Six jewels from Clergy Camp
July 08, 2016
Thursday morning davenen. A rainbow of tallitot (prayer shawls); a rainbow of neshamot (souls).
On Monday morning, the Fourth of July, we daven in semicircles of chairs beneath the trees. It feels so good to be sitting beside some of my dearest beloveds and beaming at others across the semicircle.
And then when we get to the blessing for redemption (emet v'yatziv, for those who know the liturgy) ALEPH rabbinic student Jessica Shimberg starts singing "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of Hashem," and a ripple of laughter runs around the space. We sing the whole prayer to the melody of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, with gusto and multi-part harmony. Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai -- the words scan perfectly, and there is something wonderful about setting our song of redemption to this old American hymn. It feels glorious -- both the playful creativity of the melodic choice (the kind of thing Reb Zalman z"l used to love) and the heart with which everyone sings the words.
Davening with heart and creativity and with my loved ones always feels like coming home.
On the first morning of class with Rabbi Jeff Fox we study Talmud, Tosafot, Judith Plaskow, Tamar Ross, and Rambam, all of which inform our conversation about geirut (conversion) and the unfolding of Jewish tradition. I can feel synapses sparking to life that haven't been lit up in ages. The text study is enlivening, and the conversations that it engenders are even more so.
We talk about Ruth and Ezra as opposite Biblical paradigms for how to relate to conversion. We talk about how Rashi sees the Exodus to Sinai journey as parallel to, and as a kind of, conversion. We talk about Jewishness as spiritual practice and Jewishness as peoplehood and what happens when we try to separate those two. We talk about the implication of seeing the Sinai moment as the paradigmatic experience of Jewishness if that moment occurred only for the men.
I wish I could send a message back in time to my collegiate religion major self. Could I have imagined then that someday this would be my life: sitting around a table with wise colleagues who are at least as passionate about Judaism as I am, grappling with tradition, asking hard questions and taking joy in the wrestle?
Each of the three daily services are led by groups of students. I remember being a student and working with my friends to plan and co-lead services for smicha students' week -- trying to find the right balance between tradition and innovation, stretching our skills, sometimes falling on our faces, finding our wings as davenen leaders and learning to soar.
One morning the prayer leaders take lines from Lin-Manuel Miranda's sonnet and use them as a call-and-response prelude to the bar'chu, the call to prayer. When the whole room choruses "Love is love is love is love is love" I get goosebumps.
Around the room, Rev. Bill Kondrath has posted signs with drawings of different emotional states, labeled with single words: "scared," "joyful," "sad," "mad," "powerful," "peaceful." He invites us first to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotional state that felt most safe to us in childhood. Then to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotional state we felt least able to express in childhood. And then to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotion we habitually substitute for the one we didn't feel safe expressing.
In the conversation that ensues, one of my classmates mentions Reb Zalman's teachings about the need for rabbis to serve as geologists of the soul. This is maybe especially true for those of us who serve also as spiritual directors: it's our task to help those whom we serve to uncover the gems buried in the strata of their own hearts.
Some of what we find inside is joyful, and some of what we find can feel like land mines. But the only way to defuse the land mines is to find them and gently dismantle them, and the only way to uplift the gems is to unearth them and polish them and let them shine.
Thursday morning. We are once again davening outdoors, this time in a little courtyard. It's the second day of Rosh Chodesh (the new moon -- the beginning of the lunar month of Tamuz). We sing the blessing for Hallel in a lusty call-and-response. And then my friend Hazzan Dave Abramowitz, who goes sometimes by the nickname "Tall" (for reasons obvious to anyone who knows him), belts out chasdo, ki l'olam chasdo to the tune of "Day-O." I've sung Psalm 118 to this melody before, but with his big baritone voice leading us, the singing is extra-delicious.
A little bit later in Hallel, when we sing Zeh hayom asah Adonai, "This is the day that God has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it!" I think: yes. Yes, it is. This very day is a day created for us to rejoice in it. Every day is a day created for us to rejoice in it. How fortunate I feel to be in a place, this week, where it is so easy to access that awareness.
Getting to study conversion all week with the rav who authored this teshuvah on the presence of a male beit din at the immersion of a female convert [pdf] is a mechaieh -- it's life-giving. The conversations are fantastic and thought-provoking. Over the course of the week we study Yevamot. We study rabbinic teshuvot (responsa). We learn the strange story of Warder Cresson. We study the stories of the converts of Hillel and Shammai, and the story of the student of Rabbi Chiyya.
We talk about the physical process of conversion, and we talk about the psycho-spiritual process of conversion. We talk about what it means that there are people who won't accept certain conversions, and about the implications for someone who might convert under one set of assumptions and then shift to a different community of practice. We talk about motives for conversion: how much do motives matter? We talk about: what does it mean to come beneath the wings of Shechinah? What does it mean to accept the yoke of the mitzvot?
At the end of our last class we go around the room and each person mentions something in our learning that especially moved us. We close with a kaddish d'rabbanan, the special kaddish recited at the end of study, in gratitude to and in honor of our teacher. It has been an extraordinary week of learning. I am so grateful.