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A Jewish Renewal / Rabbis Without Borders take on the Pew study


In the wake of the recent Pew study on Jews in America today, I can't help wondering: how many "Jews in the pew" jokes can reasonably be made in the span of a week? Okay, that's not really the question. But the editors at Religion Dispatches asked a provocative question in response to the study and in response to the dialogue around that study in the Jewish community thus far: Pew and the Jews: So What?

They asked a handful of smart and thoughtful people to respond in brief, among them J.J. Goldberg, Jay Michaelson, Ruth Messinger and Shaul Magid. I'm honored to be in this company as well. My response begins:

As a Jewish Renewal rabbi, I'm interested in the renewing of Judaism. I take a post-triumphalist stance toward other traditions even as I seek to lift up what's beautiful in my own. As a Rabbi Without Borders I aim not to worry about communal dilution, nor to work from a narrative of erosion. (That's part of how RWBs self-define.) Wearing both of these kippot, I find reasons for hope in the Pew study...

You can read my whole response here: Opportunity Knocks in Pew Study. And don't miss the other responses linked from the main page -- all are thought-provoking and add something valuable to the conversation.

Deep Waters: a d'var Torah for parashat Noach

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

Deep Waters

"Postpartum depression caused the Flood..."

That's the first line of the first poem in 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). It comes out of last week's Torah portion, Bereshit -- which begins with the creation of heavens and earth, and ends with God recognizing that humanity has become wicked, and vowing to wash us off the face of the earth. In this week's Torah portion, Noach, we encounter the flood itself.

Many of you have heard me speak about the "four worlds:" action, emotion, thought, and spirit. In Jewish Renewal we frequently use this idea as a lens for understanding our lives. Sometimes, as in our Tu BiShvat seder, we map each of the four worlds to one of the four seasons, or to one of the four elements. The world of yetzirah, emotion, is represented by water.

Jung wrote that water is a symbol for the unconscious. In Tarot, water represents emotion and intuition. Think of the language we use to speak about strong emotion: emotion poured through me, my heart overflowed with feelings, emotion welled up in me. And, when it gets to be too much: I was afraid my emotions would wash me away. I was flooded with emotion.

The first lines of Torah teach that before creation, God's spirit hovered over the face of the waters -- maybe the waters of the unconscious, the waters of chaos, the waters of what-existed-before. Then God divided between the waters above and the waters below. Our ancestors believed that primordial waters flowed below the earth, and above the heavens; that everything we know and experience is surrounded by cosmic waters which we cannot see.

Before each of us is born, we inhabit a space of living waters -- a mother's womb. Waters above, waters below, waters sustaining us. When we are born, most of our bodies consist of water. Waters run through us and sustain us. Maybe that's one of the deep truths reflected in Torah's metaphors.

And in this week's portion, God stops holding the waters back. The waters become too much. There is an excess of water. And everything that isn't held safely in that little wooden boat is washed away.

For those who struggle with depression, there is often fear of emotional flood. "If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away." Or: "If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away everyone I love."

We need to trust that we, and our loved ones, can weather our storms. Like Noah, who builds a floating home which can survive even the greatest deluge.

Many years ago at a Shabbat service at the old Elat Chayyim, Rabbi Jeff Roth recounted the following parable. Two waves are hanging out together in the sea, a big wave and a little wave. And the big wave is anxious and scared. The little wave says, "Why are you so afraid?" And the big wave says, "If you could see what I see, you'd be afraid too. Up ahead of us there are some cliffs, and I can see where we're going -- every wave in front of us goes up to those cliffs, and smashes into them, and disappears."

And the little wave smiles and says, "If you could see what I see, you wouldn't be afraid." And the big wave asks, what's that? And the little wave says, "We're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves: we're water. The essence of who we are is greater than our stormy weather, greater than the rising and falling of any wave or any tide or any life. We aren't just our crests and troughs, our highs and lows. Even when an individual wave shatters on the shore, its water nature remains. Even when an individual life feels shattered -- or comes to its end -- what is eternal in us still flows.



When the floodgates open
build a boat with many spaces

here in these cubbyholes
stash your scales and feathers

pack provisions for the forty days
required for transformation

push off from the dock and set sail
for wherever the current carries you

don't be surprised if you wobble
back across the gangplank

when you raise the partitions
you'll run like new watercolor

offer yourself on the altar of stone
beneath the varicolored sky

(from 70 faces)

Standing at the edge



In Reb Shlomo's parable
the rabbi stands at the edge
of a sea of tears
and refuses heaven
until all are shed.

You have drifted on that sea,
trailed your fingers
in its salt waters
wondering why no one on shore
notices you're gone.



The fear says
if you open the porthole
Noah's own floods will pour through
towering like a ziggurat
and wash you away.

And others, innocent.
They might be caught
in the raging waters.
You can't warn them
to build an ark in time.

Continue reading "Standing at the edge" »

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: poems of Noah

And then, tucked into the end of the Torah portion -- after the Flood -- there's an entirely different story, the wild parable of the Tower of Babel. Judy Klitsner makes a compelling case that the sin of the people building that tower was a kind of coercive groupthink. It's fascinating to notice that that story begins with the observation "And all the earth was of one language and of one set of words..." What would our world, what would our poetry, be like if we had only one language available to us?

The story of Babel's given rise to some great stuff too, like Barbara Hamby's collection of that same name.

What can we take from the juxtaposition of flood and tower? The lens of poetry is one of the hermeneutics I like best. Read the portion itself as though it were poetry. Look for repeated words and images, for surprising turns of phrase...

That's from my final post this week at the Best American Poetry blog: The poetry of Noah [by Rachel Barenblat]. Thanks again to the BAP editors for inviting me to share some ideas there! It's been a lot of fun.

Worth watching: psalm 42 videopoem

Earlier today I posted to the Best American Poetry blog about collaboration and remix. My post includes discussion of and links to some amazing collaborative art and remix / transformative work that's happening in the poetry world today. (If you haven't read that post yet, I hope you will -- there's some incredible work highlighted there.)

I want to share one amazing creative collaboration here which is perhaps better suited to Velveteen Rabbi's readers than to BAP's, and that's the new Psalm 42 video from G-dcast, written and performed by Jina Davidovich and animated by Jeremy Shuback:

(If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it at Psalm 42: Where is Your God?.)

It's extraordinary. First of all, the words are a beautiful riff off of the themes and motifs of psalm 42 as we know it from Tanakh. Secondly, the reading of the poem aloud gives it new voice and new life. And thirdly, the illustrations and the animation of those illustrations...!

This is exactly the kind of thing I'm excited about: words and art informing each other and together creating something greater than the sum of its parts. And, of course, the Tanakh is always ripe for creative (re)interpretation...

Kol hakavod, y'all.


ETA: that video is part of a quartet -- here are all four. Psalm 1, Psalm 23, and Psalm 90 receive the same amazing treatment. Holy wow!

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: collaboration and remix

I love the age of the remix. Remix, transformative work, videos which build on poetry, composers who borrow our lines for their music, poems inspired by other poems -- these are my idea of a good time. I've been talking with the publisher of my next collection about putting the manuscript online with the intent of making it easy for other writers and artists to find the poems -- not only so that the poems can be blogged, Facebooked, tweeted (though I hope that they will be), but also to explicitly welcome remix and transformative work. Of course I want to sell copies of the book; who wouldn't? I want to reward my publishers for spending the coin of their time on my work. But I also want the poems to be out there in the world, as part of the communal conversation -- and I think that the more we put our poetry out there for remix and transformation, the more interwoven we and our readers/co-creators become.

That's from today's post on the Best American Poetry blog: Collaboration and remix [by Rachel Barenblat]. Click through to read the whole thing -- which features quotes from Dave Bonta and Nic Sebastian, as well as some hopefully interesting musings on intersemiotic translation and remix culture.

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: looking for great parenting poems

It's the very opposite of romantic or adventuresome, this parade of toaster waffles and endless PB&J sandwiches. (Of course there are orthodoxies. In our house the only acceptable option uses whole wheat bread and is cut in triangles, featuring nothing but creamy peanut butter and seedless blackberry jam, and heavens forfend we should call it "grape" by mistake.)

It could be the stuff of prose poems, I suppose: the voice yelling "boo!" in our doorway at six-thirty in the morning, then hollering hello to the moon; negotiations about pyjamas and experiments with rhythm. When he tries to curl in my lap for our nighttime lullaby, he's all angled elbows and pointy knees which don't actually fit, like my best friend's golden retriever attempting to regain the lap dog status he dimly remembers from puppyhood...

That's from today's post at BAP: Where are the great poems of parenting a four year old? [by Rachel Barenblat]. Click through to read the whole thing.

Today on the Best American Poetry blog: music for this season

Today I'm thinking about these lines from John Berryman: "Fall is grievy, brisk. / Tears behind the eyes // almost fall. / Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate." (From his Dream Song 385, which someone has put online here.)

I've been listening to Jon Appleton's The Russian Music this fall. The first disc, mostly: the piano concertos. They ripple and roll. They're a bit akin to Philip Glass (his Metamorphoses -- also well-suited to fall, if you ask me.) But this piano music is moodier. More Russian, I suppose. Though when I ran across the Berryman quote (above) in my commonplace book, it made me think of Appleton, too...

That's how today's post at the Best American Poetry blog begins. Click through to read the whole thing: Russian music [by Rachel Barenblat] at The Best American Poetry blog.

(I posted about music last time I blogged there, too: Music for fall, 2010. I still like all the stuff I linked to in that post, too.)