On Klei Kodesh & BlindSpots: 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.