Why is Judaism so…?
Many years ago during a Yom Kippur Torah reading, I encouraged people to ask any question they wanted about Judaism. One person asked, “Why is Judaism always so solemn?” I responded by saying that this perception came from the fact that he mostly went to shul on Yom Kippur, which is indeed a solemn day. One such day in the year. But if he would come to shul more regularly, he would see that 52 times in a solar year we spent a whole day focused on appreciation, and several more times a year the focus was on joy and freedom during the major (and minor) holidays.
I write this on the morning of the 18th of Tammuz, the day we are observing the beginning of the three weeks leading up to Tish’a b’Av, the fast of the 9th of Av. Today marks the day the outer walls of the first temple were breached, culminating in its destruction three weeks later. These are the 21 days in which we remember the terrible things that have happened to us and that we brought upon ourselves, not only when we went to war against the Babylonians back in the 6th century B.C.E., but also later when we rebelled against the Romans, when so many were martyred during the crusades, and when we were exiled from Spain. When I was a camper at Camp Ramah during high school and before Yom ha’Sho’ah was established, Tish’a b’Av was also when we remembered the destruction of the European Jewish communities.
But less than a week after the only other 24 hour fast on our calendar comes the 15th of Av, when unmarried men and women met in the fields and vineyards to seek out life partners. Only six days after we finish remembering the horror and the paradigm shift forced on us by the loss of both temples, we are dancing and celebrating love and optimism.
For three weeks we allow ourselves to dwell on the pain we have endured for bearing witness to our understanding of a God-centred world and then we get back to our calling.
שֶׁכֵּן חוֹבַת כָּל־הַיְצוּרִים לְפָנֶיךָ י־ה־ו־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ,
לְהוֹדוֹת לְהַלֵּל לְשַׁבֵּחַ, לְפָאֵר לְרוֹמֵם לְהַדֵּר, לְבָרֵךְ לְעַלֵּה וּלְקַלֵּס
עַל כָּל־דִּבְרֵי שִׁירוֹת וְתִשְׁבְּחוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן־יִשַׁי עַבְדְּךָ מְשִׁיחֶךָ.
For this is the [true] duty of all creatures before You, Yah our God and the God of our fathers and mothers, to acknowledge, to praise, to exalt, to make beautiful, to lift up and adorn, to bless and give more praise going beyond all the words of song and praise uttered by David, Yishai’s son, your servant and anointed one.
Our real duty is not to be sad about how hard it is to be a Jew, not to dwell on the tragedies and mistakes of the past and even the present, but to realistically face them, mourn over them when appropriate, and then pick ourselves up and get back to singing, composing, appreciating this amazing world we have been given to care for, and living in such a way that we connect our aspirations to our actions.
I’ve just finished a weekend of teaching about Integral Halachach at Or Shalom and Limmud Vancouver. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how much better I would have done if only I had…
So rather than indulge in wishing I could do it over knowing now what I didn’t know then, I thought I would share some of those thoughts as a way of continuing the discussion beyond the time limits imposed by the events.
I had assumed that people would share the feeling that many of you have or have had, namely that Halachah as we have learned it is oppressive and overly focused on answers which establish correctness of practice. My approach was to show how the halachic process was always relevant to people’s lives, that it goes beyond the codes to a literature which is responsive to individual situations, and that it is founded on transcending ethical principles and recognition of human frailties. All this in order to keep us on the path we began to walk at Sinai and which will reach its destination sometime in the future with a redeemed world and united humanity.
While people were genuinely receptive, curious, and politely challenging (this is Canada, after all), many of them consistently turned to a somewhat different perspective. Given, they said, that people are not engaged in or even familiar with halachic conversation, how were we to reach out to them? And, of course, for many of these people, the ones to whom they wanted outreach were their own children.
My response was mostly that the forms of outreach were no longer something that I knew much about. That had been my focus, our focus, decades ago when we founded the institutions which are now the components of Jewish Renewal. Outreach is something I now leave to another generation to discover and what I could do is invite people to join the process of halachic conversation in an effort to explore the new questions of our time using both the tools we inherited as well as that of Integral Halachah. And I touched, but only touched, on some of those questions.
On reflection, though, I think that this could have been more of a focus. As R. Ethan Tucker pointed out in his lecture series on Halachah, the withdrawal of the Orthodox establishment in Germany from the rest of the community in the late 19th century also meant the retraction of the halachic process from the questions and issues facing all those who were not already committed to this Orthodox approach to Jewish practice. But if we are truly concerned about whether Generation X and millennials will engage the issues of their lives using the tools of our tradition, then our spiritual and religious conversations need to be willing to engage those issues.
I dropped one potential bombshell when I said that getting on an airplane is approaching being immoral. I said this to a room full of people who fly often, many of whom are my personal and old friends. And I still fly myself. But what is our responsibility to the planet, to our children and grandchildren? To what extent is flying an indulgence and a dangerous one at that? I have a friend on Hornby Island who will not fly on principle. Is that a moral stance which we should emulate?
This is one of the dozens of real ethical questions relating to climate change which should be on the schedule of our adult education programs, our Torah discussions, and our personal practice. God is in the details, I like to say, and what would happen if we who are now the elders engaged those details in an effort to have them reveal the presence of God in the world? How would it change the elders and what impact might that have on our children and grandchildren?
Affirming the Halachic Process is certainly one of the more difficult things for many of us in ALEPH. Like so many others, we are weighed down by the insistence of our more Orthodox colleagues that Halachah is self verifying and contained due to its Divine origin in the nighttime teachings that the Holy Blessed One imparted to Moshe Rabbeinu after each day’s writing of the written Torah. Each succeeding generation is farther from the origin moment and thus more prone to confusion and increasingly dependent on the rulings of those who have gone before us. Thus, the Halachah of the moment is uncovered by a careful analysis of the texts from the past and each new situation must be comparable to some concept or precedent from that past.
While totally aware of this phenomenon, Reb Zalman z”l was still committed to the halachic process by which we link the needs of the moment to the precedents of the past. He also believed that this was possible only by instituting a new principle which would allow the past to continue to speak to us while also providing a greater degree of freedom in determining our responses to the questions of our time. Thus, what he originally called Psycho-Halachah and which we renamed Integral Halachah was born, a new principle which both included and transcended the past and which acknowledged the paradigm shift in which we are living.
Three years ago, the OHALAH program committee inaugurated an annual Halachah Panel at the conference. Starting with the second of these panels, we began to ask rabbis who had been students in our program to present the t’shuvot which were their final projects in the area of Rabbinic Texts. Each year, now entering the third, we have edited and presented three of these t’shuvot as we also begin to gather them for more public distribution.
And, in the first three years, I gave a short introduction to the panel on the basics of Integral Halachah and why I agreed with Reb Zalman that this was a process to which at least some of us should contribute. I have now edited those three introductions into a single document, my personal introduction to this process, and offer it to you all.
Some of you may remember that Reb Zalman wrote in his introduction to the book Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including, that his thoughts on this subject were a beginning and not a final product. Thus, my small contribution can be seen as complementary to what the two of us printed in the book and the student t’shuvot also complement and add detail to the broad strokes of the earlier work.
Blessings to all for a light-filled Hanukkah and with prayers for meaningful decisions from the current climate change meetings in Paris.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Dayan
Founding Director: Integral Halachah Institute
“We all live in a watershed…”
I hadn’t been planning on writing something specifically for Rosh haShanah this year until I read this in the summer edition of Watershed Sentinel:
We decided to change up the masthead on the cover and since more and more of our stories are about the junction between environment and social justice, we figured it made sense to emphasize the Sentinel in Watershed Sentinel. We all live in a watershed……(Delores Broten, ed.).
For the past several decades, we have redefined the expression Tikkun Olam, adopting part of an earlier redefinition emerging from the Lurianic notion of sh’virat ha-kelim / the breaking of the vessels. The tikkun / repair refers to the releasing of the divine sparks hidden within the broken vessels. We then merged that with the growing political and social activism of Jews so that the vehicle for this repair shifted from prayer and the precise observance of ritual mitzvot to social and political action.
At the same time, the disconnection from the spirituality which had always permeated Jewish life (witness R. Mordechai Kaplan’s idea that Judaism is a “religious civilization”) allowed for the abbreviating of this concept as the now familiar Tikkun Olam, without the accompanying b-malchut Shaddai / through [recognition of] divine sovereignty.
Simply put, repairing our world and renewing her involves repairing and renewing our connection to the divine, the unifier and connector, that which helps us to experience our interconnectedness in a visceral way.
Thinking about climate change from this perspective, we have much to contribute. Yet we are also far behind many of our religious and spiritual partners. I’m puzzled that there seems to be so little discussion of climate change on our OHALAH list, in our deliberations about how to locate events and what their frequency should be, about how we model new ways of living that are at least as enjoyable and meaningful as the ones we are trying to sustain even as that effort is the most likely to severely undermine those very lives. Why is it there are only a handful of us who must seem almost obsessive in our focus on climate change?
At the beginning of this new year and the first year of the new sabbatical cycle, I encourage us all to carefully (that is, with care) examine the lives we take for granted, to learn to ask ourselves what actions can we take to reduce our carbon footprints, encourage the restoration of our forests, protect existing agricultural land, guard our oceans and fisheries, and end destructive and wasteful warfare while at the same time promoting social justice and human rights.
I write these words at the end of what was in British Columbia a hot and sunny summer, a summer which was also the driest on record, with the most wildfires, and rising river temperatures interfering with the migration of the salmon on which our First Nations and we newcomers both depend. And we had it easy compared to Oregon and Washington!
My prayer for us all is that, when the next sabbatical year arrives, we will still be on this Earth which God has entrusted us to guard and nurture, that we will have honoured the Sabbatical which has just ended by carrying its messages and sanctity forward.
1. I strongly recommend R. David Seidenberg’s new book, Kabbalah and Ecology. I know it’s pricey, but it’s worth every penny!
2. Please, please, download and read Pope Francis’ encyclical, LAUDATO SI’. I have been highlighting section after section and I call your attention especially to his references to Sabbath, Sabbatical, and Jubilee on page 53.
3. Look at the document that Esther Azar and I prepared and which you can find linked to my previous blog. All three major teachings, those of the Netivot Shalom, the Ohr haChayim, and the May haShilo’ach are rich.
4. I read three amazing local publications which you can access and which will give you an understanding of how climate change looks in a part of the developed world which provides resources to many places.
Look at the Amud haT’fillah 110 in the Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, and how the first stage of davvenen is to become connected to all that is. You can find it here or in Menachem Kallus’ book, Pillar of Prayer, pp. 113-118. When I first began to meditate, one exercise was to sit on my bed in my room, step outside myself, and see me meditating on my bed in my room in my house in my city in my state/province, in my country, and so on. Perhaps we could use P’sukey d’Zimra more consciously to help people experience this interconnectedness within the One as the Besht suggested.
The shmita year of 5775 is drawing to a close. As with the weekly Shabbat, there is a natural tendency to view the sabbatical year as a conclusion. After all, they both are the “seventh” and what follows is the first. Shabbat is the culmination of the week, the goal toward which we work for the six preceding days. So also is the sabbatical the goal, the year off we earn for the six previous years of work.
However, both in academia and among congregational clergy, the sabbatical year serves another, concurrent purpose. A good sabbatical includes a plan of study and practice which opens up new possibilities and awakens creativity. In other words, a sabbatical (or a day of Shabbat) offers both a well-earned break and the gathering of energy for the next round of work. This second purpose, then, requires contemplating the deeper meaning of the cycles in which we live and absorbing that awareness into the way in which we approach the next work cycle.
In this spirit, Esther Azar and I have explored two Hassidic teachings on shmita, both of which speak of the inner meaning of Shabbat for the individual consciousness and for life of the planet itself. In particular, the Netivot Shalom rests his observations on a surprising commentary of the Ohr haChayim, in which he sees the weekly Shabbat as the necessary ingredient for ensouling the next six days.
We offer these teachings to you, along with some observations from the two of us and from Rabbi David Seidenberg, in the hope that they will help you carry the consciousness of shmita into the next six years. More, we hope that by more fully absorbing the essence of these teachings, that you will find ways to model a more conscious approach to consumption, to reducing your own carbon footprints, to demonstrating lifestyles that rely on relationships rather than on accumulating stuff, and to inspiring others to do the same.
This in the hope that we will arrive at the next sabbatical year on a planet which is healing and a human race that is learning to live well and sustainably at the same time.
With blessings on Erev Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh Elul
Daniel and Esther
I don’t usually write holiday messages. There are so many others who do a much better job than I can, but something happened to make this Pesach different.
This morning, (Monday, 30 March), as I was driving to catch the ferry which is the beginning of every trip (this time I was leaving for Portland where we will have a family seder), I caught a glimpse of a rainbow. Reminding me of the one after the flood and the promise associated with it, I thought of renewal after loss and of new beginnings and possibilities.
Experiencing this brief moment (the road turned and the rainbow disappeared) was an unintended benefit of the decision I had made to postpone leaving for a day in order to attend a talk given by Alexandra Morton, a biologist living in a remote community on the British Columbia coast and who has given the past two decades and more of her life to documenting the effects that salmon farms have on migrating wild salmon, in whose paths most of these farms (a number continuing to grow) are placed. I live on the Pacific coast, on an island which is on the route of significant salmon runs, and wild salmon are a staple of our diets and crucial to our livelihoods.
So my Pesach message is simple. There is clearly a momentum finally building to really do something about climate change. While it is too late to prevent it, it is never too late to make the decisions needed to mitigate its effects and ultimately to reverse it. I am therefore passing on to you what Alexandra asked from us, what I have committed to myself, and how I hope you will help us and yourselves. There is a major conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this calendar year and I’m asking you to help build that momentum.
These salmon farms are mostly owned by Norwegian companies (although I’m told that Mitsubishi has also recently bought into these farms). Alexandra started a petition to the Norwegians asking them to divest from dirty salmon. Please use this time of new beginnings to sign this petition and help her get the 10,000 signatures she believes it will take for the Norwegians to take notice (because, as she said to us, they are a good and socially conscious people).
Second, explore her website and take the pledge not to eat any more farmed salmon, no matter which coast they come from. On the west coast, they spread sea lice and other diseases to the young migrating salmon and on the east coast what kills sea lice also kills lobster on which many people depend for their livelihood. Not only is farmed salmon harmful to the environment, it is also unsustainable in the same way that any feed lot is.
In January, I had the privilege of speaking to our ordination students in the time slot that Reb Zalman had. One thing I said to them is that we, klei kodesh and spiritually conscious people, must model the lives we advocate. This can involve taking some risks and experiencing negative responses. But that is not a reason to withdraw. If we are truly aware of climate change and the rapaciousness of our extraction focused industries, from pipelines to dirty oil to fracking to salmon farming, then we are obligated to begin changing our personal and public lives and showing others the way.
So one more thing: please share this information with those who pay attention to you. Let this Pesach mark a moment of a new beginning and expansion of our commitment to this world and to succeeding generations by truly shaking free of the consumption habits that enslave us and limit our futures.
Petition Website: http://www.change.org/p/to-the-citizens-of-norway-divest-from-dirty-salmon
Alexandra Morton’s Site: http://www.alexandramorton.ca
PS: If you want, let me know that you’ve responded by posting a comment and I’ll increase my next donation to her by $10 for each response.
Giyur Documents for Children
Just before OHALAH, it was noticed that Reb Zalman’s templates included a giyur document for a girl in Hebrew with no English parallel and no documents for a boy. I looked through my files and now share with you the following:
1. Two documents, one each for a boy and a girl. These are Reb Zalman’s which he shared with me many years ago and which I have modified somewhat. These are the versions I have been using.
2. His other template for a girl, the one which has been in the collection for many years, and to which I have now added an English version.
3. There is a generic one for children which I found, also only in Hebrew and which I’ve now translated. Reb Zalman sent it to me in April of 2014 in response to something on the OHALAH list which I don’t remember. This seems to be for a non-Jewish biological mother bringing more than one child at the same time. My sense is that this document will rarely be useful, but I thought it best to include every option I had.
It’s important to remember that Reb Zalman often had more than one template for the same purpose and he may have shared different versions with different people For example, his description of the beit din adds the word “k-chadah” in two of the documents which he didn’t use in the ones I adapted. It’s also the case that his templates may not have taken into account the many variations and adjustments that I and others have realized needed to be made. Therefore, please see these as templates which can be used as is or modified further.
I am giving these to you in two formats:
1. As .rtfs (in a zip file) which you can reformat as you like if you have NisusWriter or another word processor that will read it.
2. In a .pdf form, with fields into which you can enter the specific information either electronically or by hand. The embedded font is Adobe Hebrew Bold and is about the same size as the New Peninim, but should stand out. On a Mac, you’ll need to set the input language for Hebrew and I imagine the same would be true for Windows. The space for signatures can also be filled using a digital signature or by hand. All the documents are inside a portfolio, so you will need to download the linked file below and then open it to access the individual forms.
Notes on the forms themselves:
1. I added a fourth person to the documents for girls to allow the woman who helps the mother and daughter in the mikveh to sign if no member of the beit din is fulfilling that function.
2. I left Reb Zalman’s template intact for a girl where he offered only “daughter of Abraham and Sarah.” While I cannot be sure he still felt this way at the end of his life, he did feel that even a child had to be called this at the time he composed this document (whenever that was). In the others, I offer the option of using both the adoptive parents names and that of Abraham and Sarah.
3. As much as I could, I set up multiple possible combinations of parents who bring a child for immersion. My documents still assume two parents, but they can be a mother and father, two mothers, or two fathers. And, if you are using the rtf format, you can easily modify those verbs that are in the plural and make them singular. The options are visible in the rtf versions and you can consult them when filling in the pdf. I also tested the pdf forms in Acrobat Reader and if you put your cursor inside the field to be filled in there will be a little description of the contents that will show. One thing I noticed is that the forms do not allow you to save them with the added data but rather requires you to print them and then scan in order to have a saved electronic copy. If anyone reading this knows how to change this so that you all can simply save the competed forms, please do let me know.
4. The one called Giyur Girl•Zalman is the one which has been on the template list. This is one he did on his own and I’ve reproduced it the way he wrote it. It is for a Jewish woman who has adopted a girl who is still a child.
5. For the day of the month in Hebrew:
a. On Rosh Chodesh you write – באחד לחדש
b. For 2-10 you write – בשני ימים
c. For the rest – באחד עשר יום
I hope, in the not too distant future, to repeat this same process with the documents for adults and also add in the option for a single parent bringing a child. In the meantime, I ask you to let me know if you find mistakes in language or formatting. Also, please feel free to share your own documents with me. While I can’t promise to put all of them in a manual for klei kodesh, I do want to add more possibilities as we go forward.
Giyur for Children (PDF Portfolio)
Giyur for Children (RTF Files in Zip Archive)
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