To shame someone is to shed their blood

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים.

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

-- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 58b

Someone who embarrasses another person in public causes their face to turn paler (הלבין את פניו / hilbin et panav) as the blood drains away. When you shame someone, the Talmud says, it's tantamount to wounding them and shedding their blood. But online, we can't see one another's faces. If someone's blog comment or email causes the blood to drain from my face in shame or in sorrow, they don't know that; they can't see me. What -- asked one of my colleagues at the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting -- might be the new Gemara of how we should interact with one another in this online world?

This is something I've thought about. I've been blogging here since October of 2003, so almost ten years. And for the most part, my efforts to create and foster a kind and thoughtful community of conversation have been successful. I'm endlessly grateful to all of y'all who have contributed to those conversations over the years! But I've also been verbally attacked for things I've posted here. (And I'm not even going to link to things like the so-called Self Hating Israel Terrorists list -- whose name is such a delightful acronym -- and the things they say about people with whom they disagree.)

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Sami Barth, has a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his email signature and on his website. The quote is this: "When I was young I admired clever people; now that I am older I admire kind people." I'm right there with him on that one. Cleverness may be impressive, and there have been times in my life when I have wanted to be clever and to be admired for that, but these days kindness is what I really aspire to. And I like to spend my time in places, both online and off, where that value prevails.

But there's no discounting the reality that there are a lot of places on the internet where kindness and compassion don't seem to be the operating principles. I expect that anyone who has a blog has experienced some nastiness. And often it's the kind of nastiness that (I hope) perfect strangers would never choose to direct at someone in person. (See the xkcd cartoon Listen to Yourself.) But why, then, do they feel entitled to direct it at them via the internet? By what ethic is meanness an appropriate way to treat someone?

One of my colleagues, Rabbi Harry Brechner, suggests the following rubric. Before posting or sending anything, ask yourself: is it true? is it kind? is it important? He suggests that one should be certain that at least two of the three can be answered with "yes" before putting it out there.

As far as I'm concerned, the Talmudic teaching from Bava Metzia -- that someone who shames another person, it is as though they have spilled blood -- is every bit as true online as offline. A blog is a public space. When someone comes to my blog and insults me, or my teachers, or my teachings, or my values there, it is as though that person had shamed me in public. Because they have.

Being insulted or shamed in person and being insulted or shamed online feel quite similar. The blood drains out of the face, the heart pounds in the chest, tears hammer at the back of the eyes, a painful knot forms in the throat in exactly the same way, regardless of whether it's happening in the public square or on a blog. Beyond that: something cruel or shaming, once posted on the internet, is often persistent. It's searchable. It stays there.

I keep coming back to R' Harry Brechner's threefold communication rule: is it true? is it kind? is it important?

The things we write online feel important to us. And surely most of us say things we think are true. (I could argue with the veracity of some of those things -- so much depends on one's sources, what one reads, who one believes -- but I'm willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they post things they perceive to be true.) But I wish kindness were more often at the forefront of our consciousness.

For me, any evolving Gemara which takes the internet and social media into account needs to recognize that interactions between people online are still interactions between people. The way we treat each other online needs to be as compassionate, and as rooted in holiness and in Torah, as the way we would treat each other anywhere.

Rejecting erosion

A Rabbi Without Borders: Doesn't worry, at least not very much, about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.

That's item six on the Rabbis Without Borders FAQ. Of all the things we talked about during the two days of our first fellows gathering, this is the one I find myself continuing to mull over and contemplate as the week continues to unfold.

Messages about the dilution and erosion of Judaism are surprisingly pervasive. I think of the anti-intermarriage rhetoric which is rooted in the fear that the Jewish community is disappearing (see A New Demographic,, and the ways in which Birthright trips seem designed to encourage inmarriage (see Breeding Zionism, Tablet, 2010.) I think of the generalized sense that there were "good old days" and that our generation is sadly far from them: our Jewish educations aren't what they once were, our Jewish commitment isn't what it once was, that sort of thing.

Sometimes I'm susceptible to this narrative too. Not on the intermarriage anxiety front, but the Jewish education one. I imagine an earlier moment in time when -- at least in my fantasy -- every Jew was well-grounded in Jewish texts and practices, when basic liturgical and Torah literacy were a given. It's an easy thing to feel nostalgic about, in a moment when a lot of people don't necessarily have that grounding (and don't necessarily wish for it, either.)

But while it may be true that once upon a time we all knew our own tradition's canon, two other things were also true at that moment: the canon was a lot smaller, and the "we" was smaller too. (That insight comes from R' Brad Hirschfield.) I like being part of a diverse "we" -- diverse across all kinds of spectra: gender and sexuality, ethnicity, knowledge, practice. And I don't actually want to return to that more insular moment or to that time when our own canon was the only learning available to us.

I don't see today's intermarriage rates (or the rise in "nones" -- see Pew Forum: 'No Religion' on the rise, 2012) as dangers to Judaism or to Jewish community. Yes, our communities are more permeable than they used to be, and an increasing number of people are choosing and changing and crossing boundaries -- or, in R' Irwin Kula's terms, "mixing, blending, bending, and switching." (See his essay From the Cathedral to the Bazaar, HuffPo, 2010.) But I'd rather see those realities as opportunities to collaborate in writing a new chapter of our story than as occasion for sounding the alarm.

And I love the breadth and range of knowledge and passion which are open to, and cherished by, the communities I serve -- even if that knowledge isn't necessarily Jewish. I want to celebrate living in a moment when both our sense of our canon, and our sense of our "we," is expansive. A moment we can cultivate a cosmopolitan sense of ourselves as connected with other communities and cultures, not merely concerned with our own story or our own texts or our own ways of thinking. This potential for intellectual and spiritual expansiveness is one of our era's greatest gifts.

My teacher Reb Zalman speaks sometimes in terms of needing both the rearview mirror (so we can see where we've been) and the front windshield (so we can see where we're going.) I don't want to lose the rear view, but I'm also excited to be heading into new territory. And I don't believe that this new territory is one of disaster. The long and the short of it is, I don't want to buy into the negativity encoded in the narratives of dilution and erosion. They're not "the" story -- simply "a" story. I'd rather tell a different one.

Here's a different story: there are things I love, and I want to share them with you. I've inherited a deep toolbox of texts and practices passed down through generations, a box chock-full of wisdom and ideas and insights: old ones and new ones, useful ones and odd ones. I'd like to teach the use of these weird and wonderful tools. Not because they're endangered or because you "have to" learn them or rescuscitate them or save them, but because they're valuable ways of interacting with the history and the present, with the world around us, with emotional and spiritual life, with something beyond ourselves.

I love Jewish texts and teachings, Jewish modes of prayer, Jewish ways of experiencing the world and encountering God. I love them so much that I want to share them with everyone I meet. And one of the wonders of living in this moment of time is that I can do that, here on this blog. What an incredible gift it is to be able to share some of the riches of my tradition with people who are thirsty for -- or at least curious about! -- those riches. I don't know how to measure the impact of this work, and I don't ever expect to be finished with it, but I love that I get to do it in the first place.

And I love living at a time when there's so much capacity for bridge-building and interconnection. Between different cultures, between different communities, between different experiences, between different understandings of God. This is an amazing moment to be Jewish; it's an amazing moment to be a spiritual seeker; it's an amazing moment to be in the world. So the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Dare I hope that maybe we're on the verge of figuring out how to fly?


Rabbis Without Borders, kirtan, wow


I've done kirtan before. I've even done kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi, Rabbi Andrew Hahn, before. So when I saw it on our agenda, this morning, I smiled, and I thought, wow, that's going to blow a few minds. I didn't realize one of them would be mine.

Today was the first day of the first meeting of the fourth cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. This morning we introduced ourselves by way of pennies, broke into small groups to talk about objects which matter to us (Jewish objects, "non-Jewish objects," and objects which others might think are non-Jewish but which feel Jewish to us -- after meeting with my small group I tweeted that I'm not sure there are non-Jewish objects anymore), and listened to Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek, talk about religious demographics in the United States today.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield led a fantastic afternoon session exploring and recontextualizing the statistics Lisa had placed before us. I want to blog about that, at some point. I have a lot of thoughts and ideas bouncing around my head now. I'm thinking a lot about the notion that the rising number of "nones" -- those who aren't affiliated with any religious tradition; who check the "none" box on surveys -- is not an ending but a beginning. An opening for a new chapter which we may, if we are awake and aware, be blessed to help co-author.

But the thing I want to write about tonight was our evening program, which was Hebrew kirtan with the Kirtan Rabbi. Kirtan is devotional chanting. In its original context, it's a kind of bhakti yoga -- a devotional practice of chanting divine names in order to open up the heart. Reb Drew led us in an evening of chanting, interspersed with narrative. He told us, over the course of the evening, how he came to explore this form of sacred practice and to integrate it with Judaism.

One of the chants which moved me was a variation on the shema. It features a variety of names for God: not only Adonai and Yah but also hesed, gevurah, tiferet -- the classical kabbalistic sefirot. I smiled as those names unfolded. I thought, ah, I see what he's doing there, that's very lovely. I enjoyed the chanting, and then when the chant was done I enjoyed the experience of singing the full shema once as our chatimah.

But the chant which really got me was his chant which works with the kaddish. There are several parts to the melody, and we chanted each one in turn. L'eilah min kol birchata u-shirata -- beyond all blessings and songs. Y'hei shmei rabbah m'vorach -- may the Great Name be blessed. One of the melodic lines is borrowed from the way the kaddish is sung on Friday nights, so I grinned the first time we sang it -- a familiar melody and familiar words, shifted and changed by their new context. I was surprised by how much joy and energy we brought to singing that line.

This is hard to describe; I'm not doing it justice. We reached a place where we were singing his kaddish kirtan in harmony -- the women singing one melodic line and set of words, the men singing another -- and all of a sudden my heart cracked open and I burst into tears. Quietly, mind you; I don't think most of the room noticed. I covered my face with my hands and took a few deep breaths and then I was able to sing again, though softly. By the time we finished the kaddish my face was wet and all I could think was that this must be what it's like to be part of the choirs of angels singing holy holy holy back and forth all day.

I've been blessed to have this kind of peak experience many times over my years in Jewish Renewal, but I wasn't expecting to have it tonight. (I've heard Reb Zalman speak several times about the challenge of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the peak experiences we may be blessed to have on retreat, and bringing them home with us, bringing that energy home to enliven our daily prayer lives.) I didn't see it coming, and there it was: a surprise from God, a moment of intense connection where my heart opened wide and God poured in.

Maybe it was because I was chanting kirtan in such an intimate setting -- this RWB cohort is a scant 18 people, so it was an intimate room, all of us seated close together and close to the music. Maybe because everyone in the room knew what the words meant (while I think most kirtan afficionadoes would say that the experience of chanting is meaningful even if the words are opaque -- come to think of it, that's one of the arguments I've used for davening in Hebrew even when one isn't fluent, too -- I do think that something is added when one knows what one is praying.)

One way or another, it was wonderful experience. I'm grateful to Reb Drew and his wonderful ensemble (especially Shoshanna Jedwab, whose drumming -- when I encounter it -- always enlivens my prayer). To my RWB cohort for willingness to enter into this admittedly non-traditional experience (which we'll be processing and discussing tomorrow morning -- that should be fascinating in its own right!) To RWB/Clal for creating the container within which this could all take place.

Several of my colleagues and I took the subway back to our hotel together, still talking about the evening. As I write this post now I feel as though I'm still vibrating faintly from this intense and wonderful day of conversations and connections and song.

Reading on the train

I wasn't paying attention when I chose where to drop my bags and settle in, but by sheer luck I picked the side of the train which runs right alongside the Hudson. At this season the hills are a deep brown-purple and the water reflects the grey sky. The tawny reeds and grasses are the brightest, most colorful things in sight. A long low dark-green barge moves upriver, leaving ripples in its long wake.

Every few moments our horn sounds. Warning people and animals off the tracks ahead, I guess. The train rattles slightly, shaking just a little bit from side to side. The journey from Albany to New York City doesn't take terribly long -- only a few hours. But in emotional and spiritual terms it feels like a great distance between here and there. Between rural America and the great metropolis.

I have homework to do while I travel: rereading three studies about religion in American life. (One of them is a 2012 Pew Forum study 'Nones' on the Rise. Another is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.) I read these a couple of months ago, before what was supposed to be the first meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellows cohort -- but then Hurricane Sandy got in our way. Statistics don't stay in my head for long; I need to re-read.

It's interesting for me to learn that most people who self-identity as having "no" religious affiliation still consider themselves religious and/or spiritual. "[M]ost of the 'nones' say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both," says the Pew study. I find myself wondering how many liberal American Jews -- those who are affiliated, who do belong to congregations -- would be comfortable defining themselves in those ways.

And I'm fascinated to read that among American adults who say that religion is important in their lives, one-third report attending services less than once a month. It makes sense to me that those who don't identify with a religious community don't come to shul. But that a third of those who do so identify -- and, more, who say that religion is important in their lives -- don't come to daven: what does that mean?

I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of conversations we have and what sort of learning we do over the next two days. For now, I'm alternating between digging into these studies and watching little birds startle from the branches and scatter as we pass.

On being a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow

RwbEarly next week, I'll be blessed to take a two-day trip to New York City for the first meeting of my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders rabbinic fellows.

Rabbis Without Borders does a variety of things "to nurture and develop a network of rabbis who share a common vision: to make Jewish wisdom accessible in order to enrich people’s lives across religious and cultural borders in America." RWB is a program of CLAL, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center founded in 1974 which has done a lot of good work around religious pluralism and inclusivity.

One of the things RWB does is a Fellowship program for rabbis:

The RWB Fellowship helps rabbis develop and communicate a Judaism that can compete in a globalized, networked world in which identities and communal boundaries are increasingly permeable. By participating in the RWB Fellowship, rabbis learn how to use Jewish wisdom to speak to contemporary American issues, how to use language that is open and inclusive to reach a larger audience, and how to use Jewish wisdom to add meaning to people’s lives.

For more, I recommend their FAQ: What is a Rabbi Without Borders? A rabbi without borders is "deeply pluralistic and always aware of the partial truth in a view with which we deeply disagree," "doesn’t worry, at least not very much, about dilution or work from a narrative of erosion," "is personally evolving and experiences that evolution as a coherent process, not as a betrayal of past conclusions." (Among other things.) I'd like to think that those add up to a reasonable description of who I try to be.

Jewish Renewal is explicitly transdenominational. My classmates in ALEPH, and my teachers as well, came from backgrounds including Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Hasidic. It's one of the things I love about learning in ALEPH and being part of the ALEPH community. When I went to my first PANIM inter-denominational rabbinic student retreat (a program which is now run by Clal/RWB), I loved having the chance to learn and daven and connect with students from across all of the different streams of our tradition. This fellowship offers a similar opportunity.

I'm looking really forward to meeting the rabbis in my cohort and to seeing what we can learn from and with each other -- and what I can bring back, over time, to my congregation; to Velveteen Rabbi readers and commentors; and to all of the interconnected communities I aim to serve.