A poem for #blogElul 16: Understand

Blogelul2014-1UNDERSTAND (ELUL 16)

Why sickness, why children
cringing from a blow
or broken by bombs, these
will never make sense.
Why cruelty. Why bar
anyone from the common table.

The sages say the world
was broken from the get-go,
too fragile a vessel
for God's infinite light, but
how can I listen to the news
without shattering further?

Our prayers talk about
who by fire, who by water.
It's the wrong question.
When will we rewrite
the words? The book of life
reads from itself, remember,

and inside is the name
of every living being
no matter our politics.
Our time here is so brief.
Scatter love like seeds.
Stop trying to understand.

I've been trying to draft each day's #blogElul poem a few days in advance so that the poems can benefit from a bit of revision before they go live. I wrote this one some days ago, not realizing that the 16th of Elul was going to correspond to September 11th on the Gregorian calendar. The confluence seems appropriate, though.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

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.

An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.


Photos from this gallery.

On yesterday's grief and today's rejoicing

Nr35p_-00_lifestyle_rainbow-flagWhat a rollercoaster of a week. Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a ruling which gutted the Voting Rights Act. That ruling was a major blow to minority voters in this country, and to all who recognize that voters of color in many places still face extraordinary hurdles in getting to the polls on voting day. And today SCOTUS handed down the ruling [pdf] that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Yesterday's ruling was devastating; today's is a source of joy.

Today's victory for human rights doesn't undo yesterday's damage. The two issues -- minority voting rights, and the right to marry one's beloved -- intersect, and the communities impacted by these decisions intersect and overlap. The work of perfecting our flawed democracy, of eliminating prejudice and discrimination, of ensuring that everyone has full and whole access to the equal rights which are our God-given inheritance as human beings (including both the right to marry and the right to vote): that work remains ahead of us. The road to liberation is long and there are miles to go before we sleep.

But Jewish tradition teaches us to celebrate our victories, even when there is still further we need to go. As we read in my haggadah:

What does this mean, "It would have been enough"?  Surely no one of these would indeed have been enough for us.  Dayenu means to celebrate each step toward freedom as if  it were enough, then to start out on the next step.  It means that if we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never be able to achieve the whole liberation.  It means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song -- and then sing the next verse.

[That quote comes from The Shalom Seders, compiled by New Jewish Agenda, (New York, Adamah Books, 1984.)]

Today's step toward freedom is a big one. Today's ruling argues that "interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages" was DOMA's essence, and that such interference is unconstitutional. (I would also add, unconscionable.) This is a victory for GLBT Americans, for binational queer couples who will no longer be forced overseas because they can't get a spouse visa, and for everyone who believes that love should be honored and that commitment should be celebrated. Today, we celebrate! And tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and rededicate ourselves to fixing what's still broken.

The work of ensuring equality is not done. When any of us faces institutionalized discrimination, our whole nation is diminished. Yesterday's ruling on the VRA should galvanize us to work toward ending racism and prejudice, both on the micro level (individual people) and the macro level (systemic racism and inequality across the board). And today's ruling on DOMA is still only a step toward true marriage equality; remember that while same-sex marriage is legal and honored in many states, it's not yet legal and honored everywhere in this country. We're not there yet. But I am endlessly grateful for today's ruling and for the ability to hope that we can continue to perfect our imperfect union.

Jewish tradition offers a blessing for moments like this one:  ברוך הטוב והמטיב (Baruch HaTov VeHaMeitiv). "Blessed are you, God, who is good and who does good!" Amen, amen, selah.

New essay in Zeek about moving beyond binaries

I'm delighted to have an essay in Zeek once again. This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rabbi Irwin Kula and to the text study session in which he led my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at our February gathering. The essay (like the text study session) looks at the Talmudic figure of Rabbi Meir as a paragon of post-triumphalism and a role model for striving to see through / beyond binary distinctions.

Here's a taste:

Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was none equal to him. He was the best mind of his generation, bar none. Why, then (the sages ask) was the halacha not fixed according to his insights? Because his insights were so deep that no one else could fathom them. “He would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and supply plausible proof.”

The categories of tahor and tamei, clean and unclean (or, susceptible to ritual impurity, and not-susceptible to ritual impurity), were foundational to the sages of the Talmud. This was one of the primary binary distinctions through which they understood their world. And Rabbi Meir saw right through it.

A lot of progressive Jews are squeamish about the whole idea of tahor and tamei. (I’ve been there myself: what do you mean, the blood my healthy uterus generates every month makes me unclean?) Our discomfort with that system may get in the way of appreciating just how radical Rabbi Meir was.

But try this on for size: imagine looking at a staunch Republican and being able to see the Democratic values that person nonetheless holds. (And vice versa.) Imagine someone who could perceive the relativism beneath the most fundamentalist exterior — and the fundamentalism to which even the most relativist may be prone. In our modern paradigm, I think these are translations of what Rabbi Meir did and who he was in the world.

You can read the whole thing at Zeek: Being Meir.

Shared hope

Watch-barack-obama-victory-speech-for-election-2012Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter -- the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet...We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag, to the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner, to the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president. That’s the future we hope for.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting... I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

(Source: Transcript of President Obama's Election Night Speech.)


Election week Torah

If, after you have entered the land which Adonai your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

I decided yesterday morning to modify the lesson I had been planning to teach to our fifth through seventh graders, our b'nei mitzvah prep students. We still did some of what was originally on the syllabus for the day, but in honor of this week's Presidential election, we also took some time to read and discuss the short Torah passage above.

I was curious to hear how my students would respond to this short Torah teaching. Would they interpret this passage from Torah as favoring the idea of appointing a king, or not? (I tend to read it as begrudging acceptance -- it might be preferable not to have a king, because it's too easy to get attached to human sovereignty and power, but once the children of Israel have a nation-state of their own they'll inevitably want a government like everybody else's, so here are the Torah's stipulations about how the ruler should be chosen.)

How would my students understand Torah's qualifications for a king? Which of those qualifications still resonate for us today? What might be a modern equivalent of keeping too many warhorses, or of sending people back into slavery in order to add to the might of the army? What is the Teaching, or Instruction, which our modern leaders study and interpret and live by?

And is any of this relevant to us in an era and a place where we vote for a President instead of living in the old system where the power was shared between a King, the priests, and the prophets? My answer to that last question is, of course, yes -- there are always ways to find relevancy and meaning in Torah, even as times change. But I was interested to know how, and whether, my students would relate this passage to the process of choosing the American President.

The kids settled first on the matter that a king of Israel needed to be an Israelite, not a foreigner. We talked a bit about the extent to which different peoples worshipped different gods in those days, and they drew the connection between this idea in Torah and the American system in which only native-born citizens can run for President. We talked a bit about the matter of warfare and wealth, then and now. And then we talked about the question of whether or not, in our modern paradigm where we elect our government, kids ought to be able to vote. (My class's opinions were divided on that one.)

I'm curious to hear your responses, too. Does this bit of Torah have any bearing on how you think about our government today?



Related reading:

  • Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 2008. "The perek hamelekh (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America."

  • YU Torah on Elections, a collection of texts about the Torah's concept of democracy, the responsibility of voters, the responsibility of elected officials, etc. Read it online, and/or download a PDF or TXT file to keep.

  • A Prayer for Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth, which I've shared (with permission) on my G+. "On this day we are called to discern and choose, to embrace a vision and cast our vote..."

A poem, and a few links, for Election Day

Four years ago, I wrote this Torah poem on Election Day. That year, Election Day fell during the week when we read parashat Lech Lecha, in which God tells Avram to go forth from his native land and his father's house to the land which God will show him. (This poem now appears in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published 2011 by Phoenicia Publishing.)




It's not going to be easy.
All of your roadmaps are wrong.

That was another country:
those lakes have dried up

and new groundwater is welling
in places you won't expect.

You'll begin the journey in fog
destination unknown, impossible.

Don't be surprised by tears.
This right here is holy ground.

Take a deep breath and turn away
from cynicism and despair

listen to the voice from on high
and deep within, the one that says

I'm calling you to a place
which I will show you

and take the first small step
into the surprising sun.


I still find the poem meaningful as an expression of Torah and of my own experience of entering the voting booth and casting a vote for hope and change. Even if we're not reading Lech Lecha this week (we're not; this year, Election Day falls during the week of parashat Chayyei Sarah), there's something about the act of voting which feels to me very lech-lecha, very much a journey into hope for new possibilities.

Also worth reading today: Jay Michaelson's The Nexus of Spirituality and Politics in Zeek.

And: Rabbi David Seidenberg's Prayer for Voting, which I shared here four years ago.

May the outcome of today's US elections bring blessing to us and to the world.

R' Dov Baer of Mezritch on righteous indignation


Righteous Indignation

Your anger should always be for "the sake of heaven."
Direct your anger toward the kelipot [forces of evil]
in the person who upsets you,
and not at the person himself.

Understand that the kelipot scare him into doing evil things.

Then you can use your anger
to bring the kelipot under the sway of holiness.


That's from God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose and Ebn Leader. It's a quote from R. Dov Baer of Mezritch, from his text Hayim v'Hesed, #12. 

What are the kelipot? This concept (early medieval in origin) was re-imagined and popularized by mystic Isaac Luria (d. 1572.) Luria taught that God withdrew to make a space in which to place creation, and sent divine energy, in the form of light, into the newly-emanated world. But the vessels which had been created to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The broken shards of those vessels are the kelipot -- shells or husks or shards -- and they keep divine light hidden. Our task, say the Hasidim, is to peel away the kelipot and lift up the sparks of holiness which they conceal.

What I love about this short passage from Dov Baer of Mezritch is this: he reminds me that anger should be for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of ego or vindication. I like his teaching that if someone makes me angry, I should direct my anger toward the broken shards embedded in that person's heart, toward the thick callus preventing compassion from coming through, and not toward the person themselves. If anger is necessary -- and it sometimes is! -- try to point it at whatever is preventing the other person from being compassionate and kind, not at the person themselves.

Happy election season, my fellow Americans. :-)

Why I'm a Rabbi For Obama

Four years ago I spent the summer in Jerusalem. When I got home, my shiny new ברק אובמה ("Barack Obama") sticker was waiting for me in my mailbox; it went on my car post haste. I've sported it proudly ever since. Of course, four years ago I wasn't yet a rabbi. Now I am, and I'm delighted to be able to say that I'm part of the renewed Rabbis For Obama. Here's a taste of the press release:

This group of over 613 rabbis - more than double the number of when Rabbis for Obama launched in 2008 – from across the country and across all Jewish denominations recognize that the President has been and will continue to be an advocate and ally on issues important to the American Jewish community...

Why am I a Rabbi for Obama? Because while we don't agree on everything, there's a lot that he's done -- and a lot that he's said -- which is in alignment with who I am and what I believe.

There's the Affordable Care Act, for starters (which OHALAH, my rabbinic association, formally supports.) And he gave a speech in Cairo a few years ago -- about America and Islam, about our responsibilities in an interconnected world, and about the need to move beyond the Palestinian/Israeli stalemate -- which moved me then and still inspires me now. (Here's what I wrote about it then.) He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He recently denounced Representative Todd Akin's offensive and patently spurious claim that women who suffer "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, and spoke out in favor of women being able to make decisions about our own health care and our own bodies. ("Obama: Rape is Rape," Huffington Post.) He signed the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which provides health care to 11 million kids -- 4 million of whom were previously uninsured. (see Children's Health Insurance Program info.) He supports stem cell research. (see Obama on Stem Cell Research.) He established the Credit Card Bill of Rights, preventing credit card companies from imposing arbitrary rate increases on customers (see Your Credit Card Bill of Rights Now in Full Effect), and he's making it easier for people to pay back their student loans without bankrupting themselves. (see How President Obama is Helping Lower Monthly Student Loan Payments.) He's got an admirable record on civil rights (see Equal Rights -- President Obama), repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" making it possible for GLBT American servicemen and servicewomen to serve our country openly and honestly without fear, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, and came out earlier this year in favor of marriage equality. (see Obama Embraces Marriage Equality.) (For more, see WTF Has Obama Done So Far?)

There are things he hasn't managed to accomplish which I had hoped he would do. Actually closing Guantanamo Bay, for instance. (see Guantanamo Bay: How the White House Lost the Fight to Close It, Washington Post.) Brokering a real and lasting two-state peace in Israel/Palestine. (Though the Jewish Journal reports that David Hale, Obama's envoy to the Middle East, continues to pressure Israel, Palestine in peace talks.) But I continue to believe that he is good for this country and that he's working to make the United States, and the world, a better place.

Broken world, broken heart

Sometimes reading the news makes my heart twist and my stomach sink. I don't know what to say about the horrific shooting in a Sikh gurdwara yesterday (CNN: Gunman, six others dead at Wisconsin Sikh temple). Not to mention the dreadful response of Westboro Baptist Church to the terrorist attack -- not surprising, but still depressing. This is not the America of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the reality that as ugly anti-immigrant sentiment becomes more pervasive, Africans are routinely harrassed in Israel today. (YNet news: African diplomats in Israel: We're afraid to walk down streets.) Nor the reports of more than 50 instances last month of settlers attacking Palestinians. (Ha'aretz: Lambs to the settlers' slaughter, screaming and unheard). This is not the Israel of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the situation in Syria. Rabbi Brant Rosen's essay Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War is sobering. So is Marc Lynch's Preparing for Assad's Exit. I don't know enough about Syria to know whether, or how, things will get better. And these are just the posts at the top of my aggregator. Just today the Lebanon Daily Star reported a massacre which killed forty. I have no connection to Syria, but the news is pretty uniformly heartrending.

Everything I've just mentioned is huge, important, awful. Here's something tiny and grotesque: I learned this week that I've been named, along with thousands of my friends and colleagues, on a list of supposed self-hating Israel threateners. (I'm not going to link to it. Here's the Wikipedia entry about it intead.) On the one hand it's laughable. And on the other hand it's upsetting, and the fact that people chose to spend their time compiling this list makes me sad.

(The people who maintain the list are Kahanists; they're too far-out for even self-identified far-right Jews. But still. How is this a good use of anyone's heart, soul, or time?)

When I look at all of the hatred in our world today, I don't know how to find enough balm for our broken hearts. I want to hold all of this in my prayers, everyone who is suffering, everyone who has been hurt, everyone who is so damaged that they can only manage to hate and hurt others, but sometimes it's so heavy it crushes my prayers; I can't lift it up.

All I can do is close the laptop, say a prayer, and spend time with my son. What response can there be to hatred, other than teaching our children not to hate in return?

Celebrating marriage

538802-silver-wedding-ringsSometimes I think about what might surprise Drew, later in his life, when we tell him stories about before he was born or about his early years. The first time we ever did a video-skype call with my mother in Texas, she told him a story about being a little girl on a party line, and I thought: wow, we have come an incredibly long way, technologically speaking, since his grandma was a girl. To Drew, the fact that we sometimes "have dinner with" his Texas grandparents via Skype is entirely ordinary. He's never lived in a world where that wasn't possible.

Drew isn't old enough to know what a President is, but someday he'll learn that his parents voted in the historic election in which we elected our first African-American president. (I even wrote a Torah poem about it.) Drew has a deck of Presidential cards (like baseball cards, but featuring Presidents; picked up in the dollar bin at Target, I think) and when he scatters them on the floor, they are a sea of white faces -- all except for one. But maybe by the time my grandchildren are ready to vote, it won't be so remarkable anymore to think that this nation could (begin to) overcome its legacy of racism in this way.

Drew also isn't old enough to know what marriage is, though I'm grateful that he's growing up in a state in which gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as male-female couples do. His lesbian aunties on his dad's side were married here some years ago. His mama the rabbi officiates at gay weddings with great delight. And now we have a President who has openly affirmed his support for gay marriage, too.

I hope that by the time Drew is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who Drew will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

Because marriage is awesome. Getting married means standing up beside someone you love and speaking words which change your relationship to one another in a magical, powerful, and honest-to-God holy way. And after you get married, you get to be married, which is even better. Being married means loving someone, growing and changing along with someone, meeting the highs and the lows of a lifetime along with someone, navigating the bills and the laundry and the household chores with someone, discovering how lovemaking changes after ten and fifteen and fifty years with someone, learning from someone, giving to someone, for as much of a lifetime as you can manage.

Of course people can do those things without being married. But being married is is one of humanity's most time-honored ways to do them. And I'm grateful to have a President who supports the ability of my queer friends and loved ones to enjoy the same rights and privileges that my husband and I are blessed to receive. Shehecheyanu, v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!

A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

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Family (a poem about being stuck, for Big Tent Poetry)





We're stuck with each other:
the woman in patchwork crochet
with her picket sign
and the man whose fury
fills an emailed cascade

the students who say
give us a seat at the table
and the ones who say
you are beyond the pale
go have dinner somewhere else

everyone heartsick and weary
and everyone hopeful
and everyone who wishes
they could elide
the entire conversation

each of us, wherever we are
bound by this thin filament
which does not care
whether we like each other
or how passionately we disagree

This week's Big Tent Poetry prompt invites us to write a poem about being stuck somewhere. I took that in a slightly different direction, reflecting on my sense that -- as this poem's first line indicates -- we're all "stuck" with each other.

Some of the things I was thinking about as I wrote this poem include the story of ideological clashes between students at Brandeis (see JTA's Brandeis Hillel excludes a controversial group on Israel, generating debate and the Globe's Brandeis groups clash over stance on Israel) and the killings in the settlement of Itamar about which I wrote a few days ago. But the poem arises out of a bigger sense of connectedness beyond our disagreements.

My dear friend Rhonda spoke in an email this week (quoted with permission) about modeling that we are all responsible for each other... about making Shabbos with people you seriously disagree with, and realizing that we are all part of Clal Yisrael. I wish I could feel, right now, that more of us were interested in seeing one another as family despite our differences. In the Jewish community, or in the world at large.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this poetry prompt. Shabbat shalom.


On Egypt, protest, and liberation

It's been amazing to watch from afar as recent events have unfolded in Egypt. (For more on that subject, check out the Global Voices "Egypt Protests 2011" page; Marc Lynch is always worth reading; Ethan wrote an interesting post a few days ago; and I also enjoyed The poetry of revolt, about the poetry of the slogans and signs and about what changes when words are spoken in verse. What -- I'm a poet; how could I not find that compelling?)

When I was fourteen, I visited Egypt with my parents and sister. I remember the stunning spectacle of the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the story of the temple moved on account of the Aswan Dam (and my amazement at the precision with which it was originally built, which allowed sun and stars to shine in particular ways at particular moments on the liturgical calendar), a madcap horseback ride in the stony desert not far from the pyramids, the glorious bustle of my first souq (marketplace.) In more recent years my familiarity with Egypt has largely been through the lens of story -- Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, Jo Graham's fabulous "Numinous World" books Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire.

But what's awe-inspiring about the protests in Egypt goes well beyond my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Egypt or Egyptian history. Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1967, and in that state of emergency "police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship is legalized." (That's according to Wikipedia.) I can't imagine life under that kind of regime. It's inspiring to watch the Egyptian people taking to the streets -- largely peacefully -- and demanding change.

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We are family

Emily Hauser's recent post The problem begins with a statement of plain fact: she has family in a West Bank settlement. And then she goes on:

Everyone on that side of the family — all modern Orthodox, all parents of many children — has never been anything but kind and welcoming to me...But the truth is that it matters not in the least that they are kind, or warm, or gentle. Because they are the problem.

They — in the broadest sense: they, and their friends, and their beautiful houses, and their armed guards, and their by-pass roads — are what stands in the way of peace and security for 7.3 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians.

Living in Jerusalem for a summer gave me the opportunity to learn more about how settlements work and what their implications are. To be clear: I'm no expert here. But I understand enough to be a lot more distressed than I used to be. (If this issue matters to you, I recommend reading Land Expropriation and Settlements, a report published by Israeli human rights organization B'tselem. There are also several links featured at the bottom of Emily's post which offer context on the issue of settlements, among them Bradley Burston's Confessions of an Israeli anti-settler bigot, which is also well worth a read.)

In my understanding, the settlements are a large part of what's preventing the possibility of peace. But the people who share that understanding are often not very compassionate toward the settlers -- and the people who disagree with my assessment are often not very kind to those of us who share it. I disagree with the settlers in pretty much every way; I think what they're doing has disastrous repercussions not only for them but for my Israeli friends and family who are forced to protect them. But that doesn't give us on the pro-Israel pro-peace left the right to slam them as human beings. (Neither, for the record, does it give those on the "other side" the right to slam us.) Would we relate to each other differently if we had family on the other side, whatever that other side may be?

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[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The last formal session of my day is a plenary session entitled View from the Hill: Congress and the US-Israel Relationship, featuring Representatives Jan Schakowski (IL), Bob Filner (CA), Jared Polis (CO), and Charles Boustany (LA), moderated by former CNN correspondent Bob Franken. Big plenary sessions aren't usually my cup of tea; I tend to be more interested in smaller conversations, but since this was the only thing on the agenda at this hour (and I was actually able to get a seat in the room along with the other 1500 people here today), I figured it was worth a try.

Photo of Rep. Filner & Rep. Polis by Dan Sieradski, used with permission.

Bob Franken notes that he's here as a journalist -- "not to take one side or the other... what I want to be able to do is stand for an open airing of ideas from valid parties, which is what we journalists are supposed to be all about.

Representative Schakowsky begins by mentioning her support for a "secure and Jewish" state of Israel, and giving a shout-out to her rabbi. "From the earliest moment of her founding, the US has supported Israel," she says; a strong Israel is in US interest, as is peace in the region. Congressional support for Israel has been nearly universal over the years, even when the politics of various representatives differ. "After 61 years, Israelis live in a state of perpetual danger with only intermittent respite from deadly conflict. As Israel's best friend in the world, it is only natural that we would be debating how best to work toward longterm security." Her belief is that this involves a negotiated two-state solution. "The United States can, should, and must play a role." Also security means averting a nuclear arms race and bringing about a peaceful resolution to the problems caused by Iran's nuclear program.

"The obstacles to peace have been festering for a long time," she says, "but perpetual war is not the answer." President Obama enjoyed 79% of the Jewish vote, and has appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the region -- these are signs of his commitment to this cause. "The administration, and many of us, feel a sense of urgency," she tells us. "I am hopeful that the debate on what to do can be conducted within the Jewish community and within our country in a matter that acknowledges that differences of opinion do not reflect a difference of commitment to Israel."

Not surprisingly, this feels to me like grandstanding. She's a good speaker, but her remarks feel awfully "safe" to me. But part of what's fascinating is that these four speakers give me four different vibes, so read on:

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This week's portion: milk


God has never told me to write a poem
or spoken to me from within a cloud
or led me into the land, goat's milk
and date honey mingling in my mouth.
That crackly old-time connection is lost
and I don't know that it will return.

This time of year, everything's about return:
yellow schoolbuses inscribing their poem
on curving roads, one sandal lost
and forlorn on the beach, wisps of cloud
racing across the sky. In our mouths
honey gilds apple wedges pale as milk.

When the baby cries, the mother's milk
descends. Both yearn to return
to connection. But what if his mouth
doesn't know how to suck, if her poem
has nowhere to flow? Don't let my pregnancy cloud
the issue: I'm talking about us, lost

and wailing for God in the night, lost
and fearful that the source of milk
has dried up and disappeared. The cloud
of unknowing offers no comfort. Return
to Me
the shofar demands, a poem
without words to carry in our mouths.

Torah isn't over the sea, it's in our mouths
and our hearts -- so why do we feel so lost?
Have we forgotten Moshe's poem
and its endless reprises? We milk
our alienation for all it's worth; return
seems as implausible as walking on cloud.

But God is never just in the fire, the cloud:
God is as near as our heartbeats, our mouths
and our hands. Elul's waning moon says "return
to your source; all who wander are not lost --
we'll leave the light on for you, milk
and cookies and a bedside poem..."

Even in the cloud, you're never lost.
Let your mouth taste the milk of repentance
and return, bearing your poem in your hands.

This week we're reading parashat Nitzavim- Vayelekh -- a double Torah portion, almost at the very end of the book of D'varim.

I haven't been linking to last year's Torah poems (you can find all of them linked in my Divrei Torah index) but rereading these portions this year, I remembered that the Torah poem I wrote for Vayelekh last year is one of my favorites, so I'll point to it again: This poem (Vayelekh).

It's been a while since I've written a sestina, and the repeated words and concepts in this double Torah portion seemed like a good fit for the form. (Alas, I wasn't able to make this week's ReadWritePoem prompt fit with this week's Torah portion. You can still read other participants' responses at the get your poem on #91 post.)

I'm trying to remember where I first heard the notion that "when the baby cries, the mother's milk descends" applied to our relationship with God; I think it was probably at DLTI, though I don't seem to have blogged about it. It's certainly central to the way I've been taught to understand prayer. Not surprisingly, it's a resonant metaphor for me these days.

The idea that Torah isn't over the sea, but is in our mouths and hearts, comes from the first half of this week's Torah portion. The idea that God instructed Moshe to write a poem and teach it to the children of Israel comes from the second half of the Torah portion. Both are powerful for me during this season of teshuvah, as Rosh Hashanah draws ever-closer.


On divisions in the J-blogosphere, and President Obama's Cairo speech

1. About Haveil Havalim

Most weeks I try to submit something to Haveil Havalim, the Jewish blog carnival. (I hosted Haveil Havalim #36 back in 2005; it's been ongoing since 2004.) It's always interesting to see what is happening in certain corners of the Jewish blogosphere.

I say "certain corners" because it has always seemed to me that Haveil Havalim skews to the right. The Jewish blogs that I read -- Jewschool, South Jerusalem, A Big Jewish Blog, Judaism Without Borders, Mah Rabu, On Chanting, Every Day and Every Night, The Jew and the Carrot, Sustainable Judaism, JSpot, Shalom Rav, Rabbis for Human Rights North America -- don't tend to be represented there. The blog carnival is opt-in only; I guess progressive Jewish thinkers don't tend to submit posts. I don't know why that is: do progressive J-bloggers not know that the carnival is there? Do we not feel represented by it, and therefore not feel inclined to join in? Do we feel awkward about self-promotion? Do we feel uncomfortable expressing our political views in a space which tends not to include the voices of progressive Jews? (That last resonates for me. I only rarely submit political posts to the carnival; mostly I submit Torah posts, because those seem less likely to spark confrontation.)

Anyway, the most recent edition, hosted by Esser Agaroth, dedicated a whole section to "The Big Speech" -- President Obama's recent remarks in Cairo -- which made me realize again that I'm coming from a very different place than the majority of the folks who submit their material to Havel Havalim. Ben Yehuda framed this section of the carnival by comparing the President to Pee-Wee Herman, and suggesting that Pee-Wee knew more about his chosen subject than President Obama does about his. As I browsed the links in that section of the post, I was amazed by how foreign I found most of the responses to the President's speech. Our perspectives differ so strongly that we don't seem to have heard the same words. 

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Praise, poetry, and prayer at the inauguration

That's a YouTube video of the prayer offered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, at the beginning of the inauguration festivities on Sunday. From his prayer on Sunday to today's inaugural poem, it's been an amazing few days for me as someone who cherishes the transformative potential of language. In this post I want to explore the poetry and prayer of the various invocations and benedictions, President Obama's inaugural address, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem.

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