Halakha as a Petaled Flower – Lessons from Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hand crafting Jewish ritual wear is one of the ways I pray. This week, I am sewing angel tallitot.

When I designed my angel tallitot, I meant to solve specific problems faced by guitar-playing rabbis and cantors; rectangular tallitot often go askew or get caught in guitar straps. And I wanted to see if I could create a tallit with wings.

One night, after a deep conversation with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel about All Things Jewish, I saw the tallit I would create. Those who know Rabbi Hanna Tiferet will understand why the tallit appeared to me in the form of angels’ wings.

tie-dyed tallit front small

I spent some months designing a pattern. But while I drew, cut, and drew again, it was mostly Rabbi Daniel Siegel who kept coming to mind.

When I first started rabbinic studies with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a decade ago, I arrived with enormous enthusiasm, a pleasant singing voice, and modest guitar-playing skills. As someone who had grown up in fairly secular surroundings, I had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. I had next to no experience with liturgy. I knew, as my grandmother would say, “from absolutely nothing” when it came to halakhah, Jewish law.

So when a classmate told me that the tallit I had made back then for my guitar-playing self was not “halakhic,” I felt worse than awful. I felt humiliated by my own ignorance.

My first course with Reb Daniel was at an ALEPH Kallah. I knew from absolutely nothing then. Reb Daniel, on the other hand, was so steeped in all things Jewish that when he sang a niggun in his gravelly voice I felt I was listening to generations – centuries really – of Jewish longing for the Holy One of Blessing.

Reb Daniel never seemed to care about our ignorance and never tried to measure it. He simply wanted to offer us – with both heart and mind – the beauty of Jewish tradition, learning, and text. He wove Chassidic tradition and halakhic intention together with such tender care that the room would shine.

I went to Reb Daniel, who told me to get the tallit and meet him outside. When I returned, he was holding a number of books. He examined the tallit, which had been made with two shawls sewn together. He noted where I’d placed the tzitzit. He began reading, translating and explaining from his various volumes. We went over the issue of corners the student had addressed. Was there, in fact, a limit on the number of corners a tallit could have or was the only question I needed to be concerned with around making sure the tzitzit were placed on the corners farther from one another?

I will always remember the way Reb Daniel walked me through each of the rabbinic texts. I never felt small or ignorant. I felt, simply, like a beloved and respected student.

I have never, ever forgotten the way I experienced my first real encounter with halakhah and the halakhic process. I learned from Reb Daniel how humane and life-giving Jewish law can be; I learned how to recognize its thoughtful purpose.

But most of all, I learned how to teach those who are anxious and frightened because they think they aren’t Jewish enough, don’t know enough. Reb Daniel taught me: Open Judaism up like a petaled flower and your students will be glad to take in the beauty of their inheritance.

So now, Reb Daniel, ten years later, I thank you for doing just that. Yours has been beautiful learning I won’t forget.

P.S. Happy birthday!

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Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l

My copy of Jewish With Feeling wasn’t on the shelf.

“Oh,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “I remember. I lent it to someone. Again.”

Jewish With Feeling is one of many books by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on my shelf. It is also a book I lend out more often than any other in our library. It is a book anyone can read – without fear of knowing too little; without fear of knowing too much.

It is a reflection of Zalman’s spirit: Light-filled, opening, welcoming, rich.

Reb Zalman died this morning, just weeks away from his ninetieth birthday celebration.

He was the founder of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The ALEPH seminary has ordained over 80 religious leaders. I am among them. I learned, at this seminary, the difference between rebbe and rabbi; I learned to be the former even when I was called the latter.

He was friends with countless other religious leaders across the world. One was the Dalai Lama. Their encounters were described in Rodger Kamenetz’ book The Jew in the Lotus.

I read the book well before discovering Jewish Renewal. I very much liked the Reb Zalman I met there – years before I got to like him in person.

Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear.

This morning I told a friend, “He gave something to everyone.”

Wisdom, first and foremost. I learned from Zalman to put aside the siddur and listen for the prayer that needed to be voiced. I learned, from Reb Zalman, to recover the Jewish practice of spontaneous blessing, though I am certain he would have understood why I so closely observed Christian friends practicing their own take on that art.

I learned from Reb Zalman that it was the task of the rebbe to look into the soul of a congregant.

Zalman was a seer of souls. The first time I met him was after he attended a service I co-led in 2005. He remarked on my “singing smile.” Later, that very day, he dedicated one of his books to me, to one “who delights in tefillah.”

Of all the facts of my life, this is one that has never failed. Give me any opportunity to sing prayer and I will know God’s presence for the gift it is. Zalman (fore)saw that.

In his book, Wrapped in Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman quotes his friend, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l: “How do you know that you have met your true teacher? Whatever this person teaches you, you knew it all along.”

Reb Zalman taught people what they knew all along – that went for everyone, Jewish or not.

I teach his work. For me, his most gorgeous teachings were these: Look into the soul before you. Help make our texts speak. Tell our stories and live them in the telling.

Show others what it is to be Jewish with feeling.

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