Posts Tagged ‘ There’s a God in My Soup ’

Chinning the Bar

2002.04.15
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One of the reasons why I love my wife so much is that our conversations range from the silly to the serious.

On the silly end are our discussions about the secret lives of animals: their tea-parties, nutritional choices, and the songs they sing to their children. But these are mysteries which cannot be discussed here.

At the other side of the spectrum are the serious conversations about life, perception, Judaism, socialization, etc. Many of these latter talks will no doubt leak onto this website, since they provide me with an endless pool of inspiration for my future rabbinate. Thus:

Last night, we attended a concert in Marin County featuring our favorite female a capella group. Their performance was preceded by a talk by a woman who has made it her life’s work to translate Biblical and liturgical works into more lively and gender-inclusive forms.

I thoroughly enjoy her translations, and support her thesis that tradition holds a place for creativity, but took mild exception to her statement that the ancient liturgy doesn’t speak to modern Jews. As modern Jews who love ancient liturgy, my wife and I couldn’t help discussing this on the way back to Sonoma.

What we came up with was this: Almost by definition, there will always be a tension between a religious tradition and the individual practitioner thereof. Essentially, in many ways, the tradition will both challenge and validate the individual practitioner.

There seems to be a tendency among modern spiritual types to reject challenge in favor of validation — whether because of bad childhood religious experiences, or perceived “patriarchal” theologies, or self-centeredness, or something else.

Challenge is what makes us grow as individuals — forcing us to live outside our heads and predilections. Validation is what tells us that we’re doing okay. In (what I define as) a “true” spiritual path, one cannot exist without the other — unalloyed challenge is restrictive, while unalloyed validation can foster delusions.

I personally love the challenge of ancient liturgy as much as I love the challenge (read: the “ugly and difficult parts”) of Torah — because life is often ugly and difficult, too. The challenge for me in seeing “kedusha Torah” (sanctity of Torah) is the same as seeing “kedusha chayyim” (the sanctity of life). As a good and holy friend of mine says whenever anything awful happens to him, “It’s all part of the training.” (Which once prompted another friend of mine to reply, “I don’t know what kind of ungodly catastrophe Mark’s in training for, but I’m going to his house when it happens.”) But not everybody wants or welcomes a challenge — many prefer to ignore the ugly parts and focus on the “good.” But that’s bubbe meise (nonsense) — if we don’t recognize the ugly, how can we transform it to the beautiful? And isn’t that what partnering with Hashem really entails?

Of course, I realize that I am generalizing somewhat, even though I’m basing the above on direct observation. But I think that one challenge in building a 21st Century rabbinate is going to be the ability to validate while challenging — to use Reb Shakespeare’s words, “Trick into learning, with a laugh.”

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Fringey Blue

2001.11.14
By

from a pre-Blogger blog

Tzitzit under blue jeans feel like nothing, and yet feel like everything.

They feel like nothing because the four-cornered cotton garment to which they’re attached is extremely light. I forwent the type which snap or stitch under the arm, since a) I didn’t think it necessary and b) we’re having a slack financial tide right now (meaning that the basic style is less expensive). The tzitzit, intricate knots which remind us of mitzvot (sacred obligations) like strings wrapped around our souls’ fingers, look a little like yellow spaghetti. The serape-like garment to which they’re attached fits nicely under my shirt, although tucking it into my pants is a bit tricky — I prefer wearing them under an untucked shirt, where they can dangle free.

But this is where they “feel like everything.” I wear a kippa full-time, and have for nearly two years. But that’s not a mitzva, it’s a custom. It publicly identifies me as a Jew, and forces me to be on my best behavior when I’m around other people. It’s also something of a conversation piece: I’ve explained kashrut to a curious Egyptian man at a morning coffeeshop, compared the Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the first verse of Genesis with the proprietor of a local 7-Eleven, and been greeted by more Jews than I can remember right now.

Tzitzit, however, are different — they’re a mitzva, something we’re supposed to do according to Torah. However, in my life, they’re something strictly between me and G-d — a quiet reminder, not an advertisement of piety. (Sadly, in the circles in which I travel, I think they’d be perceived as an advertisement of a different sort.) I’ve only been wearing them for five days now, and already I “feel more like a Jew.” That’s pretty weird to see myself writing that, since I tend to see “Jew” as something you are and do, not something you feel. But I guess that’s part of the mystery of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do and we will hear,” or — loosely translated a la Ivan Stang — “Laugh. See?” It’s what our ancestors replied when Moshe Rabbeinu said that G-d had some instructions for them [Exodus 24:7].) There are things we do which define us to ourselves. For me, “being a Jew” and not wearing tzitzit, or laying tefillin, or praying every day, or studying Torah, or seeking to be my best and see the best in others, feels to me like “being an American” but not voting. Grasping the shell of the thing but not savoring its essence. Tzitzit are definitely of the essence. (At least, for me. Others, G-d willing, will have a different view of the notional constraints within which to conduct oneself Jewishly.)

We’re either “on the bus or off the bus,” as the now-late Ken Kesey once said. Given that, the question isn’t “How many people can we take with us?” but rather “What will we share with each other along the way?”

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Why We Teach

2001.04.24
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from a pre-Blogger blog

Conversation with a 12-year-old bat mitzva candidate, who I’m tutoring by probing the meaning of the prayers:

Okay, read me the first part of the Sh’ma in English.

“Hear O Israel, the Eternal is G-d, the Eternal is One.”

Okay… what’s that mean?

“Well, G-d is one.”

What else?

“Well, that monotheism is something Jews believe in.”

Okay. But what does it mean to you?

“I think it means that, in a way, that we’re all Abraham, since Abraham was the first Jew, and the first person to know that G-d is One or that there’s one G-d. So, every time we say the Sh’ma, it’s like we’re saying that for the first time, and understanding that we’re Abraham.”

…..! Well…. ah…. what responsibilities does that give us, if we’re all Abraham?

“It means that we all have to treat each other honorably, and with love. But since we’re none of us perfect, and can only do the best we can, that’s what we have to do — the best we can.”

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Rockin’ at the Beit Tefilah

2001.04.03
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from a pre-Blogger blog

What happens when you turn back the clock 2,000 years to add creativity to Jewish worship? Erev at the Improv, that’s what — an experiment in structured liturgical spontaneity which, happily, was enthusiastically embraced by the 30 or so people attending this evening’s service. (SIx or seven of them also embraced me afterward, in fact.) I’m absolutely blown away by this, still, at this writing.
Simplistic background: Around the beginning of rabbinical Judaism, we didn’t have standardized siddurim (prayer books) containing a bunch of standardized prayers. What we had, rather, was a standardized structure on which, jazzlike, prayer leaders would improvise a service — e.g., a Friday evening service in Alexandria, say, and one in Rome or Jerusalem would all have two blessings before the Sh’ma prayer — one for creation of the world, the other for the revelation of Torah — but the specific wording of the blessings might be different. Over many years, though, and partially motivated by political conflicts between rival Jewish communities, favorite prayers — “The Top 40,” if you will — were collected and edited into the modern siddurim we use today.

So… armed with this knowledge, acquired from a recent Ritual Committee meeting; inspired by a congregational call for more creative communal worship, and enthusiastically encouraged by our very cool Rabbi, I assembled and wrote a six-page service using structured improvisation* — just like the Good Old Days.

The evening had one rule: Nobody could say anything unless they phrased as a blessing: a sentence beginning with “Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are You, O G-d), Who…”

And the results were wonderful. It took about five minutes for everyone to catch on to the basic idea, but once that happened, yeehaw! People were really getting into it — Jewishly speaking from the gut about what they found most important in life. “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has let me feel my granddaughter’s hand in mine.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given us new things to find every time we study Torah.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given me a community to support me in my time of need.” And so on into the evening — a steady flow of “Baruch atah Adonai,” punctuated by reflective silence.

Three post-service comments stood out: “I didn’t know any of this was supposed to mean anything.” “What I liked was that it was creative, but completely Jewish.” “Can we do this again?”

And so we shall — on May 11. Wheee.

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