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Imperfect poetry on the theme of light


like a newly-minted rabbi
dazzled from the transmission

as dawn, her fingers smeared
with palest raspberry

like heat in a tile floor
warming me to my bones

as the sun, so bright
I blink away tears

like a lightbulb
electrified by current

as a crescent moon peeking
slyly around night's doorframe

like snow, sparkling mica-bright
in an unexpected wind

as a three-year-old, bounding
to knock me down with a hug

This week's imperfect prose prompt from Emily Wierenga is "light." The idea of light led me to radiance, and radiance made me think of our son. It's a cliché to compare a child's radiance to any other source of radiance I can think of -- so I figured instead of trying to avoid the predictability, I'd play with it a little. The resulting poem was fun to write. I hope it's fun to read, too.

You can check out other people's offerings on the theme of light in the comments on this post: imperfect prose on thursdays: light.

One of my mother poems in the Jewish Journal


My thanks are due to the editors at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles for publishing my poem Mother Psalm 6 in their 22-28 Tevet / January 4-10 print edition. (I can't link to it online because they don't archive their previous print editions -- just "this week" and "last week," and January 4-10 is now longer ago than that.)

That poem previously appeared in Calyx, Vol. 27 no. 2, Summer 2012. And it will be part of my forthcoming collection of mother poems, Waiting to Unfold, due from Phoenicia later this year.

This is one of my favorite poems in the collection, and I'm gratified that multiple editors have chosen it for publication, too. (It's the one that begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," and it appeared on this blog in its earliest form when it was first written: it was then called Mother Psalm 7.)

Thanks, Jewish Journal poetry editors!

Eulogy for a child with Canavan's

I don't usually share eulogies here. They are personal, and this blog is public. But this is an unusual situation, and I think the eulogy might be helpful to others, so I've removed identifying material in order to share the essence of what I offered at a funeral a few days ago. If these words are useful to you, you are welcome to adapt them.

If you got here by googling Canavan's Disease, please know that there are informational links at the bottom of this post.

When a child is born, we rejoice. We imagine possibilities. Our minds run away with us, providing us with dreams and imaginings of wonders we hope the child's life will hold.

When this child was born, no one imagined that his life, and his parents' lives, would be circumscribed by a neurodegenerative disorder... nor that he would come to be such a ineffable presence in the lives of those who knew him, cared for him, and loved him.

Because of the dangers of Canavan's, this boy was never alone. His parents, and later his nurses, took constant shifts in caring for him. He communicated with his eyes and, for a time, with sounds. When he was in his parents' arms or enjoying therapy his smiles and laughter brightened the room.

His was not the life his parents might have dreamed before he was born, but it was his own, and he lived it wholly. He experienced love in the touch of caring hands and the attention diligently paid to the apparatus of his care.

His parents, and his caregivers, experienced a deep connection with him. And they knew that connection was reciprocated, and they knew that connection was real. Every time he fought his way back from another illness, another hospitalization, they knew that -- in his mother's words -- "he still wanted to be here."

His parents knew him without words. They teach us that we can know each other beyond words, and listen deeply past the words we do hear, to something deeper, more ineffable and more lasting.

The same was true of his nurses, his caregivers, physical therapists, music therapists, those who lovingly massaged his body to help preserve his muscle tone, the teachers who came to offer him a window into the wider world. When he lay on his bed in the sun, his parents called it "his beach." Once his health became too poor for him to risk the trip to these hills, his parents preserved his room here intact, a place for their son in this town they called "the home of their hearts."

I was blessed to spend an afternoon with this young man and his family last month. I sang him the lullabies I sing to my own son, and his eyes stayed on mine. I experienced his quiet presence in the room, and the sweetness of his neshama -- his soul -- was clear without any words at all.

I am humbled by this child's life, and by the boundless well of love and compassion which his parents and his caregivers expressed every day through a million acts of caring and nurturing.

He  lived, and struggled, and was loved. He experienced the world from his own unique vantage. In the wake of his death, there is grief. Nothing we can offer will soothe the empty place where he used to be.

May his soul soar free, no longer fettered by limitations or by suffering. And may those who loved him find comfort in the knowledge that his suffering has ended, and that in caring for him so lovingly, they epitomized some of the best of what humanity can be.


For more information:

About Canavan Disease

National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases

Center for Jewish Genetics: Canavan's Disease

Jewish Genetic Disorders

Support for Families With Canavan's

Tu BiShvat bounty

 Fruits representing all four worlds:

  • assiyah (action / physicality) represented by fruits with shells or rinds: bananas and oranges and almonds.
  • yetzirah (emotions) represented by fruits with hard pits: dates, cherries, olives.
  • briyah (thought) represented by fruits which are soft all the way through: apples (and grapes, even though they're vine fruit.)
  • atzilut (essence) represented by etrogcello / strong etrog-infused spirits.
I didn't expect a big crowd for Tu BiShvat. I set up two tables and assumed that would do. Instead we had four tables' worth of people! We had to keep pulling tables out of the storage room and hastily adding them to the line. Some folks probably came because this is the first Shabbat potluck we've had in 2013. Others probably came because they were interested in Tu BiShvat. There's no telling what made each person or family decide to show up on this very cold Berkshire night, but I'm glad they did.

I abbreviated our adult haggadah a little bit -- some of the little kids (including mine) were running gleefully around the building, others were sitting at the table but not necessarily paying much attention, and I could tell we didn't have the focus for everything in there! Still, it was lovely. One of my congregants read the Marge Piercy poem about Tu BiShvat which I love so much. Others took turns reading little explanations of the four worlds. We blessed and drank, blessed and ate.

And then there was a potluck feast. (All Drew ate was a few bites of challah, a couple of grapes, and a handful of Thin Mint cookies. Well, he's hardly the first little guy to have so much fun running around the synagogue he couldn't manage to sit still to eat anything.) And when we were done eating, as the kids ran and yelled and played, I handed out copies of "Brich Rachamana" (the "Sanctuary" melody) and we sang that as our abbreviated birkat ha-mazon.

And after that I brought Drew home and bundled both of us into PJs. I'm looking forward to sleeping, just like the trees, in tonight's long winter dark. Happy Tu BiShvat to all!

The sap begins to rise

506969604_c6b985e591_mThe holiday cycle is a circle; every year it repeats. There are exceptions -- marvels like birkat ha-chamah, which happens only every 28 years -- but on the whole, we celebrate the same holidays year in and year out. Tonight at sundown we'll enter not only into Shabbat but also into Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. One month later, the next full moon will coincide with Purim. One month later, the next full moon will bring us Pesach. Seven weeks and one day after that, Shavuot.

There's meaning in the way one holiday leads to the next. Just as Shabbat is more special when seen against the backdrop of the weekdays which surround it, each festival is subtly shaped by its place in the wheel of the year. Tu BiShvat, which begins tonight, is the first step on a journey which will lead us to the revelation of Torah and the flowering of glories we can only now imagine. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it's our first step toward the abundance of summer.

1694396916_dc49c4f9c4_mRashi teaches that Tu BiShvat is when the sap begins to rise to feed the leaves and fruit of trees for the year to come.  Where I live, we're experiencing the bitter cold of deep winter. At sunrise a few days ago the thermometer registered one solitary degree above zero (Fahrenheit.) We bundle up, we hunker down, we go inward. The freedom of spring feels far away. It's hard to imagine the air becoming soft, forgiving, fragrant with new life instead of with woodsmoke and snow. TuBiShvat invites us to recognize that the sap begins to rise precisely at the moment when winter feels most entrenched.

And the sap is rising not only on a literal level (though I expect to see maple trees tapped for syrup in a few weeks, when we have above-freezing days and below-freezing nights) but also on a spiritual level. This is the season when we open ourselves to trusting that new ideas, prayers, insights, spiritual "juices" will rise in us. Even if spiritual growth is invisible, we trust that it's taking place.

Continue reading "The sap begins to rise" »

Imperfect poetry: nursing, remembered


the first weeks were endless:
my nipples sore, your mouth
lined with ground glass

bowls of salt water
balanced on the tabletop
an astringent immersion

my breasts as raw
as my bruised heart,
overflowing without warning

would we survive three months
the hard candy I worried
beneath my tongue

sometimes I try to remember
the heavy prickle of milk
on the verge of letting down

but those doors are closed
and the key is lost
or packed away

with the newborn clothes
I no longer believe
you could ever have worn

as inaccessible
as the woman I used to be
before you made me new

This week's imperfect prose prompt at Emily Wierenga's blog is Mother. (And here's her post on the theme -- with links at the end to posts by others who've written to the prompt.)

The prompt sent me back to reread the first mother poem I wrote, during the first week of my new life as a mother: El Shaddai (Nursing Poem). And then rereading that sparked a new poem. (I know it's an imperfect prose prompt, not a poetry prompt, but it inspired a poem -- what can I say.)

It's easy to get so caught-up in this moment of mothering -- the joys and vagaries of parenting a three-year-old -- that I forget what it was like, what I was like, when this whole wild journey began. How overwhelming it was to go from childless adult life to parenting a newborn. The things which hurt in all four worlds -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I don't want to forget how hard it was, or how miraculous. (And it was both of those things. Deeply.) I love this life with a rambunctious boy who climbs and jumps and laughs and plays with trucks and marbles and sings the alphabet to me at night in lieu of the lullaby I used to sing to him. But we couldn't have gotten here without going through there.

And I suspect that my sense of God is forever changed by the experiences of pregnancy and parenthood -- especially early parenthood. All of our parental metaphors speak to me in a different way now than they did before. I can't help wondering: if becoming a parent deepened and opened me, in the deep ways which I know it did, can we imagine that the same is true for God?

(And -- I can't resist putting in a plug for this, even though it's not out yet! -- if you like this poem, stay tuned for the forthcoming publication of Waiting to Unfold, my collection of first-year mother poems, which is coming out from Phoenicia later this year.)

Twenty years of song

In January of 1993, a woman named Kate put out the word that she was looking for people who were interested in singing madrigals during Winter Study, Williams College's January term. My dear friend David told me in no uncertain terms that he was going, and he was dragging me with him. I was mourning the break-up of my first real relationship, and I was morose; he knew that singing would cheer me. I was as dubious about that proposition as only a self-centered and heartbroken seventeen-year-old could be, but I agreed to give it a try.

To my surprise, David turned out to be right. The singing was grand, and it lifted me out of myself. We had so much fun during Winter Study that, when the spring semester began, we decided to constitute ourselves as a "real" a cappella group, specializing in madrigals and early Renaissance music. David and Kate became the group's first pair of directors, and they opened auditions to the campus-at-large. To my great relief, I made it into the group. Once the group's line-up was settled, we spent an afternoon brainstorming names. And the name we chose for ourselves was the Elizabethans.

The women, and the men, of the Elizabethans. Spring 1994.

I sang with the 'bethans all four years of college, and the year afterwards, too, when I was working at the college bookstore. Infinite hours of rehearsals -- concerts on campus, music interspersed with skits and patter and silliness -- annual tours when we packed ourselves into a college van or two and drove all over the Northeast (and sometimes as far south as North Carolina) to perform at colleges and churches, doing guest stints with other madrigal groups, singing wherever we could line up a gig, and then cooking meals for ourselves at night in borrowed kitchens -- these make up some of my fondest college memories.

It turns out that the era of making memories with the Elizabethans isn't over. Not entirely, anyway.

Continue reading "Twenty years of song" »

Worth reading, worth pondering: spirituality that's worth the effort

I read something this week on my friend Gordon's blog which really resonated for me. It's part of his Beginner's Guide to Becoming Episcopalian series. Gordon Atkinson -- some of y'all may know this -- blogs these days at Tertium Squid; he used to blog at Real Live Preacher. Here's the snippet I want to highlight for y'all:

[H]ere’s the deal: do you really want to go to a church for the first time and understand everything that’s going on? Do you really want to walk into the most sacred hour of the week for an ancient spiritual tradition and find no surprises and nothing to learn or strive for? Do you really want a spiritual community to be so perfectly enmeshed with your cultural expectations that you can drop right into the mix with no effort at all, as if you walked into a convenience store in another city and were comforted to find that they sell Clark Bars, just like the 7-11 back home?

I do hope you’ll give this a little more effort than that. Because something wonderful can happen when you stop trying to figure out what you should be doing in a worship service. When you admit to yourself that you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll just sit and listen. Because that’s really all you can do. And that’s actually a very nice spiritual move for you to make.

Reading this, I found myself thinking: right on. I know that Jewish liturgical prayer can be opaque and distancing for people who don't already know what's what. There's a lot of Hebrew. Many of the prayers are very, very old. So are many of the traditions surrounding those prayers. Different communities have different practices: we sit, we stand, we bow, some of us shuckle / sway back and forth like a mother holding a fussy baby. Our worship can be incredibly beautiful and meaningful, but if you don't have access to what's going on, that can feel distancing. I know that.

And yet I love Gordon's point that when one walks into sacred space and sacred community, partaking in the worship of an ancient covenantal community, it's okay to not understand everything from the get-go. What a bummer it would be if entering into communal-spiritual life just happened instantly, in a flash, and there was nothing else to learn -- nothing else to master -- nothing else to strive for. Is that really what we want? Effortless spirituality, the microwave TV-dinner experience of pressing a button and being instantly fed?

Don't get me wrong -- it's important to have moments of immedate access to God and immediate connection with a community. But there's also a lot of spiritual richness in giving oneself over to an experience one doesn't entirely intellectually understand, and trusting that faith and connection and understanding will grow over time. Some things are worth investing time in. Relationships. Parenthood. Delving into a culture or a religious tradition. So it might take a lifetime: so what? What else do you plan to do "with your one wild and precious life?"

Sometimes I think we give our own tradition(s) short shrift: we're willing to have the experience of being unfamiliar, being in beginner's mind, when we travel to someplace foreign and far away, but in our own traditions we want everything to be easy. And yet there's a kind of gift, a kind of magic, which maybe only arises when we allow ourselves to be given-over to a liturgical experience we don't need to entirely understand. Anyway, Gordon says all of this beautifully. Read his whole post here: Let the big people say what needs to be said.

Morning blessings with Drew

Drew enjoys the snow. Photo taken earlier this month.

As we make our way out to the car, I can't help marveling at the spectacular crisp cold morning. Half an inch of soft snow limns the trees, the sky is bluest blue, the sun is beginning to tip the mountainsides with gold.

"What a beautiful morning," I say aloud as I help Drew into the car.

"It's a beautiful sunny day," he agrees. This is one of his stock phrases; I think he got it from the narrator on Pocoyo.

"Thank you, God, for this beautiful morning!" I say, because that's how I roll.

"Thank you God for the snow," Drew adds.

I'm charmed, so I reply with another blessing. "Thank you God for my coffee." M'chayyei ha-meitim, I think: blessed are You who enlivens the dead.

Drew isn't finished either. "Thank you God for the trees!"

"Right on," I agree, thinking of Tu BiShvat which will be in a few days. "The trees are pretty awesome."

We drive a bit. Drew eats his waffle. I sip my coffee.

"Thank you God for the earth which is sleeping," I say, as we drive past the snow-covered stubble of a cornfield.

"Thank you God for Daddy," Drew says, getting into it now. "Thank you God for my coat! and my shoes!"

"For the clothes we get to wear, yeah, absolutely," I agree. He doesn't know that thanking God Who clothes the naked is part of our liturgy of standard morning blessings, but I do, and it makes me grin.

There's a pause. I think it's my turn. "Thank you God for me and Drew being together," I offer.

Drew's face crinkles into a smile. "Mommy," he chides, "that's silly."

"Okay," I agree, but I'm thinking: maybe to you, kiddo, but not to me.

Another year, another batch of etrogcello

Back in the fall, after Sukkot had ended, I started this year's batch of etrogcello (see curls of peel / prepare to sleep, the post about this year's etrogcello adventure.) This week, with the full moon of Shvat approaching, I decanted the liquid -- now a glorious golden yellow -- into two clean jars, and sweetened one with a splenda simple syrup and the other with a simple syrup which contains honey. The yield is two quart jars, filled almost to the brim with fragrance.

This year's batch.

I haven't tinkered with the color balance of that photograph at all -- that's their real color. (I'm hoping the honey-sweetened one will clarify, though it's possible that it may stay cloudy; I've never tried using honey, so this is a new experiment for me.) And through our dining room windows, behind the two jars, you can see the colors of northern Berkshire winter: the brown of leafless trees, the white of snow and sky, the slate-blue of distant hills.

At this season, in this place, the color palette is muted browns and whites, palest purples and greys. The yellow of the etrog-peel-flavored vodka is startling to the eye. That seems appropriate, somehow: a reminder that when we first made use of this pri etz hadar, this "fruit of a goodly tree," in our Four Species at Sukkot, the world looked like this:

instead of this:

At our Tu BiShvat seder on Friday night (by the way, do you need a haggadah for your Tu BiShvat seder? Here are three of them -- one for adults, one for kids, and one for little kids) I'll invite those who are so inclined to join me in sipping a nip of this homemade etrogcello. It's strong and sharp; it tastes and smells like etrog, that ineffable fragrance which so transports me every time I first open the etrog box before Sukkot begins.

That toast is a stitch connecting this moment in deepest winter, when we honor the trees and their growing-older and our faith that the sap is rising (both literally and metaphorically / spiritually) and spring is coming, to that moment at the end of the harvest season when we prepared for winter's hunkering-down. Beneath the blanket of snow the earth is sleeping, waiting to wake up again. Within our hearts, what from the autumn holidays is germinating, preparing to be born in the spring?

This week's portion: Inclusion and service

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

After the first seven plagues, Pharaoh's courtiers advise him to let Moshe and his notables go to worship Adonai. Pharaoh says: fine, just tell me: who's going with you?

And Moshe replies: We will all go, our children and our elders, our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds. Some translations say: We will all go, regardless of social station. Rich and poor, upper-class and lower-class and everything in between.

Pharaoh replies -- in effect -- hell no. Perhaps he's beginning to realize that the Israelites' request to go and worship God a three-day journey away is a ruse, and the real intention is to pack up and depart.

I also wonder whether Pharaoh's anger also arises from distaste at Moshe's inclusiveness. Pharaoh is the epitome of top-down power. He's the kyriarchy. But Moshe's insistence that we will all go -- regardless of age, gender, social station -- negates that worldview.

When it comes to avodat Hashem, all of the community is needed. In order to serve the Holy One of Blessing, we all need to be present. Serving God is something we all do together.

If only the men are empowered to serve God, we're doing it wrong. If only the wealthy are empowered to serve God, we're doing it wrong. If only those who are cis-gendered, or heterosexual, or able-bodied, or neurotypical are empowered to serve God, we're doing it wrong.

Avodat Hashem (serving God) requires all of us. Maybe because each of us is a reflection of God, and only when our entire community comes together can we can see God mirrored in our infinite variability.

Pharaoh says no. The plague of locusts follows, and then a darkness so thick Torah tells us it was palpable. Pharaoh relents and says fine, take your women and children -- but not your herds and flocks, I have to draw the line somewhere. Moshe's answer is: we shall not know with what we are to worship Adonai until we get there.

In a simple sense, he's saying: you have to let us take our animals, because we don't know in advance what we'll be asked to sacrifice. But on a deeper level, I hear him saying that when we enter into service, we have to bring everything: everyone in our community, all that we have, all that we are. We won't know what parts of ourselves will be needed until we get where we're going.

And in a sense, we never "get there" -- we're always going. When we wake up each morning, we don't know what opportunities, what challenges, what blessings lie ahead. We won't know with what we are to worship Adonai in this moment until we reach this moment. And then the next.

I bless each of us: that we be able to bring all of who we are to our service, whether we think of it as serving God or serving our community or serving the world. That we trust that whatever is needed will arise in us. That we find comfort and sustenance in serving the One, together.

(And let us say: Amen.)

Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way

Among the many highlights of the 2013 OHALAH conference (for me) was the plenary session on Halacha called Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way. It offered a fascinating cross-section of Renewal approaches to halakha through the lens of how different Renewal communities relate to kashrut, preceded and contextualized by some teachings about what we call integral halakha. Here are some glimpses of that session and of my responses to it.

DanielSiegelRGBRabbi Daniel Siegel was the first speaker. He began by citing Rabbi Ethan Tucker's three-lecture series, "Core issues in halakha," which describes the narrowing of the halakhic process which took place as the Protestant community in Germany in the 19th century petitioned the government to split funding for different branches, different churches. "There was a discussion within the Jewish community about whether or not to do the same thing. Some Orthodox rabbis wanted to stay in contact with the Reformers, and others wanted to split off."

When the Orthodox community withdrew from the larger Jewish community, in Reb Daniel's words, "they took the leaves out of the halakhic table, leaving a much smaller group." And as a result of that, the halakhic response to change began to shift.

For instance: when women began to practice in ways which hadn't been seen before, there were two different communal responses. One was, "We know the women of Israel are sacred and holy, so how do we take their practice of this custom and bring it inside the mainstream?" And the other was, "How dare they do that, how dare anyone be outside our boundaries, they're wrong and they have to change." I appreciate his point that that kind of strict boundary-enforcing is not necessarily the only authentic response to change.

Over the course of his remarks, Reb Daniel said several things which I remember hearing from him during our halakha classes, and which still resonate for me. Here are a few tastes (boldface / emphasis mine):

Halakha is not a set of decisions, but a conversation. There are many positions possible and they can exist simultaneously. [...]

Halakha is not [about] knowing how to find something in the Shulchan Aruch, but [rather] how to participate in the process of which the Shulchan Aruch is the digest. [...]

There is no such thing as "The" halakha. Halakha does not speak. Halakhists speak. And they respond to questions which are asked of them, usually not by laypeople but by other rabbis.

Continue reading "Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way" »

Join me at the ALEPH Kallah!

Torah-at-KallahI'm delighted to be able to announce that I'll be teaching a workshop at the ALEPH Kallah this summer in New Hampshire!

The ALEPH Kallah is the Jewish Renewal Biennial -- a week-long gathering which takes place every other year, a magical week of learning and davenen (prayer) and yoga and meditation and terrific programs and amazing teachers. It's a great way to experience Jewish Renewal: to meet people, have meaningful conversations, experience new modalities of prayer, and engage in learning which feeds your mind and heart and soul alike.

If you're able to get to New Hampshire from July 1-7, I hope you'll consider coming -- and if my class sounds good to you, I hope you'll sign up for it!

Here's my workshop description:

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close by davening together once more. At week's end, we'll each take home a compilation of our collected psalms.

Aladjem-and-meOther classes scheduled for the Kallah will include one on Jewish spiritual singing, one on quantum physics and kabbalah, one on talking about Israel, one in Torah yoga / movement, a wilderness Torah experience (involving hiking and the great outdoors),  Jewish meditation, yoga, the interconnected roots of Judaism and Christianity, Hebrew chanting, Torah scroll repair / calligraphy, and a terrific class on Jewish and Islamic mysticism (team-taught by a rabbi and a Sufi) which I took two years ago and loved.

The Kallah Website includes a listing of all of the classes, along with information about the kids/teens program, opportunities for artists, and opportunities for practitioners of various healing arts.

I've attended the Kallah a few times before, and have blogged about it here (check out the ALEPH Kallah tag for those posts.) Every time I've attended, I've come away feeling spiritually renewed, filled-up with all kinds of wonderful teachings and ideas. I'm excited to be bringing a Torah-poetry lens to the work of writing psalms, and I'm hoping there will be 15 brave / creative souls who will want to do that with me -- but even if my class doesn't sound like your cup of tea, hopefully another of the offerings will.

The Kallah is great fun. I hope some of y'all will join me there.  For more information visit the Kallah webpage, or contact the Kallah office at [email protected].

Photos by Ann Silver, taken at the last Kallah, summer 2011 in Redlands, CA.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

In this workshop we will examine the influence of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Reb Zalman’s life and thought, particularly on Zalman’s creative way of renewing the practice of davvenen. Rabbi Burt will also discuss Zalman’s personal influence on his own life. The class will be taught through lecture, text study, guided visualization, and davvenen practice.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson was my first mashpi'a (spiritual director), and I've been fortunate enough to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov with him. As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I knew I wanted to attend.

"When I saw the announcement of the theme, mikol melamdai hiskalti (from all my teachers I have learned), I immediately thought of Reb Zalman and the Baal Shem Tov," Reb Burt told us. He said:

I've been a student of the Baal Shem Tov's now for 35 years. And I believe that though he lived in the 18th century he is still a teacher for our time. He provided me with an orientation not just to Judaism, but an orientation to life that serves me every day. I want to talk about the Baal Shem and then talk about parallels I see in Reb Zalman's work.

Reb Burt teaches.

He offered some biographical details about the Besht. He was born around 1700. Some fifty years before he was born were the Chmielnitzki pogroms, 1648 and the following years. "These pogroms were among the worst experiences that Jews had ever had since the Fall of the second Temple." And he continued:

In my opinion, those massacres on top of all the dark experiences that Jews had undergone in the years of exile left a traumatic scar on the body of the Jewish people. That scar ruptured the relationship between God and the Jewish people. People thought: we sinned, and God took it out on us through the massacres. There was an abundance of guilt, and in its wake, a lot of asceticism.

I believe that the challenge that the Baal Shem felt was the challenge about how to heal that trauma. How to bring hope, how to bring love. Perhaps the chief tool that the Baal Shem used was prayer. There had never been a movement in Judaism before Hasidism that put prayer so much at the center of Jewish religious life. But it wasn't the old style of prayer. The Baal Shem felt that prayer needed to be reinvented in his time! To make a connection with God that would allow healing to happen.

As I heard him say these things, I started to realize the extent to which there are parallels between Reb Zalman's work and the Baal Shem Tov's. Working and teaching in the aftermath of a communal catastrophe, seeking to help our community heal from trauma, using the tool of prayer (and reinventing the tool of prayer) to make a connection with God which would allow healing to happen -- all of those things sound like Reb Zalman to me, for sure.

Continue reading "Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov" »

Impromptu music at OHALAH2013

After lunch on Monday I go up to my room to rest for a short while, but within half an hour I'm back downstairs, knowing that I don't have the focus for the plenary session on ethics but wanting to be at least in communal space, if not actively engaging. (Conferences like this one are always a challenge for those of us who naturally fall somewhere between introvert and extrovert. I want to soak up time with my hevre, but I don't want to wind up overstimulated and cranky.)

The obvious place to go, for low-key hanging out instead of the kind of brain-engagement required by another conference session, is the area of the lobby with the fireplaces and the couches. (I remember playing there with 13-month-old Drew two years ago.) And when I get there, I find a wonderful surprise: a group of friends singing by the fire. So I sit down at the edge of the hearth and soak up the warmth of the fire and the warmth of their music, sometimes humming or singing along.

While I'm there they sing niggunim, secular songs ("Me and Bobby McGee"), Yiddish songs ("Shnirele Perele") extemporaneously rendered in English, lines from liturgy set to new melodies. More instrumentalists join the group. By the time I regretfully walk away -- wanting to stay, but also wanting to catch one of the sessions in the next slot -- there are two guitarists, three ukelele players, and one rabbi playing a keyboard harmonica.


The music is delicious and juicy. Rabbi Jack has a sweet presence and a sweet voice and a lot of Jewish Renewal history to give over. Rabbi Mark's mouth-harmonica solos are soulful, and when he offers an impromptu spoken-word riff which involves channeling Bob Zimmerman and wondering aloud whether he's going to wind up in somebody's blog post, my intention to write this here is crystallized! This little interlude is an unanticipated gift.


On my way out of the room I run into Rabbi Jan, the conference chair, and we agree that this is something we couldn't have planned for -- it had to just happen. Fortunately in this crowd, all you really need to do is give us space -- a few couches to sit on, perhaps a fire to gather around -- and a few moments we can steal from an otherwise overscheduled day, and we'll want to join our voices together, not only in planned liturgical prayer but also just in song, which is a kind of prayer all its own.

Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?

We often talk about tradition as a source of learning, but what is a tradition? Where are its boundaries? Is tradition a book or a code? Is it static or fluid? Who gets to part of it? How do you talk your way in? Why would a learner want a tradition?

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler begins her morning keynote address by unpacking our conference theme, "Mikol melamdai hiskalti," from psalms 119, which we have been translating, "From all of my teachers I have learned." She notes that Robert Alter translates it, "I have understood more than all my teachers, for Your precepts became my theme." The JPS translates it "I have gained more insight than all my teachers, for Your decrees are my study." But the rabbis of the Talmud understand it to mean "From all my teachers I have acquired understanding."

She goes on to cite Ben Zoma in Avot ch. 4, who asks, who is wise? and answers, one who learns from all people; as it is said, mikol melamdai hiskalti. "No one cites the second half of the verse. I have a hunch that the rabbis would have understood it to mean 'because Your precepts are my conversation.' Not my study, or my meditation. For the rabbis, study is a social act, and only as a last resort a solitary one."

I love that: for the rabbis, study is a social act. Yes!

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler speaks to OHALAH.

She goes on to cite Ta'anit 7a, where Rabbi Chanina addresses specifically the web of participants that constitutes Talmudic tradition. "'Much have I learned from my teachers, and from my colleagues/ study partners still more, and from my students, most of all.' In this statement, R' Chanina inverts the presupposed hierarchy of Talmudic study. From the students one learns most. This is the very opposite of the way we tend to think of traditions, yet it is upon students that traditions rely." And she goes on:

When we talk about a tradition, we are talking about the speech acts and the other acts of a web of transmitters. Teachers to students, students to their students -- as long as the tradition is in good order. If a tradition is in good order, according to the philosopher Alester MacIntyre, a tradition is not a set of books or codes or a body of ancient prescriptions. A tradition is a conversation. Even a bit of a fight! He says, "Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict." He adds, "A living tradition, then, is a historically extended, socially embodied argument."

And an argument precisely in part about the goods that constitute the tradition! By goods we mean, e.g., what is the good life? (One of the questions around which Pirkei Avot is built.) Or: what is shalom, or tikkun olam? Even: what is kavvanah? What is law? And why should it be important to us?

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Rabbi Rachel Adler: What was the Sin of Sodom?

Though my early-to-bed still-on-East-Coast-time self struggled a bit with being bleary-eyed and sleepy, I managed to stay awake for our late-night text study, which began with an invocation of Rabbi Sami Barth who has been known to say "the best time to study is midnight!"

"What was the sin of Sodom?" - Late-night study with Rabbi Rachel Adler

Visiting scholar Rabbi Rachel Adler is Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, and Judaism and Gender, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. In addition to her keynote address on Monday, she leads us tonight in a fascinating study: "There must be a moral environment for learning to occur, either in the city itself or in a resistance group. What if there is a moral vacuum? Learn why Sodom in Jewish tradition is the paradigmatic Unjust City."

Handouts include some Steinsaltz Talmud from Sanhedrin about the sins of Sodom; a smaller text which contains Biblical material and a reading from Avot; and an English text containing some of the particular ideas found in the sugya in Sanhedrin. (I'll include quotations in this post.)

We begin with an excerpt from Aryeh Cohen's 2012 Justice in the City, which uses Talmud to construct a Jewish ethics for what justice in the city would look like. "I wanted to give you the general idea first, instead of doing it slowly and by inference," said R' Adler, in case some of us drop out thanks to exhaustion! "Aryeh sets up a set of conclusions about what makes a just city based on his Talmudic research, and what I'm going to argue is that the Talmud has that paradigm in mind when it recreates Sodom as the archetypal unjust city." Here's the quote from Cohen:

Before proceeding to some particulars of the community of obligation, I will weave together the strands of the argument so far. A just city, a city that is defined as a community of obligation, is a polis in which the residents open themselves to the possibility of hearing the cries of the Stranger -- and being compelled by those cries to respond. This goes beyond directly responding to another person who crosses your path. The obligation is first, to set up our cities such that others' needs will be urgently pressing upon the body politic -- whether the vulnerability that demands our response be a result of poverty, ethnicity, lack of a home, or lack of citizenship. In other words, the city needs to be organized such that the cry of the Stranger can be heard. Homelessness must be decriminalized, economic segregation must be ameliorated.

"What did we hear from this? A just city is a community of obligation; what does that mean? For one thing, it means that you pay certain kinds of taxes," notes Rabbi Adler. "You pay for the general welfare. Also, it means that the members of the city, the people of the city, are responsible for the vulnerable among them." When you've relocated to the city, you're vulnerable for a time; there's a certain amount of time before you become obligated to contribute certain kinds of tzedakah. And when you've been there a little longer, than other obligations begin to devolve upon you.

Then we dive into what we actually see in Sodom. "What people often think is going to be the big showy sin of Sodom, if you hear it in an evangelical Christian context for example, turns out here not to be the central problem," R' Adler points out.

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Three gems from Sunday at OHALAH


Although my intention on Sunday morning is to sleep in, I don't manage it. My body's still on east coast time, and even though I stayed up later on Saturday night than is my usual wont, I find that on Sunday morning I can't sleep any later than 6:30. So I shower and dress and make my way down to the lobby, where I pour myself a cup of cucumber-infused water and settle in on one of the couches to read for a little while before shacharit, morning prayer.

But my attention is caught by what's happening in the next cosy nook over: two women are gathered around a small low table, busily wrapping tzitzit -- fringes -- and tying them to the corners of a beautiful striped tallit. I pause for a moment and watch them. They are absorbed in their joyous task, and I don't think they notice me looking on. I beam at them, thinking: at what other conference in the world does one run across women tying tzitzit on a tallit in a hotel lobby?



I go to lunch at the Dushanbe teahouse with three friends. The painted ceiling, the pots of mango ginger black tea, conversation about hashpa'ah / spiritual direction, and what it might be like if the hashpa'ah program were something everyone in the ALEPH ordination programs did, and cooking, and being here. The simple pleasure of good food, good conversation, togetherness.

Atthe end of the meal, Evan breaks into Brich Rachamana, and we four sing the round together, our voices interweaving and blending. Perhaps because this is Boulder, which is a little bit granola-crunchy; Boulder, home of Naropa and Reb Zalman and a lot of spiritual goings-on -- no one at the teahouse appears to mind or even to notice the foursome in the corner singing an obscure Talmudic grace after meals. Above us, the painted ceilings gleam.



Reb Zalman is speaking to the musmachot -- this year's crop of ordinees -- and he tells a story which, as he begins it, I realize he told at my smicha two years ago and I had forgotten in the interim. It's about a man who lost his beautiful snuff box in a cemetery and was crying about it, and the goat who lived in the cemetery and who had beautiful long spiralling horns said "here, take some of my horn," and bent down to give him some of his horn to make a new snuff box.

And the man's new snuff box was so beautiful, and it made the snuff inside it so heavenly, that soon everyone in town came to the cemetery to demand some of the horn -- which had reached all the way to the heavens; it provided a taste of the sweetness of Eden -- and soon the goat with the beautiful spiralling horns was worn down to nubs, and there was no one left who could hold up the heavens and reach the sweetness of Eden. Don't do this to your rabbis, Reb Zalman cautioned us. Don't wear them down to the nubs. Let them reach up to the heavens and draw sweetness down.



Liebster Award meme

Liebster2I've been nominated for a Liebster award. This is a meme, a cross between a chain letter and an award given by bloggers to bloggers; it's meant to be given to an up-and-coming blogger who has fewer than 200 followers. (The word "Liebster" comes from German and means "favorite" or "beloved.") I appreciate the nomination, though I'm not entirely sure I qualify; near as I can tell I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 subscribers, and I'm not sure that after nine years I can call this blog "up-and-coming" anymore! That said, I appreciate the spirit of the nomination -- and I'm happy to answer Rev Allyson's questions, because they're fun. Here's what she asked:

1. What role does religion play in your life?

Judaism informs pretty much everything I do. I see the world through the lenses of Torah and Jewish texts, I measure and sanctify time in Jewish ways, I connect with God through Jewish tools. Oh, and I'm blessed to be able to serve the local Jewish community as a congregational rabbi, so religion plays into how I earn my daily bread, too.

2. What's your favorite television show, and why?

There's some great television storytelling out there, so this is a bit of a tough one, but I think I'm going to go with Friday Night Lights. Amazing storytelling, characters who feel real, a terrific depiction of mature married life, and a long, slow build over the course of five seasons. It's also a beautiful look at smalltown life (both the positives and the negatives thereof), and the cinematography is stunning and often makes me nostalgic about my own Texas childhood (though my own childhood didn't involve really any football at all.)

3. What was your favorite subject in high school?

It was a toss-up between Biology, Latin, and English. I had terrific teachers in all three subjects. I was certain I was going to major in one of those three once I got to college. But then I took my first religion course, with the inimitable Thandeka, and that changed my life.

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In which Drew blesses me with peace (after a fashion)

Drew enjoys a Shabbat PB&J.

First we play peekaboo with the candles. I cover my eyes, Drew covers his, and we peek at each other and grin. I sing the blessing over the Shabbat candles, sometimes rushing a little bit when Drew imperiously tells me to stop singing now.

Then we bless the fruit of the vine. Drew raises his sippy cup of watered grape juice, I raise my wine glass, we clink them together and say "cheers," and I sing the one-line blessing over wine. After it's over, Drew likes to sing out with "a-a-men."

Then we bless the challah we picked up at the A Frame bakery earlier in the afternoon. I uncover it and raise it up and sing the hamotzi, and Drew sings a-a-men. (If I forget, and sing it myself, he chides me: "No, mommy! I want to do it!")

And last of all, I bless him. I go over to his side of the table and I say the words of the priestly blessing in English and Hebrew:

 יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ , May God bless you and keep you.  יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ , May God's face shine upon you and be gracious to you.  יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם, May God lift up God's face to you and bring you peace.

And then I kiss him on the head and tell him I'm proud of him.

Tonight, a few moments after we've concluded our blessings, Drew turns to me and solemnly says, "And last, I blesses you." This is new and adorable, and I beam. "I blesses you and bring you piece of challah. Do you want a piece of challah, mommy?"

Of course. He has no idea what "bring you peace" means -- as far as he can tell, I'm blessing him that he might receive a piece of yummy bread. All I can do is laugh and tell him that yes, I absolutely do, and also, he's the best. Which he is.