Returning home from a week in ALEPH-land


Every year I struggle to figure out how to describe my week with this particular subset of my ALEPH / Jewish Renewal community, and every year my words come up short.

This is even more true than it used to be now that with Rabbi David I am co-chair of ALEPH. This means both that our time here in Colorado is longer than it used to be -- we gathered for a Board meeting last week, before the Shabbaton, which came before the smicha (ordination), which came before the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy -- and also that our time here in Colorado is more densely-packed with commitments, conversations, and appointments than it ever was before.

Looking back on the last week, my first thought is that I can hardly believe it's only been eight days. Surely I have been away from home for a month! It feels this way to me in part because each day is so packed (morning prayer, meetings, lunch meetings, more meetings, then afternoon prayer, then more meetings, then still more meetings, then evening prayer, then yet more meetings -- not to mention the impromptu meetings in the lobby, the elevator, by the fireplace, in the meal line...)

There's also a way in which gathering with the same community year after year causes time to telescope -- it shrinks and expands, linking now with then and then and then. Of course every year there are new faces: new students in the ALEPH ordination programs, new members of OHALAH. And every year a few of the faces who used to be with us are absent. Even so, the gathering of this community creates a kind of psycho-spiritual container that is palpably the same container each year.

And time takes on a strange quality inside that container. Is it 2017, or is it 2011, or is it 2006? On the Sunday of this trip I found myself thinking: is this the day I was welcomed in to the community (I remember exactly how I felt as I stood in line to walk beneath that chuppah as a baby rabbinical student), or the day I was blessed on my way out of the community, or the day when I got to be a part of the transmission of smicha? And of course it was none of those -- but it was also all of those, all at once.

The last eight days have been dense and rich and full. They've contained countless conversations about the pace of change, and organizational transitions, and the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. They've contained Board meetings and conference sessions, and learning with this year's keynote speaker Rabbi Benay Lappe. We've shared with the OHALAH community some of what we learned over our fifteen-month listening tour (we're working now on the report from those travels; stay tuned.)

One afternoon I went to the hot tub, surrounded by snow, and wound up talking there with colleagues about real-life ethical and halakhic questions we have faced around weddings, Shabbat, and brit milah. We talked about balancing competing values, about integral halakha, about gender and ritual, about ethics and how we make choices. It was an extraordinary conversation, and afterward we cleansed our palate by singing one of Reb Zalman's niggunim and one of Hazzan Jessi Roemer's melodies.

One night I went to a friend's room and held the space and bore witness as some of her dearest beloveds tied tzitzit and tchelet (blue threads) on the tallit she would wear during her rabbinic ordination. Another night I gathered some of my beloveds in my room and together we tied tzitzit and tchelet on my newest tallit, a creation made just for me by my dear friend Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Not My Brother's Kippah. On still other nights I sat in the lobby with friends and sang songs until far too late, with joy.

I've been privileged this week to bear witness to the smicha (ordination) of a class of mashpi'im (spiritual directors) -- and also the smicha of a new cohort of clergy, a hazzan and four rabbis. I've been privileged this week to take part in some extraordinary davenen, learning new melodies and savoring familiar ones, singing meaningful words in harmony with beloved hevre who care as much as I do about the words and their meanings and how they can connect us up and in and through.

As a special treat, twice over the last week (once before the Board meeting began, and once on Shabbes afternoon) I made it into the mountains with friends to walk and to soak in the natural beauty. That was a gift too. It's all too easy to come here and never leave the confines of the conference hotel, and while I am primarily here for the community and the hevreschaft, sometimes it is sweet to experience those collegial friendships in the setting of the natural world instead of the hotel halls.

This week I've had countless conversations. I've davened, I've learned, I've taught, I've kvelled. And now I am on my way home, physically exhausted but spiritually uplifted, grateful for this community and for the spiritual gifts they have enabled me to receive.


Off to Colorado once again

Eleven years ago at this season I made my way to Colorado for my first ALEPH Ordination Programs student Shabbaton and OHALAH conference. I experienced the ritual that welcomes incoming students and blesses outgoing students, on the Sunday morning of the day of the smicha (ordination). After the Shabbaton, I attended my first conference of Jewish Renewal clergy.

I've been back every year since, even the year when I'd just been hospitalized for strokes. The only January gathering I missed was the one when my son was a newborn. (Coincidentally, that was also the only year the conference moved away from Colorado -- that year OHALAH experimented with holding the gathering in St. Louis instead.)

Six years ago this winter I myself was ordained on the day between the ALEPH student Shabbaton and the OHALAH conference. And two years ago I was privileged to participate in the ordination as part of the chain of transmission through which Reb Zalman z"l's legacy flows. Those two experiences of blessing and transformation are highlights of my life.

These days I always go to Colorado a few days before the Shabbaton and conference, because that's when the ALEPH Board of Directors has our annual winter meeting. This year we'll spend that meeting entering into capacity-building and strategic planning with the Reverend Bill Kondrath, with whom I had the pleasure of learning last summer at Clergy Camp. I'm excited about working with him toward a vibrant future for ALEPH and for the renewal of Judaism.

Last year was my first OHALAH conference as co-chair (with R' David) of ALEPH. We discovered that the conference is a somewhat different experience from this vantage. I'm expecting that this year will be similarly booked chock-full of meetings (both scheduled and impromptu), though I'm hoping to make it to at least a few conference sessions, and to get time to connect with a few friends.

If you'll be at the ALEPH Board meeting in Broomfield, or at the Shabbaton that follows it, or at the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy, I look forward to learning and dining and davening and harmonizing and simply being with you in the coming days! And if not, I look forward to connecting with you once I return home from my week away. Thanks for bearing with me while I'm on the road.


A week in ALEPH-land

I've been away from home for a week, in the Brigadoon of ALEPH-land. First there was an ALEPH board meeting; then a glorious Shabbaton (Shabbat weekend retreat); then the smicha (ordination) of new clergy; then the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. Every single day was jam-packed, from early morning until I fell into bed at night. I can't recount the whole thing, but here are glimpses.

The board meeting opened with morning prayer and song, and we sang again every time we began a new session after a break. I love this about this board -- that we break for prayer; that we break into song. The song which became our refrain was "Ivdu Et Hashem b'Simcha" ("Serve God with joy!") What a perfect mantra for our board service, and for the work we try to do across ALEPH writ large. 

On Friday night I sat between two of my dearest friends, resplendent in our Shabbat whites to welcome the Shabbat bride, and we sang in harmony all the way through the service. Singing these beloved words, alongside beloved friends who care about the words as much as I do, with their beloved voices intertwining with mine, always feels like coming home. This time was no exception. I am so blessed.

Saturday afternoon began with mincha (the afternoon service), where the leaders read from Torah in a way I had never seen before (sharing only a verse or two at a time, in both languages, and then offering a related meditative question for us to sit with.) There were sensory delights: mint leaves for scent, dried fruits to eat, white Colorado stones to turn and hold in our hands. That service led seamlessly...

...into se'udah shlishit (Shabbat's ritual "third meal") which was a beautiful feast of niggun (wordless melody), story, and song...which in turn segued seamlessly into ma'ariv (the evening service) which we sang in the weekday melodic mode facing the windows where the darkening sky was visible, which in turn led right into havdalah. As always when I bid farewell to a Shabbat with these friends, I wept.

One morning's davenen was billed as a "barbershop quartet" service. Two women and two men sang in a cappella harmony, encouraging us to harmonize and to join in, blending weekday nusach, other melodies we know for our daily prayers, and secular doo-wop melodies in a fabulous tapestry of sound. Another morning we sat in a circle with a rabbi-drummer and sang liturgy and niggunim, interwoven. 

Somewhere in there were evenings with friends, a guitar or two, hours of singing, and laughing until my belly ached with happiness. One night in a hotel room (probably annoying the heck out of the other folks on our floor!), one night in the "firepit," the lounge adjacent to the lobby with the fireplace and cushy chairs. Prayers, folk songs, Hebrew songs, Yiddish songs -- so many melodies and harmonies!

One night there was a kirtan ma'ariv with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, the Kirtan Rabbi. We sang his gorgeous Shviti chant (a setting of one of my favorite lines from psalms, which I have written about before, and which has even sparked poetry). I had been blessed to hear his chant a few months ago before it was released into the world, and I loved hearing it (and singing it) in this context, with this community.

On my last morning in Colorado I went with David to the Reb Zalman Meditation Room. We met up with Hazzan Steve Klaper there, and together the three of us davened the morning service. We sang, and the room reverberated with our words and our intentions, and we ended with "Ana B'Choach," the prayer we learned from Reb Zalman which asks God to untie our tangled places and help us be whole.

There were countless meetings. Some formal, some informal. Some planned, some arising spontaneously as someone found me or us in the lobby and wanted to talk. There were Listening Tour sessions. There were meals with old friends and new. There was absolutely not enough time to connect with everyone! How I wish I had mastered the art of bilocation, so I could be in two places at once.

As always, I return home with a feeling of profound gratitude for having found this hevre, this community of beloved colleagues and friends. I wish we'd had more time. I'm already looking forward to this summer's ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17, Fort Collins Colorado, preregistration is now open!) when I will get to learn and teach and study and pray and dine and sing and rejoice with these friends again.


Remembering Monday morning prayer

TefillinMy Monday morning at the OHALAH conference began with the most glorious and extraordinary service led by my dear friend Rabbi Chava Bahle. Her service interwove poetry, mikvah meditation, water, song and prayer in a way which created (for me) a deep sense of joy.

We sat in a downstairs room with the curtains pulled wide open. The overhead fluorescent lights weren't on, so as the sun rose, shafts of golden light iluminated the room.

Each us of received a bowl of water, a washcloth, a handout of prayers and poems, and a penny to place in the pushke on our way out so that we might end the service with tzedakah.

We began with a song and with a breathing meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh. The first breath: remembering that I am mortal. The second breath: remembering that those around me are mortal. The third breath: recognizing that our mortality makes this moment incomparably precious.

We learned some Torah together. We engaged in a priestly handwashing meditation. We breathed together, sat in silence together, listened together to Reb Chava reading poems. (Some of the poems came from a book called Go In and In, which I have now ordered for myself, because I want to use some of those poems in my services too!)

Sometimes she asked for volunteers in the room to read quotes from the handout -- quotes from Pirkei Avot, Sfat Emet, various kabbalistic sources. When more than one person spoke up at once, she asked them to read together, in harmony, as one voice.

For me the highlight was the meditative mikveh practice in which Reb Chava led us through dipping our cloths into the water and gently washing different parts of our face and head, in silence, as she offered intentions such as:

I am cleansing my forehead, and all that it represents, so that I may be free from critical and judgemental thoughts, whether they are thoughts about myself or about others, and so that I can direct my thoughts to holiness on this day.

I am cleansing my ears so that I will be able to hear the deeper truths of all that I encounter.

I am cleansing my eyes so that I will be able to see things as they are, to develop deep compassion for life...

Bowl(That meditation is adapted from David A. Cooper's The Handbook of Jewish Meditation Practices: A Guide for Entering the Sabbath and Other Days of Your Life and from Rabbi Joseph Gelberman.)

When we reached the donning-tallit stage of the service, we read aloud a beautiful tallit meditation adapted from Yitzchak Buxbaum, which I loved and want to try to integrate into what I teach b'nei mitzvah kids. It begins:

A tallit represents the world.
Its four corners are the outer reaches of the known,
its fringes an invitation to the unknown.
Continue to tie me to the generations before me who wore tzitzit...

When we sang the shema, after a sweet timeless time of meditation and prayer, our voices rose together in multipart harmony and I felt as though we were all droplets in the same flowing stream of water, unified.

I told Reb Chava at the end of the service that if this were the only thing I experienced that day, dayyenu, it would be enough. And I meant it.

It's a sweet thing to remember today, as I lead my own (much less elaborate) meditation minyan at my small shul, grateful to be home but also looking forward to the next time I get to see my beloved Renewal community again.

Here we are, God; send us

TentsIn the haftarah (prophetic) reading assigned to this week's Torah portion, Isaiah has a vision of God. In his vision, God asks, whom shall I send, who will go for us? And Isaiah says, "Hineni, here I am! Send me!"

This has been one of the themes of our time together at OHALAH. It's been mentioned several times -- during the smicha ceremony on Sunday, during Tuesday morning davening, all over the place.

One of the reasons why this is such a resonant theme for us, I think, is that we've all had the experience of saying hineni, here I am -- send me. Send me, God. Send me to share Torah. Send me to bring healing. Send me.

This is in some ways the language of Chabad, the lineage from which Reb Zalman originally came. Chabad speaks in terms of messengers, shlichim, whom they send into the world to spread their particular form of Jewishness.

I don't know that our task is to spread our particular form of Jewishness, per se. (Though I know that I always want to share the things I love best, I know that not everyone in the world wants or needs exactly those things. Besides, Renewal is more an attitude than a set way of doing things.)

But I think we share with our Chabad cousins the existential readiness to be deployed in the service of God, the service of our community, the service of the world. This is something we at this gathering have in common.

We're saying, God, I'm here -- I volunteer for whatever task You have in mind. We're saying, God, I'm here -- send me to care for the community, to tend the world, to build bridges, to heal what's broken.

And I love that. I love being among people who share my yearning to serve. People who share my yearning to connect with God, to connect with Judaism, to open up the riches of our tradition for those who thirst.

This year's OHALAH conference ends today around noon. We'll bid each other (a sometimes emotional) farewell and disperse back into the world until the Brigadoon of our togetherness magically opens up again. Until then -- here we are, God. Send us.


Image: some of the little tents which have been artfully placed around our gathering-spaces, representations of the tents of the 12 tribes of Israel which also suggest to me the big tent which is our organization's logo.

Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift

This morning brought another program I was really excited about -- a plenary panel called Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift, introduced and facilitated by my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel. Last year's session Halakha : Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way was a highlight of the conference for me. I knew this session would be, too.

Last year, we heard from several speakers who offered different Renewal takes on a single issue. This year, we heard from several speakers, each of whom touched on a different issue in contemporary Jewish life.  Each ALEPH-ordained rabbi is requited to write a teshuvah -- a rabbinic responsum to a real, living halakhic question -- in order to receive smicha. The sesson featured three of our colleagues presenting about their teshuvot, each of which was on a different subject.

Rabbi Ephraim Eisen spoke about his teshuvah on Burying Cremated Remains in a Jewish Cemetery; Rabbi Simcha Zevit spoke about her work on Choose Life / Do Not Prolong Death: A Question on Feeding Tubes; and Rabbi Jeremy Parnes offered a précis of his teshuvah Intermarriage Under a Chuppah? Renewing the Ger Toshav. (Ger toshav is the Biblical Hebrew term denoting a stranger or outsider who dwells among us.) Here are some notes and reflections from how the morning went.

DanielSiegelRGBRabbi Daniel Siegel begins, "Last year I said in my introduction to the first of these sessions that we needed to re-expand the halakhic table. Rabbi Ethan Tucker talks about this in Core Issues in Halakha -- how a decision was made by the Orthodox rabbinate in the late 1800s to withdraw from the larger Jewish community and take their share of governmental money and form their own Orthodox chevre, and that was as though they took the leaves out of the table and took the extra seats away and put them by the wall, and they said, we'll just do halakha to people who are already committed to our way of living."

Last year I said that we need to put the leaves back into the table, pull up the chairs, and sit down to join the conversation. One of my favorite examples of that was that one of the first teshuvot that was written here was by R' Eyal Levinson -- a halakhic piece which legitimizes same-sex marriages [pdf]. He told me it couldn't be done, and I said if it couldn't be done then halakha is useless because it doesn't speak to the issues of our time. So he took it on. And now it's inside the conversation.

People often ask: why bother with the halakhic conversation? Why not just say, this is right so this is what we're going to do?

By way of beginning his response, he talks about the body of teshuvah literature, the records of all of the questions that congregational rabbis asked their rabbis. And he notes that when we read such a document, we understand that the rabbi who writes a given teshuvah is not saying that his answer is exhaustive. Sometimes the answer is, "This [thing X] is absolutely something which we should be doing, and, every community is going to have to make their own decision."

It doesn't matter what the answer is. The question "what's the halakha on" is almost tangential to the real process, which is to say: how do we evaluate the relationship between the principles and precedents of the past in relation to this specific moment? The most important thing is to be aware of the situation and to do the best we can, and participate in the conversation.

The halakhic conversation is about this underlying question, which is always the generic question underneath: how do I respond to this moment, or how do I perform this action, in such a way that it is connected to the revelation of our purpose at Sinai and contributes to the process of our redemption in the future?

He asks, "What do I have to do, as a Jew, to mark myself so that I stay connected, so that I can be a beacon to people to move them forward?"

He quotes Rabbi Hannah Dresner: "We are lovers, and our pillow talk, the language of our love, is our exchange of Torah. God speaks the written word to us, and we return the flow of God's love by listening and answering empathically as any lover would. We offer pilpul, extrapolations of Jewish law, as we struggle to discern build in our response on what our lover has shared." And then he continues:

We have to do for halakha what Rabbi Akiva did for halakha many years ago. He said, in order for halakha to be relevant we have to have a new way of pulling meaning out of the Torah so that every letter can be used to hang halakhot on. That was a paradigm shift moment. There had to be another way. And now, as Reb Zalman has suggested to us, we need this new concept, integral halakha, to expand the halakhic conversation, so that we can be both backwards-compatible and forward-looking at the same time.

He explains that asks each student to construct a question, most often out of something in their own lives, which is: how do I respond to this particular situation in this particular moment in a way that connects me to both ends of the continuum that I see myself on. Today we'll hear from three rabbis on their teshuvot. Others are forthcoming, in written and edited form -- stay tuned. Meanwhile, we move on to hearing from our three panelists for today.

Continue reading "Real World Halachic Issues in a Time of Paradigm Shift" »

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community

Photo-Sid-SchwarzThis morning I attend a keynote address by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whom I have known since that PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat I was blessed to attend all those years ago. He's now involved with Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership, the parent organization of Rabbis Without Borders), and has most recently published Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, which makes him a perfect fit for an OHALAH conference themed around He'Atid, the future of Jewish Renewal. His talk is entitled "Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community."

In a recent presentation to CLI, R' Sid offered a metaphor of broadcast and receiving -- that rabbis need to be able to both broadcast and receive. He suggests to us this morning that we might understand Torah as 70 wavelengths on which we might receive truth. Most of us can only broadcast on a few wavelengths and can receive on fewer than that, and that's something we need to work on.

He reminisces briefly about how he wasn't able to hear Reb Zalman's Torah back in his early rabbinic school days, and indeed regarded it as "strange fire" within the Reconstructionist rabbinical college... and because God has a sense of humor, here he is today, in full awareness of the debt he owes to Reb Zalman and to this neo-Hasidic / Jewish Renewal world. He talks about the shift which unfolded in the 20th century -- thanks to R' Mordechai Kaplan, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel, our own Reb Zalman -- between the vertical metaphor of God (God's up there, we're down here) and a horizontal metaphor of God (we and God are interrelating in an I/Thou fashion.)

I came to understand that what I'd seen as dichotomies in the Jewish world were in fact overlapping truths. We all need to work on our antennas so we can access one more wavelength than before so that we can acknowledge that truth has many faces, as does Torah, at least 70 faces.

He uses his work as a historian to try to help him understand not only the past but also the future. He acknowledges that we read in Talmud (Bava Batra) that from the time of the destruction of the Temple of old, prophecy exists only in the hands of children and fools. But notwithstanding that sugya, we have to try to take the risk of understanding not only the past but how we're going to address the future.

In his newest book Jewish Megatrends he talks about the moment we're at today in American Jewish history: a simultaneous decline of legacy Jewish institutions (synagogues, Federations, JCCs, membership organizations -- the "organized Jewish community") and also a golden age. If you look at the legacy Jewish institutions, the current situation looks like a decline; but if you look at the innovation sector of Jewish life, you see amazing pockets of renaissance.

He files these renaissance happenings under the headings of four pillars. The first is chochmah, wisdom. In 50 years, he suggests, the world will be amazed that religious communities ever though of themselves as independent silos, rather than interconnected. Reb Zalman was way ahead of the curve on this! We all need to understand the overlap between our wisdom traditions and every other. The second pillar is tzedek, justice. And the third and fourth pillars are kehillah (intentional spiritual communities) and kedushah (helping Jews live lives of spiritual purpose.)

He asks: what is the nature of the kehillah we need to create? And what kind of spiritual leadership is required to lead such kehillot?

Continue reading "Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community" »

The Sunday leading up to OHALAH

Us-in-prayer-last-yearI always forget how glorious it is to daven with this community. A room full of people, all of us already connected with the liturgy, connected with God, connected with each other. The way weekday nusach interweaves with new melodies and we all just roll with it. Beloved friends' voices all around me, reverberating through me. It is like that first long glass of water after the hot Tisha b'Av fast. I knew I was thirsty, but I didn't remember how good it would feel to have that thirst quenched.

A friend tells me that at the beginning of the Shabbaton which preceded the conference, Reb Zalman spoke about the atomic clock in Boulder with which other clocks are calibrated. Coming together here in this way each year, he said, is our recalibration time.

The metaphor gives me shivers. (He is a master of metaphor, our beloved rebbe.) Yes. This is how we recalibrate. How we re-align ourselves with the Source of all things. How we tune ourselves to each others' energies, so that we're all moving according to the same rhythms again. Over the course of the long year when we are apart, we all fall out of step, out of synch, out of attunement with God and with each other. When we return here, our clocks snap back into the groove of shared time.

ShvitiIn the parking lot of the conference hotel I see this license plate. Sh'viti -- the first word of Psalm 16 verse 8, "I keep God before me always." I love that whoever drives this car chose to put this reminder of divine presence in a place they would see every day. I love that for those who speak Hebrew and are driving behind this car, it serves as that reminder of divinity, too. God is in all things -- even a license plate.

At the conference's opening session, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt tells us a story about his zaide (grandfather)'s sukkah, which was constructed -- literally -- out of doors which no one needed anymore. He reminded us of the teaching about Abraham's tent, open on all sides to all comers. And he compares this conference to that tent, to that sukkah, a place where the doors are open to all.

Our work in the world, he tells us, is to bring Judaism to life. We come here to recharge our batteries so that we can do that work.

Kippah-repairLate morning on Sunday: I go down to the room where the musmachot (the soon-to-be-ordained rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastor) are sitting behind a long banquet table. In front of each of them is a te'udah, a certificate of ordination; teachers move along the table, signing each certificate and offering blessings.

When I arrive there, I find a dear friend who received smicha with me. We are both there to offer a blessing to the same person, and we decide to offer one together, jointly. We laugh about how once upon a time, each of us would have scripted the moment down to the last detail, and now we're both planning to offer a blessing extemporaneously, channeling whatever needs to be said in the moment. "That's how we know we're rabbis now," she quips.

At the end of our blessing, my friend bestows a new kippah on the musmechet. But the comb has come loose, so we dash upstairs, find someone to let us into the shuk where her sewing kit is stashed, and then curl up on big cushy sofas in the lounge to talk while she carefully hand-stitches the comb back in. We talk about rabbinic school and about being rabbis and about the communities we serve and about how sweet it is to see dear friends reach this culmination point.

The smicha ceremony is, as always, extraordinary. I kvell to see dear friends walking beneath the chuppah. I thrill to their divrei Torah and their teachings. And when we reach the recitation of the lineage, I fumble for my tissues, because I know it's going to make me cry, and it does. Every year when Reb Daniel recites the parallel smicha of Miriam, he has to stop to compose himself, and that's when my tears of joy emerge.

11918717953_b59e7efa30_nIt's kind of amazing, watching the smicha now. I used to watch the ordination with a fervent sense of yearning: that might be me, someday. Now it's more like a strengthening of a flame that already burns in my heart. I see my colleagues go beneath the chuppah, I see them leaning back on the hands of their teachers, and I remember again how it felt to have their hands on me, to feel that transmission of blessing, to emerge changed.

Not long ago I was at a christening, and the pastor mentioned that witnessing the baptism of a baby is an opportunity to renew each (Christian) person's own baptismal vows. Being at an ALEPH smicha feels that way for me now -- like an opportunity to renew my connections, to re-open that channel of blessing, to recommit myself to serving God and serving this community.

After the reception, I join a caravan of friends going out for Ethiopian food to celebrate the smicha. I miss the conference's first evening of programming, which I'm sorry about. But spending the evening eating and talking and listening to toasts and niggunim and feeling embedded in beloved community -- that's a gift beyond price. By the end of the day I'm exhausted but grateful, so grateful, to be here and to have this chance to recalibrate -- recharge -- rekindle.


(Photo of  Sunday morning davenen: by Janice Rubin, from OHALAH 2013. Other photos: from my flickr stream.)

A poem about the end of Shabbat on the road



Two thousand miles away
as evening cloaks the rockies
you gather to dine on song
as the angels do.

My holy third meal
will be local beer
and collard greens
at the airport food court.

You sing psalm 23 with fervor.
Even as the Queen prepares to depart
Her presence is so close
you can almost touch.

I wait for my aircraft.
Is this the magic hour
when my redemption
will draw near?

Se'udah shlishit means "the third meal." It's customary to eat three celebratory meals on Shabbat, one on Friday evening, one at Shabbat lunch, and the third late on Shabbat afternoon, and that third one is called se'udah shlishit. The meal is usually quite small; in some communities, it's only a token few bites of food, followed by long singing.

I have two strong memories of se'udah shlishit with my ALEPH community. One happened in January of 2009, the Shabbat when I had miscarried here at OHALAH. I remember sitting in an unlit room (with big windows through which we could see the impending evening) and singing psalm 23 and beginning to mourn my own deep loss. And the other happened in June of that same year, and was incredibly powerful and healing for me. I wrote about it here -- As Shabbat wanes.

It's a time of incredible poignancy. In a way, it's the time when Shabbat is most present and can be most palpably felt -- and in another way, it's the time when Shabbat is beginning to depart. There's also a tradition which says that at Shabbat mincha (afternoon prayer) time, that's when we are closest to moshiach (redemption.)

Yesterday, during the hour when I suspected my hevre (friends) were observing se'udah shlishit in Colorado, I was stuck in an airport, wondering when and how I would make it to Colorado for OHALAH. This poem was the result. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but writing it allowed me to feel connected with my community from afar, and I share it here with a smile.

Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

In this workshop we will examine the influence of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Reb Zalman’s life and thought, particularly on Zalman’s creative way of renewing the practice of davvenen. Rabbi Burt will also discuss Zalman’s personal influence on his own life. The class will be taught through lecture, text study, guided visualization, and davvenen practice.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson was my first mashpi'a (spiritual director), and I've been fortunate enough to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov with him. As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I knew I wanted to attend.

"When I saw the announcement of the theme, mikol melamdai hiskalti (from all my teachers I have learned), I immediately thought of Reb Zalman and the Baal Shem Tov," Reb Burt told us. He said:

I've been a student of the Baal Shem Tov's now for 35 years. And I believe that though he lived in the 18th century he is still a teacher for our time. He provided me with an orientation not just to Judaism, but an orientation to life that serves me every day. I want to talk about the Baal Shem and then talk about parallels I see in Reb Zalman's work.

Reb Burt teaches.

He offered some biographical details about the Besht. He was born around 1700. Some fifty years before he was born were the Chmielnitzki pogroms, 1648 and the following years. "These pogroms were among the worst experiences that Jews had ever had since the Fall of the second Temple." And he continued:

In my opinion, those massacres on top of all the dark experiences that Jews had undergone in the years of exile left a traumatic scar on the body of the Jewish people. That scar ruptured the relationship between God and the Jewish people. People thought: we sinned, and God took it out on us through the massacres. There was an abundance of guilt, and in its wake, a lot of asceticism.

I believe that the challenge that the Baal Shem felt was the challenge about how to heal that trauma. How to bring hope, how to bring love. Perhaps the chief tool that the Baal Shem used was prayer. There had never been a movement in Judaism before Hasidism that put prayer so much at the center of Jewish religious life. But it wasn't the old style of prayer. The Baal Shem felt that prayer needed to be reinvented in his time! To make a connection with God that would allow healing to happen.

As I heard him say these things, I started to realize the extent to which there are parallels between Reb Zalman's work and the Baal Shem Tov's. Working and teaching in the aftermath of a communal catastrophe, seeking to help our community heal from trauma, using the tool of prayer (and reinventing the tool of prayer) to make a connection with God which would allow healing to happen -- all of those things sound like Reb Zalman to me, for sure.

Continue reading "Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov" »

Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?

We often talk about tradition as a source of learning, but what is a tradition? Where are its boundaries? Is tradition a book or a code? Is it static or fluid? Who gets to part of it? How do you talk your way in? Why would a learner want a tradition?

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler begins her morning keynote address by unpacking our conference theme, "Mikol melamdai hiskalti," from psalms 119, which we have been translating, "From all of my teachers I have learned." She notes that Robert Alter translates it, "I have understood more than all my teachers, for Your precepts became my theme." The JPS translates it "I have gained more insight than all my teachers, for Your decrees are my study." But the rabbis of the Talmud understand it to mean "From all my teachers I have acquired understanding."

She goes on to cite Ben Zoma in Avot ch. 4, who asks, who is wise? and answers, one who learns from all people; as it is said, mikol melamdai hiskalti. "No one cites the second half of the verse. I have a hunch that the rabbis would have understood it to mean 'because Your precepts are my conversation.' Not my study, or my meditation. For the rabbis, study is a social act, and only as a last resort a solitary one."

I love that: for the rabbis, study is a social act. Yes!

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler speaks to OHALAH.

She goes on to cite Ta'anit 7a, where Rabbi Chanina addresses specifically the web of participants that constitutes Talmudic tradition. "'Much have I learned from my teachers, and from my colleagues/ study partners still more, and from my students, most of all.' In this statement, R' Chanina inverts the presupposed hierarchy of Talmudic study. From the students one learns most. This is the very opposite of the way we tend to think of traditions, yet it is upon students that traditions rely." And she goes on:

When we talk about a tradition, we are talking about the speech acts and the other acts of a web of transmitters. Teachers to students, students to their students -- as long as the tradition is in good order. If a tradition is in good order, according to the philosopher Alester MacIntyre, a tradition is not a set of books or codes or a body of ancient prescriptions. A tradition is a conversation. Even a bit of a fight! He says, "Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict." He adds, "A living tradition, then, is a historically extended, socially embodied argument."

And an argument precisely in part about the goods that constitute the tradition! By goods we mean, e.g., what is the good life? (One of the questions around which Pirkei Avot is built.) Or: what is shalom, or tikkun olam? Even: what is kavvanah? What is law? And why should it be important to us?

Continue reading "Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?" »

Rabbi Rachel Adler: What was the Sin of Sodom?

Though my early-to-bed still-on-East-Coast-time self struggled a bit with being bleary-eyed and sleepy, I managed to stay awake for our late-night text study, which began with an invocation of Rabbi Sami Barth who has been known to say "the best time to study is midnight!"

"What was the sin of Sodom?" - Late-night study with Rabbi Rachel Adler

Visiting scholar Rabbi Rachel Adler is Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, and Judaism and Gender, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. In addition to her keynote address on Monday, she leads us tonight in a fascinating study: "There must be a moral environment for learning to occur, either in the city itself or in a resistance group. What if there is a moral vacuum? Learn why Sodom in Jewish tradition is the paradigmatic Unjust City."

Handouts include some Steinsaltz Talmud from Sanhedrin about the sins of Sodom; a smaller text which contains Biblical material and a reading from Avot; and an English text containing some of the particular ideas found in the sugya in Sanhedrin. (I'll include quotations in this post.)

We begin with an excerpt from Aryeh Cohen's 2012 Justice in the City, which uses Talmud to construct a Jewish ethics for what justice in the city would look like. "I wanted to give you the general idea first, instead of doing it slowly and by inference," said R' Adler, in case some of us drop out thanks to exhaustion! "Aryeh sets up a set of conclusions about what makes a just city based on his Talmudic research, and what I'm going to argue is that the Talmud has that paradigm in mind when it recreates Sodom as the archetypal unjust city." Here's the quote from Cohen:

Before proceeding to some particulars of the community of obligation, I will weave together the strands of the argument so far. A just city, a city that is defined as a community of obligation, is a polis in which the residents open themselves to the possibility of hearing the cries of the Stranger -- and being compelled by those cries to respond. This goes beyond directly responding to another person who crosses your path. The obligation is first, to set up our cities such that others' needs will be urgently pressing upon the body politic -- whether the vulnerability that demands our response be a result of poverty, ethnicity, lack of a home, or lack of citizenship. In other words, the city needs to be organized such that the cry of the Stranger can be heard. Homelessness must be decriminalized, economic segregation must be ameliorated.

"What did we hear from this? A just city is a community of obligation; what does that mean? For one thing, it means that you pay certain kinds of taxes," notes Rabbi Adler. "You pay for the general welfare. Also, it means that the members of the city, the people of the city, are responsible for the vulnerable among them." When you've relocated to the city, you're vulnerable for a time; there's a certain amount of time before you become obligated to contribute certain kinds of tzedakah. And when you've been there a little longer, than other obligations begin to devolve upon you.

Then we dive into what we actually see in Sodom. "What people often think is going to be the big showy sin of Sodom, if you hear it in an evangelical Christian context for example, turns out here not to be the central problem," R' Adler points out.

Continue reading "Rabbi Rachel Adler: What was the Sin of Sodom? " »

Three gems from Sunday at OHALAH


Although my intention on Sunday morning is to sleep in, I don't manage it. My body's still on east coast time, and even though I stayed up later on Saturday night than is my usual wont, I find that on Sunday morning I can't sleep any later than 6:30. So I shower and dress and make my way down to the lobby, where I pour myself a cup of cucumber-infused water and settle in on one of the couches to read for a little while before shacharit, morning prayer.

But my attention is caught by what's happening in the next cosy nook over: two women are gathered around a small low table, busily wrapping tzitzit -- fringes -- and tying them to the corners of a beautiful striped tallit. I pause for a moment and watch them. They are absorbed in their joyous task, and I don't think they notice me looking on. I beam at them, thinking: at what other conference in the world does one run across women tying tzitzit on a tallit in a hotel lobby?



I go to lunch at the Dushanbe teahouse with three friends. The painted ceiling, the pots of mango ginger black tea, conversation about hashpa'ah / spiritual direction, and what it might be like if the hashpa'ah program were something everyone in the ALEPH ordination programs did, and cooking, and being here. The simple pleasure of good food, good conversation, togetherness.

Atthe end of the meal, Evan breaks into Brich Rachamana, and we four sing the round together, our voices interweaving and blending. Perhaps because this is Boulder, which is a little bit granola-crunchy; Boulder, home of Naropa and Reb Zalman and a lot of spiritual goings-on -- no one at the teahouse appears to mind or even to notice the foursome in the corner singing an obscure Talmudic grace after meals. Above us, the painted ceilings gleam.



Reb Zalman is speaking to the musmachot -- this year's crop of ordinees -- and he tells a story which, as he begins it, I realize he told at my smicha two years ago and I had forgotten in the interim. It's about a man who lost his beautiful snuff box in a cemetery and was crying about it, and the goat who lived in the cemetery and who had beautiful long spiralling horns said "here, take some of my horn," and bent down to give him some of his horn to make a new snuff box.

And the man's new snuff box was so beautiful, and it made the snuff inside it so heavenly, that soon everyone in town came to the cemetery to demand some of the horn -- which had reached all the way to the heavens; it provided a taste of the sweetness of Eden -- and soon the goat with the beautiful spiralling horns was worn down to nubs, and there was no one left who could hold up the heavens and reach the sweetness of Eden. Don't do this to your rabbis, Reb Zalman cautioned us. Don't wear them down to the nubs. Let them reach up to the heavens and draw sweetness down.



Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)

Back in early 2009, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Adler for Zeek. My interview with her ran in the spring 2009 print edition of Zeek, the Sex, Gender, and God issue. (I posted about that here at the time.) Zeek no longer does a print edition, and I'm not sure it's possible to buy that back issue anymore, so in advance of Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler's keynote presentations at the OHALAH conference next week, I'm reprinting the interview I did with her. (As it happens, I did the interview by phone from OHALAH, so there's a sense of things coming full circle for me!)


Rachel Adler is one of the foremothers of Jewish feminism. In 1971, she published an article entitled "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman" in Davka magazine. Many now consider that article to have been the springboard that launched Jewish feminism into the world.

Adler's "Engendering Judaism" is a germinal classic of Jewish feminism. She was one of the first theologians to read Jewish texts through the lens of feminist perspectives and concerns -- work she's still doing today, as a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College Rabbinic School.

I spoke with her from the hallowed halls of the Hotel Boulderado where I was attending the annual meeting of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- a profoundly feminist organization which owes its existence in part to her work. We talked about entrails (she's working on a reading of Mary Douglas' work on Leviticus), congregational politics, the new Hebrew edition of "Engendering Judaism," and her hopes for the future of Jewish feminism.

Our conversation made me realize just how far we've come, and how grateful I feel to be living and learning in a time when Adler's work is part of the liberal Jewish canon. --Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Your roots are in Orthodoxy; today you teach at Hebrew Union College. Can you give us a nutshell version of how you moved from point A to point B?

ADLER: Actually I'm a 5th generation Reform Jew, but became Orthodox in my late teens. I was Orthodox for more than twenty years, but eventually returned to Reform Judaism. I joke that I am a round-trip baalat teshuva.

51qPmncYryL._SS500_ZEEK: "Engendering Judaism" came out in 1998 -- more than ten years ago now. Do you still consider it to be a radical text?

ADLER: Yes. In Engendering Judaism I propose a basis for a progressive halakha -- a pro-active, rather than reactive, halakha which is formed at the grass roots level. I also propose a wedding ceremony which is egalitarian and halakhically feasible. And I propose that our sexuality is part of our divine image. All of these things still strike my students as radical.

ZEEK: You've argued that until "progressive Judaisms" attend to the impact of gender and sexuality, they can't engender Jewish life in which women are equal participants. Have you experienced hostility to this view, either from within progressive Judaism or from folks outside of this sphere?

ADLER: Orthodox Jews don't make pronouncements on what progressive Judaisms need to be more progressive. It's progressive Jews who sometimes pay lip service to the need for egalitarianism, and then when it comes to think tanks or executive positions in Jewish institutions don't include women.

ZEEK: You've raised the point that relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. Thinking in terms of "Women in Judaism" suggests that women are a kind of add-on to the normative body of Jewish tradition, in maybe the same way that studying "Women's literature" implies that literature writ large is necessarily in the purview of men...

ADLER: Actually I footnoted this point. It was made by another scholar, Miriam Peskowitz. Most academic disciplines now view gender as an area for scholarship by both women and men. That makes sense, since gender,both feminine and masculine, is a changing variable, affected by social and historical context.

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

ZEEK: On a related note, you've written that you're interested not only in critiquing androcentric structures but in healing Judaism -- that your goal is not judgement but restoration. Does this tie in with the ethical task I just mentioned?

ADLER: Absolutely. Judaism is not a system on which I'm passing judgment from a distance. It is my home in the universe. I'm concerned that I and other women be full and equally privileged residents in our home.

Continue reading "Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)" »

Clergy's internet toolkit at OHALAH


Next Monday afternoon at OHALAH (the annual conference of the association of Jewish Renewal clergy, which is also named OHALAH) I'll be co-presenting a session for the first time with my friend David. The session is titled The Modern Clergyperson's Internet Toolkit, and here's how we've described it:

What does it mean to minister to people online? How can Jewish clergy best use Facebook and G+, Twitter, and blogs to reach out to our communities and to stay connected with our chevre and those to whom we tend...and what is the shadow side of all of these technologies; what are the challenges and potential pitfalls of being plugged-in? Is it possible to provide pastoral care via Skype? (How about via Facebook?) How careful do we need to be in monitoring our own online presences? What messages do we send when we are (or are not) available digitally 24/7? What are the unexpected blessings of being clergy in this brave new networked world? Can cultivating online presence tangibly support brick-and-mortar communities, and if so, how?

Panelists Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi blog / Velveteen Rabbi website) and David Markus (Reb David) will each offer brief prepared remarks, and then will open these questions up for conversation. They will moderate a roundtable in which participants around the room can share their best practices and their experiences and their resources.

I'm looking really forward to this. David and I have prepared a solid presentation, and it'll be interesting to see what insights and questions are raised by other folks in the room. We'll be talking about internet presence and how it's no longer optional for clergy, about some of the questions and cautions raised by online pastoral work and online connections, the blessings of blogging and of (potentially) reaching the whole wide world, some case studies in online pastoral care and online clerical interaction, the legal implications and the shadow side of this brave new world, and what we've found (and others have found) to be best practices in this realm.

If you're going to be at OHALAH, I hope you'll join us. Handouts, and a copy of our slides, will be made available at the OHALAH website after the conference is over, and if someone's able to record audio of the session, we'll post that too -- though I'm pretty sure that all of those resources are password-protected for conference registrants only. (But hey, it's not too late to register to join us at the conference!)

My second smicha

Getting my wings. Photo by Janice Rubin.

At the Ohalah conference of Jewish Renewal clergy this year I was ordained a second time, as a Mashpi'ah Ruchanit -- a Jewish Spiritual Director. This journey began three years ago, with the first winter intensive retreat of this second hashpa'ah training cohort; I wrote about that in the post Our first four days of hashpa'ah.

What is hashpa'ah? The Hebrew term comes from the root which connotes shefa, divine flow; a mashpia (M) or mashpi'ah (F) strives to help people discern the presence of God in their lives. (The most common English term for this work is spiritual direction.) For me, hashpa'ah is first and foremost a relationship. In my practice of hashpa'ah, I hope to help others navigate Jewish faith and practice in a way which encourages and fosters deeper relationship with the Divine -- as my own mashpi'ah does for me.

ALEPH's spiritual direction training program is unique; as far as I know it's the only one of its kind (leading both to certification and to smicha, ordination). It includes four intensive classes (learning done in-person on retreat), three semesters of teleconference coursework, four semesters of supervised hashpa'ah practice with individuals and groups, and supplemental learning in related areas. Participants trained individually and in group settings with mashpi'im (spiritual directors) who supported our spiritual growth in relationship to God and sacred service, and who modeled different forms of spiritual counseling and spiritual direction for and with us.

Reb Zalman addresses the hashpa'ah musmachim. Photo by Janice Rubin.

The training culminated in a beautiful ceremony. Two by two we approached the bimah and placed items of personal meaning on the bedecked table which served as our makeshift altar. There was some chant, some learning (I especially enjoyed Reb Zalman's short history of hashpa'ah, from his experiences in Chabad in 1942 all the way through the foundation of this ordination program), and some presentations by the musmachim which aimed to offer glimpses of our training and our work.

And then we were each called up by name. Each of us stood with our teachers on all four sides: Reb Nadya behind us, Reb Shohama in front of us, Reb Sarah and Reb Shawn to left and right. One by one each of us was ordained to serve as mashpi'a(h) ruchani(t) and blessed to go forward from the place where our teachers stand. And then we left the bimah, collected our items from the makeshift altar, and processed down the aisle through the gateway of our teachers' arched hands... receive, with great laughter, pairs of beautiful bright red feathered wings. Because we learned a lot during these three years about angels in Jewish tradition, and this hashpa'ah smicha is sometimes jokingly referred-to in our community as "getting your wings." And while while we take the work of spiritual direction seriously, and we take the calling of helping others connect with the presence of God seriously, we tend not to take ourselves too seriously. The beautiful certificate of ordination, I'll frame and place in my rabbinic office; the wings, I suspect, may stay in my home office, mementos of a sweet moment at Ohalah 5772.

Dear ALEPH and Ohalah hevre

Dear ALEPH and Ohalah hevre,

Y'all are awesome.

Okay, I don't actually know all of you. Even after six Ohalah conferences, I don't quite know everyone in Ohalah, and it's a little bit surreal to discover that I don't know all of the ALEPH ordination students anymore, either. But many of you are among the people most dear to me, and many others among you are the kind of once-a-year-friends with whom I am always happy to daven, to eat, to sing, to exchange a beatific smile across the sanctuary or across the buffet line.

Some of you are people I met at my very first retreats at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York, back when I was first discovering Jewish Renewal and learning that the Reb Zalman about whom I had read in The Jew in the Lotus really was as wonderful as he sounded. Some of you are people I met during my first smicha students' week, when I was in the process of applying to the ALEPH rabbinic program -- I remember raising a cup of ginger tea with some of you in the old Elat Chayyim dining room, toasting to "smicha or bust!" Some of you I have known since college; some of you I have only just met.

Some of you are teachers who have enriched my life with the wonder of Torah's endless riches. Some of you are my friends who have also become my teachers. Some of you are my teachers who have also, much to my delight, become my friends. Some of you laid your hands on me this time last year and ordained me to serve as a rabbi, which remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Some of you laid your hands on me this year and ordained me as a spiritual director, which was gentle and sweet.

During these five days of Shabbaton and conference we've davened, sung, studied, and chatted together. We've opened our minds and hearts to new ideas and new insights. We've luxuriated together in the hot tub under the stars. We've argued and discussed, learned and leyned. We know that these are things which have no limit, and that we are blessed to be able to do them together.

I love the fact that every year at this season I get to join you here in Colorado, to beam at you and embrace you, to catch up on your lives and to share news of mine, to show off photos of our children and our pets on our phones. I love the fact that when we daven together I get to sing favorite old melodies and also to learn new ones. I love how we break into impromptu harmony together, day after day. I love how every time we gather, the time since our last gathering seems to collapse in a kind of tesseract and it's as though we never parted.

Thanks for a wonderful Shabbaton and conference. I'm heading home happily exhausted, my brain filled with ideas and melodies, my heart filled with our connections. Cosi revaya: my cup overflows. May your travels home be safe and smooth, and may the Holy One of Blessing watch over you until we meet again.

Rumi illuminating morning prayer

Sufi calligraphy; image borrowed from Rumi Online.

You could be forgiven for imagining that all my rabbinic community does, when we get together, is pray. It's not true, of course. The Ohalah conference includes all sorts of plenary sessions and workshops. Also we schmooze, study together, break bread together, laugh and cry together. (Just within the first 24 hours of this year's conference, I got to study the halakhot of menschlichkeit with Reb Sami, to attend a tikkun olam committee meeting, and to pore happily over Rosensweig and Levinas with Reb Laura.) But the prayer is often a particular treat for me. I have other opportunities in my life for schmoozing and studying, but not always for encountering creative approaches to prayer.

Yesterday morning I attended a really beautiful service led by my friend Rabbi Ed Stafman -- a service in which each of the prayers of the morning liturgy was paired with a poem by Persian mystic poet Rumi. It was amazing. Reb Ed chose the Rumi poems so that each would illuminate a particular prayer or line of prayer. Some of the poems he chose were old favorites of mine; others were new to me. Many of them took my breath away, both as poems qua poems and as ways of expressing the ideas and themes I find in our liturgy.

I love the way that these poems offer me new understandings of the liturgy I know so well. And they're beautiful poems, too; they're excellent on their own. But used in this way, as lenses through which to read the traditional prayers, they open the liturgy for me in new ways.

Here's one of my favorites from that service. This is the Rumi poem which R' Ed paired with the blessing for peace which comes at the end of the amidah. (The translation is by Coleman Barks.)

One Song

Every war and every conflict
between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.

It is such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.

The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different
on this wall than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still the same light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise,
we are pouring them back in.

I love this poem, especially the idea that "what is praised is one, so the praise is one too, / many jugs being poured into a huge basin." And I also love it as a mirror for the Sim Shalom blessing, which asks God to grant peace (and also goodness, blessing, grace, lovingkindness, and compassion) to us and to our community and our people.

This is exactly the kind of thing which draws me back to Ohalah each year: not only the chance to pray and learn and laugh and sing and dine with dear friends, but also the chance to be enlivened by new ideas which I never would have imagined had I not come. I'm already planning a Rumi-based service for the congregation I serve. (It will be on May 5; if you're in or near Western Massachusetts, do join us.)

Amazing Shabbat morning prayer

There's really nothing like the experience of praying with a room full of people who I know and love (and who know and love me), all of whom know and love the liturgy, all of whom offer prayers with song and joy. This is one of the things which is most revitalizing to me about spending time with my ALEPH community.

Shabbat morning services at the pre-Ohalah Shabbaton this year were amazing. Everyone on the bimah was a dear friend of mine, which meant I felt an outpouring of warmth (in both directions: from me to them, from them to me) the moment I walked in the room. Two of my friends led an extraordinary psukei d'zimrah (the opening section of the service -- psalms and poems of praise), which featured chant and song and the tiniest tastes of silence to help the prayers reverberate within us.

I knew we were in good hands from moment one, so I was able to relax into the prayer experience right away. The music was so good -- and the prayers so heartfelt and fervent -- that I was honestly transported. After the first psalm or two, David leaned over to me and whispered "welcome home." And yeah: that's very much how this feels. Returning to a kind of portable home, constructed every time we gather, made from prayer and from song. And there was nothing else tugging at us, nothing else we were supposed to be doing or remembering or thinking about. It felt as though our only purpose, that morning, was to come together and sing praises. Which is what Shabbat is supposed to be, though it isn't always.

Singing the Iraqi setting for "Hallelu Avdei Adonai" (which you can hear recorded by Richard Kaplan and Michael Zielger if you're so inclined) was particularly sweet for me. There was good hand-drumming, and the community picked up the refrain easily and sang it with fervor. As the melody skated higher and higher I found myself teary with joy. "Offer praises, you servants of the Most High" -- it's amazing to pray those words when everyone in the room understands themselves to be such a servant. Rabbis, rabbinic pastors, cantors, spiritual directors: we've all dedicated ourselves to serving God and serving our community. We sang our hearts out. It was grand.

I could have been content to stop there, with just p'sukei d'zimrah and shacharit (the first two parts of the service) -- but of course there was more! And the Torah service was fantastic too. Another of my friends led us through that service, singing the words and melodies of bringing forth Torah in a way which made clear how much those words meant to her and to all of us. And still another of my friends gave the dvar Torah -- and in so doing, brought the room to a kind of charged anticipatory silence, as one might experience at a really good poetry reading or a really powerful wedding. We hung on his words and they opened up Torah for us in new ways.

From the very first wordless niggun at the start of the morning, to the closing Adon Olam at the end of the morning, we were awash in harmony and praise. It was pretty awesome, in the original sense of that word. I am so grateful.