Hanukkah with Padma


When I began watching the Hanukkah episode in the new season of Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation, I teared up. The episode opens with the Chanukah blessings sung by Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman of Russ and Daughters as they light and bless at their own festive table. I said, aloud, "I'm not sure I've ever really seen that on TV." It moved me more than I expected.

The episode acknowledges that historically Chanukah was not a major holiday, at least in mainstream Judaism. (R. Abby Stein noted recently on Twitter that in Hasidic circles, Chanukah has long been a major source of spiritual wisdom.) Its relative minor standing made it ripe for reinvention by new immigrants, which Padma explores -- as always -- through the lens of cuisine. 

At Russ & Daughters we learn how a lot of classic Ashkenazi dishes -- chopped liver, herring, schmaltz -- were originally the off-cuts, the things that people with means didn't want. (Yes, even caviar, which used to be Russian peasant food.) The Pickle Guys remind us that the tradition of pickling was a way to preserve produce through long cold winters. This was not prosperity cuisine.

The same message comes through with the folks from Gefilteria teaching Padma to make stuffed cabbage rolls (I'm saving that recipe to try this winter.) And with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who notes that brisket was a cheap cut that required long braising. At her Chanukah table, her classic brisket gets turned into brisket tacos. What a glorious moment of remix! 

Interwoven with the food narratives Padma visits the Tenement museum with Annie Polland, and she sits with the rabbi at Central Synagogue, who talks about the Chanukah story. ("I like this rabbi," my son said -- props to you, R. Ari Lorge.) I was struck by his point about the building itself: grand and visible, because here in this country it's safe to be who we are, to let our light shine.

I was especially moved by Ruth Zimbler, a woman of 93 who came over in 1939 -- the same year my own mother emigrated here, fleeing the Nazis. (My mother was three when they fled here; Ruth was eleven.) Ruth talked about America as a beacon of hope for immigrants much as my mom always did. Her horror at this country's recent anti-immigrant policies is powerful.

I've seen Padma speak with immigrants from so many cultures. She values their foodways as she uplifts the core idea that our diversities make us stronger and make us more the multicultural nation we aspire to become. I hadn't realized how much I needed to see her approach the Ashkenazi Jewish food of my own ancestry with the openness and respect she brings to everything else.




Identifying with Chidi


Chidi Anagonye teaching about ethics on The Good Place.


I was driving to the cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a headstone when I realized why there was  such a tangled knot in my stomach. It was because of the news articles I'd been reading: about the local COVID outbreak at North Adams Commons, and medical predictions that the summer coronavirus surge will get worse before it gets better, and the news that the delta variant is more contagious than chickenpox, and reports from the COVID outbreak in (95% vaccinated) Provincetown

I want so much to be able to gather for hybrid services for the Days of Awe this year. The small synagogue I serve has developed a plan to limit capacity to 50% (e.g. 60 people) onsite, socially distanced and masked, with doors and windows propped open for airflow. We've invested in a big screen so I can use the slideshare machzor both for those onsite and those participating online. We're working on equitably insuring that each member gets to be onsite for at least one service of their choice. 

Our plan seemed reasonable earlier in the summer. I don't know if it's reasonable now. So many people around the country have refused vaccination. The delta variant is so contagious that even vaccinated adults can spread it. And because so many refuse to vaccinate or even to mask (and some governors have made it illegal for local municipalities to mandate masking to protect the vulnerable!), more variants will evolve, and the "finish line" of reaching safety keeps getting further away. My heart sinks.

And so my stomach ties itself in knots. Driving to the cemetery, I realized that I feel like Chidi Anagonye -- the ethical philosopher in The Good Place who gets anxiety stomach-aches. If unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant, is it ethical for any congregation to seek to gather for the Days of Awe? One could argue that anyone who comes to services onsite is aware of the risks and is taking those risks willingly -- but what about our extended circles, and what about our unvaccinated children? 

How responsible am I for the safety of those whom I serve? I believe we are all fundamentally responsible for and to each other; that's part of what it means to be an ethical human being in community. (Which is part of why I can't understand those who refuse to mask to protect other people.) But do those of us in positions of community leadership have additional responsibility -- to make communal decisions with the needs of the other, especially the needs of those most vulnerable, in mind?

This morning I turned to deep breaths and quietly singing words of prayer in my car, and I managed to untie the inner places that felt knotted up in anxiety. We'll make the best decisions we can. The pandemic is far from over, and I suspect we're facing another long winter. At the end of the unveiling, one of the mourners who was there pointed to a nearby grave with an obviously-new stone: a friend, who had died of COVID. As I drove away, she was placing a memorial pebble on that friend's stone. 

New essay in Transformative Works and Cultures

I'm delighted to have a short piece in the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures. This issue (Vol. 31) is dedicated to the subject of fan fiction and ancient scribal cultures, and I'm looking forward to reading my way through it.

My piece is called Gender, voice, and canon. It explores classical, medieval, and late 20th-century feminist midrash as well as late 2oth-century Western media fandom. Here's the abstract:

The Jewish tradition of midrash (exegetical/interpretive fiction) parallels the fannish tradition of creating fan works in more ways than one. In the twentieth century, both contexts saw the rise of women's voices, shifting or commenting on androcentric canon—and in both contexts today, that gender binarism is giving way to a more complicated and multifaceted tapestry of priorities and voices.

And here's the article in html format for those who are so inclined. Deep thanks to the TWC editors for including my work!


The Last Jedi through a Jewish lens

25018104_667783616943227_2857874915250405376_nStar Wars: The Last Jedi was deeply satisfying to me on several levels. I appreciated its feminism, especially in this current political moment when women's leadership has felt devalued in the public sphere. I enjoyed its subversive qualities. And most of all I appreciated what I understand to be the film's implicit theology, which resonates neatly with my own.

(Please note: this post is full of spoilers! If you haven't seen the movie and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading now!)

Luke tells Rey that the Force isn't a tool for lifting rocks or winning wars: it flows through everything, and is available to everyone. The movie wants to make sure we get that, so it offers that teaching in two forms: the pshat (surface) form of Luke flat-out saying so, and the remez (hidden / built-in) form of the discovery that Rey's parents were "nobodies." Rey isn't the next scion of some magical dynasty. She's just a regular person who's attuned to spirit and flow, and by extension, that means that any one of us could be (like) Rey.

This teaching about the Force is pretty close to my understanding of God. Many religious teachers (among them Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers) have offered the caution not to confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself -- not to confuse the pointer for the point, as it were. The Force is "the moon itself." What Luke calls the Force is what I call God, who in the words of the Jewish mystics "fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds." The Jedi tradition in which Luke placed his faith -- and in which Luke lost his faith -- was always only a pointer, never the point.

And Rabbi Luke knew that, at least on some level, because he taught it to Rey: the Force doesn't belong to anyone. On the contrary, it flows through everything and everyone. The core question of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) as I've been taught to practice it is "where is God for you in whatever's unfolding?" God flows through all aspects of our lives: the things we consider sweet, and the things we experience as bitter. As the Zohar teaches, leit attar panui mineh: there is no place devoid of God. Or in Star Wars' language, there is nowhere that the Force is not -- if we open ourselves to that flow.

For me the tensest moment of the film was when Luke went to torch the ancient tree. I thought of my tradition's great destructions. I cringed to think of ancient texts burning (and was deeply relieved to learn that Rey had pinched them before leaving!) -- in part because there are too many stories of precious Jewish texts and teachings going up in flames, from Roman times to Kristallnacht.

But even when enemies have tried to destroy my tradition (Babylon, Rome, the Nazis, you name it) they've failed, and one of the reasons for their failure is that the tradition is more than our texts, as precious as those texts are to us. The tradition lives in the minds and hearts of those who cherish it. The texts contain endless wisdom for which I am grateful, but they too are the pointer, not the point. And as long as there's someone left to uphold our teachings and study them and learn from them, then our teachings remain alive. As for us, so for the Jedi. 

Luke and Kylo Ren are positioned as opposites, and that's not unreasonable, but (for a while, at least) they align in their desire to forcibly end the old ways. Luke wanted to burn Jedi history in order to wipe history's slate clean of his order and the mistakes that it had (and he had) made. And Kylo claimed he wanted to discard the past -- though given that his ultimate goal was still dominance, I don't think he was destroying the past so much as planning to recreate it in his own image. But both of them missed the point: the way to move forward is to know where and who we've been, flaws and all, and then to build from there.

That too feels to me like a very Jewish idea. Judaism today isn't identical to Judaism of a hundred years ago, or 500 years ago, or 3000 years ago. But neither is it completely discontinuous from what has been. Judaism is perennially renewing itself. I'm hoping that in Rey's hands, and in the hands of those she may someday teach, the Jedi tradition will do the same.

Given the timing of its release, I couldn't help watching the movie through the lens of the Chanukah story. Not the story of the violent rebellion against brutal Greco-Syrian hegemony, but the meta-story of how my tradition chose to valorize the tale of the miracle of the oil that lasted beyond all reason over the tale of that military victory. Because focusing on military might can all too easily lead to more death (like the Bar Kokhba revolt -- or like Poe's ill-advised choice to bring down the star destroyer)... but cultivating hope in dark times can give us the strength to carry on.

And the film ends on a note that resonates perfectly with that miracle-of-the-oil reading: a little kid recounting the story, and using the story to nurture a spark of hope. Hope for better than what exists now. Hope for a world without tyranny, a world of justice and kindness, a world where difference is celebrated and rights and freedoms are universally acknowledged to be the birthright of every living human being. May it come speedily and soon!


Inspiring rabbis


I always enjoy the Forward's list of Most Inspiring Rabbis.

I like that the focus is not on fame, but on inspiring others. In-spiring: infusing people with spirit, connecting people with God. That's a metric I admire. Each year when the Most Inspiring Rabbis list comes out I read it avidly, kvelling for friends and colleagues when I see their names there, and resolving to try to meet those on the list whom I do not yet know. 

I'm humbled to be able to say that this year I am on that list. This year there are 32 people on the list, out of some 350 nominations. (I'm not sure why 32, though the Hebrew number לב -- when read as a word instead of as numbers -- reads "heart." I'd like to think this reflects the fact that as a group, we have a lot of heart.)

I'm in amazing company, with some of my ALEPH / Jewish Renewal hevre (friends), and with some of my Rabbis Without Borders hevre, and with others whom I have long admired.  Here's this year's list: Most Inspiring Rabbis 2016. Mazal tov to everyone on the list, and deep gratitude to those who nominated me!

Doctor Who to the rescue

MaxresdefaultI was interviewed recently by Michael A. Burstein for the Jewish Advocate, for an article about Doctor Who, role-playing, and summer camp.

Speaking about the study, Rabbi Barenblat noted, “I love the idea of using Doctor Who to help kids battle depression. Connecting with fictional characters can help kids feel less alone, and he’s a wonderful character, resilient and kind. Anyone can benefit from identifying with a heroic archetype, and the Doctor -- like the Biblical archetypes we meet in Tanakh -- is both wonderful and flawed... which makes him, like the Biblical figures, relatable and (although he is a Time Lord) very ‘human.’ “

Read the whole thing here: 'Dr. Who' to the rescue. Thanks for including me, Michael!

#blogExodus 6: Tell

Blogexodus5775At the center of the seder experience is the step in the seder known as Maggid -- "telling the story." (The word maggid shares a root with haggadah; the Haggadah is the book which tells the tale.)

We are helped, in our storytelling, by the materials we have at hand -- both our printed haggadot, and the stirrings of our hearts. Not surprisingly, my family uses the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach to guide us along the way. But although it's the haggadah I've assembled, it's not the only one I love.

I love all kinds of haggadot. I love the classical text, and I love the many variations thereupon, and I love that a haggadah can still recognizably be a haggadah even when things change. Hebrew or vernacular (or both), prose or poetry (or both), minimalist or maximalist -- I love them all.

Right now I am enamored of the latest addition to my haggadah collection: The Asufa Haggadah, 2015 edition. Here's how the publisher describes it:

Hagaddah_Mockup-510x361It’s become a tradition: every year, a group of more than 40 Israeli artists comes together and creates a new haggadah. They follow only two rules:

  1. Each artist creates only a single page
  2. The artists must use the standard Haggadah text

Now, for the first time, that haggadah is available in North America, exclusively through Print-O-Craft.

The haggadah is stunning. Every page is different and every page is beautiful. The art brings the story to life. I'm a wordsmith; words have long been my trade. But this haggadah is as much about the visual storytelling as it is about the text, and I find myself lingering on every page. This is transformative work: the art changes my experience of the existing, and familiar, Hebrew text.

I love that this is how we both celebrate, and continue to create, our peoplehood: by telling a story. Once upon a time we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy One of Blessing brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

There are so many ways to tell this central tale.

 Asufa_2015_6-e1423771013935-157x157 Asufa_2015_4-157x157 Asufa_2015_3-157x157

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Mindful speech

The Christian season of Lent is almost here. I know that many of the Christians I know online choose to use this season as a time to "fast" from particular qualities or forms of internet use -- fasting from Facebook or Twitter, for instance, and using the time they would otherwise have spent on social media in prayer or contemplation. Yesterday I saw a reference to such a practice online. In response I tweeted that even those of us who don't celebrate Lent might consider thinking twice before we type.

Rabbi Josh Yuter asked what I meant by moderating tone. I found myself quoting Rabbi Harry Brechner's threefold rule: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it important?" (I wrote about that in my 2013 post To shame someone is to shed their blood, about the "emerging Gemara" of ethical internet behavior.) In turn, R' Yuter noted that outrage is rarely kind. He has a good point. Our broken world demands justice, and sometimes the need to pursue justice may trump my desire to cultivate kindness.

And, at the same time -- I've found that when I give too much energy to justice and not enough energy to kindness, my soul doesn't flourish. Kabbalah teaches us that God's qualities of chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength) need to be kept in balance. Too much of either one isn't good for creation. I wonder whether each of us has a subtly different balance of healthy chesed and gevurah in our hearts and souls. My heart definitely calls for leaning toward kindness.

I read a powerful article in the New York Times recently -- How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. (If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.) There are countless upsides of this interconnected world. One of those upsides is that we can use social media to create positive change. The shadow side is that sometimes we cause harm. We have new ways of hurting each other. Careless statements made online can be shared around the world in incredibly destructive ways.

Most religious traditions preach the importance of moderating one's speech, and Judaism is no exception. In Mishlei (Proverbs) 10:19 we read, "Where there is much talking, there is no lack of transgressing, but the one who curbs the tongue shows sense." And in Pirkei Avot 6:6, moderation in speech is listed as one of the 48 qualities through which one acquires Torah, which can mean something like accessing deep wisdom or accessing flow of blessing from the divine.

As a poet and a liturgist, I try to take language seriously. With our words we can create worlds -- and we can also shatter them. I can always use a reminder to pay attention to what I say and how I say it, both online and off. (And when we reach the period of the Omer, the 49 days we count between Pesach and Shavuot, I might follow Mussar practice and try to cultivate those qualities from Pirkei Avot 6:6 each day -- including moderation in speech, which for me includes what I signal-boost and retweet.)

One rubric I sometimes use is: whatever I'm about to say, would I be comfortable saying it where my teachers could hear me? I have a particular group of teachers in mind -- but it could be your parents, your children, your sensei: someone(s) in your life whose opinion you value. For those of us who cultivate a personal relationship with God, that's another way to make the decision: if you were called before God tomorrow, would you feel glad about this remark, or would you regret having said it?

I'm as prone as anyone to the Someone is wrong on the internet syndrome -- and sometimes my desire to correct all of those wrong people does me no favors. But I'm trying to train myself to pause and to be thoughtful. Over the years I've trained myself to click into the groove of the morning prayer of gratitude, as close to the moment of waking as I can manage. I'd like for kindness and thoughtfulness to be the same kind of reflexive acts, so innate that I don't even have to instigate them any more.


"To boldly go": on Lech Lecha and Star Trek


Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. [Source]

If you're a Star Trek fan, just reading those words has probably caused the theme music to swirl wildly through your head.

(I've just revealed myself as a fan of Next Generation, since those are the opening lines of that second iteration of the show. In the original series, the opening lines referenced the Enterprise's "five-year mission," and closed "where no man has gone before." Among my college friends, it was common to whoop and cheer out loud when we heard Sir Patrick Stewart intone "no one has gone before.")

This week's Torah portion begins on a similar note. We're reading Lech-Lecha this week, which begins:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ...

The Eternal said to Abram: "go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you....

These are the voyages of the patriarch Abraham. (He'll inherit the extra syllable in this week's portion.) His continuing mission: to explore the ancient Near East, to seek out new tribes and new civilizations, and -- spiritually, at least -- to boldly go where no one had gone before.

Abraham is regarded as the first monotheist. Midrash holds that his father Terach was a maker of idols, and that young Abram knew them as false gods and smashed them in his father's workshop. (The same story appears in the Qur'an, as I've mentioned before.) In this week's Torah portion, God tells Abram to boldly go toward a destination which will be revealed as he gets there.

Abraham's travels show the importance of the journey. He displays emunah, faith and trust, by allowing himself to wander where God will take him. Jewish tradition holds that he was a paragon of hospitality whose tent was open to all comers. In that, he's not so different from the crew of the USS Enterprise -- though their wanderings aren't explicitly theological. Theirs is a secular humanist vision.

Abraham's descendants, too, will wander in what could be seen as a continuation of his voyages. (Judaism: The Next Generation.) Jewish tradition imputes meaning even to the wandering in the wilderness which the Israelites will endure after the Exodus from Egypt, and Moses' life too seems to be more about the journey than the destination. I think we're still on Abraham's journey of discovery.

I like to read the opening words of this week's parsha, "lech-lecha," not only as "go forth" but "go forth into yourself." Each of us is Abraham. Each of us is on a voyage of discovery. We're all always going wherever God will lead us. And we're all always exploring new worlds -- even if we're doing so internally, on emotional and spiritual planes, rather than in the vastness of the Gamma quadrant.




With gratitude to Joy Fleisig (@datadivajf) and Lee Weissman (@jihadijew) for the Twitter conversation which sparked this idea!


Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin

There's a Jewish custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah each night. In the most traditional paradigm one invites seven (male) Biblical figures; in a more contemporary paradigm one invites Biblical figures of both genders. Each of the invited guests represents or channels a particular mystical energy, so in calling on that figure to invite them to one's sukkah, one is also inviting that figure's qualities to flow into the sukkah and into one's life.

For instance, on the first night it's traditional to call on Abraham. In kabbalah, Abraham is connected with the sefirah (divine quality) of chesed, overflowing lovingkindness. On the second night, one would call on Isaac, who is associated with gevurah, boundaried strength. (And so on.) Here's a lovely Seder Ushpizata by Rabbi David Seidenberg -- a liturgy for inviting and calling-upon these incorporeal guests and their holy qualities. And here's a fantastic infographic on the ushpizin, which lists the traditional (male) ushpizin, an alternative list of female ushpizot, and even a set of Hasidic figures who can be mapped to the seven nights of the festival.

FireflyShortly before the holiday began I found myself pondering aloud on Twitter how one might map these seven kabbalistic qualities to characters from Firefly. The tweet drew enough response that I figured it was worth expanding into a post! If one wanted to welcome the crew of Serenity on all seven nights of Sukkot, in what order would they be called-on, and what qualities would we ask them to channel for us?

(If you are not a fan of Joss Whedon's tragically short-lived "space western" Firefly, the remainder of this post may hold limited appeal for you. No disrespect is intended, in this bit of whimsical geekery, to the traditional custom of inviting Biblical ushpizin.)

Continue reading "Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin" »

Poetry + video = transformative works

I've been remiss in not mentioning this (though perhaps I can be forgiven for that, given the intensity of the High Holiday season), but The Poetry Storehouse is having its first anniversary and is celebrating that with a contest.

The Poetry Storehouse is a curated collection of "great contemporary poems for creative remix." All of the poets who have shared their work there are delighted to have our works transformed, both through being read aloud and through visual media (sound collage, videopoems, art, etc.) The first anniversary contest offers options for remixers (create a remix based on any poem currently on the site) and for poets (write a poem in response to one of the three featured videos,) and the winning entries will be published and shared widely.

If you are a poet or a remix artist, check it out!

And on a related note, I'm delighted to be able to share that Dave Bonta has created a gorgeous remix which features one of my poems ("Ethics of the Mothers") and a poem by January Gill O'Neil along with music by Serge Seletskyy and video from a variety of sources, including some which Dave shot himself.

Ethics of the Mothers/Prayer: poems by R' Rachel Barenblat and January Gill O'Neil from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

It's a delight to see my words given new life in this way. In watching the video, I experience my own poem anew; the images Dave chose are ones I would never have imagined, and they work beautifully. This is a stunning videopoem. Go and watch!

New essay on midrash and fanworks

I'm delighted to be able to announce that a new essay of mine has been published in the Symposium section of Transformative Works and Cultures, the fan studies journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. The essay is called Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

Here's how the essay begins:

Because I am a Jew, the Torah is part of my inheritance, and along with that inheritance comes the obligation to read and to interpret. Reading and interpreting are also things I do professionally as a rabbi, though they're open to, and arguably the responsibility of, every adult Jew.

One of the ways that Jews interpret Torah is through midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts. The word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to interpret or explain.

Midrashim (the Hebrew plural of midrash; in English, "midrash" can be either singular or plural) work in a variety of ways. They may fill lacunae in the Torah text, resolve contradictions in the text, or articulate character motivations and emotions that aren't explicit in the text. Sometimes they make a meta-point, an argument about where we should focus our attention, how we should live, or how we should read the text at hand...

After offering examples of midrashim which do each of those things, I draw a connection between midrash and fanworks (of all genres, though I focus here on fanfiction, because like midrash it's a written form):

As Jews constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about Torah, fans constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about pop culture or literary source texts.

I've written about this before -- see Transformative work: midrash and fanfiction -- though that essay isn't available online in full, so all you can read at the blog post is a teaser. Also, in Religion and Literature I presumed I was writing for an audience which might know about midrash but didn't know about fandom; TWC's readers, in contrast, presumably know about fandom but may not be familiar with midrash. Anyway, the big idea of this essay is that fanworks function like midrash, both in terms of the narrative moves they make and in terms of their community-building function. Ultimately I argue that when we think of fanworks in this way, we open up new understandings of both fanworks and the fans who create them:

Thinking of fan fiction as midrash is a useful alternative to Henry Jenkins’ textual poachers analogy. Whereas Jenkins' analogy positions fans as serfs poaching game from the lords' estate in order to make meaning and to reclaim ownership of the storytelling which fans see as our birthright, the midrash analogy positions fans as respected interpreters, analagous both to the classical rabbis who for centuries have interpreted scripture and to the modern midrashists who continue that work today.

(I'm actually a big fan of Henry's book Textual Poachers; it was hugely formative for me. But I think the poaching metaphor also has some limitations, and one of them is that it necessarily posits fans on the margins.)

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this for TWC is that  TWC is an open-access journal, which means that everything they publish is available online, for free: no need to pay for access to JSTOR or other academic databases. Go and read: Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

And while you're at it, check out the rest of the issue. I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »

Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne-mmpb1Longtime readers know that I'm a fan of speculative fiction. For those among y'all who share that interest, I'm here to recommend Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, the first book in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series.

I loved pretty much everything about this book. And I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, because part of the joy of it is seeing how its world unfolds through its twists and turns. But I can say a few things without venturing into spoiler territory, and the first one is: this book has great characters. They are real, whole, complicated people and I come away from the book wanting more -- not because Ahmed didn't give us enough, but because I just want to keep hanging out with them and vicariously experiencing their adventures.

This book also does a gorgeous job of depicting a fantasy world which draws on the tastes and textures and smells and sounds and mythologies of a place which is not Western. Reading Crescent Moon catapults me directly into every time I've been blessed with the opportunity to walk the twisty crowded ancient streets of of Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman. This book isn't set in our world, but it evokes some places which are in our world; it feels true to those places even while it goes above and beyond the lived reality of those places. And the same is true of the book's mythology / folklore / magic -- some of it draws on preexisting stories and ideas (djinn, ghuls), and some of it is Ahmed's own creation.

I like the different forms of religiosity we see here -- most especially the balance between Adoulla and his young companion Raseed. Adoulla's middle-aged, world-weary, and humor-laced way of being religious doesn't always dovetail neatly with Raseed's youthful fiery desire for spiritual purity, and that difference is neither ignored nor resolved; they exist side-by-side. I like the young lioness Zamia Laith Banu Badawi, and her growing sense of kinship with the alkhemist Litaz, despite their differences. We get just enough of each of their stories to make them real and whole -- and just little enough that I really want more of both of them. (Here's hoping they're both in the next book, eh?) And I like that Zamia and Raseed's relationship remains complicated and interesting to the end of the book -- there were a few different easy ways out, and Ahmed didn't take any of them.

And I like how Islam is reflected and refracted in this book. These characters aren't Muslim, precisely, in the same way that Dhamsawaat isn't any earthly city -- but in their ways of interacting with scripture, and their ways of talking about God, they evoke Islam for me as a reader, as I think they are meant to do. Hanging out with these characters makes me think of things I learned while studying Islam (particularly Sufism) in rabbinic school; the quotations from scripture have the same ring, to my ear, as translations of the Qur'an. And I really like the centrality of faith in the way the narrative unfolds. God is all over this book, is what I'm saying, and -- no surprise -- I love that. I find myself thinking of how the Narnia books aren't explicitly Christian, though to a reader who knows Lewis' theology, Christian ideas are visible in the book. (Actually, full disclosure: that was Ethan's insight.) I think this book works with Islam in a parallel kind of way.

I've read a number of really good books lately which work with entirely non-Western mythologies, characters, landscapes. None of them are set in our world, exactly. G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (reviewed here) probably comes closest to our world.  N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology and Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books evoke aspects of this world's histories and cultures in really fascinating ways, but they're not set in this world. (Bear does neat things with an alternate-universe Mongolia, and Jemisin's books evoke ancient Egyptian culture and mythology.) All of these books open up vistas beyond the ones we've known, while also managing to give us new ways of thinking about the world we do inhabit. Come to think of it, that's what good speculative fiction always does, for me. Anyway. If this is the sort of thing you like, this book is definitely one to get. And hey! right now only it's six dollars for the Kindle, making it an easy gamble to take.

Where fandom and religion coincide

TARDIFA surprise arrived for me in the mail this morning: a complimentary copy of Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith, a new anthology which explores the role of religion in Doctor Who, coedited by Andrew Crome and James McGrath, newly released by Darton, Longman & Todd.

The copy came courtesy of one of the book's contributors, Joel Dark, whose essay "Doctoring the Doctor: Midrashic Adventures in Text and Space" draws on my 2012 essay for Religion & Literature, Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction. He sent it to me as a sort of thank-you for having written that article in the first place, which was awfully kind of him. It's neat to see how Joel uses my essay to support his thinking about Doctor Who.

Joel writes:

A second happy accident for Doctor Who's midrashic future was the almost impossible contradictory complexity of its twenty-six year narrative. This was actually a long series of accidents. If 'surface irregularities of the text,' in the words of the biblical scholar James Kugel, are 'the grain of sand which so irritates the midrashic oyster that he constructs a pearl around it,' the original Doctor Who series was a beach.

That last sentence made me laugh out loud. A beach indeed. And, Kugel's point about midrash is a delightful one to bring to bear on Doctor Who -- and on any imperfect source-text which accrues a dedicated fandom in part because its irregularities give fans hooks on which to hang ideas and interpretations.

I've only had the chance to read two other essays in the book so far. One is Brigid Cherry's "'You're this Doctor's companion. What exactly do you do for him? Why does he need you?': Doctor Who, Liminality, and Martha the Apostle." I like her analysis of Martha (the companion) as an apostle, and she makes good points about the show's treatment of apocalypse and of spreading the good news.

And the other is Kristine Larsen's "Karma, Conditionality and Clinging to Self: the Tennant Years as Seen Through a Tibetan Buddhist Lens." I like her Buddhist reading of the show, and particularly her analysis of David Tennant's final episodes. (His Doctor really wasn't ready to accept his impermanence, was he?)

Reading Cherry's Christian analysis of the show, and Larsen's Buddhist analysis of the show, I find myself wondering what a specifically Jewish analysis of Doctor Who would look like. Of course, this being the internet, someone else has had that thought before I did, and has posted about it, too: Liel Liebovitz's Doctor Who? Doctor Jew: Doctor Who is the Greatest Jew on Television, in Tablet. Also, apparently 2011 brought us Naomi Alderman's Borrowed Time, the first Doctor Who tie-in novel written by a Jewish woman -- you can read about it in the Forward, and/or in this interview Doctor Who / Is A Jew?, which explores the Doctor's talmudic reasoning and features a charming visual of Matt Smith's Doctor wearing a kippah.

I'm looking forward to dipping further into the book as time permits. (And receiving it reminded me to put Chicks Dig Time Lords on my Amazon wishlist...)

The Torah of Local Hero

When Helene invited me to show a favorite movie in what she was calling "The Rabbis' Favorite Films" series, I spent some time pondering what I might do. Finally I came to her and said, look, there are plenty of Jewish movies I've enjoyed, but the truth of the matter is, my favorite movie isn't Jewish per se. It's called Local Hero. (IMDB entry; Wikipedia entry.)

The Local Hero theatrical trailer. If you can't see it, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

To my surprise, her face lit up. She told me that she and her husband had been to Pennan, the small town in Scotland where most of Local Hero was filmed. It happens that so have I; Ethan and I went there on our honeymoon. We traded stories of Pennan and what it had meant to us.

That's it, she said; you have to show that film. What are the odds of two families in our tiny congregation having been to this remote bit of Scotland for the same reason, and having been so moved?

I never imagined, when I was a kid, that I would settle in a small town in New England. I'm a Texan born and bred. Maybe that's part of why this movie grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. "Mac" MacIntyre is a quintessential Texan -- he works for an oil company, even -- but once he comes to Ferness, he makes connections he would never have imagined. That small northern town changes him.

My husband Ethan, who showed me Local Hero when we were first dating, says now that we don't choose favorite movies -- often, favorite movies choose us. So why did this movie choose me? And can I make it relevant to the themes you usually hear me talking about here at synagogue?

I could try to argue that Mac is secretly Jewish -- we learn early on that he's not Scottish; his father chose the surname MacIntyre upon immigration from Hungary because it "sounded American" -- but there's no textual evidence for that. Instead, I want to argue that there's Jewish value in this film not because it has any Jewish characters, but because it relates to Jewish themes.

For me, part of what makes Local Hero a good movie, and a movie that's worth watching many times, is that it isn't reducible to a simple message or platitude. But when I watch this film through Jewish eyes, I find three primary things which seem to me to be aligned with Torah teachings.

Continue reading "The Torah of Local Hero" »

G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"

9780802120205I still remember how I felt when I first read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in college. Its blending of internet imagination and ancient Sumer, the power of text and the power of code, felt as though it had been written just for me. I felt the same way reading G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.

I've written here about Wilson's work before -- her graphic novel Cairo; her beautiful memoir of choosing Islam and living in Egypt, The Butterfly Mosque -- and given how much I enjoyed both of those, I knew I was going to like this one. But I didn't know how much. (A lot.)

Alif the Unseen interweaves a story about jinn, and about the power of stories, into a story about a young man who's chosen the nom-de-internet Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a "grey hat" hacker who offers his services to those whose online speech is otherwise in danger, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, or pornographers.

I don't want to spoil the book for you -- its twists and turns are so delicious! -- but Alif's programming choices get him into trouble with the dangerous government figure known colloquially as the Hand of God. He and a childhood friend wind up on the run. And his world turns out to be much bigger than he, and likely also the reader, imagined.

As I read, I kept marveling at places of intersection between Willow's religious tradition and mine; the notion that angels are like computers, e.g., devoid of free will. Or the sense that the holy language in which scripture was revealed has its own kind of power, and that the words of holy text are uniquely rich because they contain endless unfolding meaning.

Of course, I'm a religion geek and a rabbi with a longstanding interest in the places where Islam and Judaism mesh; it stands to reason that I would dig that stuff. But I'm also a longtime lover of comics, a SF geek (there's a moment in the book where a jinn archly references the original Star Wars movie, which made me literally laugh aloud), and a denizen of a handful of different online worlds -- and this book works equally well for me on those levels, too.

Alif the Unseen is a gorgeous expression of the post-Arab-Spring world -- which is prescient, since (here's a quote from a post at Wilson's blog:)

The titular character is a hacktivist in an unnamed emirate who battles shadowy, oppressive state security forces using methods both digital and arcane. (There are jinn involved, and ancient texts that are supposed to be hoaxes but aren’t. And at least one car chase.) While I was writing, even I thought I was maybe overdoing it just a little, and assigning too much importance to hackers and internet junkies in the Middle East. But I was fresh off a visit to Cairo, where a group of guys I’d met through Twitter organized a signing for me at a bookstore that was packed to the gills. We talked about comics and politics and the media, and I walked away with my heart pounding, thinking “this is really going to work.” I wasn’t even sure what “this” was.

Five months later, those same kids were overthrowing the government. I finished Alif the Unseen just as Mubarak left office, Tunisia was under new management, and uprisings had begun in Libya and Syria, in what would come to be called the Arab Spring.

Anyway. If anything I've said here appeals to you, you will almost certainly dig this book, as I did. Get a copy, read it, and then feel free to come back here and tell me what you think! I had a blast reading it, and I can't wait to foist it on several friends, Ethan first among them. (Given that he just gave a talk entitled Cute cats and the Arab Spring, I think I can safely say that he's going to enjoy this.)

Still need more convincing? The first chapter of the book is available online: Excerpt, Alif the Unseen. Enjoy!

Awesome community media piece: Mind the Gap in Crown Heights

Via this post at Jewschool I found a pretty wonderful piece of community media called Mind the Gap in Crown Heights:

(If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)


This is a radio and film piece made as part of Radio Rookies, "a New York Public Radio initiative that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories about themselves, their communities and their world." Here's how the video is described on YouTube:

Four teenage girls, all new immigrants from the Caribbean, arrive at a high school in the heart of what was the epicenter of the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. As newcomers they know nothing of the long history of tension between the Black and Lubavitch Jewish communities in the neighborhood. They set out to try to educate themselves about a culture so different from their own, in the midst of stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people.

Editor's Note on video: The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center works to improve inter-group relations in Crown Heights by creating a safe space where people of different backgrounds are encouraged to discuss hard conversations, through activities and workshops. For example, the scene in the video where Amy Ellenbogen, the Center's Director, poses a statement about co-existence in the neighborhood is a part of a game, "The Human Barometer", where participants move to different parts of the room to show if they agree, disagree or feel neutral about the issue.

It's wonderful to be able to watch and listen as these four girls from the Caribbean begin to learn about their Chabad Lubavitch neighbors -- and vice versa. Of course, the encounter isn't always comfortable or easy; but I give these kids props for their curiosity and their genuine desire for encounter.

As I think on it, there are a lot of stereotypes which could stand to be shattered not just in the Jewish communities' relationships with the broader world, but within our own communities, too. For instance, the liberal Jewish kids I teach and the young people who attend yeshiva in a Chabad setting -- those are groups of youngsters who never have a chance to connect and who almost certainly have all kinds of unconscious prejudices and misconceptions about one another. I guess that's always true.

I wish it were more possible to create more of these kinds of encounters, both within the Jewish communities and between our communities and others! But meanwhile, kol hakavod -- mad props -- to Selena Brown, Chantell Clarke, Sabrina Smith, and Tangeneka Taylor for going outside their comfort zome and making something really wonderful.

For more on this:

In Crown Heights, Getting Past Stereotypes Through Learning, in the New York Times



New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"

Contributors' copies of Religion & Literature volume 43.2!

The genre is an ancient one. Throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish imagination has flourished through midrash, elaborating on the tales and characters of the Hebrew Bible. But the postwar period has produced a surge of provocatively original midrashic writing in America, which seems to be accelerating like a kind of cosmic dark energy...

A new midrash is a juicy green leaflet on an ancient tree. Yet contemporary midrash has less to do with faith, or even McClure's "partial faith," than with what Adrienne Rich once called "the will to change."

So writes poet Alicia Ostriker in her introduction to the Forum section of volume 43.2 of the journal Religion & Literature. Alicia edited this issue's Forum section, which consists of essays exploring different aspects of contemporary midrash.

The essays collected here display extraordinary depth and breadth. Rivkah Walton writes about the feminist midrashic poetry of the 1980s and 90s; Rabbi Jill Hammer explores the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and American poet Veronica Golos; Eric Selinger explores the theologically and politically challenging poetics of Joy Ladin and Peter Cole; Merle Feld explores her own play "Across the Jordan", which arose out of her experience doing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the 1970s; Peter Pitzele explores Bibliodrama as a place of collision between text and improvisation; Norman Finkelstein articulates discomfort with the claiming of the "modern midrash" mantle for contemporary English-language poetry; Monica Osborne writes about how literature of trauma functions midrashically.

And the final essay in the Forum section, I am honored and humbled to note, is my own: Transformative Work: Midrash and Fanfiction.

Continue reading "New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"" »

Yuletide treasures

A few years ago I made a post called What if we give it away? which explores the idea (riffing off of Lewis Hyde) that blogging, like poetry and like media fandom, is a gift economy. My friend Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries suggested in the comments to that post that what I was describing is actually more of a creative barter system than a system of pure gifts. Call it by either name; what I think is neat is that community can be created and strengthened through the open exchange of story and idea, written word and response.

I'm blessed to belong to a few different communities which operate on this model. One of them is the community which puts on the annual rare-fandoms story exchange officially named While We Tell of Yuletide Treasure, though most of us call it simply Yuletide. I've seen a few pieces about it (like the recent Yuletide: Stories About (Seriously) Everything), but they don't say quite what I want to say, so I figured I'd write my own.

The Yuletide story exchange began in 2003 with about 200 participants. Originally, Yuletide was a fanfiction exchange for rare fandoms -- which is to say, story universes which don't have many stories written in them -- and also for rare characters and pairings within non-rare fandoms. For instance: in the first year of the exchange, one could write Yuletide stories set in rare fandoms, or stories centering around secondary characters in big fandoms like Harry Potter. But that became too hard to manage, so in its second year, Yuletide became a story exchange centering around rare fandoms, period.

(If "fanfiction" is an unfamiliar term for you, here's a good definition. Fanfiction is very much like the Jewish communal art of midrash, telling stories which interpret, explore, and explain a shared source-text -- only instead of the source-text being Torah, it can be almost anything. For more on that, I've got an essay coming out in Religion & Literature in 2011; stay tuned!)

Continue reading "Yuletide treasures" »