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.

Shloshim for Reb Zalman

I have felt private since Reb Zalman passed. At first, I couldn’t find words to describe my feelings as I oscillated between simple acceptance and a deep sadness that left me in tears. For the rest of Semicha Week, I felt called to helping our chevra, first by singing a deathbed niggun Reb Zalman had shared with me years ago, by including El Maleh Rachamim in our Mincha that day, and by facilitating an abbreviated funeral service on Friday morning which began just as the funeral in Boulder began, giving us all an opportunity to say kaddish together.

When I walked into Kabbalat Shabbat that evening, I felt that I didn’t belong. A mourner waits outside until L’cha Dodi is over and only then comes into shul. I finally realized that I had lost my spiritual father, my rebbe, who had been in my life in one form or another for 52 years, whose Hassid I have been for 42 of those years. So I left and returned when L’cha Dodi ended. All during the next week of Ruach HaAretz, the combination of teaching, preparing, and being with our amazing granddaughters took up nearly all my time, providing the benefit of remaining private. Finally, being home these past two weeks and using the Kaddish L-Yachid that my students and I created, has allowed me to begin processing my feelings.

A Shabbat for God

On Shabbat Parashat B’har, Hanna and I co-led the annual retreat for B’nai Or of Boston. We knew that a mid-Omer pre-Shavuot theme would be the “mountain,” Sinai as starting place and Zion as destination. To begin our preparation, Hanna suggested I find a Hassidic text we could read together for inspiration and, on a hunch, I chose to look in the Netivot Shalom of the Slonimer Rebbe.

In the Yeshivah world, the study of Parashat B’har begins with Rashi’s famous question, מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני, what is the connection between the sabbatical year and Mt. Sinai? For Rashi and then for the Ramban, this juxtaposition of sabbatical and revelation serves as the core text for their different expressions of the content of the Sinai revelation. Reb Noah, the Slonimer, asks a different version of the question. He wants to understand the connection between the sabbatical year and the weekly Shabbat. Further, he also wants to understand why, in both cases, the texts begin with the logical conclusion rather than with the definition of terms. In other words, Shabbat in the decalogue begins with “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” and then goes on to say that we should work for six days and rest on the seventh. In B’har, the Torah first says to observe a sabbatical year after arrival in the land and then says that we should work the land for six years and allow it to rest on the seventh.

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.

Wedding on Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot•2014

I received the following question from a colleague:

A real life couple would like me to officiate at their wedding on Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot in October of 2014. They are Jewish farmers who will celebrate Sukkot at most on days 1 and 2 of the chag.

They are interested in that weekend because it is the Columbus Day weekend. Officiating in mid October, would also give us more time to prepare as the groom is converting to Judaism.

I looked at Bar Ilan Responsa Project, and I think I understand the notion of “Ein M’arvin Simcha be Simcha”.

I am not sure this principle applies to them. Might you offer your thoughts?

(The couple are living together but not legally married.)


Birkat Kohanim at Ordination Ceremony

At the end of the ordination ceremony in Colorado last month, Hazzan Jack recited the Birkat Kohanim / the priestly blessing, while facing the musmachot / ordainees with his tallit over his head and without shoes. This prompted the following series of questions from Jalda Rebling, which I will take up one at a time.

First Question: When the priestly blessing is recited by the shali’ach tzibbur, there is no special blessing that precedes it and the congregational response to each of the three individual blessings is kayn y’hi ratzon / may this be the Divine will. When the priests give the blessing, what is called duchanen, there is a blessing and the congregational response to each of the three units of the blessing is amen. Why is that?

The Shulchan Aruch,Orach Chayyim 127:2 says clearly that amen is only used when the priests themselves are reciting the blessings. The Mishnah B’rurah explains: Amen is the correct response to a blessing, which occurs when the priests are the reciters. When the shali’ach tzibbur is the one, then it isn’t actually a blessing but rather a request, a plea that this blessing should be granted us.

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.

Why Do I Pray?

“Why do I pray?”

By this I mean, why do I find liturgical prayer meaningful? Why not just meditate, focus on my breath, and empty my mind?. If liturgical prayer seems founded on the notion that there is me and there is God, that somehow God is waiting for me to let him know what I need and that once I’ve expressed that need, She will hear and grant my requests, then how can I take that seriously, knowing what I do about the nature of the universe, about the seemingly limitless cruelty possible, about all the suffering that seems to go unheeded? Further, if all is One, then there really is no “out there” andto whom are my prayers actually addressed and in what direction do they go?

Once I thought to write about this in the form of a theological essay. But I am neither a theologian nor a systematic, academic thinker. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager has said and which is true for me as well, I don’t really “believe” in God; I experience God. And so my reflections on prayer arise from experiences, some cosmic and life changing; most the little insights and bits of meaning that come to me in prayer.

Yom K’Purim

Dear Friends,

For this last post of the old year, I’m attaching Hanna Tiferet’s translation of the Yom Kippur Torah reading as a rap. I’m not sure if it will remain in the upcoming revision of Machzor Kol Koreh which I hope to undertake sometime in the next few months, so with her permission I’m sharing it with you now as a pdf document.

On a more serious note, Hanna and I completed a version of Machzor Kol Koreh for B’nai Or of Boston. I took many of the changes and improvements we made and transferred them to the master template for Machzor Kol Koreh.

Some years ago, I organized our tashlich experience around making a commitment to change an aspect of behaviour to be more conscious of energy use and carbon footprint. This year, after learning how much plastic is not only floating in the ocean in the big collections but has broken into such small pieces that it’s embedding itself in the cells of marine life, I’m undertaking to reduce my plastic consumption by buying glass containers when they are available. I’m also notifying companies that make a good product but package it in plastic that I will no longer buy that product if there is an alternative which is not plastic (Annie’s horseradish mustard, my favourite, was my first).

So, best wishes to all of you for a good and sweet year. I pray that this will be the year when our recognition of climate change turns into significant action. May we experience the changes we will be making in how we organize our priorities and values as exciting. Our Judaism has so much to offer this process and you all are crucial in communicating this to others. So may all your work be blessed with clear communication and harmony between words and actions.


Torah Rap•HT

Malchuyot, Zichronot & Shofarot

Some years ago, I was honoured to be the ba’al musaf, prayer leader for the additional service on Rosh HaShanah. As it turned out, my son Shefa had led the same service about two years before I did and we were comparing notes. He asked me how far behind schedule the congregation was when I began and I said that they were only about forty minutes late when I began. He replied that it was a full hour late when he began and we both remembered that, by the time we were done, the full house had been halved. We both saw this as a shame, since the unique elements of the Rosh HaShanah service, namely the blowing of the shofar and the three special sections of the musaf all come at the end of a long morning when people are tired and leaving for lunch.

This year, Hanna and I have been working with the same issue as she designs a special edition of Machzor Kol Koreh for her congregation in Boston. To follow the traditional order of the service means putting these elements at the end. In our case, it’s not so much that this means the service will run very late as that these crucial parts of the service will be further abbreviated and rushed if the earlier parts of the service take longer than expected.

So here are the two ideas which resulted from both conversations:

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.

The Hallel

One deficiency in the current versions of Siddur Kol Koreh has been the abbreviated Hallel. Last January, since the Shabbaton in Boulder coincided with Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, I prepared an expansion of the Hallel for that part of the service led by our newly ordained Shulamit Wise Fairman. Now, in anticipation of Pesach, I’m sharing with you an expansion of that expansion. It is still missing the two half psalms omitted on Rosh Chodesh and most of Pesach, as well as much of Psalm 118, but otherwise it is complete. And I’ve reformatted it so that it is the same as the rest of Kol Koreh.

Some features:

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:

Amen and Amen

Most of us know the Reform movement’s HaMotzi which begins “we give thanks to God for bread” and concludes with the traditional b’rachah in Hebrew and the word “amen.” I rarely sing the b’rachah itself and prefer to listen to it and then respond with an “amen.” In this way, others have said the blessing on my behalf and I can eat bread without repeating the blessing if I so choose or else I have confirmed their blessing and then can make my own, but without saying “amen.”

This is what I was taught growing up: one doesn’t say “amen” to one’s own b’rachah. Even more, saying amen to your own b’rachah is a sign of ignorance.

Also as a child, I had learned to recite the long form of the Ashkenazi Birkat haMazon / Grace after meals by heart before I could read, since we sang it every Friday evening and Shabbat lunch in my home. In the middle of the Birkat haMazon, I knew that the blessing for rebuilding Jerusalem concluded with: “Blessed is God who rebuilds Jerusalem; Amen.” Naturally, when I was old enough to be in school, I wanted to know why it was permissible to answer one’s own blessing with amen in this case. I was told that originally this was end of the Birkat haMazon and so, in this case, it was permissible.

Kaddish•Public and Private

Dear Friends,

In the fall of 2004, I had the great joy of learning together with eight rabbinical and rabbinic pastor students. We studied comparative nuscha’ot, the different ways in which the same prayers were formulated in the liturgical traditions of various Jewish communities. In the course of that study, we came upon a kaddish in the siddur of Rav Amram Ga’on meant for recitation by individuals. This caught us all by pleasant surprise, since we had all been taught that kaddish, being a call and response, could only be recited in a minyan and that there were no equivalents for private prayer.

The custom of having mourners recite the kaddish had not yet been established when Rav Amram lived, much less the idea of setting aside or creating opportunities for a kaddish identified as specifically for mourners. At the same time, today we are all aware that people who, for various reasons, cannot be part of a minyan but still want to honour the relative or friend who passed away by reciting a kaddish even when alone. So this kaddish of Rav Amram’s, available in all the places where a regular kaddish appears, offered a wonderful opportunity to create what so many needed while still respecting the tradition of leaving a call and response for when there is a minyan.

(Each unit of the kaddish ends with the recitor saying, “And say ye: Amen” to which we respond with “Amen.”)

My Heart Opened

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.

May This Year Be a Blessing

Dear Chevre,

A few years ago, I was sitting next to R. Lori Klein at the Shabbat evening service at OHALAH. I don’t remember whether I noticed her siddur or whether she showed it to me first, but I took an immediate liking to this Nusach S’faradi Tahor, as it was called. At some point, I just asked her to take mine for the rest of the service so I could look through it as we davvened. When I got home, I asked our son Noah, who was then part of the US embassy staff in Tel Aviv, if he would find me a copy, which he did. There are several important things I’ve learned from using this siddur now for at least two years which I hope to share with you all, and here is the first.

Actually, let me back up before I start. Most of us have grown up using different variations of the same nusach ha-t’fillah / mode of prayer, and that is Nusach Ashkenaz, literally the German mode but really the European. All the siddurim we most commonly use, including those of the major movements as well as many of the creative siddurim that are around, are essentially Nusach Ashkenaz. Hassidim use their own version of Nusach Ashkenaz, often called Nusach S’fard or, in the case of Chabad, Nusach Ari. This nusachborrows much from Nusach S’faradi and from what is known as Nusach Eretz Yisrael and yet retains the basic feel of Nusach Ashkenaz. (The Italians also have their own nusach which in many places is uniquely theirs.) Finally, there is Nusach S’faradi, the form of the liturgy used by Jews who come from Muslim countries and particularly North Africa. While I have davvened from both Nusach Ashkenaz and S’fard for decades, I realized I had never really used Nusach S’faradi before.

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.

Triennial Cycle of Weekday Torah Readings

Dear Friends,

In the summer of 2011, I taught a course called Synagogue Customs and Practices. At one point, we were learning the three basic principles for dividing a Torah reading into aliyot. I realized that, while most liberal congregations in North America were reading Torah on a triennial cycle, weekday readings were still organized only on the annual cycle. I suggested that as a practical application of what we were learning, we divide up the year’s readings and design a triennial cycle of weekday readings to match the Shabbat cycle.

I am pleased to offer you the product of that joint effort. Much of the good work you will see here was done by the students. Any errors or places you might disagree are my own doing, since I made the final decisions.

I would like to thank the following people for participating in this project: David Abramowitz, Binah Block, Kellie Scheer, Beth Cohen, Jessica Shimberg, Elana Jagoda, Annie Gilbert, Heena Reiter, Dara Lithwick, Michael Rosenblum, Eva Sax-Bolder, Shifrah Tobacman.

To view and download this triennial cycle for free, please visit the ALEPH ReSources Catalogue elsewhere on this site.