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How can I



The trees are greening. The vibrant chartreuse of brand-new tender leaves is making its way across the valley and up the hills. There is nothing like this color at any other season. I love it so. 

How can I write about the glorious leaves of the burning bush outside my window when lawmakers across this country are stripping rights from trans people and banning life-saving medical care?

I feel powerless to do anything about Missouri or Montana -- or Texas, where the state Ag department now bans clothing that's "[in]consistent with biological gender." I wish I were kidding about that.

(I mean, Texas has done plenty worse. The governor issued an order classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse. The clothing guidelines are just a surreal topper to an already awful situation.)

There's so much injustice. We must not look away. The Dobbs decision and its impacts. Book bansRegulating what history teachers can teach. "Don't Say Gay" and all that flows from it. 

And now gender-affirming care bans harming trans children in a third of our country... with every indication that their proponents intend to come after trans adults next. (They're already doing so.)

How can I write about spring coming to the Berkshires when so much is so profoundly broken? It feels like fiddling while Rome burns, or admiring pretty wildflowers while ignoring forest fires. 

Then again, how can I not write about spring? To live in this beautiful world without noticing it, without being grateful, is a dereliction of my responsibility to see with open eyes and to offer praise.

I do not help my friends and beloveds suffering oppression in red states by cutting myself off from the beauty around me. I think of these lines from Bertolt Brecht, from Svendborg Poems, 1939:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

There is still beauty, in dark times. There is springtime. There is singing. There are parents who love our children fiercely and want to support them in growing into whoever they most deeply are.

And there's also the terrible shadow cast by those who want to impose their fear of difference or their narrow theology on everyone else. What gives them the right to impose their beliefs on others?

If you're standing between someone and their doctor to ban the life-saving medical care they need (whether reproductive healthcare or gender-affirming care), you're not the good guy. 

And always in the back of my mind now, there's the the awareness that they would enact these controlling policies nationally if they could. Ban reproductive healthcare. "Ban transgenderism."

So I am here to tell you that spring has come to the Berkshires. Daffodils are nodding their heads. The leaves are breathtakingly beautiful. And our world remains broken, and we have work to do. 


What can we actually do?


First thing in the morning
the salon is mostly empty.
A beautician kneels before the altar
with incense, bowing.
Fresh fruit honors the ancestors.
No hungry ghosts here.

The chair next to me is empty.
If I cast my gaze up and to the right
scanning the shelves of polish
I can almost see you
out of the corner of my eye
sitting beside me.

You're wearing capris too, though
you called them pedal-pushers.
Tea-length sleeves, because
you didn't expose your arms
once there were wrinkles.
Bright lipstick, gold hoops.

Your grandson's dating.
Every time the orchestra plays
he wears his grandfather's tie.
How can I miss
these surface conversations
so much?

When I drive, I talk
to Shekhinah in the front seat.
At the beauty parlor I talk to you.
For a moment the incense
overpowers the astringents
like your perfume.



If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, my most recent volume of poetry, written during the first year of mourning my mother.

On talking to Shekhinah -- here's the title poem of the collection before that one, Texts to the Holy.

Words can hurt; so can silence


It's the sixth day of Pesah. Our mystics creatively read the holiday's name as peh sah"The mouth speaks." Seder is a night of story, and that story begins with our ancestors' cry. This whole month of Nisan is dedicated to healing our speech. What better time to offer some small teachings about (potentially) harmful silence and harmful speech? 

(On a weird gender note, try searching for an image of an open mouth speaking. Notice how many of the mouths depicted are femme / wearing lipstick / somewhat flirty / etc. The image search algorithm seems to have a certain bias -- implying that women sure do like to talk, or something? Wow.)

The subject of lashon hara, harmful speech (literally “evil tongue”) has been floating around my corner of the internet lately, and a friend asked if I had any thoughts to share. I do! I’ve spent some time with this subject, and I hope that my thoughts and citations will shed light rather than heat. Buckle up: this is nuanced stuff, and isn’t easily condensed. First, some definitions:

Lashon hara is true speech about someone that damages the person being discussed. A related term is rechilut, gossip / speaking about someone behind their back. Also hotzaat shem ra, “making a bad name,” slander / untrue statements about someone. All are prohibited by Jewish texts, though slander or defamation is considered to be the worst of the bunch.

There’s a famous story (here’s one version) in which someone comes to a rabbi asking for absolution for gossip. The rabbi invites them to cut open a feather pillow. Once cut open, its feathers are picked up by the wind. The moral of the story is that words fly like those feathers: they can’t be unspoken, including to places the speaker may never have intended. 

This Talmud text gets cited a lot: “כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים /  One who ‘whitens another’s face’ (shames or embarrasses them) in public, it is as if that person shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b) In context, it’s part of a conversation about verbal mistreatment. Clearly our tradition does not subcribe to “sticks and stones” etc. Words do matter.

Part of what makes lashon hara complicated is that we’re instructed not to cause halbanat panim / shame even if what we’re saying is true. Remember, lashon hara is presumed to be true speech. But what about the risk of allowing abusive behavior to stand? Is there an ethical obligation to speak in order to protect? (Short answer: yes, I believe there is.)

If someone does something wrong and I call them on it, strictly speaking that is lashon hara. Sometimes both speaking and silence cause harm to the vulnerable, and then we have to choose as best we can. In my understanding (and others, too – e.g. R. Avi Friedman / @AvFriedman) saving others from harm is often the highest ethical obligation.

For more on that, here’s a great summary of the Hofetz Hayim’s teachings on when lashon hara is permissible, maybe even obligatory. We may speak lashon hara (it’s arguable that we must) in order to help others. And, we mustn’t do so lightly. Note that he offers further stipulations, e.g. don’t pass along hearsay, think hard about intentions, this should be a last resort, etc. 

Torah tells us not to stand idly by when our fellow’s blood is being shed. (Lev. 19:15) Given Talmud’s understanding of “whitening the face,” we can say: If person A is slandering person B, we must not stand by as person B is shamed. We should name the slander for what it is. And yet if we speak up, there’s a risk of shaming person A for doing the slandering. 

(This is part of why the Hofetz Hayim is insistent that one must be ethically scrupulous and ensure that if one is going to speak, the 7 preconditions be met: firsthand knowledge, awareness of Jewish law, private tokheha first, the truth and only the truth, constructive intentions, no other available path, and not causing greater punishment than would a court.)

Torah also tells us to rebuke our fellow when our fellow has done wrong  – but not to sin in so doing. (Lev. 19:16)  Rashi says the sin, the missing-of-the-mark, lies in offering tokheha (rebuke) in a way that causes shame, e.g. the “whitening of the face.” It’s our obligation to try not to shame others. And it’s also our duty to protect the vulnerable. Sometimes these two imperatives conflict.

Sometimes the obligation to prevent more harm (“Person C, the thing you are doing is hurting me and may hurt others; please stop”) outweighs the obligation to avoid halbanat panim. If by offering tokheha or naming a wrongful act one might protect others from being harmed, speaking up is an obligation. (More on that in this @jdforward piece by R. Mira Wasserman.)

I don’t think there are easy rubrics for balancing the imperative to speak when others are at risk with the imperative to avoid public shaming. I think it’s an endless and necessary balancing act. Much has been written about this – see the resources compiled in The Torah of #MeToo. (Some of the pieces I’ve already linked or cited are included in that collection.)

A false accusation (of wrong behavior) can cause enormous harm. It seems clear to me that slander and false accusations should be named and rejected. To weaponize a false accusation of unethical behavior not only harms the person falsely accused, it also indirectly harms actual victims of that behavior, making it harder for everyone to take victim testimony at face value.

A parallel harm can also be perpetuated by the weaponized accusation that someone is speaking lashon hara. If a tokheha / critique is genuine, then accusing the critic of lashon hara can be a way to silence them. That in turn can shift the focus in unhelpful ways from the critique (which is a legitimate area of inquiry) to the character or motivations of the critic. 

We see this a lot in #MeToo contexts: when someone is accused of rape, people often bemoan how the accusation has marred his bright future, ignoring the worse impacts on the person who experienced the rape. Accusing the rape victim of “ruining [the accused’s] reputation” with lashon hara is a way of weaponizing Jewish tradition in order to silence the victim.

R. Mira Wasserman notes that “in today’s climate, to be the object of an accusation is to suffer public humiliation.” I find myself thinking a lot about R. Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR)’s book On Repentance and Repair. What if being accused of doing something wrong could be a springboard to inner change work and the outer work that must follow? 

It’s not easy to respond to an accusation in that way. Halbanat panim: the blood drains from the face, the heart pounds, the limbic system activates, anger surges. It’s difficult to breathe through that and reach the other side, and then to look with clear eyes: did I do something wrong? Is there truth in this accusation? What work is there for me to do here? 

And of course this too can be weaponized. Imagine an innocent person who is first accused of unethical behavior, and then told that their unwillingness to be gaslit about their own behavior is further example of what’s wrong with them. Any holy teaching can be misused. My hope is that we who are invested in right speech try hard not to misuse this body of Jewish wisdom.

These dynamics come into play in non-#MeToo settings too, of course. Imagine that I know from personal experience that someone is abusive toward employees. I would feel obligated to warn one applying for a job there; otherwise my silence would make me complicit in their potential harm. I would also feel torn about naming it, because I don’t want to engage in lashon hara. 

The obligation to protect the vulnerable takes precedence over the obligation to guard my tongue. In a case like that one, I would probably reach out privately to share my own experience as a cautionary tale. I’d have to balance my desire to communicate privately against the knowledge that sometimes speaking publicly is the best way to prevent harm.

And if I did choose to speak publicly about harms I’d experienced, I know I’d run the risk of being accused of lashon hara for saying what happened, and people would question my character and my motivations in speaking. (This is hypothetical! I am not talking about my beloved shul! I’m just trying to show that trying to make ethical choices takes nuance.)

Today we aspire to be aware of power dynamics, and those do matter here. We all occupy different positions of power in different relationships. I can be in a position of power because of my skin (white), and also a marginalized one because of my gender (female.) Or in a position of power because I’m cisgender, and also a marginalized one because I’m Jewish.

Relative power in a relationship can impact how we receive critique / tokheha. The same critique might land differently depending on the gender of the person making the critique or the gender of the person receiving it. Sexual orientation, gender expression, age, skin color, level of education – all of these impact who has the power in any given interaction. 

I’m always aware that being a rabbi is a position of power. I don’t think of myself as someone who wields power in an angular or frontal way, but I need to be extra careful. Someone could still experience me as exercising power over them because of my role. And when a spiritual leader causes harm, that harm can be redoubled because of the import of what we do. 

I know that if I harm someone, as a rabbi, I risk damaging their relationship not only with me but with Judaism writ large and perhaps even with the Holy One of Blessing. When I comport myself well, it reflects on my tradition. When I comport myself poorly, the same is true. Whether in actions or in words, I owe it to everyone I serve to be both careful and principled. 

Like the book says, “Being a rabbi means serving as a Symbolic Exemplar of the best that is in humankind, being experienced and treated and expected to act as a stand-in for God, and a walking, talking symbol of all that Jewish tradition represents.” No pressure, or anything. (Hah.) I know that no one can always live up to that. I also know that it’s my job to try as best I can.

So what should one do if one realizes that one has engaged in lashon hara? Own it, and make restitution, including accepting any consequences. Then apologize, though the relationship might or might not be reparable. Then make different choices in future. (This is R. Danya Ruttenberg’s formulation, based in Rambam; I gave a sermon about it last year.) 

That same teshuvah (repentance / repair) framework is also the answer if one realizes that one has engaged in any wrongful interpersonal act. Teshuvah is our constant spiritual and ethical curriculum. Everyone causes harm, and everyone experiences harm. Our task as Jews is to use our tradition’s wisdom in the service of building a world of less harm and more justice.

Judaism instructs us to avoid gossip and lashon hara and especially slander – AND to balance the obligation to avoid shaming others with the obligation to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment. Weaponizing any false accusation is never okay. Neither is weaponizing the language of lashon hara to silence the voice of anyone who’s experienced harm.


This post also exists as a long Twitter thread.

Who's afraid of antisemitism?



Wow, y'all. Is this really how they see us? 

I've heard from a lot of us who are activated by the anti-Soros rhetoric coming from the GOP this week. I happen to be a fan of Mr. Soros' philanthropy, but in this moment that's almost beside the point. Blaming the world's ills on any Jew strikes fear into a lot of hearts, and not without reason.

Conspiracy theories about Soros are rooted in lies about nefarious Jewish control. (That Washington Post piece is from 2018, but it's no less true now than it was then.) Hearing this ugliness during Holy Week, historically a season when Christian slaughter of Jews has surged, adds to the anxiety. 

The Catholic church officially blamed Jews for the death of Jesus until 1965. And for centuries, Eastertide passion plays blamed us for that death in no uncertain terms... which dovetailed with the popular conspiracy theory that we put Christian children's blood in our Passover matzah. 

The false allegation that Jews make ritual use of the blood of non-Jewish children was popularized in the 12th century, resulting in Eastertide violence against Jews in England at the time, and against Jews in Prague in the fourteenth century, and against Jews in Lisbon in the sixteenth century.

In the 20th century, as you might imagine, things got worse. See 1903:Easter Week | A Proclamation Inciting a Pogrom of the Jews, with accompanying write-up from Kishinev. And of course, Hitler and his Nazi propagandists were big fans of this vile rhetoric, and they slaughtered six million of us.

The claim that Jews kidnap and kill Christian children to put their blood in our Passover matzah is so ridiculous it's hard to take it seriously. But scratch the surface of QAnon's lies about a secret cabal harvesting children's blood, and it becomes clear that the lie of blood libel is still with us. 

So yeah, Holy Week is a time of heightened anxiety for many Jews. Even if we haven't experienced violence at this season, many of us know that our ancestors did... which becomes part of our inheritance, whether via epigenetic trauma or because we empathize with our ancestors' suffering.

(Christianity Today ran an article about this in 2004: Why Some Jews Fear The Passion. They were trying to understand why so many of us were afraid around the movie The Passion of the Christ.  I give them credit for recognizing that yeah, we had reason to be afraid. Unfortunately, we still do.)

I used to not be afraid of antisemitism. I thought it was a horror of the past. I thought humanity had finally reached a level of post-triumphalist spiritual evolution in which no one hates other human beings because of how we mark holy time or understand scripture or experience the presence of God.

(Of course, that's not actually why most of them hate us, setting aside for the moment those who shoot up synagogues because they hate Jewish support for refugees. They just need to blame someone for everything that's wrong in the world, and for thousands of years we've been a favorite scapegoat.) 

I thought antisemitism was old news. Then came "Jews will not replace us." And antisemitism at an all-time high. And antisemitism in schools. And did you know Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on earth? And now there's the antisemitic demonization of George Soros... again.

When I started this blog in 2003, people would occasionally ask why I didn't write about antisemitism. My answer then was that I didn't want to give it any energy by naming it, and besides, it wasn't part of my lived Jewish experience, honestly. But these days, I can't not mention it. It's everywhere.

I don't want to be marinating in the fact that some Christians hate us. Especially not during this glorious festival week of Passover which just began. I guess this reality is part of what I'm experiencing as this year's Mitzrayim, the "narrow place" of constriction from which I (and we) yearn to be free.

In the face of this, I want to say: your hatred can't stop Jewish joy. Your hatred can't stop the sweetness that is Shabbat, or the sparkling gems of our festivals set in the wheel of the year. You can't destroy the wonder of our encounter with that Mystery we name as God, or our tapestry of teachings. 

Today is the first day of the Omer, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Today I'll eat matzah, the humble cracker of servitude and the mnemonic waybread of our flight to freedom. Tonight I'll light Shabbat candles, blessing the twin flames that evoke the light of Torah and the light of creation. 

I woke with Jewish words of prayer on my lips, and I'll go to sleep the same way. Today I'll serve my Jewish community as best I can, and parent my Jewish child, and I'll do so knowing that there is joy in my tradition that haters like you can't begin to imagine. No one can take that away from me.


For more on the appalling artwork that accompanies this post: here's a fascinating and distressing article about the original image and its origins "on a blog discussing the conspiracy behind Jewish ritual murder of Christians." In 2001, which is to say, in this century. I wish I were making this up.

Take a Lamb: Shabbat HaGadol 5783

Screen Shot 2023-03-29 at 9.02.00 AM

Today is Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat," right before Pesah. It's customary on this day for rabbis to teach about getting ready for the holiday. Usually that means teaching about removing hametz, whether literally (leaven) or metaphorically (the spiritual stuff we need to shed in order to go free.) And this afternoon it's traditional to study the haggadah -- again, to ready ourselves.

Today is also the 10th of Nisan. On this day our ancestors were told to take a lamb. Bring it into the home and look after it. Four days later, slaughter it and put its blood on the doorposts. The blood on the doorposts would tell the Angel of Death to "pass over." Though the Chizkuni, 1200s, teaches that God didn't delegate that. And surely God knows who we are. Maybe the visible reminder was for us.

What if the blood on the doorposts is to remind us? What do we need to remember? What deep truths do we forget about who we are? What are the costs of freedom -- what might we have to offer up in order to be freed from our stuck places... and to help others who aren't granted full human dignity to get there with us? Those are some big questions. But let's start with a smaller one: why a lamb?

Ramban (d. 1270) says the reason for the lamb is that Aries is the star sign ascendant at this time of year, and God wanted to prove to us that when we go free, it's not because of any luck in the stars. Among other sages, he also suggests that it's possible that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. So the sacrifice of a lamb was a way for us to break any allegiance to the symbol of their "god."

Readying ourselves to go free involved making this korban / offering. And it was supposed to be something familiar, something personal, something we'd been holding on to for a while and had even been nurturing. This pre-liberation offering evolved into the offering of a paschal lamb in Temple times, still represented on the table in our seder. So what's our modern emotional-spiritual equivalent?

I read an article the other day about climate "doomers." What's the point of doing anything, when we've ruined the Earth? It's a compelling question. And yet I keep thinking about Ramban's teaching that the lamb represented idolatry. Isn't fatalism a kind of idolatry, in which we think our hopelessness is stronger than God? (As always, if the "G-word" doesn't work for you try justice or hope or love.)

Nihilism is never a good Jewish answer. Because nihilism is an abdication of responsibility, and Judaism is all about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, to our world, to our Source. Doom and despair perpetuate kotzer ruah, that spiritual shortness of breath that our ancestors knew in Egypt. And if we're stuck in despair, we aren't owning our agency, and we're not creating change.

Here, too, our ancient spiritual story offers a roadmap. Their spirits crushed, our ancestors cried out, and that cry was the first step toward liberation. So yeah, cry out. Feel what's broken and give it voice. And remember that crying-out is the first step. When we face what's broken, when we cry out, we open up a tiny internal space. We open ourselves to the possibility that things could change.

Granted, change may not be easy. Our spiritual ancestors went from Pharaoh's frying pan into the fire of forty years of wilderness wandering. But the fact of a new path is hopeful even if the path is hard. Because nihilism and despair and paralysis say: nothing's ever going to be different. What's broken will always be broken and can never be mended, so it isn't worth even trying. But it is worth trying. 

That "climate doomer" article notes, "Nowadays, climate scientists try to emphasize that climate change isn’t a pass/fail test: Every tenth and hundredth of a degree of warming avoided matters." In other words, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do matters, even if it's not a complete fix. And if we scorn anything short of a complete fix, we're compounding the problem.

Here's a question I sit with: who benefits when we lose ourselves in doom or despair? I think the answer is: whoever has a vested interest, often a fiscal one, in things staying the way they are. And that results in greater harm for those who were already vulnerable -- whether we're talking about people in the path of the next tornado, or schoolchildren helpless against the next mass shooting.

R. Avi Weiss notes the order of operations: before offering the lamb, we clear out hametz. First we cast away the puffery of overinflated ego, because the paschal offering asks humility. The korban Pesah is also the first step toward the revelation of Torah at Sinai... which reminds me that we never know what holy outcomes our choices might set in motion. That's another form of humility.

I like his teaching about humility, though this year I prefer to think of hametz (from לחמוץ, to sour or ferment) not as ego but as sourness. Everyone needs a healthy ego. Often what holds us back from liberation is the old sour stuff: old stories and flaws and resentments, old patterns of seeing ourselves or each other in the worst light... and maybe also old habits of hopelessness and despair.

So first we seek out the hametz we need to clean out of our physical houses and our metaphysical houses. Look within for the old sour stories that no longer serve, and cast them to the burning. Then we can bring the korban Pesah we need to offer up this year -- maybe the helplessness or fatalism that we've been unwittingly nurturing. We offer up the habit, the tendency, the fear that holds us back.

R. Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

"All that rises up bitter, all that rises up prideful, all that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful, all hametz unknown to me... may it find common grave with the dust of the Earth." 

This year, I add:

May our sourness be nullified. May we offer up what we need to let go. May we mark our doorposts with reminders of who we aspire to be. And in that merit, may we go forth ready for freedom.


This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat HaGadol (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)