Last 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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To understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:
A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)
The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:
”The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”
In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.
I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.
In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.
I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.
In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:
“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.
I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”
May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.
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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My parents still live in the house I grew up in. Since leaving it, I have moved 14 times. Each time I move, I have to get rid of the clutter that has accumulated -sometimes more, sometimes less – usually books, but since my child was born, also toys, clothes outgrown, keepsakes from each stage of his life…
I know that I should acquire less. Even though we buy little, it creeps up on me, until I feel weighed down by it all, and yet, many of those things feel precious and irreplaceable. And some of them are.
Each year at Passover, I wonder at all the stuff that seems to be required to leave Egypt -and I think of the Israelites, who left too fast even for bread to rise, but managed to remember their tambourines. No wonder it was so hard for them, no wonder they complained so much: I can imagine them saying to themselves, I can’t leave behind little Dvorah’s first clay bird sculpture, Aharon’s project, that straw-woven hat… even though the straw and the clay were both reminders of the slavery they were escaping.
Sometimes I wish for the purity of having nothing. Sometimes, I long to hold my history in my hands and I am ready for Passover to end, not so I can eat bread, but so I can, for a little while, pretend that the things around me will last into the future.
As I took my seat on an airplane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, the man next to me put on large headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours.
His behavior bothered me.
He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me. Still, what he did sparked something for me.
Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind them, affected me.
And I saw:
His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.
Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.
To imagine my consciousness centred in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.
The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.
What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.
Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.
My old view of an “I” centred within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.
Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly.
To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.
I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby, walked through the airport, and endured the chaotic crush at baggage claim. I just did it all with a beatific smile on my face. Many people smiled back, delighted to be lifted for a moment out of their traveler’s stress.
The words I choose to describe this experience are not unique. I seem to have learned them from great teachers before me.
In his book Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato tells the allegory of the cave. We live as if we are prisoners in a darkened cave, seeing shadows cast on a wall, and imagining them to be real objects. If a person were to break free, exit the cave, behold the real world in sunlight, and return with a magnificent report, the prisoners would still prefer to live in their shadowy reality. The cave is everyday human thought; the prisoners are you and me.
The Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in his Kabbalistic work Tanya (1797), describes God’s light emanating through successive screens. Some screens, such as the human experience of identification with a body, cannot be removed. But we can increase our awareness of the screens, and thus of the Divine light showing through them.
Some religious traditions label mystical experience subversive.
This week, I understand why. In this type of experience, gossip appears as a veil. Models of the self appear as a veil. Religious theories about the nature of God and the soul appear as a veil, too. At best, they seem to be partial metaphors; at worst, they seem to be mistakes and lies.
Not just everyone else’s religious theories; the ones I was raised with, too.
No, I won’t be abandoning Judaism. My parents raised me with religious and cultural Judaism as a natural habitat and I did the same with my children. For me, connection with ancestors and a chain of tradition 3,000 years old is another kind of mystical experience. It’s an experience rooted in body, culture, and personal identity — quite different from last week’s transcendent experience.
From a personal and cultural perspective, Judaism is “mine.” At the same time, from a spiritual perspective, I am part of something much larger than “me” or “mine.”
So when I encounter choices, like Susan Katz Miller’s decision to raise dual-faith children described in the New York Times article “Being Partly Jewish,” I understand. I understand both the negative and positive responses to her decision.
I understand, profoundly, the fear of Jewish civilization disappearing. If that happened, a lot of what I am, too, would disappear. It might even seem as though I had lived in vain.
And I also understand, profoundly, that Judaism is only a civilization. Its religion is only a set of symbols pointing beyond themselves. By enjoying two faith traditions, one might compromise everything on the cultural level. But, at the spiritual level, one might well compromise nothing at all.
The prophet Zechariah speculated that Judaism might ultimately transcend itself. “On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).
Maybe it will. I don’t ultimately know.
And that’s okay, because ultimately, there may be no “I.”
And, ultimately, true spiritual knowledge may not belong to the “I” at all.
Image: One World Trade Center, a structure mirroring the sky, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2013.
Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
As Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz says, statistics in the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs are wide open to interpretation. And different interpretations will lead to different responses.
94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Some interpreters will say that programs building Jewish identity have been successful; it is time to improve other facets of Jewish life. Others will insist we keep doing what works.
44% of married U.S. Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Some interpreters will suggest we try to reverse the trend, and focus on teaching a more exclusive sense of Jewish identity. Others will celebrate America’s multiculturalism and urge us to work in creative ways with diverse and unique families.
Really, the statistics are a kind of Rorshach test. Our responses to the statistics may tell us as much as the statistics themselves do.
Personally, I am fascinated by statistics about theism and religion. I came to these numbers with the belief that Jewish leaders need to develop more sophisticated approaches to spirituality. And I come away from them thinking that now is the time to act.
According to the Pew study, 72% of Jews say they believe in God.
What do the remaining 28% not believe in?
In a thoughtful, upbeat reflection on the study, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes:
Countless people tell me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Does that mean that they can’t relate to the old-man-in-the-sky image of God, especially after the Holocaust? No big surprise there. Most Jews can’t, myself included.
People tell me this, too; so many times it has become a platitude. Is this image really a deal-breaker in Jewish theism? I don’t think so. I do think that the phrase “I don’t believe in an old man in the sky” is a short, ready-to-hand, socially appropriate way to skirt a conversation about God, spirituality, or faith.
Unfortunately, we rabbis and teachers often accept these words at face value. We easily assume that many adult Jews have not moved beyond the first adolescent questions they asked about religion. So we tell them that mature Jews don’t believe in the “old man.” With kindness and warmth, we invite them to try adult Judaism as we know it.
Sometimes I think this is a self-protective move, because we are unprepared or afraid to step outside the Jewish discourse we know. Sometimes I think it is a patronizing approach, as well. Surely the life experience of these thoughtful adults has pushed them to existential reflection. Surely their challenges and yearnings have pointed them in many directions, not just towards questions about Divine authority.
Perhaps they do not feel held by a great heart of compassion, as Catholics might say.
Perhaps they do not believe that synchronicities in their life are glimpses into a prepared destiny, as depth psychologists might say.
Perhaps they have lost hope that humanity may be evolving towards greater justice and peace, as Quakers might say.
These are all components of faith, all aspects of what people imagine an effective God might provide, and all ideas that have (and have had) a place in Jewish discourse. If we see ourselves as spiritual teachers, it is our job to meet seekers where they are, not just to invite them to join us where we are. But to do so, we need a broader understanding of what faith means, and a web of threads connecting kinds of spirituality with concepts of God.
To gain this understanding, we may have to step temporarily out of our own comfort zone in Jewish religious vocabulary. Different religious and philosophical traditions emphasize different aspects of a soul’s life journey. Exploring those aspects may help us understand the hearts of the seekers who turn to us. Learning new concepts may broaden our ability to welcome diverse Jews into spiritual life.
We may find, in fact, that the question “Do you believe in God or not?” is an inadequate tool to gauge spirituality or even religious belief. Perhaps a broad spectrum of existential reaching, questioning and growing connects all 100% of Jews. And we, the so-called spiritual teachers, need to catch up with this reality.
We should not be afraid that this exploration will lead us –- or those we teach and counsel — away from Judaism. In fact, the Pew study suggests, now is a perfect moment to risk learning something new. For Jewish Americans, both multicultural comfort and Jewish pride are at an all-time high. Flexible spiritual guidance from open-minded, broadly-educated rabbis can only increase that pride.
Image: www.reflectingrunes.com. Cross-posted at www.OnSophiaStreet.com
As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.
So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?
Well, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”
Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.
There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.
Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova ”A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Occasionally, a book about Jewish prayer will tell you that Judaism discourages spontaneous prayer. That magic of Jewish prayer, the book will say, lies in mastering the discipline of repeating a fixed liturgy. Only through repetition can we gradually open ourselves to the spiritual mentoring of our ancestral authors.
This, gentle readers, is complete nonsense.
Judaism encourages spontaneous prayer and liturgical prayer.
The dual focus is amply described in the Talmud and in Hasidic literature. Our siddur, the anthology of 3,000 years of spiritual poetry that serves as our liturgical text, was never meant to abolish spontaneous prayer.
For a Shabbat prayer leader, it’s not easy to deliver spontaneous prayer week after week. Rabbinic schools do not offer a core course in the skill. Here’s my confession, though: offering spontaneous prayer is my favorite part of the entire service.
Over the last three years, as I have gained confidence, I have spoken aloud, mostly in English, some 150 different prayers for peace and 150 different prayers for healing.
These prayers are not prepared in advance. They emerge from the raw materials of congregational life and the content of that week’s service or Torah reading. They are not preserved afterwards. As I return to ordinary consciousness, the details fade.
If I could, I would collect the healing prayers into a book called “Fifty-Four Meditations: Healing Prayers for Each Torah Portion.” But I can’t. The prayers do not form themselves when I sit in the presence of a text – only when I stand in the presence of people.
Maybe there’s a bit of mystery to this practice.
More likely, it depends on a unique intersection of skills.
Some of the skills are taught in rabbinic school: Formulating ideas into words, quickly. Reading Biblical Hebrew with understanding. Giving multiple translations of Hebrew word roots, so that the words become metaphors and stimulate new interpretations.
And some of the skills are not taught in rabbinic school: Quieting one’s own mind to receive feelings from those around you. Opening to the presence of God within a group. Learning to put spiritual perception into words. Most of this I learned studying Spiritual Direction in a Christian seminary. (A handful of Jewish spiritual direction programs, such as ALEPH Hashpa’ah, and Lev Shomea, also teach it).
Why are these skills not often taught? Perhaps it’s connected to Rebecca Sirbu’s observation that Jewish communities often do not talk about God. We lack vocabulary for discussing the experience.
More precisely, our God-vocabulary is very strong in some areas and weak in others.
Kabbalistic teachers speak of four worlds of reality and consciousness: assiyah, the world of action; yetzirah, the world of emotion; beriyah, the world of intellect; and atzilut, the world of spirit.
Contemporary Judaism is rich in discourse about God in the world of action. We speak of ethical mitzvot, ritual mitzvot, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. We easily understand ourselves to be fulfilling a divine ethical imperative through our deeds. We also navigate well in the world of intellect. Many of us can explain with skill why we are theists, atheists, or agnostics.
But we do less well in the areas of emotion or spirit. It’s easier, for example, for us to argue that God doesn’t exist than to explore a feeling of being abandoned by Divine love or protection. And many of us theists have no vocabulary at all for the experience of dwelling in God’s Presence.
Most of us can pray spontaneously, but few of us know how to talk about it, teach about it, or do it authentically while serving as a prayer leader. We may enjoy stories about the great Hasidic masters who do it well, but rarely think about the skill set that would make it accessible to us.
Is spontaneous, heartfelt, accessible prayer something you would like to explore? How can you start the discussion in your circles?
Image: onmounthoreb.com. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
For more on prayer and spontaneity, click here.