The Kol Aleph Blog
Mashivah ha-Ruach u-Moridah ha-Geshem: R. Bonna Devora Haberman and her contribution to and vision for the AOP Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope Program
לזכר רבינו ומורתינו בנה דבורה בת שולמית ויעקב הכהן הברמן ז”ל
משיבה הרוח ומורידה הגשם
She who causes inspiration to flow, who brings spirit into—and draws it from — the deepest reaches of earth’s body
Our great friendships mark us. And all the more so when that friend is a rav-haver, at once a blazingly original teacher and a soul-friend, a comrade on the path (also thirsty for God) and a co-worker in the garden of Torah. This is a reflection on R. Bonna Devora Haberman z”l, one of the progenitors of the AOP Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope and a teacher to so many of us.
In memory of her vision, passion, and deep love for Israel and this program, we are honored to create a fund in her name that will support the continued development of Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope (Bonna Haberman Memorial Campaign Fund). This fund will ensure this program continues to blossom and grow as a way of disseminating Bonna’s vision and deep Torah.
We are proud to announce that we will also be crafting an evening of learning and action (yom iyyun uma’aseh) in memory of Bonna, as part of the ALEPH Ba’Aretz Residential Program in Summer 2018. And participating students will be reading from Bonna’s two books in the spring semester of the telecourse, both ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter and Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink. Join us on the Journey!!
כל התחלות קשות: IT AIN’T EASY TO BEGIN. Four years ago, the Vaad in active collaboration with the Student Board crafted a theme-based Smicha Week (SW) program devoted to the study of Israel: from the history of Zionism and classical ahavat tziyyon to Israeli music; from questions of a two-state solution to the raging politics of BDS. We did so in part because we felt we had neglected a key aspect of our Jewish and Rabbinic education: Israel and Palestine in their historical and contemporary dimensions. The SW program was a worthy start, but only that—a forshpeiz or mezze. As Franz Rosenzweig said on the eve of launching the Lehrhaus in 1920: Zeit ist. It was time for us in ALEPH to go deeper!
Even as the SW Israel sub-committee began its vital work, another sub-committee, composed of R. Ruth Gan Kagan, R. Marcia Prager and yours truly began brainstorming about a residence program in Israel. As that spring and summer unfolded, the vision was catalyzed as my dear friend Bonna Devora Haberman and I joined forces to envision an ALEPH Residential Program in Israel, a beit midrash u-ma’aseh, that would draw on the 4 worlds vision of Renewal. We would dig deep into the Sources and engage burning issues emerging from the Hour and from the Place. We were immersed in that holy work till Bonna’s death, tragically and way too soon at age 55, from ovarian cancer, in June 2015.
THE VISION: Meeting in person and on Skype, Bonna and I envisioned a pilot year program that would create the first steps and infrastructure for a regularly occurring בית מדרש-ומעשה (Bonna’s name and concept), a home for engaged psycho-spiritual inquiry and integrative seeking and living. It was to be a place where the Shekhinah unfolds in the-between: between teachers and students, between all learners, between text and reader, between self and Other, and between the kavvanah and its realization. By being organically rooted in Israel and in Renewal, our learning would address (be it directly or more subtly, בעקיפין, through the backdoor to the heart):
- the place of Place—of Israel and Homecoming, viz., the Zionist experiment; cultural diversity, symbiosis and culture clash; and the place of Land. How, we asked, might we learn with the Land, rather than merely seek to dominate it, in the one spot on earth that has a Jewish majority society? How might we imaginatively “open up” texts with Israel in mind, using it as an interpretive lens?
- The imprint of the Jewish calendar/sacred history on communal life and on the body, learning al besarenu: experiencing distinct Shabbatot, and (given the season) the arc of the Three Weeks culminating in Tisha B’av (bein ha-metzarim) before reaching the consolation of Shabbat Nahamu and Tu B’av, the holiday of love. Most of our AOP students have not had significant experience with this temporal flow in a large-scale, socially legitimated (and publicly shared) setting. We sought not only to enter the printed word but the “text” that is the world: i.e., to experience mimetic learning, where the street/the home/אוירא דארעא/kitchen Judaism becomes the text.
- Holding the clash of rooted Visions, Jewish and Palestinian. We saw ourselves as insider-outsiders, ready to experience, with open eyes and open hearts, the moral dilemmas of the Palestinian-Israeli (Jewish) conflict, the underlying fears and hopes that galvanize (and freeze) both societies. That our homecoming has coincided with the displacement of another indigenous people—the Palestinians — is one of the core Jewish ethical dilemmas of our time. Our love for Israel unites many of us; our complex feelings about its politics also divides (Sometimes each of us, individually, is that familial “us”—each of us olam qatan, a microcosm of the larger divisions.) How, we asked, can we draw on our commitment to Deep Ecumenism, to building bridges between Jews, and between Palestinians and Jews, as we traverse this holy, freighted terrain? How can we dig deeper into Palestinian stories? How can we continue to love those Jews we don’t much “like”? How can we stretch our kelim, expand our capacities to hold this complexity? Our learning would be both anchored in Jerusalem, but extend outside that “bubble,” into the periphery and in the Palestinian territories, in Tel Aviv and at archeological tells. Our learning would be intellectually rigorous, but would also incorporate chant and prayer, silence and hashpa’ah, movement and street theatre: we would open our hearts to receive, begin to integrate, and stretch forth our hands to humbly “offer” and give something back! (I remember a teaching-sharing-theatre experiment that Bonna sketched to be “offered up” to residents in Sderot. And I remember the work she did with a group of high-tech innovators who got together once a week for a year to imagine another world. The premise: The Mashiach has come. Now what?…Bonna, yehi zikhra barukh, could do this daring work, she could pull this off!!) And there was the audacious, raw work of the grass-roots Palestinian-Israeli YTheater, more of which, below. In April 2014, in the full flush of her powers, Bonna received her devastating diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer. There were months when it seems that Bonna would overcome the severe decree, running for several miles and doing daily yoga, continuing to write and raising up students, but by May 2015, the prognosis was becoming ineluctable and bleak. As the strength began to drain from her body, and the tumor swelled, we continued to meet face-to-face in her Jerusalem home, in short spurts. I was committed to downloading elements of her teaching, pledging that I, along with an intimate circle of friends, would each nurture and realize a piece of her multi-tiered, radical vision of Possibility, ha-efshar.
I must confess that Bonna’s death knocked the wind out of my sails. I have never mourned for a non-family member with the intensity that I (and so many others) grieved her passing. It was a body blow, and a hit to the neshamah. We say that certain people are irreplaceable, but in Bonna’s case it was profoundly, achingly true. Who else combined so many worlds? It was only half a year later when Caryn Aviv stepped forward, with her vision of a 4 part-Israel-Palestine program that I was able to see a powerful, worthy way forward. Of that catalytic partnership with Caryn, I will speak another time. Suffice it to say, elements of Bonna’s vision and our work together remain imprinted in the AOP Israel-Palestine Beloved Land program: to give but two examples, in Minna Bromberg’s Torah of the Everyday, תורת היום-יום, and in our commitment to hold complexity and, despite it all, to nurture hope and joy.
THE VISIONARY: So, who is (ok, was) Bonna? A Canadian born yekirat yerushalayim (noble citizen of Jerusalem), an intellectual seeker with a huge heart, a ritual artist, a feminist-visionary Torah teacher, organic gardener and yogini, co-founder of Women of the Wall, a loving mother, wife and mentor to a generation of seekers: unflinchingly honest, with unflagging courage, creative resilience and never-say-die energy. She received her Ph.D. in ethics and education from the University of London, studied Theater of the Oppressed with its founder Augusto Boal, and taught Judaic and Gender Studies at the Hebrew University, at the Harvard University Divinity School and at Brandeis University where she founded and directed the “Mistabra Institute for Jewish Textual Activism” – addressing difficult texts and social problems using performance arts. In addition to her leadership in Women of the Wall, she was an advocate of Religious Pluralism, for nurturing and trumpeting Women’s Voices. And oh yes, she was a mother of 5 exceptional children, and life-partner/spouse to Shmuel. Two quick stories: Over twenty years ago, just after she had given birth to her youngest child (Adir Chai), Bonna ran into Ruth Gan Kagan and Melila. Bonna spoke about her natural childbirth, which, of course (it being Bonna), was devoid of anesthetics and pain relievers. Was it painful? Melila asked. “Painful?” Bonna paused, thinking: “I wouldn’t say painful, I’d say intense.” (If you know Bonna, that story is funny!)
The second story, which I heard from Nigel Savage captures Bonna’s ability to uphold the Rabbinic dictum “ha-lomed mi-kol adam,” that we should learn from all people (and by extension, all creatures). After her third child was born, Nigel asked her, ” Have you and Shmuel decided what to call him?” Bonna answered, “no, the baby will tell us.” Several days later at the brit milah, Bonna announced, “his name is Bezalel – first, because his skin is peeling like a batzal (like an onion); and second, because he is (like the Biblical Bezalel) a builder.” Today, more than twenty-five years on, he’s a budding biomechanical engineer. It turns out that Bonna was indeed able to listen to her baby boy as he told her his name – as she listened, intently, to all her kids, and learned from them, even as she taught them and everyone she encountered simply by her presence.
For all her intellectual rigor, Bonna was a healer: able to bridge —often ‘al besarah-—worlds of Arabs and Jews, with honesty, unblinking clarity, and the open heart. She was a master-teacher, a visionary with feet that danced on the earth, a scholar who innovated both in the academy and beyond its walls, a ritual artist who brought down the shefa (the divine flow) and opened apertures, a bridge-builder (gosheret gesharim) and as noted, co-founder (with Kader Herini) of the community based YTheater Project that brought together Palestinians and Israelis, who did not agree on much, to create art that spanned worlds and three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Bonna did not whitewash. Bonna did not flinch from being who she was. She did not crumple. She was ohevet yisrael and a Zionist (one who loved the people and land of Israel). She offered (and received) criticism in the most loving way I have witnessed, as an act of love.
She stretched across difference to behold the divinity of the Other. Life, for her, was a series of birthing’s….and she too, was an em kol hai, a mother who gave us all greater Life. To see her was to see the Face of the Shekhinah.
While Bonna had a home in the world of Jewish Renewal, her lineage opened wide, receiving Torah from Nechama Leibowitz and feminist path blazer Helene Cixous, from Rabbis Louis Jacobs and David Hartman, from Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. (Indeed, on the day before Reb Zalman died he called Bonna, repeating his delight in giving her smicha.)
Bonna, of course was supremely embodied: an athlete, strong and slim, with no excess weight: while teaching at the ALEPH Smicha Week in New Hampshire nearly four years ago, she would run in the morning and swim across the lake in the afternoon. When other runners and trekkers would toss in the towel, not Bonna. Hence her family nickname: “never-say-die-Haberman.”
The shock then of her passing was devastating. If we are all unique beings, Bonna was the rare irreplaceable voice. I still feel her presence as I walk the streets of the Moshava Germanit in Jerusalem; I still sense her inspiration as I encounter the pomegranate trees budding in her and Shmuel’s back yard, or hear her son Adir Chai give over his Torah. (The rimmon–the pomegranate– doesn’t fall too far from the tree.) Bonna was a spiritual provocateur, who prodded us to our best, largest selves; who challenged regnant orthodoxies with verve but also love. She was a close reader of difficult texts, one who birthed new-old Torah, millin hadtin atiqin. Even in her dying days, she had moments of sheer radiance and pellucidity, her thin frame growing gaunt as a finger, but illumined from the inside out. The wheels were always turning. It is a great if bittersweet joy, to live with her inspiration, and to bring some of that vision into Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope.
For those who wish to experience a late teaching of Bonna’s, read A Personal Reflection on a Difficult Journey to Liberation on Bonna’s blog. She ends “I send you blessings for the liberation you seek in this world.” And she has….
Reb Elliot Ginsburg
Please join us in honoring Rabbi Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman’s life, work and spirit with your donation today. Your support of Beloved Land: Israel and Palestine Through the Kaleidoscope ensures Jewish Renewal leaders are empowered to better serve their communities through the immersive study of texts and cultures she so deeply loved, and infused with a passion of social betterment.
Wed. June 21, 2017
ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is pleased to welcome Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper as the incoming Chair of the ALEPH Board, joined by Linda Jo Doctor as Vice-Chair.
Said Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper, “I take up leadership of the ALEPH Board with humility and gratitude. I am excited to work with the ALEPH board to advance the legacy of Reb Zalman by providing support for existing programs, creating new opportunities for current and emerging spiritual leaders, and nurturing the growth of Jewish communities that showcase transformational Judaism. We have a brilliant and talented team of spiritual teachers and staff to accomplish these tasks, and we approach these challenges with energy and enthusiasm.”
The ALEPH Board expresses its deep gratitude and appreciation to outgoing ALEPH Board Co-chairs Rabbis Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus for their leadership and creative energy that they brought to ALEPH. Incoming Board Chair Klipper states, “Thanks to their dedicated efforts, as well as the work of Executive Director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, ALEPH today is poised for continuing growth in its mission of creating a vibrant Jewish spirituality that is inclusive and offers a place for many different conceptions of the Holy.” “The outgoing ALEPH Board Co-chairs were nothing short of tireless,” said incoming Vice-Chair Linda Jo Doctor. “It is an honor to be handed the baton of leadership and follow them in this role.”
Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper, a graduate of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, received his MBA in 1979. After a 24-year career in investment banking, he retired and became a chaplain, Jewish spiritual director, Rabbinic Pastor and a Clinical Pastoral Educator (someone who is certified to train chaplains). He was ordained from the ALEPH Ordination Program in 2007. He joined the ALEPH Board in January, 2015, and subsequently served as Treasurer and on the Board’s Executive Committee.
Linda Jo Doctor brings extensive leadership experience working in nonprofit and government sectors, currently serving as a program officer at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In this role she has supported the development and growth of numerous non-profit organizations and is a founding member of a funders collaborative. She previously served as Chair of the ALEPH Board and rejoined the board in December of 2015. She is a long-time student of Rabbi David Cooper and Shoshana Cooper and is a member of Pardes Hannah Minyan.
Upcoming ALEPH projects programs include this summer’s July Ruach Ha’Aretz retreat and the ALEPH Ordination Program Intensive Study Retreat, both with record enrollment. Look for the forth coming announcement of the biennial ALEPH Kallah 2018, which will bring 600 attendees to a week of Jewish learning, art, music, spirituality, davvenen’ and creativity, which will be held in early July 2018.
The traditional Torah-reading and prophetic passage for Shabbat Shelach L’Cha do three things in their storytelling that today we would not think conventional or “proper”:
- They use puns and word-plays to reach beyond conventional language, to make a deep religious and spiritual point;
- They treat sexuality not with prudish reserve but with relish, as one path toward a life of love and Spirit;
- They treat living not according to convention but on the edge, at the fringes of our selves and of society, as a sacred path to God.
Try that in most of our synagogues, churches, mosques, temples!
In this Torah portion, Moses sent twelve scouts across the Jordan to tour the land (in Hebrew, “latur“). Ten of them came back scared by the “giants,” seemingly impregnable, they found there. They felt that compared to these giants, they themselves were mere “grasshoppers.”
Only two of the scouts found the land inviting. One of them was the Joshua who shows up in the prophetic passage that accompanies this Torah portion. From the panic of the other ten came thirty-eight more years of wandering in the Wilderness (Num. 14).
The bilingual Hebrew-English pun of “latur” and “tour” helps us to see “latur” as indeed a touristy kind of visit, in which the “tourists” merely glance here and there, never deeply gazing, never getting intimately connected with the Land they glance at. (To this very day, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses as its symbol the picture of two ancient Israelites, the scouts Moses sent into the Land, carrying between them a gigantic cluster of grapes, just as the Torah describes them.)
“Latur” is also used in the final verses of the same weekly Torah portion (Num. 15: 37-41) about the tzitzit (fringes) we are to tie on the edges of our four-cornered clothing. There too the verb is used about the danger of just glancing around hither and thither at the world, not really deeply seeing — and thereby whoring (zonim) ourselves after trifles that we erect into false gods.
Gazing at these fringes teaches us to look deeply into the world, not casually like tourists.
How? Because the fringes are threads of connection between each of us and the rest of the world. Our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls do not end at a clear, sharp boundary between our own self and the others. It is not good fences make good neighbors, but good fringes make good neighbors.
As we gaze at the fringes of connection, we remember that if we look deeply at these connections, not merely glancing at others as a tourist might, we see the ONE Who connects us all.
Perhaps the rabbis who chose how to divide up the weekly Torah portions chose to connect this passage about tzitzitwith the one about the scouts precisely because they wanted to connect and highlight “latur.”
The rabbis also assigned as the Haftarah (Prophetic passage) to be read with this Torah portion a report on the scouts whom Joshua sent into the Land thirty-eight years later, as the marching Israelites approach the city of Jericho – a high-walled Canaanite redoubt. Joshua sent only two scouts, as if he had learned the lesson long ago: two is good, twelve is dangerous.
These scouts find themselves in the house of a Jerichoan woman named Rachav.
Her name means “broad.” Think of Psalm 118: 5:
Min hameytzar karati Yah; Anani bamerchav Yah.
“From the narrow place I called to God;“God answered me with broad open spaces [merchav, from the same root as rachav].”
And note that “maytzar, narrow” echoes Mitzrayyim, that Tight and Narrow Place of slavery, that Egypt from which the Israelites are still escaping. It is a broad and open woman who opens the Land to them.
Rachav the Broad is specifically called a whore (zonah). She lives really on the edge – for she entertains her guests in the very edge of the wall that itself is on the edge of Jericho.
But there is something different about this zonah. She turns upside down what it means to be a zonah — deeply different from the “zonim” that the Torah portion warns us against, when it tells us to focus on the fringes of the edges of our garments.
For this whore has fallen in love with YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of all life (for this Name of God can only be “pronounced” by breathing), the God Who has led the Godwrestlers out of slavery.
Rachav knows the Godwrestlers will win because the God Who is the Breath of life has become not a warm and comfortable breeze but the Hurricane of Change. She turns upside down what it means to be a zonah because she knows that God has already turned all history upside down, to free these miserable slaves from the Imperial Pharaoh.
So the Broad who out of all Jericho is by far the most broad-minded, the most wide-open to new possibility, welcomes the two Israelite scouts. She helps the scouts scope out the city.
Now this band of runaway slaves is bringing their revolutionary vision into Canaan, facing a city famous for its walls. She expects the world to be turned upside down – or right-side up – again.
Rachav the Broad asks the scouts she has befriended: “Hishavu-na b’ YHWH — Make an oath, please, by YHWH, that just as I have shown lovingkindness to you, you will show lovingkindness to my family when you take the city.”
But the words for “swear an oath” [hishavu] and “seven” [sheva] make a pun, a word-play. So “Hishavu-na — make an oath, please!” could also mean, “Make a seven, please!”
Make a “seven” for YHWH” — Make the seven creative days for God, the seven days that culminate in Shabbat, the day of open possibility, the day when we do not Make or Do but simply Be. This “seven” of restful self-reflection is what brings down the walls that make our lives narrow, the walls that block our way to a future full of open possibility.
No wonder that when the Godwrestlers did approach the walls of Jericho, they took the advice Rachav had given the scouting party. They made a “seven” for God. They danced seven dances around the walls of Jericho.
No wonder the walls fell.
Rachav the Broad, the whore, knew this wisdom because she lived on the edge like the tzitzit, the fringes on our clothing.
And not only geographically, on the edge of the edge – the edge of the city wall. She was a whore, a “broad.” Broad-minded. Open to visitors, open to the people that itself lives always on the edge.
The Bible is not affirming sexual promiscuity or prostitution. But it is affirming that Rachav has learned how to turn the openness of whoring into a far deeper kind of spiritual openness. She has learned to open herself when it comes to ultimate issues – to open her life to the God of open possibility. She teaches us how to see the deepest truth embodied in the fringey tzitzit, instead of – as the Torah portion warns us — touring and whoring after the false gods of walls, giants, towers, arrogance.
She stands with the Bible’s group of “outsider,” “transgressive” women who have a healing impact on the future (Lot’s daughter, Tamar, Ruth. . .). They challenge the men who dominate most of biblical tradition, which is strongly committed to “insiders” and boundaries. These women were not only transgressive in their own time; their stories continue to be subversive across time, into our own time.
Can we lift up these women in new ways? What would it mean to have a Judaism, a Christianity, an Islam in which they were really models?
The scouts brought tragedy upon the people by looking — like tourists — merely at the surface of the land and at the other people who lived there. Can we look deeply at the land and earth and people, instead of seeing merely surfaces? Can we look deeply enough to heal the earth and air and water, instead of poisoning them to feed our giant appetites for wealth and power? Can we look to see that our neighbors are neither giants nor grasshoppers, but breathing life-forms like ourselves, woven into the Breath of life?
And can we look at our selves and ask – are we still committed to that God of fringiness, the God Who lives on edges, or have we built towers and walls around ourselves, do we preen ourselves on being giants in the land, impregnable – while God is getting ready to turn the world upside down on behalf of runaway slaves?
Puns and word-plays are themselves a kind of fringiness, breaking down the conventional walls and barriers we place between our words, making instead illicit connections that are unexpected, funny. So from the word-plays of this weekly portion can we also learn to pause and laugh at the rigidity we often impose on ourselves in the very name of religion?
We plan, God puns. Not only with words: with life.
Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow is founder of The Shalom Center, a nonprofit organization which seeks to be a prophetic voice in Jewish, American, and multireligious life. Creator of the original Freedom Seder, he is author of several books, among them Freedom Journeys, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman.
Reprinted with permission: https://theshalomcenter.org/node/304
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz
I was approached last week, after a speech I delivered on transgender inclusivity, and was asked if I had transitioned from female to male.
I felt confusion, discomfort, and kinship with all of those who suffer the humiliating injustice that comes from the socially constructed entitlements of others. I wanted to stand with them in solidarity, all children of one God, and somehow help absorb this blow to human dignity.
My initial thought was to respond “Does it make a difference?” instinctively saying to myself, “All lives matter!”. Instead, I replied “No,” because it does make a difference.
The voice of an ally isn’t the same voice as the one who’s been oppressed, marginalized, and struggled against being silenced.
My name is Mike. I’m white, straight, and a cis-gender male. As an educator and rabbi, I have transgender students and congregants. My father is a doctor, as was my grandfather, and I grew up in the suburbs. When I get pulled over by the police, after they see my license, registration, and clergy parking, they often ask for a blessing — and never for me to step out of the vehicle. I also work full time in social justice and, yeah, sometimes it’s awkward, because the systems of oppression that are in place, that we are fighting against, are designed to benefit me, and they have.
I don’t need access to more space and to co-occupy one of vulnerability, especially with preserved asymmetry, can only be offered as an invitation that still requires consent from the one exposed.
I don’t feel rejected when I volunteer to spend May Day swiping a MetroCard for those who find it hard to pay the fare to get to work and am told that I’m not welcomed because I’m white.
However, when people have the resources, power and agency but choose not to extend, expand, and use those spaces for good, I’m offended on a soul level. I perceive it as a perversion of the Divine truth, that God is everywhere all of the time and that everything belongs to God.
God made space for us, and it is God who asks that we echo that holiness by making space for others.
When we see someone or a group of people who are weakened, exposed, and forced into inhumane postures of fragility, this physical weakness gives amplified expression to the screams of their soul — a soul yearning to be held with a respectful acknowledgment of its divine origin. And if we don’t protest this sacrilegious reality, what does our silence reveal about the condition of our soul?
In the Jewish tradition, we offer condolences by invoking a specific aspect of God: המקום ינחם אתכם — Hamakom yenachem etchem (“May the Omnipresent comfort you”).
Of the many different names for God, we use Hamakom (“the Omnipresent”) here as a comforting reminder that no space or circumstance is free from the Divine Presence. By preventing sanctuary, equality, or inclusion, we contribute to the denial of that comfort to humanity.
Spiritual practice demands social consciousness. If a person’s physical, emotional, or mental health is harmed through the denial of human rights or other oppression, then the soul is also limited in its expression. We thereby exclude God from God’s entitled space and ally-ship.
If we want God as our mother, father, parent, then we need to see each other as brothers, sisters, siblings. When we get hurt, we scream out. Not because it helps alleviate the pain, but because if we don’t scream when we are privileged to, then it doesn’t really hurt.
When people are suffering, it is the silence that is awkward.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the senior educator at Uri L’Tzedek, an orthodox social justice organization. He is a vocal advocate for inclusivity for the LGBTQ community, and writes and speaks frequently at the intersection of transgender and Jewish thought.
Rabbi Lori Shaller
I’ve been privileged to have visited and prayed at some of the most amazing holy places in the world. From 17th century churches in England to the Great Mosques in Cordoboa and X’ian; Poseiden’s Temple and Delphi in Greece to the Western Wall of the Temple, Church of the Holy Sepulcher and al-Aksa in Jerusalem; and to the hanging monastery and Buddha grottoes of Datong and Yungang, to name just some. What was true for me in every one of these places was that the ground throbbed, the air was ALIVE. I felt hyper-receptive to a huge variety of stimuli. It was as if all the souls who had prayed in those places over so many generations, all the souls of those who had built those places and in some cases, of those who had been buried in those places, were inhabiting those places with me while I was there. As we read in Torah and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, in those places I felt I should take off my shoes, for the places I was standing were holy ground. I felt absolutely connected across time, cultural experience and religion to the spirits and The One Spirit in those places. And I often feel this way even in the not so ancient or glorious, the permanent and even temporary sacred spaces in the communities in which I daven or lead davenen here in the US.
In Exodus 25:8 God instructs Israel to build a Temple so that God might dwell among the people. Everyone was expected to participate in the building of the sanctuary. The holiness that would be manifested in space, time and the person would come about only through cooperation between God and every human involved. This suggests a somewhat radical idea: that there is a fundamental democracy in the building and inhabiting of holy space, which is not true, as we all know, in every aspect of Biblical Jewish life. But it’s there with regard to the building of the sanctuary.
Rabbi Perry Netter points out that there are fifteen chapters of the Hebrew Bible devoted to building and furnishing the Temple. He compares this to one chapter on creation and two chapters on the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Bible’s authors were meticulous in recording every detail of how the structure, altar and curtains, tables and lamps, and even the rings that would connect the fabrics to the structure, were to be made. Great craftspeople were called in to do the work, people of whom it was said they had “knowing” and “faithful” hands. These too were men and women, all contributing of their skill and knowledge. But it’s the individuals and the community they create and that community’s activity in relationship to Spirit that transform place into sanctuary or sacred space.
In Parshat Naso, we get in similar detail the names of the clans responsible for carrying the tabernacle from place to place and how the parts were to be carried. The Hasidic master, Noam Elimelkh taught a meaning for Numbers 7:9: “To the children of Kohat, he did not give (wagons); theirs is a holy burden, they carry it on their shoulders.” He takes us back to King Saul, who was a righteous leader. Once when God directed Saul to slaughter all the animals of a particular enemy, Saul wouldn’t do it. Noam Elimelkh explains that Saul was so righteous, he wouldn’t even sin for God! He was not successful as a leader, and Noam Elimelkh suggests this is because he was too perfect. Saul couldn’t fundamentally understand the people he ruled, he couldn’t understand their character flaws, because he didn’t have any. Noam Elimelkh teaches us that this verse about the clan of Kohat who were to carry the sacred vessels on their shoulders, (unlike the clans that got carts to carry the stuff for which they were responsible), exemplify the really good leaders, the tzadikim, who bring down the sacred energy, what’s called the Ruach h’Kodesh or sacred Spirit, or the Shefa, the Divine flow, and directs it toward the places that need it in his or her subjects. He turns hard physical work into an opportunity for connecting to spirit and helping others to make that connection.
I think that’s what happens when communities get together to build their sanctuaries. When people get together to work on their sanctuaries, they can bring down blessing. The community built together is what makes for sacred space. This is the feeling that transcends time. This is what we feel when we stand on holy ground.
I used to believe God wanted to free the Israelites from enslavement. I realize now that God is hoping for something much deeper. God’s goal is to take an oppressed people and heal them. God envisions a world where victim and perpetrator are no longer enemies and, rather than cycle between the two, we can put down our swords and welcome in the other. Sefer Bamidbar is a guide for us. It is a tool to teach us what is required to not only free ourselves but to heal ourselves. And it starts with speech. The root of the word midbar, is dalet bet resh: to speak.
In the beginning of this journey, the oppressed Israelites have no voice; the oppression was so great they were silenced. The Netivot Shalom, in his drash on Pesach, describes the Israelites as enslaved down to their essence. Their enslavement had taken over their minds. They had no individual autonomy. They were the fetus, in the womb of Mitzrayim, completely dependent on their mother and they were blind to their own oppression. The Slonimer goes on to teach that God had to come to B’nei Yisrael and helped them to groan. And it is the Peh-Sach, the speaking mouth, that becomes the path out of oppression. And here we are, arriving in Sefer Bamidbar, the book of speech.
Sefer Bamidbar starts off hopeful. Through the book of Exodus, God acts as the good parent. First God helps them to see their abuse and causes them to cry out. Through hearing them and saving them from their abuser, God lays the foundation for trust. Slowly God helps them to develop what is labeled by psychologists as object constancy. With the episode of the Golden Calf, God recognizes that the Israelites are experiencing an insecure attachment, as they quickly come to believe that Moses and God have abandoned them. According to Rashi, God provides them with a transitional object, like a baby blanket, in the form of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, that will allow them to feel God’s presence at all times. God hopes that this will allow them to heal. In Vayiqra God continues to strengthen them, teaching them the tools to develop God’s presence within. The holiness does not have to live “out there”; the holiness can reside within each one of them. God hopes this structure of intentional living will give them the tools to feel connected at all times, deepening their recognition of God’s presence in their lives and creating a sense of object permanence so that they will be able to function in the world without God’s constant presence. But it is not until Sefer Bamidbar that God encourages their autonomy.
This book begins with an individual accounting of the people. The Israelites can finally speak in words and can now develop their individual stories. They are no longer grouped into one category, now they can form personal identities. And although God follows all the steps of a good parent, the children are not ready. Their trauma is too great. Externally they have been freed, they stand in a place of privilege that they have never experienced. They can now identify the injustices in the world but they are still operating from their oppressed parts. The ability to see injustice is a gift of the privileged, that is reserved for the few, and one that the Israelites never experienced while living within the systemic oppression of Mitzrayim. But if the privileged are not healed from their trauma their actions can be dangerous. Ultimately physical freedom is only the first step, to truly heal one must go within. And this might be why Bamidbar also means, In the Wilderness. God recognizes that the people can only come to true freedom if they enter into the unknown, the wilderness of their beings, and find the parts of themselves that were hurt and heal them. God as parent can only do so much, they must now parent themselves, hold those hurt parts, listen to their stories and free them from the internal abuse that lives within.
And yet their trauma is so great they can not look within, they fear their depths. Like the victims of abuse they enter nostalgia, they wish for a return to an imagined past that was comfortable in its constancy, where all of their physical needs were met and they were not allowed to go within. This ability to go within is also born of privilege. The oppressed are struggling for their existence; they do not have the means to examine their inner lives.
Although God attempts to teach them a new way they are unable to do the work required and this is clearly seen in the story of the spies. The spies wear the lenses of enslavement. As they enter the land of milk and honey, all they can see is their own projected fear. They see themselves as grasshoppers in a land of giants. In this moment God recognizes that this people born of oppression, brought into a privileged state, will not be able to complete the biblical journey. When oppression lies deep in the belly, when we believe we are stronger but our unconscious still rules, we are not truly free. This is the greatest danger of all. When we have power born from an oppressive state, we act from fear, resulting in further alienation rather than connectedness or, in its worst form, oppression of others. God recognizes that the next part of the plan can not work unless we are free from our victim mentality. Thus, God decrees that this generation will not go into the Promised Land. This people, that can only look out of their fear stained lenses, and see the giants in the land of milk and honey–this people, that can not see their new reality, can not fulfill the biblical imperative of loving the stranger because they can not see themselves as anything but enslaved.
May we be blessed to wear the lenses of healing that allow us to look within and without so that the stranger is completely integrated into our being and the other is ourself.
Esther is a rabbinical student in the ALEPH Ordination Program who will receive smicha in January 2018. She is currently the Director of Family Engagement at Congregation Shaare Zedek in NY.
Love and Rebuke, Shmita and Our New Story – Parhot Be-Har and Be-Hukkotai
In this week’s parsha Be-Har (“on the mountain”) and Be-Hukkotai (“by my decrees”) we are first given the agricultural law of Shmita, a Sabbath for the land. “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.” (Lev. 25:2-4). In lieu of working the land, we are told to eat what the land produces without effort, and give freely of the bounty to all who are hungry.
Parsha Be-Har also gives us the Yovel – a complete release of all land ownership and release of all slaves every fifty years. (Lev. 25:8-10). “Seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year…You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:8-10).
It’s no coincidence that we are given Shmita and jubilee during this holy time of counting the Omer.
From Passover’s redemptive passage through the narrowly parted sea to Shavuot’s revelatory climb to the top of the expansive holy Mountain, we count forty-nine days, reflecting for one week on each of seven mystical sephirot, refining our spiritual and emotional attributes in preparation for receipt of the Torah.
The “Omer,” literally a Biblical measure of grain, exemplifies the direct correlation of our spiritual refinement to our connection to the land and all that it provides. In recognition of the holy partnership between God, the earth, and humans, it was traditional on Shavuot to offer two loaves of bread at the Temple.
Shmita is the ultimate expression of this divine relationship. The Torah teaches that if we obey the tradition of giving the land its Shabbat, we will live upon the land in security and abundance. (Lev. 25:18-22). The root of Shmita means “release.” Thus, to fully live in abundance, we must let go. Whether literally or in our hearts, we must relinquish ownerships and drop away our materialism. We must let those we enslave go free, including ourselves. Unencumbered, we can then climb the holy mountain of self-reflection and self-discovery, and surrender with faith to the truth of lives. This is the essence of receiving “Torah.”
Shmita provides a powerful paradigm for our people. In this time of ecological uncertainty and global injustice, Jews across the world are stepping toward the task of embracing shmita and the profound values it professes. Our friends and partners at Hazon have created an incredible set of resources that explore the Biblical sources and lineage of thought about shmita. I highly encourage you to explore these invaluable resources at the Shmita Project.
Yigal Deutscher has also articulated a powerful Shmita vision through 7Seeds, which articulates a shmita consciousness that weaves the principles of permaculture, indigenous consciousness, and transition town activism into a holistic system based on ancient Jewish values. As he explains:
These are potent times of transition, from perceived scarcity to revealed abundance, from the age of the individual to the age of the communal…. In this momentum of growth, there is a stirring and rising of the ancient memories planted deep inside us from the wisdom and tales of our early ancestors. In this timeless story, there is a code which lays out the vision for a sacred community that is grounded in abundance, equality, generosity, love, and the ability to have trust in the unknown. This code is held within the shmita cycle.
Yigal explains that shmita is not only about the seventh year. Rather it indicates how we might conduct ourselves during the six years preceding because shmita is a holistic cycle rather than an isolated moment in time. What would it be like if in the sixth year we really could rely on our agricultural systems to feed us with no planting, weeding, and pruning? What would our farms look like? How can the modern art of permaculture support this ancient way? What if we really could live in a gift economy and release our debts in the seventh year? What would it take during the six years preceding shmita to make such a world possible? I encourage you to explore Yigal’s Shmita Manifesto, a beautiful articulation of the potential of shmita for our time and for what I think provides the most potent answers to these questions.
The values of shmita directly relate to the core teachings of Wilderness Torah. Each Passover, for example, we gather in the desert and spend solo time with ourselves in the wilderness. Before we go, we ask the question found in the midrash: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness of Sinai?” The midrash teaches that unless the people make themselves hefker (“ownerless”) like the wilderness [and yes, just like the food during shmita], they would not be able to attain the wisdom of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7). So too, making our food and property hefker like the wilderness provides a powerful key to our personal evolution and the transformation of our fundamental relationships. As Yigal explains in the “Shmita Manifesto”:
To leave land fallow is not simply to pause, or to create a static snapshot in time. It is to allow for a period of transformation and renewal. When we step aside, the land responds, and she does so by expressing her untamed, wild self, recalling a period beyond domestication, beyond civilization…shmita offers us a delicate edge where our two identities, our civilized and wild reflections, can meet and merge together, in union and love.
The Shmita teachings from Be-har, the great vision from atop the mountain you might say, is accompanied by the very real and terse decrees from the companion parsha Be-Hukkotai. There is a stark corollary here where Torah reflects for us that severe consequences may befall us when we fail to remain in right relationship with our world as proscribed by the sacred laws contained in Shmita and Yovel.
If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (Lev. 26:3-4). … You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:5).
But if you break my covenant … you shall sow seed to no purpose … I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper . . . Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Lev. 26: 15-19).
In very stark terms we are instructed that how we conduct ourselves here on earth has real consequences. This same teaching is echoed with the Shema. The second portion of the Shema takes us directly into the relationship between our conduct and rain. “If you follow My commandment … to love … with all your heart and with all your soul,” the Shema continues, “then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deut. 11:13-14). The Shema next explains that if one fails to follow this commandment, then “there will be no rain” (Deut. 11:17).
Is it possible that our love can bring the rain? Is this a mystical truth or are we getting down to earth here? Perhaps the love the Torah points to here is a real practical love. How we eat, what we drive, how we consume – these can all be done with love for the earth and the conduct required to truly exemplify that love. What does that look like? Are we really willing to take a hard look at this?
It has become common practice by some Jewish communities to excise this second paragraph of the Shema, such as the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshama and many Jewish Renewal siddurim. I understand the impulse to reject the harsh, pedantic God voice of Deuteronomy. I want to argue, however, that perhaps this voice is needed more than ever.
Reb Zalman summarized this well when he wrote, “the Earth is in a dire crisis for survival, and we have as yet no means to re-dream our hoped-for story. We have faced an historic turning point: the millennium. There is a need for visioning the future of human spirituality in harmony with our Gaian understanding” (“Renewing God Model,” Tikkun 2001). In order to re-dream our hoped-for story, as Reb Zalman so beautifully invites us to do, we have to get real with the times we are in and the challenges we face.
Be-har and Be-Hukkotai provide critical parts of our cultural map that we must take seriously in creating our new story, a vision that we actually perform on earth that takes the next seven years, seven Shmita cycles, and seven generations truly to heart.
Maggid Zelig Golden is a rabbinical student in the ALEPH Ordination Program, and will be ordained in January, 2018.
I write today to share the news that this summer I will step down from my position as Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as I have accepted a dream job – a full-time position with Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.
I began teaching at Randolph-Macon in 2012. When my family and I moved to El Paso, I had to regretfully end my relationship with that institution. The College approached me recently and asked me to apply for a newly created position that would include a combination of teaching, building Jewish life, and diversity recruitment. After deep discernment, I agreed. This is a good change for me and for my family, though I will miss my ALEPH colleagues very much.
Although I am transitioning out of the E.D. role, I am most certainly not leaving the ALEPH community. I will still teach a course on Israel as part of the AOP’s Israel-Palestine Program this fall. I hope that in the future I will teach again as part of Tikshoret, our online education platform, as well. And I’m already looking forward to the 2018 Kallah, which I wouldn’t miss for the world!
The leadership of ALEPH is working now on a transition plan. I will support them in that work, and will work closely with my successor to ensure a transition that is smooth and seamless for all those whom ALEPH serves.
My time at ALEPH has been transformative for me. My professional life has been enriched by the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues among the staff, the project directors, and the board. My spiritual life has blossomed in ways that I will carry with me into my work at Randolph-Macon and beyond. Although there is now an end date to my time as an employee of ALEPH, I will always be part of the Jewish Renewal world.
From Board Leadership
We could not be more grateful to Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin for her vision, leadership and dedication on behalf of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, especially during these pivotal first years after the death of Reb Zalman z”l. Under Shoshanna, ALEPH flourished in ways that some said was not possible. Some of what Shoshanna accomplished was clearly visible in tangible ways (e.g. financial health, growth of ALEPH Network communities, an extraordinary 2016 Kallah). Some of Shoshanna’s finest work was less visible: building relationships within and beyond ALEPH, and helping ALEPH continue to mature – while always centering the heart and soul in ways that model the best of who we all should aspire to be both personally and organizationally.
Serving with Shoshanna has been a joy and privilege. To the Randolph-Macon community, we hope you know how very lucky you are.
— Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus
When we began, we saw four key goals. First, to help steward ALEPH through the complex aftermath of the death of Reb Zalman z”l, whose third yahrzeit soon approaches. Second, to offer hundreds of people around the world ways to express hopes, dreams and longings – and bring their hearts and ideas back to ALEPH for integration. Third, to support in tangible ways the continuing flow of Jewish Renewal for today and tomorrow. Fourth, to model a stewardship that saw our roles as temporary and sought our successors quickly.
We did much that we came to do. Along with Board colleagues and staff, we spent 15 months on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, taking stock of who and where ALEPH and Renewal are — how the renewal of Judaism has spread and matured, what is cherished, what should change and what must never change. It was a tremendous blessing to journey into those deep places together. We took hundreds of pages of notes, and brought what we learned back to ALEPH, the Ordination Program and OHALAH (the association of Jewish Renewal clergy). Some of those ideas are starting to take root now.
Behind the scenes, ALEPH evolved a new governance system aspiring to be more inclusive. We established an Advisory Council to harness the wisdom of elders, teachers and visionaries across the Jewish landscape to support Judaism’s ongoing renewal. ALEPH laid the foundation for a Communities Council so that ALEPH Network members — communities, organizations, and individuals — could help set a new bottom-up agenda for how to support ALEPH communities in the future. ALEPH began strategic planning with Reverend Bill Kondrath, a consultant specializing in midwifing faith-based organizations through major transitions, including and especially the death of a charismatic founder.
In the public realm, the magic of the 2016 Kallah happened at Colorado State University: 37% of attendees were first-timers, and brought the joy and “juice” of Jewish Renewal home with them. ALEPH began planning the 2018 Kallah. (Stay tuned for more information soon.) New spiritual communities joined ALEPH – both “new” ones (started from scratch), and existing ones rooted in Reform and Conservative denominational contexts. New programs and projects sought ALEPH affiliation. ALEPH was featured in a variety of publications and podcasts. ALEPH began developing new initiatives, including Clergy Camp and Tikshoret (an education platform to bring tastes of Jewish Renewal to a broad online audience), while also better supporting beloved ALEPH stalwart programs and initiatives. Finances improved, and funds were invested wisely and securely.
Perhaps most importantly, as co-chairs, we said from the start that we wanted to model stewardship that flows in ways we learned from our teachers. We created a Nominations Circle, on which we did not serve, and asked that it immediately seek successors for the Board and its leadership. We felt that, especially in this era after Reb Zalman’s life on this plane, it would be important for many reasons to fulfill this intention to serve with all our hearts while making way for the next turning. The time for that next turning has now come.
For the confidence, volunteerism, and support ALEPH received during our time of service, we are grateful beyond measure: these are tremendous gifts, and we thank you for them. We are especially grateful to ALEPH’s executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, ALEPH’s deputy directors Tamy Jacobs and Steve Weinberg, their predecessor David Brown, Lynda Simons, and Ming Shem-Lu, who have nourished ALEPH and have done the very hard work of bringing ideas and relationships to life. They are ALEPH’s unsung heroes, and they deserve wild applause for their dedication and hard work. We are grateful to our teachers, and their teachers, and their students, and the students of their students – both within and beyond ALEPH – for so very much that has come through them over the years.
The work of renewing Judaism, by its nature, is never complete (Pirkei Avot has something to say about that). The next phase of this ongoing journey now is for our successors, to keep that flame burning bright in ways that perhaps today can scarcely be imagined. We wish them every success and blessing as they dream and lead forward.
With blessings on this Omer day of chesed sheba yesod (lovingkindness in foundation),
(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to David’s blog.)
Learning to see beyond the physical
Part of the human condition is our lack of perfection. To be honest, this is a relief – it means that doing our best is enough, even when we fall short of the optimum. The Torah reinforces this by telling us detailed stories about the lives of our ancestors, who were anything but perfect. If the matriarchs and patriarchs could make mistakes, then clearly we can too.
The animals that our forebears sacrificed are another matter entirely. The Torah is explicit; in most instances, they must be perfect with absolutely no blemishes. And it’s not just animals that have to be physically perfect. So do the Kohanim, the priests, who perform the sacrifices. The Bible says:
“No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified [to perform most of the Temple service].” To make sure we understand exactly what this means, the Bible is unambiguous: “He… who has any blemish; a blind man, or lame, or he who has a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man who is broken footed, or broken handed, or crook backed, or a dwarf, or who has a blemish in his eye, or scurvy, or scabbed, or has his stones broken…” (Vayikra 21:17-22)
This list of defects is seemingly exhaustive. But, as I always taught my children, what someone doesn’t tell you can be even more revealing than what they do say. And there is a glaring omission when it comes to the Torah’s list of forbidden imperfections. It neglects to say anything about character.
Physical imperfections? Taboo. Mental, psychological, character issues? Not considered. Which I find unsettling, because we know instinctively that a person is characterized by his or her, well, character. Certainly more so than by physical attributes, although popular culture would tell us otherwise.
What are we to make of this?
The Kohanim were public figures, role models. The Torah held them to higher standards than everyone else, repeatedly stressing that they were holy and were to be treated as such. And perhaps by stressing the outward trappings of holiness, the Torah hoped to ensure inward holiness as well.
The exclusion of those who are disabled or disfigured has troubled us for millennia. From the rabbis of the Talmud to religious leaders of today, we have understood those prohibitions to be a function of a particular time and place, and no longer relevant. We have chosen character over physical characteristics.
For my own part, I am relieved that the Torah’s standards of physical perfection are no longer enforced. Especially now, as I am about to enter into my sixth decade, I am ever more aware of my physical limitations. And even as I chafe at the litany of so-called defects in this Torah portion, I find comfort in knowing that our tradition has matured, and learned to see beyond the merely physical.
Our tradition has matured — it has grown and changed, as we have grown and changed. And that’s (part of) what Renewal is all about: Judaism is perennially renewing itself. The Voice continues to sound from Sinai, and what we hear that Voice saying to us now may be different from what our ancestors heard — and that’s not a sign that we’re wrong, or that what they understood in their time was wrong for that time, but that as we grow and mature as the human race, we become better able to hear and enact a vision of holiness that is ever more inclusive.
Our Judaism has become more and more inclusive, to the point where deaf rabbis lead congregations, where young people of varying abilities stand on the bimah and are recognized as valuable members of the community, and where even a woman – gasp! – can be a religious leader.
We have come to understand that it is possible to rise above physical limitations, and we have learned to treasure those who have done so. May we continue to welcome everyone to participate fully in Jewish communal life, knowing that holiness comes from within.
Rabbi Jennifer Singer, spiritual leader of Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, serves on the ALEPH Board.
An Interview with Rabbi Shohama Wiener, D.Min.
Rosh Hashpa’ah (Head of Spiritual Direction and Development) for the ALEPH Ordination Program
What brought you to Jewish Renewal?
I met Reb Zalman z”l during the early 1980s, as a rabbinic student at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) in New York. I was so drawn to his teaching that I began to commute to his Philadelphia home for monthly learning gatherings. There I found God, Hasidut and Kabbalah joined with open-minded and experiential spirituality. I was transformed.
In 1986, I was on an Israel pilgrimage with Reb Zalman. In the cave of Machpelah (burial site of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah), Reb Zalman blessed me to be a spiritual healer and director or guide (mashpi’ah). It was a peak experience, and has empowered the trajectory of my spiritual service.
What do you love most about Jewish Renewal?
I most love how Renewal engages me in all Four Worlds – soul, mind, heart and body. Renewal has given me soul family around the world that I treasure.
What do you feel have been your contributions to Jewish Renewal?
Even before I met Reb Zalman, I was studying and teaching meditation, healing, angels, ancestral guides and other transpersonal practices. Reb Zalman gave me both profound teachings and a soul family of spiritual seekers – at Elat Chayyim, at the ALEPH Kallah, and as AJR president and mashgiach ruchani(spiritual advisor) from 1986-2001. During those years, I completed a D.Min. at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), researching and developing a training program in spiritual development for Jewish clergy.
I was overjoyed in 2002 when Rabbi Marcia Prager, Dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program Dean, invited me to join the ALEPH Vaad (core directors and faculty) then in formation as Rosh Hashpa’ah (Head of Spiritual Direction and Development). The Ordination Program supported and supplemented my visions of spiritual development – giving life to the idea that an integral part of the development of spiritual leaders includes professional support for the development of Spirit. Today ALEPH remains the only Jewish seminary requiring all students to participate in active spiritual direction throughout their years of study and beyond.
Another dream come true was when Reb Zalman encouraged me to develop ALEPH’s Hashpa’ah Training Program for Jewish Spiritual Directors in his lineage – a three-year immersion of learning and experience leading to certification for qualified students, and an additional ordination for clergy. I served as Founding Director and Director for its first three cohorts, then handed the program to my talented colleagues, now Director Rabbi Nadya Gross and Associate Director Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who lead the program into the future.
As Jewish spiritual direction was a new field when I came to ALEPH, I saw a need for a textbook to develop and advance Renewal spiritual approaches. From that yearning was born Seeking and Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Guidance and Development, co-edited with Rabbi Goldie Milgram (Reclaiming Judaism Press). This text is now in its second edition.
Inspired by Reb Zalman’s legacy of deep ecumenism and what I believe is the multi-faith essence of spiritual truth, I also felt drawn to connect ALEPH academically with NYTS. Today ALEPH ordination students can earn a multi-faith NYTS M.Div., and ALEPH ordination automatically qualifies for candidacy to earn an NYTS D.Min. in liturgy, spiritual direction or multi-faith studies.
Another legacy filling my heart is bringing Jewish Renewal to the congregation I have served as rabbi since 2002, New York’s Temple Beth El of City Island, “Your Shul by the Sea.” There we piloted congregational initiatives based in hashpa’ah and multi-faith spirituality, with the help and blessing of a series of spiritually gifted ALEPH rabbinic and rabbinic pastor interns. One of them, Rabbi David Markus, has stayed on to be our co-rabbi, while also serving as co-chair of ALEPH.
Looking back on my 30+ years in seminary life, including over 14 years with ALEPH, I feel blessed for the hundreds of rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors and spiritual directors who are helping lift others into God’s light. I thank God every day for the loving relationships I retain with former students, now colleagues, who bring me great joy and fulfillment.
This post is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day.
The Kedoshim Question: Aural Argument
Heaven was abuzz this week. Abuzz in a way that on earth you might perceive as an unusually high incidence of static electricity in the air, or gooseflesh for no particular reason. In the high reaches Malakhim and Cherubim gathered at fountains and courtyards to wonder together; Seraphim enfolded themselves in their six wings in disbelief. Ofanim exchanged meaningful glances with the animal faces of the Chayot. There was a holy hubbub of curious talk and rarely felt trepidation. How could this even be taking place? How could Holy Beings oppose the Holy Writ?
It is admittedly a most unusual case. A celestial challenge of divine law. Not a law given to angels, who need no law. But a law given to humans. A band of angels suing on behalf of humankind. Trying to upend law given at Sinai. Asking God to eat God’s words!
This has never happened before. Not since the Revelation, not since Creation, not since the Singularity that preceded that. The Archangel Metatron presides over the Heavenly Tribunal, and, as is the way of judges most supreme, would not comment on a case still in controversy.
Inside, the courtroom was packed. A gavel fell and a crier called out:
“Shema! Shema! Oyez! Oyez! Let all persons having business with the honorableYeshivah shel Ma’alah be admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting.” The advocates approached the bench.
“Your honors, Rabbi Hillel, on behalf of petitioners, the petitioners being a coalition of angels representing the interests of the Sefirah of Chesed and the steady circulation of love from God into the world and back.” Rabbi Hillel had been in happy retirement since his death, spending slow days playing Scrabble with Rabbi Shammai, who always complained that Hillel was making up words; Hillel insisted that if he had a plausible definition, especially a humorous one, his words should count. But now Hillel had been persuaded out of retirement in order to argue this most unusual case. He stood at the bench and beamed, despite his slightly disheveled appearance, compounded by matzah crumbs from the sandwich he’d snuck into the chamber in his pocket.
The fiery glow was almost unbearable. “Archangel Gabriel, Solicitor Celestial, Avatar of the Sefirah of Gevurah, Keeper of Limits and Boundaries, Upholder of the Rule of Law. Your honors.”
“Thank you counselors. Rabbi Hillel, you may begin.”
“Your honors, as you know, the present controversy centers around a piece of Torah that begins with the words kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani. “Be holy because I am holy.” The specific provisions that follow are considered a Holiness Code. The parties have stipulated that these mitzvot are the actions and restrictions humankind was instructed to follow in an attempt to embody holiness.”
A nearly imperceptible flutter came over the gallery as the angels present imagined humans, with their seawater bodies and short attention spans, and felt a mix of amusement and pity and perhaps resentment. For the blink of an eye, the angelic drone of holy holy holy faltered; just a fraction of a second but long enough for the National Geological Survey to record tremors in three distinct points in the Pacific Ocean.
Rabbi Hillel pressed onward. “We have no dispute with the first verses of the Holiness Code, your honors. In fact, we applaud the Divine Wisdom that instructed humans to welcome the immigrant, to feed the poor, to respect elders, to observe the Sabbath, to love your neighbor as yourself. We also hold no opinion regarding the puzzling but largely benign prohibitions on planting mixed seeds and wearing linen-wool blends.” With this, Rabbi Hillel suddenly became aware of his wrinkled kapoteh and moved a hand as if to smooth it before realizing the effort would be futile. “We do not object to any of those laws, your honors. However, where we see a tremendous, if previously overlooked, injustice is– ”
“Rabbi,” the Chief Justice interrupted, “let us first take up the jurisdictional issue. By what authority does humankind seek to annul a law given by God? Are the earthly courts insufficient to handle the resolution of this matter?”
“Your honors,” replied Rabbi Hillel, “we humans are gifted by our Creator with some sechel, some smarts, that we bring to difficult questions. We do not claim your wisdom of course; after all, as the Psalm says, just below angels are we. Yet as we humbly ponder the law and the very real lives of flesh and blood — no offense your honors — to which they must apply, we try to do so in the name of heaven. As it says in Talmud, eylu v’eylu divrei Elohim chayim. All of our conflicting points of view as we debate are in fact the living words of God.”
“Yes, Rabbi” interrupted Chief Justice Metatron, “you are doing heaven’s work; it has been delegated to humankind to do. So why bother us? Why do you humans not just do it?”
“Yes, your honor. We could; we would; we do. But there is precedent for a more direct exchange between heaven and earth in certain legal matters. For instance when there is imminent danger to God’s creation — or even to God’s reputation. In such cases, petitions have gone directly to heaven. For instance, Father Abraham bargaining for the lives of the people of Sodom.”
“It did him no good,” spat Gabriel.
“His intervention was permitted even if his goal was not achieved,” replied the sage. “And at times, in our toughest of cases, heaven has, unbidden, sent abat kol, a prophetic voice, to guide us.”
“Which guidance you have always ignored,” countered the archangel.
“In any event, I would like to remind the Court that I am not here representing humankind but rather an intervening angelic body. The Coalition of Heavenly Entities Supporting Equality in Desire. CHESED.” Rabbi Hillel glanced at the balcony where his clients waved a rainbow – a real rainbow in this case. He looked back at the panel. “These are angels who, observing the human struggle over the law we will discuss, are deeply moved to bring about its nullification.”
“Your honor,” broke in the Archangel. “These CHESED people cannot decide to challenge the law. They are angels. They have no free will. They are limbs of the divine. They respond only to Divine Thought.”
“And yet,” Hillel replied, “here we are. They are certainly responding to some element of the Divine Will, as are you, Counselor. We are aware of many aspects of the Divine – Truth, Beauty, Majesty, Mercy. Maybe it is time we add one: Ambivalence.”
There was a collective gasp in the courtroom and this time the low monotone of holy holy holy broke off entirely. On earth, souffles fell and many thousands of individual socks instantly vanished unobserved from electric dryers.
“Rabbi Hillel will please leave the nature of the Divine to us,” scolded the Chief Justice. “In the meantime, please move on to the merits of your petition.”
“Thank you, your honors. Yeshivah shel Ma’lah, Judges most High, we are here today to correct a wrong. We are here to overturn Verse 13 of Chapter 20 of the third book of Torah, which says, “Man shall not lie with man as with a woman; it is an abomination; they shall be put to death.” But I wish to begin with another text altogether. Shir Hashirim. Song of Songs, our people’s greatest love poetry. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine.”
“Relevance!” barked Gabriel.
“His left hand is under my head; his right hand embraces me.”
“Justices, my successor in life and colleague in Paradise the great Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, noted that Song of Songs is a holy book. Is this disputed?”
“No objection,” said Gabriel cautiously.
“Akiva also said that while all the writings of our Writ are holy, Shir Hashirimis the Kodesh Kodashim – the Holy of Holies, and that the whole world is not worth the day that Shir Hashirim was created. He says this because while the other books give important laws and tell important stories, only Shir Hashirimcomes close to describing the love of God for Creation, and the love of Creation for God. Human love, human longing is an earthly embodiment of this love; it is the most deeply felt way for our very limited kind to experience the Great Holiness. And so human love, human longing, in all its forms, is holy.”
“What?” cried Gabriel. “Surely you are not suggesting that what Leviticus makes abomination, Song of Songs makes holy? To claim that the right to engage in such conduct is implicit in the concept of holiness is, at best, facetious.”
The angels in the CHESED section began to boo, but in a loving way.
“Yes, Rabbi,” probed the Chief Justice, “what are the parameters of your position. Are you saying all human sex is holy?”
“No, your Honor. Only sex that is steeped in love. Only sex approached with an open heart. Oh, and sex that is really, really fun.”
“Rabbi, the Holiness Code also prohibits sex with slaves, sex with close family members, sex that is adulterous, sex with animals. Are you proposing those prohibitions be lifted as well?”
“Those prohibitions are distinguishable, your honor. They address relationships with inherent power disparities, relationships where it isn’t clear that both parties have equal ability to say ‘no’ – or even any ability. And the adultery prohibition reflects an awareness that there are others who might be hurt by the relationship. But the provision we challenge today, Leviticus 20:13, has no mention of power disparity; not a hint of exploitation. It applies to consenting adults. And yet their holy act of love is punishable by death.”
“Your honor,” chimed in the Solicitor Celestial, “other laws in the Holiness Code that exact a death penalty have simply been ignored by humankind or commuted to another type of punishment. A child cursing its parents, for example, I can’t remember the last time I saw one of them stoned – well, you know what I mean. In any event, I know it is unlike me to say so, but flexibility has been demonstrated in the application of the laws of Leviticus. Humankind takes many of these rules with a grain of salt.”
“However,” responded the sage, plucking some stray horseradish from his beard and absentmindedly removing it to his tongue, “in the case of this one particular prohibition, humankind gets uncharacteristically literal. The law is still taken at face value in many cultures and many places on earth, and in some of them still invokes a death penalty. And in other places the death penalty takes the form of violence in the streets or the suicide of young people. No, your honors, as for taking this abomination thing with a grain of salt, it seems much of humanity is on a salt-free diet. Ah, wait, I misspeak,” continued Hillel. “One flexibility is commonly granted: women who lie with women, not mentioned in the law at all are, thanks to Leviticus, treated to the same condemnation in much of human society. Living in the shadow of this prohibition is a source of profound sadness; since Sinai humans have been pressured into marriages without love, from which many more people suffer. This law has brought on of a world of suffering.”
“But your honors,” thundered Archangel Gabriel, “even if this is so, it is for humans to work out. Let them make change however they go about making change. I don’t understand what the rabbi here expects us to do about it. Shouldn’t this unfold in a human way, country by country, society by society?”
“Your honors,” answered Rabbi Hillel, “I submit to you that Leviticus 20:13 was not correct when it was given at Sinai, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent and should be overruled.”
In the gallery you could hear a pin drop, and many dancing angels falling right off of the head of it.
Rabbi Hillel lifted his hands in supplication. “It is not for our sake that I ask this, your honors, but for yours. Words of Torah should give honor to God. And this law has caused good and holy people to dismiss you, and You, and Torah itself, from their lives. They have come to trust the holiness of their love; they just think that You don’t. There is imminent threat to God’s reputation here; you must take note. It is not for the sake of the people sometimes called “gay” that we seek redress. They will continue on and fight their fight along with their friends and families and allies, and they will keep loving each other despite, and they will make art and song about their struggles and jokes to make light of the indignity of it. And they will change the world, with or without you. It is not for them but for heaven that this correction must be made.”
“But Rabbi,” said Metatron, the Chief Justice, sounding now old and tired himself, “what can we do at this point? This has gone on so long.”
Rabbi Hillel thought at this moment that something passed between himself and the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice, who was the only angel in the spheres who was once a man, Chanoch, a particular beloved of God, who could not bear him to die and installed him instead in the heavenly court, alive and immortal. The Chief Justice must be able to remember back to his earthly existence, his love, his longing, his long walks with God. The Chief Justice would help. The Chief Justice would cast his vote for Chesed.
“Rabbi,” the Chief Justice called Hillel back to attention. “Torah has already been given. What relief can we offer?”
Hillel held Metatron’s eye as he delivered his unorthodox request. “Your honor, in the rabbinic academies, we have a phrase that guides us: Eyn mukdam um’uchar batorah.” There is no before or after in Torah. Erase this error now so that it will not even exist at Sinai. Undo it now so that it will never have been. Let the world unfold without it; let love prosper; let this particular hatred and shame never get born; see how a more loving world fares; see how–”
A flame came down from the sky to rest on an altar next to the Chief Justice. Rabbi Hillel sighed. “I see I have used my time.”
For a moment, the eyes of Metatron, the angel formerly known as Chanoch, seemed lost in thought.
“Rabbi, a question from upstairs. If there is no before or after, why should we act now?”
“Because, your honor, if not now, when?”
The Chief Justice seemed about to say something, but changed his mind. “Thank you, Counsel,” he remarked at last. “The case is submitted.”
This drash is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Alan Lew. The last drash I heard him give was about this verse, and in it he reached the conclusion that the line of right and wrong had shifted, and that Leviticus 20:13 was now simply inapplicable, and not to be heeded. He seemed (or maybe this was my projection) dispirited that Torah process couldn’t redeem this Torah problem.
Many thanks to Reb Eli Herb and to Anna Belle Kaufman for their thoughtful feedback.
Originally posted at Itzik’s Well.
Irwin Keller is a student in the ALEPH Ordination Program.
My Mourning Jacket
I meet a lot of people just after the death of a spouse, parent or child. Often I wonder how they find the strength to re-establish their lives after devastating loss. Torah gives us an example in Aaron, the high priest, who re-emerges after the death of two of his sons. Even if none of us is the equivalent of a high priest, this week’s Torah portion (Acharei Mot, literally “After the Death”) gives us tools to come through devastating loss.
Here, context matters. The Torah reading begins with an instruction of how to conduct an ancient ceremony of atonement for the people (Lev. 16). The first steps are for Aaron to enrobe himself in splendid priestly garments. Torah tells us that nothing less than life and death depends on his success, both for him and for the people.
Few of us so profoundly impact the future, but make no mistake: we all do – or at least, we all can. We needn’t be an Aaron, or a president, or a modern MLK or Gandhi, to live lives of meaning and impact in whatever context we occupy. Whether in family, career or community, who we are and what we do matters. But when we experience devastating loss, we are prone to lose our grip on that essential truth. And after loss, when anger lingers and pain endures, we can lose our sense of ourselves and, with it, how we impact others for the good.
Enter Aaron. Aaron rose from mourning his two sons to re-engage in his position of spiritual leadership. For Aaron, the rituals had to be performed exactly, and holy vestments were donned. Aaron offers one response to loss: show up and serve others anyway – even precisely within our sense of loss.
This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t mourn – we should. After a death that profoundly touches us, Jewish tradition asks us to take a time-out (in some cases we call it shiva, and there are longer periods of month and year slowly re-entering us into “normal life”) precisely so that we can mourn. We are called to inhabit our pain and sorrow fully.
And then we “get up” from shiva. That’s what Aaron did. Even though his own hopes and dreams as father went up in smoke along with the death of his sons, Aaron got up and served others. I imagine Aaron brought grief and even anger to his work, but maybe his inner life made his spiritual service even more urgent and more effective. Perhaps his own loss helped him empathize for others. Maybe the ability to hold seemingly conflicting emotions can strengthen us when we suffer loss, and help us reset life expectations when tragedy disrupts them.
If immediately after a devastating loss we wear grief as a cloak, perhaps later the grief becomes more like the inner lining of a jacket – and we put it on and go back into life. When grief overwhelms we might not show up to our own lives, much less the lives of others, and sometimes that’s as it should be. But later “after the death,” let us emulate Aaron and seek in his example the strength to live fully even if our outer garments are lined with grief. We and others, and even the whole world, might depend on it.
Reprinted from The Jewish Studio.
Rabbi Evan Krame serves on the board of ALEPH.
An excerpt from The Wisdom of not Knowing, by Estelle Frankel.
Silence: The Role of White Space in our Lives
To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone
The famous violinist and conductor Isaac Stern once said that music is what goes on in between the notes. The spaces between notes, of course, are silent. Yet they create the rhythm and musical composition of a piece. They also provide the musician with room to pour his or her emotion into the music so that listeners will actually feel moved when they hear it. The in-between spaces are critical in other fields as well, including interior and graphic design. In interior design, a balance of furnishings and empty space ensures the flow of energy in a room and creates a calming effect on those who enter. Similarly, graphic designers are careful to balance the number of words and images on a page with the amount of space left intentionally blank. These areas, known as the white space, provide the ground upon which the intended design comes into focus. When a page lacks sufficient white space, it looks cluttered and can be difficult to read. The most successful graphic designers are those who master the art of understatement.
As a teacher and storyteller I am acutely aware of the role negative space plays in the spoken word, where a well-timed silence or pause in the middle of a story can convey emotion and create suspense. The silent pause also gives listeners a chance to absorb and reflect on what has been said and to locate themselves within the story. Without this auditory white space listeners are likely to get lost and tune out the speaker.
The Mystery of the White Fire of Torah
Jewish mystics were acutely aware of the role of white space in our spiritual lives. Jewish legend makes repeated reference to a mythic, mystical white space known as the “white fire” of Torah. In contrast to the black fire of Torah that is comprised of the written words, stories, and commandments we are most familiar with, the white fire is wordless and silent, existing in a timeless realm. It represents the primordial experience of divine oneness—the boundlessness of Ein Sof. As a symbol, the white fire points toward that which cannot be known or spoken—the truth before we attempt to limit it by putting it into words and thoughts. And though we cannot wrap our minds around it, we can intuitively grasp it in silence, in the pause between breaths and in the gap between thoughts. As a symbol, the white fire is akin to what Zen masters refer to when they talk about returning to the prereflective moment before thought arises or when they ask the seeker to show their “original face”— the face they had before their parents were born.
In the rabbinic imagination, the white fire contains the divine blueprint for creation. Its formless, boundless radiance provides the template from which all finite forms are fashioned; the white fire is the nothingness from which everything is continually created: “When the Holy One sought to create the world He gazed into the primordial Torah that was written in black fire upon white fire upon the divine forearm and from there created the universe.”
It also figures prominently in the legends surrounding the revelation at Mount Sinai. The original tablets, etched in stone by the finger of God, feature the brilliance of the white fire, with the black fire (the words and letters) inscribed secondarily upon it: “The Torah that the Holy One of Blessing gave to Moses (at Mt. Sinai) was white fire inscribed by black fire.” These first tablets—saturated with the Or Ein Sof, “the light of the infinite God”—are shattered and replaced by the second set of tablets that Moses carves himself. The radiance of the second tablets is diminished such that the white fire recedes into the background and the black fire moves into the foreground. The words and letters of Torah provide vessels through which the unknown mystery of the white fire—that which is beyond words—can be transmitted and known. The nigleh, or “known dimension” of Torah, simultaneously conceals and reveals the nistar, or “hidden dimension,” though only a slight residue of its infinite light reaches us now. This is the paradox of revelation: While words give us access to what would otherwise remain an ineffable mystery, they do so by limiting what can be known.
Words and Silence, Time and Timelessness
The legends surrounding the white and black fires of Torah all point toward the mysterious relationship that exists between words and silence, and between that which is known and that which remains unknown and unknowable. Just as the black fire of Torah supersedes the original white fire, the acquisition of language shapes the preverbal child’s psychic development. The infant’s growing ability to use language to think about his inner emotional experience enables him to master the often overwhelming, raw power of his feelings and emotions. In other words, language gives the child a handle on his emotional life.
For the mystic, words translate the silent, unknowable, supernal mysteries into a language the mind can absorb. It is as if God is mute and can only communicate in silence. Our job is to lend our ears, heart, and mind to listen to the divine silence and to translate it into ideas and wise practices we can utilize. The twelfth-century Spanish Torah commentator and grammarian Avraham Ibn Ezra writes that our good deeds give God utterance. Scripture also refers to God’s voice as a speaking silence, kol dmamah dakah. This Hebrew phrase, most often translated as “the still, small voice,” expresses the essential paradox of divine revelation: God’s voice, kol, is the voice of dmamah, silence and stillness. Elijah hears this speaking silence at Mount Horev (1 Kings 19) and instantly recognizes it as God’s voice, for only God can speak and be silent at the same time.
Entering the Void in Silence
The importance of silence for spiritual development is evident in every faith tradition, though its centrality varies from one spiritual path to the next. Among Jewish mystics none were as committed to silence as Reb Menachem Mendel of Vorki, who came to be known as “the Silent Rebbe.” Unlike the other Hasidic masters of his time who left an extensive legacy of oral teachings, he rarely spoke, and when he did, he used words very sparingly. What we know about Menachem Mendel’s life comes from a handful of Hasidic tales that highlight his practice of silence. Mendel knew that the deepest transmission of spiritual insight occurs in a place beyond words and thought. Therefore, when a scholar or seeker came to meet with him, Mendel would first sit with him in silence for a good amount of time. Then, in parting, he might exchange a few charged words of Torah. Like seeds of light planted within the soul of the seeker, his words would slowly do their healing work. Because of his reticence to talk, Reb Mendel did not amass a huge following like his father, Reb Yitzhak, or his brother, Reb David; yet a small group of loyal seekers gathered around him.
One time, Mendel and his small group of disciples spent an entire night together in silence. At dawn he said: “Truly blessed are those who understand that the phrase ‘God is One’ means that ‘God is One!’” As they rose to leave in silence, everyone present was filled with deep reverence and joy, as if they, themselves, had been present at Mount Sinai when God spoke these words.
At face value Mendel’s words say nothing new. Every religious Jew recites these words from scriptures three to four times a day when they say the prayer known as the Shema.
Yet, when Mendel uttered them, those present experienced the oneness. Instead of offering secondhand knowledge about divine revelation, Mendel’s words transmitted the direct experience of revelation. In silence, Mendel entered the place beyond thought, a place so still that the few words he spoke afterward did not remain conceptual but entered directly into the heart and soul of the listener. In silence, Mendel reached into the white fire of Torah and drew forth its infinite, primordial light and wisdom.
Reb Mendel was not the only Jewish mystic to advocate silence. In the introduction to the Zohar, there is a story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in which he instructs his son in the power of silent transmission of the mysteries: “Elazar, my son, cease your words, so that the concealed mystery on high, unknown to any human, may be revealed.” Words can take us only so far in understanding the divine mysteries. Beyond that point, silence becomes our only true guide, as Elazar later reflects: “My silence assembled a temple above, a temple below. Indeed, a word is worth one coin; silence two . . . By holding my silence, two worlds were created, erected as one.”
The Hasidic masters used silent meditation as a way to become one with Ein Sof. Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Zhelikhov, one of the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov, says that “in silence it is possible to become one with the World of Thought, or the sephirah of chochmah [wisdom]. . . . Only one who can be silent may go beyond the world of form and enter the void where he may know God in His infinite hiddenness.” For Jewish mystics the “world of thought” is not a world of thinking and ideas as we commonly know it. Rather, it represents chochmah, “wisdom”—the very first point to emerge in the great chain of being. Paradoxically, to enter the world of thought, one must go beyond thoughts and thinking.
A Closing Tale: Communicating the Ineffable
Reb Yitzhak of Vorki and Reb Avremele of Trisk were the best of friends in their youth, spending all their waking hours together studying Torah, praying, or going for long, silent walks in the woods. When they grew up and each became the rebbe of a different shtetl, they vowed to stay connected by writing a letter to one another on the eve of every Sabbath, in which they would share their thoughts and feelings and most recent spiritual insights. For years they successfully did just that with the generous help of Reb Yitzhak’s personal assistant, who became known as the letter carrier. Each Friday morning after prayers Reb Yitzhak would compose a letter, which his assistant would carry from Vorki to Trisk, where Reb Avremele lived. He would then wait until Reb Avremele composed his reply, which he would then faithfully carry back to Reb Yitzhak in time for the Sabbath. Though this practice went on for years, the letter carrier never questioned Reb Yitzhak about the content of their letters. But one Friday, when he was feeling especially tired on the trek between shtetles, the assistant began to wonder about the letter he was carrying and he toyed with opening it and reading it as a way to reward himself for all his troubles but then resisted the temptation. The next week, though, he succumbed to his curiosity as he reached the middle of the forest and he decided, once and for all, to read the letter before delivering it. When he opened up the envelope, what he found inside shocked him—it was a blank piece of paper! He suddenly felt very upset, and he began to imagine that he might be the butt of a cruel joke; however, out of loyalty to his rebbe, he put the blank piece of paper back in the envelope and delivered it to the Trisker rebbe, who proceeded, as usual, to send a letter back. Once the letter carrier was back in the forest, he opened up the Trisker rebbe’s letter and, once again, found a blank piece of paper. While he felt justifiably upset, the letter carrier also felt guilty for betraying his rebbe’s trust. As he made his way back to Vorki in time for the Sabbath, he resolved to confess his betrayal and also to demand an explanation.
After the Sabbath, Reb Yitzhak could see that the letter carrier was visibly upset, and so he took him into his private chamber and asked him what was wrong. As the assistant confessed he began to cry. Reb Yitzhak cried along with him, in deep sympathy. They stood together weeping and embracing for what seemed like hours, and then Reb Yitzhak began to slowly explain the meaning of his actions:
It says in the Zohar that the primordial Torah—God’s Torah— is made up of black fire written upon white fire. The black fire refers to the actual letters and words of the Torah, while the white fire represents the spaces between the letters. Though the black fire is holy, the white fire is actually holier. Its teachings are so deep they cannot be put into words. It’s the same with love. Now, there are people we love and we know exactly why we love them. But there are those whom we love so deeply we have no words to express what we feel. Our love is beyond all thought. Sometimes, when I write to my dear friend, Avremele, I share some teachings I learned that week, and he writes back what he has been learning. But sometimes my love for him is so deep that I just cannot express myself in words or thoughts. At these times, I just send him a blank sheet of paper to remind him of the white fire—the primordial Torah that is infinite. And so it is for him, as well. Please forgive me for not showing you more respect and gratitude all these years. I am so deeply grateful to you for your loyal service.
Estelle Frankel, author also of Sacred Therapy, is one of the lay spiritual leaders of ALEPH Network community Chochmat Ha-Lev. She has been involved in Jewish Renewal since 1978.
By Caryn Aviv, AOP Rabbinic Student
In 2013, I transitioned from a career in academic Jewish and Israel Studies to enter into the AOP rabbinic program. I arrived at Smicha Week in New Hampshire that summer, having just co-led a 4 week academic seminar exploring justice, democracy and human rights in Israel with CU Boulder undergraduate students. That summer, Israel was the focus of Smicha Week, in all its complexity, and R’ Bonna Haberman came from Jerusalem to be with us for the journey. Not surprisingly, everyone had strong feelings, positions, and emotional experiences.
As a prospective student with little experience in the chevreh, I asked a few students whether there were classes offered to AOP students about Israel. At the time, the answer was ‘not yet.’ Having a relationship to Israel and Palestine is a vital part of clergy formation, and I knew that if I joined this community as a student, I wanted to contribute towards changing that answer to a definitive ‘yes.’ I’m beyond excited and grateful that ALEPH is now offering this amazing opportunity for students to learn, understand, engage, and transform their relationship to the complicated people, places, ideas, and spirit that infuse this region of the world.
I think there are two key reasons why this program is so important for AOP students.
Spiritual clergy formation: This program explores unresolved and profound questions that have animated and engaged Jewish people for centuries. One of the tasks of comprehensive spiritual clergy formation is the process of immersing ourselves in historic, spiritual, emotional, and contemporary political issues about Israel and Palestine, and the people who live there. As emerging clergy, it’s imperative that we dive deeply into experiencing, thinking, and feeling our way through these complexities to become competent clergy leaders in our own communities.
Spiritual education for empathy: Conflicts arise and escalate when individuals and communities decrease their capacity to empathize with others. We know this from our own life experiences, and it’s an insight gleaned from many academic disciplines. The AOP’s ALEPH Ba’Aretz program offers us an opportunity to cultivate empathy across differences, where we can expand our capacity to listen to narratives and life experiences that diverge from our own. We will engage what is called a multiple narratives approach, where students will hear and learn multiple (and sometimes competing) narratives within and across different communities. The value of this approach is that it prompts participants to strengthen our ‘empathy muscles,’ observe where discomfort with difference arises within ourselves and others, and develop compassionate ways to respond to that discomfort. These skills can apply to so many conversations, not just about Israel and Palestine!
I wholeheartedly encourage you to consider participating in ALEPH Ba-Aretz. No matter where you stand politically, spiritually, and emotionally, this program will stretch you to grow and change. It will contribute to your formation as a spiritual leader, in powerful and unexpected ways.
Complete details can be found at https://aleph.org/aop-israel-and-palestine-program or email the program team at Israel@aleph.org.
Rabbinical student Caryn Aviv, who serves as ALEPH Student Board co-chair on the ALEPH Board, was profiled in our web series Faces of Renewal.
Once there was a stuffed rabbit who yearned to be Real. His Boy loved him so dearly that he became Real in the eyes of the Boy — but when living bunnies caught sight of him, they laughed, because they knew he was only a toy, unable to run and play with the real rabbits.
(Perhaps you recognize this story, by Margery Williams.)
One day the Boy became sick, and the stuffed rabbit stayed with him throughout his illness. It was uncomfortable and hot but the rabbit did not budge, because he knew his Boy needed him.
When the fever broke, the doctor instructed the family to burn everything which had been in contact with the boy — his sheets, his clothes, anything which might carry the germs of scarlet fever. Of course, this meant the bunny, too.
So the bunny was taken to a place outside the house along with everything else which might be contagious, and set aside for the burning. But before the gardener arrived with the matches and kerosene, the bunny wept a real tear, and from that tear arose a fairy, and the fairy told the bunny that he was truly Real now: not only in the eyes of the Boy who had loved him so dearly, but real now in the eyes of everyone.
Why am I telling you this story? Because of our Torah portion. Tazria–Metzora is full of blood, childbirth, leprosy, eruptive afflictions, and questions of purity. This week’s Torah portion takes us on a deep dive into the binary of tahor and tamei — usually translated as pure and impure, though I don’t like that rendering. I resonate with Rabbi Rachel Adler’s interpretation that being tamei means being charged-up, electrified, with a kind of uncanny life-and-death energy.
Have you ever been sick, and felt both physically and spiritually different from the “well” people around you? Have you ever done the holy work of the chevra kadisha, lovingly preparing a body for burial, and come away feeling that the world is in strangely sharp focus for a time? Have you ever given birth, or witnessed a birth, and felt as though you were touching the Infinite? Have you ever visited a hospital ward, and come away feeling that the hospital is a holy place — and also a place which gives you the shivers, with its reminders of mortality? That’s tum’ah: a temporary state of wakefulness to the Mystery of life and death.
This Torah portion speaks frequently of tzara’at — usually translated as leprosy or as an “eruptive plague.” Tzara’at is something with which a human being can be afflicted, and it is also something with which a house can be afflicted. In either case, the priest comes to examine, and there is a quarantine period, and if the house cannot be cleansed, it is torn down and taken to a place of tum’ah outside the city.
Although our Torah text comes from a time many centuries before germ theory, it speaks of contagion, and of whether and how it is possible to shed tum’ah and become tahor again.
Reading this Torah portion this year, I found myself thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit. His Boy contracted scarlet fever, and afterwards the rabbit was deemed contagious and was cast away. He became, in the language of Torah, tamei.
But it was through his encounter with sickness that he was able to become truly Real: not only Real in the eyes of his Boy, but Real in the eyes of the world. It was through the experience of being tamei that he was able to emerge into a state of taharah and to become truly alive.
And the same is true for us. Every life contains encounters with illness, contagion, and death. But when we take the risk of loving one another even though we know that life contains loss — when we oscillate with one another between sickness and health — that’s how we become Real.
Becoming Real, as the Skin Horse in the nursery reminded the Velveteen Rabbit, is not always comfortable. Usually it involves being loved until one becomes shabby and threadbare. Becoming Real comes at a price, and that price is willingness to be in the world, to age, to have one’s sharp edges rubbed off or one’s plush fur become tattered.
But once you are Real, you know that your fur growing shabby isn’t the most important thing. Once you are Real, says the Skin Horse, you can never be ugly.
Or, phrased a different way: once we are Real, we know deep in our hearts that in the eyes of the One Who made us, we are beautiful; we are perfect; we are loved; just the way we are.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
“Embracing Infinity” – Parashat Sh’mini
“Va-yehi ba-yom hash’mini…” It is on the eighth day that the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, spoken into being by God’s desire to dwell amongst the Israelites and built with their heart-offerings, culminates in Aaron’s successful performance, for the first time, of his priestly service. After he performs all the offerings flawlessly, according to Divine direction, Aaron raises his hands to bless the people, and YHVH materializes as a density visible to all! Holy fire leaps forth to consume the offerings, a great joyous cry of relief rises from every throat and, as if with a single impulse, the whole people throw themselves upon the ground in awe.
Suddenly, in the midst of this ritual high drama, a shocking rupture occurs—Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, each place fire and incense upon their fire pans and bring “esh zara, strange fire,” before the altar. In an instant, they are consumed by the same miraculous Divine fire that, just moments before, had engulfed with favor their father’s offerings.
At this excruciating moment, Moses says to his brother, simply, “This is what God meant when saying, ‘Through those near to me will I be sanctified; before all the people will I be glorified.’ ” Aaron’s response? “Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator, interprets Moses’ words as high praise for the spiritual attainments of Aaron’s sons. Moses is telling Aaron, Rashi posits, that it’s because of Nadav and Avihu’s “nearness” to God, their saintliness, that the final sanctification of the Mishkan has taken place through their deaths.
I want to hear the tone of Moses’ voice, to see his face. Have his eyes softened in empathy? Are they brimming with tears? Is he speaking gently, attempting to offer his brother some comfort in the face of unspeakable loss? Or is he impassive, majestic, still rapt with the elevated energy of ceremony, teaching his brother yet another lesson about the Torah order that is henceforth to govern Israel’s religious and communal life?
And what of Aaron’s silence? Does it signify, as the Biur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, German, 18th c.) suggests, patience, resignation, and an inner peace that accepts his sons’ fate and receives with equanimity ol malkhut shamayim, heaven’s yoke? Or is Aaron’s a shocked, frozen, stunned silence? After all, God stayed Abraham’s hand when Isaac was upon the altar! Why now must these sons, these princes of the people, be sacrificed (drawn close), along with the bulls, rams, and goats?
Only once in my life have I experienced the sudden, shocking loss of someone with whom I was emotionally and spiritually bound up. It was not the loss of my child or close relative, but of my teacher, R. David World-Blank z”l, killed in a car crash at the age of 47. At the moment I received the news, it felt like being kicked in the gut and having my heart ripped open at the same time. I wanted to cry out, to writhe, but at the time, I was living in a shared household with people I didn’t know well, with whom I didn’t feel safe. So I kept silent as I tried to stay present and ride the powerful feelings and sensations of wrenching pain alternating with numbness and disbelief.
The psalmist cries out to God, “l’ma’an yizamerkha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka, So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, YHVH, my God, I will forever thank you!” (Psalm 30:13) Here the quality of yidom is not a resigned or accepting silence, but a heavy-hearted silence that chokes off joyful song. Gratitude and praise, the psalmist suggests, can release the voice again, providing the antidote to this silence of despair.
But both the psalmist and Aaron know that this takes time. “Ba-erev yalin bekhi, v’la boker rinah, at night one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—joyful singing!” (Psalm 30:6) In the “dark night of the soul,” pain can be digested, and eventually transmuted into song. Aaron, ever more in touch with the human, fleshly realm than his God-centered brother, instructs Moses in this truth by refusing to eat the sin-offering within the sacred precinct on the same day that his sons have died. “Didn’t they, this very day, bring close their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHVH—and things like this befell me? Am I now to eat the sin-offering? Would YHVH approve?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Yom ha-sh’mini, the “eighth day,” takes us beyond the pale of Creation, the familiar rhythm of seven, and into the realm of the Infinite, where the mysteries of life and death, of joy and loss, of elation and heartbreak, flow into one another in a single song of simultaneous love and awe. It’s not an easy realm for most of us to inhabit.
When such ruptures, such losses occur in our own lives, may we be gentle with ourselves, honoring the nights of weeping, the days of silence, and taking the time, as Aaron teaches, to allow words of praise and thanksgiving and blessing to find their way through our shattered hearts and gradually back into our mouths, where they teach us, bit by bit, to embrace the Vastness, the infinity, for which we each are a vessel.
Tzav (Command) – Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Tzav consists of instructions concerning the sacrifices and how to install the priests in their service.
WE ARE COMMANDED TO BE A NATION OF PRIESTS, to take responsibility for the holiness of our world, to be healers, and when necessary to stand between Life and Death, bridging the finite and the infinite. Tzav addresses the priest in us and so its blessing is in calling that priest forward.
TZAV BEGINS with the instructions for keeping a perpetual fire burning on the altar. Without the constancy of this fire, all of our sacrifices, our prayer, and our holy work would cease. This fire on the altar of our hearts is the pre-requisite for all spiritual practice. Tzav directs us in the tending of that innermost fire. If the fire should go out, our priesthood will be worthless.
TZAV ENDS with the ceremony that consecrates our priesthood and sends us to our holy work. During this ceremony we are blessed with the blood of the ram of consecration on the ear, the hand, and the foot:
- ON THE EAR that we might hear and respond to the cry of the oppressed and to the still small voice within our own hearts.
- ON THE HAND that we might dedicate ourselves to doing justice and making beauty.
- ON THE FOOT that we might walk carefully and deliberately on the path of pilgrimage.
TZAV ASKS US TO ENTER WITHIN and inspect the condition of the innermost fire upon the altar of the heart. We are challenged to look at our lives and ask the serious and probing questions about what supports that fire as well as what puts it out.
The fire itself speaks to me and says, “You must provide the spark. Be with the people who spark your creativity and enthusiasm. Keep reading and learning. Seek out places of beauty. Let yourself be challenged by difficult and interesting projects. Make music and colorful art. Travel to exotic places. Find reasons to celebrate.”
Seeing that I am listening, the fire grows bolder saying, “And I need space to burn. Spacious air. The breath of life. Spirit. Wind. Open spaces. If you schedule every minute of your day; if you fill the silence with words; if you clutter up your life with so much stuff … how can you expect me to have enough space to burn?”
The fire begins to open to me and so I speak to her directly. “What will you use as fuel? What keeps you burning?”
The fire flickers brightly at my question and whispers, “The love that you give and the love that you receive… that is my fuel. For love is as fierce as death… no river can sweep it away.” (Song of Songs 8:6-7)
“AND ONE MORE THING,” says the fire, flashing righteously, “you must remove the dead ashes every day. I cannot burn clean and pure if the refuse of the past is allowed to accumulate within you. Each morning you must remove that which is old and done.”GUIDANCE FOR PRACTICE Journey to the Fire on the Altar of Your Heart
BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY BY SITTING BEFORE A CANDLE and staring into the flame. Let your breath deepen and slow.
LOOK INTO THE HEART OF THE FLAME (for at least ten minutes). When the flame has burned its image into your eyes, close your eyes and see the flame inside your heart. Whenever you lose the image within, open your eyes and let the outer flame send you to the inner fire.
These words of Torah are reprinted from Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land (Ben Yehuda Press, 2006.)
Rabbi Shefa Gold is director of C-DEEP, ALEPH’s Center for Devotional, Energy, and Ecstatic Practice.
This d’var Torah was offered last Shabbat morning at the ALEPH Board strategic planning retreat.
Shabbat shalom. Last week we celebrated Purim, with its themes of concealing and revealing. This week, in Ki Tisa, there’s more hide and seek. The parsha begins with deep spiritual transmission between the Divine and Moses about the building of sacred space. We learn of the requirement to give a half-shekel, to build our community’s holy meeting space and purify our collective accumulation of spiritual shmutz. We are given instruction in who will participate in the building sacred space, and we hear the radical teaching to celebrate sacred time of kedusha and menucha – holiness and rest. Both of these teachings illuminate how to build and be built in relationship to what’s holy, and to strengthen our relationship to being alive.
The narrative then moves to anxious and fearful regression of the Israelites, who are waiting for Moses at the bottom of the mountain. They experience collective separation anxiety. They insist that Aaron create a Moses substitution/replacement security object, and build a Golden Calf. The Divine sees what’s happening, and expresses anger toward the people to Moses, who pleads with the Divine for compassion. Moses descends down the mountain. He sees the separation anxiety substitution object, and his anger flares. He dramatically shatters the tablets of our freedom teachings. He burns the Golden Calf in the fire of his disappointment, frustration, and perhaps shame that his brother and the people were unable to trust in the process. Moses begs the Divine for forgiveness of the people, and asks God to lead him and the Israelites out of this constricted spiritual state.
Finally the parasha closes with a second encounter at Mount Sinai. The Divine instructs Moses to carve two more tablets, and climb the mountain alone. The text says:
As My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and protect you with My hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.
It is in this place, of concealment, seeking, and presence, that Moses experiences connection with the Sacred, and a profound covenantal promise.
In that encounter, the rabbis imagined the Ineffable wearing a tallit, singing to Moses, what we now sing to God as the core of our own Selichot, our prayers of forgiveness:
אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם Erech appayim
וְרַב-חֶסֶד VeRav chesed
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים Notzer chesed laalafim
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן Noseh avon
וְחַטָּאָה VeChata’ah (breakages and ruptures)
וְנַקֵּה VeNakeh (accepting apologies to mend relationship)
Rambam argued that these attributes are not inherent in God, they are the method of divine governance, delivered in a conceptual form that we as limited human beings can understand. In the Sifre, these attributes are called “derakim” – the ways of divinity. In other words, these attributes are not just qualities – they are profound practices to emulate and embody.
For centuries, we are the ones who voice these words as a plea, to be forgiven for our shortcomings and our mistakes. We don’t sing these on Shabbat, because they are such deeply personal supplications. And our mystical tradition introduced the singing of these words when we take the Torah out of the Aron Kodesh for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. But in the Torah, it is God singing these to Moses, and to us – as an invitation and a promise. And perhaps, we might see this as a love song for how to live in right relationship with God and with one another.
It’s not accidental that God describes the importance of Shabbat as a source of blessing and sacred power in the same parsha where God sings and teaches us the attributes of divinity as a source of blessing and sacred power. The 13 attributes God sings to Moshe are a reminder, that every day we are given the opportunity to live in right relationship with the Divine.
We build this relationship through our doing 6 days of the week and then celebrating creation and simply being. Shabbat is an amplification, a manifestation, and a fruition of all those qualities in Shemot. When we embody and practice those ways attributed to the Great Mystery, in the rhythm of Jewish time, we have the opportunity to experience kedusha and healing in our world.
May we build sacred spaces and communities, erech appayim, v’rav chesed v’emet, slow to anger and filled with kindness and truth. May we be built by our holy work this weekend in partnership with the Divine to embody those wondrous attributes of Godliness.
Rabbinical student Caryn Aviv, who serves as ALEPH Student Board representative on the ALEPH Board, was profiled in our web series Faces of Renewal.
The latest issue of Sh’ma is themed around Dayenu | דַּיֵּנוּ – It would have been enough.
This issue’s Ni’shma page features the voice of Rabbi Hannah Dresner, who serves Or Shalom in Vancouver, part of the ALEPH Network. Rabbi Hannah was ordained by ALEPH as a rabbi, a mashpi’ah (spiritual director), and a dayan. She writes:
…The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger), teaches that in seeing ourselves as having participated in the Exodus, we must imagine emancipation from our own narrow straits, in an ever-occurring deliverance. Just as the Torah received at Sinai was an extension of the biblical redemption, so, too, “the redemptions of the future will be followed by quests into unknown territory, as we search for the new paths that will be created.” (Sfat Emet 3:86)
In other words, we must do everything in our power to work toward liberation from the bondage of our time…
Read her whole piece, along with words from Rabbi Zoë Klein and Alicia Svigals: http://forward.com/shma-now/dayenu/365484/nishma-dayenu/