Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.


2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.


3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.


4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?


5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.


6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.


7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?

Walking in God's Paths, Everywhere We Go


אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,

וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ׃

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

These are the opening lines of this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then we will receive rains in their season. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then kinds of blessing and abundance will flow. And if we don't listen, and we don't keep the mitzvot, then all kinds of curses will ensue. (Torah goes into some detail here.)

This is the kind of problematic theology that caused the early Reform movement to remove the second paragraph of the Shema from our siddurim. Because we all know that following mitzvot is not a guarantee of prosperity and blessing, and that scarcity and tragedy are not signs of someone's wickedness. We all know that bad things can happen to good people and vice versa.

But I want to look more closely at the parsha's opening words. "If you walk in My paths..."

The Hebrew word for "My paths," chukotai, shares a root with one of our words for mitzvot, chukim. That root means engraved or carved, which is why chukim is sometimes translated as engraved-mitzvot, or "commandments that engrave themselves on us." So "if you walk in My paths" can also be rendered as "if you walk in My pathways that engrave themselves on you."

My friend Rabbi Bella Bogart understands this verse to mean that if we walk in God's pathways and let those pathways engrave themselves on us, then we will necessarily follow the mitzvot, the connective-commandments. It's not that we walk in God's ways and follow mitzvot and then blessings come; it's that when we walk in God's ways, we can't help following the mitzvot.

And when we can't help following the mitzvot, we receive blessing, because we will experience blessing in whatever unfolds. If we walk in God's chukim, if we let God's chukim engrave themselves on us, then we will experience blessing no matter what happens in our lives. It's a matter of epistemology rather than ontology, how we feel rather than "what measurably is."

Every week I study the writings of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet with my Bayit colleagues, and this week I was struck by a riff on this verse. The Sfat Emet cites a midrash about King David, that wherever he intended to go -- be it to somebody's house, or off to war -- his feet would carry him to the synagogue or the beit midrash, the house of study.

Now, on first blush this might look a little bit ridiculous. Because know that there were no synagogues or houses of study -- at least not as we now understand them -- in King David's day! It's as though the rabbis, who cherished the shul and the beit midrash, were trying to impose their own frame on a Biblical figure who didn't know what either of those things were.

But the Sfat Emet quotes our daily liturgy to argue that God's greatness and goodness fill the world. He says that God's "greatness" refers to the ten utterances with which Creation began, and God's "goodness" refers to the ten utterances we received at Sinai. To say, then, that "God's greatness and goodness fill the world" is to reference both creation and revelation.

And Rabbi Art Green notes, in his translators' notes, that there's an unspoken conclusion to the Sfat Emet's teaching. If the whole world is full of God's glory, then every place we go can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. King David, in this midrash, becomes our model for recognizing God's greatness and God's goodness wherever our paths may lead.

We can find God everywhere our paths take us. What a radically transformative idea that is. Every place we go -- to work, to the grocery store, running errands, karate class, dance rehearsals, you name it -- can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. That's what it means to walk in God's engraved paths, and to let God's paths engrave themselves on us.

When we let God's paths engrave themselves on us, that changes how we experience the world around us. Then suddenly the gas station and the hardware store and our workplaces and our homes become the synagogue and the beit midrash, places of learning and places of prayer. Because we carry that lens of learning and prayer with us, wherever we go.

And when we carry learning and prayer with us wherever we go, then all the world is our beit midrash where we can marvel in awe and wonder at how much there is to learn -- in Richard Levy's words that we prayed this morning, "how much Torah unfolds from each new flower!" And all the world is our synagogue, where we can pour forth our hearts in prayer.

And that's how the blessings promised in this week's parsha come to pass. When we walk in God's engraved pathways, when we let God's engraved-pathways carve grooves of gratitude and wonder on our hearts, then all the world becomes our house of prayer and study, and everywhere we go becomes a place where we can encounter the Holy. Kein yehi ratzon.


This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study buddies, especially (this week) R' Bella and R' David!

A week of learning and togetherness

34933977923_59b899ca49_zWhen I come down to breakfast, I find two friends at the table enjoying coffee. It takes approximately five minutes for us to wind up in a halakhic conversation. It's about the psycho-spiritual, halakhic, and pastoral implications of seeking to speak truth -- with intimates, and with the larger world -- while taking care not to commit lashon ha-ra (malicious speech).

The friend who's making breakfast laughs: the minute you add a third rabbi to the table, halakhic conversations cannot be far behind! Later breakfast conversations (over continuing cups of coffee) include concepts of God through a Four Worlds lens, and how one's needs in briyah (the realm of thought) might be different from one's needs in yetzirah (emotionally, relationally.)

And that's just the first morning. Another morning over coffee we talk about Jewish organizational life and spiritual bypassing. We talk about the Jewish future we want to co-create, and about projects we want to take on, and about who's doing meaningful and innovative work in our field that feels real. We talk about different Hebrew options for same-sex wedding liturgy.

And in between the deep conversations about the Jewish future, we cook meals and spend time together. One afternoon we rent rowboats and go out on the water. One evening we marvel at fireflies and fireworks over a lake -- tiny lights moving and gleaming, juxtaposed with enormous chrysanthemums of sparks that paint the night sky and then disappear into smoke.

We sit with our various machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) -- Days of Awe, Harlow, Machzor Chadash, Kol HaNeshamah, Wings of Awe -- and sing snippets of melody and high holiday nusach. We share high holiday ideas and questions, talk about things we've done that have worked and things we want to try differently this year in the communities where we serve.

Our high holiday conversations oscillate between tight focus and granular detail (melody choices, when to use nusach, how do you do this prayer?) and macro questions: what does it mean to do "good"? If our souls are pure each morning, why do we need the Days of Awe at all? (We all agree that we do, but some of those whom we serve might not think so: how do we tend to them too?)

We learn with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, which is predictably extraordinary. With him we take a deep dive into mussar (ethical and spiritual self-improvement) and halakha around our dining room table. We sharpen our text skills and hone our spiritual responsiveness through deep encounters with text and with tradition, ably guided by his wisdom.

We learn a gorgeous R' Shlomo Wolbe text from the book Alei Shur about the idea that there are appointed times, of closeness to God and of distance from God. The Three Weeks (which begin next week) are a time when we recognize our distance from the Holy One. Far worse than distance, R' Wolbe teaches, is the condition of not even realizing that the distance is there. 

Another beautiful Wolbe text speaks about Torah as the path to shleimut, wholeness. Through Torah study and more importantly through doing mitzvot, he says, we transform our lives into living laboratories. In pursuing Torah learning and service, we become overflowing springs of renewal, we ascend toward holiness, and we become who we're meant to be.

We learn a text from the Maharsha about how it takes 21 days for a chicken to gestate or an almond tree to flower. He riffs on 21 days, exploring two three-week corridors in Jewish time: the Three Weeks (bitter) and the weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshanah Rabbah (sweet), and how both of these can be doorways to God's presence and to purification of one's soul.

And we learn a text from the Afikei Mayim that riffs off of the Alei Shur, the Maharsha, and a few others that we had studied together, exploring the idea that God cries with us, and that Tisha b'Av is a day of closeness between us and God, as is Shemini Atzeret -- though one is a day of rejoicing and the other is a day of sorrow, they're both days of intimate connection. (Wow.)

We study questions of transgender and halakha, delving into texts from Talmud and Rambam, a heartwrenching 13th-century poem by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a pair of teshuvot from the Tzitz Eliezer, excerpts from a book by Edan Ben-Ephraim, and more. We grapple with our tradition's various ways of dealing with gender, relationship, and identity over the centuries.

What a profound luxury it is to spend time with chaverim (beloved colleague-friends), diving deep into liturgy and halakha, practice and purpose, for hours on end. Our learning will benefit the communities we serve, but even more than that, it enriches and enlivens our hearts and souls as Jewish clergy (rabbis and hazzan). Truly this is Torah study lishma: for its own sake.

I'm endlessly grateful to The Jewish Studio for creating and sponsoring this fantastic week, and to my hevre for learning with me and davening with me, laughing with me and harmonizing with me, pushing and pulling me toward insights I would never have reached on my own, and for feeding not only my body but also my heart, my mind, and my neshama -- my soul. 

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Front-coverLast night I went to hear Rabbi Haviva Ner-David speak in Pittsfield at an event co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel (my shul), Knesset Israel, Hevreh, and and Rimon Center for Jewish Spirituality. Here's how we described the event on the flyers:

Rabba Haviva Ner-David is an author, pioneer in Jewish women’s post-denominational thinking, wife, and mother of seven living on Kibbutz Hanaton. She is also a dynamic speaker coming to share the experiences and thinking which led to her latest book: Chana’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (new from Ben Yehuda Press).

All genders are invited to join us for a talk followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to chat with the author and get books autographed.

I'd actually heard Rabbi Ner-David speak a few years ago at the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh conference Gathering the Waters -- I blogged about her remarks in the post The emerging mikveh movement in Israel. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, ever since I first read Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.

She began her remarks by explaining how the process of writing her first memoir led to the spiritual and intellectual inquiry of this second book. "Life on the Fringes was about my childhood growing up Modern Orthodox in New York," she explained, "and my struggles as a feminist with Orthodoxy and tradition, and my decision to study to become a rabbi -- but wanting to get Orthodox rabbinic ordination."

That first book is memoir mixed with halakhic interpretation (Jewish-legal analysis), and one of its main themes is is women's role in tradition. Hair covering, women studying Torah, taking on the obligations which only men are technically obligated to perform -- the "positive time-bound mitzvot." (I've written about those before: Time-bound, 2010.) It occurred to me, as I heard her speak, that the combination of memoir and halakhic interpretation makes me think of midrash aggadah and midrash halakha, the interweaving of narrative and legal interpretation which makes up so much of classical Jewish tradition.

She wrote in Life on the Fringes about tallit and tefillin -- things which (in her Modern Orthodox childhood) men did, and women didn't do. Chanah's Voice explores how she came to recognize that in focusing so strongly on claiming tallit and tefillin for herself, she had neglected the mitzvot which women are traditionally obligated to perform. "I didn't know when I started writing the book what I was going to find," she noted. "But I decided to spend that year struggling with these three mitzvot."

The three mitzvot which are traditionally considered womens' mitzvot are challah (taking challah -- when one bakes a certain amount of bread, one is supposed to take out a portion of the dough and set it aside for the priests, and since today we don't have priests, one sets it aside and burns it), niddah (after menstruation one counts a certain number of days and then immerses in a mikveh before engaging in sexual relations again) and hadlakat ha-ner (lighting shabbat candles.) Together they're known by the acronym ChaNaH, which is a nifty confluence because Chanah is the Biblical figure who is considered to have invented prayer.

"As a feminist, I had a lot of baggage around all three of these [mitzvot]," she admitted, and all the women in the room chuckled.

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The road and the walking

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
only waves upon the sea.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda
que nunca se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla (1912), translated by Betty Jean Craige

I encountered this poem in a daily "Making the Omer Count" email from the Jewish Mindfulness Network (sign up here) and it struck a chord. "Wanderer, there is no road / the road is made by walking." I hear the poet saying that although we may imagine that there is a single correct path on which we're "supposed" to walk, that's a fallacy -- a comfortable and perhaps comforting notion, but not ultimately true. There is no single right way to live a life. Do you find comfort in the idea that you're "doing it right" -- or do you castigate yourself with the idea that you're "doing it wrong"? The self-praise and self-blame are equally incorrect. There is no single path. Wherever you are, is wherever you are. You can't be in the wrong place, because by definition, whatever path you're walking is your path.

We may imagine that we know where we're going. We may pretend that we're in control of the journey and we can anticipate both the destination and the turns the road will take along the way -- but that too is a falsehood. No matter what I do or don't do, there are things I can't control. Sickness and health; other people's choices; what hand of cards I will be dealt in any given moment -- all beyond my ken. The only thing I might be able to control is how I respond to what arises in me and around me... and even there, my ability to maintain control isn't absolute. What would it feel like to yield, to let the road unfold as it will and to seek the blessings in wherever the road takes us? What would it feel like to trust that my footsteps are the road, that I am always already where I am meant to be?

"The road is made by walking." This line shifts me from thinking in terms of an individual life, to thinking in terms of community. I think of halakha, the Hebrew word usually translated as "law." Halakha is the ongoing conversation between our texts, our sages, and today's interpreters. Halakha is the process which seeks to connect our actions with the revelation at Sinai and our communal connection with God. And the word halakha comes from the root which connotes walking. In its deepest sense, halakha is not a set of strictures and instructions -- it's a way of walking. My teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel has taught that halakha doesn't speak; halakhists do. Which is to say: there is no single authoritative voice of the halakha. Instead we have the many and varied voices of those who strive to interpret what has come before us. We make the road by walking.

"By walking one makes the road[.]" Each of us walks her own path. Only in looking back may we achieve full clarity on where we've been and how we got to where we are -- and that hindsight comes with the price of not being able to walk any stretch of the road twice. I think of all of the milestones I've passed along the way, and I know that the road of my life will never return to those places. Not only that, but the minute during which I began to write this post...? Gone, and unrecoverable. The minute during which you began to read...? The same. The only path we can see clearly is the one we've already walked, and because we've already walked it, it's fixed. The road ahead is limitless potential, an infinity of choices and changes. Only the road behind can be known. Every step I take builds the road of my life beneath my feet.

And after all this, Machado takes the poem's ultimate turn: in truth there is no road, only waves on the sea. Life is flux and change, the ratzo v'shov ("running and returning") of Ezekiel's angels and of our own spiritual lives, the waves going out and the waves coming in. That, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite parables which I first heard at Elat Chayyim from Rabbi Jeff Roth -- the two waves in the middle of the ocean, one big and one small, and the big wave was weeping with fear. "Why are you crying?" asked the little wave. "If you could see what I see," said the big wave, "you'd cry too -- we're headed for a rocky shore, and when we reach the rocks, we'll be shattered into nothingness!" But the little wave had access to a deeper wisdom, and said to the big wave, "we're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves, we're water. We are more than individual souls who shatter on the rocky shoals of death. That within us which is eternal remains eternal, even when the form we've taken during this life comes to its end. An individual wave disperses into foam, but the motion of the sea is forever. And so are we. My path, your path, the footsteps of everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live -- waves which come and go, run and return. Life, being, the very cosmos -- expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling, beginning and ending, beginning again.

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" »

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" »

To shame someone is to shed their blood

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים.

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

-- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 58b

Someone who embarrasses another person in public causes their face to turn paler (הלבין את פניו / hilbin et panav) as the blood drains away. When you shame someone, the Talmud says, it's tantamount to wounding them and shedding their blood. But online, we can't see one another's faces. If someone's blog comment or email causes the blood to drain from my face in shame or in sorrow, they don't know that; they can't see me. What -- asked one of my colleagues at the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting -- might be the new Gemara of how we should interact with one another in this online world?

This is something I've thought about. I've been blogging here since October of 2003, so almost ten years. And for the most part, my efforts to create and foster a kind and thoughtful community of conversation have been successful. I'm endlessly grateful to all of y'all who have contributed to those conversations over the years! But I've also been verbally attacked for things I've posted here. (And I'm not even going to link to things like the so-called Self Hating Israel Terrorists list -- whose name is such a delightful acronym -- and the things they say about people with whom they disagree.)

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Sami Barth, has a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his email signature and on his website. The quote is this: "When I was young I admired clever people; now that I am older I admire kind people." I'm right there with him on that one. Cleverness may be impressive, and there have been times in my life when I have wanted to be clever and to be admired for that, but these days kindness is what I really aspire to. And I like to spend my time in places, both online and off, where that value prevails.

But there's no discounting the reality that there are a lot of places on the internet where kindness and compassion don't seem to be the operating principles. I expect that anyone who has a blog has experienced some nastiness. And often it's the kind of nastiness that (I hope) perfect strangers would never choose to direct at someone in person. (See the xkcd cartoon Listen to Yourself.) But why, then, do they feel entitled to direct it at them via the internet? By what ethic is meanness an appropriate way to treat someone?

One of my colleagues, Rabbi Harry Brechner, suggests the following rubric. Before posting or sending anything, ask yourself: is it true? is it kind? is it important? He suggests that one should be certain that at least two of the three can be answered with "yes" before putting it out there.

As far as I'm concerned, the Talmudic teaching from Bava Metzia -- that someone who shames another person, it is as though they have spilled blood -- is every bit as true online as offline. A blog is a public space. When someone comes to my blog and insults me, or my teachers, or my teachings, or my values there, it is as though that person had shamed me in public. Because they have.

Being insulted or shamed in person and being insulted or shamed online feel quite similar. The blood drains out of the face, the heart pounds in the chest, tears hammer at the back of the eyes, a painful knot forms in the throat in exactly the same way, regardless of whether it's happening in the public square or on a blog. Beyond that: something cruel or shaming, once posted on the internet, is often persistent. It's searchable. It stays there.

I keep coming back to R' Harry Brechner's threefold communication rule: is it true? is it kind? is it important?

The things we write online feel important to us. And surely most of us say things we think are true. (I could argue with the veracity of some of those things -- so much depends on one's sources, what one reads, who one believes -- but I'm willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they post things they perceive to be true.) But I wish kindness were more often at the forefront of our consciousness.

For me, any evolving Gemara which takes the internet and social media into account needs to recognize that interactions between people online are still interactions between people. The way we treat each other online needs to be as compassionate, and as rooted in holiness and in Torah, as the way we would treat each other anywhere.

Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way

Among the many highlights of the 2013 OHALAH conference (for me) was the plenary session on Halacha called Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way. It offered a fascinating cross-section of Renewal approaches to halakha through the lens of how different Renewal communities relate to kashrut, preceded and contextualized by some teachings about what we call integral halakha. Here are some glimpses of that session and of my responses to it.

DanielSiegelRGBRabbi Daniel Siegel was the first speaker. He began by citing Rabbi Ethan Tucker's three-lecture series, "Core issues in halakha," which describes the narrowing of the halakhic process which took place as the Protestant community in Germany in the 19th century petitioned the government to split funding for different branches, different churches. "There was a discussion within the Jewish community about whether or not to do the same thing. Some Orthodox rabbis wanted to stay in contact with the Reformers, and others wanted to split off."

When the Orthodox community withdrew from the larger Jewish community, in Reb Daniel's words, "they took the leaves out of the halakhic table, leaving a much smaller group." And as a result of that, the halakhic response to change began to shift.

For instance: when women began to practice in ways which hadn't been seen before, there were two different communal responses. One was, "We know the women of Israel are sacred and holy, so how do we take their practice of this custom and bring it inside the mainstream?" And the other was, "How dare they do that, how dare anyone be outside our boundaries, they're wrong and they have to change." I appreciate his point that that kind of strict boundary-enforcing is not necessarily the only authentic response to change.

Over the course of his remarks, Reb Daniel said several things which I remember hearing from him during our halakha classes, and which still resonate for me. Here are a few tastes (boldface / emphasis mine):

Halakha is not a set of decisions, but a conversation. There are many positions possible and they can exist simultaneously. [...]

Halakha is not [about] knowing how to find something in the Shulchan Aruch, but [rather] how to participate in the process of which the Shulchan Aruch is the digest. [...]

There is no such thing as "The" halakha. Halakha does not speak. Halakhists speak. And they respond to questions which are asked of them, usually not by laypeople but by other rabbis.

Continue reading "Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way" »

Returning to rabbinic school

This week I return to rabbinic school...a little bit. I'm taking one class this spring, called Integral Halacha, which is functionally ALEPH's senior seminar; I'm taking it with the other six rabbinic students who are, like me, aiming for ordination next January.

Integral halacha: transcending and including is the title of one of Reb Zalman's recent books, co-written with Reb Daniel Siegel, who'll be teaching the class I'm about to take. Ideally, integral halakha aims to maintain continuity with the past and also to provide flexibility for the present. Reb Zalman has written:

How do we find meaning by continuing to be Jews? How do we connect to joy, to purpose, and why should we want to within a Jewish context, if it has been the cause of so much pain?

The way I can answer these questions is by creating a new, transcending, Judaism which honors the past and goes beyond it. Our practice must reference the larger purpose of the Jewish people in the world, our commitment to God and to what we call tikkun olam, to being agents of redemption. We now also know that we are not alone in this commitment, but part of something greater, a sharing with other people and paths.

We'll be reading Reb Zalman's book as part of this class, among other contemporary texts. But the heart of the class will involve studying some of the major halakhic codes and various teshuvot (halakhic responsa), in preparation for each writing our own responsum to a halakhic question  -- that's the senior project required of every ALEPH musmach (ordinee.) We'll be learning in three broad areas of subject matter: marriage & divorce, the perennial question of "who is a Jew," and relating to other denominations (though the halakhic questions we each answer in our teshuvot will not necessarily arise in these areas.)

Our first assigned reading is an excerpt from Rambam's Mishneh Torah on the subject of the agunah -- the "chained woman," e.g. a woman who is stuck in her marriage. Today the term is often used to describe women whose husbands refuse to grant a writ of divorce, though it can also mean someone whose husband is missing and may (or may not) be dead. (Think Enoch Arden.) Anyway, over the last several days I've been grabbing time while Drew is napping to try to begin working on my homework, which means sitting down with that first chunk of Rambam.

The first hour I managed to spend working on Rambam was a little bit disheartening. It's been two months since I did any schoolwork at all, and both my concentration and my word recall are rusty. (I haven't used my language skills since before Thanksgiving... and I haven't been getting much sleep since then, either, which I'm pretty sure makes my brain measurably less functional.) I also haven't taken a halakha class in a while. I did a lot of text translation this past summer and fall, but it was almost all Hasidic material -- which has both a different style and a different basic vocabulary than legal texts do.

But the second day that I sat down with the text, the reading was easier. Maybe it's a matter of getting back into the groove. One way or another, I'm looking forward to our first class. I'm excited about having a little bit of school folded in to my childcare-centric new life; I'm looking forward to the learning we're going to do; and I'm really looking forward to the chance to learn with the rest of my rabbinic ordination class. I know these six people pretty well, but over the year to come I anticipate getting to know this cohort even better, and I expect that the learning we will do with and from each other will be pretty wonderful.