Author Archives: Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan

About Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan is rabbi of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, a traditional-innovative spiritual community affiliated with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Laura, also a retired philosophy professor and a faculty member at ALEPH ordination programs, has a passion for teaching philosophy, theology, and spirituality. Laura lives with her husband Charles, psychologist and musician; their two young adult children, who are active in the Habonim-Dror socialist Zionist youth movement; and many companion animals. Follow her blog at onsophiastreet.com.

Rabbi Laura’s Day Off (or: Outreach Happens)

Intention smallerOur 21 year old daughter has invited her parents to The Intention Gathering, a “self-sustaining, all-ages, ethnically diverse superfragilistic-art-dance-creative community.”

We have absolutely no idea what that means.

But we are delighted to spend three days away from leadership in our Jewish community, three days of play without work, three days of anonymity. We pack camping gear appropriate to three days of summer rainforest weather. Without any clear mental image of our destination, we ride the ferry to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

A short drive in our battered van brings us to a makeshift registration tent in a meadow at the foot of a wooded hill. Volunteers welcome us warmly, but no one seems to know exactly where we can park or pitch our tent. Still, we manage to unload. We set up our tent in a gorgeous wooded spot between a waterfall and a line of fellow campers. Then we join 150 friendly strangers, age 2-70, in the meadow for a communal dinner cooked by volunteers.

At opening circle, volunteers welcome us, waving smoke from aromatic sage smoldering in oyster shells. The circle’s leader invokes qualities of the four directions. Accompanied by drummers, we walk two by two to the main activity area, pausing at four lovingly hand-decorated outdoor altars, evoking earth, air, fire, and water. Everyone holds hands as announcements are made about respectful behavior, responsibility towards children, sharing of water resources, and jobs that still need volunteers.

Then the electronic dance music, broadcast from a covered DJ stage, begins: techno, trance, dub step, and more. We—two middle-aged parents—dance a while on the grassy outdoor dance floor, then go to bed. Zipped into our tent, we listen to the sounds. Here we are, camping in a magnificent forest, but instead of water and nocturnal insects, we hear far-off psychedelic music. We laugh ourselves to sleep.

Morning gives us a clearer sense of the gathering. We realize that we are witnessing, firsthand, a gathering of people unaffiliated with religious organizations who actively seek transcendence, spiritual growth, and community. So I start interviewing people about why they participate in this gathering. A handful of answers comes up over and over again.

“Community.” “Co-creating something from scratch.” “I got tired of raves and wanted a place where I could dance all night drug-free.” “You can just be yourself here.”

And, in a way, you can just be yourself. Dress is funky: bright colors, ruffled skirts and leggings on men and women alike, animal hats, all-day-pajamas, costumes. Conversation is easy: people talk freely about where they live, how they work, why they came. The atmosphere is fluid: nothing is quite on schedule, hula hoops and giant bubbles are always available, everyone plays with the children, and anyone might start dancing at any moment to the music that blares most of the day.

Workshops, however, are serious explorations of community, creativity and self. The “Rainforest Walk” workshop is an education in ethno-botany and habitat preservation, led by two scientists. “Breathwork” is an opportunity for release of tension, led by two experienced bodyworkers with a strong psychological grounding. “Empathy and Vulnerability” is an invitation to public speaking and performance, co-led by an acting coach and an executive coach.

Nighttime is less structured. We work a shift at the peer support tent. We sit at a shadowy picnic table discussing Plato’s Republic with a new young friend. Around the firepit, we discuss gender, sexuality and neurobiology with other new friends. We move to the dance floor, laughing and playing with other dancers.

By the third day, we—my spouse and I—really are ready to be our whole selves. We talk freely about our professional work in religion and psychology, about the Jewish Renewal movement, about our social and political ideals.

One woman hears us singing Hebrew songs in the forest. She approaches us, explaining that she has drifted away from her Jewish upbringing. She is surprised and delighted to learn that our synagogue, Or Shalom, is both liberal and spiritual.

Another woman, missing 3G access to the news, tells us that she worries every day about Israel and Palestine. Relieved to learn that we do too, she cries.

One man, a labor union activist, says he heard vaguely about a radical socialist Jewish movement whose young adults work in both Israel and Canada; do we know how he can connect? We refer him to our daughter, a former Habonim-Dror camp counselor.

A woman speaks about Shabbat with great joy, but tells me that she left her synagogue a decade ago over its marginalization of gay and lesbian participants. I tell her about the many Jewish groups that do active LGBTQ outreach and she is encouraged.

So much for our three days away from Jewish leadership, work and our everyday identities. Our mental image of the trip, unclear as it was, did not include Jewish outreach work. Yet we met several Jews yearning for transcendence, spiritual growth, and Jewish community. All were surprised to learn that Jewish community might welcome them, as it has us, even if we love camping, dancing, playing, forests, indigenous traditions, socialism and queer perspectives.

At this gathering, I learned some things about Jewish outreach without really trying. We met people who avoid Jewish organizations; no program at a synagogue, no matter how creative, would have attracted them. Instead, we met them in their own space. We came to the gathering out of genuine interest, not as teachers or leaders. We came as ourselves. We connected through friendliness, playfulness and shared interests. These simple qualities began to create Jewish community.

Sometimes outreach just happens. And sometimes random chance teaches more than any controlled experiment.

Image: Photo of Hillary Kaplan at Intention 15.5, courtesy of Charles Kaplan

Posted on July 21, 2014

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A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman’s Jewish Renewal

Leningrad_Codex_Carpet_page_eLast Thursday, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, passed away, leaving his bodily existence for…well, for whatever comes next.

Reb Zalman, a creative and challenging teacher with a twinkle in his eye, was a tremendous pastoral presence for many people, who adopted him as a spiritual father or grandfather. His influence is reflected in our approaches to tikkun olam, prayer, study, meditation, music, gender equality, spirituality, environmentalism, interfaith outreach and more.

When people ask me to summarize the Jewish Renewal movement al regel achat, (literally, “while standing on one foot,”) i.e., in one sentence, I usually say, “It’s liberal Judaism with an emphasis on spirituality.” Fifty years into our founding, we have more than forty affiliated synagogues, in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and, of course, Israel. We have a seminary, a retreat center, a rabbinic association, a publishing project and more. Our umbrella organization is the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism. We are only 70 years—less than one lifetime—past the end of World War II, only 70 years past the murder of six million European Jews, only 70 years past the destruction of a huge cultural infrastructure: Jewish schools, libraries, printing presses, synagogues, social centers, towns and neighborhoods where parents passed on traditions to their children simply by practicing them together. Or, to put it positively, we are 70 years into the project of renewing Judaism.

After the Holocaust, it took several decades just for survivors to come back from the brink: to count their losses, to find their way, as many did, to the newly established state of Israel, to North America and South America, and to build new lives in alien cultures. The re-establishment of our cultural institutions has fallen largely to our generation. Many of my age-peers (I’m in my fifties) have been asking, “How does one practice Judaism? How do I reconnect with my historical traditions?”

Many answers have been offered, and here I will contrast only two of them. Yes, of course it is an oversimplification, but perhaps one that will provide helpful categories for understanding contemporary Judaism and the Jewish choices each of us makes.

Some religious leaders have said, “How does one practice Judaism? Here are the guidelines. Follow this checklist of holidays, prayers, foods, clothing, and more.” Many people find it reassuring to have a clear set of guidelines; they buy guidebooks, learn from teachers and peers, and they practice with passion. This is a popular path. Jewish Orthodoxy is on the rise.

Some religious leaders give a different answer to the question, “How does one practice Judaism?” They say, “Awaken your spirit! Ask your questions, share your yearnings, and find out how traditional teachings and practices can speak to your deepest needs.” This is a more challenging path. After inter-generational trauma, it may not be easy to open to spiritual questions. Yet we know that when a person is ready, this opening is a gateway to healing. The Jewish Renewal movement emphasizes this second path.

Reb Zalman taught that the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Both are traditional. And both are needed to activate the whole human being. Drawing on kabbalistic language, Reb Zalman spoke often of four worlds of human consciousness. Simultaneously, we are involved in action, feeling, thought, and spiritual being. Ritual practices ground us in action; recognition of our yearning for meaning activates our emotion; intellectual study shapes our questions; God answers by moving us spiritually.

Sometimes Jewish movements argue fiercely over which approach will best renew and re-establish our religious culture. But for me, the best conclusion is Reb Zalman’s: each individual is unique; we need to reach all souls, at all levels; and every entry point is a holy one.

Rest in peace, my teacher and spiritual zayde, and travel with joy.

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Posted on July 7, 2014

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Can Jews Unite?

shutterstock_159077903The prayer book Siddur Eit Ratzon includes a contemporary prayer for Israel. “We affirm that it is possible for Jews and Arabs, for Palestinians and Israelis, and for Jews and Jews, to work together to build a shared future.”

“Jews and Jews”—that line catches my attention. Anyone who is active in Jewish community, or part of a Jewish family, knows how profound our inner rifts can be. Anyone who speaks about politics with Israelis has heard the opinion, “The Palestinian issue will be solved. But differences between Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews might destroy our country.”

Last week I attended a local Canadian prayer service in support of the three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er. Three rabbis, representing Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform synagogues took turns at the podium. One of the speakers, an Orthodox rabbi, told us about his personal connections with the yeshivot the boys attended. I was moved to see how personally shaken he was. He described the leaders of the school as visionaries, and of Gush Etzion as the heart of the Jewish goal to return to the land. Yes, Gush Etzion was founded legitimately in the 1920s and some of my closest childhood friends live there, so this should not push my buttons…but did he have to identify an Orthodox movement as the core of the Jewish state?

He went on to speak about the unity of the Jewish people within the diversity of the Jewish state. He described the yeshiva movement’s emphasis on learning as the salvation of the Jewish people. This, he said, does not diminish the work of the secular Jews who serve in the army. Both groups must work together, weaving together the two great visions for the state of Israel.

On the one hand, he simply told it like it is: despite the complexity of Israeli life, political discourse tends to polarize people into two groups. On the other hand, his telling made me uncomfortable. I wondered: Are the two visions really equal? No, I thought. Is studying Torah and transmitting the culture as much a praxis as guarding borders, and mobilizing in response to civilian emergencies? No. Is learning religious Judaism within a fairly closed community as valuable as learning about one’s country by working together with a diverse group of young fellow citizens? No. Suddenly, I realized that my negative reaction to his version of Jewish ideology was so strong, it led me to feel protective of the army, forgetting the many criticisms I have of Israel’s extreme militarization. And then I felt even more uncomfortable, realizing how I was swept into the very dichotomy the speaker criticized.

“Why,” continued the speaker, “did God choose these three boys to be kidnapped?” I found this question jarring, and absolutely alien to my theology. I do not believe that God directs daily events, tweaking here and there to meet a Divine goal, using us as puppets in the plan. Nor do I believe that God chooses specific people to be harmed in order to bring about a mysterious greater good. Instead, I believe in free will, knowing that many people use it badly, harming others intentionally and unintentionally. I believe that God has gifted us with intellect and imagination, so that we may see the results of our actions, and create positive alternatives. As I reflected on the speaker’s question, it began to dawn on me that, while we share a religious tradition, we do not share a theology.

The speaker answered his own question. “God chose these boys in order to bring about the unity of the Jewish people. All over the world, Jews are gathering to pray for them. It doesn’t matter to us if they are someone else’s children; we will pray for them as if they are our own.” His good intention spoke to my heart. Yes, I thought, even if we don’t share religious beliefs, we are part of an ethnic group, a single nation spread across the globe, and we must work towards unity.

Then we prayed and sang. Together, we prayed for the boys and their families, and we sang Hatikvah. We did not pray explicitly for peace in the Middle East. We did not pray for Palestinian boys incarcerated in Israeli prisons and separated from their families. Perhaps some in our gathering felt drawn to support their fellow Jews, or preferred to narrowly focus the prayer on the issue at hand, or—most likely —did not even notice the omission. But to me, steeped in the human universalism of my favorite Biblical prophets, the omission was glaring.

As we were leaving, people thanked the organizers personally; offered words of appreciation to the speakers; and helped the young volunteers collect the leftover psalms handouts. Rabbis from all the streams of Judaism greeted one another in friendship. Truly, I love my local Jewish community. Despite our political and theological differences, we create the personal relationships that make us whole.

Still, I am haunted by the Talmud‘s pronouncement that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE by sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Having read the works of Josephus, I know that the Jewish political parties did not work together until the Romans breached Jerusalem’s walls. I fear that, despite our inner work and outer friendships, my colleagues and I share these faults.

I pray that these fears are misguided. I pray for the safe return home of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, and of young adults, in Israel, Palestine, and all over the world. I pray for peace. May all those whose pain drives them to conflict find healing. May we thus build new worlds instead of allowing ourselves to destroy this one.

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Posted on June 23, 2014

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The Talmud Says: Embrace the Selfie

MabelNormandWe are the “selfie generation.” Don’t let the epithet unsettle you. According to leading sociologists, we are not the first to be self-obsessed.

American “baby boomers,” born from 1946 to 1964, are the “Me Generation.” Old surveys of eighteen-year-old boomers reveal that their most important goal was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” They created a “culture of narcissism,” said sociologist Christopher Lasch, obsessively consuming self-help books and seminars. Instead of looking out for others, they looked inside. To me, this seems a wee bit over-critical. If you were born right after millions of people killed each other for no good reason, wouldn’t you wonder about life’s meaning?

More recently, American “millennials,” born 1982 to 2004, have been called “Generation Me.” On comparable surveys, eighteen-year-old millennials identify “being very well off financially” as their most important goal. Sociologists criticize them for valuing money, image and fame over concern for others. In their defense, if you grew up at a time of successive world financial crises, wouldn’t you hope for personal financial stability?

We can’t help but be shaped by our time. We are, after all, historical beings, born into cultures. Spiritually, the historical self is our starting point. Our search begins with the concerns of our society. In that sense, we are all part of a “me” generation.

The famous revelation at Mount Sinai, articulated in the Ten Commandments, starts with the word “I,” anochi. At Mt. Sinai, says a famous midrash, the Israelites heard that first word “anochi” – and promptly passed out. No one but Moses heard the rest of the commandments we find in the Torah. What’s that about?

According to philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, God personally connected with each individual consciousness in the fullness of love. That connection was the revelation. All the ethical rules represent Moses’ interpretation of his experience of Divine love, in light of his concerns as a nation-builder. Divine love is available to every generation; they articulate its meaning through their historical concerns.

The surveys I’ve cited, from the American [College] Freshman project, are a snapshot of one demographic: college-bound young adults at age eighteen. Respondents are just beginning to know the historical “me” out of which a responsible life mission might arise.

For seventeen years, I taught philosophy to college students, including baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Yes, in keeping with the temper of the times, I used a “me” approach. What experiences made you say “wow”? Which of your life stories hold your most meaningful moments? How will you earn a living with integrity? Through journals, group discussion, and listening with a fullness of connection, we explored these concerns. We approached timeless ideas through personal perspectives and, in so doing, broadened our perspectives.

This is how it works: we get to know big ideas through our little consciousness. The inner life of the soul is our only gateway to higher perspectives. We start with self to transcend self. So says the Talmud, in a poetic comment on Psalms 103:5:

About whom did King David [author of the Psalm] say five times “Bless the Lord, O my soul” ? He said it about the Holy One of blessing and about the soul. As the Holy One fills the whole world, so also does the soul fill the whole body. As the Holy One sees and is not seen, so also the soul sees and is not seen. As the Holy One sustains the world, so also does the soul sustain the body. As the Holy One is pure, so also is the soul pure. As the Holy One dwells in the innermost chambers, so also does the soul dwell in the innermost chambers. Let the one who has these five things come and praise the ONE who has these five things (B. Berachot 10a).

Go ahead, says the Talmud, embrace the selfie. A snapshot of you is a fine starting point. Knowing your self leads you to know God. So, study your self well. Recognize your generation’s concerns; know that they will shape the religion and spirituality of your time. Explore the way you personally reach for spirit; see your lens, and see through it. Do it all with an attitude of praise, i.e., with humility, gratitude, and wonder.

Posted on June 10, 2014

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Does Interfaith Dialogue Work?

1024px-Concert_"Flamenco_et_Soufisme"_(IMA)_(4431396219)I ask this question often, in one form or another. And often, people answer with a cynical “No.”

A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”

A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”

An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”

A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”

A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart:  “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”

Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.

Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.

Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.

In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.

In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.

In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.

In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.

I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.

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Posted on May 26, 2014

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A Taste of Eternity: Letters from the Front

800px-US_Soldier_with_cattle_dogThe fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).

My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.

No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.

As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.

During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.

In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.

Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.

Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.

No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.

Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.

I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.

In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.

My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach.  Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.

That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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Is it (Mentally) Healthy to Fall Apart?

sefirot wikimediaFalling apart is a kind of strength.

At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”

During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.

Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.

Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.

Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.

Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.

For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.

My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.

Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.

Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.

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Posted on April 28, 2014

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A Dog at the Seder

Dog SilhouetteAs a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?

Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.

One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.

Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.

Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.

As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.

Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?

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Posted on April 14, 2014

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Chad Gadya: Spiritual, Ethical, Political Masterpiece

young goatAt our home, the seder is not over until we sing “Chad Gadya making the appropriate animal noises for every verse of this Jewish “House that Jack Built.” When we sing, full of food, wine, and holiday euphoria, Chad Gadya comes out sounding silly. What if it’s really meant to be a serious work of religious poetry? As it turns out, many famous Jewish thinkers have found deep teachings of one kind or another.

Midrashic. The original author of Chad Gadya in plays on a famous midrash (c. 500). The Aramean King Nimrod challenges our monotheistic ancestor Abraham to a theological dialogue. Nimrod suggests that Abraham should worship fire. But Abraham argues that water quenches fire, clouds bring water, wind blows away clouds, and humans can control wind through breath – so if you worship forces of nature, you might as well worship yourself. Nimrod, angry, sentences Abraham to death by fire – but God saves Abraham’s life. Hence, Chad Gadya explains, the Holy One of Blessing can slay the Angel of Death.

Historical. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1997) says that Chad Gadya is an allegory of Jewish history, showing the recurring relevance of the Exodus. Israel is the kid, and everyone else wants to destroy us. But in the end, God saves us. This interpretation is, however, a bit loose, as cat eats the kid in the first verse.

Apocalyptic. Contemporary philosopher Rabbi Neil Gillman says that Chad Gadya celebrates Elijah’s visit to every seder, where he announces the End of Days, the coming of mashiach. At that time, God will triumph over everything, even death. All who once lived will come alive again.

Political. According to Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary scholar of Jewish liturgy, Chad Gadya warns against taking revenge. The cycle, once started, may never end. Similarly, modern Israeli songwriter Chava Alberstein used Chad Gadya as a metaphor in a 1989 song urging the Israeli military not to retaliate against Palestinian strikes. “Why are you singing Chad Gadya? How long will the cycle of horror last, the pursuer and the pursued, the striker and the stricken?”

Spiritual. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) sees in Chad Gadya an allegory about the inner journey towards spiritual refinement. One who sings Chad Gadya declares: I am the beginning seeker, bought for a blessing, whose creativity is threatened by too much rationality, which is in turn threatened by desire, which is then transformed into passion for the holy, which passion is defeated by the body, causing me to judge others harshly, which I can temper with love, which is sometimes defeated by my shadow side, until God helps me perfect my id.

Ethical. Rav Nasan Adler (1741-1800) taught that Chad Gadya is really a warning against lashon hara (gossip). Once, this controversial rabbi overheard a group of strangers gossiping about him. He walked over and said, “How about that Chad Gadya! The cat that ate the kid did a terrible thing, so the dog was right to bite it, and the staff was wrong to beat the dog. If you follow the logical steps of the song, it seems like God was wrong to punish the angel of death. The song cannot really be criticizing God, so how do you solve the problem?” “You have thought about this a lot, so perhaps you have an idea,” said the strangers. “Indeed I do!” said the Rav. “Actually, the dog was wrong. It was up to the father who owned the kid to punish the cat. The dog should never have gotten involved in someone else’s business!”

Perhaps Chad Gadya expresses the essence of retelling the Exodus story in every generation. Each year, different goals drive us: answering religious questions, learning about Jewish intellectual traditions, grappling with Jewish history, hoping for a just future, growing spiritually, dealing with difficult people and more. If Chad Gadya, a mere fragment at the end of the seder, can spark so much insight, how much more can we glean from the seder as a whole!

Posted on March 31, 2014

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Lost and Found: An Airplane and a Bar Mitzvah

SeaplanesMy husband and I are binge-watching Lost, a 2004-2010 TV series. An airplane crashes, leaving survivors stranded without rescue on a remote tropical island. The survivors bond as they face the island’s threats together. “Lost is the perfect blend of drama, action, and science fiction,” says my brother. By drama, he means character development. By action, he means shooting guns. By science fiction, he means writers weaving random impossible ideas into a plot.

Except, this week, Lost seems a bit less like fiction. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has disappeared.  We do not know if, where, and how the passengers are living. We can read in great detail about attempts to find them — and learn that no one really knows where to look.

This week’s terrible travel news is the flip side of Lost. Viewers of Lost know a great deal about the characters on the island. But we know nothing about the anxious family and friends waiting for news. Nothing about the airlines, governments or rescue crews as they search.

In real life, no one yet knows both sides of the missing jet’s story. But in my own mind, I cannot separate the facts from the fictional story. When I watch Lost, I imagine the untold stories of those who wait. As I read about the search for Malaysia flight 370, I worry about the passengers and crew; I pray for their well-being.

Imagine a story with only two sides, where no one can experience both sides, where anyone who sees one side cannot see the other. Imagine you see only one side. But when you look closely, everything flips around, and now you see only the other side.

V’nahafoch hu, as we say at Purim. It all turned over. Inside-out. Upside-down.

During Purim this year, I had a v’nahafoch hu experience.

You know the ongoing, polarizing debate about Jewish power. Do we, in North America and Israel, have enough power and security? Or are we always battling the beast of antisemitism with money and military strength? Two views, mutually exclusive. Normally, I see only the former.

From that perspective, I cannot stand the triumphalist tone of Megillat Esther. Deep down, I think, I am embarrassed to celebrate Jews winning political power. When history treats us well, we should be pleased with our efforts, providence and luck. But celebration of triumph over others, well, that’s in bad taste. That’s my gut feeling as a fourth-generation American Jew who grew up at ease with both her Ashkenazi ethnicity and American citizenship.

This past Shabbat morning, just a few hours before Purim, v’nahafoch hu—something turned over. A 65 year old man in our congregation, whom I have known for a decade as Mr. I-am-spiritual-but-not-religious, celebrated his bar mitzvah. Throughout the service, he held hands with his 94 year-old mother. Towards the end, he addressed the congregation. “I am the first person of my lineage not to have a bar mitzvah at age 13. I grew up in post-World War II Romania. Where we lived, it was not safe to express our Jewishness. But now, Hitler and his friends are mostly gone, and here I am, in Canada, celebrating my bar mitzvah at 65.” He smiled. All 150 witnesses cried. Except his mother: she laughed and cried at the same time. V’nahafoch hu. 

That evening, I experienced the Megillah from the perspective of my Romanian friend. Yes, we are still here! With enough power to live without fear. With enough security to be Jewish, whatever that might mean. Like Mordehai and Esther in the Megillah, we triumphed. But not in their flashy fictional style. We moved forward in real ways, with trauma and heartbreak and a very slow recovery. This Shabbat, one man stepped forward into his sense of Jewish power. Not everyone is ready yet to follow him.

So much in life is hidden from us. Sometimes it takes 65 years, or 94 years, to find what we seek. Often we make the search extra-hard, letting binary thinking narrow our perception and insight. But if we look closely at the clues offered, everything can shift around, and maybe we can see multiple sides all at once.

May that happen to those who search for flight 370. I will pray for them, for the flight’s passengers, and for its crew.

Posted on March 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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