Giving Wisdom Its Due – For Rabbi Victor Gross

Sarah at the river
Sarah at the river

I had barely entered the rabbinic ordination program at ALEPH | Alliance for Jewish Renewal when I was asked to perform my first life cycle service.  It was a funeral.

To perform a service for someone you did not know means listening deeply to those who did. Grieving relatives tell you stories of their loved ones, of their loss. You will do your best to understand the depth of that pain while staying centered and clear. Then you will do your best to create a service that will honor the life of the human being you are to help bury.

I learned how to do those things from wise teachers.

“I’ve buried so many people,” Rabbi Victor Gross told me. “I’ve buried friends. I learned.” Then he told me what he had learned. After a funeral, he said, remember to rest and take care of yourself. Honor your renewed awareness of life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

Reb Victor knew (and knows) me well. He told me to stop and create plenty of space between the griefs and the graveyard to my office and classrooms.

“Don’t go back to work after the service,” he’d say. He would tell me to rely on my little family for comfort, to rest in the arms of the Shekhina. I knew he was right. He was offering me wisdom about tender places, the ones that mark the thresholds between life and death (and life).

I did not take his advice.

Instead, after a funeral I would walk out and away and back into my work world. I’d go back to the computer, prepare my classes at UNC Charlotte. I’d read emails from students or congregants, go back to the podium and the lecture hall.

My teacher had given me a holy instruction about the sacred nature of the work I was doing. I did that work with my whole self and then returned, almost without pause, to the expectations and demands of a profane world I believed I could not ignore.

Yesterday, I received an email from Sarah McCurry’s boyfriend, Eric. Sarah was once a student of mine, one I grew to care for very deeply. We kept in touch after she graduated.

Sarah died after nearly one year of life with colon cancer at the age of 24. Her remains were cremated. When she first spoke to me about her illness, almost exactly a year ago, she told me that she had passed by a synagogue just after receiving her diagnosis.

“I thought of you,” she said. “I want you to do my funeral.”

“If it gets to that,” I said, “I will.”

Sarah’s beloved aunt Susie also died of colon cancer just ten months before Sarah was diagnosed. Sarah wanted her ashes to be scattered where her aunt’s had been – in a little river near the mountains of North Carolina where she had played as a child.

In his email, Eric sent me pictures of Sarah walking across that little river, bringing flowers to lay there in memory of her aunt on the first anniversary of her death. He asked if I could perform the service when Sarah’s ashes were scattered there.

Sarah’s family is, as far as I know, Baptist. Sarah did not call herself a Christian, though she learned to commune with angels during her last year of life.

She tried to live the last year of her life fully conscious of each moment she was given to live. She wore bright colors. She sat a good deal in the sun. She loved rain.Sarah at the river 2

Reb Victor, I promise you: The day of Sarah’s service I will turn from that little river, drive home from the mountains, and rest. I will acknowledge my own grief and listen to my body, heart and soul. I will honor life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

I will give your wisdom its due.

Her Work — and Ours

DSC_2260I was at the Ohalah conference shuk, rearranging the kippot that still left on my table, and noting, as I do every year, a marked preference for all shades of blues and purples. Over 200 rabbis belong to Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Our annual conference brings together rabbinic pastors, cantors, rabbis, and students of all three professions for several days of davening, workshops, and programs.

A woman I did not know stopped to look at a kippah I had made from raw silks in soft shades of heather and hunter green. She was wearing exactly the same pale green as I had used in the kippah. She looked at the kippot quietly.

“Is there one calling out to you?” I asked.

There were two she liked. One was aqua, with an applique in the form of a thistle. The other was the kippah of greens. She picked up the one, then the other. She made no move to try on either one.

The rabbinic pastors, rabbis, cantors, teachers and students who stop at Not My Brother’s Kippah to look at my kippot or tallitot are looking for how they want to pray – with exuberance or quiet certainty; with joy or with deep, rich, attentiveness. The kippah each chooses is the one, I have learned, that I made for exactly that person.

The kippah with the thistle was important for my new guest. She works with an organization that has a thistle as its symbol, an organization that aids women who have been abused and enslaved.

I learned about her as she spoke. Finally, I discovered the reason for her shyness.

She was not Jewish. She was attending Ohalah as a conference presenter at one of the many sessions held on interfaith work.

That morning, our keynote speaker, Rabbi Arthur Green, had emphasized the need to respect and honor traditions of other religions. He had also warned, gently, against trying to appropriate them. Though she was attracted to the kippot on my table, she didn’t feel she had a right to wear one. DSC_2266

“You know,” I said, “This is how I feel wearing a kippah. I feel like the hand of the Holy One cups my head. I feel blessed.”

She could imagine that feeling, she said. Still, she would hate to offend anyone. She would not like for people to feel she was doing something false.

“Well,” I said, grinning, “you could always say that a rabbi made you your kippah. It would be the truth.”

To be fair: I’ve known my fair share of people who found Jewish traditions and rituals exotic and interesting, and who adopted those practices in ways that felt, at times, invasive to me. I’ve known what it is to be “observed” for the sake of learning about how Jesus might have lived. I have had to explain why the Passover celebration and its rituals cannot be turned into a reenactment of the Last Supper.

But I have also known what it is to speak to a Christian woman in spiritual direction with me about her deep attachment to the poignant image of a cross crowned by thorns. To speak to her heart, I had to speak in her language. I did not sacrifice my tribal identity. To communicate in someone else’s language is a learnable skill, but it does not make that language your native, natural one.

This minister’s work was the work of all clergy who try to bring God’s compassion into this broken world.

Mysterious things happen at the Ohalah conference every year. I didn’t tell my quiet visitor what I had noticed.

DSC_2264She tried the kippot on. In the end, she decided to buy both.

Then it was time to tell her.

At each Ohalah conference, there is a large, glass bowl filled with many slips of colored paper. On each slip is a name of someone attending the conference. Anyone can choose to take one of those slips of paper. Whoever’s name you choose is whoever you pray for during the conference.

Of over two hundred possibilities, I had chosen her name. I realized that as she was trying the kippot on, when I glanced at her name tag.

I told her; she smiled. Then I blessed the kippot, and I blessed her work, and I blessed her.

A rabbi had made kippot for a non-Jew – still a person who had needed those blessings.

May they aid her in her work. It is also mine. And ours.

Bamidbar: A Book of Failings, A Book of Truth

DesertThe Phoenicians and Philistines were sailing the Mediterranean, conquering coastlines. Semitic tribes traveled across Mesopotamia. Various empires fell (see under “Hittite” and “Kassite”). Troy was sacked in 1250 BCE.

It was a time of grand movements, critical conquests.

Narratives about the heroes of the time are still with us – think of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Egyptian and Assyrian annals glorified powerful kings and offered detailed descriptions of royal victories. Kings were great and powerful and their battles were epic.

What does Bamidbar offer?

The text references ancient texts now lost to us, like the Book of the Battles of YHVH. Fragments of ancient songs and poetry read like models for the Elvish poetry of The Lord of the Rings cycle. “Against Wahab in a whirlwind and the wadis of Amon / and the cascade of the wadis that turns down towards Ar’s dwelling / and clings to Moab’s border” (21:14-15). “Rise up, O Well! Sing out to it. / Well the captains dug, the people’s nobles delved it,/ with a scepter, with their walking stick” (21: 17-18).

On the one hand, we are given a continuation of Levitical and legal concerns, particularly around inheritance, organization of cultic activities, and tribal tasks. On the other, we learn how angry people can be, how frightened. At one point in the story the Israelites claim their relationship to YHVH is so tenuous that if they so much as go near the Tabernacle, they risk being destroyed. On the one hand, we learn how to walk together, how to march; on the other, divisiveness is part and parcel of the march.

The first ten chapters specify the tasks of the Levites and the laws around the Nazirites who become, for a time, lay priests of a sort. The tabernacle is, in an expanded recounting from Leviticus, dedicated and consecrated. It’s hanukkah! (It’s a word: It means “dedicate…”) There is much in the way of strictures to secure the Tabernacle from prying eyes and hands. The first Passover feast is celebrated. It is the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness.

Silver trumpets are fashioned at YHVH’s command; these will announce the people’s get-up and go. The tenth chapter, and the first third of B’midbar, ends with a call to arms chanted during Torah services. Kuma Adonai: “Rise up, O Lord. May your enemies be scattered and your foes flee before you!” Now, it seems, all the Israelites have to do is head homeward.

But the next chapter introduces us to what one scholar has called “The Book of Failings.” Manna, which tastes of rich cream, is not good enough for the Israelites. They dream of melons, cucumbers, onions and fish. The people grumble and complain, YHVH is angry and lashes out, Moses intercedes. Places are named after conflict. Taberah, the first instance in the book of this oft-repeated cycle, is Hebrew for “conflagration.” Kibroth-Hattaavah, where the people get sick from gorging on God-given quail, means “Graves of Desire.”

Moses sends off scouts and they come back only to terrorize the people with descriptions of unbeatable giants. Again God is enraged, again YHVH lashes out, sentencing the fearful to wander so that only their descendants, born in freedom, may win the land for freedom.

YHVH tries to bless the people, to remind them to remember the law:

The LORD said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God” (Numbers 15: 37-41).

And then, just after this restatement of relationship and hope, Korach’s desperate rebellion. The earth opens up to swallow pain and discontent, but it is not enough. The plague that follows is a horror: Aaron stops it by an emergency expiation, by standing, as the Torah tells us, “between the living and the dead” (17: 13).

A doctor without borders.

In one single chapter (Num. 20), Moses loses both his siblings. Israel’s dancing prophetess, Miriam, the girl who saved her younger brother so he could save his people, the mature, even elderly woman who brought water and life wherever she went, is buried in a parched wilderness. Moses and Aaron lose perspective and patience. God is prepared to give the kvetching Israelites water from a rock but the two leaders fail the test. They strike the stone instead of making it clear that any waterfall is and must always be God’s provenance and generosity.

One wonders. The sister whose presence guaranteed water is gone. No wonder Moses and Aaron hammer against the rock in their grief and rage. Do they strike out simply because they want their sister back? At the close of the same chapter which describes Miriam’s burial, we read of Aaron’s death. Moses himself must remove the priestly vestments from his elder brother’s shoulders and place them on his nephew.

Then, he watches Aaron die.

The last third of the book tells us about the machinations of war. A foreign seer is sent to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead. The Israelites engage in sexual transgressions with Moabite women and worship alongside the Moabites. There is yet another plague. A transfer of leadership is arranged and Moses stands on a mountain looking into a land he is not permitted to enter. The book ends by apportioning a land yet to be won.

What might we learn from Bamidbar?

Our Torah can be a humble record. Our leaders are not heroes with superhuman powers’s they are flawed, broken human beings. Our people is not a glorious nation, but a bickering, contentious one.

Moses pleads for his people, he defends them, he protects them. He mediates between a selfish, recalcitrant people and a jealous and impatient deity. Talk about the dangers of triangulation. Talk about standing between a rock and a hard place.
He fails, in the end, to find a way out.

Nowhere in our story is there an obvious answer, a clear way out. We live in a world of paradox. Chosen to stand for God’s law, we struggle to observe it. We struggle to interpret it. We are meant to be a nation of priests; most often, we are a nation of dissatisfied malcontents.

Our struggle is human. We are given the mandate to help God’s shefa flow into this world. We are to give, to love, to know and demonstrate compassion and understanding. This is godding, as Jewish Renewalists say. Yet, each and every day we are weighed down by our small-mindedness, by our egos, by the daily and even onerous tasks of living.

At the start of this book, Moses takes a census. We are counted. The book asks: Can YHVH count on us? Can we count on each other? What can we count on?

Not My Brother’s Kippah

I make kippot.  It was a hobby until last weekend. Before I left for the annual Ohala conference, my husband, Ralf, suggested a name for my new business (see title, above).

My business’ name is not simply a clever joke. It’s an answer.

Like so many Jewish women, I know what it is to have Judaism used against me, to crush me and make me small.  I have been told to cover my elbows.  I have been the victim of angry demands: How dare I continue singing when he walked into the house?  Didn’t I know that a woman’s voice seduces?

His brand of Judaism was enraged, extreme.  He was, when I knew him, so far right that some family members joked about where he might have been the night Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated.  He wanted to kill every Palestinian, and said so.  He made me want to run screaming in any direction away from anything Jewish that wasn’t academic, and therefore, safe territory for me.

How could I make teshuva when coming back would mean accepting humiliation I had known when I was young?

And yet.

And yet, when we were first married three decades ago, Ralf took my grandmother’s prayerbook out of the discard pile and brought it back to me.  In the late 1990’s, my then six-year-old son took to davennen as if he were born inside its cadence when I dared attend services at a nearby havurah.  Now and again I’d remember – with a kind of longing – my grandfather’s davenning  the Maxwell House haggadah.

What is all that about the journeys that begin with tender, tremulous steps?

The sign on the trail: “Jewish Renewal.” While walking I found men and women opening up the world of halakha and making it more than safe – a source of delight, in fact.  I listened to women singing without restraints, teaching with power and humor.  We all stood together at Sinai – many of us, women and men, with our elbows uncovered.

I had begun making kippot for friends.  I vowed I would only make a kippah when I knew whose head would wear it.  I deviated just slightly, making some for my congregation so that children and adults could choose one as they entered services.  A kippah with a penguin?  Beads and butterflies?  Glittery gold fabric?

For years, at every Jewish Renewal event I attended, women asked me if I sold my kippot.  I would explain, see the sadness, and persist.  I would not sell.  I would only give.

Three years ago, Rabbi Nadya Gross, mentor, teacher, and friend, began bugging me.  “There are women out there who need your kippot,” she said.  “What’s out there for them?”

There are hats that can get too warm and scarves that can look like shmattes. For a while, kippot of beads and wire were in fashion.  Pretty, but insubstantial. Frankly, I want to feel my head covered.  My kippah is a manifestation of sorts, the hand of the divine cupped over my keppe to bless it.

I gave in and began sewing for people I did not know.  My son designed some of my work – making my beadwork asymmetrical, surprising.  My husband matched fabrics and flowers I would not have put together.  I sewed until I woke up at night with my fingers raw and sore.

Then I left for Denver, and the annual conference run by Ohalah, a trans-denominational association of rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors, and students of those professions.  Later, I will tell you stories.  Stories of the way women crowded around the table, the way men bought kippot for female friends.  One of the kippot my son designed went to a woman just waking from a coma.

I will tell you the way those men and women nearly cleaned out my stock and asked me for a website, please.  I will tell you stories that made me cry with relief and gratitude.  Stories of women sitting in rows with feathers, flowers and beads on their heads, walking the hotel corridors wearing the kippot I’d made in ways I had never imagined – rakishly, in different directions, with grace and charm.

I want to thank everyone at Ohalah, in Jewish Renewal, for helping me manifest a peaceful, colorful, gentle answer to any who would crush Jewish women and make them small: These are not my brother’s kippah.

May the palm of God’s hand cup the beautiful keppes they adorn.  May those women grow surer and stronger wearing them.  May Jewish Renewal’s path widen in yet more welcome, and may we give answers of love and healing to all who walk even the smallest step with us.

Jewish Renewal’s Red Boots

What is Jewish Renewal?

It’s a question I get as soon as folks realize that my rabbinic identity doesn’t fit in the usual boxes. I am neither a Conservative, Reform, nor a Reconstructionist rabbi.

I was ordained almost exactly a year ago, by ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. My congregation is affiliated with Jewish Renewal.

Jewish Renewal is not a denomination. We like to say that we are post-denominational. Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors work in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of shuls, from Conservative to Reform to Reconstructionist to independent (like mine).

What is Jewish Renewal?

It’s so very hard to describe something that ranges from starshine to sunshine, something that sparkles and sings and calls on the deepest spaces and places of the soul while making you laugh with recognition.

That, I wish I could say, is Jewish Renewal.

Instead, I typically offer an academic summary: Jewish Renewal seeks the deep knowledge of Chassidic tradition and strives to reconnect that tradition with contemporary Jewish practice. Jewish Renewal understands halakha, Jewish law, as a constantly evolving creation to help establish the most humane and ethical of life practices.

Jewish Renewal will joyfully embrace music, meditation, chant, yoga, and storytelling in the practice of Judaism. Jewish Renewal reads Torah as our deepest challenge and our most precious gift.

Or I say: Jewish Renewal is about learning the why and not just the how. It’s about plumbing the very depths of why so that we can hear our private and godly voices of truth.

I know, I know. Get concrete. Offer an example.

Early in January, I was attending the annual Ohalah conference, which brings together Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors from diverse parts of the world.

When we pray together, there is a joy and an intimacy that belies and transcends the conference hotel rooms.

We sit in circles or get up to move and dance. We pray all at once together or in the spontaneous creation of a kind of complicated twenty-part madrigal. It’s awesome, actually.

As are the Velveteen Rabbi’s red boots. They are the example you need to understand Jewish Renewal.

Here’s how I came to understand that fact.

I was attending a Shacharit service. Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel was leading our prayers – softly, gently. Rabbi Hanna Tiferet specializes in making a safe space for those who show up to daven with her. It is never about her; it’s all about our collective, kind intentions. It’s lovely.

As we davened, I looked across the room. Chaplain David Daniel Klipper was singing and tapping his foot. If he’d had a drum, he would have been playing. The Velveteen Rabbi, a.k.a. Rachel Barenblat, with whom I was smicha’d (ordained) last year as a rabbi and this year as a mashpi’ah, a spiritual director, is smiling at me.

I smile back. I look again.

It’s the boots. The red boots. The red boots with laces.

Rabbi Rachel’s red boots are a bright, energetic statement. They are beautiful and carefree, much like the mood in the room. They are a strong, rich red. They look solid and soft at the same time. Walking in them, I imagine, must make Rabbi Rachel feel strong and purposeful, ready and wide open for life itself.

Later, after davening, I am standing by Rabbi Rachel in the food line for breakfast when a rabbinic student comes up to admire her boots.

“They must be a bear to take off, though,” the student says.

Rabbi Rachel smiles.

“They zip!” she says brightly.

Over my oatmeal and scrambled eggs, I think about the way in which ideas and traditions and texts are laced together in our conference sessions, our classes, our prayers. Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan pulls together Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and the spine of a snake. Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg puns on the Hebrew er, for awakening, to “err” so that he can walk us through a look at snoozing and waking on a consciousness level.

How do we modulate our awareness, he asks, holding the ordinary and the holy, the flowing and the parched periods of life, the knowledge of presence and absence in one container?

I think about the five years of Renewal classes and conferences and the intimate and wide-ranging davening. I think about the way Renewal taught me that Judaism was not represented by large buildings and grand sanctuaries. Judaism is not a complicated form I could never grasp, a list of rules I could never master.

I could learn why. I could reach for the depth to be had in each letter of each word. Olam means “world” and “universe” and “eternal.” And it means “hidden” and “secret.” When I address God by saying Ruach ha’Olam, “Breath of the universe,” I take in the knowledge that however one thinks of the divine, there is something magical in the way that breath moves us, sustains us and keeps the whole world alive.

Breathing is life is divine is eternal is a mystery.

Ideas, texts, tradition – Jewish understanding laced together in a sweet web of life so clearly that I could unpack the teaching as easily as I could unzip a boot.

I learned these things in Jewish Renewal, from teachers whose hearts are rich and deep and playful. Like Rabbi Rachel’s boots: Red, soft, solid and joyful.

This is now my foundation; I walk in Jewish Renewal’s ways.