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A few Chanukah gems

2096474062_6299f4858e_nIn ten years of blogging at Velveteen Rabbi, I've shared a fair number of Chanukah posts. As the holiday approaches (tonight at sundown!), I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorites:

  • Chanukah has sparked a few poems, among them Excavating the Herodian oil lamps (2013) and Rededication (2012)
  • A call for kindness during Kislev (2011) "This can be a challenging season. Here in the northern hemisphere the days are darkening (and at the latitude of northern Berkshire, the days feel short indeed!) Thanksgiving is an opportunity for gathering with loved ones, feasting, and cultivating gratitude...though for those who are alone, the family feast day may feel even more isolating. And even for those who are blessed to gather with family, a holiday like Thanksgiving may raise or exacerbate old tensions and old hurts. On top of that, of course, some of us are introverts -- which means that concentrated togetherness-time, even if it's something we anticipate and savor, can be draining."
  • Mai Chanukah? (2008) "This is the time of year when people argue about the meaning of Chanukah. // It's an old question. Mai chanukah? is how the rabbis begin the Talmud's discussion of the holiday: "What is Chanukah?" Maybe the simplest answer is, it's a multivalent holiday; it always has been..."
  • Enough (2007) "During Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of unexpected abundance. The cruse of oil that shouldn't have sufficed, sufficed. We came face-to-face with a lack, and acknowledged the lack, and acted as though there were enough anyway, and that leap of faith made it so that there was enough."
  • How Chanukah feels (2005) "Chanukah feels like a box of chocolates I get to enjoy at just the right pace: one at a time, stretching the box out to last a whole week, parcelling out the sweetness bite by bite."
  • The smallest miracle (2003) "[According to the Sfat Emet] Chanukah was the last miracle God performed for us, so we must find special strength in it...Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle."

(You can find all of the Chanukah-related posts in the Chanukah category.) Chag sameach!

Image source: my flickr stream.

Carving new grooves on heart and mind

Clay-heartIt's always surprising to me -- though it probably shouldn't be -- how easily the mind becomes accustomed to a thought pattern, and gets stuck there. Our repeated thoughts carve grooves on the soft clay of our consciousness, and soon a thought process goes from occasional to regular to habitual.

This is one of the reasons why I am so attached to my gratitude practices, praying modah ani in the morning chief among them. When I school myself in the practice of saying thank-you to God for being alive again, day after day, that helps me to wake up in that spirit and to carry it with me into the morning. Or if I pause before eating a piece of toast and say the hamotzi, recognizing the hands which sowed and milled the grain and the divinity which sustained both the grain and the people who turned it into bread, then that shapes my experience of eating.

By the same token, if there's something that's anxiety-provoking, it's easy for the anxiety to become as habitual as the gratitude. (Or even more so.) For some of us, the approach of winter can bring on that pattern. As sunset comes earlier and earlier, a clench of worry can take hold of heart and mind: it's so dark, I don't know how I can live with this. For others, the winter holiday season brings anxiety: too much pressure, not enough money, maybe we feel we don't fit in with what "everyone else" is celebrating or how they're celebrating it. Each of us has different inflection points which bring on this kind of thinking, but it's an experience we all have.

Last spring at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat, I learned about negativity bias -- the phenomenon whereby if one gets nine compliments and one piece of hate mail, the hate mail lodges more firmly in one's memory than the praise. And I also learned that negative / anxious / unhappy thinking tends to reinforce itself. Or, framed another way, the more we focus on what's broken, the harder it can be to see what's whole. And every time we retread that negative ground, we wear its path even more firmly into our hearts and minds.

Continue reading "Carving new grooves on heart and mind" »

In advance of Thanksgivukkah

Thanksgiving (and Chanukah) (and Thanksgivukkah) are almost upon us! In light of that, here's a revised version of the blessing before the Thanksgiving meal which I first posted last year.


A Prayer Before the Thanksgiving Meal

We thank You for this meal
and for all arrayed around this table;
for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth;
for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care;
for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves;
for the ones who cooked what we eat today
and those whom we remember as we dine.
Help us to receive this meal as a gift
and to offer gratitude in return.
May the abundance which we enjoy
spur us to care for those who need.
Blessed are You, Source of all being,
Whose abundance is manifest on this Thanksgiving day.


If you're looking for a prayer which is specific to this unique confluence of holidays, Rabbi Jason Miller has written a lovely Prayer for Thanksgivukkah. Edited to add: here are several prayers for Thanksgivukkah, written by a variety of different rabbis, at HuffingtonPost; I really like Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's.)

(And allow me to point to one more post about the confluence: Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan's Thanksgivukkah: The True History.)

And speaking of the confluence of holidays, much has been made of the notion that this won't happen again for thousands of years. But Rabbi David Seidenberg makes a compelling case for why Thanksgivukkah will happen again in 2070 -- and offers the beautiful suggestion that on this Thanksgivukkah, we bless our children or grandchildren who we hope will live to see that next Thanksgivukkah.

Some of this work's greatest blessings

It is a tremendous blessing to me every time I am able to walk alongside someone who is on the mourner's path.

To sit down in someone's kitchen or living room and let them tell me stories.

To give them a safe space in which to open the faucet and let their memories begin to pour forth.

To keep company with the family as they accompany their loved one as far as they can go.

To invite them into the painful and powerful tradition of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands.

To bless them that they should be consoled along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and along with all who mourn.

To walk alongside them, to offer a listening ear and a welcoming heart.

To pray with them, letting the familiar cadences of the mourner's kaddish work in and through them.

To remember how precious this life is, and how unknown is the Mystery which follows.


I don't do this work in order to be more mindful of my own life, my own loved ones, but I am always reminded.

I remember how fortunate I am that my own loved ones are still here.

It is sobering to glimpse, at a distance, the path we all walk someday.


As Shabbat approaches, may all mourners find comfort. May we welcome them into our communities with kindness and understanding. May we tend their fragility more lovingly than we would tend our own.

A poem in The Heart of All That Is

Home-anthologyI am delighted to be able to share the news that one of my poems, "The Permeable World" (which first appeared in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia, 2013) has been reprinted in a wonderful anthology -- The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hart, and Pamela Mittlefehldt, published by Holy Cow! Press.

I've reviewed Holy Cow! titles here before -- both as a poet and as a rabbi, I turn frequently to Beloved on the Earth: 150 poems of grief and gratitude, which I wrote about back in spring of 2012.

When I saw the call for submissions to this anthology on home, I knew I wanted to be a part of it (if the editors were so inclined.) Home, the meaning of home, finding home, making home -- I think that all of these are central to my poetry, as well as to my spiritual life.

Home. Is it a place or a face? An address or a state of mind? Shelter or prison? Hearth or horizon? ...Home is not static. It is a verb, as well as a noun, a description as well as a destination. Home is a dialectic, an oxymoron. Implicit in the grounding promised by the idea of home is the syncopated counterpoint of yearning -- a longing to flee as well as an ache to return.

That's from the introduction, written by co-editor Pamela Mittlefehldt.

The anthology is, of course, beautifully printed and put-together. And in its pages are poems by some poets whose work I already knew -- Marge Piercy, Jane Yolen, Naomi Shihab Nye -- as well as many poets whose work is not yet known to me; new poetic worlds to discover.

I love Laura Hansen's "What Holds Me" -- "What holds me together is this house / two steps up from the shore of the river, / the closets filled to overflowing / with old rubber boots and overcoats..." And Ethna McKiernan's "Dear God of H____" -- "Rain down, oh rain down, you desolate / blessed God of homelessness..." And Margaret Hasse's "Prairie World and Wanderer" -- "At one end of a tunneled corridor / we took naps, once finding where a deer // had tamped a sleeping space, still warm." And Miriam Weinstein's "Home is a complete sentence" -- "Will you complete the precarious walk // across what now looks like a very thin balance beam?"

It's a beautiful collection. I'm glad to be a part of it.

Purchase the anthology directly from Holy Cow! Press at $18 | or from Amazon at $13.64 | or from your local  bookstore.

The other story in this week's Torah portion: Judah and Tamar

Cd_insert_1a_smallThis week we're in parashat Vayeshev. This Torah portion brings us into one of the richest narratives in Torah: the beginning of the Joseph novella. But just as the Joseph story is getting rolling, we pause for an interlude which contains an entirely different story, the story of Judah and Tamar. Here's a refresher in case you can't remember how this one goes:

Judah (one of the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery) parts ways with his brothers, marries, and has three sons. The first son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar -- but Er dies before a child can be conceived. So Judah does what was apparently commonplace at that moment in time: nudges his son Onan into levirate marriage.

(What's levirate marriage? It's what happens in the Biblical paradigm when one brother dies childless: the other brother is obligated to marry his brother's widow, and if their marriage produces a son, that son is considered the child of the dead brother both legally and spiritually.)

Onan doesn't want to produce a child under these circumstances. Inheritance laws of that era mean that he and his future children would take a major financial hit, and this kid wouldn't even be considered his! So he practices a form of birth control, spilling his seed on the ground. (It's worth noting that in Torah, the sin of onanism isn't masturbation, it's wasting the opportunity to father a child through levirate marriage.) Because of his sin, Onan dies, too. At this point, Judah doesn't want to marry his third son to Tamar, because she's starting to seem to him like a bad-luck charm. And the third son is too young, anyway. So he sends her back to her father's household.

Sometime thereafter, Judah's wife dies, and after he's finished mourning he goes up to a different town to get his sheep sheared. Word reaches Tamar of her father-in-law's plans, so she discards her widow's cloak and puts on a veil and stations herself on the road at a place called petach enaim, which might mean "the entrance to [the town of] Enaim," or might mean "the opening of the eyes." But when Judah finds her, his eyes are distinctly not opened to the truth of what's in front of him -- he fails to recognize her (on account of the veil), so he hires her for a night. Afterward, he offers her a goat in payment. Tamar, shrewdly, asks for his signet ring and staff as collateral. Later, when he tries to send the goat as his promised payment, no one knows anything about the woman he describes, so he shrugs and keeps the goat.

Three months pass and it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. This is an insult to the memory of Er and Onan, and to Judah by extension, so Judah demands that she be brought out and burned. (This is, by the way, an excessive punishment even by ancient near eastern standards -- even at its harshest, Torah does not command this. Perhaps we're meant to see Judah as a bit of a hothead.) But Tamar discreetly sends back his ring and staff, saying, "The man to whom these belong is the father of my child." Judah, suitably chastened, never bothers her again. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Jewish tradition will later hold that the line of King David descends from Perez.

What are we to make of this story? And why is it inserted into the middle of Joseph's tale?

Continue reading "The other story in this week's Torah portion: Judah and Tamar" »

New poem, On Joseph and solitary confinement, at T'ruah

Logo_webOnce again, T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights is encouraging the observance of Human Rights Shabbat in early December -- a Shabbat dedicated to learning about, and rededicating ourselves to, the work of human rights in our world.

They've just put a set of Human Rights Shabbat resources online. Those resources include kavanot (mindful intentions) to hold in mind and heart, such as this kavanah for Mi Chamocha by Rabbi Jill Hammer [pdf]; a Prayer for human rights by Rabbi David Friedenberg [pdf]; and also a new poem of mine, On Joseph and solitary confinement [pdf]. My poem draws on the set of weekly parshiyot into which we are entering this week -- the Joseph novella -- and then moves from the Torah story to injustice in the prison system today.

Here's how my poem begins:

When Joseph was jailed, wrongly accused
of seducing his master’s wife, what did he feel?

Did he remember his first stint in solitary,
the pit where his brothers threw him --

empty of water but crawling with scorpions,
empty of Torah but reeking with resentment?

Each time he prepared to start over
life cast him down someplace worse.

But he knew all along that God was with him
and that God meant everything for good...

You can download my poem, as well as many other terrific resources for Human Rights Shabbat, on the T'ruah Human Rights Shabbat resources page.

Where fandom and religion coincide

TARDIFA surprise arrived for me in the mail this morning: a complimentary copy of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith, a new anthology which explores the role of religion in Doctor Who, coedited by Andrew Crome and James McGrath, newly released by Darton, Longman & Todd.

The copy came courtesy of one of the book's contributors, Joel Dark, whose essay "Doctoring the Doctor: Midrashic Adventures in Text and Space" draws on my 2012 essay for Religion & Literature, Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction. He sent it to me as a sort of thank-you for having written that article in the first place, which was awfully kind of him. It's neat to see how Joel uses my essay to support his thinking about Doctor Who.

Joel writes:

A second happy accident for Doctor Who's midrashic future was the almost impossible contradictory complexity of its twenty-six year narrative. This was actually a long series of accidents. If 'surface irregularities of the text,' in the words of the biblical scholar James Kugel, are 'the grain of sand which so irritates the midrashic oyster that he constructs a pearl around it,' the original Doctor Who series was a beach.

That last sentence made me laugh out loud. A beach indeed. And, Kugel's point about midrash is a delightful one to bring to bear on Doctor Who -- and on any imperfect source-text which accrues a dedicated fandom in part because its irregularities give fans hooks on which to hang ideas and interpretations.

I've only had the chance to read two other essays in the book so far. One is Brigid Cherry's "'You're this Doctor's companion. What exactly do you do for him? Why does he need you?': Doctor Who, Liminality, and Martha the Apostle." I like her analysis of Martha (the companion) as an apostle, and she makes good points about the show's treatment of apocalypse and of spreading the good news.

And the other is Kristine Larsen's "Karma, Conditionality and Clinging to Self: the Tennant Years as Seen Through a Tibetan Buddhist Lens." I like her Buddhist reading of the show, and particularly her analysis of David Tennant's final episodes. (His Doctor really wasn't ready to accept his impermanence, was he?)

Reading Cherry's Christian analysis of the show, and Larsen's Buddhist analysis of the show, I find myself wondering what a specifically Jewish analysis of Doctor Who would look like. Of course, this being the internet, someone else has had that thought before I did, and has posted about it, too: Liel Liebovitz's Doctor Who? Doctor Jew: Doctor Who is the Greatest Jew on Television, in Tablet. Also, apparently 2011 brought us Naomi Alderman's Borrowed Time, the first Doctor Who tie-in novel written by a Jewish woman -- you can read about it in the Forward, and/or in this interview Doctor Who / Is A Jew?, which explores the Doctor's talmudic reasoning and features a charming visual of Matt Smith's Doctor wearing a kippah.

I'm looking forward to dipping further into the book as time permits. (And receiving it reminded me to put Chicks Dig Time Lords on my Amazon wishlist...)

Seeing the wrestle as a blessing: thoughts on Vayishlach

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

At the start of this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to meet his twin brother Esau. This will be their first meeting since Jacob tricked their father into giving him the oldest son's blessing. He rises in the night and sends his family on ahead of him, across the river Jabbok.

Jabbok: יבק. Jacob: יעקב. The two words are made up of the same letters, though Jacob's name has an extra letter, a silent ע. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that this letter connotes vision.

"Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn."

Our tradition understands unnamed men in Genesis to be angels, which is to say, divine messengers.

At the end of their wrestling match, Jacob demands a blessing. The blessing he receives is a new name, Israel, "for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and have prevailed."

My teacher and friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow translates Israel as God-wrestler. Israel is the one who wrestles with God. And as we are the people Israel, the community which bears his name, then wrestling with God is our task, too. Perhaps this means wrestling with the texts in Torah which challenge us, or wrestling with ethical questions about what kind of life we intend to lead.

After this encounter, Jacob names the place of the wrestle Peni'el, "the Face of God," saying, "For I have seen God face-to-face, and my life is spared." In the Biblical understanding, no one can look upon God's infinity and live. Jacob has seen only a face of God, a facet of God, a refraction or reflection of God in the person of the angel with whom he wrestled.

"Only" a face of God? How remarkable it would be if we could see the face of God in every being we meet.

Your face: a face of God. Her face: a face of God. His face: a face of God...

Continue reading "Seeing the wrestle as a blessing: thoughts on Vayishlach" »

The nighttime wrestle - a pearl of Torah for Vayishlach

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a stranger all night until dawn and receives a new name as a blessing. I'll say more about that in the d'var Torah I'm offering on Shabbat at my shul (which will be posted here on Sunday, as usual.) Today I'm sharing a tiny teaching adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.

In the line "a man strived with him until dawn," the Degel sees a reference to how each of us will struggle in life -- with our impulses and inclinations. Each person has two impulses or inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and the yetzer ha-ra(bad inclination.) We enter the world, he says, as holy souls, and the evil inclination has no sway over us. But this inevitably changes as we grow up and move into the working world, and we come to imagine that there are things we "have to do" to make a living. He lists lying or cheating others; I suspect each of us can think of times when we've justified choices about which we secretly don't feel so great.

Each of us will experience struggle with our own yetzer ha-ra -- and the struggle may be fiercest, somehow, during the black of night. All of our troubles, fears, and anxieties feel worse during the night. (Anyone who has struggled with insomnia knows this all too well.) But when the dawn comes, he says, our struggles are illuminated and we can recognize things for what they are.

A blessing for all of us: during these last days of parashat Vayishlach, may we be gifted with light which illuminates our troubles and our mistakes so that we can see them clearly and can emerge unafraid.

Shabbat shalom!

Ten-plus years of Velveteen Rabbi

Blogiversary1Whoops! I missed my tenth blogiversary.

It was sometime in October. I meant to make a post celebrating ten years of Velveteen Rabbi, and I just...forgot. Maybe that's appropriate, since I'm not sure what day I actually started. (This blog was briefly hosted at blogspot, and then I discovered that blogspot didn't have commenting capability built in -- and what's the point of a blog with no conversation? -- so I moved to TypePad, copied my first few posts to their new home, and have been here ever since.)

The simple fact that I've spent ten years writing regularly feels like a victory. I remember hearing, at the end of my MFA journey at Bennington, that many MFA grads are no longer writing by ten years after the completion of their programs. I'm proud to be able to say that fourteen years after I got my MFA, I'm still writing poetry regularly -- and still reviewing books regularly -- and still engaging in the writing life as a daily and weekly practice. This blog has surely been a big part of that.

Many of the blogs I remember reading when I first got started have gone dark or defunct, succumbed to linkrot, or disappeared entirely. Beth Adams' The Cassandra Pages is a notable exception. So is Dave Bonta's Via Negativa. Dale Favier's mole was around back then, and is still vibrant. Lorianne DiSabato's Hoarded Ordinaries is still going strong. I know that Rabbi Josh Yuter of YUtopia celebrated his tenth blogiversary a while back, as well. (And, of course, my husband Ethan Zuckerman's My Heart's In Accra is still wonderful. Come to think of it, I should thank him for suggesting that I start a blog all those years ago. Thanks, sweetie.) It's a perennial delight to me that I've made so many enduring friends through this medium of curated self-revelation and correspondence, and that those friendships persist both online and offline.

When I started this blog, I yearned to "run and play with the real rabbis" -- hence the blog's name and original tagline. (Which, as I noted in my very first post, was borrowed with permission from cartoonist Jennifer Berman and her wonderful "Velveteen Rabbi" cartoon.) Over the years of this blog's existence, I applied to rabbinic school -- was accepted -- began my formal studies -- posted endlessly about the things I was learning, liturgy and Hasidut and Jewish history and on and on -- and after nearly six years of hard work, made it to ordination. Many of you accompanied me on that journey.

When I set off to spend my summer in Israel, I blogged about it here, and I posted frequently about my adventures both challenging and sweet. That was 2008, the same year that TIME named VR as one of the top 25 sites on the internet. I also blogged here when I had my strokes. And when I put forth my chapbook of miscarriage poems. And when our son was born. I posted a few years' worth of weekly Torah poems here, which later coalesced into my first book, 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia 2011.) I posted a full year of weekly mother poems here, which later coalesced into my second book, Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia 2013.)

I didn't use categories to sort my posts when I started out (instead I used Technorati tags -- remember those?), but I started to do so pretty soon. My tag cloud tells me that the things I post about most frequently are Torah and poetry; community, prayer, and the daily round are the next on the list. That sounds about right. I've made 2,452 posts (so far) and hosted 10,880 comments. (Not bad.)

I've heard a lot of people say that the golden era of blogs has passed, giving way to Twitter and Facebook and instagram and other forms of bite-sized, mobile-phone-accessible communication. People don't have the patience to read long-form blog posts anymore, nor to enter into sustained conversations in the comments sections. Today's internet isn't interested in the substantive or nuanced -- at least, that's how the conventional wisdom goes. That may be true, by and large. But some of us are still writing, and still reading, and still conversing. Maybe long-form blogs are like poetry: not everyone's cup of tea, requiring as they do a fair amount of focus and attention, but endlessly rewarding for those who choose to take part.

Thanks, everyone, for being a part of Velveteen Rabbi for the last ten years and a bit. Here's to many more.


Perhaps also relevant: my list of Favorite Posts.

Image source: this post, which attributes the image to "anonymous."

Answers to good questions

I posted last week about being interviewed by the readers of Rachel Held Evans' prominent Christian blog. As is her custom, Rachel posted a short bio and then opened the floor for her readers to ask questions. Out of the questions they asked, Rachel chose eight for me to answer, and they're terrific (and substantive) questions:

Are there any common assumptions that Christians tend to make about Jews that bug you?

Who do you feel you have more in common with religiously - Christians who take a progressive/liberal theological approach to their faith similar to the way you approach Judaism, or Jews (conservative or Orthodox) who take a significantly more literal/conservative approach to the Jewish faith than you do?

How do reformed Jewish clergy address the questions raised by the historicity of scripture? For example, the Exodus clearly plays a significant role in the scripture, yet no historical evidence exists that it actually happened.

I'm interested in reading about the Bible from a Jewish perspective but don't know where to start. I love the idea of Midrash, but the literature seems so vast and I feel overwhelmed. What would you recommend for a Christian who wants to try reading some Midrash?

How do you interpret the passages where God seems to command things that are immoral? As God-inspired for a point in time? Or purely human writing? (i.e. Kill unruly children, Deut 21:18-21; Kill people who work on the sabbath, Ex 35.)

Hi! I was wondering your thoughts on the eschatological views on Israel and the Middle East held by many Christian Evangelicals/ How do they compare with your own views about the end times, and how it relates to present-day Israel/Palestine?

I'd love to hear more about Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. What did you learn about interfaith dialog from that experience? What strategies for productive conversation around religious differences proved most effective from your perspective?

As a clergywoman in a Christian denomination, I wonder what your journey was like – were you always accepted because you were in Reform congregations, or were there still struggles over gender issues?

You can see my answers here: Ask a (liberal) rabbi...Response. Go and read, and feel free to comment here to let me know what you think (and/or to comment over there, or ping Rachel Evans on twitter, to let Rachel Evans know what you think!) I'm grateful to have been invited and I hope my answers shed some light. Thanks, (other) Rachel!

On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today

This post focuses on an act of Biblical rape, and on silencing and rape in our own world.
If that is likely to be triggering for you, please feel free to skip it.


That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:23, in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach)

Looking-out-of-the-red-tent-renee-kahnI'll say more about Jacob's encounters on the banks of the Jabbok in my d'var Torah this coming Shabbat. (If you don't live locally and can't make it to services, never fear, I'll post it here on Sunday.) Today I'm focusing on a different aspect of the parsha. Note that Torah refers here to his eleven children, but we know that Jacob had twelve children at this point -- eleven boys, plus Dinah. Why, then, does Torah say eleven? Rashi explains, quoting Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) that Jacob hid Dinah in a box so that Esau would not see her and seek to marry her. Jacob was so afraid of his twin brother's animal appetites that he concealed Dinah in a coffin to keep her safe.

That may seem ironic when we reach the very next story: Dinah's encounter with a local man named Shechem, which some translations call seduction, though most translations name as rape. Afterwards, Torah tells us, Shechem falls in love with her, speaks tenderly to her, and sends his father Hamor to procure her as a wife. Later in Exodus 22:15 we will read that "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to anyone and has sex with her, he must pay the customary bride price and marry her" -- perhaps a troubling practice, to our modern sensibilities, but apparently an accepted one in the ancient Near East. And that's exactly what Shechem does.

But Dinah's brothers, outraged by this act of violence against their sister, devise a plan. (Some have argued that they were more outraged by Shechem's non-Israelite status and by their sister's act of premarital intercourse than by the suggested marriage -- see Dinah: Bible at the Jewish Women's Archive.) They explain that they couldn't marry off their sister to a man who isn't circumcised. They say to Hamor that if every man in the village will agree to be circumcised, then they will let their sister marry into this community. Then, when every man in the village is incapacitated and healing from this elective surgery, the brothers slaughter all of them. They kill every male in the village, and take their wives and children as captives. They take all of the wealth and livestock which belonged to that village.

Throughout this narrative, Dinah never speaks once. Her voice is entirely absent from the black fire of our text.

Continue reading "On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today" »

First come the questions...

Christian writer (author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and blogger Rachel Held Evans does a lot of interesting things with her blog. Last year, for instance, she ran a series of posts exploring the Biblical figure of Esther through a variety of lenses, and she asked me to contribute an essay, which I did: Esther, Actually: A Jewish Perspective. It was a neat chance to share Jewish interpretations of Esther with a wide group of Christian readers.

Another of her projects is the Ask A... series, in which she invites people with different perspectives (a universalist, a mixed-faith couple, a stay-at-home dad, a transgender Christian) to be guests on her blog and to take questions from her readers. Her (many) readers post questions, and give thumbs-up to the questions they like best; out of the questions she receives, she chooses 6 or 7 to send on to the person being interviewed, and that person gets to answer the questions on her blog.

She graciously asked me to return to her blog as part of the "Ask A..." series, and I said sure, why not. Here's the question post: Ask a (liberal) rabbi. I'm curious to see what sorts of questions I get, and I hope and pray that I can answer them wisely and well, in a manner which gives honor to my teachers and those who have helped me learn along the way! Stay tuned -- I'll post about this again once I've answered the questions...

God is in this place: short thoughts on Vayetzei

Jacob-s-ladder-1973At the start of this week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, Jacob camps for the night and rests his head on a stone. He dreams of a ladder planted in the earth stretching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending constantly.

I like to read the angels as a metaphor for how our attention and intention and prayer flow upward to God, and God's attention and love and blessing flow back to us. After this summer's quantum physics and kabbalah class, I can also read this passage as a metaphor for electrons ascending into an excited state and then falling back down again.

When he wakes, Jacob exclaims, "Truly, God is in this place, and I -- I did not know it!"

How often do we have the experience of being startled out of our complacency into a sudden visceral realization that this moment, right-here-right-now, is holy? Maybe when you see a spectacular sunrise -- or witness a mighty waterfall -- or stand beneath a chuppah with your beloved to exchange vows -- or give birth to a child. And those are indeed moments when we may find ourselves especially open to connection with the Holy One of Blessing.

But it's also possible to experience God's presence in mundane moments. When you wake from a dream, eyes still gritty with sleep. When you're standing in line at the grocery checkout counter. When your child is throwing a tantrum because you didn't let them go outside in the cold without a coat on. Truly, God is in this place, and I... I tend to forget. I know that I tend to forget.

But we can always choose to remember. How would your day be different if you printed this reminder and stuck it to your computer, if you affixed it to your fridge with a magnet, if you found some way to keep reminding yourself: God is in this place. And this place. And this place. Even in our sorrows and anxiety, God is there, if we can only remind ourselves to take notice.


Art: Marc Chagall, Jacob's Ladder, 1973. Also worth reading -- and on the theme of finding holiness even in the mundane details of parenthood (tantrums and all) -- is R' Phyllis Sommer / ImaBima's post TorahMama: Vayetze.


Previous years' divrei Torah for Parashat Vayetzei:

Tales of rabbis in love


Back when I first took 70 faces on the road, I met a woman named Marilyn, in Montreal. She wanted to interview me and my spouse together for a forthcoming book on rabbinic marriages. The interview never took place, for a variety of reasons (mostly our lack of availability!) but the book is now out. It's called Rabbis In Love (LoveWise Publishing, 2013) and it was created by Marilyn Bronstein and Philip Belove. Here's part of how they describe the collection:

Rabbis aren’t monks. They fall in love, they marry, they have families. It’s expected. Jewish spirituality is rooted in daily family life; the joy, the passion, the tears, “the whole enchilada”, or as Jews would say, the whole megilla.

In the introduction, the editors tell the famed Talmudic story about the man who hides under his rabbi's bed in order to learn not only the Torah the rabbi is teaching in the classroom, but also the Torah he is teaching in the mundane acts of his ordinary life -- as the saying goes, "how he ties his shoes."

Of course, the student under the bed gets an earfull of precisely what you'd imagine, and at a certain point the student exclaims in surprise. The rabbi, startled, asks, "What on earth are you doing under the bed?" And the student replies, "This too is Torah I need to learn." It's an apt beginning for a book which features interviews about precisely this kind of Torah: the Torah of intimate relationships.

These are interviews, printed in two voices -- well, really, four: the voices of the editors, and the dual voices of the couples. And the interviews are interspersed with short reflections from the editors about what they felt they'd learned from each interview.

I gravitated toward the chapters featuring rabbis whom I already knew -- Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rachmiel O'Regan, whose music and drumming I have long enjoyed; Rabbi Nadya Gross and Rabbi Victor Gross, two of my beloved rabbinic school teachers (I chuckled at Reb Nadya's story about telling her mother "this is the man I'm going to marry" -- family legend has it that my mother did the same thing after meeting my dad when they were teenagers at summer camp), Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan and Charles Kaplan. I enjoyed encountering familiar voices on the printed page, and gaining some new insights into the lives of my teachers and friends.

The editors describe this as a book for anyone who's interested in love relationships and what we can learn from them. I think that's probably true, though I suspect it might be somewhat inaccessible at times for non-Jewish readers. I also suspect that it might challenge non-religious readers; unsurprisingly, these are couples with a high level of religious observance! But for those who are interested in the details of romance and marriage and what makes relationships work, especially when religion is a potent ingredient in the mix, this book might be your cup of tea. Kol hakavod to the book's creators for bringing their vision to life!

Interview at A Little Yes

I'm not sure when I started reading Heather Caliri of A Little Yes, though I think it was around the time that she moved with her kids to Argentina for six months. I've enjoyed vicariously sharing her adventures and looking through her window on the world -- and I'm frequently moved by her (Christian) perspectives on the intersections of faith and parenthood. 

So I was delighted when she asked to interview me. Here's a glimpse of our conversation:

You’re a poet, and often write liturgical poems; what parallels do you see between the practice of faith and the writing of poetry?

I would say that both require me to get out of my own way. They both require a trust that if I pour out my heart, something good will come. And in both, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect on the first try.

One of the reasons I love that morning prayer I use is the verse, “Great is your faithfulness.” That somehow implies that God has faith in us. Which is wild—we would only think the opposite.

But thinking that God has faith in me as a person, a mother, a poet, there is something greater than me that has faith in my endeavors...

You can read the whole thing here: On the road to ordination: wildflowers, grief, and the joyous faithfulness of God. (By the by, these interviews are a long-running series on her blog; you can see some of her favorites linked from her Best Of page.)

Thank you, Heather, for a thoughtful and sweet conversation and for this lovely interview post.

A poem sparked by parashat Toldot

A new Torah poem of mine has been published at Palestinian Talmud. It arises out of the Torah portion we just completed, parashat Toldot, and it's called "Looking for Water." Here's how it starts:



Isaac dug his father’s wells anew.
This doesn’t mean he just treaded old ground.

Avraham had plumbed the earth’s deep wisdom.
Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.

Isaac opened up his father’s pipes
so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.

In all who drank, a memory arose:
water, shared in the desert, saves a life...


Read the whole thing there: Looking for Water: a [poetic] drash for parashat Toldot.

Why am I, and how can I integrate? - questions from Toldot

Here's the short d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning during the contemplative Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרשׁ אֶת־יְי: The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself: if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְי לָהּ
שְׁנֵי גֹייִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ
וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ
יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:

And God said to her:
two nations are inside you;
two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb.
One shall prevail over the other;
elder, serve younger.

If this is so, why do I exist? Or: If this is what's happening, why am I?

This is a fundamental question, and perhaps one which those with a contemplative bent know well. Why am I? Why am I me, and not someone else? Why is this life mine?

The word Rivka uses for "I" is anochi. Usually in Hebrew one uses the simple ani, I. But Rivka uses a kind of royal I, the same word used by God.

Rivka takes this question directly to that Anochi, to God, to Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. That four-letter name can be understood as a form of the verb "to be" in all tenses at once: Was-Is-WillBe. Rivka takes her existential question to the Mystery at the heart of all things.

And that Mystery replies: there is a duality inside you. A pulling this way, and a pulling that way.

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