Glimpses of Beyond Walls

The Kenyon Institute has released a beautiful video about Beyond Walls, the spiritual writing program for clergy in which I was blessed to teach this past summer.

If you can't see the embedded video, here's a link to the video on YouTube.

Watching the video reminds me of what a lovely experience it was to teach there. If you're curious about Beyond Walls, the video will give you a good sense for what the program was like.

I won't be teaching at Beyond Walls in summer 2016 -- it's at the same time as the 2016 ALEPH Kallah -- but I'm planning to return in 2017, for sure.

Whatever gets in the way...


When I was an MFA student at Bennington many years ago, I had a poetry mentor named Jason Shinder who used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

He was talking about poetry, of course...Whatever is getting in the way of my creative life doesn't have to be an obstacle. Seen from a different vantage, it's a doorway in.

I've come to see this as a profound spiritual teaching, too...

That's from the beginning of my latest piece for The Wisdom Daily: The Gift of Recognizing What's In Your Way. I hope you'll click through and read!

On being a blogging rabbi


Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller.

On Friday morning at Beyond Walls I gave a talk about being a blogging rabbi. I talked about how I began Velveteen Rabbi, the journey through rabbinic school and becoming a congregational rabbi, the gifts and shadow sides of blogging as a clergyperson, how blogging is part of my spiritual practice, living spiritual life in the open, how to begin blogging, and why I still think blogging is worth doing.

Here are the slides from that talk. In general I try to use slides to spark the things I say, rather than to contain all the words I'm going to say, so the slides aren't a reconstruction of the talk -- but they'll give anyone who was there some visual cues for remembering what I talked about, and for those who weren't there, they'll offer a glimpse of some of what I had to say about the clerical blogging life.


More from Kenyon

Last night Marie Howe gave a poetry reading. I'm a longtime fan. I still remember a commencement address she gave at the Bennington Writing Seminars some years ago, and I read an excerpt from her poem "What the Living Do" every year during yizkor (memorial) services at my shul on Yom Kippur.

Her reading was lovely -- from the serious (including the aforementioned poem, of course; and she also read one of my very favorite Jane Kenyon poems ever, "Let Evening Come") to the raucously hilarious (I can't wait until that Mary Magdalene poem is published so I can point y'all to it.)

Today may be my most densely-packed day of the week. From morning meditation to teaching all morning; to an afternoon book-signing along with Marie, Rodger, and Amy Frykholm; to teaching an evening workshop; to leading the evening meditation -- it's going to be a very full day, but a sweet one.

There's much about the experience of this retreat which feels familiar to me. Being in a temporary  community of people who seek to be spiritually open is familiar to me from ALEPH. Sitting down at meal tables and talking about writing life is familiar to me from long-ago Bennington residencies.

But when I've done writing retreats in the past they've been secular, so the integration of writing and spiritual life is a new adventure. And when I've done spiritual retreats in the past they've been Jewish, so being in spiritual community also with Christians of various stripes is also a new adventure.

I'm grateful this morning for the modah ani melody running through my head; for those beloved to me who while physically distant are nonetheless in my heart; for breakfast table conversations about prayer gear and retreat centers, and for discovering more about how interconnected we all already are.

First post from Beyond Walls


I'm spending this week at Kenyon College as faculty for the Kenyon Institute's first-ever weeklong writing workshop for clergy, spiritual directors, and seminarians, Beyond Walls.

Last night at dinner I enjoyed a delightful dinner table conversation which ranged from "what we hope to get out of this week" to different weekly lectionaries, different death and funeral practices (I mentioned the hevra kadisha, or volunteer burial society, about which I first wrote in 2005: Facing impermanence), and the idea of "liturgical east." It was a lot of fun. (The fact that I find these conversations endearing and enjoyable is probably a sign that I have chosen the right line of work!)

I'm here this week to teach blogging, which I think is going to be neat. For advance assigned reading I chose six thoughtful, thought-provoking, interesting blog posts to share with my students. It occurred to me that y'all might be interested in seeing the advance reading too, so I'm sharing the links here:

Eucharistic Mitzvah, Tertium Squid

Struggle, Ima Bima

Psalm 75, Yedid Nefesh

Finding an authentic spiritual voice this Ramadan, Wood Turtle

Reflections on Holy Week 2012, The Cassandra Pages

Explicit, tacit, explicitly, 如 (thus) 是

I wanted the assigned reading to feature a range of writing styles; a range of religious traditions; and a range of forms (from the short poem/psalm at Yedid Nefesh to the multipart essay at The Cassandra Pages.) These are all bloggers whose work I regularly follow; three of these six bloggers have become dear friends of mine "offline" as well as online, though we initially met via our blogs, and we continue to maintain our correspondence and our friendship in part through this digital medium.

I'm looking forward to teaching my first workshop this morning, and hope to share some gleanings from my week with y'all as time permits.

A Shabbat in Westchester; a Sunday in Williamstown

CelebratingThis coming Shabbat I'll be the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Westchester Reform Temple women's retreat. The theme for the retreat is "Celebrating Ourselves: Bringing Wellness and Wisdom into Everyday Life," and I'll be offering a talk titled Revealing the Heart's Song.

I'm looking forward to davening with everyone during the contemplative service on Shabbat morning (led by Rabbi Sara Abrams and Cantor Jill Abramson), to sharing some thoughts about the intersection of creative life and spiritual life, and to teaching an afternoon writing workshop ("Writing your own song of the heart.") I'm also looking forward to taking one of the afternoon's other workshops, too -- maybe "Soul Collage" or "Care from the Cupboard."

I'll have copies of 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold available for anyone who wants them. (And if you don't carry/spend money on Shabbat, you're welcome to take a copy home and mail me a check afterwards.) This promises to be a lovely day, and I'm honored to be able to be a part of it. If you're one of the women of Westchester Reform Temple signed up for this daylong retreat, I look forward to meeting you this Shabbat!

StjohnsOn Sunday I'll be speaking again, this time alongside my dear friend Reverend Rick Spalding, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown. After their 10am morning service there is an 11:15am coffee hour, and at 11:30, Reverend Rick and I will take turns speaking about our religious traditions' relationships to "creation care," which is to say, the religious imperative to care for our planet.

A Q-and-A session will follow our formal remarks, and I will probably have copies of my books there as well if anyone's interested in buying one. All are welcome -- not only members of that church, but the general public as well.

Beyond Walls faculty spotlight

BarenblatSpotlightI'm honored to be the subject of the Faculty Spotlight in the latest issue of Beyond Walls, the online journal dedicated to the program of the same name in which I'm teaching this summer. Here's a taste:

I think of Velveteen Rabbi as akin to an intimate coffee-table conversation, even though I know that my words are going out to thousands of readers. Through the blog I invite people in to my virtual home. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup, and listen to this beautiful Hasidic teaching I learned about the holiday cycle. Or here's a piece of Torah with which I'm struggling this week: how do you approach these verses? It's a back and forth, and I welcome conversation with my readers.

Read the whole thing here: Faculty Spotlight | Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. (I also really like the graphic they put together to accompany the piece -- now with the initial typo fixed!)

Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon is a summer program at the Kenyon Institute designed to assist clergy in becoming more confident and expressive writers to both congregational and external audiences. Read about it and sign up now at their website.

Poetry of sacred time - a reading in Pittsfield on 3/26

At 1pm on Thursday, March 26, I'll be sharing some poetry at Knesset Israel synagogue (16 Colt Road) in Pittsfield. (Some of you may remember that I was supposed to give this reading back in the fall; it was postponed because I had to turn my attention instead to a funeral.) The reading is presented by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires:

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires will present a reading of poetry by author Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.  The reading will dip into the wellsprings of Jewish sacred time.  Rabbi Barenblat will share Torah poems, motherhood poems, and poems which engage with Jewish liturgy and with the unfolding of our festival year.  Q & A and book signing to follow. Cost $3.

I will have copies of 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold (my two Phoenicia Publishing titles) available for sale, as well as a few copies of Keeping Faith in Rabbis (in which I have an essay) and perhaps a chapbook or two.

And for those who are interested in these kinds of things -- don't forget that my next book-length collection of poems, Open My Lips, is due from Ben Yehuda Press later this year. That whole collection is themed around Jewish sacred time.

All are welcome; I hope to see y'all there!

In the Begining Was the Word


I had a lovely time teaching psalm-writing a few days ago. Eight people participated in the class, including some of my former students from the Inkberry days!

Now I'm gearing up for the other Berkshire Festival of Women Writers event in which I'm participating -- In the Beginning Was the Word: Reading and Panel Discussion by Women Writers of Faith -- which will be tomorrow (Monday) evening at 7pm at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge.

In her book The Nakedness of the Fathers, poet Alicia Ostriker writes, “By the time the spiritual imagination of women has expressed itself as fully and variously as that of men, to be sure, whatever humanity means by God, religion, holiness, and truth will be completely transformed.” This multigenre reading and panel discussion will feature four Berkshire women writers—with backgrounds in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism—whose work is influenced by their faith, either overtly or just beneath the surface. The participants will each give a short reading and speak about the intertwining of their life in writing and their life in faith.

Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She was cofounder and executive director of Inkberry, a literary arts center that served the Berkshires from 2000 to 2009. She is author of three poetry collections: 70 faces: Torah poemsWaiting to Unfold, and the forthcoming Open My Lips. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi, and in 2008 her blog was named one of the top 25 on the Internet by Time. She serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Hannah Fries is an editor at Storey Publishing in North Adams and assistant poetry editor at Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in American Poetry Review, the Massachusetts ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College.

Liz Goodman is the pastor of the UCC congregation in Monterey. She has a M.Div. from Harvard and a B.A. in creative writing from Colby College. Her publishing has mainly been professional, and her writing projects are most often in service of her ministry, but the short story still haunts her and is something she gets to from time to time.

Sokunthary Svay is a writer and musician from New York City. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, her family fled Cambodia to a Thai refugee camp, where she was born. Her writing has been anthologized in Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time, and she has also contributed articles to Hyphen, a San Francisco–based Asian American arts and culture magazine.

For a map and venue contact information, you can click through to the event description on the BFWW website. I hope to see some of y'all there!

Disagreement for the sake of heaven

9Adar_LoRezEng_180I had the opportunity to do something really neat last night -- to participate in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. What's 9 Adar? Glad you asked:

The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

There have been a variety of 9 Adar events in various places over recent days and weeks. (The ninth day of the lunar month of Adar was actually a few days ago; our event happened a few days after the date itself, but was nevertheless part of the same "Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict" initiative.)

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, though he's no longer there; he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:

The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?

(Korach, you may recall, was the fellow in Torah who rebelled against Moses' authority; he argued that the whole congregation was holy, so why did Moses hold himself above everyone? Moses said okay, fine, let's put this to God and we'll see who God prefers; and the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers.)

We began by going around the virtual room and each of us offering a few thoughts about Korach. Here's more or less what I intended to say in my opening remarks about Korach and his story:

I find that when I'm teaching Korach to my b'nei mitzvah students, they universally take his side. "What's so bad about Korach? He just didn't want all of the power to be in Moses' hands. And who elected Moses leader, anyway?" -- that kind of thing.  I know that I have at times felt great empathy with Korach -- and yet I've noticed that over the last 15 years my empathy for Moses has risen and my empathy for Korach has decreased, and maybe that's a function of me becoming a rabbi, or maybe it's a function of me just getting older, I don't know!

For me, the Korach story is a useful illustration of how not to handle conflict in my congregation. If someone becomes angry with me and how I'm doing things, and I respond with my own defensiveness, then I'm setting the stage for some kind of disaster -- the earth might not literally open up and swallow anyone, but there could be hurt feelings, damaged reputations, etc. We have to find a better way of settling our disputes.

For me the critical question is: was Korach actually acting out of a sense that everyone in the community is holy? Or was he jockeying for more power of his own? If it's really about his own ego and self-aggrandizement (e.g. he wanted some of Moshe's power), then it makes more sense that the earth swallowed him up -- because his makhloket (argument) wasn't really l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven).

For me that's what this all boils down to: how to keep our disagreements (including those around Israel/Palestine) for the sake of heaven, instead of for the sake of me being right and you being wrong.

"If the argument is based in love and mutual respect for one another, then it's an argument for the sake of heaven," said Rabbi Kolakowski, quoting the Satmar rebbe. "The way to tell if someone's a zealot and is just arguing for the sake of arguing is, how does that person lead their life in general? Does he argue about everything, or is it only when it's something important and for the sake of heaven that he gets excited and speaks up?"

Rabbi Suskin began by noting that she feels strongly ambivalent about Korach. It's hard for us as moderns not to feel some sympathy for the position of "we're all holy here" -- and yet our commentaries on Korach are pretty strongly negative. It's difficult to do with Torah what we want to do with other kinds of stories, and tell the story from the point of view of the "bad guy" and thereby redeem him.

She pointed out that the rabbis suggested that the reason that Korach's argument was not for the sake of heaven was that when he protested that "all of the people are holy," what he was really saying was not that we all have the capacity to be holy, but that in and of ourselves, without doing anything, regardless of what we do, we're holy. She argued that it's not really Jewish to say "I'm holy no matter what I do; no one can judge me." We're part of the community; our behavior impacts those around us.

From there we shifted into talking about what it means for disagreement to be holy -- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- the Talmudic stories of Reish Lakish and of Kamza and Bar Kamza -- the obligation to rebuke, and also the obligation to recognize where people are and to speak to them in a way that they will hear -- finding the partial truth in opinions with which we disagree -- and more! Here's the video of our conversation, which ran for about 65 minutes:

And if you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it on YouTube - 9 Adar Interdenominational Text Study. If this sounds like fun to you, I hope you'll go and watch.

Women in Religion at Williams College

E017fc0450ca91fbce474a3b6c82452987af1dbf-1This Thursday evening I'll be participating in a panel discussion featuring female religious leaders, moderated by my friend Reverend Rick Spalding (the head of chaplaincy at Williams College, my alma mater.) The discussion will be at 7pm on March 5 in Thompson Memorial Chapel, the big stone chapel that's right on route 2. Here's how the event is described on the college calendar:

The Williams College Feminist Collective is hosting a panel of female religious leaders to discuss their careers and how gender has played a role in their religious lives and careers. Panelists including Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Reverend Beth Wieman, and Chaplain Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim.

I'm delighted to take part, for a variety of reasons. During my own time at Williams I was one of the creators of the Williams College Feminist Seder, so it's neat to be invited back by the current feminist students' group. Also, I know Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim from the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, at which both of us were alumna facilitators last year. I'm looking very forward to meeting Rev. Beth Wieman. And it will be fun to talk with them, for a public audience, about our religious vocations and our lives as women and how those things intersect.

If you're in or near northern Berkshire county, join us -- the evening is free and open to the public.

A reminder: psalm workshop coming up


The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers begins today. It's a pretty extraordinary month-long festival; there will be an event every day this month showcasing the voices and words of women here in Berkshire county. (In fact there will be 53 events at 33 venues, and most of them are free.) Pretty amazing, especially given that we're in a semi-rural area hours away from the nearest big city.

I'm taking part in two ways, and one of them is teaching a workshop on writing one's own psalms. (I posted about this a few weeks ago.) I'm teaching at 3pm on March 10 at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Writing Your Own Psalms

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, an ancient collection of poetry which also functions as prayer. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll explore what makes a psalm, read psalms both classical and contemporary, talk about the emotional tenor of the psalms and how they work both as poetry and as prayer, warm up our intellectual muscles with generative writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close with a psalm of thanksgiving for our time together.

If you'd like to sign up, you can go to the event's Facebook page and indicate there that you are coming. I look forward to seeing some of y'all there!

Calling all psalmists! And, an event featuring women writers of faith.



On March 10 from 3-4:30pm I'm going to be teaching a workshop on writing one's own psalms. The workshop is being offered as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and will be free and open to the public. Here's the official description of the class:

Writing Your Own Psalms

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, an ancient collection of poetry which also functions as prayer. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll explore what makes a psalm, read psalms both classical and contemporary, talk about the emotional tenor of the psalms and how they work both as poetry and as prayer, warm up our intellectual muscles with generative writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close with a psalm of thanksgiving for our time together.

If you're interested in the intersection of poetry and psalms, and if you live in or near western Massachusetts, I hope you'll join us.  The workshop will take place at Congregation Beth Israel - 53 Lois Street in North Adams, MA. If you're interested in signing up, please leave a comment to let me know. Edited to add: if you're on Facebook, you can reply "yes" at the event's Facebook page.

I'm also participating in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in another way; I'm delighted to announce that I will be participating in a panel discussion / group reading, along with Sokunthary Svay, Liz Goodman, and Hannah Fries. Here's the description of that event:

In the Beginning Was the Word: A reading and panel of women writers of faith

In her book The Nakedness of the Fathers, poet Alicia Ostriker writes, "By the time the spiritual imagination of women has expressed itself as fully and variously as that of men, to be sure, whatever humanity means by God, religion, holiness, and truth will be completely transformed." This multigenre reading and panel discussion will feature four Berkshire women writers -- with backgrounds in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism -- whose work is influenced by their faith, either overtly or just beneath the surface.  The participants will each give a short reading and speak about the intersection of their life in writing, their life in faith, and how the two intertwine.

The reading and panel discussion (also free and open to the public) will take place on Monday, March 16, at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, 4 Main Street, at 7pm. I hope to see you there!

...Not off to Gambier

Today I was supposed to be heading to Gambier, Ohio for a very quick visit. Gambier is a town of about 2300 people and is home to Kenyon College. Kenyon College, in turn, hosts the Kenyon Institute where I will be teaching next summer. I was meant to go there for a night and a morning to engage in a brief but intensive process of planning for the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Institute.


This is what I expected to see in Gambier.

(It's also more or less what I'd be leaving back home: snow and college buildings.)

I was looking forward to getting an advance glimpse of Gambier (though surely its January face is different from the face it wears in July!) and to spending a night and part of a day with the rest of the faculty planning our workshops and sessions and brainstorming about how we want the week to unfold.  We were going to plan curricula, plenary sessions, and opportunities for spiritual practice.

Then a nor'easter made itself known. (See Potentially Historic Blizzard Taking Aim On New England.) The storm has a few repercussions for me. Ethan's having a tougher-than-expected time getting home from Cebu, where he's been for the Global Voices Summit on Protecting the Open Internet. Our son's preschool is likely to close. And there is absolutely no way I'm flying to Ohio today. 


That said, so far I've been really impressed with how this program is coming together. The organizers are thoughtful, engaged, and genuinely passionate about providing an amazing week of spiritual writing instruction to clergy and spiritual directors of all stripes. Based on our emails and phone conversations thus far, I'm expecting our time in Ohio in July to be thought-provoking and rich.

Need a refresher on the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Institute? Here you go:

You already feel confident writing to those you know in your church or synagogue. Yet clergy of all faiths tell us that there’s another conversation that matters, outside their institution’s walls, among those who aren’t there for services, but are reading, thinking, caring about living a moral and spiritual life. This is your chance to learn the best ways to join that conversation.

This one-week writing intensive program teaches you how to be a more expressive, authentic, and skilled writer, honing what you have to say and becoming more proficient and current in how to say it in media as diverse as op-eds, blogs, the personal essay, and social media. Our multi-faith approach is founded on the belief that our writing traditions have something to teach one another. Seminars and lectures by some of the most prolific and respected spiritual writers today will help develop your personal voice as a spiritual exponent in your community.

The list of faculty and speakers is fantastic. If you are a spiritual director or clergyperson (of whatever stripe), I hope you'll consider joining us. Enrollment is limited and I know we're already getting some terrific applicants, so if this sounds up your alley, please apply soon.

And if you're in the path of this potentially-historic nor'easter, stay warm and dry, y'all.