God, too, is lonely: a d'var Torah for Behar-Bechukotai

Lonely-loneliness-21529870-329-328Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.

This is called the shmita year -- in English, "Sabbatical." And this year right now -- 5775 -- is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.

This week's portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week's portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me."

This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien -- someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It's a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we "insiders" in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we're merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.

Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me." Usually we understand it to mean what I just said -- that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.

He cites a verse from psalms: "I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me." (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.

Here's where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.

Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.

God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way -- that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness -- changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.

The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. "I am a stranger in the land," said the psalmist -- as if to say, 'God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don't hide Your connective-commandments from me!' The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.

God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God's heart -- in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.

"Y'all are resident-strangers with Me" can mean: y'all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y'all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.


My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.


This week's portion: cut away the calluses on your heart

DSCN5657WAt this weekend's Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton in Colorado a variety of my friends and colleagues will be collaborating on leading Shabbat davenen. I am humbled and honored to have the chance to leyn Torah on Shabbat morning. I was given the opportunity to choose the handful of verses from parashat Ekev which I wanted to leyn, and I chose Deuteronomy 10:12-19, which translate as follows:

And now, Israel: what does Adonai your God ask of you?
That with awe of the One, you walk in God's ways, and love God;
that you serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Keep God's connective-commandments and engraved-commandments
which I am giving to you today for your good / to improve your lives.
Behold: the heights of the heavens belong to God; the earth, and all that is upon it.
It was to your ancestors that God was drawn, out of love,
so that you, their descendants, continue to be chosen among all peoples even now.
Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your hearts; stiffen your necks no more.
For Adonai your God is the utmost and the highest (God of God, Lord of Lords.)
God: great, mighty, and awesome, Who doesn't play favorites and takes no bribe,
Who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow
And loves the stranger, providing food and clothing.
Just so, you should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I initially chose these verse because I was drawn both to the beginning and to the end of this passage. I liked the exhortation to walk in God's ways and to relate to God both with awe and with love. I liked the exhortation to love the stranger, the Other, for we too have known Otherness and alienation. I imagined that I would offer a blessing, for those who come up for this aliyah, relating to these images. And I still resonate deeply with these verses.

But as I've been rehearsing these lines this week, what's really leapt out at me has been verse 16: "Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your heart, and stiffen your necks no more." Maybe it's standing out for me because of the way the Torah trope (the dots and dashes and symbols which indicate chanting melody) place emphasis on the instruction to cut away -- the melody rises like a waterfall flowing upward before gliding back down again.

And maybe it's resonating for me because I feel lately as though this is precisely what has been happening in me -- the calluses over my heart have been cut away, and my heart is open to the joy and the pain of the world. Every parent rejoicing, and every parent grieving. Every child who laughs, and every child who weeps. Everything that is good and beautiful and right in our world, and everything that is unjust and broken.

The great sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (in his essay "On Prayer") that prayer should be subversive, should shatter the pyramids of domination and cut away the calluses on our hearts. Lately I've been aiming to open up the prayerful opportunities in every moment regardless of whether I'm engaged in liturgical prayer. Even when I'm not reciting formal words of prayer, life offers opportunities to bare my callused heart.

We can choose to make a practice of opening our hearts, of removing the protective scar tissue of anger and mistrust and the need to be right -- or we may find that life does that work for us, stripping away our walls and our calluses through illness, depression, tragedy, or loss. I think it is easier, perhaps gentler, if we do the work ourselves. If we ourselves cut away the calluses we have formed through indifference and callousness.

It is not easy to walk through the world with our calluses removed, with our hearts open to the exultation and the grief. But this is what this passage asks of us. This is what spiritual practice asks of us. When we cut away our defenses, and truly see the anguish of the widow and the orphan, the mother sobbing for her child, the injustices of war, the horrors wrought by illness, we can't help but fulfill the commandment most oft-repeated in Torah, to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This week as we prepare to remember our teacher, rebbe, colleague, and friend Rabbi Zalman Meshullam Hiyya Schachter-Shalomi, these verses remind us to keep our hearts open to our mourning and our loss. To keep our hearts open to the sorrows in the news. To actively seek to remove the calluses which would protect us from awareness of suffering. To face that which we don't want to face: in the world, and in ourselves.

This is what Torah asks us to do. Maybe because when we do this, we naturally unlock our store of compassion, which leads us to work to repair what is broken in our world. Maybe because this is part and parcel of relating to God in love and in awe, of walking in God's ways. And maybe because this is a deep spiritual practice through which we do the inner work of transformation, the refining of the soul, for which we are born into this world.


Image source: Circumcision of the Heart by Gwen Meharg.

The road and the walking

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
only waves upon the sea.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda
que nunca se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla (1912), translated by Betty Jean Craige

I encountered this poem in a daily "Making the Omer Count" email from the Jewish Mindfulness Network (sign up here) and it struck a chord. "Wanderer, there is no road / the road is made by walking." I hear the poet saying that although we may imagine that there is a single correct path on which we're "supposed" to walk, that's a fallacy -- a comfortable and perhaps comforting notion, but not ultimately true. There is no single right way to live a life. Do you find comfort in the idea that you're "doing it right" -- or do you castigate yourself with the idea that you're "doing it wrong"? The self-praise and self-blame are equally incorrect. There is no single path. Wherever you are, is wherever you are. You can't be in the wrong place, because by definition, whatever path you're walking is your path.

We may imagine that we know where we're going. We may pretend that we're in control of the journey and we can anticipate both the destination and the turns the road will take along the way -- but that too is a falsehood. No matter what I do or don't do, there are things I can't control. Sickness and health; other people's choices; what hand of cards I will be dealt in any given moment -- all beyond my ken. The only thing I might be able to control is how I respond to what arises in me and around me... and even there, my ability to maintain control isn't absolute. What would it feel like to yield, to let the road unfold as it will and to seek the blessings in wherever the road takes us? What would it feel like to trust that my footsteps are the road, that I am always already where I am meant to be?

"The road is made by walking." This line shifts me from thinking in terms of an individual life, to thinking in terms of community. I think of halakha, the Hebrew word usually translated as "law." Halakha is the ongoing conversation between our texts, our sages, and today's interpreters. Halakha is the process which seeks to connect our actions with the revelation at Sinai and our communal connection with God. And the word halakha comes from the root which connotes walking. In its deepest sense, halakha is not a set of strictures and instructions -- it's a way of walking. My teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel has taught that halakha doesn't speak; halakhists do. Which is to say: there is no single authoritative voice of the halakha. Instead we have the many and varied voices of those who strive to interpret what has come before us. We make the road by walking.

"By walking one makes the road[.]" Each of us walks her own path. Only in looking back may we achieve full clarity on where we've been and how we got to where we are -- and that hindsight comes with the price of not being able to walk any stretch of the road twice. I think of all of the milestones I've passed along the way, and I know that the road of my life will never return to those places. Not only that, but the minute during which I began to write this post...? Gone, and unrecoverable. The minute during which you began to read...? The same. The only path we can see clearly is the one we've already walked, and because we've already walked it, it's fixed. The road ahead is limitless potential, an infinity of choices and changes. Only the road behind can be known. Every step I take builds the road of my life beneath my feet.

And after all this, Machado takes the poem's ultimate turn: in truth there is no road, only waves on the sea. Life is flux and change, the ratzo v'shov ("running and returning") of Ezekiel's angels and of our own spiritual lives, the waves going out and the waves coming in. That, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite parables which I first heard at Elat Chayyim from Rabbi Jeff Roth -- the two waves in the middle of the ocean, one big and one small, and the big wave was weeping with fear. "Why are you crying?" asked the little wave. "If you could see what I see," said the big wave, "you'd cry too -- we're headed for a rocky shore, and when we reach the rocks, we'll be shattered into nothingness!" But the little wave had access to a deeper wisdom, and said to the big wave, "we're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves, we're water. We are more than individual souls who shatter on the rocky shoals of death. That within us which is eternal remains eternal, even when the form we've taken during this life comes to its end. An individual wave disperses into foam, but the motion of the sea is forever. And so are we. My path, your path, the footsteps of everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live -- waves which come and go, run and return. Life, being, the very cosmos -- expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling, beginning and ending, beginning again.

Be kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview at A Little Yes

I'm not sure when I started reading Heather Caliri of A Little Yes, though I think it was around the time that she moved with her kids to Argentina for six months. I've enjoyed vicariously sharing her adventures and looking through her window on the world -- and I'm frequently moved by her (Christian) perspectives on the intersections of faith and parenthood. 

So I was delighted when she asked to interview me. Here's a glimpse of our conversation:

You’re a poet, and often write liturgical poems; what parallels do you see between the practice of faith and the writing of poetry?

I would say that both require me to get out of my own way. They both require a trust that if I pour out my heart, something good will come. And in both, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect on the first try.

One of the reasons I love that morning prayer I use is the verse, “Great is your faithfulness.” That somehow implies that God has faith in us. Which is wild—we would only think the opposite.

But thinking that God has faith in me as a person, a mother, a poet, there is something greater than me that has faith in my endeavors...

You can read the whole thing here: On the road to ordination: wildflowers, grief, and the joyous faithfulness of God. (By the by, these interviews are a long-running series on her blog; you can see some of her favorites linked from her Best Of page.)

Thank you, Heather, for a thoughtful and sweet conversation and for this lovely interview post.

Rick Black's Star of David

Star-of-David-by-Rick-Black-200x300I had the good fortune to be asked to contribute a "blurb" for Rick Black's beautiful new poetry chapbook Star of David, winner of the 2012 Poetica Magazine Contemporary Jewish Writing Chapbook Contest, published by Poetica Magazine and distributed by Turtle Light Press, 2013. My paper copy of the book just arrived in my mailbox, and I am so glad to have it.

When asked for a blurb, I replied:

This slim volume wrestles with the angels of our history and brings forth a new name. It's located, in its own words, "at the intersection / of grief and solace[.]" Black understands that his grandfather's prayer book is a box of portkeys to farflung destinations of history and spirit; that when his daughter pushes the empty swings, she is rocking the dead to gentle sleep. Who among us could fail to identify with the poet who wants to sing of horseradish, of toy frogs, of dancing with his daughter until they fall down -- but not of slavery or of the Egyptians drowning in the sea? Black practices observance -- not walking to shul on Saturdays, but noticing the countless wonders of this real and complicated world. We are blessed to be able to see our world through his eyes.

(Only part of that quote appears on the book's webpage, but I wanted to share it here in full, because it's still a fine reflection of how I see the collection.)

I have several favorite poems in the collection, which tells you something about its quality. Two of my favorites are on facing pages: "Hands" and "Observance." In "Hands," we hear the voice of someone who watches people walking by with strollers and tallit bags, clearly on their way to shul, but who prefers to remain in the garden nurturing what he has sowed, "Hunched over / in torn jeans and invisible phylacteries[.]" And "Observance" is so lovely that I'll reproduce it here in full:


I am not observant
I do not walk to shul or refrain
from cooking on Shabbat.

But I do practice
as often as possible:

watching geese
descend on their wings
into the river,

listening to a red-bellied
woodpecker lunatic
in my backyard

and inhaling the fragrance
of wild lilac
along a forest path.

I've shared Rick's work here before -- I reprinted his poem "Bougainvillea" in the 2002 post Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand. I admire his willingness to confront that which is unbelievably painful, as he does in "Bougainvillea" -- or, for that matter, as in the first poem of this chapbook, which describes in exquisite language an encounter with a yellow fabric star reading Jude. He wrestles with suffering and emerges with prayer, as in the chapbook's final poem, "Kaddish:" "Even when I am not reciting kaddish, / even when I protest against it, / I am still reciting kaddish."

Star of David costs $15 and can be purchased at the distributor's website. I recommend it.

Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"

UnetanehThis morning I was asked a question about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we pray on Rosh Hashanah. How do we make sense of "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" when something truly awful happens? For instance: a teenager is killed, God forbid, in a horrific accident. How can we reconcile our horror at this kind of trauma with a sense of a loving God? What does it mean to assert that God "seals" such a fate for us? Let me say upfront that I don't have "the" answer. But here is an answer.

Earlier in that same prayer, we read "You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." That line says to me that we're not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. (This isn't Santa Claus, who "knows when we've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake!") The Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

Every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with every thing I do, and every thing I don't do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbor. God doesn't write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it "reads from itself" -- or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the television show of our own lives.

Later in that same prayer, we read "But teshuvah (repentance or re/turn, turning toward God), tefilah (prayer / self-examination), and tzedakah (righteous giving) avert the harshness of the decree." The prayer doesn't make the claim that these three things can change what's going to happen; but they can ameliorate it. They can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year -- no amount of teshuvah, tefilah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. Or if, God forbid, a teenager on her bicycle is struck by a car -- no amount of repentance, prayer, or righteous giving can change that shattered reality for her or for her family who remain to mourn. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can change how we experience the reality which is. They can change our experience of the world. 

Continue reading "Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"" »

#BlogElul 23: Love

Blogelul2013Connecting with God is all about love.

I know that assertion seems strange to some of us, but I really believe that it's true.

Every morning we sing that God loves us with a great love -- ahavah rabbah ahavtanu. "You have loved us with a great love." Your love for us is so great that You give us Torah, a collection of stories and ideas and teachings to live by, as a parent lovingly gives their child stories and ideas and teachings to live by.

(I've been reading Heschel's Torah Min HaShamayim / Torah From Heaven recently, so I can't help being aware that I've just articulated the kind of view that Rabbi Ishmael would have espoused. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, would argue that Torah is supernal and is inherently, mystically, holy -- the point isn't that it's rules to live by, the point is that it offers access to God. Well: either way, I suppose, Torah is an expression of divine love for us.)

Every night we sing that God loves us with an unending love, a forever love, a love which spans worlds. Ahavat olam beit Yisrael amcha ahavta -- "You have loved the house of Israel with an ahavat olam, an unending love!" Or, in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro's beautiful poem, set to music so lovingly by Shir Yaakov, We are loved by unending love. (I love that setting and that melody. We'll use it at our evening services during the Days of Awe this year at my shul.)

God's love for us is unending and infinite. I believe that the whole of creation, from the most microcosmic particles to the vastest galaxies, is an expression of divine love. God so overflows with divine love that God brings creation into being in order to have somewhere to direct that love, in order to have conscious beings with whom God can be in loving relationship.

And the Days of Awe are all about love. Even the parts which seem, on the surface, to be about justice and repentance. Because God loves us, we are always already forgiven...but that doesn't obviate our need to do the work of teshuvah, to repair what's been broken in our selves and our relationships and our world.

FingerpaintingA few weeks ago when the Wednesday morning coffee shop clergy met (to read some of the aforementioned Heschel) we wound up in a conversation about our liturgy and whether/why it matters. One of my colleagues offered the metaphor that all of our fine liturgies, our prayers, our melodies, all of the high pomp and circumstance of these most elevated services of the year...are like a finger-painting a child proudly brings home to the parent. And because that parent loves their kid, they say "How beautiful, sweetie! I love it! I'll hang it on the fridge!"

No loving parent would ever say "Wow, that's a terrible drawing; what kind of artist do you think you are? You should be embarrassed to even bring that into my house." We try so hard to have grand high holiday services, to follow all of the rules and the customs of our communities, to make these services as perfect as possible. And sure, our efforts matter. But God isn't up there somewhere muttering to Himself, "what terrible artists. They should be embarrassed to even bring that into My house." God is the loving parent Who says, "How beautiful, sweetie -- you made Me a service! I love it! I'll treasure it."

Because God knows we're doing the best we can do. With our services -- with our spiritual lives -- with our lives writ large. And God loves us even though we make mistakes all the time, and even though our art isn't so great. We are loved by unending love. Even if we haven't set foot inside a synagogue since last Yom Kippur, even if we've been steadfastly ignoring God and forgetting to check in every day and every week and every month, even if we've screwed up royally. We are loved. And because we are loved, we have the strength to love in return.


#BlogElul 20: Judge | On why God-as-judge challenges me, and why I still need the metaphor


One of the predominant images in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

One of the most challenging images (for me) in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

It's so easy to think of the human judges who have not ruled justly, and to project our anxiety about unjust human rule onto God. To respond with reactivity: I don't want to be judged. To buy into that ugly old line which says that Judaism is a religion of stern and strict Law (while Christianity, the unjust saying goes, is the corrective, a religion of Love.) Ugh. No offense intended to my Christian friends and loved ones; that's just such an appalling (and incorrect) oversimplification.

What fascinates me this year is this: even though I know better than to swallow any of that old negativity, it still crops up in my consciousness. I still struggle sometimes with the metaphor of God as judge.

But it is a metaphor. As surely as any of our terms for God are metaphor. God isn't really a Father or a King or a Judge, a Mother or a Beloved or a Wellspring. And at the same time God is all of those things and more. God is the limitless ein-sof of the kabbalists' imagining, that infinity without-end which human minds can't possibly grasp. And God is every one of the qualities we find in the sefirot as they flow and chain and spiral into creation; God is boundless love and boundaried strength and the balance between the two, God is endurance and humble splendor and generativity, God is immanent in all creation. God is masculine and God is feminine and God is neither and God is both. And God is Friend...and God is Judge.

God-as-judge can be a powerful metaphor -- but we have to remember that it's only a metaphor, and that it isn't the only metaphor. If God is a judge, S/He is the Judge Who rules with the perfect balance of strength and compassion, discernment and mercy.

When we hear that a person has died, the traditional response is Baruch dayan ha-emet, usually rendered as "blessed is the True Judge" or "blessed is the Judge of Truth." Rabbi Marcia Prager taught me that since the word emet, truth, contains the first, middle, and last letters of the alef-bet (א, מ, ת), we can creatively read  Baruch dayan ha-emet as "Blessed is the judge of beginnings, middles, and endings." Perhaps that's one sense in which God is our Judge: God is present, with clarity and discernment, as our lives begin and unfold and end.

And God is that moral force which calls us to be our best selves, which pushes us to recognize when we are falling down on that job, which goads us to notice how we could be better in the year to come. At least once a year we all come before the One and have to make a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls. As much as I love the personal metaphors for God -- Mother, Beloved, Parent, Source -- I recognize that there's a certain kind of awe-some trembling in which I don't necessarily engage when it comes to those more intimate metaphors. At this season, I need God to be a Judge so that I can meet that aspect of God Which helps me to judge myself.

Judge is a partzuf, a face or form or visage or mask through which we can relate to the Infinite. It's not the only mask God wears, but it is one of the ones we most often call upon in our High Holiday liturgy. What role does this partzuf serve for us? What is it that we need to call forth in ourselves which we can only call forth when we find ourselves face-to-face with this aspect of God?

#BlogElul 16: Change

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven..."


Many of us sing that song (in its setting by The Byrds) during Sukkot, the festival of harvest and impermanence, which begins four days after Yom Kippur. The megillah (scroll) assigned to that festival is Kohelet, after all -- known in English as Ecclesiastes -- which is the source of that bit of scripture.

We may study Kohelet during Sukkot in particular, but impermanence is a reality all year long. Change is a constant. Even when things appear to be standing still, subtle change is always unfolding.

I'm particularly conscious of this at this time of year, when the glorious greenery of the Berkshire hills begins to shift. Early in August, the first yellow or red maple leaf blows across my line of sight. I always feel a pang. I love the long days of summertime, the golden light, the abundance of flowers and leaves and vegetables and fruits. I'm not ready!

But I know that part of what makes the Berkshire summers so glorious is that they don't last forever. (In the words of House Stark, for any Game of Thrones among you: Winter is coming.) We don't live in the tropics; the days here shift, longer to shorter, warm to cold, and then back again. The real beauty is in the rhythm of the constant change.

Seasons are cyclical; human life is linear, more or less. (Though my good friend Reb Jeff wrote a beautiful post recently about how human life isn't really as linear as we tend to think -- Contrast and Commonality -- which I highly recommend.) There are cycles and circles and recurring themes in every human life, but outside of science fiction we experience the arrow of time going in one direction. We're all growing older, every day; moving further away from the transition into this life, and toward the transition out of this life. But as with the seasons, part of the work of this life is learning to find the beauty in the change, instead of getting too attached to any stage along the way.

I love having a not-quite-four-year-old. This is a charming, fun, funny, exuberant, wonderful age. There are moments when I think: I wish I could hit a cosmic "pause" button and stay with this age, because I love the person our son is right now! I love the cuddles and the silly songs and the goofiness and the earnest sweetness. But then I remember: if I could somehow pause him at this age, I wouldn't get to experience the blessings (and challenges, and frustrations) of what comes next. And what comes after that.

In parenting, it often seems that the only constant is change. I remember when he was an infant and I would become exasperated because just when it seemed we'd "figured him out," and knew how to soothe and comfort him, something would change and the old techniques wouldn't work anymore. The changes are different now than they were then, but change is still the constant.

Though I like to think that love is the real constant. Change is inevitable, change is always unfolding -- but our ability to love one another remains. Our sages teach us that this month’s name, Elul / אלול, can be read as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי / “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. (That’s from Song of Songs.) The Beloved, in this case, is God; this is our month for remembering that we can experience God not only as King and Ruler and Judge (the metaphors so prevalent in the traditional high holiday liturgy) but also as our Beloved and our Friend. This is the month when God walks in the fields with us, yearning to connect with us Friend-to-friend, Beloved-to-beloved. Life is change, but love always remains.

God is in the tragedy too

On the evening of the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a post called God is in the helpers, in which I cited the Reverend Kate Braestrup's articulation that God is not in the disaster: rather, we find God in our response to disaster. God, I wrote, is not in the trauma, but in the helping hands.

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, replied to me privately to say that while he agrees with me that it is better to look for God in the helpers than in a tragedy, he's hesitant to follow me into the idea that God cannot be found in the tragedy itself. His gentle note spurred me to approach this again, now that some time has passed and I can begin to relate to the tragedy in a different way.

Where is God in that?

Human life is marked with sorrow. One natural response to sorrow and tragedy is to demand: where is God in this? As a rabbi, I have been blessed (and painfully challenged) with that question. I remember ministering many years ago to a woman who had suffered a grievous trauma, who turned to me and spat, "Where the F*&! is God in that, huh?" And all I could say, in that moment, was: I hear you. And I honor your pain.

When I am wearing my pastoral care kippah, I can say: we find God not in the trauma, but in the ways we care for each other. God is not in the shooting or the bombing, but in the hands which cradle and nurse the victims back to health -- and the hands and hearts which cradle and care for those who grieve.

I resist the notion that God is the mighty string-puller and that we are His marionettes -- that God is "up there" choosing when a child is killed, or when a tsunami drowns thousands, or when some damaged and broken person plants bombs at the finish line of a marathon. God does not "do that to us." I do not accept the image of God as traumatizer or batterer, the Big Man in the sky who abuses humanity at His own whim. For me, God is most fundamentally found in the love and compassion we show toward each other, not in the tragedies which we encounter.

And yet God is in the fire; in the hurricane or earthquake; even in the gunman or the shrapnel or the bomb. Depending, of course, on what we think we mean by saying "God is in..." anything.

Continue reading "God is in the tragedy too" »

Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)

Back in early 2009, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Adler for Zeek. My interview with her ran in the spring 2009 print edition of Zeek, the Sex, Gender, and God issue. (I posted about that here at the time.) Zeek no longer does a print edition, and I'm not sure it's possible to buy that back issue anymore, so in advance of Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler's keynote presentations at the OHALAH conference next week, I'm reprinting the interview I did with her. (As it happens, I did the interview by phone from OHALAH, so there's a sense of things coming full circle for me!)


Rachel Adler is one of the foremothers of Jewish feminism. In 1971, she published an article entitled "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman" in Davka magazine. Many now consider that article to have been the springboard that launched Jewish feminism into the world.

Adler's "Engendering Judaism" is a germinal classic of Jewish feminism. She was one of the first theologians to read Jewish texts through the lens of feminist perspectives and concerns -- work she's still doing today, as a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College Rabbinic School.

I spoke with her from the hallowed halls of the Hotel Boulderado where I was attending the annual meeting of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- a profoundly feminist organization which owes its existence in part to her work. We talked about entrails (she's working on a reading of Mary Douglas' work on Leviticus), congregational politics, the new Hebrew edition of "Engendering Judaism," and her hopes for the future of Jewish feminism.

Our conversation made me realize just how far we've come, and how grateful I feel to be living and learning in a time when Adler's work is part of the liberal Jewish canon. --Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Your roots are in Orthodoxy; today you teach at Hebrew Union College. Can you give us a nutshell version of how you moved from point A to point B?

ADLER: Actually I'm a 5th generation Reform Jew, but became Orthodox in my late teens. I was Orthodox for more than twenty years, but eventually returned to Reform Judaism. I joke that I am a round-trip baalat teshuva.

51qPmncYryL._SS500_ZEEK: "Engendering Judaism" came out in 1998 -- more than ten years ago now. Do you still consider it to be a radical text?

ADLER: Yes. In Engendering Judaism I propose a basis for a progressive halakha -- a pro-active, rather than reactive, halakha which is formed at the grass roots level. I also propose a wedding ceremony which is egalitarian and halakhically feasible. And I propose that our sexuality is part of our divine image. All of these things still strike my students as radical.

ZEEK: You've argued that until "progressive Judaisms" attend to the impact of gender and sexuality, they can't engender Jewish life in which women are equal participants. Have you experienced hostility to this view, either from within progressive Judaism or from folks outside of this sphere?

ADLER: Orthodox Jews don't make pronouncements on what progressive Judaisms need to be more progressive. It's progressive Jews who sometimes pay lip service to the need for egalitarianism, and then when it comes to think tanks or executive positions in Jewish institutions don't include women.

ZEEK: You've raised the point that relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. Thinking in terms of "Women in Judaism" suggests that women are a kind of add-on to the normative body of Jewish tradition, in maybe the same way that studying "Women's literature" implies that literature writ large is necessarily in the purview of men...

ADLER: Actually I footnoted this point. It was made by another scholar, Miriam Peskowitz. Most academic disciplines now view gender as an area for scholarship by both women and men. That makes sense, since gender,both feminine and masculine, is a changing variable, affected by social and historical context.

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

ZEEK: On a related note, you've written that you're interested not only in critiquing androcentric structures but in healing Judaism -- that your goal is not judgement but restoration. Does this tie in with the ethical task I just mentioned?

ADLER: Absolutely. Judaism is not a system on which I'm passing judgment from a distance. It is my home in the universe. I'm concerned that I and other women be full and equally privileged residents in our home.

Continue reading "Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)" »


I promise to try to begin and end each day with gratitude.

I promise to try to remember to say thank you for everything which sustains me: morning shower, cup of coffee, the reheated leftovers of the meal my husband lovingly made last night.

I promise to do my best to pay attention to the world: the illimitable stream of beauties and surprises and sweetness, and the endless unfolding of sorrow and hurt.

I promise to try to find the blessing in everything.

I promise to try to relate to each person everywhere as a holy being who merits my respect.

I promise that I will try to be kind, and I will try to keep my heart open.

I promise that I will try to be compassionate with myself when I fail to live up to these promises, when I have to pick myself up and try again, and again.

In return, God promises me this breath, and the next, and the next -- until such time as my breathing comes to an end. God promises me this moment.

God promises to continue speaking creation into being and breathing life into all things.

God promises to stream blessing into the world.

God promises to take me where I need to be, even if it isn't always where I want to go.

God promises to be in relationship with me always, even though I can hardly grasp what that relationship would mean.

God promises to listen when I speak, even if God can't talk back.

God promises that I will never be alone.


This week in our b'nei mitzvah prep program we're studying brit -- covenant. As Jews we understand ourselves always to be in perennial communal covenant with God, a covenant which is symbolized by our keeping Shabbat and practicing brit milah. I believe we're also always in individual covenant with God, too, and I'll be inviting the students to write their own personal brit with God. I didn't want to ask them to do something I hadn't tried first myself, so here is mine.

Sex, Gender, and God at Zeek

The spring 2009 print issue of Zeek magazine is on the theme of Sex, Gender, and God. Guest-edited by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the issue features essays by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser ("Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?"), Rabbi Elliot Kukla ("Lepers and me"), Rabbi Julia Watts Belser ("Speaking of Goddess") and Judith Plaskow ("Why Feminist Theology Matters"), among others. Also poems by Eve Grubin and Alicia Ostriker, and visual art by Elyse Taylor, Bara Sapir, Rachel Kantor, and many others.

My contribution to the issue is an interview with Rachel Adler, author of the classic Engendering Judaism. Rachel and I spoke about how Engendering Judaism is still a radical text, how she came to self-define as a theologian, and what gives her hope for the future of Jewish liturgical creativity, among other things. Here's a taste:

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

The whole interview is available in the print edition of the magazine. You can subscribe to the print edition of Zeek here. Thanks to everyone involved with putting out the issue; I hope y'all enjoy!

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On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam

In my Qur'an class, we've been reading Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (commonly called Ibn Rushd; also known as Averroes, a Latinate distortion of Ibn Rushd), specifically his "Decisive Treatise Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy."

Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and dialectical theology. On the request of the amir Abu Ya'qub, who reigned in Morocco in the late 1100s, Ibn Rushd took on the task of rendering Aristotle's work in a way that would be intelligible within a Muslim framework. In 1182, Ibn Rushd took on the position of chief physician to Abu Ya'qub in Marrakesh; he was also engaged, during those years, in writing the Decisive Treatise, a fatwa which aimed to answer the question of "whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by the Law, or prohibited, or commanded -- either by way of recommendation or as obligatory."

Some of you may recall that I've been reading Rambam in my Codes class. Rambam (the name is an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; in Arabic he's known as Musa ibn Maymun, and in Greek as Maimonides) was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher. Like Ibn Rushd, he was born in Cordoba (in 1135), and like Ibn Rushd he later moved to Morocco. (Rambam also lived in Egypt.)

Both men were doctors. Both men were philosophers. Both men were religious leaders. And both men argued against the stance that philosophy (the science of the day) was incompatible with religious belief. On the contrary, they argued, the truths of reason and philosophy are entirely consonant with God's revelations to us. It is incumbent on us as people of faith to seek to know God, and one of the ways we seek to know God is through understanding God's creation using every tool available to us -- including philosophy.

(I'm not the first person to make this leap. Jacob Bender has a lovely essay about Rambam, Ibn Rushd, and Aquinas called Lessons from Three Wise Men: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas. So it's not a new connection, but it's a new one for me, and I think this is so cool.)

Continue reading "On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam" »

First theomorphism class

I'm taking a class this summer with Shaiya Rothberg on theomorphism. The class aims to explore the image of God in Jewish tradition. Does God have an image? Well, that's the open question. In general, if you ask Jews whether God has an image or a body, the answer is "of course not!" Sure, Torah frequently speaks in those terms, but those passages are meant to be read metaphorically. (If this subject interests you, read on; what follows is a recap of the remarks that opened class, before we got to the hevruta/paired text study.)

God doesn't have an image: that's the standard answer because we're products of the Maimonidean tradition. Rambam (a.k.a. Maimonides) was deeply influenced by Aristotelianism, and also by Islamic thought. His Guide to the Perplexed regards the anthropomorphism in Torah as completely metaphorical. There's a sense that matter, physicality, is "lower" or less valuable than mind/spirit. God is understood as pure form/intellect, transcending the material stuff that one can perceive using physical senses.

We've inherited that idea, and we've also inherited a lot of ideas from the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the beginning of the academic study of Judaism in the nineteenth century. (Think Biblical criticism, documentary hypothesis, all that jazz.) That generation of scholars got to determine the meaning of Jewish sources and how they would present those sources to the world, and they were deeply invested in this idea of a formless God. That was a period of time when "mythology" was a dirty word. Mythology, paganism, anthropomorphism: all of that stuff was seen as inferior.

Continue reading "First theomorphism class" »

Theodicy meme

Iyov tagged me to respond to a theodicy meme which goes as follows:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

Whew. While I'm always pleased to see the blogosphere engaging with weighty questions, I can't really imagine answering these in a satisfying manner in a single blog post!

I don't think these are the right questions to ask. I get hung-up on the first phrase of the first question: "if the nature of God is..." If I had to try to characterize the "nature" of "God," the best quick answer I can offer is that God is multifaceted and arguably ultimately unknowable, at least through intellectual means.  The framing of the question seems to presume a pretty limited conception of God, and for me a sincere exploration of theodicy requires some different assumptions.

I took a powerful class on theodicy last summer. It helped me realize that we've always struggled to reconcile our understanding of a just and good God with the realities of suffering as we experience them. Over time, our responses to these questions have shifted as our paradigm has shifted. The Biblical answers to these questions differ from the Rabbinic answers to these questions which differ from the kabbalistic answers to these questions. (And so on.) I take comfort in the notion that our responses to these questions can shift, have shifted, must shift as we change and grow, both as individuals and as a community.

For me, the question to ask is not "how could God allow suffering," but "given the reality of suffering, how can we respond in a way that is whole and holy?" How can we respond to suffering -- our own, and others' -- with love and compassion? Near as I can tell, suffering is part of existence. Why that's the case isn't an especially compelling question for me. I'm much more interested in what we do about it; how we relate to one another, and to God, given the reality of injustice and suffering in our world. Sure, we can put God on trial for allowing suffering to occur...but while we're at it, we'd better do the same for ourselves.

I'm not big on tagging people to follow memes. If you find these questions compelling, or if you'd like to take this ball and run with it (in whatever form), please do, and drop me a comment so I can check out your response. Thanks for the tag, Iyov; this was a thought-provoking way to begin my day!

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Body and soul

The rabbis said "the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah," meaning that the commandment is rewarded by the nearness to God that the one who performs it feels, the joy of spirit that lies within the deed. This indeed is "a greeting of the shekhinah," and without it the commandment is empty and lifeless, the body-shell of a mitzvah without any soul.

-- The Me'or Eynayim on a verse from parashat Vayera (as translated by Art Green)

How can I try to ensure that the mitzvot I do have both body and soul?

The question presupposes that I'm doing mitzvot in the first place. I hope that I am; I mean to be; but too many times I've let the perfect become the enemy of the good. One of the most insidious forms the yetzer ha-ra ("evil impulse") takes for me is the whisper that if I can't do something right, I might as well not do it at all. If I can’t take the time to daven all of shacharit, slowly and with intention in every prayer, I might as well just skip it and try again tomorrow. Or if I can't make the time for a long visit with someone who is sick or sad or suffering, I might as well let them be and wait until I really have the time to engage before I call. I have a perfectionist streak, and my yetzer ha-ra knows that.

How to work around this? The practice of doing small mitzvot even when I don't have the space or the ability to do large ones. Even if I can't daven for an hour every morning, I can try Reb Zalman’s suggested practice of the seven-minute daven, which at least gets me plugged-in and connected. I can't feed all the hungry in our town, but we can open our home to a friend in need of respite and soul-care. And so on. There is always -- there will always be -- more work to do in the world and on myself. So my imperfections are no reason to throw in the towel. (Take that, yetzer ha-ra.) And neither is losing the kavanah (intention or focus) I meant to bring to any given mitzvah.

During meditation minyan, my rabbi used to remind us that in mindfulness practice, it's natural to lose focus. The mind runs in circles like a puppy; we can't change that. So when focus vanishes, he told us, just recognize that reality and let it go, without self-castigation; return to the breath and try again. It's as true when I'm trying to do mitzvot as it is when I'm trying to meditate. The yetzer ha-ra would prefer that I sink a bunch of time and energy in kicking myself for screwing up, so I've got my work cut out for me.

I would like to be someone who is perennially conscious of God’s presence in all things. Spiritual muscle memory helps; I'm working on training myself to respond to the world in grateful and mindful ways, but sometimes it's slow going. One way or another, the work of "ensoulling" mitzvot is, for me, a form of mindfulness practice.

Of course, as something becomes commonplace or familiar it can fade into the background. For a while I wanted a shviti desktop image, so that every time I looked at my computer screen I would be reminded to keep the divine presence before me. In lieu of an actual shviti, I've been using an image of the ceiling from an old Budapest synagogue. Which was terrific until it became like wallpaper. Now most of the time my eyes scan right over it, which means it loses its mnemonic power. That's human nature -- or the yetzer ha-ra at work; pick your paradigm -- and it requires me to be creative in reminding myself of God.

I know I'll slip up. What's important is how I pull myself back to the focus I'm aiming for. In Yosher Divrei Emet, the text I've been learning on Sunday evenings, R' Meshullam Feibush writes that it doesn't so much matter whether we manage to truly achieve devekut (full cleaving-to, or union with, God) -- what matters is that we continue to strive toward it, even knowing it may be out of reach.

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The Faith Between Us

Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal: a former wannabe Catholic priest and a self-described "failed Jewish mystic." Close friends. Co-authors of The Faith Between Us, a book which charts their dialogue about everything from marriage proposals to veganism, parables and mysticism and the pursuit of authentic religious faith. Both men have long literary pedigrees; they've been regular contributors to McSweeney's and Killing The Buddha, and Peter is one of my colleagues at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Together, they fight crime. Okay, no, they don't. But they've written one hell of a book.

This book began with what has become, for many of us, a not-so-innocent and not-so-simple question: Do you believe in God?

We're nervous even to ask; simply posing the question reveals something about you, if only that you're earnest enough to care. And answering in either direction, yes or no, can often feel like a great risk, depending on the company you keep. This kind of exposure can be embarrassing. The question catches us with our, yes, Proverbial pants down.... We step carefully around the question: Do you believe?

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

In the introduction, Scott and Peter talk about existing "on the religious fringe" as undergrads, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. (I know the feeling.) And about studying theology in graduate school, yearning to reconcile the desire for intellectual integrity with religious devotion that was unquestionably irrational, but was powerful nonetheless. (Yep. I know that feeling too.) And they talk about their friendship, and what it opened up for and in them.

Continue reading "The Faith Between Us" »

Conversation with R' Feibush Heller, z"l

Sometimes the material I'm reading for my rabbinic school classes speaks to me on levels beyond the intellectual. That's when I find these ideas weaving their way into the poems I'm working on.

Like this one. Which I shared with my classmates, and they liked it, so I'll share it with you:


Stacking wood, I'm thinking
about Meshullam Feibush.
How can I separate
from the insidious desires
of the temporary self, that voice

which whispers "today I want
warmer socks and a box of truffles
and praise from the people around me
and an easy shortcut
to everything I don't yet know?"

It's not so simple
to dedicate myself to wisdom,
to the river of conversation
flowing always toward Eden,
to the work I know the world demands.

Tough luck, the rav says.
I'm telling you how to taste paradise:
not despite everything
that’s appealing or uneven,
shards unwilling to reassemble,

but because in multiplicity
we can train ourselves
to notice both sides of the coin,
the radiance and the source
and how they are one.


R' Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh was an early Hasidic rabbi, and most of the ideas in this poem are drawn from my understanding of his work. You can read about him and his circle, and get a taste for his teachings, in the book Uniter of Heaven and Earth by Rabbi Miles Krassen, a.k.a. Moshe Aharon, with whom I am blessed to be learning this fall.

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