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December 2013
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Following the breath as it comes and goes

Oie_deep_breathThere's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.

In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."

Every morning we pray  אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.

What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.

When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.

After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.

I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.

This moment is incomparably precious.


Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.


Finding meaning

BIG-DIPPERAt OHALAH, I learn about The December Project, a collaboration between author Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman in which they speak honestly and candidly about aging, death and dying, and the afterlife. I promptly pre-order a copy.

Upon my return home, a woman seeks me out with burning questions about Jewish beliefs around death and dying, burial practices, the afterlife. We have a long conversation in my office and agree to meet again.

Within days of that meeting, a man seeks me out to talk about illness, end-of-life issues, creating programs to help adult children speak (and listen) clearly to the wishes of their aging parents. We, too, agree to meet again.

The human mind seeks to make meaning. Give us a handful of stars in the night sky, and our brains sketch them into the shape of a constellation. Give me three disconnected encounters with questions of aging, dying, and what comes after, and my mind wants to turn them into a pattern.

Does it "mean something" that this theme keeps cropping up in my January?

Maybe this is just a reminder that this is a need which people have, these are conversations which people both fear and crave. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that I learned about a new resource to share, just before I met someone with whom I wanted to share it. These are disconnected events; they have nothing to do with each other.

And maybe the people who brought these questions into my life this month are messengers whose presence is meant to awaken and attune me to these questions. That's what angels are, in the early parts of Torah: messengers sent by God. They look like ordinary people, but they bring awareness of something that someone needs to know or learn.

Both of those can be true at the same time. Anyone I meet can be a messenger if I'm open to finding a deeper message in our encounter. What looks like happenstance to you might look like a holy encounter to me (or: what I experience as happenstance on one day might feel to me like a holy encounter on another day.) Neither of those interpretations has to trump the other.

The stars of the Big Dipper take on a shape because we see the shape in them. So do moments in a life. Connections and coincidences flare brightly because we notice them and draw lines to connect them.

What meaning will I make from the shape which is coalescing here?



Two prayers for b'nei mitzvah

Siddur_photo_cover-150x150Maybe because I'm anticipating (and preparing for) a family celebration of bar mitzvah this spring, I've been on the look-out for poems and prayers for that lifecycle moment. At the OHALAH conference, I picked up a display copy of a new siddur which one of my colleagues had brought to show off.  The siddur was Siddur Sha'ar Zahav, a new prayerbook created by Sha'ar Zahav, an LGBTQ Jewish community in San Francisco. And I happened to open it to a page which contained two poems / prayers for b'nei mitzvah, exactly the kind of thing I'd been looking for.

I liked the readings so much that I got online and ordered myself a copy of the siddur right then and there. And here they are:

To A Bar / Bat Mitzvah

I want to tell you a secret, kid.
Although we say today you are an adult,
because the calendar page has turned,
because your age now has two digits,
because you have studied and prayed
and read and written and worried and hoped
to prepare for this, your big day,
your childhood will continue forever in you,
its questions, fears, wonders, dreams, magic.
Though you take on the stature of adulthood,
its responsibilities, powers, doubts, alleged wisdom,
you will always be a child deep inside,
wandering, seeking, finding, losing, finding, loving.

- Rita Losch


Remembering the Bar / Bat Mitzvah Problem

Today I am a man.
Today I am a woman.
Today I am mortified.
Bad enough to be growing into this body, but a public celebration of the fact?
Maybe all b'nei mitzvah struggle with identity, rules, clothes, traditions, expectations.
But can anyone see who I am, hidden by make-up, or by a crew cut and tie?

Years and years later, I can say:
Today I am who I am.
Surely Adonai understands that.

- Ray Bernstein

I suspect that the second reading would speak more to the adults in attendance (who remember the slings and arrows of adolescence, as it were) than to the b'nei mitzvah kid. But it really moves me. And I can imagine parents, or an adult in the family, reading the first one aloud as part of the service, or as part of a toast at the kiddush afterwards, or something along those lines.

If (like me) you collect siddurim, this one is really worth owning. It's a beautiful object, a beautiful book, satisfying to hold. It's well-designed and very readable. It treads a nice balance between traditional and innovative. And in addition to fine renderings of all of the prayers one would expect from any good siddur, it also contains prayers and liturgies which aren't in the average Jewish prayerbook -- blessings for discovering one's sexual orientation, prayers for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and so on. The book isn't cheap, but it's well worth the price. I know I'll be turning and returning to it often.

New essay about motherhood and spiritual life in the Huffington Post

HeadlineEveryone says that motherhood changes you. That you see things differently once you become a mom. You relate to your own parents differently. You understand things differently. That made sense to me; I expected motherhood to change my outlook. But I didn't expect it to change my brain chemistry -- or my sense of God.

That's the beginning of a new essay (interwoven with bits of poetry from Waiting to Unfold) which appeared this week in the Huffington Post. (It wound up in the Religion section; I wasn't sure whether it belonged in Religion or in Parents! Story of my current life, really.)

Here's another glimpse, from later in the piece:

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote that "Making the decision to have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Not only because I wish I could protect my own child from sorrow and pain, but because I wish I could protect everyone's children. And I can't.

For a congregational rabbi, this sharp and impossible yearning seems at first blush not necessarily helpful. This doesn't help me hold it together when I'm preparing for a funeral -- or when I'm getting ready for Hebrew school. But in my first year of rabbinic school, when I learned hospital chaplaincy for nine months, one of my older colleagues told me that becoming a parent someday would be the greatest theological education I would ever know. I think this yearning is part of what he was talking about...

I hope you'll click through the read the whole thing: How Motherhood Gives Me A Glimpse of the Tender Heart of God.

Phoebe North's Starglass

StarglasscoverI posted last week about Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, which I had the opportunity to finish on my way home from the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy.

The other book I read on my way home was Phoebe North's YA novel Starglass. It's about a girl named Terra growing up on a spaceship which has been traveling for 500 years toward a new home, a planet the would-be colonists call Zehava, a name which means something like "Golden." (If that puts you in mind of historical Jewish yearning for Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem, city of gold, you're not far off the mark.)

The premise -- ship full of travelers who departed Earth in crisis and are seeking a new home -- is one I've seen before, and probably you have too. (I think especially of Molly Gloss's gorgeous The Dazzle of Day, one of my favorite examples of that trope.) Part of what makes Starglass unique is how Judaism is woven into the fabric of shipboard life. Well: a kind of Judaism. A Judaism which has evolved in complicated ways over the 500+ years since the asteroid wiped out life on Earth and these colonists set out on their long journey.

The worldbuilding is terrific. (There's a whole page on the author's website dedicated to explaining the world, the ship's architecture, and so on -- but you don't need to read any of that before you dive into the novel; it's just fun stuff to explore once the pleasure of the novel is over.) North trusts us to follow her narration and to understand Terra's world by watching her grow up in it. North doesn't overexplain, and as a result, I as a reader got all kinds of happy little glimmers of recognition as I figured things out.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this isn't just an ordinary coming-of-age story -- not even an ordinary coming-of-age story in space. This is a book about history, totalitarianism, politics, liberty, the importance of fighting for what you believe in. And, of course, also about choice and romance and growing up and parenthood and childhood and all of that good jazz.

For me, the glimpses of how Judaism has been both preserved and mutated are the most fascinating part. The passengers' lingo is peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew words, most of which retain the meanings I know -- but some have shifted. For instance: bar mitzvah, in this book, refers to the coming-of-age ceremony whereby a shipboard boy gets his vasectomy so that accidental pregnancies won't disrupt the delicate ecosystem of shipboard life. (Babies are grown in uterine replicators anyway.) All kinds of substantive Jewish ideas and concepts have been subtly refigured here: mitzvah, tikkun olam... It's both beautiful and chilling to see how Jewish language and practice has shifted in this fictional universe.

There's an excerpt online at -- take a peek and see if this book might be your cup of tea, as it was mine. My only real quibble was where it ended; I felt as though we were on the cusp of a whole new adventure, and while it was a reasonable ending-point for the novel, I still wanted more. Then I found out there's a second book coming out next summer, Starbreak. Now I can't wait for July when I get to find out what happens to Terra next.

How Shabbat is like a snowstorm

DrivewayThis morning I met again with my usual cohort of Jewish clergy who study sacred texts together each week in the coffee shop. This week, one of our conversations about Heschel's Heavenly Torah went in a direction I didn't expect. We were talking about a passage which contrasts two different ways of approaching Shabbat. In one paradigm (which Heschel links with Rabbi Akiva's school), Shabbat is envisioned as the bride of Israel, our holy mate with whom we experience a supernal connection. In the other (which Heschel connects to Rabbi Ishmael and his disciples), Shabbat is compared to a wolf who causes disturbance both before and after his arrival. The Akivan image of Shabbat as our bride was familiar to all of us, but when it came to the Ishmaelian simile, we kind of scratched our heads: Shabbat, a wolf? What an odd comparison!

And then my friend and colleague Rabbi David Weiner shifted the metaphor in a way that made it clear. Shabbat, he said, is like a winter storm.

Before a storm, we scurry around procuring things we'll need -- batteries, flashlights, water, food, what-have-you. We're consumed with anticipation. We batten down the hatches and get ready. And then the storm arrives, and suddenly there's nothing we can do. We stay home. We relax. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids. Maybe we read books. Maybe we sit by the fire. Maybe we make time to daven or learn some Torah. All of our usual making and doing and planning is suspended during the time-out-of-time which is the duration of the storm. And then the storm ends, and afterwards we scurry around again, shoveling our walkways, digging out our cars, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

ShabbatJust so, Shabbat. Before Shabbat, we scurry around getting everything ready: the challah, the candles, the juice or wine, the festive meal. All of the weekday and workday to-do items have to be completed before sundown on Friday, because once the sun goes down, we enter into holy time. We stop making and doing and focus instead on just be-ing. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids, read books, sit by the fire. Ideally, of course, we daven and learn some Torah -- in community, if circumstances permit. Shabbat, like the snowstorm, gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and to just be for a while. And then Shabbat ends and we scurry around again, thinking about work again, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

Both a snowstorm and Shabbat offer a break from ordinary workday realities. A time to cease the mechanisms of production and to relax, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing we're supposed to be doing, so we can just be for a change. Of course, snowstorms come and go according to weather patterns most of us don't understand; Shabbat comes every seventh day without fail, if we are awake and alert enough to notice and experience her visit. (Also snowstorms can be dangerous, which is where the comparison breaks down a bit -- I can't really think of any way that Shabbat might pose a danger to anyone.)

It was hard for me to understand Shabbat being like the wolf who causes a stir both before and after his arrival, but Shabbat being like the winter snowstorm which forces us to slow down, stop working, enjoy family time -- that's a metaphor which immediately resonates for me.

For all who are experiencing major winter weather this week, may your snowbound time be safe and comfortable and as restorative as a midweek dip into Shabbat. And for all of us, no matter where we are, may the coming Shabbat bring us the relaxation, surrender, and whimsy which at our best we're capable of finding when the world around us slows down because of snow.

Thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for reprinting this post at the Reform Judaism blog!

How to love while acknowledging flaws

Torah+scrollsI've been thinking lately about how to love something while acknowledging its flaws. A few years ago I read a thought-provoking speech by Wendy Doniger which touches on this. Here's an excerpt. (She's talking here about hermeneutics, which means "a way of reading" or "a way of interpreting.")

We need to balance what literary critics call a hermeneutics of suspicion -- a method of reading that ferrets out submerged agendas -- with a hermeneutics of retrieval or even of reconciliation (to borrow a term from the literature on the aftermath of genocidal wars in Africa and elsewhere). And this must include some sort of reconciliation to our own shameful American agendas, our own relationship with slavery and with the destruction of the native Americans, not to mention our present imperialism. And then we can begin to read our own classics differently, with what the philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur called a second naiveté: where, in our first naiveté, we did not notice the racism, and in our subsequent hypercritical reading we couldn’t see anything else, in our second naiveté we can see how good some writers are despite the inhumanity of their underlying worldviews. If their works really are great literature, they will survive this new reading.

-- Wendy Doniger, "Thinking More Critically About Thinking Too Critically"

I first read Doniger's address in a rabbinic school class called Moadim l'Simcha ("Seasons of Rejoicing"), a two-semester cycle of deep immersion in Hasidic texts. We aimed to explore and unpack some of the tradition's many teachings about the festival cycle. It was an amazing course, not least because the Hasidic texts themselves were amazing and rich and I return to them often.

And I also return often to this idea of Doniger's. It's a useful lens for reading Hasidic material, because that material is inevitably a product of the times and culture which produced it. In its presumptions about gender roles and about the inherent spiritual superiority of our own people, that literature can be problematic to a modern, cosmopolitan, feminist sensibility. What do we do with that, we who strive to be modern, cosmopolitan, feminist and who also yearn for the spiritual sustenance which those texts often contain?

That's where Doniger's idea of a hermeneutics -- which is to say, a mode of interpretation, or a way of reading -- of reconciliation comes in. We do ourselves no favors, and we do our tradition a disservice, when we blind ourselves to what's problematic. But we also do ourselves and our tradition a disservice when we take only the step of recognizing what's problematic, and fail to take the next step of balancing and reconciling what's problematic with what's beautiful, meaningful, and useful in the text at hand.

Maybe I'm revealing myself here as the Hegelian thinker my undergraduate education taught me to be. I'm always less interested in thesis and antithesis than in synthesis, the third step which bridges and transcends the binary. This thing is beautiful -- no, it's problematic -- no, it's both at once, and having acknowledged that, now I can interact with it in a different way. Indeed, maybe it's interesting and rich and thought-provoking precisely because it is both beautiful and problematic. Maybe I can learn something about it, and about myself, through engaging both with its beauty and with its problematic aspects.

Continue reading "How to love while acknowledging flaws" »

Dr. King, z"l (may his memory be a blessing)

I want to say something to honor Martin Luther King Day, but I don't know that I have words meaningful enough for the occasion. And as a white woman, I don't want to co-opt the memory of a great African American leader.

But one of my rabbinic and civil rights heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was a friend and admirer of Dr. King's. So I'll share a brief quotation from him, speaking after Dr. King's assassination. He said:

Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us...his mission is sacred...I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.

(I found that in the essay Two Prophets, One Soul, written by Rabbi Harold Schulweis in honor of Rabbi Heschel's yarzheit.)

We have a long way to go before we reach the America of Dr. King's yearnings. But -- as the sages in Pirkei Avot remind us -- though it's not incumbent on us to finish the task, neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.

I'll leave you with a two-minute excerpt from the film Praying With My Legs, which speaks to how these two great men informed and inspired one another. May we, their descendants, do the same.

May the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King be a blessing.


May I kvell? This is so neat.

Writer and filmmaker Othniel Smith has created a videopoem based on one of my poems -- combining public domain footage, Peg Duthie's audio recording, and my words ("Ethics of the Mothers," which appears in April Daily.) I put the poem in The Poetry Storehouse, but I hadn't actually expected anyone to do anything with it. But Peg and Othniel did!


Thank you, Peg and Othniel!

Tu BiShvat and self-care: a mini-d'var-Torah for Yitro

Here's the very tiny d'var Torah I offered during Shabbat morning services at my shul yesterday. (I kept it brief because I wanted plenty of spacious time for our Tu BiShvat seder after services!) (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

In today's parsha, Yitro, Moses receives some of the best self-care advice in the Torah: you can't do it all yourself. You will wear yourself out, and then you won't be able to help those whom you serve.

We've all been where Moses was: overworked and stretched too thin.

Self-care matters. If we don't nourish ourselves, then we can't do the work we're here to do in the world. Whether you think of that work as "caring for your family and community," or "saving the planet," or "serving God" -- we all have work we're meant to do in this life, and if we don't take care of ourselves, we can't do that work.

Today at CBI we're celebrating Tu BiShvat, the day when -- our tradition teaches -- the sap rises in the trees for the year to come, nourishing the trees so that in the future they can bear fruit.

We too need to be nourished so that we can bear fruit as the year unfolds. As the trees need rain and snowmelt, we need the living waters of Torah to enliven our souls.

As the trees need fertile soil and good nutrients, so we need to feel ourselves to be firmly planted -- and to get all of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nutrients we need in order to grow and to flower.

What nourishment do you most need on this Shabbat?

What would feed you in all four worlds -- your body, your heart, your mind, your soul?

What do you need to soak up in order to be able to bring forth the wonders, the ideas, the teachings, the kindnesses, the mitzvot which only you can do?

And how can you take care of yourself, as Yitro instructed Moshe, so that you will be able to open your heart and receive what you need?


Tu BiShvat in images

Asiyah Yetzi

Fruits with peels / shells, representing assiyah / action; fruits with pits, representing yetzirah / emotion;

Bri Atzi

Fruits edible throughout, representing briyah / thought; etrogcello, representing atzilut / spirit.



After services and our (slightly belated) Tu BiShvat seder: the trees sleep beneath their light coat of Shvat snow.

Remembering Monday morning prayer

TefillinMy Monday morning at the OHALAH conference began with the most glorious and extraordinary service led by my dear friend Rabbi Chava Bahle. Her service interwove poetry, mikvah meditation, water, song and prayer in a way which created (for me) a deep sense of joy.

We sat in a downstairs room with the curtains pulled wide open. The overhead fluorescent lights weren't on, so as the sun rose, shafts of golden light iluminated the room.

Each us of received a bowl of water, a washcloth, a handout of prayers and poems, and a penny to place in the pushke on our way out so that we might end the service with tzedakah.

We began with a song and with a breathing meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh. The first breath: remembering that I am mortal. The second breath: remembering that those around me are mortal. The third breath: recognizing that our mortality makes this moment incomparably precious.

We learned some Torah together. We engaged in a priestly handwashing meditation. We breathed together, sat in silence together, listened together to Reb Chava reading poems. (Some of the poems came from a book called Go In and In, which I have now ordered for myself, because I want to use some of those poems in my services too!)

Sometimes she asked for volunteers in the room to read quotes from the handout -- quotes from Pirkei Avot, Sfat Emet, various kabbalistic sources. When more than one person spoke up at once, she asked them to read together, in harmony, as one voice.

For me the highlight was the meditative mikveh practice in which Reb Chava led us through dipping our cloths into the water and gently washing different parts of our face and head, in silence, as she offered intentions such as:

I am cleansing my forehead, and all that it represents, so that I may be free from critical and judgemental thoughts, whether they are thoughts about myself or about others, and so that I can direct my thoughts to holiness on this day.

I am cleansing my ears so that I will be able to hear the deeper truths of all that I encounter.

I am cleansing my eyes so that I will be able to see things as they are, to develop deep compassion for life...

Bowl(That meditation is adapted from David A. Cooper's The Handbook of Jewish Meditation Practices: A Guide for Entering the Sabbath and Other Days of Your Life and from Rabbi Joseph Gelberman.)

When we reached the donning-tallit stage of the service, we read aloud a beautiful tallit meditation adapted from Yitzchak Buxbaum, which I loved and want to try to integrate into what I teach b'nei mitzvah kids. It begins:

A tallit represents the world.
Its four corners are the outer reaches of the known,
its fringes an invitation to the unknown.
Continue to tie me to the generations before me who wore tzitzit...

When we sang the shema, after a sweet timeless time of meditation and prayer, our voices rose together in multipart harmony and I felt as though we were all droplets in the same flowing stream of water, unified.

I told Reb Chava at the end of the service that if this were the only thing I experienced that day, dayyenu, it would be enough. And I meant it.

It's a sweet thing to remember today, as I lead my own (much less elaborate) meditation minyan at my small shul, grateful to be home but also looking forward to the next time I get to see my beloved Renewal community again.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

GolemJinni-PB-199x300When I started this blog in 2003, it never occurred to me that I might wind up with a sideline in recommending religion-related speculative fiction. But here I am, having written about Saladin Ahmed's delightful Throne of the Crescent Moon last month, and G. Willow Wilson's delightful Alif the Unseen some time before that, and now I've got another recommendation  -- Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.

This book interweaves two mythologies into one entrancing novel. This is the story of Chava, a golem (think: creature made of earth, brought to life via mystical kabbalistic incantations, á la Rabbi Loew of medieval Prague) and Ahmed, a jinni (think: fire-spirit as mentioned in the Qur'an, the sort once enslaved by Suleyman a.k.a. Solomon) who meet in New York at the turn of the 20th century.

I've known the golem stories for as long as I can remember. I have a tiny clay golem figurine which I bought from a street vendor in Prague (my mother's birthplace) on my first trip there in 1993, and when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the mystical letter-combination practices of the Sefer Yetzirah and Abraham Abulafia, I spent some time dipping into golem stories just for fun. The jinni material was less known to me, but the book is so deftly-woven that my relatively shallow familiarity with that story didn't matter.

Wecker's depiction of 1899 New York is rich and detailed. Equally so are the depictions of Konin in the late 1800s, and the Bedouin encampment a millennium before. But I think what I like best about the book is the slow, cautious friendship which develops between the two supernatural beings. Both the golem and the jinni are lost in almost-20th-century New York, and as each of them struggles to process the peculiarities of this place and time, the reader experiences the unfamiliar landscape along with them. For both Chava and Ahmed, being exposed to ordinary human society would have disastrous repercussions.

Those similarities aside, they're about as different as two characters can be. One's from Jewish folklore and the other's from Arabic folklore. One's newly-made and the other is ancient as the sands. For that matter, one's (literally) an earth elemental and the other's quintessentially fire, with all of the personal characteristics which those terms imply: steadiness versus capriciousness, rootedness versus wanderlust, quiet contentment versus burning passion. Their relationship is by turns sweet and prickly, filled with misunderstandings -- but as they come to know each other, we get to listen in, and that's a real delight.

There's an excerpt on the author's website. Take a peek, see if this might be a good fit for you. I envy all of y'all who haven't yet read it, and will get to enjoy its twists and turns for the first time.


New essay in Zeek: on Tu BiShvat, parenthood, climate change

It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.

For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.

Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.

Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?

That's a taste of Tu BiShvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, & the Human Family Tree, my latest essay for Zeek magazine. I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing.

A poem for Tu BiShvat

6846527953_6638c0d567_nTaste and see

Psalm 34, verse 8: "Taste and see that God is good."

We make our way into the woods
at the edge of our land, trees webbed
with plastic tubing, clear
and pale green against the snow.

Down to the beaver dam, pond
punctuated with cattails,
galvanized tin bright
against grizzled trunks.

Dip a finger beneath the living spigot.
At every sugar shack across the hills
clouds of fragrant steam billow.
And after long boiling, this amber...

Where I grew up, the air is soft
already, begonias thinking
about blooming. Here, this
is what rises, hidden and sweet.

In honor of Tu BiShvat which begins tonight at sundown, here's a poem about the sap rising. It's a revision of a poem I shared here a few years ago.

Enjoy the full moon. Here's to the sap rising -- in our trees and in our hearts!

Here we are, God; send us

TentsIn the haftarah (prophetic) reading assigned to this week's Torah portion, Isaiah has a vision of God. In his vision, God asks, whom shall I send, who will go for us? And Isaiah says, "Hineni, here I am! Send me!"

This has been one of the themes of our time together at OHALAH. It's been mentioned several times -- during the smicha ceremony on Sunday, during Tuesday morning davening, all over the place.

One of the reasons why this is such a resonant theme for us, I think, is that we've all had the experience of saying hineni, here I am -- send me. Send me, God. Send me to share Torah. Send me to bring healing. Send me.

This is in some ways the language of Chabad, the lineage from which Reb Zalman originally came. Chabad speaks in terms of messengers, shlichim, whom they send into the world to spread their particular form of Jewishness.

I don't know that our task is to spread our particular form of Jewishness, per se. (Though I know that I always want to share the things I love best, I know that not everyone in the world wants or needs exactly those things. Besides, Renewal is more an attitude than a set way of doing things.)

But I think we share with our Chabad cousins the existential readiness to be deployed in the service of God, the service of our community, the service of the world. This is something we at this gathering have in common.

We're saying, God, I'm here -- I volunteer for whatever task You have in mind. We're saying, God, I'm here -- send me to care for the community, to tend the world, to build bridges, to heal what's broken.

And I love that. I love being among people who share my yearning to serve. People who share my yearning to connect with God, to connect with Judaism, to open up the riches of our tradition for those who thirst.

This year's OHALAH conference ends today around noon. We'll bid each other (a sometimes emotional) farewell and disperse back into the world until the Brigadoon of our togetherness magically opens up again. Until then -- here we are, God. Send us.


Image: some of the little tents which have been artfully placed around our gathering-spaces, representations of the tents of the 12 tribes of Israel which also suggest to me the big tent which is our organization's logo.

Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift

This morning brought another program I was really excited about -- a plenary panel called Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift, introduced and facilitated by my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel. Last year's session Halakha : Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way was a highlight of the conference for me. I knew this session would be, too.

Last year, we heard from several speakers who offered different Renewal takes on a single issue. This year, we heard from several speakers, each of whom touched on a different issue in contemporary Jewish life.  Each ALEPH-ordained rabbi is requited to write a teshuvah -- a rabbinic responsum to a real, living halakhic question -- in order to receive smicha. The sesson featured three of our colleagues presenting about their teshuvot, each of which was on a different subject.

Rabbi Ephraim Eisen spoke about his teshuvah on Burying Cremated Remains in a Jewish Cemetery; Rabbi Simcha Zevit spoke about her work on Choose Life / Do Not Prolong Death: A Question on Feeding Tubes; and Rabbi Jeremy Parnes offered a précis of his teshuvah Intermarriage Under a Chuppah? Renewing the Ger Toshav. (Ger toshav is the Biblical Hebrew term denoting a stranger or outsider who dwells among us.) Here are some notes and reflections from how the morning went.

DanielSiegelRGBRabbi Daniel Siegel begins, "Last year I said in my introduction to the first of these sessions that we needed to re-expand the halakhic table. Rabbi Ethan Tucker talks about this in Core Issues in Halakha -- how a decision was made by the Orthodox rabbinate in the late 1800s to withdraw from the larger Jewish community and take their share of governmental money and form their own Orthodox chevre, and that was as though they took the leaves out of the table and took the extra seats away and put them by the wall, and they said, we'll just do halakha to people who are already committed to our way of living."

Last year I said that we need to put the leaves back into the table, pull up the chairs, and sit down to join the conversation. One of my favorite examples of that was that one of the first teshuvot that was written here was by R' Eyal Levinson -- a halakhic piece which legitimizes same-sex marriages [pdf]. He told me it couldn't be done, and I said if it couldn't be done then halakha is useless because it doesn't speak to the issues of our time. So he took it on. And now it's inside the conversation.

People often ask: why bother with the halakhic conversation? Why not just say, this is right so this is what we're going to do?

By way of beginning his response, he talks about the body of teshuvah literature, the records of all of the questions that congregational rabbis asked their rabbis. And he notes that when we read such a document, we understand that the rabbi who writes a given teshuvah is not saying that his answer is exhaustive. Sometimes the answer is, "This [thing X] is absolutely something which we should be doing, and, every community is going to have to make their own decision."

It doesn't matter what the answer is. The question "what's the halakha on" is almost tangential to the real process, which is to say: how do we evaluate the relationship between the principles and precedents of the past in relation to this specific moment? The most important thing is to be aware of the situation and to do the best we can, and participate in the conversation.

The halakhic conversation is about this underlying question, which is always the generic question underneath: how do I respond to this moment, or how do I perform this action, in such a way that it is connected to the revelation of our purpose at Sinai and contributes to the process of our redemption in the future?

He asks, "What do I have to do, as a Jew, to mark myself so that I stay connected, so that I can be a beacon to people to move them forward?"

He quotes Rabbi Hannah Dresner: "We are lovers, and our pillow talk, the language of our love, is our exchange of Torah. God speaks the written word to us, and we return the flow of God's love by listening and answering empathically as any lover would. We offer pilpul, extrapolations of Jewish law, as we struggle to discern build in our response on what our lover has shared." And then he continues:

We have to do for halakha what Rabbi Akiva did for halakha many years ago. He said, in order for halakha to be relevant we have to have a new way of pulling meaning out of the Torah so that every letter can be used to hang halakhot on. That was a paradigm shift moment. There had to be another way. And now, as Reb Zalman has suggested to us, we need this new concept, integral halakha, to expand the halakhic conversation, so that we can be both backwards-compatible and forward-looking at the same time.

He explains that asks each student to construct a question, most often out of something in their own lives, which is: how do I respond to this particular situation in this particular moment in a way that connects me to both ends of the continuum that I see myself on. Today we'll hear from three rabbis on their teshuvot. Others are forthcoming, in written and edited form -- stay tuned. Meanwhile, we move on to hearing from our three panelists for today.

Continue reading "Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift" »

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community

Photo-Sid-SchwarzThis morning I attend a keynote address by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whom I have known since that PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat I was blessed to attend all those years ago. He's now involved with Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership, the parent organization of Rabbis Without Borders), and has most recently published Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, which makes him a perfect fit for an OHALAH conference themed around He'Atid, the future of Jewish Renewal. His talk is entitled "Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community."

In a recent presentation to CLI, R' Sid offered a metaphor of broadcast and receiving -- that rabbis need to be able to both broadcast and receive. He suggests to us this morning that we might understand Torah as 70 wavelengths on which we might receive truth. Most of us can only broadcast on a few wavelengths and can receive on fewer than that, and that's something we need to work on.

He reminisces briefly about how he wasn't able to hear Reb Zalman's Torah back in his early rabbinic school days, and indeed regarded it as "strange fire" within the Reconstructionist rabbinical college... and because God has a sense of humor, here he is today, in full awareness of the debt he owes to Reb Zalman and to this neo-Hasidic / Jewish Renewal world. He talks about the shift which unfolded in the 20th century -- thanks to R' Mordechai Kaplan, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel, our own Reb Zalman -- between the vertical metaphor of God (God's up there, we're down here) and a horizontal metaphor of God (we and God are interrelating in an I/Thou fashion.)

I came to understand that what I'd seen as dichotomies in the Jewish world were in fact overlapping truths. We all need to work on our antennas so we can access one more wavelength than before so that we can acknowledge that truth has many faces, as does Torah, at least 70 faces.

He uses his work as a historian to try to help him understand not only the past but also the future. He acknowledges that we read in Talmud (Bava Batra) that from the time of the destruction of the Temple of old, prophecy exists only in the hands of children and fools. But notwithstanding that sugya, we have to try to take the risk of understanding not only the past but how we're going to address the future.

In his newest book Jewish Megatrends he talks about the moment we're at today in American Jewish history: a simultaneous decline of legacy Jewish institutions (synagogues, Federations, JCCs, membership organizations -- the "organized Jewish community") and also a golden age. If you look at the legacy Jewish institutions, the current situation looks like a decline; but if you look at the innovation sector of Jewish life, you see amazing pockets of renaissance.

He files these renaissance happenings under the headings of four pillars. The first is chochmah, wisdom. In 50 years, he suggests, the world will be amazed that religious communities ever though of themselves as independent silos, rather than interconnected. Reb Zalman was way ahead of the curve on this! We all need to understand the overlap between our wisdom traditions and every other. The second pillar is tzedek, justice. And the third and fourth pillars are kehillah (intentional spiritual communities) and kedushah (helping Jews live lives of spiritual purpose.)

He asks: what is the nature of the kehillah we need to create? And what kind of spiritual leadership is required to lead such kehillot?

Continue reading "Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community" »

The Sunday leading up to OHALAH

Us-in-prayer-last-yearI always forget how glorious it is to daven with this community. A room full of people, all of us already connected with the liturgy, connected with God, connected with each other. The way weekday nusach interweaves with new melodies and we all just roll with it. Beloved friends' voices all around me, reverberating through me. It is like that first long glass of water after the hot Tisha b'Av fast. I knew I was thirsty, but I didn't remember how good it would feel to have that thirst quenched.

A friend tells me that at the beginning of the Shabbaton which preceded the conference, Reb Zalman spoke about the atomic clock in Boulder with which other clocks are calibrated. Coming together here in this way each year, he said, is our recalibration time.

The metaphor gives me shivers. (He is a master of metaphor, our beloved rebbe.) Yes. This is how we recalibrate. How we re-align ourselves with the Source of all things. How we tune ourselves to each others' energies, so that we're all moving according to the same rhythms again. Over the course of the long year when we are apart, we all fall out of step, out of synch, out of attunement with God and with each other. When we return here, our clocks snap back into the groove of shared time.

ShvitiIn the parking lot of the conference hotel I see this license plate. Sh'viti -- the first word of Psalm 16 verse 8, "I keep God before me always." I love that whoever drives this car chose to put this reminder of divine presence in a place they would see every day. I love that for those who speak Hebrew and are driving behind this car, it serves as that reminder of divinity, too. God is in all things -- even a license plate.

At the conference's opening session, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt tells us a story about his zaide (grandfather)'s sukkah, which was constructed -- literally -- out of doors which no one needed anymore. He reminded us of the teaching about Abraham's tent, open on all sides to all comers. And he compares this conference to that tent, to that sukkah, a place where the doors are open to all.

Our work in the world, he tells us, is to bring Judaism to life. We come here to recharge our batteries so that we can do that work.

Kippah-repairLate morning on Sunday: I go down to the room where the musmachot (the soon-to-be-ordained rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastor) are sitting behind a long banquet table. In front of each of them is a te'udah, a certificate of ordination; teachers move along the table, signing each certificate and offering blessings.

When I arrive there, I find a dear friend who received smicha with me. We are both there to offer a blessing to the same person, and we decide to offer one together, jointly. We laugh about how once upon a time, each of us would have scripted the moment down to the last detail, and now we're both planning to offer a blessing extemporaneously, channeling whatever needs to be said in the moment. "That's how we know we're rabbis now," she quips.

At the end of our blessing, my friend bestows a new kippah on the musmechet. But the comb has come loose, so we dash upstairs, find someone to let us into the shuk where her sewing kit is stashed, and then curl up on big cushy sofas in the lounge to talk while she carefully hand-stitches the comb back in. We talk about rabbinic school and about being rabbis and about the communities we serve and about how sweet it is to see dear friends reach this culmination point.

The smicha ceremony is, as always, extraordinary. I kvell to see dear friends walking beneath the chuppah. I thrill to their divrei Torah and their teachings. And when we reach the recitation of the lineage, I fumble for my tissues, because I know it's going to make me cry, and it does. Every year when Reb Daniel recites the parallel smicha of Miriam, he has to stop to compose himself, and that's when my tears of joy emerge.

11918717953_b59e7efa30_nIt's kind of amazing, watching the smicha now. I used to watch the ordination with a fervent sense of yearning: that might be me, someday. Now it's more like a strengthening of a flame that already burns in my heart. I see my colleagues go beneath the chuppah, I see them leaning back on the hands of their teachers, and I remember again how it felt to have their hands on me, to feel that transmission of blessing, to emerge changed.

Not long ago I was at a christening, and the pastor mentioned that witnessing the baptism of a baby is an opportunity to renew each (Christian) person's own baptismal vows. Being at an ALEPH smicha feels that way for me now -- like an opportunity to renew my connections, to re-open that channel of blessing, to recommit myself to serving God and serving this community.

After the reception, I join a caravan of friends going out for Ethiopian food to celebrate the smicha. I miss the conference's first evening of programming, which I'm sorry about. But spending the evening eating and talking and listening to toasts and niggunim and feeling embedded in beloved community -- that's a gift beyond price. By the end of the day I'm exhausted but grateful, so grateful, to be here and to have this chance to recalibrate -- recharge -- rekindle.


(Photo of  Sunday morning davenen: by Janice Rubin, from OHALAH 2013. Other photos: from my flickr stream.)