Listening across our differences

ThumbSometimes when I look at my Twitter stream, and see the wide (and passionate) diversity of opinion which my friends express about Israel and Palestine, I despair of common ground ever being forged. If I can't imagine my friends on the one side really hearing my friends on the other side, how can it be possible that those who disagree with each other even more strongly than my friends will ever break bread together in peace?

Ethan has written a fair amount about the dangers of homophily, and about the echo chamber which arises when one is only exposed to limited opinions and perspectives. (Here's an early blog post on the subject; for more, I highly recommend his book Rewire.) I try hard to stay open, and to hear the voices of people who are different from me -- and I know that there are so many axes of difference that I'll always be working to broaden my hearing.

Am I listening to women as well as to men? Am I listening to people of color as well as to white people? Am I listening to transgender folks as well as those who are cisgender? Am I listening to people from the global South as well as people from the global North? Am I listening to people who are poor as well as people who are wealthy? (And so on, and so on.) And -- what do I do when the voices to whom I am listening are in tension with one another?

Listening can be a powerful and active thing. I learned this during my year as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. The greatest gift a chaplain can offer isn't "the perfect prayer" or "the right teaching," but real and whole presence. When I sit by someone's bedside, and open myself to hearing who they are and where they are, I manifest the listening and loving ear of God.

It's a lot easier to do that when I'm sitting by a hospital bedside than when I'm comfortably ensconced behind my desk encountering someone else's version of the news. And yet the opportunity to respond with openness and compassion is as real on Facebook and Twitter as it is when I'm ministering to someone who is suffering. Beyond that, while we don't all have the holy opportunity to engage in formal pastoral care, we all have countless opportunities to listen every day.

Ethan makes the case that homophily -- listening only to people like ourselves; that phenomenon referenced in the saying "birds of a feather flock together" -- can make us ill-informed about the world. Being a rabbi, I'm inclined to frame that same truth in religious terms. I think we have a religious obligation to broaden our sphere of understanding. Every person in the world is made in the divine image. No matter where they're from, or where they fall on the political spectrum, or where we might agree or disagree.

When we listen to people who are different from us (and different from each other), we can open connections between one experience and another, one understanding of the world and another. We encounter different facets of the infinite diversity of creation. The shema, which we recite every day, calls us to this work of listening. Listen up, y'all, it exhorts us. We are in relationship with the Source of All Being! And that Source is One. It's our job to listen to the unity which thrums behind our diversity.

There's a Talmudic story which teaches that the difference between God and Caesar is that Caesar puts his image on every coin and they are all alike -- whereas God puts God's image on every human, and we are all different as different can be. (For a beautiful drash on this, I commend to you Rabbi Arthur Waskow's God & Caesar: the Image on the Coin.) This is, as my programming friends would say, a feature and not a bug. It's not a flaw or an accident -- it's part of what makes creation so incredible.

And because we are so different in so many ways across this wide world (and even across narrow subsections of our world!), sometimes we disagree. I struggle with that sometimes. Like many clergy, I'm a born peacemaker, and I've had to learn to resist the temptation to put a "band-aid" over disagreements in a facile attempt to bring healing.

It is not always easy to hold a posture of openness to differing perspectives and views. Sometimes it feels like my own heart has become the container where opposing voices are duking it out. (Those are generally times to step away from the computer and ground myself in cooking, or reading a book to our child, or in poetry and prayer.)

But I think that cultivating that posture of spiritual openness -- developing the habit of keeping one's heart and mind open to other perspectives, even when (especially when) those other perspectives challenge us -- is some of the most important inner work we can do. And if there come moments when I look at our heartfelt differences of opinion and I feel despair, then I have an opportunity to pray that I might soon be returned to the ability to look at our differences and see opportunity for connection again.


Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.

Be kind

5b628aa5790b9c0a1cb9a1bb68101832A while back, one of my friends posted something on Facebook which resonated with me -- a quote which suggested that we never know when someone is facing something difficult or painful, or carrying some hidden grief, and so the most important thing is to be kind.

When I did a google search, trying to find the quotation in question, I found "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," sometimes attributed to Plato, sometimes Philo, and other times to John Watson -- not the Arthur Conan Doyle character, but the reverend. (For more on this: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle -

I've seen a variation on this idea raised in response to various online imbroglios. If someone doesn't reply to your comment right away, don't assume that they're ignoring you; if someone posts something distressing, try to give them the benefit of the doubt; you never know what's going on in their life behind the privacy of the computer screen.

But even in person, I think it holds true. We never really know all of what's arising in someone's head and heart, or what anxiety or sadness they may be carrying. A fear, a difficult diagnosis, distance from a loved one, regret... we hold a lot of things in our hearts, and many of them are not easy to sit with.

In such a situation as this -- and this is the situation in which we all live, whether or not it's particularly acute at any given moment -- what could be more important than being kind?

One of the commentors on that quoteinvestigator post noted that this is very like a teaching from Mahayana Buddhism. To wit: suffering is pervasive; we compound our suffering by forgetting that we are interconnected; the way out is to recognize our interconnectedness and to treat everyone with kindness.

In my religious tradition we say that chesed, lovingkindness, is one of the fundamental characteristics of God -- and as we are made in the divine image and likeness, lovingkindness is an essential human quality, too. "On three things the world rests," says one of our aphorisms: "on Torah, and on avodah (service / prayer), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness)." Without acts of lovingkindness, the world would not endure.

It's not always easy to respond to the world from a place of chesed. I am reminded of this daily in a hundred tiny ways. Our child dawdles getting dressed and I risk being late to meet someone. Someone sends an email which agitates me and makes me angry. I hear something on the news which raises my ire. I don't always manage to respond in the way I might wish.

But it's a goal worth aiming for. Because we all suffer, and we all carry wounds both old and recent, and we all yearn to be met with kindness.

Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.

On taharah before cremation

Bmc pic for webLongtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?

The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.

However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?

My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.

At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »

Finding meaning

BIG-DIPPERAt OHALAH, I learn about The December Project, a collaboration between author Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman in which they speak honestly and candidly about aging, death and dying, and the afterlife. I promptly pre-order a copy.

Upon my return home, a woman seeks me out with burning questions about Jewish beliefs around death and dying, burial practices, the afterlife. We have a long conversation in my office and agree to meet again.

Within days of that meeting, a man seeks me out to talk about illness, end-of-life issues, creating programs to help adult children speak (and listen) clearly to the wishes of their aging parents. We, too, agree to meet again.

The human mind seeks to make meaning. Give us a handful of stars in the night sky, and our brains sketch them into the shape of a constellation. Give me three disconnected encounters with questions of aging, dying, and what comes after, and my mind wants to turn them into a pattern.

Does it "mean something" that this theme keeps cropping up in my January?

Maybe this is just a reminder that this is a need which people have, these are conversations which people both fear and crave. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that I learned about a new resource to share, just before I met someone with whom I wanted to share it. These are disconnected events; they have nothing to do with each other.

And maybe the people who brought these questions into my life this month are messengers whose presence is meant to awaken and attune me to these questions. That's what angels are, in the early parts of Torah: messengers sent by God. They look like ordinary people, but they bring awareness of something that someone needs to know or learn.

Both of those can be true at the same time. Anyone I meet can be a messenger if I'm open to finding a deeper message in our encounter. What looks like happenstance to you might look like a holy encounter to me (or: what I experience as happenstance on one day might feel to me like a holy encounter on another day.) Neither of those interpretations has to trump the other.

The stars of the Big Dipper take on a shape because we see the shape in them. So do moments in a life. Connections and coincidences flare brightly because we notice them and draw lines to connect them.

What meaning will I make from the shape which is coalescing here?



More reflections on Boston

I posted a response to the Boston Marathon bombing to my congregational blog today. That post contains excerpts from two prayers which I've found particularly meaningful this week. It also contains links to a variety of resources on grief. Whether or not you're a member of my congregation, please feel free to click through to that post if you think it might be helpful to you: A message from Reb Rachel after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Meanwhile, I'll share a few other things with which I've resonated this week. The first essay to which I want to link makes a kind of meta-point: not about the Boston Marathon, but about the ways in which television news (about this event, and in general) feeds our anxiety. Beth at The Cassandra Pages writes about encountering television news in a doctor's waiting room, and then returning home to the news of Monday's bombing. And she continues:

[The omnipresence of tv news] seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.

I'm with Beth, here. I find that the incessant clamor of the constant news cycle isn't conducive to my mental, emotional, or spiritual health. I'm happier getting my news in more contained doses: from NPR, the BBC, the Times, and -- these days -- my Twitter stream (even though I recognize the dangers of homophily inherent in that last one.) But regardless of where and how you get your news, I think Beth has a point that constant newsmedia-watching can leave us unable to cope with solitude and with uncertainty. Both as a poet and as a rabbi, I experience that as a real loss. Her post is here: A Plea Against Anxiety.

Next, I want to share two posts about the experience of being at the marathon as a spectator and what two women took away from that. The first comes from author Carrie Jones, and is called Boston Marathon. Here's a quote from near the end of that post:

And so many people helped others, making tourniquets out of yarn, carrying the injured, soothing the shocked, giving away their clothes to keep runners warm. And so many people have hearts of goodness. We can't forget that. Not ever. Not today. Not in Boston. Not ever. Because that is exactly what the Boston Marathon is about: It's about not giving up, not giving in to pain. It's about that celebration of surviving and enduring against all odds, against everything. It's about humanity. No bomber can take that away. Not ever.

And finally I'll leave you with Sarah Courchesne's My Lucky Day: the view from mile 22. She writes:

I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America... What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see.

I've read both of those posts a few times through, and the message of hope I find at the end of each one is sustaining to me.

We find God in the helpers

In the face of tragedy, like today's bombings at the Boston Marathon -- a marathon in which the final mile was dedicated to Newtown victims, which somehow makes this all seem even more painful -- how can we respond?

When something awful happens, I think of the passage from Reverend Kate Braestrup which I shared last fall in a sermon for Shabbat Nachamu. God, she says, is not in the disaster; God is not in the car accident; God is not in the bombing. We find God in the love expressed by those who rush to respond: the helping hands, the caring hearts, the first responders who risk their lives to assist those in need.

RogersReverend Braestrup shares that theology with the venerable Fred Rogers, may his memory be a blessing. (He was a Presbyterian minister, though I didn't know that when I watched his television show as a kid.) I've seen a lot of people sharing a quote from Mr. Rogers today, about how his mama taught him to respond to scary things by looking for the helpers.

Look for the helpers. We find God in those who respond.

God is in the 1200 people who have opened up their homes to stranded runners and travelers in and around Boston today.

In the first responders -- police, EMTs, firefighters, and others -- who rushed not away from the explosions but into them, to help those who were wounded, putting their own lives on the line to aid others.

In those who, according to NBCN, completed the marathon and immediately went to give blood so that the injured could be healed.

In the restaurants (among them Oleana and El Pelon Taqueria) opening their doors, offering a warm meal and a safe place-to-wait to those in need tonight.

In everyone who is caring for those who are wounded and those who are grieving, and those for whom this has been triggering, and those who are afraid.

My prayers are with those who are wounded, those who are grieving, and those who are afraid: in Boston tonight, and in Baghdad, Nasiriyah, and Kirkuk tonight, and everywhere else in the world where people know sorrow and pain. I can't make sense of the loss of life. All I know how to do is hope for healing, and thank the first responders, and find God's presence in the acts of the helpers -- and in every broken heart.

Accompanying mourners, with gratitude

When I walk out of a mourner's home, having spent an hour or two listening to stories about the person who has died, I feel unspeakably lucky to be doing this work.

It's an incredible honor to be able to walk beside people in their mourning. To bear witness to their emotions and their memories.

Sometimes we look at old photographs or newspaper clippings. Sometimes one story leads to the next and suddenly everyone's talking over each other, eager to reminisce.

Sometimes the relationships were healthy and sweet, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something beautiful which has moved into memory.

Sometimes the relationships were painful or broken, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something which wasn't what it needed to be.

I try to take notes as unobtrusively as I can, asking questions -- if I need to -- to spark more stories. Bit by bit, anecdote by anecdote, a picture emerges.

Sometimes people ask me about Jewish ideas of the soul and the afterlife, wanting to know where (I think) their loved one is now, what comes next.

Sometimes people tell me stories about being present at the moment of death, the luminous quality that may accompany that transition into what we can't know.

Always when I make my farewells, even if I feel daunted by the task of writing a eulogy which will live up to their memories, I'm grateful to be able to try.


What moves me, right away, is the gentleness. They're standing a few feet apart, two adults younger than I am, each of them coaching someone elderly. They help them rise from their wheelchairs, stand with relative stability, and toss a bright plastic ball back and forth, back and forth. Each of the patients wears a wide striped belt for the therapist to hold onto.

After the game of catch, they work with cones. Each plastic cone is slightly smaller than a soda can, and each is a different vivid color, red and green and yellow and blue. Each physical therapist holds a cone somewhere just out of reach, and prompts their patient to reach for it, to stretch or bend as needed, and then to hand it to her or his counterpart. Back and forth.

Afterward I chat with the woman I am there to visit. She praises the physical therapists: they're young, she agrees, but they know what they're doing. She tells me that she's gotten to know everyone there, at least enough to greet them and say hello. And when someone is in really bad shape, she says, and they manage something they hadn't been able to do -- that's inspiring.

It has the feel of a kind of strange private club, though not a club anyone particularly wants to join. Its accoutrements are so determinedly cheerful they remind me of preschool. My son would love the mats, the cones, the ball. I wonder how many of the people there wrestle with frustration at needing to practice things like balance, or grasping, or bending down.

What fragile things these bodies can be. Thin skin and delicate bones and so many places that can hurt. I want to bless the hands and heart of every doctor and nurse, every physical therapist, every orderly. Afterwards I take myself out for a quick Chinese lunch. I warm my hands on a teacup. I whisper prayers into my tea.



Second step

When we first greet one another, it's clear that we're both trying a little bit too hard. We trade one too many "how are you"s. Conversation stutters and starts.

But soon we settle into a rhythm. He received the bedtime shema prayer I sent, and the small pamphlets about Jewish prayer and about forgiveness in Jewish tradition. I show him the JPS Tanakh I brought for him (though I won't be able to give it directly to him; I have to leave it with the corrections officer for inspection, and it will be forwarded to him with the evening mail) and the copy of Anita Diamant's book Choosing a Jewish Life. He seems surprised and grateful.

We talk a little bit about what the journey to choosing Judaism usually looks like. I describe the general course of study, the usual timeframe, the mikveh immersion. Ordinarily, I tell him, I would ask a potential Jew-by-choice to start coming to services and experiencing Jewish life in community, but that's obviously not an option for him until he's out of jail. He tells me he might be out some months sooner than originally anticipated, and that he can't wait to try services.

We chat about how the Christian sabbath day became Sunday, about what "kosher food" means (and doesn't mean), about a friend of his in the jail who is Catholic and enjoys friendly argument about scripture and prayer. I tell him that friendly argument is a very Jewish mode of Torah study, in certain ways. I tell him about the Jewish weekly lectionary, and show him the dog-eared page in the book which marks this week's Torah portion. He asks me what Jews think about Jesus, and we talk about some different ways of understanding Jesus: as a Jew, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabble-rouser, but not as divine.

I ask him about what holidays are like, in this local house of corrections. He tells me a little bit about Thanksgiving, about a fellow inmate who gathered a group of them to eat together and who said they were like his family. He tells me he's never connected with Christmas and doesn't anticipate that he'll miss it. I tell him about Passover -- he's never been to a seder -- and I wonder aloud whether I might be able to orchestrate a seder here.

Over the course of our hour, I learn a little bit more about what his life is like here. He tells me that more than anything else, it's like a retirement community in there. Little foam couches, tables where guys play cards, two televisions (with headphones for the sound.) It's really quiet, he tells me. Most of the guys are taking classes through the local community college. The place is empty enough that they closed down one of the pods and had to let several COs go.

There are only fourteen women in the local jail right now, he tells me, and I think: wow, what would it be like to be one of those fourteen? What an insular little community that must be. The communal dynamics must be fascinating, and probably not easy to navigate. While we're chatting, a man in orange walks through the visiting room and he and my inmate (who is wearing navy blue) smile and exchange greetings. The orange jumpsuit means he's still awaiting sentencing. The two of them knew each other, before.

I depart with a promise to provide a Jewish calendar, and to return in a few weeks with thoughts on what we might study together. I still don't know where this relationship will lead, but I feel blessed to have the opportunity to find out.

On preparing a nondenominational funeral

It was a challenge I had not sufficiently pondered: how to create a meaningful nondenominational (read: non-Jewish) funeral service which would serve its ritual purpose, bring comfort to the mourners, and use language familiar and accessible to those assembled, without taking me out of the comfort zone of what I can authentically pray as a rabbi and as a Jew?

One of my dearest teachers, when I was in rabbinic school, taught me that a funeral is the one time when we always say yes. If someone asks me to do a wedding, and I say no -- because the date isn't convenient, or because I'm not comfortable with their stipulations, or for whatever reason -- they can always find another officiant. There are a lot of rabbis who do weddings, and generally speaking, a nuptial couple approaches potential clergy well in advance of the blessed date. But if someone needs a funeral, the need is immediate, and it is incumbent on me as a rabbi to say yes. It's my job to be there for them and to use the prayers, skills, and teachings at my disposal to help them navigate the shoals of grief.

So when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a congregant's loved one, I said yes without hesitation. The only question in my mind was what words, exactly, might be appropriate to the situation, because this family member was not Jewish. I have a fair number of dual-faith-heritage families in my community, which means I have a lot of congregants who have Christian family members. When those family members belong to their own faith-communities, then their funerals are a matter for their clergy. But when they're unaffiliated -- "unchurched," in Christian parlance -- a different situation arises. (Other liberal Jewish clergy, I expect you've run into this situation too; I'd love to hear from others about how you've handled it.)

I knew that most of the family members who would be gathering to mourn would not be Jewish. But all of them were grieving a loss, and all of them were in need of a liturgy which would create a safe container to hold them in their grief. This was a new spiritual assignment for me, and an opportunity to think about how I understand funerals to work and what I understand my role at a funeral to be.

First I looked to the funeral liturgy I usually use, which is based in Ma'aglei Tzedek, the Reform Rabbi's Manual, though has grown from there. (I've adapted my practices over the years, drawing on Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgies and teachings.) I turned also to poetry, thumbing my copy of Beloved on the Earth, which I reviewed here some time ago. I knew I wanted some things which the assembled could read or recite together, ideally familiar words and cadences. Psalms, then: I chose parts of Psalm 90, and Psalm 23, and also the Lord's Prayer. (For all that it's a Christian prayer, there's nothing in it which is uncomfortable for me as a Jew -- actually when I've heard it rendered in Hebrew I've been amazed and moved by just how familiar its turns of phrase are, and how similar to the liturgy I love and know.)

What might the mourners be expecting, what forms and structures would be most comforting to them in their grief? I consulted Google to see what I could learn about Christian funeral liturgies. (I'm grateful to those who've put the Book of Common Prayer online!) Of course, there are certain central elements of Christian funeral ritual which are foreign to me. Christians and Jews have different teachings about what happens to our souls after death, and I can't in good faith affirm Jesus as the resurrection and the life or as the only path to God. But I fashioned a prayer of committal to recite at graveside, which I hoped would serve to sanctify, with our words and intentions, this place in the earth into which this beloved body would be returned.

I hope and pray that the words I assembled were the right ones, and that my presence was a comfort. For those who are interested in the end result of my labors, two short services are enclosed here: a memorial service intended for use in the funeral home, and a graveside service intended for interment. (Neither includes any identifying information or anything specific to this family.) I welcome your thoughts, questions, and feedback in response. And if these liturgies are useful to someone else, by all means, use them elsewhere; I share them freely, with hope that all who are bereaved will find comfort.

Memorial [pdf]

Interment [pdf]

Visiting the nursing home

Late morning I go to visit a congregant who's recuperating in a nursing home / rehab facility. I call ahead to make sure it's a good time, and the staff tell me that it is. When I arrive, my congregant is sitting in a kind of parlor, where some fifteen or so elderly folks are singing hymns along with a cassette tape.

Slowly I realize that there is no standing furniture in the parlor. Even the flowered recliners which appear at first glance to be easy chairs are wheelchairs. Their inhabitants are sound asleep, mouths open. Some of them mumble words I can't make out. My congregant sleeps, too, even though several people are singing with gusto. "Amazing Grace." "When the Saints Come Marching In."

I murmur quiet prayers. The Mi Sheberach prayer which asks God to bring complete healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit. A prayer I learned years ago from my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg: may this person be blessed with simcha, joy; may he be blessed with shalom, peace; may he be blessed with refuah, healing; may he be blessed with whatever is best.

As a nurse collects the xeroxed hymn handouts, a parade of children with Halloween masks marches into the room. They make a quick circuit, waving to everyone and saying happy halloween. Most of the residents beam at them. One little boy, lagging behind the rest, enters the room and then takes the circuit almost at a run. "He wants to get away from all these ladies," chortles one white-haired woman, amused.

Behind me there's a man muttering that everyone can kiss his ass. The staff chide him: that's not a nice way to talk! Don't say that to people! but he doesn't seem to want to stop, so they wheel him to a different part of the room. Someone turns up the television, which is playing an old Western. The closed-captioning scrolls across the screen shortly before each line is delivered, giving me a peculiar sense of déja vu.

I don't want to wake my congregant. Maybe it's because I'm the parent of a three-year-old, but I can't bear to wake someone who is peacefully sleeping. He is breathing easy and his face is unworried in repose. I murmur to him that I am there and that I am holding him in prayer. I whisper a few more prayers for healing, for joy, for peace, for whatever is best. I pray for my congregant, and for the others who are sleeping, and for the man who's still grumbling that he can say "kiss my ass" if he wants to.

When I leave the nursing home, I feel curiously less anxious than I did when I went in. The aftermath of the storm has not changed. The coming election, and the nasty rhetoric around it, have not changed. But I feel I'm on more solid ground. We live, and if we are lucky, we grow old. We care for each other. We love one another. What else is there, in the end?

Susan Palwick's "Brief Visits"

I think I started reading Susan Palwick's blog after I finished my intensive unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at Albany Medical Center. I did my unit of CPE during my first year of rabbinic school, so this was a while ago. I remember that I came to hospital chaplaincy work with deep trepidation: would I be up to the task? What if I couldn't do, or be, what was needed? To my surprise, the work transformed and uplifted me, maybe especially my nighttime visits to the emergency department or E.D.

And then a friend pointed me to Susan's work, and in reading her poems, I was thrust right back into the hospital experience again, with both awe and joy. After finding her blog, I wrote here:

A friend pointed me to a blog post I'm profoundly glad to have read: The first four ED sonnets, a quartet of sonnets written by Susan Palwick about hospital chaplaincy work. If you enjoy formal poetry -- and especially if you have any connection with chaplaincy work, or its cousins social work, counseling, and medicine -- don't miss these.

(Here's my whole 2006 post about Susan's poems: poems from the E.D.)

Some six years later, those sonnets -- part of an extraordinary book-length sonnet cycle -- form the collection Brief Visits: Sonnets from a Volunteer Chaplain, published by the Texas Review Press.


I was blessed to be asked to offer a blurb for the back of the book, perhaps because of my own (far less ambitious) small booklet of hospital chaplaincy poems chaplainbook (laupe house press, 2006.) For the back of Susan's book, I wrote:

Susan Palwick's poems remind me what I most love about hospital ministry -- in her words, 'story understood / as sacrament.' Here are the small mercies and outsized emotions of a night in the E.D., the infinity of human stories unfolding. 'These small rooms bestow / huge gifts,' she writes, 'God's strangeness shining from each tale(.)' These patients are fortunate to have Susan's presence, a manifestation of God's caring hands and listening ear; and we are fortunate to have her poems, which encapsulate our sweet, painful, poignant human lives.

I'm not sure I can offer a better review than what I said in that paragraph. There are so many shining moments of laughter and grief in this collection: the patient admitting "I don't know how to pray / right now," the realization that in the emergency room people suddenly become grateful for outcomes they would never have wished for ("'he's on a ventilator' better news / than 'nothing worked,'") her description of the hospital chapel ("it's almost always empty when I come/ I'm almost always empty, which is why / I come") which reminds me so much of the hospital chapel I used to visit sometimes at AMC.

These are powerful and poignant poems. Reading them, I feel lifted out of myself in much the way I used to feel when I walked the hospital's halls, in much the way I feel when I enter into real I/Thou relationship with a congregant or a stranger who seeks pastoral care. I recommend this collection highly. If you're clergy, if you're a chaplain -- or if you've ever felt mortal, alone, uplifted, or afraid. Hospitals are holy places because there we connect with some of our deepest human experiences: birth and death, mortality and fear, joy and exaltation. These poems bring all of those to life.

Get the book online: Brief Visits on Amazon.

A little bit of prison ministry

Sky and wire. Outside the local jail.

I've driven by the Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections for years, but until this fall, had never set foot inside. I had thought that it only housed people who were awaiting trial, for a matter of months at most. (Among other things, it's called a "jail," not a "prison," and in my understanding the distinction has a lot to do with duration of stay.) But it turns out that many of the 400+ men incarcerated there are there for two to five years. This facility was build in the late '90s, and dedicated in 2001; it replaced the old jail on Second Street which had been built by Civil War veterans in the late 1800s. By the time they moved out of the old jail, it was housing twice as many men as it was built to hold.

I was called in some weeks ago by the minister who manages pastoral care at this county jail. Two of the inmates had expressed the desire to see a rabbi and had articulated an affiliation with Judaism, so the pastor called me. Shortly before the Days of Awe, I met with him and we chatted about my experience working with inmates. (Short answer: very little, though when I was a chaplain in Albany, I did occasionally enter the locked hospital ward to minister to prisoners who had been hospitalized.) After my application was approved by whatever agency makes decisions about who's permitted to tend to ibmates, I made an appointment to see each of the men.

I'd never actually been inside a house of corrections before, so the logistics of the process were interesting to me. I put my things in a locker, gave my ID to the officer in charge, stood still for an ID photo, waited for the big metal doors to clang open so I could enter the locked corridor, waited for them to clang shut behind me and for the next set of doors to open, entered the visiting room which was faced with a set of mirrors which I'm guessing were one-way glass. I couldn't help filtering the experience through the lens of books I've read, from asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife to Ted Conover's Newjack.

After a short wait, the first man entered the visiting room. While we met, another inmate received a visit from a woman and a toddler; they took seats at the far end of the room, and we tried to ignore each other, to give each other as much privacy as possible. I met with each of the inmates who had requested a rabbi, one at a time. Neither of them was born Jewish, but both have felt an interest in Judaism and a pull toward Judaism since their incarceration. As far as I know, they are the only Jews, or would-be Jews, at this house of corrections.

With each of these men I talked about Judaism, about their lives, about what makes them interested in this tradition. We talked a bit about Torah and a bit about prayer. Both of them have active personal prayer lives, and talk with God daily. I promised to send them Reb Zalman's translation of the prayer for forgiveness recited as part of the bedtime Shema. They asked about what's involved with conversion, and about Jewish congregations in Pittsfield which they might visit upon their release.

Both of the men are local, so they're able to receive regular visits from family. I get the sense that this is a tremendous blessing -- though also sometimes difficult. One inmate spoke with me about the challenges of maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend. They run up enormous phone bills each week (the prison charges a few dollars for each call, even if it only lasts for seconds) and they argue, sometimes. It's hard for her to understand what his life inside is like. It's hard for him to imagine all of the choices and changes which face her while he's in.

I don't know whether either of these men will pursue affiliation with Judaism in the long term. Perhaps this will be a comfort to them while they're inside, and once they return to the ordinary world they'll discover that the pull was temporary. Or perhaps their yearning to connect with Torah and to be part of the chain of Jewish generations will sustain them through their time in jail and into their lives afterwards. That's not for me to know. I'll do what I can to minister to them, regardless. It's a humbling opportunity.

I'm looking forward to further conversations, and to this new way of being of service to people in my community who are in need.

The black dog; the shadow; the fog


Vincent van Gogh's 1890 painting "Old Man with his Head in his Hands (At Eternity's Gate.)"

When I think about depression, and about the writers I've encountered who are able to write about it in a meaningful way, I always think of the poet Jane Kenyon, may her memory be a blessing. Her poem Having it Out with Melancholy is extraordinary. I have read it countless times over the years, and every time I read it, it teaches me something new about depression and about being a human being who suffers. (I also love her poem Back, which is about healing from depression. Both of these poems can be found in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, published by Greywolf.)

Depression comes in many forms. Acute depression and chronic depression. Depression which is situational, and depression which is existential. I'm neither a therapist nor a psychologist; these gradations aren't my bailiwick. But as a pastoral caregiver, I think often about the people in my care who struggle with depression. I wonder when they most need to hear that I have been there, too -- and have, thank God, found my way back. I wonder when they most need to just speak their experience, without hearing about mine.

Often all I can do is listen. Listen, and say "I hear you." If they can't access hope that things will get better, I can hope it for them. If they can't find their way to prayer, I can pray on their behalf; can pray that they find their way back to being able to connect again with God, whatever they understand God to mean. I can be kind. I can urge them to try to be kind to themselves.

I can hold them in my thoughts and in my heart; I can hold them in prayer. Sometimes I don't believe that intercessory prayer makes a difference in any tangible way, and yet I can't imagine not doing it. My teachers taught me to pray for the people under my care, and that includes my congregants and friends and loved ones who live with the shadow of depression peering over their shoulder or stealing their breath. The black dog; the shadow; the fog.

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is said to have suffered from terrible depression. And yet he is often remembered for his powerful teachings about the importance of joy. (Many of these teachings are collected by Rabbi Debra Orenstein on her page Reb Nachman's "Rules" for Joy.) Some say that we teach best what we most need to learn; maybe he wrote so beautifully about joy because these were the teachings he needed to receive. "Depression," he wrote, "does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy."

Rabbi Debra also offers Reb Nachman's prayer:

God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. [We must] overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.

I wonder how I would have responded if I had read this prayer when I was struggling with postpartum depression. I suspect that the words wouldn't have penetrated the fog. My inadequacies felt insurmountable: there I was, a new mother, supposed to be enjoying the precious moments of my child's infancy, and instead I so often felt broken. I am grateful even now for the family members who convinced me to seek the help I needed.

But reading Reb Nachman's prayer now, I'm struck by his insistence that we must live with joy, not despite our sorrow -- not in a way that ignores our perceived inadequacies -- but because doing so is central to spiritual life. "Joy," he writes, "is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital." Maybe the most fervent prayer I can offer on behalf of those who struggle with depression is: may the clouds lift so that you can once again remember how to access joy.

No one "deserves" depression. The voice of depression often whispers, insidiously, that this is who one really is, this is what life really is, that anything which has seemed pleasurable or joyful was merely an illusion -- but it's not true. Depression does not mean that you are weak-willed or not trying hard enough. Depression is real and it is awful -- and there are ways to banish it. If one way doesn't work, there are others. Always.

For many of us, one of the challenges of depression is the fear that one's friends and loved ones don't want to hear about it. The little voice that whispers, "No one likes you when you're like this." I am here to say: that isn't true either. The people who love you may be worried about you; they may be frustrated with themselves for not being able to magically make you feel better; but that doesn't mean they don't want to hear.

We want to hear. Even if we can't fix it, we will sit with you in your suffering. We will not judge. We are here.




Lifting me out of myself

A few days ago I picked up a minister-friend of mine in my car and we drove together to a local hospital where she has been part of a rotating group of clergy who do a regular spirituality group in the mental health ward. Together we spent the better part of an hour with some of the people who are patients there, talking with them about life and God and spirituality and whatever else entered the picture. We read a couple of psalms together (100 and 121, for those who are curious -- and I sang the first few verses of psalm 121 in Hebrew, which seemed to go over well.) In coming weeks, I'll enter the regular rotation, and will probably lead this spirituality group once a month or so.

I'm so glad to be doing this. I've missed hospital ministry. And while I know that if I were a fulltime chaplain I would miss leading liturgical davenen, and I would miss the experience of working with people with whom I can develop long and deep relationships, this feels like the perfect balance: a congregational rabbinate, some time for my child and my writing life, and a regular periodic dip into hospital work again.

There's something about hospital ministry which lifts me out of myself, more than any other kind of pastoral work tends to do. That feels like a funny reason to offer for my love of hospital work; surely the work matters because of what it is, not because of the impact it has on me and my own spiritual and emotional life! But all the work I do shapes my life, on all levels and in all worlds, and I've found that hospital chaplaincy work (of whatever form) tends to uplift me. Even when the work brings me into contact with tragedy. There's something about being able to be there for people in moments of extremis which helps me put my own narrative and my own stuff into perspective. I almost always come away from the work feeling changed.

I'm especially glad to be ministering to those in the mental health wing of the hospital. Longtime readers know that I wrestled with postpartum depression after Drew was born. I also have dear friends who have been hospitalized for mental health reasons, and in my extended family there are people who have suffered from mental illness, too. This doesn't make me unique -- far from it. Pretty much every family is touched by mental illness somewhere. I'm glad to have an opportunity to care for people who are struggling with mental illness -- even if it's just a single spirituality group meeting once a month.

The limitations of personal experience

When I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center I used to case the neonatal intensive care unit every time I was on call. I felt a connection with that ward because I was a NICU baby myself. My birth weight (three pounds, one ounce) halved by the time the ambulance got me from one hospital to another, and I spent weeks in an incubator overcoming hyaline membrane disease. Walking the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit at AMC, I used to make every step a prayer for the tiny babies in their little glass houses, that they might flourish as I have been blessed to do. I thought maybe my story made me a more effective chaplain there. Offered parents hope.

But I have no memory of those six weeks behind glass. Whereas I have plenty of memories of my recent strokes and their aftermath. So when I'm called to minister to someone who has suffered a stroke, it's a poignant and surreal experience for me in a whole new way.

Do my strokes make me a better chaplain? I'm certain that having been sick -- having faced, however imperfectly, my body's failings and my own mortality -- makes me a more empathetic listener. Telling about my experience, in a tiny nutshell, might offer comfort either to the patient or to the patient's family. I know what it's like to be on the inside of that experience, in a way most chaplains don't. In those ways maybe my experience does help me offer care.

But there's also the danger that I might overlay my own experiences atop the experiences of the person now suffering, which would make me not a very good caregiver at all. I know what it was like for me to open my mouth and not be able to make words come out the way I intended. I know what it was like for me to lose vision in one eye, to enter my first MRI machine, to wonder whether there was something seriously wrong with my body which we might or might not ever uncover. But I don't know what it's like for her. I don't know what it's like to be in her body, to experience it with the stretch of her experiences and memories. I have empathy, and I have sympathy, but I still can't presume I actually know what she's going through.

One can never presume one understands what someone else is going through. Even if the experiences have the same name, they're not the same. When I lay tefillin, that experience is necessarily different than I imagine it is for men who have the same practice. My experience surely differs from that of other women who take on the practice, too. If you were to wrap the leather retzuot around your arm, what would it evoke for you? How would you feel? Can you really express it in words? How much more true that is for embodied experiences like illness. So I'm a stroke survivor: that doesn't mean I truly know what it's like for someone else to suffer.

All I can do, in the end, is all I can do visiting anyone: be present to the reality of what's in front of me. Honor what I can understand of her story. Manifest the ear of the Holy Blessed One, Who listens in and through me. Admit that I can offer this sage's opinion or that sage's pithy quotation, but in the end, I can't answer the question of why we suffer, either. Offer the prayers of my heart, that she know a complete and speedy healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit, now and swiftly. And, if she'll let me, take a long moment to clasp her hand.


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The PaRDeS of pastoral care

Anton Boisen, the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education, taught that the pastoral interaction is an encounter with the human document. Jewish tradition centers around the encounter with God manifest in a written document. From that point of intersection, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman spins a four-tiered way of looking at interpersonal encounters based in a very old Jewish mode of textual analysis.

There's a very old story in Tosefta Hagigah 2:3 about four rabbis who entered an orchard -- in Hebrew, פרדס / pardes, which is the source of the English word "paradise." (You can find the story cited here; it also appears at the beginning of Pardes: the quest for spiritual paradise in Judaism, a lecture by Moshe Idel.) One of the four men dies; one goes insane; one loses his faith; and only one remains unscathed. This is a story about an encounter with ultimate reality, which is both exalted and dangerous.

In the Zohar, Rabbi Moses de Leon maps the story to a four-tiered system of textual analysis. Pshat is literal interpretation, remez is allegory, drash is homiletical or ethical interpretation, and sod is the mystical understanding that ties it all together. The initial letters of those words spell PaRDeS, and these four levels of interpretation are the orchard into which we enter every time we learn.

Rabbi Friedman takes those four familiar levels of interpretation and applies them to the pastoral care encounter. As she writes, "[t]he individual encountered by pastoral caregivers is as complex, multilayered, rich, opaque, and in need of explication as any sacred text." Wow.

Continue reading "The PaRDeS of pastoral care" »

Becoming a healthier pastor

The first reading for Reb Goldie's Pastoral Care Intensive class was Ronald Richardson's Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family. Caveat lector: it may be that if you are neither clergy, nor studying to become clergy, nor engaged in one of the "helping professions," this won't be especially engaging to you! But I found it to be a fascinating read.

Family systems theory "is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit." Basically, the idea is that families aren't just agglomerations of individuals; they're systems, and each of us plays a part in how her/his family of origin functions.  Coming to understand the system that is my family of origin can help me relate to that family in a healthier way -- which will in turn help me enact my ministry in a healthier way, because congregations often replicate family dynamics. As Richardson puts it, "While our later professional training adds a layer of sophistication and expertise that normally serves us well in ministry, when the level of anxiety goes up in a congregation and we become anxious, we tend to revert to our old family patterns and ways of functioning." Right.

Figuring out the various undercurrents of my family-of-origin is, in a sense, an exercise in self-differentiation, which isn't always easy or comfortable. "[W]orking on differentiation of self is like taking your little sailboat out on to the lake when a storm is brewing, hoping to learn something both about storms and yourself and about how to manage your boat in a storm." (That's Richardson quoting Michael Kerr, by the by.)

Over the course of the book, Richardson tackles topics like "the pastor's own emotional system and unresolved emotional attachment," the importance of differentiation of self (and the ways in which excessive distance between family members can be just as unhealthy as excessive closeness), the challenges of developing a new view of one's family of origin, and how to manage reactivity and expectations. He talks a lot about triangles within families (when two people relate by talking about a third person) and about the stories we've learned to tell about who our families are and why.

Continue reading "Becoming a healthier pastor" »

Ready or not

During on-call nights at the hospital, I used to try to get a few hours' sleep. Yes, there were all-nighters, which yielded (maybe not surprisingly) some of my most enduring memories of hospital ministry, but given the choice I would generally try to nap between midnight or so and five a.m. And usually, during the nights when I was trying to sleep a little, during the darkest part of the night the pager would go off.

If I close my eyes now, I can re-inhabit the way that felt: waking up and turning on the swing-arm lamp, fumbling for paper and pencil to jot down the extension, then picking up the phone to return the call. "Hi," I would say. "I'm Rachel, the chaplain on duty tonight. I just got a page. What's going on?" And then the nurse at the other end of the line would fill me in, and I would tug my clothes back on and re-pin my kippah to my head and walk out into the nighttime halls.

Yesterday I was, after a manner of speaking, asleep. The end of the year can be a difficult time for a lot of us: maybe Christmas is stressful, or we fear we can't live up to Christmas memories of old, or we don't celebrate it and feel alien(ated) as a result. Maybe there are end-of-year deadlines. Maybe there's financial stress. Maybe we're remembering loved ones who are gone, and missing them keenly. Me, I spent most of yesterday feeling caught between rabbinic school obligations and familial obligations, and stewing about it.

And then the call came. There has been a death in our extended community, and I've been called to do the funeral. I was so firmly in school-and-stress headspace that it took me a moment to parse this news, but when the words penetrated it felt like light cutting through heavy fog. All of my little frustrations fell away.

It's hard to explain this sensation, like something in me clicks into place. This is part of what I love about ministry: it calls me to be my best self. It wakes me up. There's no answer I can give besides hineni, "Here I am." Awake and ready.

A Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it; wishing you joy in this holiday of light and hope.

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