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A Rebbe Dream


I am carrying my son
around a bus filled with scholars:
rifling through my carry-on
in search of cheese sticks
and bananas, exploring
the wooden deck and silk flowers.

Someone ushers in my rebbe
proclaiming He's just received
a clean bill of health!

His beard is trimmed
and there's spring
in his step.

I shake hands
with a young Madeleine L'Engle,
perhaps forty, blond ponytail
and kind smile. I read email
from a Sufi sheikh who's sorry
he isn't able to join us.

Reb Zalman kneels beside me
and confirms I'll transcribe
all of the teachings,
asks what he can pay me.
It's a freewill offering, I reply
and he suggests $84.

(Only in the morning
well after I've woken
when I look up the number
on my gematria app
do I discover it equals
the Hebrew for dream.)

He moves on and I whisper
to a nearby friend
how does one come to look
fifteen years younger?
He hears, across the distance,
and laughs.


RebZalman2006-photobyJeriBerc(Image: Reb Zalman's last Accord visit, photo taken at the old Elat Chayyim by Jeri Berc, 2006.)

This poem arises out of a real dream I had a few nights ago. I wrote down everything I could remember of the dream once I was at my computer. The strange number chosen by the Reb Zalman in my dream piqued my curiosity, so I looked it up on iGematria; when I discovered that one of the words which matches with 84 is חלום, dream, I gave myself the shivers, a little bit.

I'm still not sure what to make of the dream. I remember thinking, during the dream, that I felt lucky to be able to move seamlessly between taking care of my son and learning from great teachers. (Madeleine L'Engle was one of the teachers on this mysterious Torah bus; another was Rabbi Shefa Gold.) I welcome responses both to the dream, and to the poem which the dream sparked!

Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)

Back in early 2009, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Adler for Zeek. My interview with her ran in the spring 2009 print edition of Zeek, the Sex, Gender, and God issue. (I posted about that here at the time.) Zeek no longer does a print edition, and I'm not sure it's possible to buy that back issue anymore, so in advance of Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler's keynote presentations at the OHALAH conference next week, I'm reprinting the interview I did with her. (As it happens, I did the interview by phone from OHALAH, so there's a sense of things coming full circle for me!)


Rachel Adler is one of the foremothers of Jewish feminism. In 1971, she published an article entitled "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman" in Davka magazine. Many now consider that article to have been the springboard that launched Jewish feminism into the world.

Adler's "Engendering Judaism" is a germinal classic of Jewish feminism. She was one of the first theologians to read Jewish texts through the lens of feminist perspectives and concerns -- work she's still doing today, as a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College Rabbinic School.

I spoke with her from the hallowed halls of the Hotel Boulderado where I was attending the annual meeting of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- a profoundly feminist organization which owes its existence in part to her work. We talked about entrails (she's working on a reading of Mary Douglas' work on Leviticus), congregational politics, the new Hebrew edition of "Engendering Judaism," and her hopes for the future of Jewish feminism.

Our conversation made me realize just how far we've come, and how grateful I feel to be living and learning in a time when Adler's work is part of the liberal Jewish canon. --Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Your roots are in Orthodoxy; today you teach at Hebrew Union College. Can you give us a nutshell version of how you moved from point A to point B?

ADLER: Actually I'm a 5th generation Reform Jew, but became Orthodox in my late teens. I was Orthodox for more than twenty years, but eventually returned to Reform Judaism. I joke that I am a round-trip baalat teshuva.

51qPmncYryL._SS500_ZEEK: "Engendering Judaism" came out in 1998 -- more than ten years ago now. Do you still consider it to be a radical text?

ADLER: Yes. In Engendering Judaism I propose a basis for a progressive halakha -- a pro-active, rather than reactive, halakha which is formed at the grass roots level. I also propose a wedding ceremony which is egalitarian and halakhically feasible. And I propose that our sexuality is part of our divine image. All of these things still strike my students as radical.

ZEEK: You've argued that until "progressive Judaisms" attend to the impact of gender and sexuality, they can't engender Jewish life in which women are equal participants. Have you experienced hostility to this view, either from within progressive Judaism or from folks outside of this sphere?

ADLER: Orthodox Jews don't make pronouncements on what progressive Judaisms need to be more progressive. It's progressive Jews who sometimes pay lip service to the need for egalitarianism, and then when it comes to think tanks or executive positions in Jewish institutions don't include women.

ZEEK: You've raised the point that relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. Thinking in terms of "Women in Judaism" suggests that women are a kind of add-on to the normative body of Jewish tradition, in maybe the same way that studying "Women's literature" implies that literature writ large is necessarily in the purview of men...

ADLER: Actually I footnoted this point. It was made by another scholar, Miriam Peskowitz. Most academic disciplines now view gender as an area for scholarship by both women and men. That makes sense, since gender,both feminine and masculine, is a changing variable, affected by social and historical context.

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

ZEEK: On a related note, you've written that you're interested not only in critiquing androcentric structures but in healing Judaism -- that your goal is not judgement but restoration. Does this tie in with the ethical task I just mentioned?

ADLER: Absolutely. Judaism is not a system on which I'm passing judgment from a distance. It is my home in the universe. I'm concerned that I and other women be full and equally privileged residents in our home.

Continue reading "Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)" »

The last toddler house poem


You run and climb, sit backwards
on your little chair, ascend stairs
one footfall on each step. You sleep
in the big-boy bed your daddy made
and we're about to remove the rail.
You speak in compound sentences:
remember when we went on a big airplane
to Nonni and Papa's house, to Texas;
when I get bigger I won't try quesadillas!

You have fervent opinions
about which book to read next
which blanket sleeper to wear
which song I should sing and when.
You're a magic beanstalk, tall
as a four-year-old, and when you kick
the wall beside your bed
it sounds like an officer pounding
at the door. You're not a toddler
anymore: you're a child, a boy,
a youth. Most nights now you settle
at the end of your bed for our routine
because on my lap you sprawl
from my shoulders to my knees.
You're uncontainable. Daily now I pray
for the good sense to fence you in
only as much as you need, to enjoy
your bedtime-forestalling antics
(as though you really thought
your head goes at the foot end!)
to let you into my lap anytime you ask
because you do give super hugs
and someday you'll roll your eyes
instead of clambering all over me
but not yet, thank God, not now.

I think this is the last of the so-called Toddler House poems. I was looking back over those collected poems this morning and realized that they chronicle a moment in Drew's life which is already over; he's not a toddler anymore, and hasn't been for some time. So I drafted this poem to serve as the capstone to that small collection. I'm not sure what the collection's fate will be -- a wee chapbook, a sequel to the not-yet-published (but due this year!) Waiting to Unfold? -- but I'm glad to have the poems as a scattered chronicle of the toddler year(s).

Clergy's internet toolkit at OHALAH


Next Monday afternoon at OHALAH (the annual conference of the association of Jewish Renewal clergy, which is also named OHALAH) I'll be co-presenting a session for the first time with my friend David. The session is titled The Modern Clergyperson's Internet Toolkit, and here's how we've described it:

What does it mean to minister to people online? How can Jewish clergy best use Facebook and G+, Twitter, and blogs to reach out to our communities and to stay connected with our chevre and those to whom we tend...and what is the shadow side of all of these technologies; what are the challenges and potential pitfalls of being plugged-in? Is it possible to provide pastoral care via Skype? (How about via Facebook?) How careful do we need to be in monitoring our own online presences? What messages do we send when we are (or are not) available digitally 24/7? What are the unexpected blessings of being clergy in this brave new networked world? Can cultivating online presence tangibly support brick-and-mortar communities, and if so, how?

Panelists Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi blog / Velveteen Rabbi website) and David Markus (Reb David) will each offer brief prepared remarks, and then will open these questions up for conversation. They will moderate a roundtable in which participants around the room can share their best practices and their experiences and their resources.

I'm looking really forward to this. David and I have prepared a solid presentation, and it'll be interesting to see what insights and questions are raised by other folks in the room. We'll be talking about internet presence and how it's no longer optional for clergy, about some of the questions and cautions raised by online pastoral work and online connections, the blessings of blogging and of (potentially) reaching the whole wide world, some case studies in online pastoral care and online clerical interaction, the legal implications and the shadow side of this brave new world, and what we've found (and others have found) to be best practices in this realm.

If you're going to be at OHALAH, I hope you'll join us. Handouts, and a copy of our slides, will be made available at the OHALAH website after the conference is over, and if someone's able to record audio of the session, we'll post that too -- though I'm pretty sure that all of those resources are password-protected for conference registrants only. (But hey, it's not too late to register to join us at the conference!)

Marly Youmans' Thaliad

I eagerly anticipated my copy of Marly Youmans' Thaliad. Thaliad is the newest title out from Phoenicia Publishing, the same house which brought out my collection 70 faces, and just based on its editor (Beth) and its author (Marly) I knew it would be excellent. As an added bonus, I knew it was illustrated by the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose work I also admire.

Here's how the press describes the book:

Thaliad is a book-length epic poem written in accessible, beautiful language that reads like a novel. It tells the story of a group of children, survivors of an apocalypse, who make an arduous journey of escape and then settle in a deserted rural town on the shores of a beautiful lake. There, they must learn how to survive, using tools and knowledge they discover in the ruins of the town, but also how to live together. At the heart of the story is the young girl Thalia, who gradually grows to womanhood, and into the spiritual role for which she was destined.

But for all that I couldn't wait to receive my copy, once it arrived, I found myself reading it slowly, drop by drop, and pausing frequently. Not only because each page is so rich with images, but also because its subject matter turns out to be difficult for me to take in. I keep needing to pause to breathe and to soothe my own heart.

Thaliad begins with an invocation to the muse, as any epic poem ought to do; and then it dives headfirst into the tale of the seven children who survived nuclear apocalypse. They were on a field trip, in a cave, and although rocks fell and they were trapped there, the cave itself protected them. Once they found their way free from their unintentional second womb, they found the world forever changed. This is our narrator, Emma, telling the story of Thalia:

In later years, she never would describe
Her feelings, finding streets emptied of life,
Where shadows of a tree, a woman's hand,
The reaching arm of a young child were burned
Onto sidewalks and walls -- not one of them
Found family at home, unless they were
Corpses, and the rest evaporated
As if they'd flown to some bad fairyland.
I do not know, but Thalia became
The one who urged them through the town to search,
Who had them raid a shop that stank of meat
And threw a picnic underneath a tree,
Who hijacked grocery carts to gather food,
Who kept them close, who made them hide and seek
On commons ground that once had been alive
With daily to and fro but now was gloom --
And then she told them that the act was done,
How they'd no time to wail below the lour
Of skies that wept in ash and turned the day
To twilight, an uneasy, changeless dusk.
If we stay here, we will die, she said,
As everyone we ever loved has died.

Can you see why, as the mother of a three-year-old, I might quail at such description? I'm not generally conscious of the shadow of the fear of nuclear annihilation, but Marly's powerful verse makes this horrific scenario all too real. The world reduced to ash, and children caring for children. Some tender part of me wants to turn away.

Continue reading "Marly Youmans' Thaliad" »

D'var Torah for Shemot: Choosing to be Ivrim

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

"The Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed." The root ש/ר/צ  / sh-r-tz connotes the unsettling scuttling of insects. Once the Israelites began to multiply in the land of Egypt, something shifted. Torah seems to be hinting that the people -- or at least their Pharaoh -- thought of the Hebrews as nameless, faceless swarming creatures.

"A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph." Our sages debate whether this is literally true. How could the leader of Egypt not know the story of the Israelite who saved the empire from famine? Rashi teaches, it is as though he did not know Joseph. He may have known the Joseph story, but he chose to ignore it. Intriguingly, it's this Pharaoh, the one who perhaps chooses to conveniently forget that an Israelite was once useful to him, who invents the term "Israelite nation." His language subtly portrays the children of Israel as a fifth column living among the Egyptians.

The scholar Judy Klitsner notes that:

Pharaoh's claim that the Israelites are "רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ / rav ve-atzum mimenu," greater and mightier than we are, is absurd; they are but a small minority in a vast Egyptian empire. But Pharaoh's words are not chosen to report verifiable statistics; they aim for an emotional, fear-inducing impact. Through his exaggerated claim, Pharaoh taps into and amplifies the anxieties of his people who feel as though they are being rapidly outnumbered by the prolific strangers.

Pharaoh whipped the people's anxieties into a froth, and the Egyptians made the Israelites' lives bitter with hard labor.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik draws a distinction between two kinds of slavery: being bound to an individual master, and being bound to a totalitarian state. When Joseph worked for Potiphar, he was a slave, but there was a relationship there. Potiphar knew him by name. Some empathy between them was possible. But when the children of Israel were forced to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses, they served an impassive and oppressive regime.

Continue reading "D'var Torah for Shemot: Choosing to be Ivrim" »

Forty Lines About Forty

For E.

For the rabbis, forty
signifies fruition:
days before the embryo takes shape,
weeks from conception until birth.

The flood which cleansed the earth
rained for forty days and nights
like a mikvah, which must contain
forty measures of water.

Moses spent forty days atop Sinai
communing with the Holy One
to receive the stone tablets
containing the commandments.

(And forty days praying
after the golden calf disaster,
and forty days atop Sinai again
to bring down the Torah.)

The children of Israel wandered
forty years in the wilderness
before they could learn
what they needed to know.

The sages in Pirkei Avot
(Ethics of the Fathers)
teach that a man of forty
attains understanding.

The Talmud teaches
"one does not fully comprehend
the knowledge of one's teacher
before forty years"

and also "one does not become
fit to teach
(the things that matter)
until forty years."

When Rabbi Zeira wanted to learn
the Jerusalem Talmud, he fasted
forty times to forget what he'd learned
of the Babylonian Talmud

(like Nan-in who had to empty his cup
before the Zen master could fill him.)
Forty means new beginnings,
blessings waiting to unfold.

Re-sharing a forgotten Torah poem

Looking back at my previous offerings for this week's Torah portion -- Shemot, the first parsha in the book of Shemot, which is known in English as Exodus -- I rediscovered a Torah poem I'd forgotten I'd written: Labor. I wrote it and shared it here during January of 2010, a scant handful of weeks after our son was born. (No wonder I don't remember writing it! Those first couple of months are a blur to me now.) Rereading it now transports me back to the birthing room. I suspect that my sense of Shifrah and Puah, the two midwives listed in this week's portion, has been permanently changed by the experience of giving birth.

This is one of the things I love about reading Torah year after year. The text is unchanging: the same handwritten words on the same aging vellum. (Or typeset and printed on paper, or blazing forth from a computer or ipad screen.) But we bring ourselves to bear on the text: our experiences, our dreams, our hopes, our fears. Being a parent changes the way I read Torah. I empathize with the parents in our holy text; I empathize with God as the cosmic Parent (Who is, I would argue, learning to parent creation as S/he goes along, just as any human parent learns how to rear a child by diving in and doing it.)

And someday, I imagine, becoming a grandparent will change the way I read Torah. I can't imagine, now, what will resonate for me in this text when I enter my sage-ing years. But I know that I'll still be searching for meaning in this text then. That's another one of the things I love about reading Torah year after year. We've made a commitment to each other, Torah and I. Torah promises to be here always, to be rife with possibilities, to spark my imagination and my spirit; I promise to keep reading, to keep turning and turning to see what I find in her this time around.

Hold the parsha up to the light and see what shines forth for you this year.


(As always, you can find my previous divrei Torah and Torah poems at the Velveteen Rabbi's Torah Commentary index page, listed by parsha and by year. The 2013 d'var Torah for this week's parsha will go live on Sunday, once we've moved into the new week -- I'll be sharing it at my shul on Shabbat morning, so if you're burning to find out what I have to say about Shemot this year, come daven with us at CBI!)