Hanna and I were privileged to attend the bar mitzvah of Reb Aryeh Hirshfield’s twin sons on the Shabbat of US Thanksgiving weekend. It was a powerful experience, full of both joy and sadness, as several communities gathered to honour these two young men and their mother. Reb Aryeh z”l had passed away suddenly some years ago and was among Reb Zalman’s early musmachim and part of the founding of Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest. We who were Aryeh’s friends, colleagues, and family missed him even as we kvelled at the poise, maturity, and intelligence of his sons.
Among many special moments, Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of Corvallis, OR spoke about the word and name Yisra’el. The Torah reading for that Shabbat afternoon was Parashat VaYishlach, in which Jacob struggles with the angel and receives the name Yisra’el as the morning light ends the dark night. Most of the time in Jewish Renewal, we speak of this name of ours as meaning “God Wrestlers,” reflecting the reason given by the angel for this name “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Rabbi Ben pointed out that the name can also be read as Yashar El, being straight or honest with God. I resonated with this because I wrote something similar when I became rabbinic director of ALEPH back in 1997. In some sense, we are not only people who wrestle with God but also a people who maintain, as best we can, an honesty and simplicity with God, a moral and ethical core to which we are committed.
For many years, I’ve declined to speak publicly about Israel, not because I don’t care about Israel but because I’ve seen no purpose in North Americans debating the various positions on the Israeli political spectrum. These debates only seem to make us angry at each other while having no real effect on the situation in the Middle East. However, in the past three months, I decided to spend more time reading, learning about what is happening in Israel and allowing my love for this country and its people to surface. The first was reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. The second was the decision my son urged me to make to subscribe to the English edition of HaAretz. He reasoned that this is a voice that we need to hear and so we ought to support it by subscribing.
I have learned and continue to learn much from these two decisions and I hope to share some of that with you in upcoming blogs. Here I want only to highlight that Shavit is advocating a kind of secular Israeli Jewish Renewal, urging us to renew the moral core which he believes must be at the centre of whatever else it may be that we think makes us Jews. I think it would be wonderful to connect with him, perhaps invite him to spend some time with us, so that we could learn from one another.
Reb Hanna Tiferet went to a talk he gave in Boston early last month. The sponsor, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, has made this talk available to everyone. I’ve pasted the link below and strongly encourage you to listen to it from start to finish, to experience in full the way he makes the case for a renewal of the Zionism he, and we, hold dear.
What I wrote about the name Yisra’el came from a teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and was part of the proposal I made to ALEPH in the process of becoming its Rabbinic Director. Here is a link to Levi Yitzchak’s Torah and a part of my letter: Yashar El•Sources.
“In this do I trust,” says the author of Psalm 27.
“For David,” the psalm begins. Is this the statement of authorship as tradition would have it, or could it be a dedication? This one is for you, David, you who nurtured your trust even when you were being hunted, even when you didn’t even have clothes to wear, even when your son betrayed you and your baby died.
I’ve recited this psalm annually for many years, but it was only in the past few that I managed to memorize it (sort of). This has given me the internal space to reflect on its transitions as well as on the verses which have captivated us through melody. “One thing I ask from God, this do I request: to dwell in God’s house all my life and to have visions of God’s beauty while visiting God’s sanctuary.”
The psalmist says that he is not afraid if a host encamp against him, for there is one thing he trusts, namely that all he has ever wanted is to dwell in God’s house. This relieves fear, I’m guessing, because there is no place which is not God’s house and so as long as he is conscious of that, there is no harm that can dislodge his trust and ultimate joy in being alive, nor make him afraid of death.
This coming year may be one in which humanity makes another of those momentous decisions, the kind only we seem to be capable of on this planet. We will decide what the next stages of our evolution will look like when political leaders gather in Paris in 2015. Will we agree to work together as a species and begin to reverse the effects of climate change or will we continue to place the needs of our own tribes and nations ahead of humanity as a whole. Will we continue to waste resources, both material and human, in pointless wars over tiny pieces of land, risking our survival, or will we decide to share those resources more equitably, thus reducing the need for conflict? Will we allow increased levels of education and prosperity to encourage smaller families and even reverse population growth or will we require war and disease to accomplish this?
Most important: can we renew a spiritual, respectful, and ethical approach to life’s decisions so that we can echo the psalmist in saying that we approach our struggles from a place of trust and the knowledge that we are struggling in and for God’s home in this world?
I’m including some sound files of melodies for different parts of Psalm 27. Most especially, I’m attaching one of Reb Zalman z”l which also appears on his “Into My Garden” cd. This recording is less polished and, in some ways, I like it better. It is one of the four niggunim he told me are the ones he would like us all to know (though I don’t understand why there weren’t at least five, since I would certainly have included Bati L’gani) and each of them was the focus of one day of my last Kallah course. The others are Hanna Tiferet’s. All of them are embedded in the pdf files which are Machzor Kol Koreh.
May this year be one of personal renewal and a positive tipping point for humanity.
I have felt private since Reb Zalman passed. At first, I couldn’t find words to describe my feelings as I oscillated between simple acceptance and a deep sadness that left me in tears. For the rest of Semicha Week, I felt called to helping our chevra, first by singing a deathbed niggun Reb Zalman had shared with me years ago, by including El Maleh Rachamim in our Mincha that day, and by facilitating an abbreviated funeral service on Friday morning which began just as the funeral in Boulder began, giving us all an opportunity to say kaddish together.
When I walked into Kabbalat Shabbat that evening, I felt that I didn’t belong. A mourner waits outside until L’cha Dodi is over and only then comes into shul. I finally realized that I had lost my spiritual father, my rebbe, who had been in my life in one form or another for 52 years, whose Hassid I have been for 42 of those years. So I left and returned when L’cha Dodi ended. All during the next week of Ruach HaAretz, the combination of teaching, preparing, and being with our amazing granddaughters took up nearly all my time, providing the benefit of remaining private. Finally, being home these past two weeks and using the Kaddish L-Yachid that my students and I created, has allowed me to begin processing my feelings.
And now shloshim, the first full month since his passing, is ending and I’m standing in the shul that Hanna and I nurtured into being so many years ago. Or Shalom was and remains our first contribution to a spiritual renewal of Judaism in a post-holocaust reality. Or Shalom is, by its very existence, part of Reb Zalman’s living legacy and it makes sense that this is where Hanna and I mark shloshim, that Vancouver is the place where I offer my first public words since Reb Zalman’s passing.
I like to think that our relationship was not so much student-teacher as rebbe-hasid. Reb Zalman often told the story of the man who came to the rebbe and told him: “My father came to me in a dream and said that I was to be the rebbe for 300 hassidim.” The rebbe responded: “When 300 hassidim come to me and say that your father told them in a dream that you are their rebbe, then I’ll take you seriously.” Reb Zalman would conclude: “There is no such thing as a rebbe without hassidim, nor a hassid without a rebbe.
One day among those we spent together on my first trip to Winnipeg in 1972, he asked me whether I would consider semicha from three rabbis, one each being Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I told him that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a rabbi at all, but if I did this would be a way I could embrace. By accepting the possibility that I could accept semicha from him (the Orthodox component!) and, as he used to say, by giving him permission to start a new lineage, I became his hassid and he became my rebbe. Thus, he called my semicha a “Certificate of Collegiality.”
We all know the story of the hassid who goes to watch how the rebbe ties his shoelaces. Here, then, is one version of what made Reb Zalman my rebbe:
1. He never pretended to be more than he was at any given moment. For me that meant that he showed me how to deal effectively with mistakes. My tendency is to wallow in the shame and embarrassment of my errors in judgement and particularly in speech. He showed me how to acknowledge my mistakes, accept them, and then move on to correct what could be corrected and to develop an awareness to minimize these possibilities in the future. He modelled that again for me as recently as two years ago when I began work on a booklet about an aspect of conversion that he initiated and which I didn’t have a chance to finish before his passing.
2. Also during that first trip to Winnipeg, he showed me the portrait of the friediker rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, that he wanted placed on the wall in front of his deathbed and played me the music he wanted to be listening to as he died. I think he was about 48 at the time. If you’ve read the booklet called “Yom Kippur Kattan and Cycles of T’shuvah,” you know that he used to practice dying when riding the subway in Brooklyn. Later, he said that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Auschwitz, not to flaunt our burial traditions, but rather to affirm his belief that cremation would not prevent resurrection and so to honour the deaths of those of our people during the Shoah who were cremated rather than buried. Then he proposed that a cemetery be created at the old Elat Chayyim where he and the rest of the founding generation of Jewish Renewal could be buried so that people would have a place to visit. Personally, I never liked this idea and told him so. The last conversation we had on the subject was when he told me that he had now decided he wanted only a wooden grave marker which would rot over time. I don’t know if this will happen, but he did decide to buried directly in the ground without a coffin.
In this extended conversation, I saw Reb Zalman as a person who thought deeply about the significance of individual behaviours in relation to values and as one who was constantly re-evaluating both behaviour and values. By the end, his focus was on eco-responsibility, on minimizing his carbon footprint wherever he could, and living that out right to and including the end. I want to believe that this was also one of the reasons we were told that he didn’t want lots of us flying into Boulder for his funeral.
3. Again, on that first visit to Winnipeg and, again, in the car, he told me that one thing he liked about me was that I knew how to get around. I think this was because I had hitchhiked from the interior of BC to Winnipeg to see him. At that time, my sense of myself was that everything I touched, broke. My inner response to him was, “If my rebbe thinks that I know how to get around, then maybe I do.” Ever since then I have noticed that, while I can’t fix everything that’s broken, I rarely make it worse. Reb Zalman saw the best in what I could become and related to that. In response, I tried to make his image of me as real as possible.
4. Reb Zalman made the point over and over again that being a rebbe was a function performed when called for and not a person on call. This is a teaching which is crucial for us as we begin to contemplate his legacy and how best to express it. A rear view mirror, he would say, is good for checking the road already travelled but not a good device for determining the way ahead. As he had the gift of making me, and everyone who knew him, feel that she or he was the most special person in his life, so we best manifest his legacy by making those who come into contact with us also feel special. As he saw the need to renew rather than restore Judaism, so we need to continue the work of renewing Judaism so that it is responsive to changing times and useful in enhancing the lives of its practitioners. And, perhaps most important of all, as he saw a Judaism that exists in an active partnership with all others, be they religious or not, who see this planet as a single, integrated, and conscious whole, so must we model a Judaism which engages with others in the effort to heal the wounds we have inflicted on the planet while simultaneously adapting and changing our priorities so that we can better live with the damage we have already caused.
His legacy is all of us, how we live, how we make our decisions, how we love each other and learn to work together. In this way, his soul will be bound to ours and ours to his in a living bond.
תהי נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
י־ה ואנחנו נחלתו
The above is what I wrote to say at the shloshim in Vancouver this past Sunday. Attached is the article I wrote for the Jewish Independent of Vancouver. ZalmanJewish Independent
On Shabbat Parashat B’har, Hanna and I co-led the annual retreat for B’nai Or of Boston. We knew that a mid-Omer pre-Shavuot theme would be the “mountain,” Sinai as starting place and Zion as destination. To begin our preparation, Hanna suggested I find a Hassidic text we could read together for inspiration and, on a hunch, I chose to look in the Netivot Shalom of the Slonimer Rebbe.
In the Yeshivah world, the study of Parashat B’har begins with Rashi’s famous question, מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני, what is the connection between the sabbatical year and Mt. Sinai? For Rashi and then for the Ramban, this juxtaposition of sabbatical and revelation serves as the core text for their different expressions of the content of the Sinai revelation. Reb Noah, the Slonimer, asks a different version of the question. He wants to understand the connection between the sabbatical year and the weekly Shabbat. Further, he also wants to understand why, in both cases, the texts begin with the logical conclusion rather than with the definition of terms. In other words, Shabbat in the decalogue begins with “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” and then goes on to say that we should work for six days and rest on the seventh. In B’har, the Torah first says to observe a sabbatical year after arrival in the land and then says that we should work the land for six years and allow it to rest on the seventh.
To answer his first question, he cites the Or haChayim’s commentary on the Shabbat in Genesis. Essentially, the Or haChayim says that there is something which God created on the seventh day and that is a soul which energizes and sustains the creation for the next six days. Similarly, suggests the Netivot Shalom, as each person is “resouled” each week, so the land itself must have its soul renewed every seventh year. Further, he explains in language which seems appropriate to our modern ears, this is the reason why we can be expelled from our land for not allowing the land to have its Shabbat. He sees this not so much as a punishment in a moral sense as simply the consequence of not stewarding the earth as we are intended to do and therefore denying the land its “Shabbat for God,” its required time for renewing its sustaining soul.
This also explains why the sequence seems to be reversed. In both cases, namely the Shabbat of the human being and the Shabbat of the earth, respecting this fundamental cycle which is built into the fabric of creation is the true purpose of our existence, again both as human beings and as stewards of the land. Thus we are told first to remember the Shabbat day and be sure the land rests every seventh year and afterwards the Torah spells out how we arrive at that moment of remembering.
One major contribution we Jews can make to help us both adapt to and slow down further climate change is to model and advocate for the return of Shabbat. We desperately need to slow down. Truck drivers in North Dakota who now contribute to that state having the highest work related fatalities in the US by driving too fast on poor roads need help to slow down and get proper sleep. We need to step off the treadmill of “more,” of always assuming growth, of having to get everything as quickly as possible in favour of less. We need to reduce our population to sustainable levels and thus reduce the pressure on our remaining resources. We need to be satisfied with smaller ships, less dredging, and less waste. We need to advocate for more appreciation time, good conversation with friends and neighbours, study and increased opportunities and time for educating those most in need.
Only the week after the retreat, my good friend and teacher Rabbi Barbara Penzner wrote a similar and complementary blog on the same subject using the next sidrah (B’chukotai) and different sources. I encourage you to read it, especially since she is more eloquent than I. It’s called Paying Back the Earth for all of its Kindness. I am also attaching the text I cited from the Netivot Shalom with my own translation.
For so many years, R. Arthur Waskow has written about global warming and how relevant our Judaism can be in facing this issue which challenges our very existence . It is time for all of us to help in translating ideas into specific behaviours in the worlds in which we each live.
I don’t know how many of you have read the latest edition of “Contact” with its theme of “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew.” As the old hippie that I am and a survivor of the first STAR conference, I remain suspicious of both the mainstream programming and fund-raising arms of the Jewish community and generally don’t find this periodical of much interest. And, in some ways, this was true of this issue as well. But I was curious to see what this particular grouping of individuals would have to say, especially when I noticed the headline given to Sarah Seltzer’s piece, “We are so Jewish it’s ridiculous: Stop Worrying About Pew!”
As is also usual for me, I looked for references to God and spiritual practice in the articles. And, as usual, I was disappointed. Except for Hayim Herring’s article on Conservative Judaism, which I recommend as the best piece in the issue since he addresses the essence of Judaism itself and derives his programming suggestions from that essence.
Two quotes express my concerns best. The first is from Andres Spokoiny of the Jewish Funders Network. Under item seven, “Funding Ideological Innovation” he writes, “Yet I see few ideological innovations: new ways of understanding the Jewish people, God, society, and the human condition. Probably the last big ideological innovation dates back to Mordechai Kaplan in the early 20th Century…”
The second is from Jerome Chanes’ essay, “Orthodox ‘Retention’ and Kiruv.” He writes that the success of Orthodox outreach efforts may be better measured by whether those touched go on to become involved anywhere in Jewish life and not just by whether they stay Orthodox. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee suggested to him that people touched by Orthodoxy may become involved in other Jewish movements “or they may try out a ‘congregation of renewal;’ such as New York’s Romemu.” Chanes continues, “Unfortunately, the Pew data have nothing to say about this hypothesis.”
If you didn’t get why the first quote caught my attention, I’m sure that this second one makes them both obvious. If the “legacy” organizations and structure are being challenged, then two things need to be considered. One is the extent to which people are in motion among them. This was made all the more obvious to me personally as I listened to two of Hanna Tiferet’s prayers included in the beautiful cd “Friday night at Central Synagogue in New York”. The second is whether there really are groups which have been exploring new ideological expressions of Judaism’s essence and, if there are (and of course we are!), then to what extent do prior beliefs interfere with recognizing them. Thus, Michael Steinhardt, who both funds this periodical and wrote its lead essay, extols secular Jewishness as the liberator of Jewish creativity and hence the catalyst for the increasing Jewish pride which the Pew survey notes. He holds this belief despite evidence to the contrary, such as the incredible release of artistic creativity of all kinds which is “normal” for us in Jewish Renewal.
I have long believed that the primary resistance to our movement of Jewish spiritual renewal is not about how counter-cultural we have been nor about our “statistical irrelevance” (which I think is not true when one looks for the relationships as Steven Bayme suggested). I think its roots are much more about the belief that we share with Chabad and others that in some way or another, being Jewish is entwined in a covenantal relationship with God (however one unpacks that word) which gives ordinary life extraordinary meaning.
If our Jewish Renewal is going to move with strength into the next generations, then helping the “legacy” community understand that we are providing the venue for precisely the things that many of them consider missing needs to be one of our higher priorities.
PS: For those of you who might be missing my more consistent postings on the themes I had promised, I apologize. Life still puts too many time-consuming items on my plate for me to stay up to date with all them at once. I’m hoping that will change over the summer and I’ll explain then and pick up where I left off.
The recent discussion and sharing on the OHALAH list of readings for funerals inspired me to take a next step in the development of a manual for klei kodesh. Of course, the job is much bigger than I thought and the time it will take to bring it to the point where I can share allows me to extend an invitation to all of you to contribute to it.
For many years while I served communities, I used a simple template that I created for myself for life cycle ceremonies. I would create a separate document and paste into it the pages and readings I wanted to use, including inserting names, cut them down to fit in a small loose-leaf binder, and bring that to the ceremony.
What I am doing now is revising and reformatting the template for funeral and burial services. The basic outline is traditional as I learned it both from watching rabbis and by looking at other manuals. I’ve also added niggunim and readings which I’ve found meaningful over the years.
But this is not intended to be “Daniel’s Manual,” but rather I see my job as creating as rich a template as possible so that all of us will have access to each other’s ideas and the results of our inspirations.
So, while I’m working on my piece, I invite you to send me the readings and prayers which you have found most meaningful and the place in the funeral or burial service where you insert them. I can’t promise to include every one, but on the whole there is good reason to include as much as possible. Since the “product” will be available at no cost, I don’t think there is an issue with permission as long as we acknowledge the sources.
In the meantime, I also revised and edited the introduction to the manual which I shared a few weeks ago and which includes Reb Zalman’s templates. The revisions primarily expand the concept to include all klei kodesh and not just rabbis. I’ve placed the revised version on this site and put a link to it below. Please replace the previous version.
I’m also hoping to format the pages so that they stand alone and can easily be re-arranged for each time you’ll need to construct a service. And I’m also planning on including sound files within the manual.
Looking forward to receiving your contributions in the near future and sharing the template with you.
Reb Zalman’s Templates and a Renewal Manual for Klei Kodesh
In his closing address at OHALAH last week, Reb Zalman made mention of some things to which he hoped we would pay attention. In particular, he spoke about liturgical changes he had written which better reflect our new approach to Jewish particularity within a universal context, including his new middle blessing for the Shabbat Shacharit Amidah. I wanted to remind you all that you can find it in Siddur Kol Koreh, along with another alternative which I wrote and which more closely follows the traditional version.
He also spoke of his templates (aka boilerplates) for life cycle events.
Some years ago, R. Boni Sussman and I began working on a life cycle manual for Jewish Renewal. We managed to write an introduction and an outline for the manual. The only other thing we were able to complete at the time was a reformatting of these templates of Reb Zalman’s and which form the core of what we still hope will be a much larger volume of life cycle ceremonies and commentary.
While I had posted these on the OHALAH website years ago, they first got separated into two different sets of files and then the link to them broke. Therefore, I’m taking the liberty of reposting them here to improve accessibility.
In addition, as you look at them, please feel free to share with me any documents and/or commentaries you think might fit well into this emerging manual. While I can’t promise to include everything I’m sent, I will look at them carefully and suggest changes when I think warranted.
In looking over what we wrote, I notice that we were still using the term “rabbi” where today I would use “Kli Kodesh” to include Rabbinic Pastors and Cantors. I have updated the terminology and the link below is now to that revision.
I went to Reb Zalman after he had finished to assure him that he was being heard. I hope that I’ll be able to relay to him that many of you have downloaded the templates and that we are working together to improve and expand this manual. And, as I add to it, I will let you all know via this blog so that you will be able to download the versions as they are developed.
I’ve finished reading Syd Schwarz’s book, Jewish Megatrends, in preparation for his appearance at our upcoming OHALAH conference. There is much in it that I endorse and applaud. I’m especially gratified by the support and funding which the organized Jewish community and private foundations are now willing to provide to new programs and experiments. And, at the same time, there are two things which nag at me. One is a personal feeling of invisibility, which appears over and over again as I read each essay, and the other is the absence of anything focused on how we talk about God.
It is true that there are occasional references to spirituality and the search for deeper meaning, and one reference to our “ancient God.” However, given that for most of our history the search for meaning has taken the form of “What is it that Yah our God wants from us?” would seem to require that this question at least be acknowledged somewhere. What is Jewish about how we eat, how that food is grown and raised, and our concern for social justice if not rooted in the covenant we made with God? It is that which has always been at the core of our world view and, whether we choose to believe in its traditional formulation, a new variant, or not at all, it deserves its place in the discussion of our future.
Which leads me to the invisibility. I know I’m not the first to notice the absence of God and the place of spiritual practice in this book. I’ve been told that my old friend and teacher, Reb Arthur Waskow has already commented on this. I found this out because I spoke out loud about my concerns and was informed, to my joy, that he has spoken about this before me and my current reading of a book which has been out for several years. I don’t know how he framed his thoughts, but I do know that I am only adding and maybe reiterating, but not initiating. Yet, nowhere in this important book is there communicated who might have been sharing the concerns raised by the current writers during those invisible years between the mentions of the Havurah movement in the sixties and the changes which only seem to begin in the mid-nineties. When a later Talmudic rabbi voices an opinion, the first question often asked is who before him might have said the same thing or something similar.
That is what I have found missing. Again, I am happy that new endeavors now get sympathetic hearings. It’s wonderful that Limmud NY had federation funding when it began. It’s great that there is a Jewish food movement and there is now an ethical kashrut certification. But these changes didn’t just appear in the last 15-20 years. They owe a great deal to the pioneering efforts of many people who not only go unsung but suffered disdain and rejection for voicing these concerns 35 and 40 years ago. And so, I applaud the new initiatives, as well as the baby-boomer contributors, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lifetime advocating for many of these same ideas.
Let me give only one of many possible examples. Rabbi Jacobs wrote: “In the past, social justice has been seen as the purview of secular Jews.” Yet, both “Jews for Urban Justice” in Washington, DC and “Na’aseh: A Jewish Religious Fellowship for Action” in Philadelphia were formed in the sixties. Arthur Waskow wrote the first Freedom Seder then and Na’aseh sponsored the second interfaith seder using his groundbreaking merger of Jewish spiritual practice and social justice. We were consciously merging religious observance, God wrestling, and social justice then and have continued ever since. And I can personally trace this convergence farther back in my own family, because my maternal grandfather, a practicing Orthodox Jew, was a Social Revolutionary in Tzarist Russia and a member of Lenin’s only coalition cabinet.
I am saddened that we who are now called Jewish Renewal still remain invisible to so many and I hope that soon people will ask the questions about who may have said similar things to themselves in the past. There is so much more I could say, and perhaps I will at some later date, but I don’t want to go farther and take away from my genuine satisfaction in seeing this growing willingness to change and adapt. And, I am grateful to have been part of the earlier pioneers of the renewal of Jewish life in North America.
Finally and for fun, I attach a column I wrote in 1976 for Vancouver’s Jewish Western Bulletin following the visit of Reb Shlomo Carelbach. We brought him to Victoria, where I was serving as rabbi, and then he went on to Vancouver. The style seems quaint to me now, but the substance is still relevant.
I was told that Reb Nachman said to take every opportunity to open a new year with blessing and hope. So I wish all of us a happy and good new year, one which brings us closer to a proper sharing of wealth and healing for our planet.
We know the drill when a potential convert comes to the rabbi, or at least we think we do. The rabbi is supposed to say something like, “Why do you want to become a Jew? It’s hard to be a Jew. We have 613 commandments to observe. Moreover, we are a persecuted and isolated people.” This is supposed to give the potential convert an opportunity to either back out or say something like, “I know this and even though I am not worthy, I still want to become a Jew.” At which point we are supposed to welcome the person with open arms and then, depending on which school of thought is closest to our own, we require the person to engage in a period of study.
As I listened to the recording of the sessions I convened in response to Reb Zalman, I heard Reb Laura Duhan Kaplan read a different version of this moment from a secondary source, which she later provided for me.* When I searched for copies of this medieval document, I found that the relevant section came in two versions. The first one I found read closer to the familiar drill we already know, although with more detail than the Talmud uses to describe how terrible the situation is in which the Jewish people finds itself.
Another version, however, contains the words which Reb Laura cited, which shift the emphasis from one of joining the Jewish people as its primary focus to becoming God’s servant.
As I write in the document still in progress, I learned to understand the giyur process as a tension between these two fundamental understandings of what it means to be a Jew. One is that we are a special people, made so by the intensity of the faith of our patriarchs and matriarchs culminating in God’s choosing us at Sinai and our acceptance of the status of being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The other is that we are a people committed to a way of walking with God and the essence of becoming a Jew is to affirm that belief and commitment.
Thus, while we think we know what is supposed to happen, in fact there are at least two sets of different understandings of how we receive a potential convert. What is even more interesting is that both of these approaches are represented by different versions of the very same text!
I have attached both versions in pdf form for you to see.
Next, I want to return to the question of whether two sets of options exhausts the possibilities.
Blessings to all of you for a good secular new year. May this be the year that we finally realize how much we all need to work together to redeem ourselves and the planet which is our shared home.
*Shaye J.D. Cohen The Beginnings of Jewishness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 199. It is an excerpt from the “post-talmudic tractate Gerim…first attested explicitly around 1300.”
“Why do I pray?”
By this I mean, why do I find liturgical prayer meaningful? Why not just meditate, focus on my breath, and empty my mind?. If liturgical prayer seems founded on the notion that there is me and there is God, that somehow God is waiting for me to let him know what I need and that once I’ve expressed that need, She will hear and grant my requests, then how can I take that seriously, knowing what I do about the nature of the universe, about the seemingly limitless cruelty possible, about all the suffering that seems to go unheeded? Further, if all is One, then there really is no “out there” and to whom are my prayers actually addressed and in what direction do they go?
Once I thought to write about this in the form of a theological essay. But I am neither a theologian nor a systematic, academic thinker. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager has said and which is true for me as well, I don’t really “believe” in God; I experience God. And so my reflections on prayer arise from experiences, some cosmic and life changing; most the little insights and bits of meaning that come to me in prayer.
Jewish liturgical prayer appears to be based on two fundamental principles. The first is that there is a “me” who is addressing a transcendent God who literally is sitting somewhere above the firmament which supports the sky and looking down at all of creation.* The second is that, while the one praying may sometimes be represented as either male or female (especially since, in Hebrew, the first person singular is gender neutral), the God to whom one is praying is always identified as male. If these assumptions are correct, and to a large degree they are, then how can someone living in the 21st century possibly find meaning in this form of prayer?
There is a tendency, perhaps there has always been this tendency, to assume that when I identify a problem on my own, that this is the first time the problem has been noticed. But what happens when I discover that I am far from the first to see these issues. What can I take from previous identifications of the same issue and to what extent do I need to adjust my own conclusions based on this knowledge? For example, critical students of Bible noticed that there are sharp differences in the way creation is described in the first two chapters of Genesis. This “discovery” led to challenges of the integrity of Torah as well as its accuracy. However, these differences were also noted by rabbinic scholars of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods as well. Committed as they were to the integrity of the Biblical text, they resolved these differences by positing Divine adjustments in the plan of creation itself as it unfolded. God noticed, as it were, that the plan to organize creation only through cause and effect, karma in the east and din in Hebrew, (often rendered as judgement in English), was fatally flawed once the human being was introduced and that therefore there was a need to inject a second major, and counterbalancing force called rachamim, mercy or compassion, without which humanity, with its inherent freedom of choice and therefore of error, could not survive. This solution maintains the integrity of the text even when we grant that the two sections come from different geographic areas and times, what I’ve seen scholars in the Conservative Movement call “R,” not the redactor as in critical circles but rather “Rabbenu,” our teacher, the one who moulded these disparate units into coherence.
And so it is with prayer as well. The Jewish mystical tradition knows full well that a commitment to the absolute unity of God challenges the notion that there is a me which is so separate from God that it is only through prayer that God can know what I need. In the opening chapter of the Tikkunei Zohar, we find the expression quoted frequently by all later mystics, including the Eastern European Hassidim, “there is no place free of God.” As the Zohar understands the process of creation, somehow the unstirring, never changing Ein Sof, the Infinite, experiences a desire. At that very moment the possibility of creation, of an other, comes into being and the creative process begins. How that happens is a mystery which could not be resolved, both then and now. That it happens is obvious, for we are the products of a long chain of creative moments.
*Illustrations of this appear too many times in the Bible to list here. One example to which I’m particularly drawn is this verse from one of the Selichot prayers recited in the week before Rosh HaShanah and the melody to which Belzer Hassidim sing it. I so want this image to be true.
For the words: Hakshivah Adon
For the melody: Hakshivah•Belz