Talking Truth – Second Sight

magic wand“We need to talk,” she said.

Oy, I thought. It’s that tone.

“About what?” I asked warily.

“About that stick you have in your hand.”

“What stick?”

“That thing you keep twirling about.”

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, “I’m just practicing. Once I can twirl this real good, I’ll try juggling. Five balls in the air! Could be part of the show, right?”

“Someone is going to get hurt if you let it fly.”

“What are we really talking about?” I asked. But I put the stick down. “It’s not this, is it?”

“You want an honest answer?”

“You are a stickler for the truth…”

She smiled. “Very cute. Your ego,” she added softly. “We are talking about your Self.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Have you thought about the real shtick – the one that is made of all the stuff in your head? It will all come tumbling out of your mouth if you go on like this. It won’t be good.”

“What do you think I should do? Give up the job?”

“You are not seeing clearly,” she said firmly. “Your ego is leading you on.”

(Heads up: An annoying revelation is coming at you with the word “truth” written on it. In 22 font. Bodoni, no less.)

I didn’t like the ick in my stomach. I resisted.

“Where is God in all this?” she asked quietly.

“You’re mocking me, right?” I parried. “God,” I added dryly, “has apparently not made up the divine mind. Sometimes I get absolutely nothing. Sometimes I get a warning. Sometimes it seems YHVH is just fine no matter what I do.” I paused. “At least the officiating fee is fantastic. Makes for a nice change.”

“How do you feel about it?”

I could tell I didn’t like the question.

“Okay, I shouldn’t have taken this gig in the first place,” I admitted. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Yup,” she said. “I thought so.”

We both went quiet.

I like when the job is a fit. The visioning is invariably incredible, powerful beyond words. I love that flow going right through my fingertips into the sacred, sweet earth. I rejoice when the right words come in exactly the right moment. I don’t know what they will be before they arrive. But I always know when heavenly magic is happening: The blessing, the truth comes from beyond me, from above me. It is goodness and sweetness and eternity all rolled into one.

It’s a gift, and it always, always makes me grateful.

But I’m human. I’m susceptible, like anyone else. After all, even spiritual work needs to be paid for. It’s not like it didn’t take years to learn the craft. Sure, the negotiating, the interaction can take me into a different place.

It’s probably a sign when I get impatient to go, when my body gets me up too early in the morning. That usually means I just want to get the job done and get back home.

I’m off the divine grid. I teeter on the edge of the path, crowded and hemmed in.

“Look,” she said, “I’ve known you for so long.”

I put my head in my arms.

“You can press the reset button,” she said gently. “You can make your intentions holy. You can do it. Just let go and ask. Everything will turn out all right.”

It was a nice idea. Maybe, if I could slow down, I’d hear better. See better.

“I stand on your shoulders,” I said. “I’ve been doing that for years, now.”

“No,” she laughed. “You ride on them. Now, let’s go.”

“That would be good,” I said.  donkey

“And how,” she said.

It was finally my turn to smile. “Ma tovu…”

This post is in honor of Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, who knows how to talk to all sorts of magical beings.

On Choosing Kindness – In Memory of Evelyn Thiede

Evelyn Thiede

Evelyn Thiede

Five years ago today I was attending the last retreat of my rabbinic studies. It was a Thursday. Classes ended the next day. My chevre and I would celebrate Shabbat together, and everyone would go home, rich with new knowledge.

That Thursday was also the day when two of my then congregants were to have their beit dins; they had, with their spouses, traveled to the retreat site.

Beloved rabbis were to sit on the beit dins – Rabbi Victor Gross, Rabbi Nadya Gross, Rabbi Shaya Isenberg. With such rabbis, I could be certain that the two candidates would experience the best kind of beit din – one that would be reflective, considerate of heart and soul and mind. I could be sure that they would feel safe, welcomed into Klal Israel.

And so it went.

My husband, Ralf, and our son, Erik, also arrived that day. They were serving as witnesses for the congregants. We had also planned to drive to the Virginia mountains after the retreat for a short family vacation.

But it did not go like that.

During the afternoon, Ralf was oddly distant. Though my husband is a quiet man, he enjoys an opportunity to share in communal joy. But even at our celebratory dinner, when we laughed and joked about the delightful moments and the unexpected ones of the day, Ralf was withdrawn. Erik, too, seemed unusually reserved.

Very late that night, when the dinner was over, Ralf and Erik drove me back to the retreat center. Ralf parked, and turned the key.

“I think Evelyn is dying,” he said, turning to me.

Shocked, I held him as he cried.

My mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede had gone into the hospital that day for a procedure we all assumed to be essentially safe. A cyst had formed near her heart which needed to be lanced. But the operation went wrong. The surgeon cut into her heart. They tried to sew it together, without success. She was being kept alive by machines.

“Honey,” I asked, “why didn’t you tell me before?”

He explained. Hours earlier, when his brother had called, he had thought over what I was doing that day. I was sitting in on the beit dins. I would need to be fully present for my congregants. They would want my attention and my joy. Knowing earlier would not change any outcomes; Ralf and Erik would tell me as soon as they could, and that would be after the celebratory dinner.

I loved my mother-in-law; it felt to me that she was meant, like Ralf, to be part of my life. She was, in a way, a kind of Naomi for me.

Evelyn was a straightforward, kind, forgiving person. She liked to knit and cook and go on small excursions. She sang with a voice like a girl’s even in her sixties and seventies. My name always sounded beautiful when she said it. She thought of others first.

Five years later, Ralf’s decision still strikes me as profoundly, deeply generous.

He wanted to protect my congregants’ day and their joy. He knew he could do that. He was also right about me: The fear I knew in Evelyn’s last hours, the grief and the horror of it – all of that would have been impossible to box away during those beit dins or the celebration thereafter. I would not have been the rabbi my congregants needed.

I have had occasion, these past years, to think about what rabbis think they must be and must do for their congregants. Or rather, I have learned about what congregants think their rabbis must be and must do for them.

For some, the rabbi must remember every challenge each congregant is facing. They must respond immediately to every request. Rabbis must take the high road while congregants allow themselves to indulge in behaviors that would get them fired from their workplaces and “unfriended” by their social network on Facebook.

Judging the rabbi can become a congregational competition. Winning the prize for the harshest judgment and imposing the cruelest sentence appears, for some, to be a sought-after accomplishment. There are those who take pride in winning such a prize.

The appalling number of religious leaders suffering from depression, divorce, and addiction, the number of religious leaders who barely make it through a decade of service – these facts tell us about the price religious leaders of all faiths pay for entering the profession.

I do not regret not knowing sooner that Evelyn was dying. Ralf is his mother’s son, and Evelyn would have thoroughly approved of his choice. I know that with complete certainty.

I hope that the congregants who later discovered what had happened valued the generous decision Ralf made on their behalf.

Five years later, remembering the joy and the terrible sorrow of that day, I can only pray for this: That all congregants try to hold their religious leaders  dear – if only for their willingness to try and serve. I pray that they examine their own hearts and motives and remember to be constructive.  And kind.  Kind, above all.

May we act on behalf of others and for the sake of heaven, in this and every year to come.

Evelyn, I imagine, would love that.

From Fear to Resolve: Mourning Miriam in Parshat Chukkat

Ancient wellHow much time was given to mourning Miriam?

Not enough. There certainly was enough energy for resistance and rage, though. Miriam dies and the Israelites waste little time in attacking Moses and Aaron. Again. There’s no water, they complain. We are thirsty, they say.

Moses and Aaron must be anguishing over their loss. Miriam, who saved her little brother, who co-led Project Israel, a singer and dancer, a giver of life. Their own people offer no comfort. Quite the contrary. Instead, the Israelites, who have busily brought pitcher after pitcher of poison to force down Moses’ and Aaron’s throats, brew up more of the same.

“Why have you brought YHVH’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt…?” (Numbers 20: 4-5).

More complaints, more indictments. Two generations’ worth, now. You made us try to be free. You forced us to become a people with a spiritual purpose, with a divine promise to fulfill. You. You. You.

They exhaust me, those Israelites. Can’t they give it a rest? Are they really so dependent on Moses and Aaron, really so selfish that they can’t manage to take care of themselves – just this once? Or better yet, why not consider taking care of Moses and Aaron? Did they consider that?

Miriam, the tradition goes, brought water. Without her, Miriam’s well vanished. No wonder the people were frightened. No wonder they noticed their thirst with such force; without that well, they might die parched, burning from the inside out.

Why don’t they remember Miriam leading them in dance, invoke her joy and her hope, and go looking for sustenance in her name? They could have honored her and their own loss. They could have comforted Moses and Aaron, banded together to face their grief instead of indulging in fear.  Instead, they let fear rule. They used their fear like weapons.

Cruel. They cut and they wounded men who had been sliced open again and again.

Theodor Adorno wrote that you are only loved where you may show yourself to be weak without provoking strength. If that is the measure of love, then the Israelites did not know how to love at all.

I cannot blame Moses for striking out himself, for wounding the earth, for the exhaustion of his rage. When YHVH’s compassion is most necessary, it, too, fails. God pronounces judgment, and Aaron and Moses are to be denied the right to lead the Israelites into the promised land.

In Chukkat, we stand in a scorched wilderness composed of grief and rage and resistance.

Now, another task. Another grief. YHVH insists: Moses must walk his brother up Mount Hor. There, Moses himself must take the vestments from his elder brother’s body, transfer authority to Aaron’s son, watch as his brother dies. This time, the whole community mourns. For one month they grieve their High Priest.

Perhaps Moses found their grief cold comfort. The complaints will, after all, come again soon enough. One wonders why he does not abandon the project, walk up the mountain and lie down with his brother.

But he goes on and the people come to Beer. YHVH tells Moses to gather the people so that they may be given water. They assemble. Suddenly, they act – hopefully, joyfully. They sing the song they should have sung after Miriam died. “Spring up, O well,” they chant. “Sing to it” (Numbers 21:17). You might translate this verse: “Spring up, O well – sing to her!”

Is the well Miriam – her nefesh, her ruach, her life-giving force? Are the Israelites remembering Miriam’s song at the Sea of Reeds when she danced the first dance of freedom? Az yashir it reads in both places of our Torah scroll, “then [they] sang.”

But in Exodus 15:1 it is Moses and the children of Israel who sing (az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael). Here, in Numbers, only the Israelites are mentioned (az yashir Yisrael).

Moses, perhaps, observes, listens as they sing to the feminine, life-giving source of strength of the well, of its water, in honor or memory, perhaps, of Miriam, the prophetess.

Does this song offer Moses, who is now without brother or sister, a moment of healing? Does this song renew his spirit, make it possible for him to go on after all? In this moment, are the Israelites finally acting like a people – mature, considerate, able to be responsible for creating what they need?

If, at last, time was given to mourning and honoring Miriam, then it might have been enough. Grief could give way to hope; fear to resolve.

May it always be so.

White People, Take it In: On Racism and the Charleston Murders

Charleston murderedWe were checking out various apartments and homes for rent around our new town, Charlotte, North Carolina. My husband, Ralf, stopped to talk to different folks in in what appeared to be a diverse neighborhood.

I was sitting in the car looking at newspaper ads when Ralf got back into the driver’s seat.

“Find out anything?” I asked. For a moment, Ralf was silent.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I can’t believe the language I just heard,” he said. “I was just talking to that white man over there in that front yard. He told me we should think about whether we want to move in to this neighborhood.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and these were his words – the ‘niggers’ are taking over.”

It was 1990. Neither one of us could take it in.

Photo by James Keivom, originally published in the NY Daily News

That was a quarter century ago. And now? We are taking in Eric Gardner on the sidewalk, choking to death. We are taking in the vision of a 14-year-old African American girl pushed to the ground and kneed in the back by a white police officer. We are taking in Dylann Storm Roof’s murder of nine African Americans in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. During bible study, no less.

The list is, of course, endless. And we white people? We are, apparently, not sick enough.

There are so many pernicious ways for racism to run its course. Just cut out the facts of history, for example.

In 1999, I worked for the North Carolina State Department of Cultural Resources as the bicentennial coordinator for Reed Gold Mine. Reed Gold Mine is the location of the first documented discover of gold in America, and almost as soon as the family had sold enough nuggets, Reed began purchasing slaves to search for gold.

The white manager of the site called the place “John Reed’s farm.” John Reed’s enormous wealth was made on the backs of slave labor, but that went unmentioned in the tour shpiel which was delivered then, not unsurprisingly, mostly to white visitors.

Does this fact seem innocuous in comparison to the police brutality we have been witnessing in videos and pictures on YouTube? To a criminal justice system that routinely rounds up African Americans for, among other things, driving? To a mass murder of the faithful in a church sanctuary?

How about this (not small) fact: After WWII white people fled to the suburbs, often financed by banks who refused loans to African Americans. The result? Over decades, lower class white people were able to build home equity and inheritable wealth while African Americans were confined to decaying inner cities. One group got a hand up to the middle class; the other was prevented from moving at all.

These facts are among the millions of facts underpinning American racism. Racism is systemic, pervasive. It is not merely unacknowledged in this country, it is nourished by the white world’s inability to take it in.

Since 2000 I have seen more and more African American students in my classes at UNC Charlotte. They seem different from those I was teaching in the 1990’s. They are more self-assured, more confident. They seem, generally, to trust that I want to help.

Why should they?

Why should African Americans trust any white person who has a position of authority? Why should they trust any white person?

White people have enslaved black people, we have oppressed and persecuted black people, we have made it impossible for any black person to be born into true freedom.

A thousand, a million, an uncountable number of cuts. Banks, police, the criminal system – white America is sick with hatred and violence against African Americans. But not yet sick enough?

Why did those members of “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, invite in a lone white man into their community? Into their sacred space? Into their sanctuary?

“They were so trusting,” church historian Liz Alston said.

Now it is time: White people – all white people must consider what they must do to earn such trust.

Take it in.

Forgiving and Forgetting in Parshat Sh’lach L’cha

angry-crowdSix congregants were on the phone line to discuss Parshat Sh’lach L’cha. We pictured the awful scene: Moses and Aaron falling to their faces, Joshua and Caleb rending their clothes, a community threatening to stone their own leaders. Moses, asking God to forgive the cowardice and the craziness, and God relenting – partially.

There was much conversation about knowing how and when to forgive. When do those who oppose us function as dark angels with important messages? When are aggressive, angry people actually teaching us how to respond firmly and clearly to unhealthy rage and unwarranted destruction? When must we stand fast, insist on light and right?

One imagines what it took for Moses to stand again, to turn from the people prepared to stone him and his brother and to plead with his (and their) God. Pardon them. Pardon them, please, again. As you have since they left Egypt, as you have according to Your great kindness (Numbers 14:19).

No wonder, given the multitude of cascading transgressions we commit each year, that we quote this very plea after Kol Nidre. We must trust in God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I asked, “Do we need to discuss the Sabbath breaker?” Perhaps I imagined the collective breath; I certainly heard one familiar voice say firmly, “yes.”

There is no forgiveness this time.

The very community that indulged in collective cowardice now (perhaps?) does so again. They bring the Sabbath breaker before Moses and place him under guard, “for it was not clear what should be done to him” (Numbers 15:34).

YHVH issues judgment. The man is to be stoned to death. This time, the community does exactly as commanded.

One congregant points out that God Godself took the first Shabbat rest. Humans were created in God’s image, he says. They were asked only to be godly. Here, an Israelite flaunts everything, the whole project, the extraordinary gift of the Law given by God at Sinai. This one Israelite has spurned the first, fundamental act of God after creation is completed. God blessed that day, declared it holy. This is, the congregant points out, serious stuff.

But another notes that the Sabbath breaker could hardly have predicted the outcome of his transgression – after all, even the community does not know what to do with him at first. Why must YHVH be so severe?

A third asks: Why didn’t anyone speak up? We’ve seen Moses appeal to God’s ego to dissuade YHVH from destroying the entire people. In the face of this judgment against one man, Moses is silent. Aaron is silent. The people are silent. Why?

We acknowledge that the text comes from the Priestly school of writers. My congregants know by now that the Priestly school was all about institutionalizing the Sabbath, brit milah, Temple sacrifice and Temple ritual. Nevertheless, another congregant points out the obvious: Later redactors left this story in our Torah – and they sanctified it by doing so.

More discussion, and we are still unsure, at odds with ourselves. Can we accept the severity of this decree as a warning that the Sabbath was critical to our survival – that without its practice we, too, would die? Does the gift – and the observance – of the Sabbath ensure the life of our very souls?

Humans, so the saying goes, call out: “How long, oh Lord? How long?” And God answers back: “How long, humankind? How long?”

In his novel, The Buried Giant, writer Kazuo Ishiguro describes a post-Arthurian world suffering from forgetfulness. Characters struggle to remember what happened just hours earlier. Their past is barely present to them. Every memory they think they have is mere speculation.

At one point, an elderly couple discusses the possibility that it is God who is causing the mist that takes their memories. Perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done, one says. Or maybe God isn’t angry, but just ashamed. The other doesn’t understand: Why, then, doesn’t God merely punish humanity? Why make everyone forget?

“Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget,” the first answers. “…when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.”

Sometimes, our texts describe God ashamed. I was wrong to shrink the light of the moon, God says in one midrash and the Holy One even asks that a sacrifice be brought God’s own account, no less: “The Holy Blessed One said: bring an expiation for me because I diminished the moon… (Bereshit Rabba 6:1,4)

Sometimes, our texts describe God hiding from us: “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God / Your sins have made Him turn His face away / And refuse to hear you” (Isaiah 59:2). God turns away from our crimes– perhaps in order to forget they ever occurred? How else could God go on?

A community rejects its charge and then turns on its leaders, threatening to kill them for asking for their courage and their faith. God forgives, partially, but soon after commands that same community to kill one of its members. Does the wrong done warrant this judgment or has God, tested by the people’s own spinelessness and aggression, simply forgotten forgiveness? When God turns from humanity, does God begin to forget Godself?

When we forget what makes us divine, do we forget ourselves?

B’ha’alot’cha: Torah for Our Times

pillar of cloudRabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Be’ha’alot’cha is no mere story, but a story for our times. The Israelites are traveling away from Sinai, away from exaltation and revelation. They have been given a covenant and responsibility with it. They have been charged with obligations they do not fully understand, that they have yet to learn and to practice.

The Holy One goes with them, a fire in the night, a blaze wrapped in cloud by day.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Kuma Adonai v’yafutzu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha. “Arise, YHVH!” And he would pray: “May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You” (Numbers 10:35).

We chant this verse during Torah services, followed immediately by verses adding a critical postscript: Ki mitzion teitzei Torah: For the Torah came from Zion (Isaiah 2:3).

For many years I have read this text through the eyes of Rebecca Smith. During her bat mitzvah preparation, nearly a decade ago, we looked at this text together. Rebecca was  clear: She didn’t like it the text. It seemed like the description of an angry, vengeful, aggressive God.

Sometimes, your students help you form the questions you long wanted to ask yourself.

“What are God’s enemies?” I asked. “Who are God’s enemies?”

“Lies,” she told me.

Rebecca, at twelve, knew that whenever we lie to ourselves or to others we close off our hearts and souls to the divine. She named other enemies of God: Rage and aggression and the capacity to destroy.

“What’s in the Ark?” I asked.

“Truth,” she said.

And, in truth, the Ark held and holds Torah, the Torah that binds us and protects us. “When you are bound above,” the sages say, “you will not fall below.”

Of our Torah we say: Eitz Hayyim hi. She is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). All her ways are ways of peace, we sing. But to make peace, to create peace takes clarity about our intentions. Who is our Higher Authority, our Source of All? What is our purpose?

In this week’s parsha, Moses hears the complaining, the carping, the whining. He takes it all in. It is too much. He cannot carry the weight of dissatisfied, hungry, devouring people. And the Holy One tells him: Find those who can receive ruach, spirit, and who can radiate what they receive. Find those who understand the purpose of this journey, the charge of the Torah, the holiness of the task. When two men Moses did not choose themselves begin to prophecy a boy comes to tattletale and complain. But Moses knows that there are many sources of wisdom. “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets,” he says.

Towards the end of Be’ha’alot’cha , Miriam and Aaron go about the people complaining, gossiping. Moses, they say, married a Cushite woman! Note well: They do not go to speak to Moses, they spread their vitriol elsewhere, instead. A culture of complaint, triangulation, and gossip is poisonous. Lashon hara devours its practitioners, infects its witnesses, and scars its targets.

YHVH calls Miriam and Aaron forward. Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. She becomes a vision of death.

She is the first prophetess of Israel, a woman charged with speaking God’s truth. Instead, she and her brother, the High Priest, have let venomous words do their awful, dangerous work among the people. Aaron is horrified at her punishment; he, too, is guilty. Miriam, the woman who embodied freedom and joy at the sea is now the vessel for the sick spirit of her community.

Moses prays: El na rafa na la. Holy One please, heal her please.

Truth, Rebecca told me years ago, was cradled in the ark, is held in our Torah. She is not made of mere stories but of knowledge and wisdom and life itself. Her ways are peace.

This week’s Torah portion is not a mere story, but a mandate. We, too, must have Moses’ courage to ask the Holy One of Blessing for healing.

May we pray to become whole and grateful inhabitants of our communities.  May we learn that sacred purpose and intentions must be shared and supported by all. May we be blessed with spiritual growth and goodness, with love of Torah. May the Holy One speak to us, and may the Holy One hear our prayer.

Come and see: So it is above.
There is garment, body, soul, and soul of soul.
The heavens and their host are the garment.
The Assembly of Israel is the body,
who receives the soul, Beauty of Israel.
So she is the body of the soul.
The soul we have mentioned is Beauty of Israel, real Torah.
The soul of the soul is the Holy Ancient One.
All is connected, this one to that one


Ruach Ha’Aretz: Jewish Renewal at its Best

RuachRabbi Daniel Siegel, the first rabbi Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z”l, Jewish Renewal’s founder, ordained, teaching Tanya, unpacking the Hebrew with gentle and infectious excitement. The texts fairly flowered before us.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan teaching theodicy (and the Book of Lamentations) with the help of poster-sized post-it notes. By the end of the week the room was filled with questions both human and eternal: What is God’s role in and on this earth? When God turns away, where do we turn?

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg and Rabbi Shohama Wiener team-teaching with bubbly enthusiasm and alternating bursts of energy and reflection in a Catholic retreat center in New Mexico. A combination to be experienced. Devoutly.

The davennen. Services rendered creatively or “traditionally,” some with movement, some with what Reb Zalman called “American nusach.” One mincha I remember was completely silent; nothing but breathing deeply and listening.

I remember the play the children put on for all of us one year. It was based on the legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six righteous persons who live quietly, anonymously; generous to all whose lives they touch. Without their presence on this earth, humanity could not survive. The laughter was lively; the insights sweet. Each child twirled or jumped or stroked an imaginary beard. They all had roles to play. Each was important.

I won’t forget the richness and the joy to be found at Ruach Ha’Aretz.

Ruach Ha’Aretz, ALEPH’s mobile retreat center, is run by Rabbis Nadya and Victor Gross. During my years studying for ordinations as a rabbi and as a mashpiah ruchanit (spiritual director), I went every summer – for the classes, for the davennen, for the sheer lovely wonder of Jewish Renewal at its best.

This year I’ll be teaching at Ruach. Our retreat theme is deep ecumenism, in honor of Reb Zalman. Deep ecumenism, for Zalman, meant transcending the task of learning tolerance or respect for other traditions. It meant engaging and participating on the richest of levels. We learn about ourselves when we get inside another way of thinking about God, about prayer, about holiness itself.

I teach many classes on the history of Jewish life in Christian realms. The territory is tender, difficult to traverse. It is pockmarked by hidden mines and open wounds. And yet, there were times before Christians and Jews built boundaries that have caused so much suffering. There were times, places, and spiritual spaces when they were able to transcend them.

Imagine yourself living during the first centuries of the Common Era, when ancient Judeans asked themselves and each other: Is Jewishness a question of religious belief, ethnicity, or geographic origin? Who genuinely belongs in Christian communities? Who belongs in Jewish ones? In some Roman homes of those first centuries, the gentile inhabitants lit Sabbath lamps. In others, Jews explained the teachings of Christ, the Messiah. “God-fearers,” men and women who made donations and swore oaths to YHVH, visited synagogues in Rome, in Alexandria, and Sardis.

Where were the boundaries between Christian and Jewish practices, between what we understood as holy and sacred in one tradition and what might be revered in the other? These are questions we have asked in every century we have shared. Jews of the Middle Ages put the iron key of a local synagogue in a laboring woman’s hand to help ward off the demons; when no synagogue was nearby, they sometimes approached their Christian neighbors to borrow the one that opened the church doors. The key to either house of God appeared to be a key to protection.

During my class, students will be taking something like Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine. I want us to explore other times when formative ecumenical conversations pivoted around questions of identity and boundaries. I want to see what happens when we bring Jews, Christians, pagans and philosophers to life in role-plays, in reenactments, in re-living. We will “channel” a slave of the second century C.E. whose Jewish education was overseen by the God-fearers of a local synagogue; we’ll try on the spiritual clothing of a Jewish Christian of a century earlier. We might become 16th century Jews who offered intercessory prayer in Christian cemeteries.

Wherever we land, we will ask: What really makes us Jewish or others Christian? How do we, as inhabitants of the 21st century earth, want to converse – deeply, and with understanding – with others?

Our boundaries and identities are a product of the past. But they can also be transformed by learning more deeply about our history. I know that my students and I will come out of our week together changed, surprised, better able to do the work of deep ecumenism.

Like the teachers I learned from, I hope I will give them an experience they will not forget.

For more information on classes, offerings, and registration, head to

A Text of Terror, A Torah of Hope

gumball tree leavesPain oozes from the haftorah before us. Pain and violence and horror. God announces that Israel can no longer be his partner, his spouse. She is an adulteress, a harlot.

I was the one who honored and loved her, YHVH says. I gave her everything and she betrayed me. And now? Now, I will take back my grain and my wine. I will lay waste to her vines and her fig leaves. I will snatch away my wool and my linen and she will go naked. I will expose her before her lovers; I will end her rejoicings. Her festivals and new moons and Sabbaths – they will all cease.

Then YHVH suddenly, shockingly, begins to speak like the kindest of lovers. I will speak coaxingly to her, he says. I will lead her through the wilderness and I will speak to her tenderly. I will give her everything – thriving vineyards and valleys of hope and she will be mine again. I will take the word baali, “my Lord” from her mouth for it sounds like baalim, a name for other gods. She will never mention them, her former lovers, again.

I will make a new covenant, God says. Then, YHVH turns to speak directly to Israel.

And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to YHVH

What kind of relationship is this? I, YHVH says, lavished silver on you and gold. I gave you all that you had. Now I will rip the clothing from your body. I will destroy all that you possess. Humiliation and terror, subjugation and punishment are followed by wooing: I will take you back. I will be good to you.

The last verse is ominous, given the context. “Then you will know YHVH” (Hos. 2:22). Now, you will know who I am. If only you would behave just as I want you to. If only you would do exactly as I demand. Then I can love you. Only then.

I sang every word of this haftorah forty-three years ago. Our cantor was thrilled. I sang clear and clean and made not one single mistake in the blessings or in the haftorah text.

Now, I wish I had made mistakes. I wish that I had transformed the Hebrew. I wish I had had the capacity and the knowledge to rebel, to insist at my bat mitzvah that I must sing words of hope and love that were free and safe, untainted by words of rage and terror.

But I didn’t know what I was singing. I had been given a cassette and the Hebrew and told to practice. And I did. Faithfully, carefully, with enormous love for the cadences of haftorah trope. No one cared to teach me about the text or its context.

Perhaps the men who were in charge would not have known how to tell me what I was about to sing.

This text describes an abusive relationship. And these come in so many forms. Frequently, we have have no idea that we have succumbed to one. Any one of us can be groomed by a predator who woos us with praise and attention until we are open, vulnerable. Then, wide-eyed, we are shocked to the core when the attack comes. We want to love; we are exposed to aggression and hatred.

It has taken me over five decades to realize that the wish to love is itself dangerous. Abusive people are everywhere, discontented human beings who will project their unhappiness on anyone near enough to care. Abuse comes in so many forms that it is dizzying – from the willingness to aggress to the willingness to stand by and acquiesce as the aggression occurs.

Where is God in all this?

Sometimes, I tell my own b’nai mitzvah students, I just don’t know. I’d be lying if I told them I was certain in every minute of the actual nature of what we call, so inadequately, “God.”

It is nearing Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah. We tell the story of Naomi, who lost everything and Ruth, the Moabitess, who restored her to life. And we, the generation that struggles to give Judaism new life – even after the Shoah, must still contend with texts of terror and rage, texts which offer a deity we will never embrace.

Where is God? What, and who is God?

Today, I looked out my window at the five-fingered leaves of the gumball tree in our backyard. The tree drops spiny balls on the lawn each year that will pierce the skin if you walk on them barefoot. But the leaves are shaped like stars and they hover in the golden light of the sun. They are clean and bright, and where shadows fall, these, too, are not dark but simply safe – a richer shade of green.

I must pray my thanks at the sight, even when I am unsure where my prayer will go or what purpose it will serve.

May we receive a new Torah this year, a Torah of hope.  May it help us understand who our God must be, and who we are called to be ourselves.

May only the safest love be in it.

On Sheol, Necromancy and a Bar Mitzvah

Worshipers before symbols of Marduk“I don’t believe in God,” he says.

“Okay,” I answer. “Which God don’t you believe in? The bumbling, fumbling, and mumbling LORD God in Genesis 2:4-3? YHVH of Job 38, portrayed as a birthing mother? What about Adonai of Lamentations, accused by Lady Zion of mass murder?”

For the next twenty minutes we compare and contrast all sorts of ideas about the divine. I pull a text off my shelf to show him how ancient Babylonians pictured their deities – sometimes in purely symbolic form.

“Look at this one,” I say, pointing to a drawing. “A worshiper standing before the symbols of the Babylonian deity Marduk. We weren’t the only ones to think that it might be impossible to make a picture of a god.”

“So,” he asks, “do Jews have a heaven and a hell?”

I start describing Sheol, a dark and murky place mentioned mostly in poetical biblical texts.

“It’s often a code word for grave,” I say.

Sometimes the earth opens up and swallows people into Sheol, I add. The deceased live a kind of shadowy existence there, but the texts don’t indicate that there is either reward or punishment.

“Sounds boring,” he says.

“Yup,” I answer. “I’d be bored.”

We move on to the world-to-come in which all sorts of important Talmudic answers will finally get answered. Then, we end up discussing funerary practices.

“Why do people cover mirrors?” he asks.

“Some people believed that the soul had a really tough time acknowledging that the body it had inhabited was dead and buried,” I say, “and that it would go back and forth from grave to home in a kind of confusion. They also thought that if the soul went past a mirror and didn’t see the body it once belonged to in the mirror, it would be deeply upset and confused.”

“But wait,” he said, “surely the soul had known that custom when it was alive with a body. Why wouldn’t it come back from the graveyard, see the covered mirrors and say, ‘I guess somebody must be dead. Oh. That’s me!’”

I start laughing.

My conversation partner is twelve. Each and every week, between practicing the Hatzi Kaddish or the first prayers of the Amidah or some other component of the service, we find our way into conversations like these. You never know. We might start with Ancient Israelite polytheistic practices and end with medieval ideas around how to trick the dead into revealing the future.  Necromancy is a thing, and not only at that time In Jewish history, either.  Ask the witch of Endor.

(The latter, by the way, requires an invocation that begins: “I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question.” The invocation actually ends with the adorable command: “Do not make sport of this!”)

We’ve looked at ancestor worship in Chinese Jewish settings (supported by the evidence that incense was burned to venerate Abraham and Sarah, for example). We’ve talked about the archeological record that reveals that our ancient forbears thought YHVH had a consort by the name of Asherah.

He’s brought up Greek mythology, the Khazars, and the Crusades. I’ve talked about the Babylonian Exile and the books that never made it into the canon.

“Like what?” he asks.

“There’s a reference to something called the Book of the Covenant in Exodus,” I say. “There appears to have been something called the Book of the Wars of YHVH – it’s mentioned in Numbers. There’s a book that the prophet Samuel was supposed to have written and one by Nathan.”

“What happened?” he asks.

“They fell off the bestseller list,” I say, and it is his turn to laugh.

Is any other rabbi lucky enough to have this kind of student?  I delight in his frank, fresh thinking. I think he enjoys my delight.

In August, when this young man stands up in front of his friends and family and leads a Shabbat morning service, I will be (yes, it sounds cliché), one very proud rabbi. He has offered proof that our children and teenagers can experience their tradition, heritage and history as an intellectual and spiritual playground.

I hope our conversations continue long after the mazal tovs and the candy tossed in the air.

It’s worth a prayer, I think – to the God I believe in, anyway.

On Jewish Demons and Sublunary Buttercups

matted hair babyButtercups are blooming in our back yard. Sighting spring buttercups inevitably leads my husband, Ralf, to remember the many walks he took with his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn loved flowers and meadows, and upon seeing buttercups she inevitably said the exact same thing. Each time, each year, wherever they happened to be.

Wenn man das sieht, dann möchte man eine Kuh sein und gleich reinbeißen!

For those of you who don’t speak German, a translation: “When one sees that, one would want to be a cow and start munching.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Ralf told me this morning, “was that some kind of past life experience talking?”

“Funny you should say that,” I answered. “I’ve been wondering about the same thing where my mother was concerned.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, it’s not exactly the same thing,” I explained. “But I was reading the other day about the way medieval Jews described demons at work in the world.”

“Wait,” Ralf said, “what are you saying about your mother?”

“It’s actually about my mother’s stories,” I said. Then I paused. “Though she did tell me she was a witch.”

This is the absolute truth. When I was a child my mother professed to be a witch who could fly to the moon. She did so frequently, she said, and she claimed to have taken me with her, too. Sadly, I seem not to have been able to remember these nocturnal lunar visits, so she always had to fill me later about the experience.

She also provided an explanation for the knots and tangles in my hair. That, she claimed, was the doing of Mr. Tangle. Apparently, he would party down in and among the strands with selected invited guests all night long. This would account for the knots that had to be combed out in the morning. Tears stinging my eyes, I would get to chastise Mr. Tangle because he was mean and cruel.

“Bad Mr. Tangle,” I would say through gritted teeth. “Bad!”

I know. It doesn’t seem like this has much to do with buttercups or cows. Bear with me.

I had been reading about medieval Jewish demons, you remember. I had learned, among others, about the mares (these are not horses, but demons). Mares hang out in groups of nine. If there are ten, Satan will surely come along and seize one. Moral of the story: Don’t make a minyan with mares.

Apparently such demons hang out with sleeping humans and make it impossible for them to speak by grasping their tongues and choking them. The mare is responsible for nightmares. (Surprise!)

On to my mother.

Well, actually, the mikveh, first.

Most of us know that a dip in the mikveh requires that before stepping into the water, every last item on the body must be removed. No rings, no jewelry. There are other rules about clipping nails and the like, but the question that concerned some of our ancestors was apparently this one: Should badly matted hair be cut off before allowing a candidate to step into the ritual bath?

Answer, according to one of the greatest rabbis of the thirteenth century, Isaac Or Zarua: No.

And why not?

Matted hair is caused by a demon. It would be courting mortal danger to cut such hair. Mortal dangers are not something to be courted at any time, particularly during the Middle Ages when Jews are oft surrounded by such things.

It turns out that there is a name for this demon. Actually, a demoness. She is Holle, also known as Holda and/or Hulda (no connection, I think, to the prophetess in II Kings, 22:14 who sanctifies a scroll supposedly found during the time of King Josiah). Though her origin is likely German, in which tradition she took the form of a rather ugly witch with long, matted hair and buck teeth, she apparently made her way into Jewish folklore.

As I was reading about this demon, I couldn’t help wonder: Was my mother refracting some old belief, some traditional story she had been told? My grandparents came from central and eastern Europe, with names like Kirschenbaum (or Karschenbaum – we aren’t quite sure which).

Was Mr. Tangle actually Holle? Was this Jewish-past-life experience turning up in modern America? Given that my mother claimed to be a witch, what might she know about demons and demonesses of the past?

“Maybe Holle and Mr. Tangle worked together,” Ralf said when I was done explaining.

“How so?” I asked.buttercups

“You don’t think it takes two to tangle?” he asked innocently.

“I am going out to water the sublunary buttercups now,” I said.