Outrage and heartbreak at Trump's #MuslimBan

I entered Shabbat and emerged from Shabbat heartsick at news of Trump's ban on Muslims and refugees entering this country. That he would issue such a ban at all is horrifying. That he did so on a day of remembrance of the wholesale slaughter of six million souls who were persecuted and killed for their religion (my religion) just makes this dystopian reality more surreal and more appalling.

Trump has suspended entry of all refugees into the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into this country for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- for the next 90 days. His ban also blocks entry for green card holders from those countries.

There are already countless reports of permanent residents of this country held in airports across the country as they tried to return from funerals, travel, or study abroad, and family members of American citizens who sought to come here legally on family visas now facing immediate deportation. These are some of the instances we know about because they're making it into the media; surely there are other stories, equally heart-wrenching, that aren't known to us. 

And the Syrian refugee crisis has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. We should be responding to that crisis by welcoming refugees with open arms -- not, God forbid, closing our borders out of fear of people who look different, dress differently, or pray differently than we do.

Can you imagine escaping from wartorn Syria, living in a refugee camp for years, and finally making it through the red tape to be resettled here in a free country -- only to be turned away now by this? (That's exactly what happened to one family -- two parents and four children, one of whom is six years old. That child has been through hell I cannot imagine, and now that hell is prolonged.)

By the time I headed for bed on Saturday evening I was mildly heartened to see that a federal judge has blocked part of Trump's order -- but that's not enough. 

In November, ALEPH was the first Jewish organization to insist that if the President requires Muslims to register, we will register with them. The Jewish people have living memory of being refugees barred from entry into nations (including this one) where our lives could have been saved. We of all people should be fighting this unconstitutional and unconscionable executive order with all our might.

This is not the America I want to live in. 

The America I want to live in is one where religious freedom is uplifted and cherished -- not one where the person holding the highest office in the land demonizes adherents of any religion or people of any ethnicity.

The America I want to live in is one where refugees are welcomed and embraced -- not one where they risk being sent back to the horrors they fought so hard to escape.

The America I want to live in is a nation of opportunity and freedom -- not one where this kind of bigotry is allowed to stand.

The America I want to live in is the America of Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The verse most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The deepest wisdom of my religious tradition demands of us that we welcome refugees, not turn them away.

Torah demands that we love those who are different from us, not persecute them for their differences. My firmly-held principle of deep ecumenism reflects the truth that all religions are paths to the One, and my religious tradition calls me to stand firmly against bigotry and xenophobia in all of its forms. 

I am outraged: as a rabbi, as the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who fled the Holocaust to seek safety on these shores, as an American citizen, and as a human being. This policy is unconscionable. My nation must be better than this.

I donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and to T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights after Shabbat ended. Here's a list from HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) of ways to help refugees. If you have suggestions of other actions we can take, I welcome them in comments. 

It's a new week, friends, and we have work to do.


 Although I cited, above, ALEPH's resolution urging all citizens to register as Muslims if the proposed Muslim registry were to come into being, I speak here as an individual, not as co-chair of ALEPH. I am also not speaking here for either of the institutions that employ me, the synagogue or the college. These views are my own.

Glimpses of the Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton


Arriving back at this OMNI gives me a peculiar sort of Brigadoon feeling. Even though I know that my hevre (beloved study-friends) have been geographically scattered since we last met, when I return here and they are here too, it feels as though this place and this community have just been waiting for me to walk in again. The moment I walk in the door, I see people I know and love all over the lobby, chatting and checking in and hanging out, and it feels like home.

I knew that our community would continue long beyond Reb Zalman's time on this plane. I have been certain of this for years -- at least intellectually. And yet there's something in me which needed proof; needed to feel that the connections of our community are as real as they ever were, even though he is gone. Being together, remembering him together, matters so much to me right now.

It is wonderful to be here. And yet I see Rebbetzin Eve (Ilsen) walking through the lobby and it's still hard to believe that Reb Zalman isn't walking beside her. The sweet and the heart-clenching, all in one moment.



The bracelets we're given at registration, which we will need to wear in order to get into the Sunday "A Heart As Big As The World" event at the Boulder theatre, are not flimsy fluorescent-colored plastic like the wristbands I've received in other places. These are made of what feels like recycled paper, nubbly and rough. Then I realize that they are made of handmade paper which contains wildflower seeds. The idea is that we will each take our bracelet home, plant it, and come up with wildflowers. This feels like ALEPH in a nutshell -- sweet, lovely, a little bit orthogonal to the way most people do things, not only eco-conscious but striving to bring more beauty into the world.



Rabbi Arthur Green (or "Reb Art," as he has asked us to call him) begins the weekend with a beautiful teaching about the shema. First he tells us that if his Torah sounds familiar and like Reb Zalman's in many ways, it's because over the decades of their friendship Reb Zalman's Torah became part of him. (After Reb Zalman's earthly deployment ended, Reb Art wrote a beautiful piece about his relationship with Zalman -- My mentor, teacher, dear friend.)

The shema, he points out, isn't a prayer, because it has no atah, no You. It's not spoken to the One, there's no I/Thou interaction. In the shema, everything is One; there's no "us" and "God," there's just the unity of all things. Atah, he notes further, is spelled aleph-tav (the first and last letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet -- what in Greek would be the alpha and omega) and heh, which is the letter of breath and of Shekhinah. Put those together and you get atah, connoting "from beginning to end, enlivened with spirit"!

But the shema has no atah. What it has is unity. And the first line of the shema is sandwiched between the love-prayer of ahavah rabbah / ahavat olam ("a great love," "an eternal love," which our liturgy teaches God has for us), and the love-prayer of the v'ahavta ("And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart..."). Love leads us to oneness; oneness leads us back to love.

The final paragraph of the shema speaks of tzitzit, the fringes which are intended to remind us of the mitzvot. Reb Art notes that tzitzit is a feminine word, but in the paragraph we chant daily we say the words u'ritem oto, "you shall look upon (masculine) it." It, or perhaps him, not her. (I usually gloss over that when I sing the rendering in English.) So what is the oto on which we're meant to look, if not the tzitzit? His answer is -- God. And he gives us the image of holding up the tzitzit like fringes in a curtain: we're on one side looking at God, and God's on the other side looking at us.



At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, Rebbitzen Eve leads us in an imaginal exercise of filling our innermost hearts with light and then sharing that light with a loved one, and then she kindles the Shabbat lights. She also leads us in a shehecheyanu -- an extraordinary moment of bittersweet celebration. I don't think anyone else would have had the chutzpah to suggest reciting that blessing which thanks God for keeping us alive until this moment. But when Reb Zalman's widow begins the bracha, all of our voices ring out with hers.

Shir Yaakov and Reb Sarah Bracha lead a song-filled Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is exactly the right gentle ramp I needed in order to transition from home to here, from anticipating this weekend to actually being in it, from workweek to sacred time. Shir Yaakov notes, as we begin, that this room in which we are sitting -- the room in which I was ordained! -- is full, so full, of history and memories. That's the starting place from which our prayers will arise.

For me the sweetest parts are singing part of Lecha Dodi to the melody of the bati l'gani niggun which Reb Zalman wrote in memory of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, his rebbe; and singing Reb Shlomo's psalm 92 variation ("The whole wide world is waiting, to sing a song of Shabbat..."); and singing some of Shir Yaakov's own melodies which I know from the Shir Yaakov / Romemu soundcloud but had never gotten to daven with him. At the end of the service, after the people who are in active mourning say the mourner's kaddish, Shir Yaakov quietly reads Reb Zalman's translation of mourner's kaddish. Hearing it read aloud in this place in this moment gives me chills.

I am so grateful to be in a room with so many of my hevre, my beloved friends, all of us singing and davening and rejoicing together. Seeing Reb Zalman's sons dancing in the impromptu hora line which snakes through the aisle. Adding my voice to the multipart harmony of our prayer.



And always there are the moments which defy description, which seem banal when written down but are glorious while they're happening. Discovering the small teepee on the hotel grounds (it's always wintertime when we're here for OHALAH; I'd never explored the gardens before); standing in it with friends and declaring it to be our ohel, our tent, which with intention we can transform into a mishkan, a dwelling-place for God; a few precious late evenings sitting with friends in the bank of Adirondack chairs in the night breeze, talking, connecting, laughing, telling stories, just being together. These are gifts beyond price.



Shabbat morning services are delicious. First Reb Arthur (Waskow) weaves a beautiful Torah discussion about the second paragraph of the shema. Then Reb Marcia (Prager) and Hazzan Jack (Kessler) lead a delicious psukei d'zimrah, the songs and psalms of praise designed to open up the heart. I especially love their use of part of "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising" (by Emmylou Harris) as a melodic container for the morning blessings. Also singing Psalm 150 to the tune of Miserlou, a melody which I associate with Pulp Fiction. (It suits the psalm surprisingly well.)

My friend Reb Hannah (Dresner) leads shacharit proper with tremendous sweetness. As I hear her sing, I remember how Reb Zalman used to beam when she led davenen. He loved how she refracts and translates Hasidut into her own feminine idiom. During the Torah service I'm honored with the opportunity to participate in leyning, chanting Torah. I chant, in Hebrew and English, the verses which I translated in the post Cut away the calluses on your heart. I offer a blessing for removing those hard places which obstruct our openheartedness -- and also a blessing for those who may be feeling as though their hearts are already raw, and who need salve and comfort in order to retain the openness with which we want to greet the world.

Reb Nadya and Reb Victor (Gross) lead us in the concluding prayers. Reb Victor tells some stories about Reb Zalman. And Reb Nadya leads us in an amazing Ein Keloheinu ("There Is No One Like God") interspersed with la illaha il'Allah ("there is no God but God.") Reb Zalman's, and by extension Jewish Renewal's, post-triumphalism and deep ecumenism were among the things which first drew my heart and soul here. This juxtaposition of our language for this truth about divinity, and our cousins' language for the same truth, is a beautiful illustration of the deep ecumenism which I so prize.



14760651190_b0d3dce299_nSunday morning, 10am, the Boulder Theater. As the crowd gathers in this beautiful art deco building, Reb Zalman's voice is pouring out of the speakers, singing songs and niggunim, while a slide show of his life is cascading across the big screen.

Reb Tirzah (Firestone) opens the event with words of welcome, and her presence helps to hold the container in which the whole event unfolds. Father Matthew Fox offers a stunning opening benediction which is also a reflection on Reb Zalman's life and work. Charles Lief, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the president of Naropa University where Reb Zalman for years held the World Wisdom Chair, speaks beautifully about Reb Zalman's breadth of knowledge and of passions. (Truly, he says, it was more of a World Wisdom Loveseat, because Rebbitzen Eve was always by his side sharing her wisdom, too.)

Hearing Reb Art (Green) talk about Reb Zalman, his importance, his work, his legacy, is incredible. "When his soul reached heaven," he says (or something along these lines -- I'm paraphrasing), "God did not ask him why he was not Yochanan ben Zakkai, founding a new way of learning in a time of paradigm shift. God did not ask him why he was not the Arizal, master of kabbalistic wisdom. God did not ask him why he was not the Baal Shem Tov, bringing devotional practice to the people. God did not even ask him why he wasn't Reb Zusya, the holy fool!" Because Reb Zalman was all of these and more.

Throughout the event, spoken word reminiscences are interspersed with song. Hearing Hazzan Richard Kaplan sing is incredible, especially when he sings the Baal Shem Tov's Yedid Nefesh and closes his eyes and is visibly transported to other realms. He takes us there with him, and I remember how Reb Zalman used to love to listen to him bringing life to these old and deep Hasidic melodies. His singing becomes the vehicle which carries us aloft.

Singing along with Shir Yaakov and the band as they play his Or Zarua is the first thing that really cracks my heart open. "Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, joy" -- surely Reb Zalman sowed seeds of light wherever he went, and now in whatever realm his soul inhabits, surely there is joy. The whole theatre is singing, and I know I am not the only one singing through tears.

That's not the only time that weeping overcomes me. When Rebbitzen Eve gets up with the piano and band and sings "Here's to Life," by Artie Butler, a torch song of love and embracing life to the fullest -- when she walks over toward his big rebbe chair, sitting in a spotlight at the edge of the stage, empty but for the rainbow tallit he designed -- my tears fall again. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of her loss.

When we watch the (never-before-broadcast) video of the address "The Emerging Cosmology," given at the Roundtable Dialogue With Nobel Laureates in Vancouver ten years ago (which explains why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu and other luminaries were seated on stage), I laugh and clutch at my heart. His fur streiml! His joking about looking like someone from Fiddler on the Roof, and then breaking into song! His Star Trek "mind meld" answer to the teenaged girl who asks him a question! And in between all of these sweet things, a powerful teaching about post-triumphalism and organismic thinking and how we need to care for our world.

We close with a Sufi zhikr, a practice in which we remember God through chanting divine names, which breaks my heart open even wider. We are singing three lines, interwoven: bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, "in the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful;" ya salaam, ya shalom, may there be peace, God of peace; and a chant which Reb Tirzah tells us she wrote quite recently. "Reb Zalman asked if I would write a niggun when the time was right, to these words," she tells us, and then speaks the words tehi nishmato tzrurah bitzror ha-chayyim and they pierce my heart clean through, because they are a line from El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer we sing only in mourning. "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Murshid Allaudin Ottinger, a senior dervish of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, leads us in the zhikr. The full band plays: piano, violin which calls out like a human voice in jubilation and in grief, clarinet soaring high, three hand-drummers on different drums. The entire building is packed and we all rise and we sing and the melodic lines braid together. We are hand in hand, or arms around each other, or standing separately but swaying together as we sing: to one side, to the other side, forward. In the name of the One. Peace, God of peace. May his soul be bound up in eternal life. The zhikr builds and builds and I can feel how our singing and our prayer and our memories and our love are lifting Reb Zalman's neshamah higher and higher.

When the event ends my face is wet with tears and my heart is as wide-open as it can be. I am out of words, but I am so grateful, and so full of love.

Morning zhikr on retreat

Quran-and-dhikr-beadsMy cellphone sings me a gentle song at 4:30 in the morning and I roll out of bed.

Ever since our son was born I have maintained that the 4am hour is the hardest time for me to be awake. When we used to have feedings at all hours, the 4am one was the one I dreaded. Earlier than that, and I could pretend that a night of sleep lay ahead; later than that, and I could tell myself that it was morning. But oh, I used to dread the hour between 4 and 5. Not today.

I find my way up the two flights of stairs to the Muslim prayer space. I join the women sitting in a circle on a spacious tapestry. And one of my new friends from this retreat explains that the leader of her Sufi order, Shaikh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, settled on this arrangement of divine names and Qur'anic verses to be chanted in the morning at this hour.

Thankfully there are two copies of the little printed booklet which contains the words of the prayers -- one which our prayer-leader uses, and another which is offered to me. (The other Jew in the room has forgotten her glasses, so I don't feel guilty about monopolizing the transliteration and translation!)

Our leader offers the teaching from Bawa that one should seek with every breath to say a prayer asserting that there is nothing else but God. And I think: kol haneshamah tehallel Yah, "let every breath praise You." And I think of the meditation practice which maps the four letters of the Holiest Name onto every breath: before breathing, yud; inhale on heh; hold the breath vav; exhale on heh. And I think: ein od milvado, "there is nothing else but God." I think: our traditions have this in common.

And then the zhikr begins.

Zhikr (sometimes transliterated dhikr) means remembrance, as in remembrance of God. (I suspect the Arabic word shares a root with the Hebrew zecher, which also means remembrance.) It's a Sufi prayer practice. The last time I chanted zhikr was in 2011, at the ALEPH Kallah with Pir Ibrahim Farajajé and Rabba Deb Kolodny. That was in a Jewish setting; this morning I am profoundly aware that I am a guest, a visitor in someone else's prayer space and prayer context.

I remember the first time I had the experience of praying in a group of only women. I was struck by how our voices blended, how the timbre and tone merged together and our voices interwove like strands in a finely-braided cord. That's what this feels like, too.

We sing the fatiha, which is full of familiar words. We sing divine attributes: merciful, compassionate, forgiver. We sing in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.

We sing invocations of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and I think: I invoke those angels every night when I bless our son before bed!

We sing blessings upon Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Muhammad.

We sing verses from the Qur'an.

And then before the very last remembrances, my friend who is leading prayer -- we have connected with great joy around the fact that her teacher Bawa engaged in regular dialogue with my teacher Reb Zalman, and those dialogues (in printed form) are part of what the students of Bawa study even now -- my friend offers a prayer for those in need of healing, beginning with Reb Zalman, and my heart wells over.

I think of the story of Reb Zalman davening zhikr with the Sufis of Hebron, which has long been one of my inspirations; I think of his initiation into Inayati Sufism and eventual founding of the Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat of Sufi-Hasidim; and I know that he would be gladdened to see two of his students humbly learning from and with our Muslim hevre, study-friend-counterparts.

As we have been chanting, the sky outside the windows has changed color. Dawn has come.

When I leave the prayer space and tiptoe quietly downstairs, my heart is still singing.


Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.


Interview at A Little Yes

I'm not sure when I started reading Heather Caliri of A Little Yes, though I think it was around the time that she moved with her kids to Argentina for six months. I've enjoyed vicariously sharing her adventures and looking through her window on the world -- and I'm frequently moved by her (Christian) perspectives on the intersections of faith and parenthood. 

So I was delighted when she asked to interview me. Here's a glimpse of our conversation:

You’re a poet, and often write liturgical poems; what parallels do you see between the practice of faith and the writing of poetry?

I would say that both require me to get out of my own way. They both require a trust that if I pour out my heart, something good will come. And in both, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect on the first try.

One of the reasons I love that morning prayer I use is the verse, “Great is your faithfulness.” That somehow implies that God has faith in us. Which is wild—we would only think the opposite.

But thinking that God has faith in me as a person, a mother, a poet, there is something greater than me that has faith in my endeavors...

You can read the whole thing here: On the road to ordination: wildflowers, grief, and the joyous faithfulness of God. (By the by, these interviews are a long-running series on her blog; you can see some of her favorites linked from her Best Of page.)

Thank you, Heather, for a thoughtful and sweet conversation and for this lovely interview post.

Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Continue reading "Susan Katz Miller's Being Both" »