Many years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a short sabbatical in Israel which changed my life. I spent the Omer that year studying giyur at the Hartman Institute. For the first time in my life, I sat in on exciting discussions about the process of halachah. The room was alive with generations of rabbis and scholars in addition to the people present. This was such a different way of approaching halachic decision making from that of my yeshivah youth, where the focus was almost exclusively on absorbing the decisions found in the codes so that we would know what to do. I was so inspired by this experience that, just before we left Israel, I bought the smallest complete versions of the Mishneh Torah, the Tur, and the Vilna Shas (the only size I could afford at the time) along with a magnifying glass.

What I loved most was not the central text so much as the commentaries that surrounded it. Taken together, the texts and their commentaries constituted a multi-generational and geographical conversation about how to connect the details of life with the flow of redemptive energy which we believe began with the exodus and Sinai revelation and will end with the liberation of all people under the umbrella of the Divine source. This love grew deeper when I began to facilitate the course in Integral Halachah for the ALEPH Ordination Program along with collaborating with Reb Zalman on the book of the same name. It was then that I discovered how the responsa literature enriched this already amazing exchange of ideas and because of which Reb Zalman gave me a second semicha as a Dayan.

Almost twenty years ago, I promised myself that if no Orthodox rabbi did so by the time I turned 65, I would write an essay to show that the only way to fully balance the process of giving and receiving a get was to establish a takkanah which would permit a woman to divorce her husband, thus ending the unilateral control husbands had over the gittin process. It is seven years past my due date and still no Orthodox authorities that I know of have taken this step, continuing to put their hopes in pre-nuptials and in claims of disgust and abuse in order to force husbands to grant a get when they are not willing.

My goals also changed somewhat during these past years. I encourage my students to write what I call “real” t’shuvot, that is responses to specific questions rather than essays prompted by such questions. And so, when a real person came to me with a real request to divorce her husband, I accepted the challenge to respond to her specific situation. In so doing, I hope to contribute a somnething to the contemporary halachic discussion around gittin without making a blanket pronouncement.

Below is a link to my t’shuvah, available in the ALEPH ReSources Catalogue elsewhere on this website.

During the week of Netzach, 5779


How Many Y’mai Kippur Have Gone By and You Are Still…

Before leaving home for any extended period, I ease the stress by ironing the shirts I washed after my last trip. And today I listened to the beautiful music of Nava Tehila as I ironed, remembering the time Hanna and I spent with them now two full years ago. Given the combination of age and carbon footprint, I suspect that this was my last visit to Israel.

I think I’ve entered what Reb Zalman called the winter of life. While I don’t think I’ve quite reached December, life in the aftermath of a serious heart attack, even if more than 12 years ago, holds the awareness that my own could end suddenly. And so the talmudic teaching, “Return/repent one day before you die,” meaning treat each day as though it could be your last, tying loose ends together every day as best you can, is a constant presence and reminder.

These days we seem to have developed the practice of sending out emails to large distribution lists which say something like, “If I’ve done anything to hurt any of you over the course of this past year, please forgive me.” My sense is that this does not fulfill the mitzvah of seeking forgiveness from others and places responsibility on others to let you know if you have indeed hurt them and what might help them to forgive you.

I would like to suggest a question for each of us to ask ourselves: “How many Y’mai Kippur have gone by and I still haven’t let go of a grudge or forgiven someone who hurt me or acknowledged pain I think I may have caused a particular person?”

In the case of a grudge which I have held for more than one year, I suggest going to the person directly, admit that I have been holding something, and ask to clear. This is something I really did this year, not wanting Yom Kippur to pass while still holding on to a bit of hurt from last. And even more impressively, I listened as the rabbi at the shul where we were for Rosh HaShana apologized to the congregation for an indiscretion he committed in public and asked the community for its forgiveness.

In the case of a forgiveness long delayed, I again want to go to the person directly and admit that I have not truly forgiven him/her and then do so. In the booklet on beginning your new incarnation each year, Reb Zalman talked of three levels of forgiveness and I recommend reviewing that section and applying it to ourselves.

Finally, if I suspect that I might have hurt another, again I suggest contacting that person directly, explain what it is you think you might have done, and see if the other experienced the hurt or not.

Yet, there are people whom you cannot approach directly and forgiving them, letting go of the hurt they may have caused you, within yourself, might be the best approach. Or convene a little beit chesed and tell them of the hurt, of your inability to approach the other directly, and ask that this confession in public satisfy the requirement of t’shuvah.

Above all else, let these things go in whatever way is most appropriate and do so now, for one never knows from year to year “who shall live and who shall die, who in fullness of days and who prematurely.”

With my prayers and hope that we all live to the fullness of our days, that we tie our loose ends up as though we might not, and that our individual and collective releases help all humanity to release the grip of suspicion so that we can work together to save our species.

Responding to the Call

“Blessed is the people who know the sound of teru'ah.” – Psalms 89:16

The sound of the shofar is that primal, gut-wrenching, heart-piercing sound that has the power to change us, rouse us into life and action, demand our full and present attention, and command us to respond to a shattered world that is in profound need of healing. The sound of the shofar is a not-so-subtle reminder – a flamboyant awakening call – to choose and decide what it is we must do with our precious lives. It’s as if the voice of Creation is sounding out instructions for us, since we don’t come into the world with a Get Started manual. The sound of the shofar demands a response on the human level – a response in the form of both intention and action. It’s a call to return to our unique “deployment” in this world – the work we were meant to do. 

In Rabbi Daniel Siegel’s blog post below, he shares a process that he initiated over a year ago, a labour of love and respect in which he invited Renewal clergy and others to identify their callings – their “deployments” – some from Reb Zalman, some from other sources. Each person who responded is someone who has responded to the call of the shofar at some point – someone who has carefully considered their calling and who has been able to articulate it. It is remarkable that over 70 people responded to Reb Daniel’s invitation. We are certain there are people who have not yet identified themselves or who wish to stay anonymous, like the thirty-six tzaddikim. And there are others who are just now emerging into their calling, whose calling is not yet fully formed but is in process. Below, Reb Daniel shares the unfolding of the process, and the living document that resulted, a work in progress. Wishing us all a wakeful, vibratory, heart-opening High Holiday season filled with love and generosity and compassion. 

Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, Executive Director, ALEPH Canada


Dear Friends,

In the weeks preceding the OHALAH conference last January and continuing through the conference itself, I explored the idea of developing a list of the spiritual gifts members of our chevre were willing to share with others. I received overwhelming support and encouragement, both from “formal” entities including the boards of ALEPH and OHALAH, as well as from many individuals.

This project originated in the concerns we had as well as our experiences during the first years after Reb Zalman’s passing, which included confusion over this question of where our spiritual leadership is located. In my humble opinion, to the extent that Reb Zalman was our spiritual guide, he performed this function from just outside our formal structure.

While Reb Zalman often told us that it was not his deployment to determine who, if anyone, would be his successor, it turns out that he was interested in influencing the process. He did this mostly in private and so one of my goals was to discover how many people he had deployed and in what capacities. In addition, I wanted to know who else felt a sense of deployment that they wanted us all to know about. Finally, all this is based on the assumption that, however we may view Reb Zalman’s role and leadership, none of us wanted to have only person in that role.

Here, then, is a brief overview of how I understood this process as it became revealed over about a year. Reb Zalman offered to give me semicha as a dayan, which I accepted only after learning the basics of gittin including how to write a get. This happened in public at the OHALAH conference in 2007. Then, in 2008, Reb Zalman gave a “rebbe” semicha to five people in private. Sometime after that, he gave the same semicha to three others who did not know who the other five were nor did the five know about the three, and this he also did in private. In 2012, he sent a private letter to about 40 people, including those who had already received a second semicha, in which he urged them to “hold the center of Aleph and Ohalah together so that the work might continue without being taken off its right Kawanah.” For various reasons, this group did not congeal.

The deployments list which you can access below is the result of this project to uncover other charges which Reb Zalman gave to individuals as well as making public those whose callings come from other sources to which they feel deeply committed and willing to share with others. I am grateful to everyone who replied (and who may still reply). I am amazed that 70 people came forward and even more amazed and grateful that our movement has generated so many spiritual guides in a few decades.

The list is now on my Google site. You are invited to view it and use comments to let me know what changes you might want to make in your own listing as well as letting me know if you want to add your own name and focus to the list. For now, I will maintain the list.

I believe that Reb Zalman was correct in saying that rebbe is a function rather than a person. This list provides a resource for finding colleagues and teachers who can function as rebbes for us when we need them over the coming years. At the bottom, you will see that the list can be sorted both by last name and by category.

May 5779 be a year of healing for us all, for ALEPH, OHALAH, the ordination program, our boards, and for our countries and the human species.

With love and in gratitude for living to see the expansion of our chevre


The List of People and Their Deployments

Renewal Manual for Klei Kodesh (1)

Reb Zalman’s Templates and a Renewal Manual for Klei Kodesh

In his closing address at OHALAH last week, Reb Zalman made mention of some things to which he hoped we would pay attention. In particular, he spoke about liturgical changes he had written which better reflect our new approach to Jewish particularity within a universal context, including his new middle blessing for the Shabbat Shacharit Amidah. I wanted to remind you all that you can find it in Siddur Kol Koreh, along with another alternative which I wrote and which more closely follows the traditional version.

He also spoke of his templates (aka boilerplates) for life cycle events.

Renewal Manual for Klei Kodesh (2)

The recent discussion and sharing on the OHALAH list of readings for funerals inspired me to take a next step in the development of a manual for klei kodesh. Of course, the job is much bigger than I thought and the time it will take to bring it to the point where I can share allows me to extend an invitation to all of you to contribute to it.

For many years while I served communities, I used a simple template that I created for myself for life cycle ceremonies. I would create a separate document and paste into it the pages and readings I wanted to use, including inserting names, cut them down to fit in a small loose-leaf binder, and bring that to the ceremony.

On Klei Kodesh & Blinds Spots: Lessons from Korach

In the ALEPH Ordination program, we require each student to have a mashpi’a, a spiritual guide. This is a practice we learned from the Chabad Chasidim, conveyed to us by Reb Zalman z”l. We believe that every kli kodesh, every person who wants to be a sacred vessel or a vessel for the sacred, needs to have two things. The first is the ability to question oneself, to be open to personal flaws and able to acknowledge one’s shortcomings. The second is that every kli kodesh needs a trusted friend to help in this process.

Why is it necessary to have such a friend? The answer is that each of us also has at least one blind spot, one place within where it is nearly impossible to go alone or even to see without help. In his teaching, “Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of Teshuvah,” Reb Zalman put it this way:

There is an element that is called the blind spot… [Y]ou keep doing the same thing, but you do it in a different color, you do it in a different situation, and you see that in the gestalt of what it is that’s wrong, that gestalt hasn’t changed much. And then you puzzle and say what is the twist in my perception of reality that causes me to make that same mistake over and over and over again. Finding a blind spot is very hard.

Spirituality & Politics

The election of Donald Trump has had an effect on the OHALAH list similar to that of Israel in past years. The assumption by some contributors that all members share more or less the same responses leads to pushback from others who feel themselves in the minority. Occasional sharp responses reinforce this sense of not truly belonging and lead to a fear of sharing, further distorting the discussion.

In my contribution to this discussion, I wrote, in part:

The Alter Rebbe wrote in the Tanya that every Jew is prepared to die al kiddush hashem at the moment of saying the sh’ma; but that willingness fades as soon as s/he leaves shul. So his whole book is aimed at people like us and is directed toward helping us maintain that consciousness of complete surrender to and identification with what the Holy One is asking from us at any given moment. Yes, Reb Zalman didn’t want us fighting with one another. But it is also Reb Zalman who began advocating for eco-kashrut, for a respect of the living consciousness of the planet, for a spirituality and practice which engages the world.…So these are the “political” issues I believe are appropriate and needed on our list. How are we practicing what we preach? What can we learn from each other about issue based advocacy from a spiritual perspective? How do we highlight and reinforce values and courage through the study of kabbalah, creative liturgy, and modelling?

Renewing Ger Toshav: OHALAH 2017

Dear Friends,

During the recent OHALAH conference in Colorado (15-18 January), I had the opportunity of giving an introduction to the nearly completed first stage of a project to identify a way to renew ger toshav / permanent resident as well as an update on the various projects I have been working on. I am happy to now share that report with you.

This comes at a moment of deep worry about issues of inclusion and relationships with “others.” Last weekend, President Trump signed the order which legitimized suspicion of others, particularly Muslims, and applied blanket restrictions on their travel and eligibility for asylum in the United States. And, almost literally as I write this, we in Canada have also experienced a terrible attack on Muslims in prayer at their mosque in Quebec City, leaving six dead and five in serious to critical condition in hospital.

Mr. T2(squared): Two Elections, One Continuum

There is much talk about continuing the fight following the election of Donald Trump, fighting for what’s right, fighting for minority rights, fighting for health care, fighting climate change. I would like to respectfully suggest that this vocabulary of war feeds the increasingly hostile political discourse in the United States and encroaches on the values and priorities of political systems outside the US.

A year ago, Canadians had the choice of continuing with a Conservative government which, in many ways, mirrored that of the Bush administration or voting for a change. In Canada, the parallel to the electoral college is that a party can find itself with a majority in the House of Commons even though it has received only a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with our previous (and our current) government, which won less than 40% of the popular vote while achieving majority status in parliament. Canadians chose change and did so by strategic voting for the candidate in their riding most likely to defeat the Conservative. Thus, our current Liberal government knows that its majority really stems from the 60% of Canadian voters who voted to change the government with 20% of the vote for change going to other parties.

Triennial Cycle of Haftarot Completed

Dear Friends,

Over three years ago, I shared a table containing a triennial cycle of haftarot to accompany the triennial cycle of Torah readings most of us use. I was concerned, for those of us who have a haftarah as part of our services, that we were reading prophetic sections on an annual cycle, which seemed to elevate these portions of Nach to a higher level than that of the Torah itself. Further, haftarot now shared a connection to the Torah portion only once every three years. Lastly, I also thought that if haftarot were shorter, then more of us might be inclined to include them, even if only occasionally.

Several of you let me know that it would be much easier to add a haftarah if the haftarot themselves were easier to access. I’m happy to say that I’ve now completed a file which contains all the proposed haftarot in full.

When the Rebbe Asks: Renewing Ger Toshav

There is much talk about continuing the fight following the election of Donald Trump, fighting for what’s right, fighting for minority rights, fighting for health care, fighting climate change. I would like to respectfully suggest that this vocabulary of war feeds the increasingly hostile political discourse in the United States and encroaches on the values and priorities of political systems outside the US.

A year ago, Canadians had the choice of continuing with a Conservative government which, in many ways, mirrored that of the Bush administration or voting for a change. In Canada, the parallel to the electoral college is that a party can find itself with a majority in the House of Commons even though it has received only a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with our previous (and our current) government, which won less than 40% of the popular vote while achieving majority status in parliament. Canadians chose change and did so by strategic voting for the candidate in their riding most likely to defeat the Conservative. Thus, our current Liberal government knows that its majority really stems from the 60% of Canadian voters who voted to change the government with 20% of the vote for change going to other parties.

Why Is Judaism So…(2)

Last time, I wrote about how we Jews contain our suffering by focusing on remembering it for limited times during the annual cycle of the calendar. Truth is, I don’t see this as a profound teaching so much as a simple observation. Do you remember how we used to say that the people of the north had so many different words to describe snow? This was because being able to recognize the varied qualities of the snow reflected the need to appreciate these differences in order to enhance survival or perhaps because living in the midst of so much snow made people aware of subtle differences in its qualities.

I’ve been told that this is not really true, though I still find it intriguing. Applied to the way Hebrew reflects our values, it is striking to notice how many words we have for praise and appreciation. In those two paragraphs that conclude P’sukay d’Zimra on Shabbat morning, there are 20 different words for our primary obligation to praise and show gratitude as well as the obligation to go beyond the praises we have received. Is there any wonder, then, that our liturgy is so vast?

Why Is Judaism So…?

Many years ago during a Yom Kippur Torah reading, I encouraged people to ask any question they wanted about Judaism. One person asked, “Why is Judaism always so solemn?” I responded by saying that this perception came from the fact that he mostly went to shul on Yom Kippur, which is indeed a solemn day. One such day in the year. But if he would come to shul more regularly, he would see that 52 times in a solar year we spent a whole day focused on appreciation, and several more times a year the focus was on joy and freedom during the major (and minor) holidays.

Reflections on a Weekend of Integral Halachah

’ve just finished a weekend of teaching about Integral Halachach at Or Shalom and Limmud Vancouver. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how much better I would have done if only I had…

So rather than indulge in wishing I could do it over knowing now what I didn’t know then, I thought I would share some of those thoughts as a way of continuing the discussion beyond the time limits imposed by the events.

I had assumed that people would share the feeling that many of you have or have had, namely that Halachah as we have learned it is oppressive and overly focused on answers which establish correctness of practice. My approach was to show how the halachic process was always relevant to people’s lives, that it goes beyond the codes to a literature which is responsive to individual situations, and that it is founded on transcending ethical principles and recognition of human frailties. All this in order to keep us on the path we began to walk at Sinai and which will reach its destination sometime in the future with a redeemed world and united humanity.

A Personal Introduction to Integral Halachah

Affirming the Halachic Process is certainly one of the more difficult things for many of us in ALEPH. Like so many others, we are weighed down by the insistence of our more Orthodox colleagues that Halachah is self verifying and contained due to its Divine origin in the nighttime teachings that the Holy Blessed One imparted to Moshe Rabbeinu after each day’s writing of the written Torah. Each succeeding generation is farther from the origin moment and thus more prone to confusion and increasingly dependent on the rulings of those who have gone before us. Thus, the Halachah of the moment is uncovered by a careful analysis of the texts from the past and each new situation must be comparable to some concept or precedent from that past.

While totally aware of this phenomenon, Reb Zalman z”l was still committed to the halachic process by which we link the needs of the moment to the precedents of the past. He also believed that this was possible only by instituting a new principle which would allow the past to continue to speak to us while also providing a greater degree of freedom in determining our responses to the questions of our time. Thus, what he originally called Psycho-Halachah and which we renamed Integral Halachah was born, a new principle which both included and transcended the past and which acknowledged the paradigm shift in which we are living.

Streaming Shabbat Davvenen

The current discussion on the OHALAH list with regard to streaming and recording the services at next year’s kallah has been interesting to follow.

Preface: A Little History

For many years, my portfolio in ALEPH included the ALEPH ReSources Catalog. One of the things I really wanted to offer were recordings of live services so that people who were interested in Jewish Renewal could at least listen to a real service and get some idea of what davvenen meant to us. For a time, the catalog offered recordings of a service at Shir Tikvah in Michigan and the davvenen at the 75th birthday weekend for Reb Zalman z”l at B’nai Jeshurun in New York. We also offered “studio’ recordings from P’nai Or of Philadelphia and Reb Zalman’s Audio Siddur (which is the only one still available from the ALEPH catalog).

Of course, this was before live streaming and the video recording which is really inseparable from the streaming itself.