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February 2012
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Breaking news: a fragment from Tractate Pseudonymity

Fragments from genizah manuscripts, now at the University of Manchester.

How remarkable, that on this very day in which we celebrate how hidden identities can nonetheless reveal one's true essence1, this fragment of Masekhet שם בדוי -- Tractate Pseudonymity -- should be discovered! This fragment of parchment was found in a Mountain View genizah this very morning; I offer here the first-ever translation of this seminal text.

Rabbi Google asked: do we not have the right to demand a person's real name?2

Rabbi Montoya answered: As it is written: 'You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.'3

An anonymous baraita noted: Who are we to imagine that a name, whether given or chosen, tells us anything significant about a person? Is it not known that 'only God knows the hearts of men'?4

Rabba Hadassah added: The hearts of women being, of course, a different matter entirely. But if Matisyahu, Sting, and Bob Dylan had reason to choose new ways in which they wished to be known, how much more so might women, youths, victims of sexual assault, and others who are vulnerable desire to make the same choice?

Rabbi Shlimazl cited a teaching he heard from his grandfather, his teacher, may the memory of the righteous and the saintly be a blessing for the world to come: that until the age of majority a man may may be known by a nickname, but after he has accepted the yoke of the commandments he must be known as "son of his father" until he is famous enough to have written a book, whereupon he can be known by the name of his book.

Rabba Hadassah retorted: There are longstanding examples of online communities in which the use of persistent pseudonyms is the norm5; over the course of time minhag m'vutal halakha, custom trumps law. Also: if a man can become known by the name of his book, how much more so might someone from a small town, a refugee, or a member of a religious minority become known by the name of their choice?

Tanu rabanan / our sages have taught: Also remember the example of Esther, as it is written: 'And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther.'6  Our heroine Esther had two names, one to which she was born and one by which she was known once she became Queen of Persia. It is known also that the name 'Esther' relates to 'nistar,' hidden, and that even God is nistar in the megillah of Esther; therefore it must be permissible for us, following the example of the Holy Blessed One, to conceal ourselves beneath the veils of pseudonyms.

Rabbi Google objected: But how can we trust the voice of the anonymous baraita, or our unnamed sages, when we don't even know the legal names of the people who wrote this down? What if they're not who they're pretending to be?

Whereupon the chorus of anonymous baraitot shouted him down, and poured him another drink, as it is written, 'ad d'lo yada,'7 'until one cannot distinguish' between legal name and pseudonym. And the entire internet observed a day 'which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day.'8

'And there was much rejoicing.'9



One of my poems appears in the new issue of Hospital Drive

I'm delighted to be able to say that I have a poem in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Hospital Drive: A Journal of Reflective Practice in Word & Image.

Hospital Drive, launched in Fall 2006, encourages original creative work that examines themes of health, illness, and healing.

Hospital Drive is the name of an actual road at the University of Virginia. Set between Thomas Jefferson’s original academic village and the earliest buildings of the School of Medicine, it brings visitors into a community of scholars, teachers, healers, artists, and the people they serve.

If you go to the Hospital Drive website and click on the photograph of the serpentine wall in snow, you'll be taken to issue 7, the winter/spring 2012 issue. My poem is called Change, and it's one of the mother poems in my as-yet-unpublished next collection.

I'm slowly reading my way through the issue now, and I'm really impressed -- this is powerful, thoughtful, unsentimental writing about sickness, healing, and health. What great company to be in. Go, read, enjoy!

Mishloach manot for me!

Found on my desk this morning.

Yesterday after I taught the b'nei mitzvah prep students a bit about Purim (and then we spent a while decorating masks for them to wear on the holiday if they're not otherwise costumed), I dashed south to fetch Drew at daycare, as is my Monday routine. The students stayed at the synagogue for a youth group event -- making hamentaschen which I will deliver later today to some of the elders in our community.

Among Purim's central traditions are the delivering of mishloach manot -- gifts of tasty snacks given to friends -- and the giving of food, or money for food, to those who are hungry. The hamentaschen made by our youth group kids were intended to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of sending mishloach manot. Apparently they also made a few special extras -- like this one which awaited me when I arrived at the synagogue this morning.

I get virtual gifts each year at Purim from friends, but it's years since I've received an actual package of edibles in celebration of the holiday. I've never tried a mint-chocolate-chip / raspberry-jam / chocolate-sauce hamentaschen, but I'm looking forward to braving it later today! Happy Purim to all.

On obligation, opportunity, and praying with a cold

One of the unexpected upsides to being a congregational rabbi is leading davenen (prayer) even when I am sick. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?

As a congregant, I always felt I had the option of davenen b'tzibbur (praying in community) -- but if I wasn't able to be there, that was okay too. I could pray on my own. I could shape my day, or my Shabbat, in whatever way was most conducive to connecting with God. But as the rabbi, if it's a weekend when I'm slated to be "on," then I need to be there. Period. Even when that means dragging myself out of bed with a head that feels as though it's stuffed with rocks, and leading services with a box of tissues by my side.

This past Shabbat was one of those times. I felt as though I were leading services from a slightly weird, cold-muddled dimension. As I strung the prayers together with connecting words, I made a few intuitive leaps which may have seemed odd to anyone who wasn't in my head. (For instance: I likened the alphabetic acrostic of the ashrei to "A, You're Adorable." In hindsight, I'm just glad I didn't actually try to sing it to that tune on the fly.)

But midway through the service I realized how glad I was to be there leading prayer, even if my body felt lousy. In my former life, on a germy Shabbat morning like this one, I would have stayed home and nursed my cold. This time, I had to rise to the occasion of helping others find their way into Shabbat, and because I felt obligated to them, I facilitated my own ascent into prayer, too.

This matter of chiyuv -- obligation -- isn't something we talk about all that often in the liberal Jewish world. It can be difficult to cling simultaneously to the religious value of informed choice and to a sense of religious obligation. (On this note, I can recommend Values and Ideals of Jewish Movements, which explores some of these issues from a Reconstructionist perspective; I also particularly recommend Reb Jeff's post Joy and Obligation, which explores the joy of obligation from a Reform point of view.)

I suspect that many liberal Jews who pray regularly would say that we do so because there is spiritual benefit, or because it connects us with God, or because it connects us with tradition, or because it helps us to be mindful and grateful, or because the practice changes us in positive ways -- not because we feel commanded or obligated per se. I don't want to take away from any of these reasons; but I do think there's a loss when we lose access to the sense of being metzuveh, commanded, too.

In a more traditional paradigm, Jews (read: men -- though there are also arguments for women's obligation, too) are obligated to daven daily, and there's also a strong sense of communal obligation to join in communal prayer. The obligation to pray daily exists because God is understood to have commanded it, and the obligation to pray in community exists because only with a minyan -- a quorum of ten adult Jews -- can certain prayers be said.

The deeper I go in my own Jewish journey, the more I feel both of these obligations. First, the obligation to connect with God every day, regardless of whether or not I'm "in the mood." (I try to tell my husband every day that I love him, even though he's heard me say it a million times before; I try to do the same with God.) And second, the obligation to the others who may be depending on me in order to recite mourner's kaddish with a minyan. I'm still trying to figure out how to make both of these ideas resonate for others who may feel spiritually allergic to the idea of being "obligated" to do anything, or who feel alienated by the idea of a God Who commands in a top-down fashion.

(That's a subject I'd like to explore further over time -- for now, let me just point to two links: Rabbi Menachem Creditor offers an audio lesson and a set of source texts on this question at new audio tisch: the Case for Commandedness, and Rabbi Samuel Cohon offers a sermon on parashat Yitro called Being Commanded for Reform Jews.)

Still, with a two-year-old who's decidedly not excited about sitting still, and a spouse who frequently travels, I don't often make it to communal prayer unless I'm leading. And I don't always manage to pray, even by myself, the way I want to do. I've often felt that it's my yetzer ha-ra -- my "evil inclination" -- which keeps me from prayer. "You're not focused enough to pray," it whispers. "You have so many things to do. Pray tomorrow, when you can really be present." Even though I know I shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, sometimes I am susceptible to these interior arguments.

When I'm only responsible for my own relationship with God, then that voice of my yetzer can pull me away from the prayer life I know I want to have. But when I'm responsible for others, that sense of responsibility trumps my laziness. And that's really good for me. Even when I have a cold.

Being obligated to show up and daven means that I show up and daven. And once I do so, it's always possible that I'll experience a real connection with God, with the liturgy, and with my community. Of course, it's also possible that I won't; that I'll be so lost in my own "stuff," or in the haze induced by my cold meds, that I'll just be going through the motions. But if I don't show up, I know I won't experience that connection; if I do show up, there's a chance the connection might spark to life. That's the hidden blessing of obligation: it opens the window a crack, and sometimes transcendence comes in.

Four worlds gratitude practice

A moment of gratitude for this body.
Notice what it feels like to be in your body today.
What sensations are you experiencing? Which parts of your body are clamoring for attention?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for being alive in this body right now.

A moment of gratitude for emotions.
Notice all the emotions which arise in you.
Love, joy, hope, fear, sorrow: sift through them like jewels falling through your fingers.
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of emotion.

A moment of gratitude for thoughts.
Notice what thoughts are swirling in your mind.
What stories have you been telling yourself about things past or things which haven't yet happened?
If you can, cultivate gratitude for the world of the intellect.

A moment of gratitude for spirit.
Notice the spiritual impact of this meditation: what has it opened up for you?
For the moments when you feel spiritually alive, and the moments when spirit feels inaccessible:
if you can, cultivate gratitude for the life of the spirit.

This is the gratitude practice I offered at the close of this week's Friday morning meditation minyan. (More or less. I wrote it down afterwards.) It's based on the four worlds paradigm which is so central to (my understanding of) Jewish Renewal. And it's based in my own perennial need to kindle and sustain gratitude. Please feel free to use or adapt it if it speaks to you. Shabbat shalom!

A d'var Torah for Tetzaveh: vestments of beauty

Here's the d'var Torah I'll be giving tomorrow morning at Shabbat services, crossposted from my From the Rabbi blog. (So if you're coming to services, you might want to skip this post!) Shabbat shalom to all.

Parashat Tetzaveh floods us with instructions for making sacral vestments for Aaron and his sons: breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash.

Every year I'm amazed by the richness of the sartorial detail. Fine linen. Gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn. In those days these materials were precious. Even the colors feel significant: the rich sparkle of gold, tkhelet blue like the sky, purple suggesting royalty, crimson like the visible life-force that flows through our veins.

These garments, Torah tells us, should be made by those in whom God has placed hokhmah, wisdom or skill. Hokhmah is an important word. Joseph, who can interpret dreams, is described as having hokhmah; so is Bezalel, chief builder of the mishkan, who can shape reality with the work of his hands. Hokhmah has something to do with making visions manifest. That's the quality Torah calls for in those who make these holy garments for Aaron and his sons.

The vestments matter because they're a sign of service. Aaron and his sons will dedicate their lives to serving God; in return, their community enfolds them in these beautiful garments, made to reflect their innate kavod, honor, and tif'aret, beauty.

Today there are no priests, and no temple in which to serve. Instead each of us serves God in the temple of our own hearts, offering words and intentions instead of bulls and sheep. What would it mean to dress ourselves in garments like these?

The Chernobyler rebbe taught that our bodies are themselves garments for the spark of godliness that animates each of us. Deep down, can we know ourselves to be cut from the same cloth as the blue of the sky, the purple of twilight, the liquid gold of setting sun? How can we bring all the glory, all the splendor, all the honor of our being into living in a way that keeps us mindful of our Source?

I want to single out one other piece of High Priestly garb: the jeweled breastplate bearing the names of all the tribes of Israel. Names remind us of the people they represent. Imagine wearing the names of everyone in your family on your chest: the ones you love, the ones who maybe drive you a little crazy, siblings and distant cousins alike. Imagine carrying those names with you on every journey inward into prayer. What would that feel like?

None of us can know what it was like to be a priest in the Temple, to be tasked with making offerings on behalf of the community as Aaron and his sons did. But this week's Torah portion gives us a chance to enfold ourselves in garments of our imaginations, so that we might know ourselves to be holy, and beautiful, and able to effect change; so those qualities will infuse our lives in everything that we do.

This is a repost of a d'var Torah I wrote four years ago, which I offered at DLTI but have never offered to my congregational community.