My last smicha students' week

With friends on Friday evening.

My last smicha students' week as an ALEPH rabbinic student has ended. There were some amazing moments. Sweetest of all has been seeing my friends and teachers again; I missed them all desperately in January, and it's been a long year since we were together last! It was also incredible to introduce Drew to these people who I know and love, and to see them coming to know and love him in return. Seeing him kicking and burbling happily in my friends' arms. Watching some of my revered teachers trade raspberries with him. Dancing with him around the back of the room where we've been gathering for prayer. Sitting (and standing and waltzing) with him in my arms at the front of the room with several of my friends on Friday morning, and reciting my psalm as he clung to my neck.

Other highlights: watching friends roleplay the story of Job and his friends as though it were a pastoral care encounter. Facilitating my first group hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) session. Hearing Hazzan Jack Kessler chant the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope on the Shabbat of the Fourth of July weekend. Being moved to tears when a friend held the Torah scroll and called out the shema for us to repeat on Shabbat morning -- he was caught up in such deep emotion that he took me along, too. Singing half a dozen different pieces of our liturgy to American tunes this morning in celebration of American Independence Day (my favorite: psalm 150 to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.") Leading the student community, during this morning's closing ceremony, in singing a filk I wrote (set to the tune of "The Boxer") about being ALEPH students.

Of course, the week wasn't all easy. These retreats used to be a time when I could set my mundane responsibilities aside and immerse in the exquisite joys of praying and learning and community. It's different with Drew here. I didn't attend the beit midrash in the evenings last week, or make it to mincha/maariv after the first night; I didn't stay up late with friends studying and talking and singing. He doesn't sleep well when we travel, which means many night-time feedings, and less sleep than either one of us is used to getting at home. I nodded off one afternoon during an in-class meditation. I missed most of Kabbalat Shabbat because he was so overstimulated, and Shabbat dinner, too. The week has been an exercise in being present to what is, enjoying the unique blessings of being here with my son instead of longing for the experience I remember I used to have.

And, of course, there's the bittersweet knowledge that this is my last student retreat. It's not entirely the end; for one thing, we'll be here for a second week, the Ruach ha'Aretz retreat, where I'll be taking a lifecycles class that I'm really looking forward to. I'll see everyone again in January at Ohalah, and again next summer at the 2011 ALEPH Kallah (in Redlands, CA, June 27-July 3 -- save the date!) Still, this is the end of an era, and that's a strange thing to contemplate, especially since this retreat has been so different from all the ones I experienced before Drew's birth.

Despite the challenges, though, it's been wonderful. Once again I'm reminded of how blessed I am to have found this community and to be able to learn with and from them. I am incredibly grateful.

Off we go!

Having enjoyed Ghana's victory in the World Cup yesterday (sorry, US fans), we're off to Pearlstone for my final rabbinic school residency. Think kindly of us today; the seven-hour drive with the baby is likely to be challenging! And, of course, once we get to where we're going, I've got two intense weeks of school ahead of me, which will be challenging in a different way.

I'll blog if, and as, I am able...but I will almost certainly not be able to keep up with my blog aggregator, so my apologies in advance for failing to read your posts over the next few weeks. Be well, all!

My last rabbinic school residency

In a few days, I'll be heading south for a two-week rabbinic school residency at the Pearlstone conference and retreat center, and I'm taking Drew and Ethan with me. Over the first few days of the retreat, Ethan will look after Drew while I'm in class, and during the second week while Ethan's on the road my mother will tag in and watch Drew during my class hours. The days will be pretty packed: early morning prayer, class all day, afternoon prayer, study hall in the evenings, evening prayer before bed. I'll be spending my time with the hundred or so students in the ALEPH ordination programs, plus a handful of prospective students who are in the application process. I can't wait.

The two weeks are made up of two different retreats, Smicha Students' Week and Ruach ha'Aretz. I'll be taking three classes. During week one, I'll be in a class on Sefer Iyov (The Book of Job) taught by Reb Leila Gal Berner and a class on Interfaith Issues in Hashpa'ah (Spiritual Direction) taught by Reb Nadya Gross and Reb Shohama Wiener. During week two, I'm taking an all-day intensive in Lifecycle rituals taught by Reb Marcia Prager (which I've been referring to, among my role-playing friends, as a chance for me to "level up" in lifecycle -- I've been doing lifecycle events for years, but I know I'm going to learn a lot from Reb Marcia, Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, and the other teachers who will be dropping in to lend their expertise.)

As I anticipate the retreat, I'm realizing that I have some complicated feelings. I'm eager to be there, and to see my amazing community of teachers and friends, most of whom I haven't seen since last summer. I'm looking forward to hugging them, talking with them, praying with them. Last time most of them saw me in person, I was pregnant, so I can't wait to introduce them to Drew. I'm looking forward to introducing Ethan and my mom to my community, too. It will be amazing to have the chance to share a community that I love with three of the most important people in my life.

Then again, there's something bittersweet about knowing that this will be my last summer residency. As excited as I am about approaching the end of my formal rabbinic training, and about moving on to what's next, I know I'm going to miss this program tremendously. This will also be my first time attempting to balance this kind of academic immersion with parenting. I know what it's like to spend two weeks in intensive prayer and study, and I know what it's like to spend two weeks engaging with Drew. I don't have any idea what it's going to feel like to try to do both at once. Even with substantive help from my sweetie and my mom, I can imagine that I might feel pulled in two directions at once.

So the residency's going to be an adventure. And this week, I'm doing my best to get ready: reading a few books (Archibald MacLeish's play J. B., Norvene Vest's Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions), writing a paper about the last six months of spiritual direction work, digging up an article to teach to my Job classmates. Making lists of what I need to pack in the car: tallit and tefillin, Tanakh and rabbi's manual, diapers and baby food, the bouncy seat and its batteries... Preparing for the trip feels like a microcosm of the work I'm doing now in my life writ large -- figuring out how to balance rabbinic work and poetry with motherhood, the needs of my community and my vocation with the needs of my spouse and son.

I don't know whether I'll manage to write weekly mother poems while I'm away, or whether I'll manage to blog about the learning I'm doing. I hope that I will, but it's hard to be sure! There's a lot that's not known to me; I'm just going to have to play things by ear. Despite my small anxiety about how the two weeks are going to play out, I'm also really looking forward to them. My last big rabbinic school trip. In general, I try to enjoy every moment as it unfolds -- that's pretty much my modus operandi, right there -- but this trip is something I want to try to particularly savor.

My spring semester ends

Last week brought the final meeting of Halakha and Paradigm Shift, the ALEPH rabbinic program senior seminar. It's been a fantastic class. Reb Daniel is a tremendous teacher, and I have so much love and respect for the other students in my cohort that learning with them is a perennial joy.

We spent the first part of class talking through the final teshuvah (halakhic responsum paper) which we had been assigned to read and translate. And we spent the second part of class collectively brainstorming a list of the halakhic principles we derived from the texts we'd each taught to the group over the course of the semester (most of which were not explicitly halakhic texts -- mine was Reb Nachman on the cosmic need for opposition -- though we were asked to bring them to bear on the halakhic process, which sparked excellent conversations all semester long.) In recent weeks we'd been focusing closely on the teshuvot we were translating; this week it felt like we were zooming up and out, seeing the big picture which arises out of the pointillistic little details of each verse and opinion.

Our conversation was free-wheeling and wide-ranging, and it reminded me of exactly why I'm going to miss this class. When else in my life do I get to sit around a virtual seminar table with dear friends in New Mexico, Ohio, and Israel (among other places) and talk about what it means to us that the will of the majority trumps even a bat kol (divine proclamation) though majority rule also has its downsides and we want to remain conscious of the need to balance the will of the community with a sense of illumination from God? About how halakha exists and operates within human community, and it can't be divorced from that community? About the need to have a sense for what teachings and what rulings are needed in this moment?

We talked too about how as the world changes, God's relationship with the world may change, and we need to be flexible and open to change because God is ever-changing. How we create worlds with our words. How to balance the idea that halakha arises in the spaces between our differing opinions with the idea that klal Yisrael (the greater Jewish community) needs cohesion. How halakha must remain flexible in order to uphold principles which are higher than the laws themselves. How we each interpret Torah and halakha in accordance with our own qualities and points of view. How we need to bring beginner's mind, expert mind, and "sage mind" to each question we consider, because each of those gazes may lift up a piece of information which the others wouldn't...

It was a terrific conversation. We were going to talk also about the principles we'd discerned in the teshuvot we studied, but we realized we'd already gone well beyond our allotted two hours this time around, and that the time for this iteration of our learning was through.

Now each of us will turn to her or his own work: researching and writing our own teshuvot this summer. I've formulated the question to which I want to respond -- a question which has arisen more than once in my rabbinic student life -- and now I have to respond to it in a way which shows both awareness of existing halakha and an understanding of Reb Zalman's teachings about paradigm shift. It's a tall order! But I'm excited about beginning to do this work next month when I can turn to my studies a bit more intensively again -- and I'm grateful to have a cohort of such terrific colleagues to whom I can turn for support, brainstorming, and advice, not only now but in months and years to come.

For now, I'm feeling wistful. The learning has been fantastic. I'm going to miss this class a lot.

ALEPH rabbinic program Q and A

I get emails pretty often from people who want to talk with me about the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. I love talking about ALEPH! But I've noticed that the same questions tend to be asked each time. And especially now that there's a baby in my life, I don't always have time for lengthy conversations. So I decided to write down my answers, on the theory that this way, I can point people to them, and if we have a conversation afterward it can be a more in-depth one from the get-go.

I want to stress upfront that I'm making this post as an individual, not as a representative of ALEPH! These are the questions I'm most frequently asked, and this is how I answer them. If you asked these questions of other ALEPH students, you might get different responses -- and if this is a path you're considering, I encourage you to do just that.

Why did you choose ALEPH?

I went on my first retreat at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center, in the summer of 2002. (It was then an independent retreat center in the Catskills; it's now the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman.) When I came home from that week, I told Ethan that I'd met the teachers I'd been looking for all my life -- that someday I wanted to be a rabbi like these people were rabbis.

That was my first experience with Jewish Renewal, and it was amazing. Corny as this sounds, that week of learning and prayer opened my heart and my soul in ways I had only dreamed of. I want to be a Jewish Renewal rabbi because Reb Zalman's teachings about paradigm shift speak to me, because I value Renewal's ecumenism, and most of all because I want to be a part of the movement that reinvigorated my relationship with God and with Jewish tradition.

What's the program like? How does it work?

Each student works with a committee of mentors, including a Director of Studies (who has to be a member of the ALEPH rabbinic va'ad) and a Mashpia(h) (Spiritual Director), to navigate the program's requirements. A minimum of sixty credits is required for ordination, and most courses only confer a single credit; the program takes a minimum of five years of full-time study to complete. (Most ALEPH students aren't in the program full-time, so for most people the timeline is substantially longer than that.) And completing those sixty credits is a prerequisite for smicha (ordination) but it isn't the whole of the process.

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Reb Nachman on holy disagreement

In the Halakha and Paradigm Shift class I'm taking this spring, we were asked to choose among a list of texts to translate and teach. The central question we were asked was, how might this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process, the study of halakha and the creation of halakha? I wound up working with a short piece by the Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov, from his work Likkutei Moharan. It's a fairly mystical text -- not something I would have associated with halakha, which I suspect is part of the point. Reb Nachman writes (what's in parentheses below is my attempt to contextualize/explain; the translation is my own):

Know that the world was created through opposition. In order for the world to be created, there needed to be a vacant space; without that space, all that could exist was the Ein Sof (Without End, e.g. God's limitless infinity) and there was no place in which the world could be created. So divine light withdrew itself to the side, and God said "Let us create a vacant space," and within that space God made all of creation, the days and the middot (divine qualities), by means of God's speech, as is known: "In the words of God, 'Let us make the heavens and the earth,' etc."

This is the essence of our disputes too: were all the wise scholars of one opinion, there would be no place for creating the world! Only by means of the opposition between them, as they disagree with one another and pull toward one side or the other: by means of this, they create a vacant space (which is like the vacant space within God which was a prerequisite for creation), a withdrawing of light to one side, and within that space is the creation of a world by means of speech.

All the words which they speak are for the sake of the creation of a world within the space between them. Wise scholars create all things by means of their words, as is written (Isaiah 51:16), "And say to Zion, you are my people." Don't read "my people (עַמִי)," read rather "with me (עִמִי)" -- (imagine God saying) just as I formed heavens and land with My words, so you have done the same.

As is written in the introduction of the Zohar: one needs to bring light, but not to speak too much, only as much as is required for the creation of the world. Remember, when divine light flowed into creation, the vessel of creation couldn't tolerate that increase of light, and the vessels shattered, and in the breaking of the vessels the klipot (shells or shards) came into being. So if one speaks too many words (it's like the excess of light at the beginning of creation), and through this one may cause a kind of cosmic breakage. This is what happens when light increases too much: the vessels break, and the klipot come into being.

Reb Nachman opens with the assertion that creation required opposition. Before God withdrew God's-self and created an empty space within God's-self (in the Lurianic cosmogony -- Rabbi Isaac Luria's narrative about the creation of the universe -- this is called tzimtzum, which one of my college professors called the "bagelization" of God) there was only undifferentiated divinity. In order for the cosmos to come into being, there needed to be differentiation and duality.

Torah tells us that God created the universe with divine speech: "'Let there be light,' and there was light." Just so, Reb Nachman teaches, we too create universes with our speech. When Torah scholars disagree with one another, a space is created between them, and in that space, the world of halakha comes into being. Like God, we too create worlds with our words.

In the classical kabbalistic conception, tzimtzum was followed by an influx of divine light which was followed by the breaking of the vessels. God's light was too powerful for the vessels to hold, and creation shattered; our task is to find the sparks of holiness which remain in the shards of our world and to lift them up. Here, too, Reb Nachman draws a parallel between God's actions and ours. Our words can be like divine light in the good way -- we can illuminate and create -- but they can also be like divine light in a destructive way. If we speak injudiciously, we may cause breakage.

How can this text inform an understanding of the halakhic process? I understand Reb Nachman to be saying that differences of opinion are a holy and necessary part of what we do. If we are all in accord, then there's no movement and no change. If we disagree (in a respectful and productive way), then the tension of our disagreements makes space for creativity. It's only when we pull in different directions that we're mirroring God's divine act of creating the world. It's almost Hegelian: we need thesis and antithesis in order to move forward.

I also understand Reb Nachman to be offering a word of caution. We need to speak and to disagree, but not too much, lest the force of our disagreement cause destruction. We need the tension between one viewpoint and another, but if we become too strident, the vessel of the system we're co-creating may shatter.

For Reb Nachman, halakha isn't just a system of legal opinions and interpretations; it's also a means by which we mirror God's very creation of the cosmos. Pretty cool, eh? I'll be teaching this text to my class in a week or two, but would love to talk about it before then (Drew permitting, of course -- my online time still isn't what it used to be :-) so if you have thoughts in response, please chime in!

Returning to rabbinic school

This week I return to rabbinic school...a little bit. I'm taking one class this spring, called Integral Halacha, which is functionally ALEPH's senior seminar; I'm taking it with the other six rabbinic students who are, like me, aiming for ordination next January.

Integral halacha: transcending and including is the title of one of Reb Zalman's recent books, co-written with Reb Daniel Siegel, who'll be teaching the class I'm about to take. Ideally, integral halakha aims to maintain continuity with the past and also to provide flexibility for the present. Reb Zalman has written:

How do we find meaning by continuing to be Jews? How do we connect to joy, to purpose, and why should we want to within a Jewish context, if it has been the cause of so much pain?

The way I can answer these questions is by creating a new, transcending, Judaism which honors the past and goes beyond it. Our practice must reference the larger purpose of the Jewish people in the world, our commitment to God and to what we call tikkun olam, to being agents of redemption. We now also know that we are not alone in this commitment, but part of something greater, a sharing with other people and paths.

We'll be reading Reb Zalman's book as part of this class, among other contemporary texts. But the heart of the class will involve studying some of the major halakhic codes and various teshuvot (halakhic responsa), in preparation for each writing our own responsum to a halakhic question  -- that's the senior project required of every ALEPH musmach (ordinee.) We'll be learning in three broad areas of subject matter: marriage & divorce, the perennial question of "who is a Jew," and relating to other denominations (though the halakhic questions we each answer in our teshuvot will not necessarily arise in these areas.)

Our first assigned reading is an excerpt from Rambam's Mishneh Torah on the subject of the agunah -- the "chained woman," e.g. a woman who is stuck in her marriage. Today the term is often used to describe women whose husbands refuse to grant a writ of divorce, though it can also mean someone whose husband is missing and may (or may not) be dead. (Think Enoch Arden.) Anyway, over the last several days I've been grabbing time while Drew is napping to try to begin working on my homework, which means sitting down with that first chunk of Rambam.

The first hour I managed to spend working on Rambam was a little bit disheartening. It's been two months since I did any schoolwork at all, and both my concentration and my word recall are rusty. (I haven't used my language skills since before Thanksgiving... and I haven't been getting much sleep since then, either, which I'm pretty sure makes my brain measurably less functional.) I also haven't taken a halakha class in a while. I did a lot of text translation this past summer and fall, but it was almost all Hasidic material -- which has both a different style and a different basic vocabulary than legal texts do.

But the second day that I sat down with the text, the reading was easier. Maybe it's a matter of getting back into the groove. One way or another, I'm looking forward to our first class. I'm excited about having a little bit of school folded in to my childcare-centric new life; I'm looking forward to the learning we're going to do; and I'm really looking forward to the chance to learn with the rest of my rabbinic ordination class. I know these six people pretty well, but over the year to come I anticipate getting to know this cohort even better, and I expect that the learning we will do with and from each other will be pretty wonderful.

This week's portion: a Torah journey with Rebecca

This fall I'm taking a class called "Torah Journeys" with Rabbi Shefa Gold. Reb Shefa is teaching us her method of intensely personal exegesis, as appears in her excellent collection of parshaniyut, Torah Journeys. We've each been asked to engage in a "Torah journey" of our own around a Torah text of our choosing; I chose this week's portion, Toldot.

At the very beginning of this parsha, we learn that Rebecca is childless. Yitzchak pleads with God on her behalf and she conceives. She feels the tumult of the twins within her, and goes to inquire of YHVH, אם כן, למה זה אנכי? -- usually translated as "If this is so, then why do I exist?

1) Where's the blessing here?

The beginning of this parsha has always struck a chord with me. Even someone who has never been pregnant knows the experience of mixed emotions, of feeling tumultuous motion within oneself, of wondering "Why am I here?" Rebecca is deeply conscious of her own mixed feelings, of her swirl of emotions. They lead her to ask: what am I here for? What am I doing? What is my purpose? And she brings these questions to the Source of All. Although we've never seen her speak directly to God before, she doesn't seem to feel that she needs an intermediary; she brings her question directly to the Holy Blessed One.

It's interesting to me that Rebecca doesn't ask YHVH for a child, nor does she take the extraordinary steps which other Biblical foremothers took -- she doesn't bring her handmaid to her husband as Sarah did, nor does she beseech God herself for a child as Hannah will do. The text doesn't tell us how she felt before the conception: did she understand herself as bereft, as empty? Or was she contented with her situation, and surprised when something new and strange began to grow inside her? One blessing I find in this part of the parsha is Rebecca's readiness to speak directly to God. Another blessing is her willingness to question.

Now that I am only a few short days away from birthing my first child, this text offers me new blessings. I can relate to Rebecca's question not only as an intellectual and spiritual matter, but also as a physical one. In assiyah (the world of action and physicality), although I don't know what it's like to bear twins, I do know now what it feels like to have something which is not-me stirring inside my body. I've struggled at times with the anticipation of yielding control over my life (both in pregnancy, and especially once the baby comes and I am no longer able to pursue rabbinic studies full-time), and I find reassurance in the fact that this foremother struggled too with the question אם כן, למה זה אנכי?

What's more: when Rebecca asks, God answers her. Although I have only rarely had the experience of feeling directly answered by God, this story reminds me to reach out to God when I have questions and fears, and to know that God hears me.

Continue reading "This week's portion: a Torah journey with Rebecca" »

Psalm 20: a psalm for childbirth

As I mentioned a while back, my final project for my psalms tutorial is an exploration of two psalms which have classically been associated with childbirth, one of which is psalm 20, which begins "May God answer you in your day of trouble." In one interpretation,  Midrash Tehillim draws an analogy between the God-Israel relationship and the relationship of a mother and daughter who, though they have quarreled, are still so deeply connected that when the daughter cries out in labor, her mother -- even if her mother is in heaven, e.g. the world to come -- cries out along with her. "The suffering of my daughter is my suffering," the mother says. How wondrous that the sages could understand God as our Mother, who endures the birth-pangs of our transformation along with us!

I have a few more teachings to share on this psalm, but first I wanted to offer my (somewhat clunky) translation of psalm 20. Please note that where the original text features the tetragrammaton, I've replaced that Name with יה, because this is my working copy of the psalm designed to be printed and there are Jewish traditions which prohibit writing the four-letter Name on anything which might be treated carelessly or thrown away.

Psalm 20
תהילים פרק כ
א  לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.
For the leader: a psalm of David.

ב  יַעַנְךָ יה, בְּיוֹם צָרָה;    יְשַׂגֶּבְךָ, שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.
May God answer you in your day of trouble,
May the name of the God of Jacob place you in safe shelter,

ג  יִשְׁלַח-עֶזְרְךָ מִקֹּדֶשׁ;    וּמִצִּיּוֹן, יִסְעָדֶךָּ.
Send forth help for you from the holy place,
And support for you from Zion.

Continue reading "Psalm 20: a psalm for childbirth" »

Paradigm shifting and Hasidut

Part 3 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 can be found here.

Paradigm shifting: How might we/you draw on these sources for our own spiritual path? For the world of Jewish Renewal? What teachings/practices might be adapted/surrendered to? What might be creatively recast? Are there elements that can’t be (easily) absorbed? What do we learn from these "unassimilable" elements (or roughage)? Why study them nonetheless?

There's much in the sources we've studied which speaks to me. There's also some material here which doesn't speak to me (yet), or which requires the kind of reading that Wendy Doniger describes in her convocation address [.pdf] -- a "hermeneutics of retrieval, or even of reconciliation."

What speaks to me most plainly is the passion for God, the yearning for devequt (cleaving-to-God), the often intricate pathways toward sanctifying holidays which might otherwise slip by unheralded. I know that having studied these texts will change my relationship with Purim next year, with Pesach, with Shavuot, with the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av, with the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. As my relationship with the wheel of the year is deepened, I am more invested in learning, and in teaching what I've learned.

What challenge me most strongly are these texts' occasional assumptions about non-Jews and about women. (They were clearly written by, and for, Jewish men whose views on women and outsiders don't match mine.) But this challenges me in almost all of my immersion in Jewish texts, from Tanakh through Talmud straight through the Hasidic masters. I'm with Wendy on this one: we owe it to our texts to read them first with an eye to what they are, then we owe it to our political and personal sensibilities to wrestle with the texts, and then we owe it to the texts to find a way to return to them and read them not blindly, but still with love. That I read these texts with love is always a given.

What I see as the essential truths in these texts are truths that I desperately need. I believe they are truths that the people I teach desperately need, too, whether or not that need is clear to them. (It's my job to make that need clear even as I work to fill it.) We need to enliven our holiday practices, to access these deep meanings which are hidden in plain sight. Jewish Renewal is experiential; we can offer profound encounters with the tradition and with God, but in order to do that, we need to know (to borrow a classic Hasidic metaphor) the keys to the doors of God's palace. These texts can be some of those keys, and to discard the keyring because some of what it holds doesn't accord with contemporary post-triumphalist or gender/sexuality sensibilities would be short-sighted.

My challenge as a Jewish Renewal rabbi is to continue to plumb these wells for the profound spiritual sustenance they can offer, and then to give over these teachings in a way which neither does violence to the original texts nor to the audience before whom I place the words. One way I hope to do that is by studying the texts myself, generating my own translations, and teaching them in my congregation at appropriate moments. Another method of integrating these texts into my spiritual life and my teaching is the process of turning them into poems, and sharing those with as wide an audience as my poems can reach.

Ultimately, the process of wrestling with complicated texts can also yield its own rewards. As the Me'or Eynayim has written, "You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called her Torah." (Okay, he didn't phrase it in quite those words. But I'm pretty sure it's what he was saying.) That's a life's work, and it's work I'm grateful to be beginning to do.

Reflecting on study of the Baal Shem Tov

How would you integrate the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov into your thought, your life, and into your work as a rabbi?

One answer is that I hope to continue studying the Besht's teachings. Despite their relative textual simplicity, there's a depth to them, and they speak to me deeply. Another answer is that I hope to continue teaching the Besht's teachings, on the theory that the best way to learn something is to give it over to someone else in turn.

I've found great value in [what my teacher Reb Burt calls] the Sacred Study Process. I've found the practice of asking "what is my immediate personal response to the teaching?" and "what underlying question do I think the teaching seeks to answer?" to be incredibly helpful, and I'd like to share those with others.

Still a third answer is that I know I will have to take a step back from active text study and teaching in the coming year, as I allow myself to immerse in parenthood. So then how will I integrate the Baal Shem Tov's teachings into my life as a new mother? My hope is that the learning we've done will germinate in me, yielding new insights.

Perhaps when I find myself frustrated with changing diapers, I'll remember the Besht's injunction to create a dwelling-place for God by doing whatever work is at hand with holy consciousness and full attention.

Perhaps when I am feeling overwhelmed with love for my son -- or when I am feeling overwhelmed and unable access that overflow of emotion -- I will remember the Besht's teaching that when we love our fellow human beings we are loving the spark of God which enlivens each of us, and in that way loving my son will become a path to (or a manner of) loving God.

It may be that I won't know how the Besht's teachings will ripen and bear fruit in me until a year has gone by, or two, or ten. But I'm committed to continuing to delve into them. I see myself (and my chevre / classmates) as new buds on the tree which he planted, and I aspire to live up to his teaching as my rabbinate unfolds.

Childbirth psalms

One of my favorite classes this (brief but intense) term has been a tutorial in psalms, which I'm taking with one fellow student, taught by Norman Shore. Each week he assigns us a few psalms to translate, and also some secondary material -- sometimes Midrash Tehillim, other times Talmud, sometimes chapters from books in English (I've become quite a fan of Kugel's The Great Poems of the Bible), sometimes assignments which ask us to make mental leaps between the psalms we're studying and various bits of liturgy and practice. I love being in a two-person class. It's like hevruta study, with the added benefit of an instructor who can guide us in our learning.

My final project for that class is a paper on psalms 20 and 113, both of which are classically associated with childbirth. I chose these two psalms on the theory of "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work" -- a mantra I got from one of my old poetry mentors, Jason Shinder (of blessed memory.) What Jason meant was, whatever emotional or intellectual or spiritual stuff was getting in the way of one's ability to work on poems, that is precisely the stuff that ought to be feeding the poems. But I figure it's a good approach to this semester, too: instead of worrying that my increasing focus on childbirth and impending parenthood is getting in the way of my rabbinic learning, I should find a way to make my rabbinic learning dovetail with the major life event that's on its way.

I've done a preliminary translation of my two psalms (which I hope to share here once I've workshopped them with my fellow classmate and my teacher) and I've done some reading in classical sources, Midrash Tehillim, and Yalkut Shimoni which mostly recapitulates what's already in the midrash. I've got a few more classical sources to translate. But in addition to the oldschool material, I'm also interested in how these psalms are used in contemporary life. It's easy to find Chabad resources for the recitation of psalms during childbirth -- though many of the resources I've seen seem to presume that the husband of the laboring woman is the one who recites, and that's not the paradigm in which I live.

Which is part of why I'm interested in contemporary liberal religious practices relating to childbirth and psalms (especially psalms 20 and 113), too. I've gotten some great suggestions from my rabbinic school classmates, but figured I'd throw the question open here, too: do you have any anecdotes to offer on this? If you've been part of a labor and delivery experience (as the laboring mother, or her partner; as a labor coach or doula; as a doctor or nurse or chaplain) have you used these psalms, and what was that experience like for you? For the purposes of my paper, I'd like to hear from those who self-identify as Jews; for the purposes of good conversation, I'd be happy to hear from anyone of any religious tradition. If you have stories to share about childbirth and psalms, especially psalms 20 and 113, please drop a comment or an email!

The year as spiritual practice

Part 2 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here.

It might be argued that the spiritual year is the “spiritual practice” par excellence of Judaism. Assess this statement. What does it mean 'tzu loyfn mit der tzeit,' to "run" (or live) with the times?

Each year is one long spiritual practice, with inevitable energetic ebbs and flows. We have times of great activity and energy: preparing for Pesach in our homes, preparing for the Days of Awe in our hearts and in our congregations. And we have times of stillness: the mountain-peak of Shavuot, the holy pausing of Shemini Atzeret, the fallow month of Cheshvan. This is the ratzo v'shov (ebb and flow, cf. Ezekiel 1:14) of spiritual life, built in to our seasonal-liturgical cycle.

As the sage Mary Oliver has written, in her poem "Five A.M. in the pinewoods," "So this is how you swim inward. / So this is how you flow outwards. / So this is how you pray." For every inhalation, an exhalation. Lather, rinse, repeat. Spiritual life has peaks and valleys, and we need to be conscious of the everyday practices which will sustain us when we're not riding the rollercoaster of the moadim (festivals.)

To live with the times means being aware of the flow of the year, the way one holiday leads to the next. Our festivals aren't discrete gems studding a crown or individual raisins peeking forth from a loaf of challah; they need to be understood as part of a whole. I experience the moadim (even the sad ones) as high points, extraordinary time, set in the framework of chol (everyday). And we need chol in order to integrate the moadim. Each of the moadim takes us somewhere, and then points us toward our next destination.

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The shape of the spiritual year

The two-semester class I've been taking since last February, Moadim l'Simcha / "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," has ended. At the end of the class, Reb Elliot asked us some thought-provoking questions. Here's the first of my answers to those questions, about the "big picture" of the spiritual year.

The big picture. What is the shape of the spiritual year (as it emerges from the sources we have studied)? The peaks and the valleys? What are the major motifs, themes, questions, challenges?

The Jewish spiritual year has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. This two-semester learning began at a time when when our spiritual sap was starting to rise. We learned together through a time when God's presence is curiously hidden and we are called to rise above binaries and boundaries, and then a time when God's presence is palpable yet we have to take the leap of creating change. Then from that peak we plunged to the bottom of a long mountain climb, and made our slow way back to the peak again, where we encountered a silent א, wordless but containing all of our tradition's endless words within it.

We reconvened during a time of broken hearts. From there, into the deep cleanse of our spiritual year, a forty-day temporal mikvah. A liquid time, a time to be transparent before God. We explored how each year we accustom ourselves to sins, and how we are called each year to purify ourselves from that, what it might mean for teshuvah to be inscribed upon our soft hearts. We emerged from the cosmic womb and began anew. Then into this season of our rejoicing, when we dwell beneath the shelter of the Shekhinah -- in which we continue to dwell even once we have moved back into our solid homes.

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Two short teachings from the Baal Shem Tov

The texts here are from the Baal Shem Tov, widely considered the founder of Hasidism, though they were written down by his disciples. The questions are from Reb Burt Jacobson, who's teaching the class on the Besht which I'm taking now; the references to the "four core truths" are part of his framework for understanding the Besht and his work. The translations are my own.


It is a central principle that one must attach oneself to the internal qualities of Torah, and the mitzvah is to connect one's thoughts and one's soul to the root of the Torah [which is to say, God.] And this mitzvah that one does: if one doesn't do it, God forbid, then there is a cutting-off and a crumbling from where one is planted. I received this from my teacher. (--Ben Porat Yosef, on parashat Noah, page 21, section 1)

What is your immediate personal response to the teaching?

Fascination with the metaphor of roots and planting. The Hebrew word for root here is a grammatical term meaning word-root. But it's my understanding that the word can also signify something more earthy than syntactical, which is echoed for me in the next sentence's reference to the danger of crumbling away from where one has been planted. This text presents a simple binary choice: attach oneself, heart and soul, to the root of the Torah -- or risk being existentially and spiritually uprooted from the ground of being.

Define the underlying question(s) or issues that this teaching seems to be addressing.

What is the meaning of the choice we make when we study Torah? Is the study of Torah just about learning the text on the page, or mastering the arcana of commentary? For the Baal Shem Tov, I think the answer is clearly no. Immersing ourselves in Torah means attaching ourselves (the verb is לדבק, sometimes translated as "to cleave" or "to unify") to the internal qualities of Torah, Torah's hidden inner face. It means connecting ourselves, heart and soul, to the root of the Torah which is the Holy Blessed One. And if we choose not to take that path, then we need to understand the spiritual risk we're taking.

Distill the essence of the teaching. What idea(s), value(s), virtue(s) or spiritual practice(s) does this text explicate?

Choose deep connection with the root of all things, or risk spiritual uprooting. The text seeks to remind us of the centrality of Torah study to Jewish life, not just because there is useful information there but because delving into Torah is a way of delving into connection with God.

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My last semester of fulltime school

Sitting in the sukkah reading Ilana Pardes' Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach, I have one of those moments where I feel like I'm getting away with something, earning credit for reading and discussing this book and its implications. (Do you ever have that feeling? That something you're doing is so much fun, you can't believe you earn credit, or wages, for doing it?)

My fall semester is finally fully underway. It's going to be a short and dense term. One of my summer classes is still ongoing; beyond that, I'm taking three tutorials -- rather than the more formal ALEPH courses which are now beginning and will run through January -- because I need to be able to complete my coursework by the start of December, before the birth of my son. (It's becoming clear to me that completing my final papers before he arrives may still be more of a challenge than I can rise to, but I'm trying to just let that be whatever it will be.)

This will be my last semester of fulltime rabbinic study. Most ALEPH students study part-time, but I've had the luxury of fulltime learning since I left Inkberry in my first year of school. It's strange to think that this rhythm, which has become so intimately interwoven with the round of my year, is about to change. Of course, parenthood will offer its own blessings... but since I don't yet know what those will be, the prospect of spending less time with my classmates and my texts is a little bit bittersweet.

In the spring I plan to take one class -- possibly two if I can swing a second one, but I'm not counting on it. Next summer I need to take three classes, two of which will be intensives at smicha students' week in Baltimore. (The other will be something I can schedule here at home, and if I only manage one spring course -- as seems increasingly likely -- I'll seek two courses outside of smicha students' week next summer.) In fall of 2010 I plan to take two classes, one of which will be my senior project. Anyway, this is the last time I'll ever be able to devote myself this fully to this learning, so I'm trying to make the most of it!

I'm taking four classes this fall: my last class in Hasidut, two very different exegesis classes (one focusing on feminist exegesis, the other on a personal mode of engaging with Torah text), and a class in psalms. For more on all of these, read on!

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Beyond words

In my Wednesday morning study group with the local cantor and rabbis, we've started studying some Sfat Emet (a.k.a. R' Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger) -- one of my favorite Hasidic masters. Yesterday morning one of my colleagues brought translations of some of the Sfat Emet's writings on Rosh Hashanah, which, as it happens, we just translated in my class on the Hasidic sacred year. One of these texts is about the transcendent power of the shofar. Reading it again with my colleagues, I was struck by something which I find both powerful and a little bit bittersweet. Here's the text, interspersed with explanatory commentary; my realization comes at the end of the post.

"Rosh Hashanah" can be interpreted to mean, before divine life-force differentiates.

This is wordplay: "Rosh Hashanah" is usually translated as "Head of the Year," but he's reading shanah as related to nishtaneh, which would make shanah mean something like change or variegation. In that sense, Rosh Hashanah is not only the head of the year (e.g. the New Year) but also the source from which all changes flow, the unity which precedes variegation.

When the Holy Blessed One sends divine vitality into this world, it enters the domain of time and the natural world.

He's talking about the primordial moment of creation, which in a sense is ongoing. Divine vitality streams directly forth from God in a unified stream, but when it enters creation, it differentiates: time enters the picture, as do the natural laws of the universe as we understand them.

Rosh Hashanah is the source and the beginning, prior to this division. And in its source, it's without material form.

Rosh Hashanah, being the anniversary of creation, represents a point of access for us: on this day we can connect with the source of all things, prior to any differentiation. God is without form, but when God's vitality flows into the world, that vitality fragments from unity into multiplicity. Most of the time we live in multiplicity, but Rosh Hashanah is our chance to touch unity.

The Midrash quotes the verse, "Forever, God, your speech will stand in the heavens." (Psalm 119: 98) And it is said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, "the sayings of God live and endure." In truth, we find that the root of every thing, what sustains every thing and gives it being, is the source which forever flows through/from the sayings of the Holy One. Each thing is an outgrowth of this source and flows from it.

God's speech is eternal. More than that: God's speech is what continues to create and sustain everything that exists. Everything in creation has a "root," a holy point which perennially draws vitality from God's unending word.

Now, the sounds of the shofar: they are voice sounding without speech. Speech is a division; it is what pure voice divides into, in order to cause movement and differentiation, so that sounds become separate and distinguished from each other. But voice by itself is singular and unique. It cleaves to its source.

The sound of the shofar is primal, an outcry without words. Speech necessarily divides: consonants from vowels, this word from that word, this idea from that idea, speaker from listener. But the cry of the shofar "cleaves to its source" -- it's not separated from its origin, it's not alienated or alienating the way that language always inevitably is. A wordless cry represents unity of purpose, thought transmuting directly into sound.

On Rosh Hashanah, the divine flow of life-force is intimately connected to its root, as it was before any differentiation. Our task is to attach ourselves to this innermost source of divine energy. (SE 5:138)

What struck me, reading this again today, is what this glorification of the shofar might be said to imply about our liturgy. The Days of Awe are marked with an awful lot of prayer: the basic liturgy for weekday is expanded into the liturgy for festivals, which in turn is expanded into the liturgy for the High Holidays. Our liturgical tradition grows by accretion. In every generation there are new prayers, poems, meditations which become so beloved that we can't imagine not adding them to the prayerbook. As a result, our observance of these days can feel encumbered, encrusted with the weighty spiritual jewels of centuries of accumulated wisdom.

But the sound of the shofar cuts through all of that. For all the importance we give to the words, the sound of the shofar obviates words altogether. It goes beyond words. It's like an air raid siren, like a baby's piercing cry, like the wordless shout of lovers. And precisely because it goes beyond words, it takes us back to a place which is beyond words -- that place of complete unity which is the rosh (source) which existed before any shinui (change or differentiation.) That, the Sfat Emet says, is what we're meant to be doing on the day of the New Year: attaching ourselves to "this innermost source of divine energy," cleaving to the undifferentiated life-force of creation.

What's bittersweet about that, of course, is that most of us in my line of work love words. (As a rabbinic student and a writer, I'm doubly guilty of this!) The words we use represent so many centuries of hearts and minds, so much creativity, so many different ways of thinking about and speaking to and reaching out toward God. But if we're realistic, we know that many (most?) of the people who show up in shul during the Days of Awe don't have much attachment to the verbiage. Indeed: the verbiage may be exactly what keeps people from connecting with the deep themes of the holiday. In the end, what speaks most to people is that primeval sound of the ram's horn, that wordless cry that takes us beyond all the words that we can utter.

Spiritual direction from both sides now

This month I begin seeing spiritual direction clients -- a.k.a. "directees" or, in Hebrew, mushpa'ot. (The name for a spiritual director in Hebrew is mashpi'ah; the two words share the root שפע which denotes divine abundance or flow.) As I've mentioned this milestone to people in my life, many have asked, "what exactly is spiritual direction?" And I've thought: aha! A blog post is in order!

Spiritual direction is a relationship, a process through which one person helps another discern the presence of the sacred in their life. This discipline exists in many religious traditions (I know, for instance, that Jesuit priests in formation are required to be in spiritual direction -- as are ALEPH rabbinic students.) In my corner of the Jewish world, this relationship is called hashpa'ah (which, again, derives from the root meaning abundant flow from God.) In the words of my training program, "Hashpa'ah is the traditional term for the relationship with a spiritual director or mashpia who offers guidance and teaching on matters of Jewish faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the Divine."

(As the wikipedia entry on spiritual direction notes, this Hebrew term is common in the Chabad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. Among Orthodox Jews who come from the less mystical and more rationalist end of the spectrum, a spiritual director is more likely to be called mashgiach ruchani. A mashgiach is someone who advises on the kashrut of a kitchen, and a "mashgiakh ruchani" is someone who advises on the spiritual lives of others.) In English, the name for this process or relationship is spiritual direction.

A variety of answers to the question "what is spiritual direction" can be found here at Spiritual Directors International. Among those answers, my favorites are Liz Bud Ellman's assertion that "Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday" and James Keegan's assertion that "Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment."

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Returning to the divine womb

The Hasidic masters, it turns out, are really fond of birth imagery. I'd noticed this before, specifically while reading texts about Passover; in the Hasidic imagination, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds can become the breaking of the waters as we emerge from the "narrow place" of Egypt -- a kind of cosmic birth canal. Anyway, I'd thought of this as primarily a Passover metaphor, but it turns out that there are ways to draw on birth imagery in talking about the current time of year, too. For obvious reasons I'm hyper-conscious of this imagery now, and the prevalence of these metaphors is blowing me away.

In my Moadim l'Simcha class (Seasons of Our Rejoicing) we've been studying a text for this time of year written by the B'nai Yissaschar which talks about mikvah and (re)birth. (Bear with me; this gets a bit technical, but I think the payoff is worth it.)

He begins by asserting that "Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so the Holy Blessed One purifies Israel." (A mikvah is a ritual bath; I've posted about mikvah many times before.) Any source of "living waters" -- a river, a stream -- is a kosher mikvah. But if a mikvah is going to be enclosed, then it needs to contain 40 se'ot of water and the water needs to have some kind of flow. The B'nai Yissaschar likens the 40 se'ot of water in a kosher mikvah to the 40 days of the month of Elul plus the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So this span of days which we're in right now -- this month of spiritual preparation, plus what we commonly call the Days of Awe -- becomes a kind of mikvah-in-time.

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Rab school update: approaching fall

It's been a while since I've posted a general rabbinic school update here. The summer has offered an amazing ebb and flow of learning, intensity, and energy, all of which have been filtered through my experience of pregnancy and my body's changing needs and capabilities.

In July I spent two weeks in Ohio for a rabbinic school intensive. I blogged a little bit from Kallah (where I took an eco-Judaism course and a course on the writings of the Baal Shem Tov, a.k.a. the BeShT) and from smicha students' week (where I took a hashpa'ah / spiritual direction intensive and a class on using songs, poems, and stories in pastoral care.) After a bit of a break, the eco-Judaism class has started up again as a teleclass (we'll run through the fall holidays); the Baal Shem Tov class will begin again as a teleclass next week and will run through November.

The other summer class on my plate is part two of the fabulous Moadim l'Simcha ("Seasons of Our Rejoicing" -- a class in the Hasidic sacred year which gives us the opportunity to study Hasidic texts pertaining to the festivals and the liturgical year.) That class began in early August and will run until the holidays, with a special bonus session during Chanukah. (Lately we've been reading texts about the month of Elul, full of themes of spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe.) The Hasidut section of my course grid is now full, so this class and the Baal Shem Tov class I'm taking this summer/fall will be the end of my formal studies in Hasidut. That's bittersweet for me -- I finally feel like I'm getting a handle on Hasidic Hebrew, and I love the learning! -- but I'm grateful that the learning I've done to date gives me the tools to continue studying these texts on my own.

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