On Klei Kodesh & Blinds Spots: Lessons from Korach

In the ALEPH Ordination program, we require each student to have a mashpi’a, a spiritual guide. This is a practice we learned from the Chabad Chasidim, conveyed to us by Reb Zalman z”l. We believe that every kli kodesh, every person who wants to be a sacred vessel or a vessel for the sacred, needs to have two things. The first is the ability to question oneself, to be open to personal flaws and able to acknowledge one’s shortcomings. The second is that every kli kodesh needs a trusted friend to help in this process.

Why is it necessary to have such a friend? The answer is that each of us also has at least one blind spot, one place within where it is nearly impossible to go alone or even to see without help. In his teaching, “Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of Teshuvah,” Reb Zalman put it this way:

There is an element that is called the blind spot… [Y]ou keep doing the same thing, but you do it in a different color, you do it in a different situation, and you see that in the gestalt of what it is that’s wrong, that gestalt hasn’t changed much. And then you puzzle and say what is the twist in my perception of reality that causes me to make that same mistake over and over and over again. Finding a blind spot is very hard.

Renewing Ger Toshav Update

Dear Friends,

Finally, after years of thought and preparation, I am both happy and humbled to say that the first unit of this work is now complete enough to offer it.

From the preface:
The frequency of marriages between Jews and non-Jews has become a major challenge to those who take responsibility for thinking about the essentials of Jewish life and the core of what it means to be Jewish. Until recently, this conversation has oscillated between two options: either the non-Jewish spouse chooses to become a Jew (technically this is an intermarriage) or s/he doesn’t (a mixed marriage). When the choice is made to become a Jew, the discussion again oscillates between two options: either the transition must include a commitment to practice the mitzvot by the standards of the officiating rabbi (strict) or the transition can be completed with a commitment to accepting the principle of “the yoke of the mitzvot,” which takes into account a recognition of the minimum levels of observance that most of the Jewish partners practice (conversion “light”).

Spirituality & Politics

The election of Donald Trump has had an effect on the OHALAH list similar to that of Israel in past years. The assumption by some contributors that all members share more or less the same responses leads to pushback from others who feel themselves in the minority. Occasional sharp responses reinforce this sense of not truly belonging and lead to a fear of sharing, further distorting the discussion.

In my contribution to this discussion, I wrote, in part:

The Alter Rebbe wrote in the Tanya that every Jew is prepared to die al kiddush hashem at the moment of saying the sh’ma; but that willingness fades as soon as s/he leaves shul. So his whole book is aimed at people like us and is directed toward helping us maintain that consciousness of complete surrender to and identification with what the Holy One is asking from us at any given moment. Yes, Reb Zalman didn’t want us fighting with one another. But it is also Reb Zalman who began advocating for eco-kashrut, for a respect of the living consciousness of the planet, for a spirituality and practice which engages the world.…So these are the “political” issues I believe are appropriate and needed on our list. How are we practicing what we preach? What can we learn from each other about issue based advocacy from a spiritual perspective? How do we highlight and reinforce values and courage through the study of kabbalah, creative liturgy, and modelling?

Renewing Ger Toshav: OHALAH 2017

Dear Friends,

During the recent OHALAH conference in Colorado (15-18 January), I had the opportunity of giving an introduction to the nearly completed first stage of a project to identify a way to renew ger toshav / permanent resident as well as an update on the various projects I have been working on. I am happy to now share that report with you.

This comes at a moment of deep worry about issues of inclusion and relationships with “others.” Last weekend, President Trump signed the order which legitimized suspicion of others, particularly Muslims, and applied blanket restrictions on their travel and eligibility for asylum in the United States. And, almost literally as I write this, we in Canada have also experienced a terrible attack on Muslims in prayer at their mosque in Quebec City, leaving six dead and five in serious to critical condition in hospital.

Mr. T2: Two Elections, One Continuum

There is much talk about continuing the fight following the election of Donald Trump, fighting for what’s right, fighting for minority rights, fighting for health care, fighting climate change. I would like to respectfully suggest that this vocabulary of war feeds the increasingly hostile political discourse in the United States and encroaches on the values and priorities of political systems outside the US.

A year ago, Canadians had the choice of continuing with a Conservative government which, in many ways, mirrored that of the Bush administration or voting for a change. In Canada, the parallel to the electoral college is that a party can find itself with a majority in the House of Commons even though it has received only a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with our previous (and our current) government, which won less than 40% of the popular vote while achieving majority status in parliament. Canadians chose change and did so by strategic voting for the candidate in their riding most likely to defeat the Conservative. Thus, our current Liberal government knows that its majority really stems from the 60% of Canadian voters who voted to change the government with 20% of the vote for change going to other parties.

Triennial Cycle of Haftarot Completed

Dear Friends,

Over three years ago, I shared a table containing a triennial cycle of haftarot to accompany the triennial cycle of Torah readings most of us use. I was concerned, for those of us who have a haftarah as part of our services, that we were reading prophetic sections on an annual cycle, which seemed to elevate these portions of Nach to a higher level than that of the Torah itself. Further, haftarot now shared a connection to the Torah portion only once every three years. Lastly, I also thought that if haftarot were shorter, then more of us might be inclined to include them, even if only occasionally.

Several of you let me know that it would be much easier to add a haftarah if the haftarot themselves were easier to access. I’m happy to say that I’ve now completed a file which contains all the proposed haftarot in full.

When the Rebbe Asks: Renewing Ger Toshav

There is much talk about continuing the fight following the election of Donald Trump, fighting for what’s right, fighting for minority rights, fighting for health care, fighting climate change. I would like to respectfully suggest that this vocabulary of war feeds the increasingly hostile political discourse in the United States and encroaches on the values and priorities of political systems outside the US.

A year ago, Canadians had the choice of continuing with a Conservative government which, in many ways, mirrored that of the Bush administration or voting for a change. In Canada, the parallel to the electoral college is that a party can find itself with a majority in the House of Commons even though it has received only a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with our previous (and our current) government, which won less than 40% of the popular vote while achieving majority status in parliament. Canadians chose change and did so by strategic voting for the candidate in their riding most likely to defeat the Conservative. Thus, our current Liberal government knows that its majority really stems from the 60% of Canadian voters who voted to change the government with 20% of the vote for change going to other parties.

Why is Judaism so…(2)

Last time, I wrote about how we Jews contain our suffering by focusing on remembering it for limited times during the annual cycle of the calendar. Truth is, I don’t see this as a profound teaching so much as a simple observation. Do you remember how we used to say that the people of the north had so many different words to describe snow? This was because being able to recognize the varied qualities of the snow reflected the need to appreciate these differences in order to enhance survival or perhaps because living in the midst of so much snow made people aware of subtle differences in its qualities.

I’ve been told that this is not really true, though I still find it intriguing. Applied to the way Hebrew reflects our values, it is striking to notice how many words we have for praise and appreciation. In those two paragraphs that conclude P’sukay d’Zimra on Shabbat morning, there are 20 different words for our primary obligation to praise and show gratitude as well as the obligation to go beyond the praises we have received. Is there any wonder, then, that our liturgy is so vast?

Why is Judaism so…?

Many years ago during a Yom Kippur Torah reading, I encouraged people to ask any question they wanted about Judaism. One person asked, “Why is Judaism always so solemn?” I responded by saying that this perception came from the fact that he mostly went to shul on Yom Kippur, which is indeed a solemn day. One such day in the year. But if he would come to shul more regularly, he would see that 52 times in a solar year we spent a whole day focused on appreciation, and several more times a year the focus was on joy and freedom during the major (and minor) holidays.

Reflections on a Weekend of Integral Halachah

’ve just finished a weekend of teaching about Integral Halachach at Or Shalom and Limmud Vancouver. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how much better I would have done if only I had…

So rather than indulge in wishing I could do it over knowing now what I didn’t know then, I thought I would share some of those thoughts as a way of continuing the discussion beyond the time limits imposed by the events.

I had assumed that people would share the feeling that many of you have or have had, namely that Halachah as we have learned it is oppressive and overly focused on answers which establish correctness of practice. My approach was to show how the halachic process was always relevant to people’s lives, that it goes beyond the codes to a literature which is responsive to individual situations, and that it is founded on transcending ethical principles and recognition of human frailties. All this in order to keep us on the path we began to walk at Sinai and which will reach its destination sometime in the future with a redeemed world and united humanity.

A Personal Introduction to Integral Halachah

Affirming the Halachic Process is certainly one of the more difficult things for many of us in ALEPH. Like so many others, we are weighed down by the insistence of our more Orthodox colleagues that Halachah is self verifying and contained due to its Divine origin in the nighttime teachings that the Holy Blessed One imparted to Moshe Rabbeinu after each day’s writing of the written Torah. Each succeeding generation is farther from the origin moment and thus more prone to confusion and increasingly dependent on the rulings of those who have gone before us. Thus, the Halachah of the moment is uncovered by a careful analysis of the texts from the past and each new situation must be comparable to some concept or precedent from that past.

While totally aware of this phenomenon, Reb Zalman z”l was still committed to the halachic process by which we link the needs of the moment to the precedents of the past. He also believed that this was possible only by instituting a new principle which would allow the past to continue to speak to us while also providing a greater degree of freedom in determining our responses to the questions of our time. Thus, what he originally called Psycho-Halachah and which we renamed Integral Halachah was born, a new principle which both included and transcended the past and which acknowledged the paradigm shift in which we are living.

A Personal Introduction to Integral Halachah

Affirming the Halachic Process is certainly one of the more difficult things for many of us in ALEPH. Like so many others, we are weighed down by the insistence of our more Orthodox colleagues that Halachah is self verifying and contained due to its Divine origin in the nighttime teachings that the Holy Blessed One imparted to Moshe Rabbeinu after each day’s writing of the written Torah. Each succeeding generation is farther from the origin moment and thus more prone to confusion and increasingly dependent on the rulings of those who have gone before us. Thus, the Halachah of the moment is uncovered by a careful analysis of the texts from the past and each new situation must be comparable to some concept or precedent from that past.

Streaming Shabbat Davvenen

The current discussion on the OHALAH list with regard to streaming and recording the services at next year’s kallah has been interesting to follow.

Preface: A Little History

For many years, my portfolio in ALEPH included the ALEPH ReSources Catalog. One of the things I really wanted to offer were recordings of live services so that people who were interested in Jewish Renewal could at least listen to a real service and get some idea of what davvenen meant to us. For a time, the catalog offered recordings of a service at Shir Tikvah in Michigan and the davvenen at the 75th birthday weekend for Reb Zalman z”l at B’nai Jeshurun in New York. We also offered “studio’ recordings from P’nai Or of Philadelphia and Reb Zalman’s Audio Siddur (which is the only one still available from the ALEPH catalog).

Of course, this was before live streaming and the video recording which is really inseparable from the streaming itself.

L’takken Olam B’malchut Shaddai

“We all live in a watershed…”

I hadn’t been planning on writing something specifically for Rosh haShanah this year until I read this in the summer edition of Watershed Sentinel:

We decided to change up the masthead on the cover and since more and more of our stories are about the junction between environment and social justice, we figured it made sense to emphasize the Sentinel in Watershed Sentinel. We all live in a watershed……(Delores Broten, ed.).

For the past several decades, we have redefined the expression Tikkun Olam, adopting part of an earlier redefinition emerging from the Lurianic notion of sh’virat ha-kelim / the breaking of the vessels. The tikkun / repair refers to the releasing of the divine sparks hidden within the broken vessels. We then merged that with the growing political and social activism of Jews so that the vehicle for this repair shifted from prayer and the precise observance of ritual mitzvot to social and political action.

At the same time, the disconnection from the spirituality which had always permeated Jewish life (witness R. Mordechai Kaplan’s idea that Judaism is a “religious civilization”) allowed for the abbreviating of this concept as the now familiar Tikkun Olam, without the accompanying b-malchut Shaddai / through [recognition of] divine sovereignty.

Ensouling the World: Shmita as Beginning

The shmita year of 5775 is drawing to a close. As with the weekly Shabbat, there is a natural tendency to view the sabbatical year as a conclusion. After all, they both are the “seventh” and what follows is the first. Shabbat is the culmination of the week, the goal toward which we work for the six preceding days. So also is the sabbatical the goal, the year off we earn for the six previous years of work.

However, both in academia and among congregational clergy, the sabbatical year serves another, concurrent purpose. A good sabbatical includes a plan of study and practice which opens up new possibilities and awakens creativity. In other words, a sabbatical (or a day of Shabbat) offers both a well-earned break and the gathering of energy for the next round of work. This second purpose, then, requires contemplating the deeper meaning of the cycles in which we live and absorbing that awareness into the way in which we approach the next work cycle.

In this spirit, Esther Azar and I have explored two Hassidic teachings on shmita, both of which speak of the inner meaning of Shabbat for the individual consciousness and for life of the planet itself. In particular, the Netivot Shalom rests his observations on a surprising commentary of the Ohr haChayim, in which he sees the weekly Shabbat as the necessary ingredient for ensouling the next six days.

We offer these teachings to you, along with some observations from the two of us and from Rabbi David Seidenberg, in the hope that they will help you carry the consciousness of shmita into the next six years. More, we hope that by more fully absorbing the essence of these teachings, that you will find ways to model a more conscious approach to consumption, to reducing your own carbon footprints, to demonstrating lifestyles that rely on relationships rather than on accumulating stuff, and to inspiring others to do the same.

This in the hope that we will arrive at the next sabbatical year on a planet which is healing and a human race that is learning to live well and sustainably at the same time.

With blessings on Erev Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh Elul

Daniel and Esther

Ensouling the World is available in the Jewish Spiritual Texts section of the ALEPH ReSources Catalogue on this site.

This Pesach: Liberate Wild Salmon

I don’t usually write holiday messages. There are so many others who do a much better job than I can, but something happened to make this Pesach different.

This morning, (Monday, 30 March), as I was driving to catch the ferry which is the beginning of every trip (this time I was leaving for Portland where we will have a family seder), I caught a glimpse of a rainbow. Reminding me of the one after the flood and the promise associated with it, I thought of renewal after loss and of new beginnings and possibilities.

Experiencing this brief moment (the road turned and the rainbow disappeared) was an unintended benefit of the decision I had made to postpone leaving for a day in order to attend a talk given by Alexandra Morton, a biologist living in a remote community on the British Columbia coast and who has given the past two decades and more of her life to documenting the effects that salmon farms have on migrating wild salmon, in whose paths most of these farms (a number continuing to grow) are placed. I live on the Pacific coast, on an island which is on the route of significant salmon runs, and wild salmon are a staple of our diets and crucial to our livelihoods.

Giyur Documents for Children

Just before OHALAH, it was noticed that Reb Zalman’s templates included a giyur document for a girl in Hebrew with no English parallel and no documents for a boy. I looked through my files and now  share with you the following:

1. Two documents, one each for a boy and a girl. These are Reb Zalman’s which he shared with me many years ago and which I have modified somewhat. These are the versions I have been using.

2. His other template for a girl, the one which has been in the collection for many years, and to which I have now added an English version.

3. There is a generic one for children which I found, also only in Hebrew and which I’ve now translated. Reb Zalman sent it to me in April of 2014 in response to something on the OHALAH list which I don’t remember. This seems to be for a non-Jewish biological mother bringing more than one child at the same time. My sense is that this document will rarely be useful, but I thought it best to include every option I had.

Being Straight with God

Hanna and I were privileged to attend the bar mitzvah of Reb Aryeh Hirshfield’s twin sons on the Shabbat of US Thanksgiving weekend. It was a powerful experience, full of both joy and sadness, as several communities gathered to honour these two young men and their mother. Reb Aryeh z”l had passed away suddenly some years ago and was among Reb Zalman’s early musmachim and part of the founding of Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest. We who were Aryeh’s friends, colleagues, and family missed him even as we kvelled at the poise, maturity, and intelligence of his sons.

Among many special moments, Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of Corvallis, OR spoke about the word and name Yisra’el. The Torah reading for that Shabbat afternoon was Parashat VaYishlach, in which Jacob struggles with the angel and receives the name Yisra’el as the morning light ends the dark night. Most of the time in Jewish Renewal, we speak of this name of ours as meaning “God Wrestlers,” reflecting the reason given by the angel for this name “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Rabbi Ben pointed out that the name can also be read as Yashar El, being straight or honest with God. I resonated with this because I wrote something similar when I became rabbinic director of ALEPH back in 1997. In some sense, we are not only people who wrestle with God but also a people who maintain, as best we can, an honesty and simplicity with God, a moral and ethical core to which we are committed.

God Is My Light

“In this do I trust,” says the author of Psalm 27.

“For David,” the psalm begins. Is this the statement of authorship as tradition would have it, or could it be a dedication? This one is for you, David, you who nurtured your trust even when you were being hunted, even when you didn’t even have clothes to wear, even when your son betrayed you and your baby died.

I’ve recited this psalm annually for many years, but it was only in the past few that I managed to memorize it (sort of). This has given me the internal space to reflect on its transitions as well as on the verses which have captivated us through melody. “One thing I ask from God, this do I request: to dwell in God’s house all my life and to have visions of God’s beauty while visiting God’s sanctuary.”

The psalmist says that he is not afraid if a host encamp against him, for there is one thing he trusts, namely that all he has ever wanted is to dwell in God’s house. This relieves fear, I’m guessing, because there is no place which is not God’s house and so as long as he is conscious of that, there is no harm that can dislodge his trust and ultimate joy in being alive, nor make him afraid of death.

Shloshim for Reb Zalman

I have felt private since Reb Zalman passed. At first, I couldn’t find words to describe my feelings as I oscillated between simple acceptance and a deep sadness that left me in tears. For the rest of Semicha Week, I felt called to helping our chevra, first by singing a deathbed niggun Reb Zalman had shared with me years ago, by including El Maleh Rachamim in our Mincha that day, and by facilitating an abbreviated funeral service on Friday morning which began just as the funeral in Boulder began, giving us all an opportunity to say kaddish together.

When I walked into Kabbalat Shabbat that evening, I felt that I didn’t belong. A mourner waits outside until L’cha Dodi is over and only then comes into shul. I finally realized that I had lost my spiritual father, my rebbe, who had been in my life in one form or another for 52 years, whose Hassid I have been for 42 of those years. So I left and returned when L’cha Dodi ended. All during the next week of Ruach HaAretz, the combination of teaching, preparing, and being with our amazing granddaughters took up nearly all my time, providing the benefit of remaining private. Finally, being home these past two weeks and using the Kaddish L-Yachid that my students and I created, has allowed me to begin processing my feelings.