Glimpses of a week in Alabama

33641141506_8159a61cb6_zThere are so many things about my week in Alabama that I wish I could share with y'all.

The preaching at 16th Street Church in Birmingham last Sunday. I had thought I would miss the service, but the Jewish student and I who flew in that morning both arrived just in time, and holy wow, I have never actually seen preaching like that before.

The rosemary in the rose garden in front of the Presbyterian church where we stayed in Tuscaloosa, which I touched every time I went by, like a mezuzah. It scented my fingers, an olfactory hyperlink to many places and moments I have loved.

Four ChaplainsBuilding a "safe room" on our first day, in hard hats, on a bare slab on Juanita Drive, right in the heart of where the tornado devastated the city in 2011. Nailing two-by-fours together, framing walls, adding steel brackets, adding steel cladding -- to keep the inhabitants of that Habitat home safe if a tornado should come through town again.

Leading our first evening discussion on brokenness and mending through the lens of Rabbi Isaac Luria's teaching about the breaking of the vessels and our obligation to lift up sparks. Connecting that with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's teaching about how when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying.

The quality and caliber of our conversations all week long. Each of my colleagues taught one night, and each offered beautiful teachings drawn from their own tradition. (You can see the four of us in one of the photos illustrating this post -- taken outside of Habitat for Humanity's office in town. They'll print the photo and tack it up on a wall there as part of their illustrated address book of people who've come through town to serve in this way.)

Crouching in a patch of clay outside one of our rehab homes with a Muslim student, showing each other how to write and pronounce the root of the verb "to write" in our respective holy languages. (In Hebrew it is spelled כתב - k/t/v. In Arabic it is k/t/b. We both beamed.)

33704224946_2fdd09e0ac_zWorking on rehabilitating a home for someone in need. I was based primarily in her kitchen, putting doors and veneer on cabinets, tiling and grouting the backsplash, fitting baseboards and nailing down thresholds. I take comfort from knowing that when we leave, her home will be safer and more beautiful and more functional than when we arrived.

Taking on a long list of carpentry and construction tasks that I had never done before. I'm comfortable now with a circular saw, a table saw, a mitre saw, two different kinds of tile saw, not to mention nail guns powered by compressed air. (Comfortable enough to maintain a healthy respect for them! But no longer afraid of them.)

Today (Friday) is our last day on our various job sites. We'll knock off slightly earlier than usual so we can return to First Presbyterian Church, clean ourselves and the church, and make our way to Birmingham. The coming Shabbat will feature Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, Shabbat morning services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and afternoon mass at St. Francis Xavier before our closing reflections and havdalah. 

As the week draws toward its close, my body is tired but my spirit is soaring. I'm endlessly grateful to my chaplaincy colleagues at Williams for the opportunity to take part in this extraordinary week, to our hosts at First Presbyterian Tuscaloosa and St. Francis Xavier Birmingham for putting us up, and to the kind and patient teachers at Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa who so graciously and warmly helped us believe in ourselves as we learned new ways to serve.



New at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together



"I'm deeply distressed at the desecration of Jewish cemeteries," said my colleague Sharif at the weekly chaplains' staff meeting at our small liberal arts college.

"I'm deeply distressed by the mosques set afire," I said to him in return.

We both find hope in stories of interfaith solidarity across what can be a contentious divide between the children of Ismail and the children of Yitzchak. We've read about Muslims raising money to repair Jewish tombstones, and Jews raising money to refurbish torched mosques, and we take heart from those things.

But what could we do on our little campus to foster that spirit of interfaith solidarity and to bring comfort to two minority religious communities whose members are likely sad and anxious about bomb threats at JCCs and reports of rising Islamophobia?

The answer turned out to be powerful and simple: pray in each others' religious spaces, with and for each other...

Read the whole piece at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together.

Thanks to the editors at Ritualwell for publishing the piece, and deep thanks to the interfaith comunity at Williams for so beautifully and bravely standing together.

Responding to fear with prayer and hope

In recent days, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated in St. Louis and in Philadelphia, and bomb threats at Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools are becoming commonplace. (There were 31 such threats on Monday; there have been more than 100 since the secular year began.)

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from friends whose children attend Jewish schools that got bomb threats this week, and friends who are grieving the desecration of the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried or the cemeteries where they provide pastoral care and preside over funerals.

Meanwhile, there was an arson attack on a mosque in Tampa, Florida -- the second such attack in Florida in six months. Four mosques have burned in the last seven weeks. Hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest since 2001. Hate crimes have risen massively, and the list continues growing.

My heart aches. I oscillate between grief and fury. I am not afraid -- I am fortunate enough to feel safe where I live and work and pray -- but I know that those who are more vulnerable than I, who occupy positions of less privilege by virtue of how they look or how they pray or where they live, are very afraid.

I can't do much to shift our national political climate. But I can take action in my own community to stand against hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and to stand with friends of many faiths in affirming that our differences are holy and that we stand in solidarity with each other in times of need.

The Chaplains' Office at Williams College is putting together an interfaith opportunity for prayer and togetherness for next week. We'll begin in the Muslim prayer space on campus, where the Jewish students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by Islamophobia and the fire at the mosque, and then in their sacred space we will say the prayers of our afternoon mincha service. 

Then we'll walk together from there to the Jewish prayer space on campus, where Muslim students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by anti-Semitism and by the cemetery desecrations, and then in our sacred space they will say the prayers of their maghrib sunset worship. 

There are a few things I love about this intention. One is that we will be consciously sharing our sacred spaces with each other, and saying our own late-afternoon prayers in each others' sacred spaces. (And for any participants who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, they'll have an opportunity to respectfully be present and bear witness during a few minutes of prayer in each of those traditions.)

I also love the fact that we'll be praying for each others' wellbeing. Jews will pray for the wellbeing of Muslim communities and sacred spaces (both local and global), and Muslims will pray for the wellbeing of Jewish communities and sacred spaces (both local and global). This shouldn't be a radical act, though today's political climate often mitigates against this kind of basic human connection of love and care.

And I love the fact that we're standing against terror and fear -- against arson and desecration -- against bigotry and hatred -- by coming together in companionship, prayer, and hope. I know that what we do on our small campus in our small town won't change national or global realities, but it might shift our own internal spiritual realities, and the prayerful connections it will strengthen will strengthen us.



Related news stories:


Standing against oppression

I am proud and humbled to serve, with Rabbi David Evan Markus, as co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal which just put out this statement and petition. If the President-Elect were to require Muslims to register with the government, we encourage all Americans to register with them. As Jews we have living historical memory of that kind of state-sanctioned mistreatment, and we will not stand idly by if it is perpetrated again. The text of the resolution is below; it's also at where you can add your name.


Standing With Non-Jews Against Oppression



As initially proposed by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal 


President-Elect Trump repeatedly has advocated and expressed his intention that Muslims resident in the United States will be required to register as such with the United States government; and

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution bans state action in respect of any establishment of religion, including tests and other qualifications on the basis of religion; and

Article II of the United States Constitution obliges the President of the United States to take care that the Constitution and laws of the United States are faithfully executed; and

Incitement and intolerance of invidious discrimination on the basis of any religion, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation cultivates a civic climate that countenances all such discrimination, including anti-Semitism; and

Incitement and tolerance of religious discrimination have no place in any civil society; and

The Jewish people have living memory of anti-Jewish legislation and other official discrimination in Nazi Germany, including civic disqualification and registration with the government, preceding the Holocaust; and

Core Jewish spiritual values teach that one must not stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:16), and that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18); and

Principles of deep ecumenism  view all religious traditions as potential paths to the sacred; and

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi  z”l (of blessed memory) professed faith with the Sufis of Hebron to exemplify the spiritual principle that Jews can and must stand in faithful co-religionist solidarity with Muslims;


If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then all Jews — and all other persons in familial or communal relationship with Jews — are urged to register as Muslims immediately; and

All Jewish clergy associations based in the United States — including OHALAH (Renewal), Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (Reconstructionist) and Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) — as well as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, its constituent organizations, all Jewish seminaries and other institutions of learning, and all other Jewish organizations, are urged to adopt, implement and publicize this resolution by all available means; and

All other clergy organizations and other faith-based organizations operating or having influence in the United States are urged to adopt, implement and publicize corresponding versions of this resolution most suitable to the tenets and contexts of their respective faith traditions; and

If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then a goal is established that every United States resident promptly will register as a Muslim; and

Each ratifying organization will transmit a copy of this resolution to the official government office of Donald J. Trump as of its date of ratification; and

This resolution will be publicized by all available means.


Diving into Jewish-Muslim dialogue again

WYSIWYG-Women-Fashion-Harajuku-necklace-Crescent-Moon-necklace-with-star-of-david-charms-moon-and-starIn August of 2009, I went on a retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In June of 2014, I returned to that retreat as an alumna facilitator. This week I'll be spending a few days at a retreat center a few hours from here, once again serving as alumna facilitator for an extraordinary group of Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. I'm really excited about getting the opportunity to do this work again, and about further building and strengthening connections between our two religious communities.

This year's retreat is co-presented by RRC and ISNA. I remember that there was conversation, at the 2014 retreat, about the challenges for Muslim religious leaders of signing up for a program presented solely by a Jewish institution. I can imagine feeling the same way were our positions reversed -- how would people in my community react if I signed up for a leadership program offered by a Muslim seminary? -- and I'm happy that this time the retreat is co-presented by institutions from both of our communities. I give kavod (honor) to RRC and ISNA for their joint willingness to make this retreat happen -- and also to the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Fund for their fiscal support of this holy work.

As on previous retreats, we'll spend some time engaging in text study as a spiritual practice, exploring the texts that are sacred to each of our traditions. We'll do some learning and sharing about each of our traditions. We'll break down some of the stereotypes each group can't help unconsciously holding about the other. (In my experience part of what's interesting is always discovering the unthinking stereotypes we carry within our own communities, too -- there's a lot of diversity, and also a lot of misunderstanding, among and between different branches of Judaism as well.) We'll build trust and we'll tackle tough questions.

You can find the blog posts that have arisen out of these several retreats in my Jewish-Muslim Dialogue posts category. In addition to those, here are two published essays and a high holiday sermon that came directly out of these retreats:

Getting excited about Getting It Together


Last summer it occurred to some of us in the Jewish Renewal world that this year, 2015, would mark the 25th anniversary of the trip to Dharamsala chronicled in Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. Wouldn't it be neat, we thought, if we could bring together people from that trip for a celebratory weekend which could enliven us spiritually and would galvanize us in the holy work of being in community with each other across Jewish denominations and across religious traditions?

From that spark, Getting It...Together was born.

July 3, 2015, will be the anniversary (on the secular / Gregorian calendar) of the date when Reb Zalman z"l (may his memory be a blessing) left this life. I remember last year feeling alone in my sadness because many of my friends and colleagues were together in Oregon when he died and were able to pray and mourn and celebrate him together right then and there, and I was not with them. This year, at the one-year anniversary, I will remember him together with my extended Jewish Renewal community (and with many others) at what promises to be an extraordinary weekend:

The Fourth of July weekend this summer will be a weekend of learning, worship, music and ritual offered by followers of all faiths, culminating in a summit of faith leaders and artists promoting the vision of deep ecumenism through various expressions.

Reb Zalman was fond of saying “The only way to get it together... is together.” An innovator of ecumenical dialogue with practitioners of a wide variety of spiritual paths, Reb Zalman leaves us a legacy of Deep Ecumenism. His deeply personal approach to dialogue led to significant friendships with many of the world’s great philosophers and spiritual teachers.

This summer, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the remarkable journey of Reb Zalman and a small and varied group of Jewish leaders to Dharamsala, India, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to help Tibetan Buddhist leaders learn how a People survives (and thrives) “in a diaspora.”

Special guest presenters include: Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, Rodger Kamenetz (author of The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the 1990 journey), Rabbi Leah Novick and spiritual leaders from many faith communities.

There's special resonance for me in being able to gather with my Jewish Renewal community and also with a multi-faith community as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Jew In The Lotus -- since, as I recently wrote (How I Found Jewish Renewal, And Why I Stayed) there's a direct link between that book and my rabbinate.

The Getting It...Together weekend will run from Friday July 3 through Sunday July 5. We'll begin with some pre-Shabbat activities, including an opportunity for mikveh (ritual immersion) before Shabbat as well as some learning and contemplative practice. Shabbat services will be lively, musical, and intentionally inclusive (especially so, given that this will be a multifaith gathering) and will be facilitated by some of Jewish Renewal's leading lights. I think one of the best ways to experience Jewish Renewal is to daven (pray) with us, and this promises to be fantastic davenen!

Over the course of the weekend, our special guests and others will offer teachings honoring Reb Zalman's vision and contribution to the renewal of Judaism and to the ongoing work of deep ecumenism. Plans call for a concert of Middle Eastern music after havdalah, the ritual which brings Shabbat to a close. Sunday will be a day of art, music and dance performances, and stories from the trip to Dharamsala, culminating in a closing summit which will feature our Jew In The Lotus guests as well as some next-generation visionaries.

It's going to be an amazing weekend, and participants of all faiths are welcome. (And the weekend is followed by a week-long retreat called Ruach Ha-Aretz which I'm not able to attend but which I know will be wonderful, and which will continue the learning about deep ecumenism in some lovely ways.)

Register for Getting It...Together today.

Spreading a little bit of hope

The world is full of terrible news, including news about inter-religious mistrust, hatred, and violence. And since it's Adar and we're supposed to be joyful, I thought I'd signal-boost a few hopeful things which have come across my transom recently. First is a small one -- a reminder that there are individuals out there who buck trends of mistrust between different religious communities:

I found this image beautiful -- the care with which he is tending to the Hebrew-inscribed headstone speaks to me of meaningful relationship. A bit of online digging reveals that there have been Jews in Morocco since Roman times, though today only about 2,500 remain. You can read a bit more about Lahcen and his spiritual generosity here: 8 touching stories of Jewish and Muslim friendship.

Next, here's one which involves a lot more people. You've probably read about the recent shootings outside a Copenhagen synagogue and free speech rally. 30,000 Danes marched peacefully in response to those shootings, and the Prime Minister of Denmark spoke in solidarity with Danish Jews. (Read all about it: 'Attack on Jews is an attack on all of us': Thousands of Danes Rally in Copenhagen.)

Here's another response to the violence in Copenhagen, and to the bigger picture of how members of different minority religious traditions relate to each other in Europe: Muslims plan 'peace ring' around Oslo synagogue. That was the first (brief) article I read about the intention of one Muslim community to make a statement about caring for local Jews. Here's a longer one, from the Washington Post:

The headlines have been grim...But the future of tolerance and multiculturalism in Europe is far from bleak. The bigotry on view has been carried out by a fringe minority, cast all the more in the shade by the huge peace marches and vigils that followed the deadly attacks. And some communities are trying to build solidarity in their home towns and cities...

Ervin Kohn, a leader of Oslo's small Jewish community, had agreed to allowing the event on the condition that more than 30 people show up — a small gathering would make the effort look "counter-productive," Kohn said. Close to 1,000 people have indicated on Facebook that they will attend.

(Read the whole thing: Norwegian Muslims Will Form a Human Shield Around Oslo Synagogue.) Obviously something like forming a "human shield" or "peace ring" is a onetime happening, but to me the fact that so many people are interested in participating says to me that this is a meaningful expression of support which will, God willing, last beyond the day of the peace ring's formation.

On a related note, I've been watching the #IGoToSynagogue hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag began as a Jewish initiative, a way for Jews to proudly assert that despite violence at one of our houses of worship, we will still continue to gather, live, pray, mourn, and celebrate as holy community. Dayenu, that would have been enough. But the hashtag is also being used in an unexpected way.

Here's the image which I'm seeing all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds -- Muslims Ayse Cindilkaya and Bacem Dziri at a synagogue, holding a sign bearing that hashtag and declaring that they stand for the safety and sanctity of all houses of worship, not only their own. The photo bears the logo of the European Muslim Jewish Dialogue group, and it's a lovely show of solidarity with Jews:

(If the above image doesn't appear, you can go directly to it by clicking on this link.) And last but not least, speaking of solidarity with one another: here's an article in the Times of Israel which I found worth reading -- London's Faithful Walk Together in Show of Solidarity.


[A]s they walked, wide-eyed, into the airy piazza of the mosque, to greet and meet people of all faiths and none, there was a palpable relaxing of shoulders and a cheerful atmosphere.

The mosque was the first stage in a simple but charming initiative, called the Coexist Pilgrimage, devised by faith leaders in response to the attacks in Paris in January. The alumni of the Cambridge Coexist Leadership Program already knew each other. So when a rabbi – Masorti Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg — and a Christian minister, the Rev Margaret Cave, put their heads together with the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sheikh Ibrahim Mograbi, it wasn’t hard to come up with the idea of the faith walk...

At a moment in time when we're hearing a lot about the awful ways that human beings can treat one another, here are some glimmers of common ground and of hope. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

A Year of Deep Ecumenism - including a Jew in the Lotus 25th Anniversary weekend


The very first class I took, when I was in the process of preparing to apply to the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, was Deep Ecumenism. (It's a required class for all students in the ALEPH ordination programs.) Deep Ecumenism was one of the pillars of Reb Zalman's thinking. It's a way of relating to other faith-traditions which goes beyond the shallow waters of "interfaith dialogue," and which eschews the old-paradigm triumphalism which held that there's only one path to God.

The idea of Deep Ecumenism wasn't Reb Zalman's alone. Centuries ago, Meister Eckhart wrote that "Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up." Following on Meister Eckhart's teaching, Reverend Matthew Fox wrote "we would make a grave mistake if we confused [any one well] with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism." Deep Ecumenism teaches that no single religious tradition is "The" way to reach God.

Reb Zalman built on that thinking when he wrote (and taught and spoke, time and again) that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity. Our differences are meaningful, and our commonality is significant. No single tradition is the whole of what humanity needs; no single tradition contains all the answers. And that's great! Because it means that we can learn from and with each other across our different traditions. "The only way to get it together, is together."

Deep Ecumenism teaches us that we can best serve the needs of all humanity when we not only respect other religious paths, but collaborate with them in our shared work of healing creation. No one tradition contains all the answers, but every tradition can be (in the Buddha's words) "a finger pointing at the moon," directing our hearts toward our Source.

Reb Zalman z"l taught that we can and should find nourishment in traditions other than our own. No single spiritual path contains all of the "vitamins" that are needed. He wrote that we must undertake "the more intrepid exploration of deep ecumenism in which one learns about oneself through participatory engagement with another religion or tradition."

In engaging with the other, we learn about ourselves. When we learn from and collaborate with fellow-travelers on other spiritual paths, our own practices are enriched — and we come one step closer to a world without religious prejudice or fear.

(That's from the Deep Ecumenism page on the new ALEPH website.) This is one of the things I've always loved about Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman's teaching that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity -- each necessary; each individual and different; and each needing to be in communication with the others because we're all part of the same great whole -- speaks to me. And I think that this kind of shift, in interreligious relations, is something that humanity needs.

Over the course of 2015, ALEPH will be presenting a variety of programs relating to Deep Ecumenism. One will be a weekend gathering over the 4th of July in Philadelphia, titled GETTING IT TOGETHER:  Reb Zalman’s Legacy and The Jew in the Lotus 25th Year Retrospective. (I'm incredibly excited about that; longtime readers may recall that Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in The Lotus is the book which introduced me to Reb Zalman and to Jewish Renewal in the first place!)

Another will be a week-long retreat at Ruach Ha'Aretz (ALEPH's mobile summer retreat program) focusing on Deep Ecumenism. I know that some terrific Jewish Renewal teachers will be there, and the organizers are also exploring having teachers from other religious traditions as well. A third will be an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine [pdf], to be co-led by Rabbis Victor and Nadya Gross, among others. And there are other projects in the works -- literary, liturgical, and so on.

When I think about why I'm glad to be on the ALEPH board of directors; when I think about the kinds of things ALEPH is doing which feed my spirit, and which I think have the capacity to be world-changing; this Deep Ecumenism work is one of top things on my list. This is one of the reasons I came to ALEPH in the first place -- because I found Reb Zalman's mode of interacting with, relating to, and learning from other traditions (as described in The Jew in the Lotus) to be so meaningful.

I'll post more about that 25th anniversary gathering as more information becomes available, but for now -- save the date, and consider joining us that weekend? I know that many of the original participants in that journey will be joining us, among them Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and of course Rodger Kamenetz himself. And it will take place on the Gregorian anniversary of Reb Zalman's leaving this life -- a sweet time to remember his work, and to rededicate ourselves to carrying that work forward in the world.


Yom Kippur, Eid, and remembrance of sacrifice

Happy_yom_kippur_1This coming weekend, when my community will be observing the solemn-yet-joyful fast of Yom Kippur, the Muslim community will be celebrating Eid al-Adha, "the feast of the sacrifice," commemorating the story of how Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and God provided a sheep for the slaughter instead.

Jewish readers may be nodding along in recognition; after all, we read that story just last week at Rosh Hashanah. (In my community, as in many communities, we read the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

Of course, there are differences in how our two traditions have memorialized this shared story. In Torah, the son who was almost sacrificed is clearly named as Yitzchak (Isaac.) In the Qur'anic account the son is not named, though there is a passage in which the son consents to what is to come, which becomes a model for the virtue of gracefully acceding to God's will.

In the class on Islam I took several years ago, I learned that there are Muslim commentators who  taught that the son in question was Isaac, and others who taught that the son in question was Ishmael. Muslim tradition offers support for both viewpoints; Wikipedia notes that

Though it is generally believed by Muslims that Ishmael was the son who was almost sacrificed, among scholars and historiographers of early Islam there is much debate. There are such persuasive arguments for both, that in fact, it is estimated that 130 traditions say Isaac was the son, while 133 say Ishmael.

(If this subject interests you, don't miss Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael?, which cites a wide variety of Muslim sources on each side of the debate, and also includes both the Torah text and the Qur'an text in English translation.)

I remember learning that classical tafsir (Muslim exegesis / scriptural interpretation) was "polyvalent" -- in other words, it presumed that sacred text naturally supports more than one reading. But as the tradition continued to develop, commentators began to lean toward resolving ambiguities. The Persian scholar al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) argued that the almost-sacrificed son was Isaac. Later commentators, among them al-Tha'labi (11th century CE) and al-Kathir (d. 1373 CE) argued instead that it was Ishmael. Perhaps these later commentators were writing with the intention of further differentiating our communities, and asserting the primacy of their narrative and genealogy over ours.

Today most Muslim sources indicate that the son in question was Ishmael. And Ishmael's willingness to allow God's will to unfold makes him the paragon of islām, the spiritual virtue of surrender or submission to God, from which that religious tradition takes its name. That Arabic word comes from the 3-letter root s/l/m, which connotes peace and wholeness. Peace and wholeness are found when one is able to "let go and let God," to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step lexicon.

Over on this side of the family tree, that same root -- ש /ל/ מ -- is at the heart of the word shalom. And our tradition too contains interpretations in which the son indicates his willingness to be sacrificed. (In my Akedah cycle, poem #2 draws on the midrash which depicts Isaac saying to Ishmael that if God were to ask him to be sacrificed he would not object. In that midrash, God promptly replies, 'This is the hour,' and sets the akedah in motion.) I wondered whether that version were influenced by the Muslim telling of the story, in which the son's submission is a central virtue -- but then I realized that Bereshit Rabbah was written down in the 5th century C.E., and Islam began in the 7th century C.E., so the arrow of causality isn't so clear.

(And, of course, on the Christian branch of this family tree, the son's willing submission to the will of the father is exemplified by Jesus' willingness to die on the cross. But that's a whole other post. Maybe I'll manage to write about that before Easter.)

I spoke in my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Children of Sarah and Hagar) about the the Isra'iliyyat, the body of interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. It seems to me -- in broad generalization -- that during times of tension, both comunities have pulled back from accepting (or even acknowledging) our influences on one another. I'd like to see us instead choose to honor our cross-pollination and interconnection.

UrlOur traditions both hold dear the story which says that God provided a ram for sacrifice in the place of the boy. Jews celebrated that story last week in shul, and will link back to it again at the end of Yom Kippur when we blow a tekiah gedolah on the shofar which reminds us of the ram God provided so that Abraham's son might live. Muslims will celebrate that story this coming weekend, with feasting and prayer and providing food (mutton, from sheep sacrificed in remembrance) for those in need.

In both versions of the story, God sends an animal to stand in for the child. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested that we can read this story as a divine instruction not to kill our children in the name of faith, but instead to pour our zeal into feeding those who hunger. What might our world look like if every nation could take that instruction to heart?

I am perennially moved by the ways our traditions have shaped and informed each other. To me this is one of the most beautiful things about being a person of faith in the world: exploring the differences and similarities in the ways we tell our sacred stories of encounter with the Infinite, and honoring how others' stories have informed and impacted our own.

To my Jewish readers: g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for good in the year to come. To my Muslim readers: eid mubarak, a blessed festival to you!



Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)


The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We'd been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!" I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y'all have known me for a while now, so you're probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child's pose, you've had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you've had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It's a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God's hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

"Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear." I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it's always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah's jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

Continue reading "Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)" »

Confronting Jewish privilege at the Jewish-Muslim emerging leaders retreat

Bigstock-silhouette-of-ten-young-women-15281810-996x497-53ad8f22“If you have parents who went to college, take a step forward.”

“If when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”

“If you see people who share your identity reflected on television and in movies in roles you don’t consider degrading, take a step forward.”

When we began the exercise, we were standing in a row, holding hands. Our facilitators took turns reading a series of statements: if this is true for you, step this way. If that is true for you, step that way. It wasn’t long before our chain of hands was broken.

Before this session, I would have said I was aware of my privilege as a white, affluent, college-educated, Jewish cis-gender woman. I’ve read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. But it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aware of privilege as I had thought.

In Jewish Renewal we speak often in the paradigm of the “four worlds”, of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought) and atzilut (spirit/essence). In briyah, the world of intellect, I think I did have a handle on my own privilege. But when I had the physical experience of having to let go of the hands of my friends, and of seeing at the end where each of us was positioned, the realities impacted me in the emotional and spiritual realms, and they hit me hard.

This exercise, often called The Privilege Walk, was part of our session on “Challenges in Jewish-Muslim Engagement” at a wonderful retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, held this month in Chester, Connecticut, and organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College’s department of multifaith initiatives...

Read my whole essay at Zeek: New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege.


Deep thanks to RRC and to the Henry Luce Foundation for making the retreat possible, and to my Jewish and Muslim sisters who attended, facilitated, and taught at the retreat.

Shabbat shalom and chodesh Tamuz tov to my Jewish readers; to my Muslim readers, Ramadan Mubarak!

Morning gratitude psalm


For my iPad
with its velvety cover.
For bringing forth
a world of praise
with the tap of a finger.

For the crush of my tefillin bag.
For little houses
filled with words.
For places where I am exposed
and where I'm held safe.

For the choir of angels
even the one who sings off-key.
For women in headscarves
bearing witness
there is no god but God.

For the currents which carry us.
For the earth which cups my chair
in her compassionate palm.
For the soul
You restore to me.

Last week at the retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, there was a time slot when the alumna facilitators and spiritual advisors shared different spiritual practices. One of my colleagues led a guided meditation; another, Sufi chanting; a third, gratitude yoga; and I offered a workshop in writing the psalms of our hearts. (This was a tiny taste of the workshop I led recently on City Island, which is in turn a tiny taste of the week-long class I taught at the ALEPH Kallah a few years back.)

I did the writing assignment myself during class time, and here's what unfolded -- a psalm of gratitude for morning prayer. Early that same morning I had gone to pre-dawn zhikr; then some of my Muslim sisters with whom I had davened zhikr joined us for shacharit, Jewish morning prayer. All of these things found their way into my psalm.

All feedback is welcome.


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

The gifts of the labyrinth

14391957582_88ea0e30fe_nMy mind was jangling.

The first full day of this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders was intense and busy. From morning prayer to conversations over breakfast to beginning to guide my small group through our group project to an "intra-faith dialogue" session (each group convened in its own prayer space and talked about whatever's arising for us so far.) Conversations over lunch. A faculty meeting. Two hours of learning with Dr. Judith Plaskow (which merits its own post, God knows.) More group project planning.

By late afternoon I was feeling attenuated, stretched a bit thin, reverberating like a drumhead. So I headed for the meditation labyrinth behind the fire circle.

The thing I love about walking labyrinths is that I never know exactly how I'm going to get to where I'm going, or how the return journey will proceed. It's not like walking in a straight line, or even in a spiral from one point to the next. It goes this way, then that way. Doubles back on itself. Allows me to think that it's taking me to one place, and then does a bait-and-switch and suddenly I'm facing in the other direction.

14389989631_7ae66575b1_nSome of this, of course, stems from my practice of only looking a few steps ahead of where my feet are actually walking. If I stopped and scrutinized the labryinth, I could probably try to memorize its twists and turns. But that would defeat the purpose altogether. For me, a meditation labyrinth is about slowly walking and letting the journey unfold however it may. It's about the little surprises along the way. I know that I'm headed for the center of something beautiful; I know that when I leave the labyrinth I'll exit down the same forest path which brought me here. But between those two points I aspire to be open to surprises.

If there is a better metaphor for this kind of "dialogue of the devout" (in Reb Zalman's terminology), I don't know what it is. Each of us came here prepared, on some level, to be challenged and to be surprised. I suspect that each of us also had some notion of where we thought we were going, where we thought our conversations would take us, what would be easy and what would be hard. And I'm willing to bet that the journey of these four days is bringing each of us to some surprises.

Once I reached the middle of the labyrinth, I thought, "ah, okay, now it'll take me back out again, that should be straightforward." And then the path went somewhere I didn't think it would go, and without my conscious volition my feet sped up. Wait. Was I confused? Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? How could this possibly be the way toward the exit? And then I took a deep breath, got a grip on myself, and slowed my walking to my intentional and contemplative pace again. Of course I hadn't stepped "off the derech," off the path; the labyrinth just had a few final surprises in store for me before it returned me to the place of ingress/egress.

The real surprises always come when we think no surprises remain.


I wrote about walking a meditation labyrinth (and, for that matter, about Jewish-Muslim learning) at the ALEPH Kallah in 2011: Seeking and finding.


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

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.


Thank You, God, for making me a woman

It is morning at the Guest House, a beautiful retreat center which describes its mission as "[creating] opportunities for transformational work and [providing] a nurturing environment for those seeking to develop human potential and enrich the world." I walk down to the Jewish prayer space, a library with a few couches and shelves of books, where chairs have been arranged in a circle and a papercut mizrach (the word means "east" -- it's a piece of art denoting the direction of Jerusalem) leans against one wall. I enfold myself in my rainbow silk tallit and wrap my arm and head, my strength and consciousness, in tefillin. And then I sit down to pray.

I forgot to bring a printed siddur, but that's okay, because I have a digital one. I don't use it often, but I like having it on my tablet and on my phone -- makes it easy to daven wherever I am! But the digital siddur has a few quirks to which I am unaccustomed. One of them is that it features the most traditional version of every prayer text, and that in turn means that as I'm davening the birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, I bump smack into "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has not made me a woman." (And, of course, its companion blessing intended for women to say -- "Who has made me according to Your will.") The siddurim I typically use don't include either of those. In their stead is a single version -- "Who has made me in Your image" -- appropriate for all to recite, regardless of sex or gender expression.

As I encounter these words this morning, I wonder how the Muslim women here would respond to them. Already, on our first evening together, the small group I was facilitating entered into a free-flowing conversation about what women are and aren't traditionally encouraged (or permitted) to do in our traditions. We talked about how people read us as religious women -- how do people respond to a woman wearing hijab? a woman wearing a kippah? What do people project on us based on those signifiers? How are those two religious identifiers similar, and how are they different? How do we respond, as religious women, to places where our traditions have encoded patriarchy as normative? I think I know what rueful smiles I would see on the faces of (most of) my Jewish colleagues if this blessing came up in conversation. I suspect that the Muslim women here would empathize.

I've written before about reclaiming (and rewriting) the "Who has not made me a woman" blessing -- as "Who has made me a woman!" -- during menstruation. I return to that practice almost every month, when I catch myself thinking disparaging thoughts. ("oy, is it really time for this again?") I use the blessing in those moments to remind myself that this female body is sacred and holy and that I am grateful for its many possibilities -- including its capacity to bear and nurture life. When I use that blessing at that time, it's aspirational. The words are meant to remind me to cherish the body I have, even when it's inconvenient. But the rest of the time, I tend to forget that that old line of prayer even exists.

This morning, though, here at this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders -- a retreat which this year, for the first time, was conceived and created as an explicitly all-female space -- I am struck by the sheer ridiculousness of that classical line of blessing. I know its historical context. I can cite the reasons why its authors thought it was entirely reasonable to thank God for not having been born female. But this morning when it pops up on my iPad I daven a blessing of gratitude to God for having made me a woman, and today, a woman surrounded by an exquisite, creative, and powerful ad hoc community of other religious women. Damn right I'm grateful to be a woman! And grateful to be able to learn from, and with, this extraordinary group. How blessed I am.


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

Building bridges between Judaism and Islam

MultifaithRetreatGarrisonfor5.31.11r postSeveral years ago, when I was still in rabbinic school, I participated in the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, organized by RRC's office of multifaith initiatives. I blogged about the experience a bit as it was unfolding, and later wrote the essay Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan / Elul, which was published in Zeek magazine.  (Here's a short outtake from that essay.) Next week I will have the tremendous honor of participating in that retreat again -- this time as an alumna facilitator.

This year's retreat is for women only, which I think will shift the experience in fascinating ways. Our scholars will be Judith Plaskow (author of Standing Again at Sinai) and Aysha Hidayatullah (author of Feminist Edges of the Qur'an), and we will study the Sarah and Hagar story as it appears in our two traditions' holy texts. I'm responsible for facilitating the storytelling session one evening, and will offer a short workshop in writing spiritual poems / psalms for those who wish to partake.

I am so excited about doing this. Attending the first retreat of this kind back in 2009 was an amazing experience on many axes at once: meeting Jewish student clergy from across the many streams of Judaism, meeting an equally-diverse group of emerging Muslim leaders, studying texts together, breaking bread together, delving into the difficult conversations about what divides us, coming away with a stronger sense of what unites us and how our traditions can inform and enrich each other.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to help facilitate this experience for the women who will be attending next week's retreat. (And having read the participant bios, I'm eager to meet everyone who is taking part!) We've been asked to eschew our "devices" -- phones and computers and tablets -- as much as possible so that we can be wholly present to the retreat experience, so I may not be online much during the four days of the retreat program, but I look forward to coming home with stories to share.


Image from a post on the RRC Multifaith World blog.

Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul


This essay was originally published on 9/15/09 as Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, back when Zeek had a web partnership with Jewcy rather than with the Forward. But the formatting on that original piece has gone wonky and it's become nigh-unreadable, so I'm reprinting it here.

It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.

I've chosen Psalm 27, since the month of Elul is fast approaching and it's customary to read the psalm daily during that month of spiritual preparation. We read two English translations, one from JPS and the other from my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. "Yah, You are my light," Reb Zalman begins. We talk about the psalms writ large and what it’s like to pray them.

She opens her vinyl-covered pocket Qur'an to surat An-Nur, "The Light," and I open the translation I brought with me. "Allah is the Light of the heavens and of the earth," begins Fakhry’s translation. We talk about what each of us thinks it means to speak of God in these terms. The sky over the lake turns pink and then darkens. When we turn to go inside, the meadow is filled with fireflies.

Continue reading "Reprint: Allah is the Light / Prayer in Ramadan & Elul" »

Reclaiming Zuleikha

Some of you may remember that back in August I was part of a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders. I blogged very briefly from the retreat, and later wrote an essay about the experience, which was published at Zeek: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.

The story we studied that week was the story of Joseph / Yusuf, as he appears in both the Torah (and later Jewish texts) and Qur'an (and later Muslim texts.) One of the most fascinating differences between "our" version of the story and "their" version of the story is the figure of Potiphar's wife, who in later tradition is known as Zuleikha.

One of my fellow retreatants asked me to contribute a brief reflection on Zuleikha as she appears (or doesn't appear) in Jewish text and tradition, for a four-voiced essay which would appear in AltMuslimah, an online magazine which "provides a space for compelling comment on gender in Islam from both the male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, perspectives." (For more about AltMuslimah, you can read their mission statement and this introductory article.) That essay has now gone live. Here's how it begins:

In August, four scholars and a small group of Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders met to discuss the story of Joseph in the Qur’an and in the Bible. Here are four reflections, by two Muslim women and two Jewish women, about the significance of Zuleikha in the story and in their respective traditions...

Read the essay here: Zuleikha in the Qur'an and in the Bible.

All four contributors to the essay were participants in the retreat, and I'm honored that my voice appears alongside the voices of Asma T. Uddin, Homayra Ziad, and Marion Lev-Cohen. Thanks, Asma, for inviting me to be a part of this collaboration around our beloved, if sometimes challenging, shared story.

What we know, what we don't know

It's interesting to think about the axes on which we differ. Scanning the Jewish participants in our retreat, I have some sense for where we're coming from. I know the names of our seminaries, the difference between HUC (Reform) and RRC (Reconstructionist) and YCT (Orthodox.) It's interesting to see who comes to prayer and what siddur (prayerbook) they use, who wears a kippah (all of the Jewish men, though none of the other Jewish women), what subjects rise up at mealtimes among and between us: one rabbinic program versus another, experiences in Israel and the West Bank, internships and high holiday pulpits.

But meeting the Muslim participants on this retreat, I realize just how much I don't know. What are the differences between their forms of Islam? What are the implications of how they dress, or of which scholars or sources they cite? I don't know enough to know what I don't know. I'm working with three other students (two of us Jewish, two Muslim) to plan the session on "Difficult Conversations" for our final morning together, and as we began today to brainstorm a list of what we imagine the difficult conversations between our communities might be, I was chagrined to discover how many of the same negative stereotypes each of us has heard about the other.

But I can tell you that tonight, at our storytelling session, almost every one of us had a story about love and family and grandparents to share while we noshed on warm cookies and cold milk. That I've seen Jewish students diagramming Hebrew grammar on the blackboard for Arabic-speakers. That I sat last night on a park bench overlooking a lake with a Muslim woman, and I shared a favorite Biblical text (psalm 27, which we'll soon be reading daily during Elul) and she shared a favorite Qur'anic text (an excerpt from surat An-Nur), and then we saw the lawn fill up with fireflies, little blessings of light.

The days are long and dense. We've heard two amazing scholars present on the Joseph/Yusuf story in the Torah and Qur'an (and later realms of commentary), and we have two more to go. I'm looking really forward to the other presentations, and to digesting some of what we've learned and sharing it here in time. But almost more than that, I'm looking forward to mealtimes tomorrow -- to seeing who I wind up sitting with, and what we wind up talking about, and what I'm able to learn from my fellow participants about who we all are. הנה מה טוב ומה נעים / Hineh mah tov u-mah nayim: how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters can sit and learn together.

Posted from the Garrison Institute, home of RRC's first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders.


Technorati tags: , , .