Category Archives: Rabbi Daniel Siegel’s Blog

Ensouling the World: Shmita as Beginning


ALEPH Canada is incredibly proud to bring you the first offering of the Integral Halachah Institute. Rabbi Daniel Siegel has just completed the first text of the IHI, called “Ensouling the World – Spiritual Teachings about Shabbat and Shmita.” In this deep and timely offering, Reb Daniel and rabbinic student Esther Azar, with support from Rabbis David Seidenberg and Elliot Ginsburg, explore the teachings of the Netivot Shalom and the Ohr HaChayim which “recognize that the cycles of seven are a healing for the soul and a renewal for the next cycle. This message … contains the secret to our ultimate healing as individuals and as a planet.”

To obtain the text, go to Reb Daniel’s blog page,!/writing/, click on “Writing”, then scroll down and click on the link “Ensouling the World”.

Being Straight with God

Being Straight with God

by Rabbi

Hanna and I were privileged to attend the bar mitzvah of Reb Aryeh Hirshfield’s twin sons on the Shabbat of US Thanksgiving weekend. It was a powerful experience, full of both joy and sadness, as several communities gathered to honour these two young men and their mother. Reb Aryeh z”l had passed away suddenly some years ago and was among Reb Zalman’s early musmachim and part of the founding of Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest. We who were Aryeh’s friends, colleagues, and family missed him even as we kvelled at the poise, maturity, and intelligence of his sons.

Among many special moments, Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of Corvallis, OR spoke about the word and name Yisra’el. The Torah reading for that Shabbat afternoon was Parashat VaYishlach, in which Jacob struggles with the angel and receives the name Yisra’el as the morning light ends the dark night. Most of the time in Jewish Renewal, we speak of this name of ours as meaning “God Wrestlers,” reflecting the reason given by the angel for this name “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Rabbi Ben pointed out that the name can also be read as Yashar El, being straight or honest with God. I resonated with this because I wrote something similar when I became rabbinic director of ALEPH back in 1997. In some sense, we are not only people who wrestle with God but also a people who maintain, as best we can, an honesty and simplicity with God, a moral and ethical core to which we are committed.

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God is My Light by Rabbi Daniel Siegel

“In this do I trust,” says the author of Psalm 27.

“For David,” the psalm begins. Is this the statement of authorship as tradition would have it, or could it be a dedication? This one is for you, David, you who nurtured your trust even when you were being hunted, even when you didn’t even have clothes to wear, even when your son betrayed you and your baby died.

I’ve recited this psalm annually for many years, but it was only in the past few that I managed to memorize it (sort of). This has given me the internal space to reflect on its transitions as well as on the verses which have captivated us through melody. “One thing I ask from God, this do I request: to dwell in God’s house all my life and to have visions of God’s beauty while visiting God’s sanctuary.”


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The Cycles of T’shuvah

by Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Dear Friends,

As I wrote in my first note, one of the larger projects on which I’m working is an expansion of Reb Zalman’s thoughts on t’shuvah, loosely translated either as repentance or return. It is a fundamental teaching of Hassidut that everyone should be engaged in a lifelong process of t’shuvah. What that might mean will be explored in future postings and for now let’s just assume the truth of this principle.

In the booklet called “A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation” which focused on the t’shuvah of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, Reb Zalman talked about four overlapping cycles. Most familiar to us is the annual one, culminating in the confessions made on Yom Kippur. In “Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of T’shuvah,” Reb Zalman focused on the lesser known monthly cycle which finds its expression in the practice of Yom Kippur Kattan on the last day of most months.

In his “Guide,” Reb Zalman said the following about daily t’shuvah:

Every night we say kri’aht sh’ma she’ahl hah-mitah / the recitation of the sh’ma done on the bed. To fulfill the positive mitzvah of saying sh’ma “when you lie down and when you rise up,” many people make this the last thing they do before going to sleep. Since sleep has some similarity to death, and since we want to die saying the sh’ma, this is an appropriate moment for doing a spiritual stock-taking as well, just as we would hope to do on our deathbeds. This way, no day goes by without clearing what you can. It’s like looking at what’s waiting in the basket to be deleted for the day.

I might say that what you do every night is dealing with the nefesh part of soul (the most physical and that which we share with other life forms).

To actualize this idea, the siddurim of the Hassidim and the S’faradim begin the bedtime sh’ma with a t’shuvah focused meditation. Below, I’ve pasted a link to this meditation and an abbreviated form of the bedtime sh’ma which can also be found in the weekday edition of Siddur Kol Koreh. This is as it appears in classical siddurim and, in reviewing it, I would make the translation clearer that we are not limiting our responsibility to other Jews but extending it to all human beings with whom we have relationships.

Interestingly, this meditation was also included in the Harlow machzor of the Conservative Movement to be recited prior to Kol Nidre, but without the phrase “whether in this incarnation or in another” (page 350). The Art Scroll siddur translates this phrase faithfully and adds the note that the transmigration of souls is a basic kabbalistic concept. I think it’s useful to note this, since we so often hear people say that Judaism doesn’t really believe either in an afterlife or in reincarnation. This is largely because the responsibility of defining Judaism after the sho’ah fell to the rationalists of the Western European Jewish movements, which in turn are the antecedents of the contemporary Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements in North America. It has taken until now for mystical Judaism to find its voice again and to restore balance to the continuum of Jewish beliefs.

Our Lineage

by Rabbi Daniel Seigel

I remember reading an essay written around the beginning of the 20th century in which the author proposed a new way of establishing criteria for rabbinical ordination. Until the emancipation, what Jewish young men did was to choose a rabbi or a yeshivah where they felt comfortable and whose teaching was in harmony with their souls and they went to study. They began their learning wherever the other students were “holding” at that moment. Somewhere along the way, a particular man might be tapped by the rosh yeshivah / the head of the academy. At that point, he might review particular parts of the Shulchan Aruch and, after an oral exam in those sections, would be given a document that showed that he had the confidence of his teachers to be someone who could himself teach the basics of Judaism and resolve disputes according to halachah / Jewish “law” and practice.

For the author of the essay, this was an unacceptable practice. The title “rabbi” or even the words of the document didn’t really contain important information about what this rabbi had actually studied and where his competencies really lay. So he proposed the establishment of a single, world-wide curriculum for rabbinical seminaries so that the content of the title would be obvious to everyone. Ordination should indeed be the same as graduation, and the right to graduate should be earned in the same way as in other institutions of higher learning. Some years later, I had a conversation with a retired Conservative rabbi in the Boston area who lectured me about the inadequacy of “private semicha” as he imagined we practiced it in Jewish Renewal, arguing strongly for this universal model of graduation upon completion of a curriculum.

I established my relationship with Reb Zalman precisely because this new model didn’t speak to me. I saw rabbinical schools training rabbis for a Jewish community that already was changing into something else. Where rabbinic training was focused on prophetic sermonizing or the minutiae of halachah as recorded in the various codes or asking the rabbi to be the resident intellectual expert on Jewish history and practice, I saw congregations in need of a post-holocaust and truly spiritual renewal of Judaism.  The rabbi needed less to be a Ph.D. and more to be an intelligent articulator of a Judaism which is a spiritual practice enhancing the quality and meaningfulness of people’s lives.

And so it began, with Reb Zalman laying his hands on me in the basement of Neal and Carol Rose’s house in Winnipeg. And so it has continued and grown until now, and ALEPH’s ordination ceremonies are personal, beautiful, joyous, and creative. For us, ordination is not a graduation but a renewal of semichah, the bond of trust symbolized by the literal laying on of hands.

Some years ago, it came to me that the creativity of our ceremonies needed to be anchored by at least one element which is continuous from year to year. And so I composed a lineage, a reading to be repeated at every ceremony as we lay the hands of our trust on our new rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors. I acknowledged that there was an earlier lineage of men who traced their ordinations all the way back to Moses at Sinai and which had become both broken and diffused. I affirmed that we have started a renewed lineage of spiritual teachers entrusting their students which begins with Reb Zalman but traces its origins to the Baal Shem Tov and the Eastern European Hassidim. This lineage includes both men and women and embraces the many variations of sexual identity which we now recognize. And it also originates in a women’s transmission which also has been broken and/or had to go underground, now surfacing in a new partnership with the lineage of men.

I have been reading this lineage for several years now. Some years the moment passes without fuss and in others people hear it (as if) for the first time and want to bring it home with them. This is one of those years and so I share it with you all. I’ve put my name at the bottom so that you can attribute it and I also ask that you not make changes in it. From the first time I shared it, people have come up with “Why didn’t you include…?” My purpose was to highlight a lineage and I limited my choices to women whom I saw as directly contributing to our lineage. So, for now at least, I ask you to honour the text as I have it, make suggested changes directly to me, so that the annual reading remains as it was intended.

The S’micha•Lineage

PS: We are making the next round of improvements to this site. I will keep only the most recent post in full on the “writings” page. The rest, ten per page, now have only the first paragraph or two and then you can click to read the rest. This will also allow the comments to appear only underneath the post to which they refer and I’m still hoping that we’ll have some real discussions. We’ve also increased the size of the font and reduced the spacing between lines. If you have other ideas for improving the site or adding items to it that you think might be helpful, please do let me know.


My Heart Opened: First Encounters With Reb Zalman

I’ve been a shul goer most of my life. Before I could read, when my father was the executive director of Temple Anshe Chesed in New York and I went to their kindergarden, he would take me into the sanctuary on Friday afternoons when everyone had gone home and I would go through the entire Torah service in front of the ark. And every Shabbat, we sang the full Ashkenazic version of Birkat haMazon / Grace After Meals, which I also memorized before I could read. What made this easier than perhaps it looks to adults was that both the shuls I went to and my family used the same melodies for the same prayers all the time. While this makes them familiar and easier to memorize, it also flattens out their affect and narrows the emotional range which the words can communicate. Birkat haMazon, no matter the day or the meal, always began with the familiar table thumping melody, useful as a social connector perhaps but less so as a conveyor of gratitude to the Source of Blessing.

I was also a troubled child. My mother died when I was nine and, with the exception of two helpful talks I had with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan when I was twelve, there had been no one to help me process my loss and connect it in a meaningful way with God. Though I was a yeshivah student through high school, I wasn’t able to see a relationship between the Judaism I was being taught and the Divine. I have come to see how the still immediate impact of the Shoah intensified this difficulty, since my teachers also were wrestling with the same questions on a much larger level, but their silence wasn’t something I could understand at the time.

In 1962 and 1963, I was an older camper at Camp Ramah in Connecticut. In both of the summers, a “religious environmentalist”  visited the camp, a Lubavitcher rabbi by the name of Zalman Schachter. For the most part, I stayed away from him as he took kids to town to buy material to make their own tallitot and then tie the tzitzit themselves or teaching them what were the essentials of a shacharit/morning service so that they could put on their t’fillin, davven, and still make the school bus on time. As a good yeshivah boy, I thought these were gimmicks for beginners and not for someone who studied talmud daily. But I couldn’t avoid him when he shared a different kind of melody for the first blessing of Birkat haMazon with the entire camp at Shabbat evening dinner and so I learned an alternative to the table thumper which stayed with me.

It was only recently that I finally asked him whose melody it was and he told me it was his own! I’m pleased to share it with you once again and hope that we will be able to sing it together sometime soon.

Birkat HaMazon•Reb Zalman

I started the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the Fall of 1968, a member of its first class. That same fall, a college friend doing graduate work at Brandeis invited me to Boston to experience Havurat Shalom, the “community seminary” Rabbi Arthur Green (later to become my teacher and the second to sign my semichah) had formed. On that Shabbat morning, the prayer leader was Reb Zalman and I remember that he sang El Adon to the tune of “Donna Donna.” Though I subsequently learned several other melodies for the same poem, I wasn’t able to duplicate what Reb Zalman had done until a few years ago and now I share it with you as well. [By the way, in two cases I’ve followed the version of the words found in Nusach S’fard and S’faradi. See you if you can pick them out.]

El Adon•Donna Donna

For the second time, I learned that to change the melody is to expose the words to new levels of meaning. Slower melodies allow for words recited by monotonous rote to be caressed and be opened to open the heart. Later that same year, I again opened my heart, this time to my beloved Hanna Tiferet and, through her, to Reb Shlomo Carlebach, through whom, several years later, I became reconciled with the God who permitted my mother to die (another story for another time).

In the winter of 1971-72, searching for the spiritual path that would give meaning to the first two decades of my life, I remembered these melodies and found myself drawn to Reb Zalman who became and always will be my rebbe and whose chasid I am.

The “moral” of this story is a simple one: take the time to learn more than one melody for any of the prayers you most love so that they can speak to you in more than one emotional state. For those of you who lead others in prayer, a storehouse of melodies will also serve you well in being sensitive to what others are bringing to the service and helping move them.