Topics in Judaism

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.

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.

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.

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.

L’takken Olam B’malchut Shaddai

“We all live in a watershed…”

I hadn’t been planning on writing something specifically for Rosh haShanah this year until I read this in the summer edition of Watershed Sentinel:

We decided to change up the masthead on the cover and since more and more of our stories are about the junction between environment and social justice, we figured it made sense to emphasize the Sentinel in Watershed Sentinel. We all live in a watershed……(Delores Broten, ed.).

For the past several decades, we have redefined the expression Tikkun Olam, adopting part of an earlier redefinition emerging from the Lurianic notion of sh’virat ha-kelim / the breaking of the vessels. The tikkun / repair refers to the releasing of the divine sparks hidden within the broken vessels. We then merged that with the growing political and social activism of Jews so that the vehicle for this repair shifted from prayer and the precise observance of ritual mitzvot to social and political action.

At the same time, the disconnection from the spirituality which had always permeated Jewish life (witness R. Mordechai Kaplan’s idea that Judaism is a “religious civilization”) allowed for the abbreviating of this concept as the now familiar Tikkun Olam, without the accompanying b-malchut Shaddai / through [recognition of] divine sovereignty.

Ensouling the World: Shmita as Beginning

The shmita year of 5775 is drawing to a close. As with the weekly Shabbat, there is a natural tendency to view the sabbatical year as a conclusion. After all, they both are the “seventh” and what follows is the first. Shabbat is the culmination of the week, the goal toward which we work for the six preceding days. So also is the sabbatical the goal, the year off we earn for the six previous years of work.

However, both in academia and among congregational clergy, the sabbatical year serves another, concurrent purpose. A good sabbatical includes a plan of study and practice which opens up new possibilities and awakens creativity. In other words, a sabbatical (or a day of Shabbat) offers both a well-earned break and the gathering of energy for the next round of work. This second purpose, then, requires contemplating the deeper meaning of the cycles in which we live and absorbing that awareness into the way in which we approach the next work cycle.

In this spirit, Esther Azar and I have explored two Hassidic teachings on shmita, both of which speak of the inner meaning of Shabbat for the individual consciousness and for life of the planet itself. In particular, the Netivot Shalom rests his observations on a surprising commentary of the Ohr haChayim, in which he sees the weekly Shabbat as the necessary ingredient for ensouling the next six days.

We offer these teachings to you, along with some observations from the two of us and from Rabbi David Seidenberg, in the hope that they will help you carry the consciousness of shmita into the next six years. More, we hope that by more fully absorbing the essence of these teachings, that you will find ways to model a more conscious approach to consumption, to reducing your own carbon footprints, to demonstrating lifestyles that rely on relationships rather than on accumulating stuff, and to inspiring others to do the same.

This in the hope that we will arrive at the next sabbatical year on a planet which is healing and a human race that is learning to live well and sustainably at the same time.

With blessings on Erev Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh Elul

Daniel and Esther

Ensouling the World is available in the Jewish Spiritual Texts section of the ALEPH ReSources Catalogue on this site.

God Is My Light

“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.”

The psalmist says that he is not afraid if a host encamp against him, for there is one thing he trusts, namely that all he has ever wanted is to dwell in God’s house. This relieves fear, I’m guessing, because there is no place which is not God’s house and so as long as he is conscious of that, there is no harm that can dislodge his trust and ultimate joy in being alive, nor make him afraid of death.

Pew, Contact, and ALEPH

I don’t know how many of you have read the latest edition of “Contact” with its theme of “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew.” As the old hippie that I am and a survivor of the first STAR conference, I remain suspicious of both the mainstream programming and fund-raising arms of the Jewish community and generally don’t find this periodical of much interest. And, in some ways, this was true of this issue as well. But I was curious to see what this particular grouping of individuals would have to say, especially when I noticed the headline given to Sarah Seltzer’s piece, “We are so Jewish it’s ridiculous: Stop Worrying About Pew!”

As is also usual for me, I looked for references to God and spiritual practice in the articles. And, as usual, I was disappointed. Except for Hayim Herring’s article on Conservative Judaism, which I recommend as the best piece in the issue since he addresses the essence of Judaism itself and derives his programming suggestions from that essence.

The Invisibles: Reflections on Jewish Megatrends

I’ve finished reading Syd Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends, in preparation for his appearance at our upcoming OHALAH conference. There is much in it that I endorse and applaud. I’m especially gratified by the support and funding which the organized Jewish community and private foundations are now willing to provide to new programs and experiments. And, at the same time, there are two things which nag at me. One is a personal feeling of invisibility, which appears over and over again as I read each essay, and the other is the absence of anything focused on how we talk about God.

It is true that there are occasional references to spirituality and the search for deeper meaning, and one reference to our “ancient God.” However, given that for most of our history the search for meaning has taken the form of “What is it that Yah our God wants from us?” would seem to require that this question at least be acknowledged somewhere. What is Jewish about how we eat, how that food is grown and raised, and our concern for social justice if not rooted in the covenant we made with God? It is that which has always been at the core of our world view and, whether we choose to believe in its traditional formulation, a new variant, or not at all, it deserves its place in the discussion of our future.

The Counting

I’m writing this on the 14th day of the Omer, malchut in g’vurah. So far, my love of this annual exercise (chesed) and my increasingly limited ability to stay focused (g’vurah) have seen me through the first two weeks with some help from Hanna Tiferet. But Hanna is back in Boston and I’m my own and I’ve never made it through all seven weeks without missing a day or two at least. However, I just turned 66 and can’t predict how many more chances I’m going to get so my plan is work to hard to accomplish a full counting at least once in my life.

I was educated in Orthodox yeshivot and have some residuals from that time. On the Thursday of chol ha-mo’ed, Hanna and I went for our Omer haircuts, since I still won’t cut my hair during this period except on permitted days. I also grew up with the Ashkenazi halachah that allows one to miss only once. If one forgets to count in the evening, one can count the next morning without a brachah and then pick up again at night. Forget twice and no more brachot, so why bother after that.

Our Lineage

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.

The Cycles of Teshuvah

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:

Teachings of the S’fat Emet on Hanukkah

5 December 2012 / 21 Kislev 5773

Dearest Chevre,

This week, I’m passing on to you all a Hanukkah gift I’ve been thinking about for at least a decade. I suppose the idea began to take shape when I was looking for a Hassidic teaching on Hanukkah to share with B’nai Or of Boston (or so my notes indicate). I found that teaching in the S’fat Emet, the collection of the teachings of the Gerer Rebbe R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib. The S’fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.