazier by the day.

  • Today I Am a Muslim Too by Rabbi Amy Eilberg:

    I stand with all American Muslims today. Why? Because I am a Jew, and at the very heart of the Jewish religion is the imperative to remember that we were slaves long ago in the Land of Egypt. Just as our national identity was beginning to emerge, we were the downtrodden, the oppressed, the ones who suffered hate, fear, and persecution. Our tradition might have encouraged us to recall that experience in anger or in vengeful memory, but it did not. Rather, the Israelites’ experience in Egypt became the very center of the Jewish collective psyche. Thirty-six times in the Five Books of Moses, we are told to remember the "stranger, the widow and the orphan" – the oppressed minorities of those times, for, as the Torah repeatedly reminds us, "we were slaves in the Land of Egypt." We know the soul of the stranger, and so we are to love the strangers in our own day, stand with them and champion their cause. We know what it is to be in their place, and so their cause is our own.

    Without question, Muslims are among America’s persecuted minorities today, a group regularly defamed with impunity on the airwaves and even in the halls of Congress.

  • To Bigotry, No Sanction by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: 

    In two sorts of crises in the past—wars and economic depressions—some Americans have reacted with fear of "the other" and attacks on freedom. These moments include passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts in the 1790s during the half-war with France, the "draft riots" that killed hundreds of Blacks in NYC during the Civil War, the "Red Scare" deportations led by J. Edgar Hoover in 1919,  the wave of anti-Semitism during the Great Depression, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the hounding of artists and professors and actors and activists by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee early in the Cold War.

    Afterward, almost all Americans have felt deeply ashamed of these behaviors. But during each episode, some political forces in America benefited from inciting bigotry.

    Now, we are in the midst of both mass disemployment and an endless, unwinnable war. For those modern analogues of Pharaoh who rule and support centers of great undemocratic power and wealth while stripping others of public services and servants—teachers, nurses, social workers—indeed, while some lose jobs, homes, lives, and limbs—it is convenient to make scapegoats, just as Pharaoh did.

  • Rabbis for Human Rights' statement to the Homeland Security Committee:

    The members of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA) proudly stand with our fellow children of Abraham, the Muslim American community, in urging that extremism be fought wherever it is found, and that one community not be singled out for unnecessary scrutiny.

I think Representative King's hearings are likely to result in many non-Muslim Americans feeling greater fear and mistrust of the American Muslim community, and many Muslim Americans experiencing greater mistreatment and suspicion as a result. The America of my hopes and dreams is better than this.

Feld review in Zeek

My review of Merle Feld's new collection of poems, Finding Words, has been published at Zeek. Here's a taste:

Many of Feld's best poems take family as their subject matter. Some made me smile ruefully, like the one about a college-aged son clearing out his room. Another, titled "Burning," made me wince with recognition: "Now at 57 I could be / such a good mother," Feld writes, "absorbing the wild crazed / force field of their tantrums..." As the mother of a thirteen-month-old who’s just beginning to express anger, those lines resonate for me.

...Though I've quoted from the interpersonal poems, Feld's biblical and liturgical poems move me the most of everything in the collection. This may say something about their relative strength, and may also say something about the places where I am most tender. I love her "Kol Nidre," which includes the lines

Every day, I break my vows
to cherish this moment,
to be a responsible
citizen of the world...

I implore You –
Let me try again.

Read the whole thing here: Merle Feld: Finding Her Words.

Three glimpses of vacation


A gull and the bright blue sea.


The majesty of Chichen Itza.


Swimming in a cenote.

And now it's back to normalcy: parenting, dishes, laundry, preparing to lead a mock Rosh Hashanah service tomorrow (test-driving the Reform movement's machzor-in-progress), and getting ready for a trio of 70 faces events in Boston this weekend (about which more shortly.) Still, it was lovely to get a few days away. And now it is lovely to be home.

Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach: Version 7.1

2020 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.


The first seder is not quite six weeks away; it's time to release a revision of my haggadah for Pesach again!

This year I'm releasing version 7.1, which features some new material and some corrections but not as many substantive changes as have been in the previous revisions. (If you already have copies from last year, you might consider just downloading the two-page 2011 insert; if you're printing new copies, please print this year's version. As always, the file VRHaggadah.pdf at contains the latest edition.)


2020 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.


Changes in this year's edition include:

  • new! a reading entitled "Pour Out Your Love," alongside the alternative "Pour Out Your Wrath"

  • new! a mandala designed as a focus for for silent meditation before the door is opened for Elijah

  • new! a poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat which connects the seder's themes of liberation to recent happenings in North Africa and the Middle East (you can find this in the 2011 insert if you're not printing a new copy of the haggadah this year)

  • new! and a poem by Sue Swartz of Awkward Offerings which does the same (this too is in the 2011 insert as well as in the new version of the haggadah)

  • revised! plus the correction of another handful of typos in Hebrew and in English!

Praise for version 7:

  • I wanted to find a version [of the haggadah] that captured the beauty and soul of Pesach to my English-speaking non-Jewish partner and I am delighted to have stumbled across your work. - Noa

  • For years, I have been trying to add readings or construct a haggadah that linked the mythical journey from slavery and idol worship to our personal journeys from inner enslavements toward liberation. I was never quite happy with the product. I came across yours, and we used it this year -- it was exactly what I had been looking for, and really helped to make our Pesach more meaningful. - Alexander

  • I was blown away by the insights and freshness that I found in your haggadah. - Tony

  • I am in the process of converting, and I have struggled to find a haggadah that reflects not only my Judaism, but my feminism and my politics. This is finally one that I can share with my family as I lead my own seder for the first time. Thank you for offering the world this method of telling the story of our freedom. - Natalie

Download, forward, print, share -- and please let me know what you think!


Beach umbrella and surfer.

Last time I went to a beach, I was entering my second trimester of pregnancy (with substantial relief -- after one miscarriage, I spent that first trimester on tenterhooks.) That was a trip to South Padre Island, on the Gulf coast of Texas.

The photo above is from a different beach: one of the beaches just north of the city of Tel Aviv, on one of the Shabbatot I took as a mini-vacation the summer I was living in Jerusalem.

And today Ethan and I are off to yet a different coast: we're headed for Playa del Carmen in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. We'll be away for five days, all told. And Drew is staying home with his grandparents, which means we're going to get to savor the newly-strange sensation of being alone together!

I have high hopes of seeing some ruins; I also have high hopes of just lying on a beach for a little while, listening to the waves. Anyway: not planning to blog while we're gone. Precious moments of vacation are too hard-won. See you when we're home again!

Freedom Journeys reviewed at Zeek


This winter I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing an advance copy of Freedom Journeys, a new book by Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman. My review of their book is now online at Zeek. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

Even if there is no historical evidence for the Exodus, argue Berman and Waskow, there is value in retelling and reexamining the story. Just as Shakespeare’s play Hamlet speaks to us on levels which might not be tapped by a factual history of Denmark, the story of the Exodus from the Narrow Place of mitzrayim resonates emotionally and spiritually regardless of its historical veracity. The story, the authors point out, is a shared one; it speaks to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as those involved in secular struggles for justice and freedom...

I've studied (and prayed and sung) with both Rabbi Waskow and Rabbi Berman. I know that they are each skilled at interpreting Torah texts in ways which reveal the deep spiraling patterns of descent for the sake of ascent, of constriction which can lead to new expansiveness. Even the tiniest details become opportunities for new interpretation. For instance, the way they interpret the Hebrew word "Mitzrayim," Egypt. Noting that it matches the form of the Hebrew plural, they read it as a kind of twice-constrictedness, like the English colloquialism "between a rock and a hard place."

Who else would use Robert Heinlein's imaginary Martian term "grok" as a way of explaining the full meaning of the Hebrew "yodea," usually rendered in English as "know"? If, like me, you are charmed by the notion of using a germinal SF classic to shed new light on the intricacies of Hebrew word-roots, then this book is probably a good fit for you.

In addition to exploring the Exodus narrative through the authors' own midrashic, personal, and political lenses, the book features three essays by invited contributors: one on the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Gospels, one on the Exodus as it appears in the Qur’an, and one on Exodus as it manifests in and shapes African-American culture. I think it's a really interesting text. Read my whole review here: New Teachings from Exodus: Berman & Waskow’s Freedom Journeys.