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?


Prayers, poems, and artwork for Chanukah

It's not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I've circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room...

That's the beginning of a poem called "Rededication," which I wrote in collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists, and artists who are part of Bayit's liturgical arts working group

You can read all of "Rededication" on page 11 of our new collection for this difficult pandemic Chanukah. (I also have another prayer-poem in that collection, about candles in windows and Zoom...)

The collection is called Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. I think it's a really beautiful collection, and I really hope you'll click through and download the PDF.

Here you'll find new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

My collaborators and fellow builders on this project are Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

Find it here on Builders Blog: Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. (You can also find it, along with our other liturgical offerings, at Bayit's Liturgical Arts for Our Times page.)


Prayer for Our Country

 

O God and God of our ancestors

receive our prayer for this land that we love.

Pour out Your blessing on this nation and its government.

 

Give those who serve our country

appreciation for the Torah's principles of justice and peace.

Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

 

Cultivate in them, and in us,

awareness that we are all one family

obligated to care for each other with compassion.

 

Banish hatred from our hearts

and from the hearts of our elected officials.

Help us to make this country a light unto the nations.

 

May it be Your will

our God and God of our generations

that this nation be a blessing to all who dwell on earth.

 

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore."  And let us say: Amen.

 

 

I wrote this for the Days of Awe machzor several years ago. I'm re-sharing it again today, in hope.


Liturgy for Sukkot in times of covid-19

Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.

In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.

The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others? 

For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.

You can click through to Builders Blog to read excerpts from our ten poems and to download the whole collection as a PDF, and I hope you will -- I'm really proud of this collection, and humbled and honored to have convened the group that brought it to life.

 


Megillat Covid at Builders Blog

MegillatCovid

One of the things we do at Bayit is share curated resources and spiritual tools for "building Jewish." Our latest is Megillat Covid -- a collection of five offerings for Tisha b'Av, written in and for this time of pandemic.

Megillat Covid comprises five readings / prayers / variations on Eicha (Lamentations). One was written by me, one by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz who is the editor of the CCAR Press, one by liturgist and poet devon spier, one by liturgist and poet Trisha Arlin, and one by my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame. Each looks at Lamentations and at the pandemic through its own unique lens, and I am honestly humbled and moved to be able to curate such a meaningful resource in this moment. 

Here's an excerpt from each of our five pieces; you can click through to Builders Blog to read each of our poems in full.

*

Crying Out by R’ Rachel Barenblat draws on images from the pandemic and asks the question: who will we be when the pandemic is gone? Here is a brief excerpt (you can read the whole piece in the PDF file at Builders Blog):

Lonely sits the city once great with people —
her subways now empty, her classrooms closed.
Refrigerator trucks await the bodies of the dead
wrapped in sheets of plastic and stacked like logs.
Mourners keep a painful distance, unable to embrace…

Along the Lines of Lamentations by R’ Sonja K. Pilz is similar to a cento (a poem that repurposes lines from another poem), as it consists primarily of quotations from Eicha, re-contextualized by their juxtaposition and by this pandemic season. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

We were laid waste (2:5).
We were stripped liked a garden;
Ended have Shabbat and festivals (2:6).
Our gates have sunk into the ground (2:9).
Elders sit silently;
Women bow their heads to the ground (2:10).
My eyes are spent;
My being melts away (2:11)….

Jeremiahs without a jeremiad by devon spier offers fragmented lines evoking our fragmented hearts in this time of pandemic. About her contribution, devon writes:

To be used to cultivate an embodied COVID megillah reading that honours the fall of Jerusalem and the ebb and flow of our bodies in the months of the Coronavirus and related social distancing. 

To honour that for those of us with pre-existing conditions (our own frail, flimsy, fabulous humanness, our addictions, chronic health issues, years of unfelt griefs suddenly flung to the surface…each of these), we can wrap our whole selves in the scroll of this weeping day. And we can arrive, just as we are.

I would frame this as a kavannah as lines of ketuvim (lines of poetical post-exilic writings) the speaker can read before beginning chanting to set an intention. Or, the lines of this work could also be read throughout the chanting, as the verses I cite appear throughout the first chapter of Eicha. 

‘V’ha-ikar…” and the essence: Pause for the moments you feel the most human. Feel. And insert the words of this piece exactly where you are. From the lines of this intention and a gentle remembrance on this solemn day where we still face ourselves, our ancestors, our communities and each other, in and beyond, always, with hope: “Jerusalem is me is you.”

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

lamentations
for those with pages
of unwritten loss
lamenting
Jerusalem
and everything else
they never had
but Are
somehow
we are…

Alas by Trisha Arlin evokes the full journey of Eicha, from weeping for the city in distress to remembrance and the promise of change. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

…Eating, Sleeping, Walking
Alone
TV, Facebook, Prayer
Alone
Coughing, Crying, Dying
Alone

Alas, loneliness!
I am so frightened.
I weep and who will hear me?…

Remember by Rabbi Evan Krame evokes the end of Lamentations, beseeching God to remember us and to let us return. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

God! Remember what we had? Consider and see our situation!
Our future went to strangers, our houses no refuge.
We are like orphans, without a leader, our mothers worry like widows…

Read the whole thing here: Megillat Covid at Builders Blog.


Coming soon: Holy at Home

My synagogue decided some weeks ago that for reasons of health and safety, our Days of Awe this year will be streamed / Zoom-based, rather than in person. Ever since then, I've known that I would need to adapt Days of Awe, the machzor / high holiday prayerbook that we use at my shul and that I shared for public adaptation & use some years ago, into a set of slide decks designed for screenshare over Zoom.

I've been leading Zoom davenen since the pandemic began, and over those months I've changed what I do and how I do it. I've learned a lot about what works for me and for my community -- best practices, how best to share materials, and more. I knew that my work this summer would be taking what I've learned there, and applying it to preparations for a High Holiday season like no other we've known.

I know I'm not alone in needing slides like this. So I talked to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, about sharing an editable set of machzor slide decks in return for a (tax-deductible) donation to Bayit. Our mission is to create, curate, and share meaningful tools for "building Jewish." In this pandemic time, when we're all confined to home, a set of machzor slide decks definitely feels like it fits that bill.

(Also, people often ask how they can support the work that for years I've put out into the world for free. Thank God, I have a job and I don't need to ask for your donations for my own support. Instead, I'd rather have folks donate in support of Bayit, the nonprofit that I co-founded. Your support will help us bring more relevant, meaningful, "pray-tested" tools and ideas and practices into the world.)

HaH1

This is the first slide in the first slide deck...

Enter Holy at Home, a set of six slide decks: 1) erev Rosh Hashanah (interweaving ma'ariv / the evening service with the Sefardic custom of a seder for Rosh Hashanah), 2) Rosh Hashanah morning, 3) Kol Nidre, 4) Yom Kippur morning with Yizkor, 5) Yom Kippur afternoon (avodah and mincha), and 6) Ne'ilah. All are editable, so each community can customize in ways that will meet their needs.

Much of what’s in these six slide decks comes from Days of Awe. If you've been using Days of Awe, you'll recognize a lot of what's here -- Hebrew and English, readings and prayers, tradition and creative riffs on tradition, poetry and artwork, translations and transliterations. That said, the original material from Days of Awe has also been adapted and improved for these slide decks in a variety of ways:

  1. We’ve made many typo fixes;
  2. Every word of Hebrew is now transliterated and translated (more on that below);
  3. There are full-color images adorning most slides, because that's possible via slides in a way it was not possible in print;
  4. I’ve steered away from prayer variations or settings that are rounds, or that work primarily because of harmony (given that it's not possible to sing simultaneously over Zoom);
  5. And there are also a lot of new things added to these slide decks -- new prayers, new poems, new illustrations, new approaches to haftarah -- that aren’t in the book. 

When Bayit released our volume for the mourner's path, Beside Still Waterswe committed to the promise that there will be full translations and transliterations in everything Bayit puts out. Unlike Beside Still Waters, which took a few years to bring to fruition, these slides were created by me during a global pandemic and I can't promise that I caught every extra space or typo... but I did my level best.

The slide decks streamline what’s in Days of Awe in many ways. The printed volume is rich with additional poems and readings, on the theory that someone who isn't engaged by prayer services might find meaning in thumbing through the pages and running across poems or meditations that speak to them. That doesn't work for a slideshare, where everyone sees the same screen at the same time.

In other ways, the slides remain expansive, offering multiple choices to those who lead prayer. For some prayers, there are multiple options -- e.g. three versions of Ahavat Olam, two variations on the Amidah, three versions of Aleinu. The idea is that once someone donates to receive a download link for the slide decks, they can copy the slide decks, choose which option they want to use, and delete the other slides. 

If this interests you or would be useful to you in your High Holiday preparations, let me know? We're proofreading the slides now, and our hope is to release them sometime next week so that everyone (else) who is (also) planning their Days of Awe now can get the slides, begin imagining how to work with them, begin adapting them as necessary, etc. For now... back to proofreading!


K'gavna - Just As...

Prism

Just as the colors of the rainbow
Unite to make one light
God far above and God deep within,
YHVH and Shechinah,
Unite in Shabbat.
Transcendence unites with Immanence,
One and One becoming One.

We join together in community
Together reflecting God's splendor.
We are the colors of the rainbow
Uniting to make one light.
The glorious holy throne
Is here where we meet
Ready for Shabbat to rest upon us.

HaMakom, this sacred Place, uplifts us
Here where electrons dance
And the interplay of Being and Nothingness
Draws our hearts together, binary code
Flickering through space
Making us present to each other
And to the radiance of Shabbat.

We crown Her from below
And She enfolds us in new supernal souls
So that our service
Be blissful and praiseful,
Joyful and radiant
As with shining faces
We approach the Bar'chu --

 


The prayer known as K'Gavna comes from the Zohar, and describes the mystical joining of transcendence (God-far-above, the Kadosh Baruch Hu) with immanence (God-deep-within, Shechinah) as Shabbat arrives. It speaks in the language of the seven "lower sefirot" (emanations or aspects of qualities of God) which are sometimes mapped to the seven colors of the rainbow. (That rainbow imagery for divinity is especially lovely now during June. Happy Pride Month everyone!)

In some siddurim K'Gavna is a prelude to the Bar'chu, the formal Call to Prayer that comes between Kabbalat Shabbat and the evening service. This variation was written for the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton that R' David Markus and I co-led over the weekend over Zoom for Havurh Shir Hadash in Ashland OR. It dovetails with that Shabbaton's themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.

On a related note, here's my d'var from the weekend: Being Real, Digital Edition. And here's R' David's d'var from the weekend: The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution.


Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

Bayit-logo-fullcolor

In these first six weeks of the pandemic, I've been teaching a psalm-writing workshop for my shul and a friend's shul together, and a member of my community who's a rabbi has been taking the class. After the first week, she commented to me that the class feels like spiritual self-care, and that she hadn't realized how much she needed to read and write psalms, to connect with emotions and spirit in these incredibly difficult times. Then another rabbinic colleague called me from across the country and said, "I love that you're teaching a psalms class for your congregation. Would you teach something like that for rabbis?" 

Announcing: online learning at Bayit: Building Jewish! This will be our first class offering. It's designed for clergy. (Never fear, over time we're planning to balance learning for clergy with learning aimed at a broader audience. Also, I'm about to teach a version of a psalms class for My Jewish Learning which will not be for clergy, and I'll share info about that here soon too.) Here's a description of Bayit's first online offering:

The psalms give voice to a range of human emotions, from despair to exultation. In this class for clergy, we’ll study psalms (both classical / Biblical, and contemporary poems that function in similar ways) and then open our creative channels to write our own. Both the reading and the writing will enliven our relationship with text, tradition, ourselves, and our Source, and will give us tools for building a more robust relationship with the psalms and with our own creativity.

In each session, we’ll study select psalms and poems together, delve into writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we write. We’ll share work (in dyads or as a whole group) and offer feedback. Throughout, we’ll seek to attune ourselves to the inner dynamics of heart and spirit, exploring how our continuing spiritual formation is being impacted by our spiritual service during this time of pandemic.

The class will meet over Zoom for five sessions of 90 minutes apiece. We will focus each week on a different facet of the psalms and our inner lives: gratitude, awareness, teshuvah, grief / anxiety, and wholeness.

Tuition: $180

Dates: Fridays May 15 and 22, June 5, 12, and 19; 3pm ET / 12pm PT

This class  for clergy will be limited to 12 participants. Once the first session fills, registrants will have the option of pre-registering for the next iteration of the class, which will take place after the first five-week session is complete.

Read all about it and sign up on Bayit's Online Learning page. All are welcome, with two caveats: 1) only the first 12 to sign up will get in to the first iteration of the class (though I will gladly teach it again if there's interest), and 2) if you're going to be studying the psalms with me at the Richmond Academy for Spiritual Formation in December, you might want to wait and do this learning with me in person, since what I'll be offering in this Zoom class will overlap a lot with the psalms work I do with the Academy. I look forward to learning with y'all!


A body that mostly works

TOS

That I have thoracic outlet syndrome is not particularly interesting. That a lot of major league pitchers have it too -- according to my brother-in-law -- is marginally more interesting, but not by much.

Here is my layperson's understanding: the cluster of muscles in and around the "thoracic collar" seize up and won't unclench. Nerves and blood vessels  constrict. Symptoms ensue.

It's mostly low level pain, unless I move in the wrong way. (Trying to put on a coat right-arm-first, for instance, and then wriggle my left arm in.) I've learned to adjust the way I move, the way I sleep, the way I wash my hair. 

I don't like the chronic pain or the inability to lift my arm. But what I really don't like is how it impacts my ability to play guitar. I don't feel like I'm a "serious" guitar player, but my guitar feels to me like an extension of my hands and arms even so. 

Thoracic outlet syndrome can cause pain, and/or weakness, and/or numbness. I'm not always able to manage barre chords these days. Sometimes I can play them; sometimes not. Sometimes I start a song and midway through realize I can't barre. 

It's a little bit funny when I stop and think about it. The pain is annoying but bearable. The limited range of motion is annoying but bearable. But if it gets in the way of my ability to make music? Whoa, hold up there, I can't live like that!

I will put up with pain, discomfort, and numbness. But if they are impinging on my ability to make music -- which is interwoven with one of the ways I most love to pray -- then that's a non-starter. Music is necessary to my soul, like breathing.

I can still lead prayer with my guitar. I'm just aware that it's more difficult than I want it to be. I have to work around the limitations imposed by my neck and shoulder and arm. I'm aware that my body isn't working quite as well as I want it to be.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being: You form the human body with wisdom, creating the body's many pathways and openings... 

My thoracic outlet syndrome has given me another point of engagement with Asher Yatzar. That's the blessing that reminds us that we can't pray if our bodies malfunction too profoundly -- if something opens that should be closed, or vice versa.

Sometimes we offer this prayer during Shabbat morning services. It appears in our siddur alongside the prayer for the soul. I call it "the prayer for having bodies that mostly work, most of the time." That usually gets a rueful laugh from someone.

Because even the healthiest among us have bodies that don't always work the way we want them to. Or if they do now, we know that if we live long enough, they won't anymore. This fragility, this imperfection, seems to be built into embodied life. 

Maybe that's why this balancing act feels built-in, too. Making music with an arm that doesn't always work; praying with a heart and mind that don't always work; balancing our broken places with our whole ones -- isn't that always what we're here to do?

Praise God in market and workplace,
With computer, with hammer and nails,

Praise him in bedroom and kitchen;
Praise him with pots and pans.

(So writes Stephen Mitchell in his rendering of Psalm 150.)  In that vein... Praise God in physical therapy and on the massage table, with resistance bands and heating pads. Praise God with the range of motion that might become possible again. 

Or in the words of Psalm 118:5, "From the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness." May the Holy One of Blessing answer all of our constricted places, our tight and painful places, our restricted-motion places, with freedom.

 


A video teaching on "in-between" times and spiritual practice

When we were in Cuba, the rabbis on the trip asked Cuban Jewish communities what they most needed from us. They asked for regular video teachings. That led to Bayit's latest initiative: monthly video teachings, translated into Spanish, for the Jewish communities of Cuba and anyone else who's interested.

Our first Spanish-language teaching went live in December, featuring Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Cuba America Jewish Mission teaching about Chanukah. You can find that teaching on Builder's Blog here. Our second teaching is now live; this one features me, talking about in-between times, spiritual life, and spiritual practice. Unlike R' Sunny I'm not fluent in Spanish, so my "vort" is recorded in English. Rabbi Juan Mejia is graciously translating our work into Spanish, so my video has Spanish subtitles!

If you're interested, you can watch the video here: 

Palabras del Torá / a "vort" of Torah - R' Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

Or, if you'd prefer to read the teaching, the text is available online in Spanish and in English -- just click through to Builders Blog.

 


Through this year's Selichot door

Tonight many synagogues will hold Selichot services -- an evening liturgy that usually includes prayers, piyyutim (poems), and some of the musical liturgy of the Days of Awe. At my shul, Selichot services are a first opportunity to immerse ourselves in the melodies of the season. I love how returning to those melodies feels like it awakens a dormant piece of my soul.

And for several years now at my shul, we've taken time during our service to write down anonymously on index cards the places where we feel we've missed the mark in the last year, places where we feel we need to make teshuvah and ask for forgiveness. Some of our written responses will be woven into a prayer for the community to recite on Yom Kippur morning.

This year Selichot falls on September 21, more or less the autumn equinox, which to me makes it feel all the more poignant. The equinox is a hinge, a doorway between seasons. And Selichot has always felt to me like the doorway into the high holiday season. So tonight is a doorway in at least two ways at once. Selichot is the mezuzah we hang on tonight's doorway in time.

If you don't have a Selichot service to attend tonight, or if you're not in a position to leave home this evening, you can still harness the spiritual energy of this moment in the year with a Selichot experience on your own. Here's the short booklet we'll be using tonight at my shul, and here are melodies for the season. Feel free to use them wherever you are.

Equinox Selichot [pdf]


A new prayer for Tisha b'Av

I've curated a new prayer for Tisha b'Av that interweaves quotes from Lamentations with quotes from migrants and refugees on the United States' southern border today. In reading the prayer aloud, we put the words of refugees -- parents separated from their children; children separated from their parents; human beings suffering in atrocious conditions -- into our own mouths. May hearing ourselves speak these words galvanize us to action.

Here's a taste:

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?...

The prayer is online (and also available as a downloadable PDF) at Bayit's Builders Blog, and you can find it here: Lamentations (Then and Now).


Gratitude for Mary Oliver

I watched as a wave of sadness passed through my online sphere last week with the news of Mary Oliver's death, and I felt that sadness, too. Sadness that the poems of hers we have are now the only poems of hers we will have. Sadness that such a luminous, attentive, real soul has left this life. 

In a list of the poets whose work most moves me, Mary Oliver ranks high. (So do Jane Kenyon and Naomi Shihab Nye, who have been among my literary lights for decades.) They have in common a certain plainness of speech, and I know that in the eyes of some in the poetry world that makes their work "lesser." But not for me.

As a reader, I yearn for poems that speak clearly, poems that open up some facet of the world whether external or interior (and the best poems do both at once.) And as a rabbi, I crave poems that can serve as prayer, or accompany prayer, or open up prayer, for those whom I serve. Mary Oliver's poems did all of these.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention..." I think part of what makes her poems so extraordinary is the way they manage to speak not only from her heart but from ours. And they wake me up. They remind me to notice, to pay attention, to feel, to live. They are a meditation bell in poetry form. 

"Every morning / the world /  is created..." It could be our daily liturgy. Indeed, I have used her "Morning Poem" as liturgy -- from time to time when I do a poetry service where each of the morning prayers is paired with an English-language poem, and also sometimes just on its own, reading the poem as prayer.

"Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while..." I can't read those words not without hearing them sung in haftarah trope.  (Click through to hear them that way.) I sing them each year on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, when the world is poised on the brink of autumn, when we are poised on the cusp of a new year, and they resonate like a struck bell.

But today the poem of hers that is most speaking to me is "The Journey." "One day you finally knew / what you had to do..."  The journey is difficult. There are voices that demand all the wrong things. But with the hard work of striving for integrity and authenticity the path becomes clear, and there is a kind of luminous hope, and the soul is not alone.

May her memory be a blessing, and may her poems continue to shine.


I Sing

I sing to God with my muchness
my much-too-much-ness
my awkward, oversized emotions
everything over the top

I sing to God
with my enormous tender heart
pouring out too many words
even if no one reads them

I sing to God
with my belly, my softness,
with every ounce of flesh
I was taught to hide

(the psalmist didn't say anything
about sucking in my tummy,
and holding my breath
is the opposite of singing)

I sing to God
even though my range is too small
even though my voice breaks
even though my heart breaks

anyone who wants me
to take up less space
doesn't deserve my music
but I sing anyway

 


This poem arises out of a creative (mis)reading of Psalm 46 verse 2 -- usually translated as "I will sing to God while I exist," or "I will sing to God with what is within me," it can be creatively translated as "I will sing to God with my much-ness."

On a semi-related note, my favorite setting of this verse is by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, and is online here


And bring you peace

BlessingIn this week's Torah portion, Naso, God speaks to Moshe and tells him to transmit to Aharon the following words of blessing to give to the people:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ / May God bless you and keep you. 

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ / May God's presence go before you and be gracious to you. 

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם / May God's presence be always with you and bring you peace.

Two things strike me about this passage this year.

The first is the Divine game of telephone. Granted, this is a common game of telephone at this point in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe and tells him to tell us pretty much everything. But in this instance, I see an extra layer of meaning in the way the transmission comes through. God telling Moshe to tell Aharon to tell us becomes an example of a deeper truth: blessing is connective. Blessing is relational. Blessing originates with God, but we speak it into being through our connections with each other.

The other thing that strikes me is the content of the blessing. For many of us this is a familiar text. Some of us maintain the practice of saying it to our children every Friday night. In some communities the rabbi offers it as a closing benediction after every service. I say these words to every b'nei mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah. At last weekend's conversion, I offered these words to our new Jews. These words are so familiar we may not pay a ton of attention to them most of the time.

But notice:

The text promises that God will bless us and keep us -- but it doesn't claim that God will keep us free from struggle or change.

The text promises that God's presence will accompany us with grace -- not just "graciousness," in the sense of gracious hospitality, but grace, חן / chein, that unearned and un-earnable flow of abundance from on high -- but it doesn't claim that grace will spare us life's ups and downs.

The text promises that God will be with us and will bring us wholeness and peace -- but it doesn't claim that "peace" means perfection or an end to our spiritual work or our spiritual growth. 

Elsewhere in this parsha we read about the ritual for when spouses suspect each other of infidelity and there has been a breakdown of their relationship that may or may not be reparable. And we read about the promises of the nazir, one who makes certain commitments to God for a stated period of time. With this juxtaposition, Torah seems to be saying: the promises we make to each other as human beings may or may not endure. Our human promises may be temporary or time-limited.

But the promise that God makes to us is not time-limited or temporary. When we stand as channels of blessing for each other, when we speak these words of blessing to one another, we invoke God's accompanying presence and grace and care. Always.

God's presence and grace and care can't protect us from challenges or disappointment... but they will always endure. God will always keep our souls safe in the palm of Her hand. God's presence always accompanies us and showers us with love we cannot earn and cannot lose, no matter what. And that presence always offers us access to wholeness and peace: not through pretense, but through authenticity and realness.

Because שלום / shalom doesn't just mean the absence of conflict. It means the presence of wholeness. And wholeness doesn't come when we put a bandaid over our sorrows: wholeness comes when we allow ourselves to be real, in our sorrow and in our joy. Putting a bandaid over our sorrows (spiritual bypassing) is fragmentation: I feel this, but I will pretend that. And fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Wholeness requires us to feel what is, all of what is, with all that we are. 

So I say to you today:

May you feel God's presence blessing you and keeping you, no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

May you feel God's presence accompanying you and steeping you in a love that can't be lost.

May God's accompanying presence in your life bring you wholeness, now and always.

Amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: a papercut of this passage by David Fisher.

 


Untie

Source of Mercy, untie my tangled places.
I'm a fine gold chain so knotted and snarled

I've forgotten how it feels to fall straight,
to let Your abundance cascade through.

Protector of Israel, when someone wounds
my beloveds I turn into an angry lioness.

Forgive me: I don't want to outgrow
this furious yearning to protect those I love.

Eternal Friend, help me relinquish my grudges,
especially those I hold against myself.

You know every hope and every ache.
All I want to want is You, and if I have You

I have all I need. Through time and space
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 


 

This is a prayer-poem I began writing a couple of years ago to which I returned this morning. It began as a re-visioning and mashup of two pre-existing prayers: Ana B'Choach, which some recite on Friday nights, and the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which appears in the nightly shema liturgy.

My poem borrows some phrases from Reb Zalman z"l's translations of both of those prayers. It also grapples with the piece of the bedtime forgiveness prayer that challenges me most: the articulation of forgiveness not for those who have harmed me, but for those who have harmed those whom I love. 

There are four names of God, or epithets for God, in this prayer-poem. Three of them are names that Reb Zalman z"l used often, and the fourth appears in traditional daily liturgy. The fact that there are four names of God was a conscious choice made in revision; I like how it evokes the four worlds

Shabbat shalom to all!

 


Seven poems for ma'ariv

29507891500_b16a1ea0df_zMany years ago, my friend Teju Cole put together a collection of contemporary poems with the intention of praying them daily as though they were liturgy. I remember printing them out and putting them on my desk in my study, and I remember praying them sometimes.

Alas, I no longer remember which poems he chose, though the fact that he had assembled a liturgy out of contemporary poetry was on my mind when I put together a morning service during National Poetry Month that interwove the Shabbat morning liturgy with the work of a variety of contemporary poets. (That liturgy featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon -- some of the poets to whom I most often turn when I'm in need of spiritual sustenance.)

I had both of those sheaves of poems in mind -- Teju's, and my own -- when I assembled a collection of my own poems for use in daily prayer. I've written several poems that intentionally riff off of the words, images, and themes of daily Jewish liturgy. One day it occurred to me to see whether I could pull together a handout that follows the matbeah tefilah (structure of prayer -- e.g. the roadmap of themes and ideas that we touch upon in daily Jewish prayer) using my own poems for each of the stops along that daily journey.

What I came up with was this: Seven poems for ma'ariv. [pdf] Ma'ariv is the name we give to evening prayer in Jewish tradition, and these seven poems are intended to follow the themes of our evening prayers.

Why seven? Seven is a symbolic number in Judaism: the seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, the seven "lower" sefirot that we inhabit as we count the Omer, seven wedding blessings (and seven times wedding partners circle one another), seven stops on the way to the grave... to name a few.  

These seven poems are also intended to map to seven specific prayers: 1) the ma'ariv aravim prayer that blesses God Who brings on the evening; 2) the ahavat olam prayer that blesses God Who loves us and expresses that love through Torah; 3) the shema; 4) the ge'ulah blessing for redemption that evokes coming through the Sea; 5) the hashkivenu blessing for God Who spreads a shelter of peace over us as we sleep; 6) the amidah / prayer in which we stand before God and speak the words of our hearts; and 7) the aleinu prayer that closes our evening davenen. 

I pray these poems sometimes as my abbreviated evening service. If you use them, I'm curious to know what works for you and what doesn't. (And if you've ever assembled a series of poems or readings intended to follow the flow of liturgical prayer in this way, I'd love to see it!)

 

A note on God-language:

Please note that that document contains the name יהו''ה, one of my tradition's holiest names for the One; if you print those pages, please treat them with the respect you would give a prayerbook.

I chose to include that Name, and not to translate or transliterate it, for a reason. That Name can be understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." Its untranslatability points us beyond all words. Our Creator is beyond language; our words can only approach the Infinite.

When I see the letters יהו׳׳ה, sometimes I render them aloud as Adonai ("My Lord"), sometimes as Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling Divine Feminine), sometimes as Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) -- and sometimes in still other ways. The unpronounceable / untranslatable Name reminds me that all of our names are only substitutes, and that our Source is beyond any words we can speak.


Gifts from this year's Rabbis Without Borders retreat

27973191_10215036347800075_406905700530029112_nThe first night of this year's Rabbis Without Borders alumni fellows gathering opens with a jam-session-style ma'ariv (evening service). Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl has assembled a set of songs that fit the evening service -- sometimes using English words, often using secular melodies.

(For instance, for our ma'ariv aravim / God-who-brings-on-the-evening prayer, he's set words about evening and transition to the melody of "Good Night, Irene." When people figure out what melody he's chosen, a ripple of satisfaction and laughter flows around the room.) There are a handful of guitars, a tenor ukelele, a djembe, some tambourines, and a couple dozen rabbis singing with gusto. What a glorious way to start the retreat!

The next morning I get to co-lead davenen with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, two of my Bayit co-founders. Rabbi Evan offers his beautiful singable ashrei variation composed of alphabetical quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rabbi David offers the Gettysburg Address in haftarah trope because it's Lincoln's birthday. I offer Listen Up, Y'all, which I wrote for a service I co-led here two years ago at this retreat. We interweave nusach (the weekday melody-system) with melodies. We sing in harmony. I come away beaming.

This is one of the things I love most about gatherings like this one: the opportunity to daven with people who care about these words as much as I do. (Not to mention the opportunity to sing in harmony with friends, which is one of the most emotionally and spiritually satisfying things in the world for me.) I lead davenen regularly at my synagogue, and I always get some good "juice" from praying, but there's nothing quite like davening with friends in harmony while relaxing into the way the words and melodies and shared intentions can buoy me.

About half of the programming this year is provided for us / by us -- sessions on the things we're doing, or our areas of expertise, or various forms of self-care for rabbis. My Bayit co-founders and I offer a session on what we're doing and how we hope our RWB colleagues will partner with us. I attend a terrific session on the tension between pursuing social justice and ministering to a politically diverse congregation, and another on mysticism, shamanism, and folk practices (from angels to hamsas to amulets), and another on experiential pluralism through the lens of complementary flavors.

During our plenary sessions (the theme is "Leading in Challenging Times") we hear from Dr. Connor Wood of Faith In Depth, about conservatism and liberalism and how they play out in the religious sphere. We hear from Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins about vocation, balancing the pastoral and the prophetic, and being a religious leader during turbulent times. We break into small groups and discuss pluralism, how we invest our stories with meaning, where and how we build bridges and where and how we draw our lines. Both speakers are good, though honestly I'm here more for the hevreschaft (collegiality / friendship) than for expert speakers.

And the hevreschaft is sweet and satisfying and enriching b'chol olamot (on all levels). Really what draws me here are the conversations: at mealtimes, on couches in the hallways, over coffee in the morning and other beverages once night falls. We talk about life and relationships and transitions and spiritual practice and texts and Torah -- about what we're reading, how we're davening, what brings us joy in our work -- about innovation and pluralism and the cutting edge of spiritual life and what real spiritual R&D might be. This is what I'm thirsty for, in the ordinary sometimes-isolation of serving a congregational community solo, and I drink it up like a happy plant receiving longed-for rain.

When the time comes for me to take my leave of everyone (a bit early -- before the retreat has officially ended, alas) I'm sorry to go... but grateful to have had this opportunity to replenish mind, heart, and spirit with colleagues who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future in some of the same ways that I do.


Nava Tehila at the #URJBiennial, and renewal everywhere

24993101_2068187270130664_5904868130532666653_n

A glimpse of where and how I davened on Friday morning.

 

One of the highlights of my URJ Biennial was davening last Friday morning with Nava Tehila.

This is not surprising. Longtime readers of my blog know that davening with Nava Tehila has long been one of my favorite things in the universe, anywhere. Let's see: great music -- check. Deep heart-connection -- check. Awareness of the flow of the matbe'ah (the structure of the service) -- check. Attunement to body and to silence -- check. Balance of contemplative and ecstatic -- check. Davening with Nava Tehila feels like coming home.

I love how they set the worship space up, in concentric circles with space in the middle, a kind of emptiness echoing the ancient holy of holies. I love how Dafna and Yoel work (wherever they are) with a cadre of holy levi'im, musicians who aren't just accompaniment but are part of the active leadership team. I love their melodies and harmonies. And all of these add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every time I daven with Nava Tehila, I come away with my heart and soul feeling recharged, reconnected, and rejuvenated, and my body buzzing from the dancing and the joy.

It was neat to daven with them at a gathering explicitly created by and for Reform Jews, and to see that they don't change what they do in any way based on the denominational identity of the community with whom they're davening. And I know that last week they were at the USCJ, the big gathering of Conservative Jews, doing the very same kind of thing -- and, I'm guessing, meeting with every bit as much joy and enthusiasm and wow! as they heard from the Reform crowd on Friday morning.

When I say that renewal flows through all of the denominations, this is part of what I mean.

Colorful tallitot are everywhere, for instance. Not only the rainbow tallit that Reb Zalman z"l designed so many years ago, each color of the rainbow representing one of the seven "lower sefirot" or aspects of divinity -- though I saw a bunch of those at the Biennial, as I do everywhere! (And I'm guessing most people have no idea who designed that tallit or what its origins are -- though if you're interested, here's the story, which I love knowing.) But the very fact of multicolored tallitot was one of Reb Zalman's innovations in the first place, back in the 1950s. Now they're a natural part of Jewish prayer life almost everywhere. 

And renewal melodies are everywhere. I can't tell you how often I've encountered a liturgical melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold -- come to think of it, we sang one on Friday night at the URJ Biennial before dinner in the ballroom where I was seated! Her melodies are known and sung across the Jewish world (and as with the tallitot, most people may not know where they come from -- it's easy for melodies to seem miSinai, as though we received them with Torah at Mount Sinai.) There are other renewal composers whose work is becoming part of the canon, too, like Shir Yaakov. And, of course, Nava Tehila, who share both their melodies and their way of davening not only in their Jerusalem home but in places they visit around the world.

Beyond the music, renewal modes of davenen (prayer) are everywhere. If you've ever been to a chant-based service, a contemplative service, a service that drew on Jewish meditative or mystical teachings, a service where people danced in the aisles, you've had a brush with some renewal ways of connecting with prayer. (I say "some" ways, rather than "the way," because there is no single way to pray in Jewish renewal. That's why as a renewal rabbinic student I was expected to learn how to lead prayer-ful worship using any prayerbook there is, from full-text to minimalist, across the denominational spectrum... and to pray not only with books and received liturgy but also with silence, and music, and the unfolding prayers of the heart.)

And the flow of renewal continues.  Renewal as it's unfolding now contains elements of what came before, remixed in new ways. I see Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva as part of the flow of renewal. The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, the Jewish Emergent Network, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute are all part of the flow of renewal. (Some of these people and places may self-identify as part of the renewal of Judaism. Others might not choose the term "Jewish renewal" to describe what they do. But they're all part of renewal from where I sit.) Bayit: Your Jewish Home -- the new nonprofit organization I'm co-founding; stay tuned for more on that! -- is part of the flow of renewal. And so are many other places and spaces besides.

Renewal flows through all of the denominations, and in and through post-denominational and trans-denominational spaces, too. As software developers say, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. It isn't an accident or a mistake -- rather, it's part of renewal's core design. Renewal was never meant to be a denomination. Renewal is a way of doing Jewish, a way of approaching Judaism and spiritual life, that can enrich and enliven Jewish practice of all flavors. I've been saying that for years, but there was something extra-special for me (as a rabbi who serves a Reform-and-renewal shul) about living out that belief at the Biennial this year. 

 

Related:


Academy for Spiritual Formation: Prayer

38403766801_cd9dc3b2ec_zAttending daily worship here has been fascinating, rich, fruitful, sometimes challenging, and often beautiful. 

I've spoken with other participants about their experience of worship, and they tell me that it is not like what they are accustomed to at home. It's more contemplative, most of them tell me. Some say it's more liturgical than home, some say it's less so. It's clearly not one hundred percent familiar to anyone -- we use a prayerbook created by The Upper Room, unique to these retreats.  Of course, it is probably least familiar to me, because my liturgical tradition is Jewish, and this is not Jewish prayer by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a kind of cousin to Jewish prayer, sometimes, in interesting ways.

Some of what we've been doing is familiar to me as a Jew who has been in Christian spaces before. (I attended an Episcopal school for six years, and have sung in many churches.) It's always both wonderful, and somewhat disconcerting, to encounter familiar words and phrases and prayers in this other setting. The psalms, of course. Or hymns that speak of "Israel" or covenant -- though in a Christian setting, those terms evoke their community of believers in Jesus, rather than the community of Jews. That stretches me sometimes, though of course it's okay for these words to mean different things to them than they do for me.

My task is to honor and notice those tight places, and the objections voiced by my discursive mind -- the part of me that inhabits briyah, the world of intellect -- and then gently set them aside so that I can be present in this worship in yetzirah, the world of heart and connectivity. Where can I find, in this liturgy and in this experience of prayer, the heart-connection with God that I seek in my own prayer life? I love the discipline of daily prayer, and even when that prayer is in a modality that is foreign to me, it's still an opportunity to open to God. Thrice-daily prayer in community is a gift, even when the prayer isn't always exactly my own.

Prayer is an experience of discernment. The Hebrew להתפלל / l'hitpallel, "to pray," comes from the root meaning to discern or judge oneself. Through the discipline of daily prayer, we come to know ourselves in a deeper way. For me as a Jew, the experience of immersing in daily liturgy (even my own familiar and comfortable liturgy) is also an experience of seeing what bubbles up within me to distract me from my prayer. What are my recurring thoughts, narratives, ideas, fears? The goal is not to resent them for distracting me from prayer, but to lift up the sparks of distracting thoughts, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.

If that's true in the familiar setting of Jewish prayer -- the words of the siddur that roll comfortably off my tongue, the melodies of weekday nusach and the musical settings I know best -- how much more so in this setting of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. As I pray in these unfamiliar forms, I learn things about myself. What buttons are pushed for me by these Christian uses of Jewish ideas and terms? What is evoked for me? Where do I feel what Krister Stendahl called "holy envy," and where do I feel resistance? These aren't my native prayer forms, but they are prayer and they are real -- and can be real for me if I let them.

I have been reminded often this week of Reb Zalman z"l's teaching that in order to appreciate the beauty of a stained glass window, one needs to stand inside the church and see the light streaming through it. In order to appreciate what role Jesus plays for my Christian brothers and sisters, I need to open myself to their prayers. Sometimes their prayers trigger my "allergies," because being a member of a minority religious tradition surrounded by Christian language, ritual, and presumptions has shaped me in not-always-comfortable ways. My work is to notice those allergies without letting them push me out of prayer.

I can pray authentically as a Jew in this Christian setting: that's the path of deep ecumenism, to which I committed myself when I chose a Jewish Renewal path. One night this week I led evening worship, sharing beloved prayers of Jewish nighttime liturgy. Otherwise, I've taken it upon myself to pray as my colleagues here pray. (With the exception of participating in communion. I do not partake, but I join the community in singing as others go up to receive the wine and the bread. And oh, I do love to sing.) I'm grateful to be able to quiet my mind, sink into the music, and let myself pray -- cultivating openness to whatever arises.

 

I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the Upper Room retreat prayerbook.