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.


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