Happy Hanukkah, Jewish learners and lovers of Jewish learners! If gift-giving is a part of your Hanukkah tradition, let our Rabbis Without Borders gift guide help you find the perfect gift. From books and albums made by our fellows to silly odds and ends, we’ve got something for everyone.
Our yearning for answers is no different now than it was in Biblical times, writes RWB Rabbi Irwin Kula in his eye-opening, stirring book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:
A former West Bank settler, RWB Rabbi Brad Hirschfield now teaches inclusiveness and celebrating diversity. You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right is a personal, moving read:
The Amidah is one of the most powerful prayers in Judaism. These Amidah Meditation Cards by RWB Rabbi Marcia Prager ($25) offers a guided practice for each of the ancient blessings:
RWB Rabbi Shefa Gold is a musician and author who introduces Jewish chant, mysticism and spirituality as a transformative spiritual practice. Shir Delight is a gorgeous, spiritual album:
Want to learn about Jewish mysticism but don’t know where to begin? Written by a leading Kabbalahist (and RWB rabbi!), The Everything Kabbalah Book is a wonderful first step:
Counting the Omer, by RWB Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Kabbalistic meditation guide to the days between Passover and Shavuot, offering insights into daily life and spirituality:
How to Spot One of Us by RWB Rabbi Janet R. Kirchheimer is a poetry collection inspired by her family’s tragedy in the Holocaust. She provides a moving tribute to the powers of faith and hope:
RWB Rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat wrote a poem each week of her son’s first year. Her collection, Waiting to Unfold, reflects on the challenges and blessings of early parenthood:
Found in Translation is more than just a book about words. RWB Rabbi Pamela Gottfried’s essays about everyday experiences are lighthearted and inspirational. A memorable read:
…and now for some rabbi fun:
Rabbear (yep, we said it) is a stuffed traditionalist. Decked out in a tallit and hat, he cuts a dashing figure and would look great on a bookshelf. That said, we’d like to see a woman on the plush pulpit:
Take the Rabbi’s Challenge on this hand-finished wooden Star of David puzzle:
Melissa & Doug’s Hanukkah Box of Questions helps start great conversations:
Light These Lights is a collection of beautiful Hanukkah songs by Debbie Friedman for the whole family to enjoy:
Are you a fan of interfaith dialogue? This “Prays Well With Others” bumper sticker is a cheeky way to express your appreciation for all religions.
Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. We hope this gift guide helps!
My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.
That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.
Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.
Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.
Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.
Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.
Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.
Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.
Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”
Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”
Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.
“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.
“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?
“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.
“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.
“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.
“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!
Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.
Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.
Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.
You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.
Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism. There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature. But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.
Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.
Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush. I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed. And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me. Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life. So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.
How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience. Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.
When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.
That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.
Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.
In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding. But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world. But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms. The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king. This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness. The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.
This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.
There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”
The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.” He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient. Rather, we need to remember that everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.
We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else. That tendency to think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.
Today saw the spreading of some enticing rumors regarding a soon-to-be-announced ordination program out of the newly-created Kabbalah Institute (KIRR – Kabbalah Institute for Reincarnated Rebbes). The program has already been running in pilot phase for 7 weeks, hence the rumors that the first ordination class is about to be announced.
When contacted for further details, KIRR would not divulge the full details of their program of study. However, it is believed to include sleeping with a volume of Zohar under your pillow for 40 nights, a daily mikvah, and the learning of a series of daily affirmations designed to align the sephirot within you. Rabbis ordained by KIRR will be qualified in the supervision, cutting, and wrapping of red string. They will be able to determine if string that has been worn for some time is still kosher or in need of replacement. All are expected to complete an Advanced course in Powerpoint, due to the centrality of glossy and impressive visuals that accompany the various curriculum they are trained to teach about where to find the secrets of life, the universe, and everything (Douglas Adams is a compulsory text for the first 7 days of the program).
But the biggest potential game-changer in this new rabbinic program lies in the promise that, when the first class of ordained KIRR Rabbis are revealed tonight, it will include their first woman. While the identity of this woman has not been confirmed, many are postulating that it no other than Madonna Ciccone. Evidence from her recent performance at the Superbowl points to this conclusion. A cleverly-orchestrated choreography, provided in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, has been analyzed using the most sophisticated Gematria and Torah code software on the market today, and was found to reveal the secret message, ‘I am a Rabbi Without Borders’. Asked for official comment at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of the Rabbis Without Borders program simply said, ‘Madonna is not currently one of our RWB Fellows, but we have just put out a call for applications for next year’s cohort (at http://www.rabbiswithoutborders.org).
Upon hearing the news, the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox), expressed outrage at the use of the title Rabbi for women ordained by KIRR. However, they were willing to tolerate the use of an alternative title, Baalat shum davar, (Mistress of absolutely nothing).
Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali – the Complete Repair. Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair – healing at a cosmic level – in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.
This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life. There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes. Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies – 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.
I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now. Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody. At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more ‘in tune’ with ourselves and with others.
The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
In the context of Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances. Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.
It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing. If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?
Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery. Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate. Her therapist, Morrow, explains:
“It’s creating new pathways in the brain … Language isn’t going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech…”
The article went to say, “Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. ”The thing about music is that it’s something that’s very automatic — part of our old brain system,” Morrow said. ”If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment.”
Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes. And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began. Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies – even getting up to dance.
The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me. It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them. Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago. We’re just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.