This week's portion: cloud of glory
Thanks, Express-News

Shavuot 5771 / 2011

We met at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center (a place which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year -- it's wonderful and strange to me that I have accumulated more memories from celebrating Shavuot and Simchat Torah there as an adult than from attending Shabbat services there as an undergrad.) Hazzan Bob Scherr, the cantor who serves as Jewish chaplain at Williams, led us in a beautiful short and sweet festival service -- and in singing a variety of niggunim and songs in between the various lessons which were taught over the course of the night.

After davening, our evening of learning (and noshing on fruit and dairy and espresso milkshakes) began. Diane Wolkstein gave over a gorgeous retelling of the story of Ruth which interwove the Biblical text seamlessly with classical midrash about Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, and Boaz. In her telling, the setting came to life (a time of chaos, corruption, and fear of the stranger) and the characters leapt off the page and into the room with us. I came away newly-moved by the radical courage of Ruth and of Boaz, and by the ways in which their story shines new light on our time. (I think I may have to get myself a copy of her book Treasures of the Heart, which contains her retelling of Hebrew Bible stories -- including the version of Ruth she shared with us last night.)

Rabbi Howard Cohen taught a lesson on Wilderness, Emerson, and Transcendentalism, exploring the meaning of "wilderness" in Jewish texts (the place of revelation, a place where there is an overwhelming sense of Divine presence without the artificial filters of our inhabited spaces) and in American transcendentalists like Muir and Emerson, and then delving into questions of how 20th century American Jewish thinking was influenced by Emerson and transcendentalism. (Turns out that rabbinic leaders including Solomon Schechter, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordechai Kaplan were all Emerson fans: who knew?)

Professor Denise Buell taught a lesson called Remembering Revelations -- Canonical Texts and Me which challenged us to think about canonical texts and our relationships to those texts, and explored how texts and their range of possible interpretations leave ghostly imprints on one another. We read excerpts from Acts and from the letter to the Hebrews -- texts written from a sectarian Jewish point of view which later became foundational to the new Christian church -- and also from the fascinating homilies of Pseudo-Clementine of Alexandria (not considered canonical) which offer a reading of Jewish-Christian relationship in which each community is saved by virtue of their own prophet.

Robin K. taught a lesson on Kashrut: Kids, Calves, and Casseroles, looking at the verses in Torah which have to do with not seething a kid in its mother's milk and exploring a variety of questions and interpretations. Probably the most powerful part of that lesson for me was the idea that seething a kid in its mother's milk is about mixing life and death, since the mother's milk represents the essence of life itself -- that if one were to bring life and death together on the table in that way, it would be a sign of callous disregard for the mysteries of life and death and therefore a sign of (or a cause of?) spiritual brokenness.

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger taught on The Pros and Cons of Nostalgia, exploring the Jewish tradition's complicated relationship with nostalgia (on the one hand there's the vein in tradition which argues that our ancestors were the spiritual "greats" and that every generation since them is diminishing in holiness; on the other hand there's the vein in tradition which trusts that we are moving toward a messianic future and therefore every generation is closer to real holiness.) He brought song lyrics (The Boys of Summer), a beautiful quote from Andre Aciman, and teachings from his colleagues to bear on ideas of the festivals and nostalgia.

My lesson was on Torah Through Poetry's Window. I spoke briefly about midrash, shared my Ruth poem "The Handmaid's Tale", and then took requests for a handful of Torah poems from 70 faces (requests included "a leprosy poem" and "akedah poems," both of which I shared from the book -- as well as a Tamar poem and a Dinah poem, which I didn't have but hope to write in months to come.) I closed with Mobius (the final poem from 70 faces), which hearkened back to some of what Joshua had said about nostalgia for Avraham and for Moshe.

Our final lesson was Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser's teaching Love Letters: How the Rabbis Reinvented the Torah. Through the lens of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer and the Ahavat Olam prayer -- the blessings immediately preceding the shema in morning prayer and evening prayer, which are variations on the same theme -- we explored what the rabbis who established our liturgy meant to tell us about Torah. (Short version: Torah is love. Not about love, though sometimes it's that too; in the rabbinic imagination is love. By the by -- don't miss his post Shavuot: the Torah is your lover.) He took us through a midrash and a bit of Zohar about the passionate relationship between Israel and Torah, the ways in which Song of Songs can teach us how we're meant to relate to God, the idea that at the moment of revelation the commandments themselves kissed us on the mouth, the sense in which Torah reveals herself to us like a lover.

And then the few of us who remained (by then our numbers had dwindled to eight) gathered in the sanctuary again, and, singing, passed the Torah from arm to arm, each of us taking a moment to cradle her, to kiss her, to dance with her as with a baby or a lover, and then to return her to her place in the ark so that we could each drive home in the mysterious deep of the 2am night.