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The Voice of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal
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Why a program about Israel and Palestine?

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 09:25

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 or email the program team at

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.

Words of Torah from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 08:00

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. TazriaMetzora 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.

Reprinted from Velveteen Rabbi.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Words of Torah from Rabbi Diane Elliot

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 07:00

“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.


This d’var Torah was originally published on the AJR-CA website.
Rabbi Diane Elliot is director of Embodying Spirit, Enspiriting Body.

Words of Torah from Rabbi Shefa Gold

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 12:04


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.

Words of Torah from Caryn Aviv

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 08:33

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:

יְהוָה Adonai
יְהוָה Adonai
אֵל El
רַחוּם Rachum
וְחַנּוּן VeChanun
אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם Erech appayim
וְרַב-חֶסֶד VeRav chesed
וֶאֱמֶת VeEmet
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים Notzer chesed laalafim
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן Noseh avon
וָפֶשַׁע VaFeshah
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.

Rabbi Hannah Dresner featured in Sh’ma

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 14:39

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:

Faces of Renewal: Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 09:43

“Priestess Rabbi” Geela Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael describes herself as an “unorthodox visionary rabbi.” Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, she brings the soul and hospitality of the south into her rabbinate. With her open heart, and sense of feminist mysticism, she finds home in the Jewish Renewal movement. “My rabbinic goal is to bring as much joy to Judaism as I can muster,” she says, “and that is a signature value of Renewal Judaism.”

“Reb Rayzel” is an award winning singer/songwriter/liturgist with six recordings to her credit.  She has collaborated on three albums with the singing group MIRAJ. Her solo recordings, Friday Night Revived and her Bible Babe’s a Beltin’ CD have received international acclaim. Her most recent release is May the Angels Carry You, a companion to the book of the same title by her husband, Dr. Simcha Raphael, featuring Jewish prayers for the end of life. “Music is the language that moves me to cry, and dance and pray,” she says. “Music says it all.”

She teaches frequently on esoteric subjects, including kabbalah, dreams, angels, and the soul. She aims to specialize in presenting complex traditions in an entertaining and educational manner. In addition, Reb Rayzel also creates handpainted silk tallitot/prayer shawls and huppahs/wedding canopies. Her most recent creative endeavor is a deck of papercut Shechinah Oracle cards researched from Jewish text and tradition. “The art of my soul moves me to create beauty in all forms. I found a home in Jewish Renewal because of the community of artistic co-creators I found here.”

Reb Rayzel sojourned in Indiana for university, where she received a BA from Indiana University in religious studies. She also holds a Masters in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis.  Her journey then took her to Toronto Canada where she worked as a Hillel Director at York University. She’s also been fortunate enough to live in Israel for two years, studying at Pardes and at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her angels then guided her to deepen her connection to the Jewish community, and she landed at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She has lived in Philadelphia since 1989.

Today, Reb Rayzel has a private practice in the Philadelphia area where she counsels couples and helps them prepare for life cycle ceremonies. She leads tallit painting workshops, does readings of the Shechinah Oracle for groups, jams at musical Shabbat services, and basically will answer the call wherever the Holy One wants her to go. She has been the spiritual leader of three congregations, served as a chaplain, and worked for Hillel doing outreach to students. Currently she serves Darkaynu in Warrington, PA.

As a self-identified “priestess Rabbi,” she is guided by her angels in service to Shechinah, the Feminine Divine path in Jewish tradition. “Renewal made space for the Divine feminine to flourish, that’s why I’m home here.”

This profile is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day. 

Rabbi Diane Elliot – Featured Spiritual Teachers For The Winter Feast for the Soul

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 16:58

From January 15 through February 23, 2017, Rabbi Diane Elliot, Director of ALEPH’s Embodying Spirit, En-Spiriting Body program, was one of nine featured spiritual teachers for the Winter Feast for the Soul, an on-line meditation community that each year supports participants from all over the world to engage in a 40-day daily meditative practice period. This year’s Feast was dedicated to the creation of “World Peace through Inner Peace” and included guided meditations by teachers representing a variety of traditions, from Tibetan Buddhism to Christian mysticism to Sufism. Rabbi Elliot’s embodied kabbalistic meditations, collectively titled “Nurturing the Inner Tree of Life,” were listened to over 800 times by meditators around the world. They are still available for listening and will be archived on the Winter Feast for the Soul website ( in perpetuity.

If you would like to learn more about Rabbi Diane Elliot and her Embodying Spirit, En-spiriting Body program, go to

The next week-long retreat, coming up May 15-21, 2017, in northern California, will focus on Embodying Torah.

Seeking applicants for Kallah 2018 Team

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 14:37

Applications are open now for the Kallah Leadership Circle, as well as for the various other committees we’ll be assembling as we draw nearer to summer 2018.

If you’re interested in helping us create the next ALEPH Kallah, please fill out the enclosed survey and let us know your talents, interests, and qualifications.

We’ll hold on to all applications, so if you aren’t selected for the Kallah Leadership Circle now, we’ll keep your name on file for when we assemble the other committees we’ll be pulling together in months to come!

If you can’t see the embedded form, you can go directly to it here.

Stop hiding; let yourself go free – by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 07:00

The festival of Purim (coming up this Saturday) is a holiday of concealment. At Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, a delightfully bawdy Persian court soap opera which doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spiritual life or with God. Jewish tradition doesn’t shy away from this oddity — we embrace it and find meaning in it.

The quintessential act of Purim is להתחפש, a reflexive verb which means to dress oneself up or to conceal oneself. We do this when we dress up in costumes on Purim. Esther does this when she hides her Jewishness (until the moment comes for her to reveal herself and in so doing save the day). God does this in concealing God’s-self entirely; God is never even mentioned in the megillah (though to the discerning eye God’s presence may be subtly manifest even so.)

Purim is about the self-reflexive act of hiding. But what happens when we shift that verb and make it no longer reflexive? We get the verb לחפש – to search. And searching is one of the quintessential moves we make before Pesach. On the night before Passover begins, there’s a tradition of lighting a candle and searching our homes for “hidden” hametz (leaven), a physical hide-and-seek game that represents a deeper inner searching. We read in the book of Proverbs (20:27) that our own souls are God’s candle — just as we search for hidden leaven by the light of a physical candle, God uses our souls as candles to illuminate all that’s hidden in the world.

When we search for hametz, we’re not just looking for bread crusts. We’re also seeking spiritual leaven, the puffery of pride and ego, the sour old stuff within us which needs to be discarded in order for us to move toward freedom.

The shift from להתחפש to לחפש, from concealment to searching, is the fundamental move we’re called to make as spring unfolds, as we move from Purim (festival of masks and concealment) to Passover (festival of searching and liberation). At Purim, we may be hiding — from others, and even from ourselves. Maybe it feels dangerous to let ourselves be known. Maybe there are truths we don’t want to admit. Maybe we think there are parts of ourselves we have to hide in order to move freely in the world. Maybe we think we are better off if we conceal the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or the parts of ourselves which don’t meet others’ expectations.

But in order to move toward freedom, we have to turn the reflexive verb outward: we have to move from hiding (from) ourselves to searching for what’s been hidden. If God hides in order that we might seek, then it stands to reason that so do we. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden from the world. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden even from ourselves. The hopes and yearnings that we’ve tried to keep under wraps, the sorrows and fears that we’ve tried to hide, from others and from ourselves.

May we do that unearthing through therapy, or hashpa’ah (spiritual direction), or a writing practice, or a prayer practice. Maybe we do that unearthing through conversations with a trusted friend who can help us see ourselves more clearly than we could see on our own. Maybe we do that unearthing through studying texts and delving into the passages that resonate with us. There are many ways to do the work of searching for who we really are. What’s important is that we light the candle and we do the searching. Passover will come in the fullness of time no matter what, but the journey of the Exodus will mean more if we’re willing to do this inner work.

The hametz we need to root out is not our imperfections (because everyone is imperfect) but the way we try to hide our imperfections, the way we shame ourselves for our imperfections. The internal narrative which says that we are only lovable, or only worthwhile, if we keep parts of ourselves — our quirks, our mistakes, our tenderest places — hidden. The need to conceal oneself can become a kind of Mitzrayim, a place of constriction. In order to emerge from the tight places in our lives, we need to stop hiding. We need to move from concealing ourselves to searching for ourselves in order to let ourselves go free.

And the journey takes us one step further. We move from concealment (Purim) to searching (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot.) Purim’s reflexivity primes that pump: first we own (and prepare to relinquish) our own hiding. Then we search for our deepest truths and begin to experience the freedom of wholly being who we truly are. Only then can we be ready to receive revelation anew. The journey to revelation begins right now. The places where we’ve hidden our hearts from others or from ourselves aren’t impediments to the journey: they are the spark that will ignite the inner spiritual journey of our transformation.



Rabbi Rachel Barenblat serves with Rabbi David Evan Markus as co-chair of ALEPH. This teaching, originally posted at Velveteen Rabbi is dedicated to him with gratitude.

Choose life that all may live, by Rabbi Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 12:59

I could have been one of Donald Trump’s guests when he spoke to Congress recently. He brought three families whose loved ones had been killed by an illegal immigrant. I lost my parents 17 years ago to an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk on a Sunday morning in Boca Raton, Florida. My narrative of the events these last years has always focused on the drunk driving, on alcoholism and its effects. But I realize there is another piece of the story. My parents were killed by an illegal immigrant.

Had the president invited me to be his guest, however, I would not have come. Because President Trump does not speak for me. His actions do not represent me. His edicts do not ease my suffering. I do not want to punish all illegal immigrants for the actions of the one. That is the way of darkness.

The man who killed my parents was sentenced to 23 years in jail. It could have been 43 years, but I advocated for mercy since he was 26. I am not a saint. I made myself forget the name of the man who killed my parents. I do not know what he looks like. He is in prison and I do not know if he is alive or dead, nor do I care.

But I had an experience at the time, a flow of grace that kept me from rage. I remembered the words of Thich Nhat Hanh. “this is because that is.” At first I was angry, then I thought, with whom? The drunk driver? The farmer who hired him? The people who got the beer he drank? The person who loaned him the car to get more beer? These people are all connected. The connection between them brought that man to that intersection at that time.

In the last few days I have come to greater connections. The farmer who can not harvest his crop without undocumented migrants. The system that exploits them. The poverty that makes someone go far away from home in an effort to better themselves—a desire common to all of us. The undocumented immigrant is the personification of the American ideal—to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. In the case of the man who killed my parents, there is the crushing pain when one’s dreams of a better life disappear. Pain that is numbed by alcohol. These are all connected. Who do I blame? Who do I rage against?

We are a rich nation willing to tolerate poverty here and around the world. We think the solution to problems is punishment. We build walls. We suffocate those among us who have suffered and still dream. My own country is also in the series of connections that put that man at that intersection on a Sunday morning. I do not want to put all alcoholics in prison because one killed my parents. In fact our judicial system is much more lenient with drunk drivers than it is with undocumented immigrants. I do not want to punish all undocumented immigrants because one killed my parents. I spurn the way of darkness.

There are probably people living here who have been convicted of serious crimes as undocumented residents of this country. I think they should be deported. For the rest, I say welcome. “This is because that is.” Welcome, let us help you, let us connect so that on a Sunday morning all of our connections put you at that college, that good job, that wonderful family rather than that intersection. Choose life that all may live.


Rabbi Rhonda Shapiro-Reiser, ordained by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2015, serves as Jewish advisor to students at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The opinions expressed in this essay are her own.

Rabbi David Ingber on welcoming the stranger

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 11:59

Rabbi David Ingber’s Friday night sermon from Romemu last week is about doorways, and welcoming the stranger, and how we are all “immigrants” in this life, and what Jewish tradition asks of us as we relate to others. Here’s a taste:

“It’s an essential core piece of our human story. Boundaries, permeability, relationships. All of this is what it means to be human, and it’s part of the Jewish self-understanding, part of what we tell ourselves as Jews in our narrative.

Doors and doorways are fundamentally about liminality. About the in-between; about the spaces, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, where we are in-between. We as a people have been known from time immemorial as those who cross over. We are the children of Abraham, the ivri. We know what it is to be boundary-crossers…

Every child who is born into this world is born an immigrant. Each and every human being comes into an unknown world whose culture will have to be learned. We begin life as immigrants, as boundary-crossers, as those who leave and who enter, who come and go through life’s doorways.”

The sermon is available both on Soundcloud and on YouTube:

On Soundcloud: People of the Door.

On YouTube:

(If you can’t see the embedded video, here’s a link directly to it at youtube.)

Deep thanks to Rabbi David Ingber for this deep Torah, both timeless and timely.

Shabbat shalom to all.

Faces of Renewal: Rabbi Shefa Gold

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 09:05

An Interview With Rabbi Shefa Gold of C-DEEP (the Center for Devotional, Energy, & Ecstatic Practice)

The author of The Magic of Hebrew Chant, Rabbi Shefa Gold is also a recording artist and the director of the Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice in New Mexico. She is interviewed here by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a member of ALEPH’s Advisory Council:

I’ve been told by many spiritual teachers, especially within the Hindu tradition, that the most powerful spiritual practice for our time is chanting. Would you agree with that?

I’m not going to speak for everyone, but for me, chanting—the musical and rhythmic repetition of a sacred phrase from a holy text—has been the doorway into the depths of my own heart and into the heart of my inheritance, Judaism. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the sounds of Hebrew prayer, not just for what they meant but for where they could take me.  I found that if I focused in on one phrase, repeating it with a compelling melody, then that phrase could transport me to expansive heights and fathomless depths.

The phrase you inherit from Judaism, but the melodies are your own.

Besides becoming a spiritual seeker, I knew myself as an artist, and I found my voice through poetry and song. Though I’m argumentative by nature, I learned that my arguments only led me toward grief and separation. In contrast, my poems and songs connected me to others, opened my heart, and opened doors of exploration and adventure.

Is it the words or the melody that matters most to you?

Rather than juxtapose words and melody, I prefer to speak of sound and silence. When I first began chanting, I was in love with sound. I experimented with melody, rhythm, harmony, tone, and pitch. But after a while I began to appreciate the silence as well. It was as if the chant opened a door, and through the silence I could walk through the door and receive the true blessing of my efforts. I fell in love with the silence.

What is the true blessing?

The true blessing is the capacity to listen ever more deeply. To listen to the sound and the silence. And in this listening I am opened to the truth of essential unity that embraces all diversity.

How does that happen for you?

When I find words that speak to me, I seek through melody to step into the state of consciousness from which these words emerged. When I embody the truth of this sacred phrase, my world is transformed…

The core of my inheritance can be summed up in three challenges: to love God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might; to love the other as myself; and to love the stranger. I want to return to those core challenges and find a practice that will help me meet them. Chanting is the most powerful vehicle I have found as I open to the centrality of love.

Speaking to spiritual seekers from any path and no path, how would you direct them to the experience of the power of chant?

Come to a sacred text with a vulnerable heart, acknowledging your own place of longing. Then, let yourself play with the sound of those words. Imagine that they are incantations whose power will be unlocked through your loving intention, through melody, harmony, rhythm, and breath. And then pay careful attention in the silence to what door has been opened by the chant. Resolve to enter. Let the beauty of chant move you through that door, and take pleasure in every step of the journey.

Abbreviated from a longer interview published in Spirituality & Health magazine; reprinted with permission.

This interview is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day. 

ALEPH Statement on Immigration Ban

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 08:08

On Friday President Trump issued an Executive Order banning immigrants from Muslim majority nations.
ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, responds in the strongest language possible:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” (US Declaration of Independence) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

We, all of us are descendants of immigrants. Every one of us in these United States came here from elsewhere. It is only the small minority of indigenous peoples who can claim otherwise. Jews have learned from the experience of our relatives how dangerous a ban of people who are different than “us” or from someplace else can be. We know the consequences of calling someone the “other.” We know.

It is because of this experience, because of the foundational documents of our country, of the words in the Hebrew Bible that give us clear guidance: to protect ourselves we must protect others, to care for ourselves we must care for others, we must love our neighbor as we would love ourselves.

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as a faith-based, heart-centered, Jewish organization stands with our neighbors, stands with those who are different, stands with those who are from elsewhere to defend their rights, to defend our rights, to fulfill the holy and moral imperative of to love the stranger as we would love our very own. As such we call on President Trump to rethink and rescind his executive order. As Nelson Mandela said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. Those of us in the faith-based community must help all to realize the fullness of their humanity; those in the political community must remove impediments to that sacred mission.

Faces of Renewal: Rabbi David Zaslow

Thu, 01/19/2017 - 09:58

An interview with Rabbi David Zaslow

How long have you been part of Jewish Renewal?

Since 1988 when Rabbi Ari Hirschfield z”l and Reb Zalman zt”l accepted me in their private smicha program. I was ordained by them in 1995 under the further direction of Rabbi Marcia Prager and Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin.

What original contributions have you made to Jewish Renewal?

In poetry we speak about poets who make a breakthrough, and those who interiorize, or help advance the breakthrough. I haven’t made any original contributions to Renewal, but I’m honored to have done the work of interiorization. I’ve taken the infrastructure of Reb Zalman’s theology and developed it in terms of Jewish/Christian relations, as well as an understanding of Hebraic thinking through etymological word studies.

What do you mean by etymology?

Every word in every language has a root that is a metaphor. When we study etymology we’re looking at the archaeology of language. We can learn a lot about how our ancestors were thinking by studying the way they coined and understood words. For instance the Hebrew word “olam” means “world” as when we describe G-d as melech haOlam, “Ruler of the world.” But we use that same word when we say l’olam va-ed meaning “forever and ever.” So it seems that time and space were intimately linked to our ancestors. Time represented by “forever,” and space represented by “world” or “universe.” Our ancestors might have had an understanding of what Einstein called the time space continuum thousands of years ago.

Can you unpack the concept of Hebraic thinking?

The notion that there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate realms can be seen in Psalm 148 where the Psalmist is addresses elements in nature in the way that all indigenous people do – not as if they were alive, but experiencing them as actually alive. Also, today we make a distinction between the living and the dead. Our ancestors made no such clear distinction. The ancestors, though not here physically, are spiritually alive and accessible to us. These are a few examples of Hebraic thinking

You’re author of Jesus: First-Century Rabbi. Tell us more about your work with Christians?

We use the term JuBu, HinJu, or SuJu with a sense that we can hyphenate ourselves with the Buddhists, Sufis, or Hindus. Yet, with Christians we would never do that. We recognize that groups like Jews for Jesus are nothing more than missionary groups. Yet beneath the surface of the distinctions between Christianity and Judaism there is an inherent unity. Our stories are uniquely different and yet parallel. When we remove our fear of missionary encroachment we find great synchronicity with the theology of our Christian friends. Reb Zalman’s dialogues with Thomas Merton are extraordinary. Reb Zalman was not afraid to speak using Christological language, and Merton responded in kind with language about Judaism that had never been said before by a Christian theologian. Reb Zalman is to say “it’s a difference of approach.” If we approach Christians and Muslims with respect, looking for commonality, that’s what we’ll find. That’s the kavannah (intention) behind my interfaith work.


This interview is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day. 

Prayer For The Musmachot

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 13:22

These are the names of the daughters of Israel
Who came into the womb of narrow unknowing
Each with her household, to be rebirthed anew,

Called by name at the moment of becoming
No less than the stars that shine in their time
By which to count a promised people of light.

Birthing took time, but they’re vigorous in living
And giving life-giving life from essence of soul,
The single point of light that is light before light.

It did not merely appear in your wild and waste:
You saw, daring to turn toward flame of heart,
Standing open to touch and tend the holy,

Hearing your name as never before called from the
Name as never before spoken, becoming in all ways
Within you What is Becoming always within you,

Now ready to shine as never before, for you as the very
Top of the mountain that glowed with the radiance of
Birth herself in truth and love and pain and hope.

These are the names of the daughters of Israel
Come to lead from narrow unknowing to rebirth anew
With eyes wide open – daring to turn aside and see

The flame of heart, to help all of us stand open to
Touch and tend the holy, to hear and become –
Next links in the unbroken chain of always becoming

Now given to their care, placed on their shoulders,
Hearing their names as never before, leaning back into
History’s hands: from where we stand, go forward.

Dedicated with love and blessing to the
ALEPH Class of 2017

Rabbi Rachel Hersh
Rabbi Diane Lakein
Hazzan Jessi Roemer
Rabbi Susan Shamash
Rabbi Jennifer Singer

Rabbi David Evan Markus & Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-Chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal


Winter Feast for the Soul

Wed, 01/11/2017 - 12:53

ALPEH’s very own Rabbi Diane Elliot is one of eight featured teachers in this year’s Winter Feast for the Soul, a 40-day World Wide Spiritual Practice Period, beginning January 15

If you would like to join the course there’s no cost to participate, and you’ll be provided with all the materials you need on-line, including a series of 40-minute recorded meditations to guide you for each day of the practice period. 

So if you find yourself in need of some support for your ongoing meditation practice and want to be guided by wonderful teachers and accompanied by fellow meditators from all over the world, consider making this commitment to yourself and your inner life. You’ll find everything you need to participate at:

A haftarah for Martin Luther King weekend

Sun, 01/08/2017 - 07:00

We’ve linked before to this article by Hazzan Jack Kessler, director of ALEPH’s Cantorial Program: English Leyning: Bringing New Meaning to the Torah Service (Kerem, 2014). It’s on our minds again as Martin Luther King weekend approaches.

Hazzan Jack writes:

Twenty years ago I first heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, leyn/publicly read Torah in a flowing combination of Hebrew and English. His leyning in the traditional trop — the Torah melody — moved seamlessly from Hebrew into English translation and back into Hebrew without breaking the melody. Moreover, he used the English — which he was translating on the spot from the open scroll — to interpretively and dramatically teach the text. It was stunning. A tour-de-force! The text practically jumped off the page. I had never heard Torah so passionately alive, so powerful. I’d been leyning Torah my whole adult life, and I know the Hebrew reasonably well, but others around me, for whom the Hebrew would typically be a blur without meaning, were riveted too. They heard the ancient Hebrew, its inflections and rhythms, but interspersed with English in a way that brought them inside the experience. The public reading of Torah had come alive! The words leapt from the scroll into their hearts. We could hear the song of Torah become the carrier wave for the emotional power of the text. People who were hearing Torah read from the scroll, and understood it for the first time, wept.

As the article continues, he describes how he began experimenting with setting contemporary prophetic texts in haftarah trope.

As Martin Luther King weekend approaches, here is Hazzan Jack’s setting of quotes from Martin Luther King’s speeches set to haftarah trope:  mlk-haftara_trop [pdf]