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Right here, right now

Quote+--+Today+I+Will+Live+in+the+Moment"Take a moment to settle in to being here," I say aloud. My eyes are closed but I know there are three other people in the room this morning; I heard them walk in, each to their own place in the sanctuary, and I waited until the sounds of their arrival had ceased.

"Notice how you're sitting in your chair. In your own time, draw your attention from your toes up to the top of your head, and if you find places of tension, breathe into them and let the tension go."

"Now we'll move into a practice of following our breath as it comes and goes. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do -- memories of the past, anticipations of the future -- just notice them, gently, and then let them go."

Like goldfish swimming away, I think.

"If you need something to focus on beyond your breathing, try this mantra. On the inhale: right here. On the exhale: right now. Right here, right now."

Hey, I can write about this, I think. I yank my mind back to right here, right now. Right here, right now.

At the midway point of our meditation, I'm planning to offer a teaching about the practice of teshuvah before new moon -- looking back over the last month and letting go of the places where we missed the mark, at moon-dark, before the new month begins.

Since it's almost new moon. Adar 2 starts right after Shabbat. Adar 2 means Purim. Hey, do all of the Purim spiel actors have their scripts? Okay, that was another stray thought. Letting it go. Right here, right now.

There was a sticker on the door from UPS. I wonder what's in the package? Right here, right now. Inhale, exhale. Maybe it was something for the family trip that's coming up. Right here, right now. The trip isn't happening yet. Stay in the moment.

My ear itches. Right here, right now. The arm where I'm wearing tefillin is getting cold. Right here, right now. Is it time to offer that teaching yet?

The purpose of meditation, it comes to me, is not to still the mind. As though that were possible! I can't quiet my mind. It leaps and races and chatters and changes the subject constantly. The purpose of meditation, at least as I experience it, is to notice the chatter of the mind. To notice all of the thoughts and desires and smokescreens it places in front of me. Not so that I can make them go away, but so that I can be aware of them. That way, when they arise during the day, maybe I'll notice them then, too, and act out of a place of awareness instead of a place of blind reactivity.

Sometimes it feels almost unbearable to sit still and listen to the chatter of my mind. I want to distract myself, to think about happy occasions past or future, to get up and do something: check email, roll the Torah scroll for tomorrow morning's service, tidy my office, anything to give me a break from my own head. But I sit still, and let my thoughts race around me like puppies chasing each other. I cultivate compassion for the antics of my own mind, the lengths to which it will go to avoid just being in the present. Being in the Presence.

Meditation is like Shabbat, I think to myself. Sit still. Stop doing, and just be. This moment is all there is. Right here, right now.

Almost done; living in hope

There's a particular energy which comes from the momentum of a big creative project approaching fruition. It's a combination of excitement, anticipation, glee, eager nervousness, hope. Above all, hope. Hope that this prayerbook reaches the people who need it. Hope that I have made something worthwhile, something of use.

I scroll through the draft, admiring the product of countless hours of work. I discover a new image I want to include, dash off an email asking permission to reprint, teeter at the edge of my chair until that permission is granted.

I spend hours learning to use online image-editing software so that I can take apart the cover (designed for a left-to-right book) and reconstitute it for a right-to-left printing. Then I ask an actual graphic designer to do it better.

It's a little bit like anticipating a birth. So many months (or in this case, years) have gone into growing and shaping this creation. Soon it will be born into the world, and people's response to it will be beyond my control.

I go through phases where the project consumes me, and all I want to do is read it and reread it. I proofread again, searching for typos, making sure the internal page references are all correct.

I look back through correspondence and silently thank God again for everyone who agreed to let me include their work for free, because they believe in the project. I hope the project will live up to their expectations.

I try not to imagine the project's reception, or who will use it, or how it might speak to the people who use it -- and of course I fail. All I can think about is seeing this book in someone else's hands, hoping ardently that it is enriching their prayer experience. There's that hope again. It fills my chest as the presence of God filled the mishkan, displacing everything else.

And maybe no one will ever use what I have spent so long shaping. I need to be okay with that, just as when I put a poem (or a collection of poems) out into the world. How can I be okay with that? But becoming okay with that -- that's part of the work, too. This is my offering: to God, to community, to whoever thirsts. And it's almost done.

Words for snow

12640726084_14f7c4fa30_nCarved cornices
perch at
roof's edge.

Plows heap
mountains in
every driveway.

Finger drifts
skitter across
cracked asphalt.

Penitents, thin
snow spikes
reach skyward

marking off
these hills,
feather beds

for giants
drowsing beneath
cold eiderdown.

Warm days:
icicles crash
and shatter.

Sun cups
cradle spindly
tree trunks.

Next storm
always on
its way.

This poem was sparked by that old chestnut about the Inuit having 100 words for snow. Thinking of that led me to researching different English words for snow. I was particularly charmed by cornices (those wind-carved glaciers on rooftops), finger drifts (like tiny snow dust devils), penitents (spikes of hardened snow), and sun cups (the places around trees where the darkness of the bark creates just enough warmth to melt the snow.)

Photo source: my flickr photostream. This was taken last week, before a few days of rain tamped down these fluffy drifts, but the world outside my window is still almost entirely white. Now it's just ice-hard instead of cloud-soft. This may be the shortest month on the calendar, but the wait for March can feel eternal! Of course, March up here means snow, too. But at least it will mean that the snow is on its way toward eventually ending.

On havdalah

Image002On a recent Saturday at my shul, we paused in an evening program to make havdalah. Afterwards, someone emailed me asking to learn more, pointing out that havdalah was entirely new to them, and perhaps to others as well.

Probably you know we begin Shabbat with a simple ritual: we light candles, bless the fruit of the vine (a symbol of joy and holiness), bless bread (which for most Ashkenazi Jews means challah, though in other parts of the world Jews bless other forms of bread, from tortillas to naan) and in many households also bless our children. Before this ritual, it's still work-week; after the blessings are spoken and the candles are lit, we've entered into the time-apart-from-time which we call Shabbat. Havdalah is the mirror reflection of that; as those blessings began Shabbat, havdalah is how Shabbat ends. The word havdalah means "separation."

At havdalah, we light a braided candle with many wicks, and hold it aloft for all to see. In the most traditional paradigm no fire is kindled during Shabbat, so the striking of the match to light the havdalah candle is a powerful first sign that Shabbat is ending. We bless the fruit of the vine once more. We bless fragrant spices, and pass them around to inhale their heady scent. We bless God who separates one thing from another: separates light from dark, one community from another, the rest day of Shabbat from the six days of work. And then we extinguish the candle in the wine. With that sputter and hiss, Shabbat comes to its end.

After the candle is extinguished, many of us have the custom of singing "Eliahu HaNavi" and/or its twin song "Miriam HaNeviah" -- songs expressing hope for redemption. Then we might sing "Shavua Tov" -- "A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And with that, the new week begins.

I love havdalah. It's one of my favorite rituals in Jewish practice. And it is very much a ritual, not a ceremony. What's the difference? A ceremony, such as a graduation, celebrates and makes official something which has already occurred -- in the case of a graduation, it marks the fact that a student has completed a course of study. (But the course of study is complete already, whether or not the student walks across the stage to receive the diploma.) A ritual, such as havdalah, creates a spiritual change while it is taking place.

I love havdalah because it's the second bookend, the close-parenthesis, which balances the ritual of making Shabbat in the first place. On Friday night we light candles and bless wine; on Saturday night we bless wine and extinguish a candle. On Friday night we begin something special and sacred, and on Saturday night we bring it to its close. On Friday night we open a door, and on Saturday night we close it. We both start and finish Shabbat with mindfulness, taking a few minutes to be aware of a moment in time when something changes. Havdalah is a hinge, a fulcrum-point, balancing between the Shabbat which is ending and the new week which is beginning. We teeter at the top of the hill for a moment and then tumble down the other side.

Orion-Jupiter-and-clouds-Nov16_2012S-1024x682I love havdalah because it's so poignant. Usually the ritual is done in semi-darkness; we're supposed to be able to see three stars in the sky, so night is really falling. The day of Shabbat is coming to its end. And we gather together, sometimes standing in a circle with our arms around each other, and sing these last songs and gaze at this candle and smell the sweet spices which are meant to revive us from the impending departure of that second Shabbat soul. It feels as though we're coming together to savor the last moments of Shabbat sweetness before they're gone for the week.

I love havdalah because there are so many beautiful teachings about its additional layers of meaning. For instance: when the braided candle is held aloft, there is a custom of holding up one's hands to see the light illuminating our fingernails and our skin. The Hebrew word for light (אור) and the Hebrew word for skin (עור) are homonyms: they are both pronounced or. When we hold up our hands before the havdalah flame, we remember the teaching (from the Zohar) that in the world to come we will wear skins made out of light, garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life.

But most of all I love havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine -- it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.



Ending Shabbat: Havdalah - Ritualwell (overview, prayers and resources)

Havdalah: Taking Leave of Shabbat - My Jewish Learning (overview)

Havdalah blessings  - Union for Reform Judaism

Debbie Friedman's transformative havdalah melody (includes video) - Jewish Women International

The havdalah category of this blog


Image source for the second image: Astro-Bob.

Welcome your extra soul, and irrigate the thirsty world

Small-water-features-pouring-urnOur practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors.

So teaches Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. (I first shared these teachings here back in 2008.)

Our practice of Shabbat restores wholeness to the cosmos. That is one chutzpahdik assertion. That there is brokenness in the world (in all of the worlds) is beyond doubt. But to suggest that we can repair that brokenness through celebrating Shabbat? Holy wow. And yet this is what our mystics teach: that when we enter into Shabbat wholly, we bring healing to God.

What does it mean to say that "Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors"? Perhaps this: God experiences brokenness and separation, because we, God's creation, experience brokenness and separation. But on Shabbat, we create wholeness in ourselves -- and in so doing, we create wholeness inside God. Another way to frame it is through kabbalistic language: when we observe Shabbat, we enable God's transcendence (distant, far-off, high-up, infinite, inconceivable) and God's immanence (embodied, here with us, as near as the beating of our own hearts, relational, accessible) to unite.

And that is why when we experience Shabbat -- celebrate Shabbat, "make" Shabbat, enter into Shabbat -- we open a spigot of blessing to irrigate the thirsty world. Every blessing has the capacity to turn such a spigot, and Shabbat is the blessing of all blessings. Think of all of the sorrow, the distance, the brokenness, the spiritual and emotional thirst in the world. And then recognize that when we open ourselves to Shabbat, and allow Shabbat to work in and through us, we can become channels for the irrigation which would soothe that thirst. It is the active participation of our hearts and souls, experiencing the mitzvah of Shabbat, which unite God far above and God deep within. When that happens, blessing flows.

1389194539_b9e31c1b6dSome of that blessing flows directly into us. On Shabbat, tradition tells us, each of us receives a neshama yeteirah, an "extra soul." It stays with us until sundown on Saturday, when it returns to God. (This is one explanation for why we breathe fragrant spices during havdalah -- like smelling salts, they're meant to revive us from that soul's departure.) That extra soul is part of who we are, but during the week it's distant. We have two "levels" of soul (actually by some metrics we have four or five, but for now, I'm just talking about two) -- a "lower" soul which enlivens the body, and a "higher" soul which resides with the Mystery we call God. On Shabbat, those two unite. The reality of who we are is joined with the potential of all that we might be.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that Shabbat is equal to all of the other mitzvot put together, and that if just once every Jew in the world truly observed Shabbat together, moshiach would promptly arrive. The teaching raises some questions: what would it mean for all of us to observe Shabbat at the same time? How do we define "us" in a modern, post-triumphalist paradigm? How do we define "observed Shabbat"? For that matter, what would it mean for moshiach to come? But I understand that piece of Talmudic wisdom in this way:  if we truly experience the day of Shabbat, we can experience a taste of the messianic era. 

Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to make the time to enter into Shabbat. To stop doing and simply be.

We have to be willing to let Shabbat change us.

We have to be paying attention.

Shabbat, and that extra soul, arrive whether or not we notice. But if we can be mindful tonight as sundown falls -- how might the windows of our hearts be opened? With the eyes of that new soul, what might we see?


The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and

OldcityI always try to hold on to the both/and. To see things from both sides. To celebrate what is wonderful without ignoring what's problematic: in Torah, in the literary sources I read, in my relationships, in my life. This is one of my central life-values. And I also try to live out this value when it comes to the contemporary Middle East.

"Which Israel?" wrote my friend and teacher Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan earlier this winter [see Which Israel?, On Sophia Street.] "Mediterranean get-away? Holy land? Zionist dream? Occupying power?" My simplest answer to her rhetorical question is: E) All of the Above.

How to describe this place which has such a profound hold on the American Jewish imagination?

The Israel of lofty ideals [see its Declaration of Independence] and beautiful music, of open-air markets and communal farms, where our holy language of prayer is revived on the modern streets, where people live according to Jewish rhythms, gathering to share coffee and dreams for a transformed future?

2641379402_2b16d4ac47_nOr the Israel of violence toward African migrants, imprisonment of refugees [see Detained African asylum seekers in Israel, +972 magazine], occupation [see Reason #12,807 that I hate the occupation, In My Head] and separation barrier and checkpoints?

Most of the public discourse focuses on one of these visions, ignoring (or attempting to discredit) the other.

I'm always feeling at least two things when I think about Israel. This is why I assembled that Complicating Israel Reading List a few years ago. Trying to hold these contradictory truths in my head and heart is never easy, but the alternative -- choosing to view Israel only as good or only as evil -- seems insufficient to me on both intellectual and spiritual levels.

Continue reading "The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and" »

On taharah before cremation

Bmc pic for webLongtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?

The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.

However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?

My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.

At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »

Ki Tisa: Shabbat, the Golden Calf, and Rest

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

This week's Torah portion begins with Moshe atop Mount Sinai, communing with God. The last thing God says to Moshe is a set of verses we now know as V'shamru, commanding us to keep Shabbat throughout the ages as a sign of covenant with God. Then God gives Moshe the two tablets, inscribed by God's own hand.

Meanwhile, the people are anxious. Moshe has been gone for a long time. They implore Aaron, his brother, to "make them a god." They donate their gold jewelry, and from that jewelry is fashioned a calf which they begin to worship.

When Moshe comes down the mountain, he shatters the tablets in his fury.

Many commentators have seen this incident as a kind of spiritual "adultery." Here is God reminding us of the Shabbat which serves as the sign of our eternal relationship, and meanwhile we're off giving ourselves over to something which is not God. The Torah frequently compares our relationship with God to a marriage...and here we are, "cheating on" God when the ink on our ketubah is barely dry.

As punishment, Moshe grinds up the calf and makes the people drink it -- which is strikingly similar to the punishment for a woman accused of adultery, as described later in Torah. I'm always struck by the symbolism of making the people confront their own misdeeds in this way. They have to literally swallow what they have done. They have to take ownership of the damage they have done to their relationship with God.

Seen in this light, Moshe's shattering of the tablets is a sign of the spiritual brokenness in that relationship. But what becomes of those broken stones?

We read in Talmud:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his sons: Have care for an old person who has forgotten his/her learning. For we say: Both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 8b)

In the ark of the covenant, which will be kept inside the mishkan / dwelling-place for God, our ancestors carried both the second set of tablets (which are whole) and that first set of tablets (which are broken).

For Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, this holds a message about how to treat our elders. Just as we cherished both sets of tablets, so we should cherish both those who are whole, and those whose wholeness has been broken by sickness or by age.

Perhaps when Moshe broke the tablets, he was demonstrating his own brokenness. His wholeness was broken when his people demonstrated their lack of commitment and faith. Just as our ancestors kept the broken tablets along with the whole ones, we cherish the memory not only of Moshe's beautiful moments, but also his times of imperfection and anger.

Each of us is like Moshe. Each of us carries her own history in the ark of her own heart. In our own holy of holies, we hold our sweetest memories -- and also the times when we have felt shattered. Without both, we wouldn't be who we are.

How does all of this relate to Shabbat and to v'shamru?

The verses of v'shamru, from this week's portion, charge us with keeping Shabbat as an eternal covenant. It is a sign, God says, between us for all time. A reminder that on the seventh day God rested and so do we.

Shabbat is a covenant between us and God. When we keep Shabbat -- whatever that means to us; as liberal Jews we shape our Shabbat observance in accordance with a variety of values -- but when we keep Shabbat, however we keep Shabbat, we re-enact the covenant.

Every week, we renew our wedding vows with the Holy One. We reprise the central act of our relationship, an act of pausing to notice the sacredness of creation.

Every Shabbat is the antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf. Then we were anxious and we put our faith in something gleaming, something we could see and touch. Now we remind ourselves that relationship exists even when we can't see it. That when we make Shabbat, we emulate the ineffable force behind the cosmos in rhythms of creation and rest.


Image source: wikimedia commons.

The Purim Without Purim

Img2B26Tonight at sundown we enter into Purim Katan, "Little Purim."

At the full moon of Adar, we celebrate Purim, our festival of masks and merriment. We read from the Megillah of Esther, we eat hamentaschen and give gift baskets to friends and to the needy, we dress in costumes and make noise to drown out the name of the bad guy who sought to annihilate the Jews of Persia.

Except during leap years. During a leap year, we have two months of Adar, Adar 1 and Adar 2. The "real" Purim comes at the full moon of Adar 2. When we reach the full moon of Adar 1, we get Purim Katan, Little Purim.

What do we do on Little Purim? Well, according to the Mishna, "There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah and gifts to the poor." In other words -- it's just like Big Purim, except that we don't read the Megillah or give gift baskets to friends or the poor, which is to say, we don't do the activities which characterize Purim proper at all.  Or, as an amnesiac Kermit the Frog put it in an advertising slogan in The Muppets Take Manhattan, "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere." I suppose we could still eat hamentaschen.

For those who pay attention to Purim Katan, the usual practice is to eschew fasting, to skip the daily tachanun prayers of repentance, and to avoid opportunities for grief. And some commentators argue that it's a special mitzvah to be joyful on Purim Katan, as a kind of fore-echo of the big Purim a month later.

For me the most interesting thing about Purim Katan is the idea that it's just like Purim Gadol except for all of the outward trimmings of Purim as we know it. That suggests to me that there's a kind of essential experience of Purim which exists somehow independent of the acts which we usually use to cultivate a Purim state of mind.

One of my favorite teachings about Purim holds that our task on this holiday is to ascend the ladder of mystical knowing until we reach God's own vantage point where our human notions of "good" and "evil" disappear. Where Mordechai (the hero) and Haman (the villain) aren't from opposing sides anymore, but are part of a greater whole.

What would it feel like to cultivate such a sense of joy on Purim Katan, such a sense of elevated spirit, that we could seek to ascend to that place even without the megillah and the storytelling, the costumes and the gragers, the cookies and the schnapps?


A short history of Jewish meditation

Buddhistjewishcenterv2-214x300"Would you consider teaching or writing something about Jewish meditation?" a congregant asked me recently. "I think people wonder sometimes whether it's really Jewish."

Contemplative practice in Judaism has taken a variety of forms, and bears a variety of names, but it's been a part of Judaism for a very long time. ("Contemplative practice" is an umbrella term which covers a variety of practices; meditation is one of those practices.) Let's start here: maybe you know that traditional Jewish practice includes praying three times a day. The traditional explanation for that thrice-daily prayer regimen teaches either that we do this in remembrance of the offerings at the Temple of old, or that we do this in remembrance of the patriarchs (or both.)

We read in Torah that Abraham connected with God in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon, and Jacob in the evening, so we do the same. And in Torah, what form did that connection take? In Genesis 24:63, when Isaac went out לָשׂוּחַ / la'suach in the fields, what exactly was going on? According to the classical JPS translation, that verb means "to meditate." So one could make the case that from the patriarchs on, Jewish prayer has always had a meditative component.

Later, during the time of the Tanna'im (the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era), Jewish mystics sought to elevate their souls by meditating on the chariot visions of Ezekiel. This became a whole school of contemplative practices known as merkavah mysticism. Some of their practices were re-imagined and re-interpreted by later mystical and contemplative movements in Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, the sages of our tradition were discussing the proper balance of keva (fixed form) and kavanah (intention or meditative focus) in Jewish prayer. Some went so far as to argue that prayer without the right meditative intention doesn't actually count. In the days of the Tanna'im, communal prayer frequently took the form of variations on known themes, where a skilled prayer-leader would improvise new words on the existing themes of the prayers. Over time, those improvised words were written down, and by the Middle Ages became fixed in more-or-less the forms we know today.

Continue reading "A short history of Jewish meditation" »

Leah Vincent's Cut Me Loose

Cutmeloose_finalI can't remember how I first heard about Leah Vincent's memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. I suspect I read an excerpt, probably at, and on the strength of that excerpt pre-ordered the Kindle edition long before publication. (Unpious is the magazine edited by Shulem Deen -- the blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel -- which specializes in "voices generally suppressed" in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox publications. It's worth checking out if you don't know it already.) One way or another, the memoir materialized on my Kindle, so I read it. And holy wow, is this one powerful, painful, and ultimately redemptive story.

Many years ago I reviewed the anonymous YA novel Hush by Eshes Chayil, which told a story of sexual abuse in a Hasidic community. There are ways in which Vincent's memoir reminds me of Hush -- the trajectory from loving and comfortable religious community to ostracism; the unflinching descriptions both of what can be sweet about growing up in a deeply religious community, and also of what can be almost unthinkably bitter. Of course, Hush is fiction while Cut Me Loose is memoir. (Also one is set in a Hasidische community and the other in a Yeshivish community -- though I suspect that distinction won't make much difference to a lot of readers; the two versions of deep Orthodoxy will seem equally foreign.)

Maybe because I came to the book only having read one excerpt, without having read the back jacket copy or any reviews, the book took me frequently by surprise. A trajectory from ultra-Orthodoxy, to going "off the derech," to some kind of new life in the non-ultra-religious world -- that, I expected. But I didn't expect the many mini-journeys along the way: to Britain, to Israel, the rastafarian "boyfriend," the cutting and suicide attempt, each turn off of the prescribed path darker and more painful. Vincent writes about all of this with powerful clarity, and I followed her emotionally into every place her journey went.

This is a tough book to read for me as a passionate liberal religious Jew, especially as a Jewish Renewal rabbi who claims connection through Reb Zalman with Hasidic lineage. I can see in this book some of the things I envy about committed religious community -- families automatically living according to our tradition's rhythms, from choosing a perfect etrog at Sukkot to dancing at Chanukah to turning the house upside-down cleaning for Pesach, experiencing every Shabbat as a time apart from time. But I also see here the things which are most upsetting about insular religious community: control, a rigidity which has no room for personal deviation, and a system which relies upon keeping young women thoroughly uninformed about the outside world (in the name of keeping them "pure") which, when it backfires, can be life-destroying.

It's easy to imagine the ways in which the grass is greener on the other side of that fence -- to fantasize that in a community where everyone cares about Judaism and God as much as I do, it must be easy to keep the rhythms of Jewish life; to live in constant devekut / union with God; to aspire to serve God with joy in all things. This book reminds me that there is a terrible shadow side to that kind of insularity, and that those who deviate from the community's norms -- especially women -- pay an unthinkable cost.

Looking at the book with my Bennington MFA hat on, I relate to it as a gripping memoir. Vincent is a skillful writer with a keen eye for the details which will make a scene pop right off the page. That old writerly adage of "show, don't tell" --? She does that, in spades. Several times, reading this, I thought back on Bennington conversations and panel discussions about memoir, memory, and the complicated ethics of telling one's own story when that story inevitably involves other people who may not wish for it to be told, or for it to be told in the way that feels true to the person writing the memoir.

Looking at the book with my rabbi hat on, I relate to it as though it were a congregant's story, and that makes my heart ache. This book isn't a polemic against ultra-Orthodoxy or against religion. It's just Vincent's own story, and the story speaks for itself. I'm thankful that in the end there is redemption, as well as a community of former compatriots (see Footsteps) who understand both where Vincent is coming from and where she's choosing to be. Still, I come away from the book aswirl with emotions. Wonder, anger, admiration, grief, and above all gratitude that we, her readers, are privileged now to bear witness to the story she so deftly tells.

There's a part of me that wishes I could offer pastoral care to the author of this book. I wish I could sit down with her over coffee or a glass of wine and offer her the listening ear and the loving response which her religious community didn't give. I can't help clinging to the hope that Vincent's sense of herself as a spiritual being, and her connection with God, wasn't thoroughly shattered by the ordeal of her upbringing and its aftermath. That's my own bias as a reader, and I own that. Part of what makes me angriest about Vincent's description of her upbringing is just how badly this religious community mis-served her -- how a family and a spiritual community which should have been a source of nurturing and support became a fountain of rejection, neglect, and emotional abuse.

The author's twitter handle, @EhyehLeah, hints both at God (Who, you may recall, named Herself/Himself/Hirself to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am Becoming Who I Am Becoming") and at the author's own becoming. Maybe that's the best blessing I can offer: celebration of her process of becoming as it unfolds in these pages. May the Source of All Being bring comfort and companionship, self-determination and meaning, joy and gladness in the life she has chosen. And may there be many more books from this strong new literary voice. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!


There's an excerpt from the book at JTA: The first step out of an ultra-Orthodox world.

The mind is like tofu

Japanese_SilkyTofu_(Kinugoshi_Tofu)Here's the short teaching I offered during our meditation minyan at my shul today. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


I learned from my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth -- who learned from our teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) -- that the mind is like tofu: it takes on the taste of whatever we pickle it in.

What marinade is your mind soaking in today?

Is it a marinade of resentment? She told me she would do that thing, and then she didn't, and now I feel betrayed.

Is it a marinade of anger? On the radio I heard someone from the political party with which I disagree, and now my blood is boiling.

Or is it a marinade of gratitude, of wonder, of readiness to serve in whatever ways the world will call forth today?

We all have recourse to all of these ingredients. Breathe in; and hold it for a moment; and as you exhale, wash the negativity away. Rinse the tofu clean. Once again it becomes plain, ready to take on the flavor of whatever marinade you choose.

As we pray in the morning liturgy: Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehora hee -- "My God, the soul that You have given me is pure!" Every morning we awake to a clean soul -- a blank slate -- a mind like tofu, ready to take on whatever flavors we steep it in.

Modah ani l'fanecha: I am grateful before You.

Mah norah hamakom hazeh: what a wonder, what a miracle, is this very place, this very moment.

Hineni: Here I am, ready to serve.


Shabbat shalom!

On my two rabbinic communities, Rabbis Without Borders and ALEPH

Stamp_mini"What does it mean to be a rabbi without borders?" people ask. "Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Do you travel the world?" Not in the sense of accruing more stamps on my passport. The travel is between perspectives and viewpoints, not between nations.

Longtime readers know that I went to a transdenominational rabbinic school where students and faculty from all of the major streams or denominations of Judaism learned together. There are three such seminaries now, though I believe that ALEPH was the first, and ALEPH is unique in its explicitly Jewish Renewal orientation. Anyway: my whole adventure of rabbinic school learning was a transdenominational one. My primary context for rabbinic community has always involved people from different Jewish backgrounds with differing Jewish practices.

For that reason, although I knew I would enjoy the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I wasn't sure how groundbreaking or new it would feel to me. After all, sitting around a study table with Jews ranging from Reform to Orthodox was already a familiar part of my worldview, and so was the assumption that there is a multiplicity of valid paths toward truth.

So maybe it's not surprising that my experience of RWB/Clal has been in many ways parallel to my experience of ALEPH. It's not so much that the passionate pluralism of RWB feels new, as that it's a delight to discover another transdenominational rabbinic hevre (community of colleagues and friends) who share my ideals and my yearning to bring Judaism and God-connection to those who thirst.

In an ALEPH context, we come together across our differences of interpretation and practice beneath the common umbrella of Jewish Renewal. We share a yearning to revitalize Judaism (or Judaisms), respect for the groundbreaking work of our forebears (among them Reb Zalman), an investment in deep ecumenism, and a unique blend of feminism, progressive values, and neo-Hasidism. In a RWB/Clal setting, the umbrella is klal Yisrael, the Jewish community writ large. Though the qualities which are most central to Jewish Renewal aren't necessarily focal points in RWB, it seems to me that both communities come together across our differences of interpretation and practice to jointly serve the Jewish community in all of its forms, and to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world. We are, you might say, responding to the same divine call.

In RWB we gather with the utmost respect for each other's perspectives and training. We don't gloss over the places where our practices and comfort zones differ. And we act in the good faith that each of our forms of Judaism is one piece of the Jewish puzzle, one partial truth within the greater truth which belongs to the Jewish community as a whole. For me as a Renewal rabbi, of course, the same metaphor holds true with regard to the religious world -- Judaism has one piece of the truth, Christianity has another piece, and so on, and so on. (I think many RWBs agree on this one, too. Day before yesterday I learned some amazing Hasidic texts with RWB Hanan Schlesinger, who taught -- drawing primarily on the Sfat Emet -- that our real challenge is finding Torah, which is to say finding truth, everywhere. Not only in our own tradition, but everywhere. How beautiful is that?) This is a pluralism which feeds my soul.

And I believe it's a pluralism which the world desperately needs. So much of the news we receive speaks in stark black and white, particularly about religious differences, but reality is far more nuanced and subtle. Truth and meaning aren't the unique purview of any community; as Reb Zalman likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels and each tradition receives revelation based on how we're attuned. I believe that there are glimmers of truth even in worldviews with which I deeply disagree (though sometimes it stretches me mightily to try to find them). And I can seek to open the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom and tradition even for those with whom I have substantial differences. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has so eloquently argued, you don't have be wrong for me to be right. I'm more interested in what connects us than in what divides us: across the different branches of Judaism, and across our various politics, and across the varied manifestations of our human family tree.

One of the questions which I think animates this Rabbis Without Borders community is: how can we bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world? What sustenance can we draw forth from our living well which might feed people's hearts and souls in years to come?

EarthIn Jewish Renewal we often speak in terms of paradigm shift. When the Temple fell, there was a transition to rabbinic Judaism, which wasn't always easy or comfortable but was utterly necessary in order for Judaism to continue to thrive -- that was a paradigm shift. Reb Zalman has argued that we're experiencing another paradigm shift now, in which we must come to see Judaism, humanity, and our planet in a new way. (The last century's massive destruction, including Hiroshima and the Shoah, is one side of the paradigm shift; seeing our planet from space, that beautiful blue-green ball suspended in blackness, is another piece of the shift. Both of these together call us to co-create new responses to the new challenges at hand.) I believe that the work my Renewal and RWB colleagues are doing, striving to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world, is part of the tikkun (healing) which this new paradigm shift calls forth.

In RWB (and I think also in ALEPH), the borders we cross are those of perspective and practice. We don't all have the same answers. We don't all maintain the same practices. Some of us daven in gender-segregated spaces, and some don't. Some of us maintain deep attachments to the classical halakhic system, and some don't. Some of us are comfortable with substantial liturgical variation, and some aren't. Some of us daven every word in the classical siddur at lightning speed; some of us soak ourselves in slow contemplative liturgical chant. (And some of us do both on alternate days!) We dress this way and that way. We eat this way and that way. But we're united in our belief that we are part of the same enterprise, and that without compromising our ideals or our practices we can work together to bring healing to Judaism and to bring Jewish wisdom to the world.

The fact that I've found not one but two rich spiritual communities of colleagues and teachers who are driven by these passions, who share these commitments to traditional depth and intellectual / spiritual breadth, and who are both willing and able to draw on a variety of different wisdoms (whether within our own tradition, or across many traditions) in order to serve God and to serve the needs of our communities -- it's incredible. I am so blessed.


For more: see RWB FAQ: What is a Rabbi Without Borders? and Kol ALEPH: What is Jewish Renewal?

RWB alumni retreat, first 24 hours, in gerunds

12278089923_16b7820e76_nSeeing friends from my RWB cohort again.

Meeting people from the other rabbinic cohorts.

Putting faces with Twitter handles and email addresses.

At an icebreaker, "outing" myself as a reader of speculative fiction.

(Also as a congregational rabbi and a writer.)

Watching the Superbowl with a room full of rabbis.

Hooting and hollering at the football and the commercials alike.

Sipping whiskey with a friend from far away.

Davening shacharit (morning prayer) b'tzibbur (in community).

Remembering, all in a flash, davening in that same room four years ago.

Meeting people whose work I have long admired.

12297025174_2d2bba1757_nHearing from heads of the Republican and Democratic Jewish organizations.

Talking, in small groups, about political pluralism and whether / how it's possible.

Chatting about poetry with a fellow-poet rabbinic school friend.

Studying Hasidic texts of passionate pluralism.

Being amazed by their radical welcome and openness.

Studying texts on how blessings turn the forbidden into the permitted.

Tweeting back and forth with RWB fellows who are here, and RWB fellows who aren't here (and tagging it all #rwbclal).

Enjoying dinner conversation about growing up as geeks who love Judaism.

Being with other rabbis who are thoughtful about our rabbinates.

Sitting by the fireside surrounded by quiet conversations and laptops.

Thinking about finding the partial truth in things with which I disagree.

Making midrashic message-driven trash art out of broken cell phones, paint, beads, and clay.

Returning to my room, exhausted from a long day but grateful to be here.

Taking Nyquil and heading for bed.

Back at Pearlstone

The last time I was at Pearlstone, I was still a rabbinic student, and I was here for two weeks of ALEPH rabbinic program intensive study. It was my first rabbinic school residency as a mom, and our son was less than a year old -- which meant that first Ethan (for a few days before he went to TED Global and gave the TED talk which led to Rewire), and then my mother, stayed with me and took care of the baby while I was in class.

Then Now

Then, and now. What a difference 3.5 years makes.

I had some extraordinary experiences here. It was here that I wrote the mother psalm which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," which to this day is one of my favorite poems in Waiting to Unfold! And it was here that I first got the chance to introduce my mom to my rabbinic school community and vice versa -- a nice prelude to my entire mishpacha attending my rabbinic smicha the following winter.

Last time I came to Pearlstone, we drove down, encumbered by all of the gear required for a two-week trip with a baby: pack-n-play, quilts, stuffed animals, you name it. (And then had to purchase one item we hadn't thought of -- with no bathtub in the room, we resorted to giving baths in an inflatable rubber duckie which Ethan found at a local store.) Last time, I had to ensure that our preferred brand of baby food had the right hechsher to enter the dining hall. 

This morning I watched cartoons and played board games with our son, ate a delicious breakfast cooked by my spouse, and then traveled solo to Albany, on my flight, and through the Baltimore airport where I met up with three other Rabbis Without Borders. Together we drove to Pearlstone. And in about half an hour, this year's RWB Alumni Retreat will begin.

I'm looking really forward to a few days of learning, (re)connecting, strengthening friendships, and being lovingly challenged to think outside of my usual boxes. It feels a little bit strange to be here without the loved ones who surrounded me last time I was here. But I'm really excited to see members of my RWB fellows cohort, and to meet rabbis from the previous cohorts who I have until now only known online. I'm really grateful to be part of this hevre (community of friends.)

What we give to make space for God: thoughts on Terumah

UrlHere's the short d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Terumah. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses in Torah, a verse I choose to preach on every year: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within them." We build the sanctuary not so that God can dwell in it -- no matter how beautiful its design or furnishings -- but so God can dwell in us.

And yet, the beautiful design and furnishings seem to be important. Because the Torah spends a lot of time talking about them.

For some weeks to come, we'll continue hearing about the wood and the hammered gold, the supple leathers, the fabrics woven in the most precious of colors, all donated as gifts from those whose hearts so moved them.

What this says to me is: it's important that we give freely, offering up to God things which are precious to us. We're not building the Shekhinah (the indwelling Presence of God) a secondhand home out of scrap. In order to prepare our hearts for that Presence, we have to give something that matters to us.

The children of Israel gave their most precious items freely in order to build a place for the Shekhinah -- in order to open up space for the Shekhinah in their hearts. What would we give, if we were similarly called?

Would we build a home for the Shekhinah out of iPads and Droid phones? Out of expensive clothes and shoes? What would be most meaningful for you to offer? What would make space in your heart for the unfolding of something new?

This morning, each of you is giving ninety minutes of your life to be in community together, to sing and pray together, to try to make a minyan together for those who grieve. Maybe the most precious offering we can give today is our time.

Ninety minutes for Shabbat services. Or half an hour for Torah study. Or five minutes before bed to say the bedtime Shema and look back over the day, to connect with God before sleep. Or fifteen minutes of daily morning prayer -- or of simply sitting and cultivating gratitude for the gifts in your life.

You might wonder, what does God need with these minutes we offer up? But you might as well ask: what does God need with hammered gold and acacia wood? We open our hearts through the practice of giving. When we give, we let God in.

We read this morning about the poles which allowed the Israelites to carry the ark together. We receive the same call: to shoulder the burdens of holy community together. As our spiritual ancestors came together to build and carry the mishkan and the ark of the covenant, so we come together to build and carry our community.

"Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within them."

What if we made a mishkan, a dwelling-place for the Shekhinah, out of our attention -- our intention -- our collaboration -- our time? How might holiness dwell within us, then?


A poem for Rosh Chodesh Adar א



The first Adar takes its name
from the letter who tells no tales.

Contains "little Purim"
which is just like big Purim

except we don't read the megillah
or send gift baskets

we just cultivate joy.
The first Adar's mitzvot are invisible.

The first Adar conceals its holiness
like a veiled Torah scroll.

It's like the cosmos compressed
into the silent first letter

of the first word
of the first commandment.

Like the queen whose name means hidden,
who keeps her Judaism close to the vest.

Like the Holy One, never mentioned
in our bawdy passion play

but gleaming all over the story
for we who have eyes to see.

Happy Rosh Chodesh / new month!

It's new moon; we've entered into Adar א, the first of this year's two months of Adar. (Why two months of Adar? In seven out of every nineteen years, we get a "leap year," which on the Jewish calendar means we get a whole extra month; that way, our calendar remains in synch both with the cycles of the sun and the cycles of the moon. Adar is the month which gets doubled during leap years.)

Here's a bit more about Adar 1 (2011).

And here's a post about Purim Katan (2011), referenced in the second couplet of this poem.

The final three couplets hint at the Megillah of Esther, the scroll which we read on Purim during Adar ב / Adar 2.