I Do: When Fantasy Clashes With Reality

As anyone who has been married can tell you, marriage is all about reality: it is the process of creating a joint future in close quarters and close partnership. When it is a good match, it is one of the best things in the world; and when it is not – well, then let’s just let it suffice to say that it is not.

Weddings, however, are all about fantasy. My first husband had requested that I wear a big white dress with (in his words) ‘a draggy thing.’ So I had the yards and yards of tulle and the draggy thing, and a veil and 200 or so guests. I looked like Cinderella in white shoes.

That was the wedding in which I fulfilled everyone else’s expectations.

But later, older, wiser, and less prone to fantasy, I remarried. When I went to purchase a dress for my wedding to my husband Tom, I went to one of those cute little bridal shops and picked out a nice dress from a catalog: a bridesmaid dress, actually, in shell pink satin.

The day that it arrived, I was ecstatic: I wanted to go in and try it on and feel like a bride.  But as a single mom with a tight schedule, the only way I could go over there was to bring my son with me in an appointment sandwiched in between lunch and teaching.

Now, let me tell you: if you want to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, go to a bridal shop as a nearly-40 single mom in a subdued pink bridal gown, which is really a bridesmaid gown repurposed, and stand next to the 20-something young women getting fitted with big white dresses with yards of lace, beads, sequins, and tulle.

Go there and stand next to women who have not yet lost the glossy sheen of youth, who do not know love’s disappointment or despair.

My pink gown was wrinkled and the zipper was broken and gaping open, and my six-year-old son kept picking up those plastic clips that they use for fittings and clipping them randomly all over my dress. ‘Here Mommy: I found another one,’ he would say as he clipped it on.

There is reality, and there is fantasy, and the sales ladies at this little bridal salon were none too thrilled to have the two standing side by side.

We all have an image in our head of What Things Should Look Like; some of our greatest disappointments, in fact, are when things don’t match up to that fantasy. We might spend long years in denial, in fact, hoping that the image in our head is at some point matched by the facts on the ground.

What gets us into trouble, however, is when we pretend that the reality and the fantasy are one and the same. When we think that the job or the marriage or the living situation will get better when we know in our bones that it will not. But it is very easy to hold on to that fantasy and to hope for the best.

Our relationship to God – and by extension, our relationship to Judaism – can also be a bit like that. We think that things should happen a certain way, and then they do not. Should we give up on our faith? Should we get angry at God?

As I said, my first marriage started in fantasy – in the great white wedding with a tulle-and-lace Cinderella gown with a draggy-thing and a tiara and white gloves. And then that most lovely wedding ended in the reality of a divorce; the unraveling of the relationship began almost immediately even though it took many years to complete.

But that second dress – the shell-pink bridesmaid’s dress, beautiful at last after it had been steam-pressed, altered and repaired – was the one in which I traded fantasy for the reality of a mature and lasting love, the fairy tale for happily-ever-after.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD., serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Prayer Rabbis

Texas: Unexpected Moments of Awe

It has happened to me (more than once in my lifetime) that a person will come and tell me something about what will happen next in my life. It is most often a very specific bit of advice from someone I know but not well; it is normally not someone I would seek out for counsel. And every time it is the same thing: the person will see me out at a social gathering – often at a gathering in which it was not a given that I would be there – and announce to me ‘I have a message for you,’ as if they had just listened to a voice mail addressed specifically to me.

When that happens, I know to listen: the person will invariably tell me something that I need to know about what will happen next.

The most recent example occurred right before I started my job search a few years ago. At a party, an acquaintance came up (someone who did not know that I was looking for work) and told me the following: ‘You will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be some place – like Texas – that you’ve never considered before.”

“Texas?” I asked, wondering, “Why Texas?” It’s not the first place I would pick.

She shook her head: “It’s not Texas specifically; it could be Texas, or it could be somewhere else; I can’t tell you where exactly. But it’s a part of the world that you have never considered before. They need you, and you need them. They need to hear what you have to say, and you need them to hear it. You will both benefit.”


At that point in the process, I had not even mapped out what I wanted to do. So I took her comments under advisement.

A few months later, I had come to the (somewhat surprising) conclusion that I really wanted to go back to congregational work. I love academics, of course, but I realized that I missed that element of transcendence that hovers over the work of a rabbi.

So I called the Director of Placement and told him that I was thinking of returning to congregational work. After he quizzed me about my general background and interests, his first question regarding my search was: “Have you ever considered living in Texas?”


“Texas is fine,” I tell him. “I am open to living in any location.”

It did not turn out to be Texas, but my move was to a place I’d not known existed. Nonetheless, the advice to be open to new places, to leaving, to going somewhere I had not considered before was indeed helpful. When the option came open, I was in a place spiritually and emotionally to accept it, and to do so joyously, without doubt. I left with a clear heart.

I cannot give you a good reason why this phenomenon takes place; I simply cannot explain it. I can tell you that the Bible records several instances of a person – ‘ish’ – who appears mid-narrative with instructions as to what will happen next. Joseph, for example, finds his brothers after encountering such a person.

The person’s instruction is not necessarily one that makes the road smooth; rather, it is an announcement of what needs to happen next. And it has happened enough times now that I heed its call.

And it can be subtle. Recall, for example, the story of Elijah the prophet’s encounter with God. Elijah has retreated to a cave after a difficult set of circumstances to try and regroup. He is a wanted man, and he is experiencing grave doubt. And then he seeks God. This is how the text describes the encounter:

“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.”

“After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”

“After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.”

“And after the fire – a still, small voice.”

Elijah encounters God as a still small voice after the fire and noise and trembling.

There are things in this life that you just know intuitively, in a spiritual way, in a ‘still, small voice’ kind of way. There is an element of God in that knowledge.

Our perception of the world, as we move through our lives, involves this interplay of presence and absence, of articulate speech and of silent wonder. But we do not ever capture its fullness; in truth, we simply cannot.

As I said: I cannot tell you why it happens, any of it. I can only stand in awe and listen.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD serves Temple Beth Israel and teaches at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.

Ethics Prayer

“Rabbi, How Can I Pray if I Don’t Believe in God?”

Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?

Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?

There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.

The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?

Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.

‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.

But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.

The Lord is one.

When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?

The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.

This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.

It’s like creating a small box and asking God to step inside so that we might carry God around with us like a good-luck charm.

God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.

What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally? Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.

Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’ Take that message to heart and act upon it.

In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.

If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.

In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart, all of your mind, and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD., serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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What’s wrong with ethnic jokes?

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Germany. I was there, of course, to learn German: that was the express purpose of the trip. But I also had felt a need to go there to find out whether Germans were a different kind of people. I wanted to see if there was some kind of obvious reason for the Holocaust.

And what I found was that Germans are not particularly different. The German university students I met were much like the students I met in the U.S. Maybe they were a little more focused, on the account of the fact that they were older. The German university system is organized a bit differently than ours. But otherwise they were thoroughly normal. You might even say: depressingly so.

The Holocaust would be easier to fathom if the Germans appeared to be a different kind of human, wholly unlike us.

While I was living there, I hung out with a group of students from a diverse list of nations: some Americans, a Spaniard, some Brits, and a German. One night we’d had dinner together and were hanging out in the dorm kitchen telling jokes in English. And so one of the students made a tasteless ethnic joke, the kind of joke that starts: “A Jew, a Frenchman and an Arab…”

So he told the joke and almost everyone laughed — or at least groaned — except for Bernd, the German man in our group. He was very quiet, and very still. Thinking that Bernd did not understand the joke – for humor is indeed difficult to translate – the joke-teller proceeded to tell the joke again. This time, Bernd slammed his fist down on the table: “I understood it the first time.”

We were stunned: where was his anger coming from?

He calmed himself and explained: “In Germany, we have a saying. Asylanten, as you know, are asylum-seekers, refugees. Ausländer are foreigners. And a Witz is a joke. So this is the saying: Asylantenwitz… Ausländerwitz… Auschwitz.

I learned something that day.

Words matter. The names we use when we talk about each other matter. Our jokes matter. We should be careful not to hurt one another, and careful to avoid marginalizing each other.

There is, as you know, a backlash in this country to the whole concept of ‘political correctness.’ It has become popular to express disdain for those who would ask that we modify our language. Political correctness is perceived as a form of whiny victimhood.

But I disagree. To the contrary: I think, for example, that the Redskins should change their name, in deference to the repeated requests by Native American groups, because ‘Redskin’ is not meant as a compliment.

I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to the misuse of Holocaust imagery. I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to ethnic jokes.

Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such. Yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

In other words, when it comes to hurting others, I really don’t have much of a sense of humor. We can and should do better.

On this Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, I’d like to share with you the reflection I delivered at the Days of Remembrance program in the Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh:

We approach the enormity of the Holocaust with a sense of rupture. We have this sense of rupture because the Holocaust alters our view of what can possibly happen.

Even a nation as cultured as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide.

In confronting the Holocaust, then, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature.

Speaking from the Jewish perspective, I can tell you this: the Holocaust has forced us to reconsider our theology and worldview. What is and is not preventable? What can and cannot happen? What might we reasonably expect from God?

On the other hand, I also can tell you this: the Holocaust is not the first time that we have had to reconsider our God-concept in the face of tragedy. The destruction of the Second Temple, for example, created a similar difficulty of how to relate to God in the absence of the Temple cult.

In that context, the question was not merely the ritual problem but also a theological problem: won’t the world come apart if the sacrifices are not offered on time and in the right manner?

And the answer is no. The world won’t come apart if we don’t offer the sacrifices on time and in the right manner. The world shrugs and continues, even after tragedy, and the sun dawns again.

Yet we simply cannot abandon the project. We cannot leave the past in a clean break without finding points of continuity. We are still very much a part and product of our world. We must mourn and we must build again.

So, in the wake of the Holocaust, that means that we live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious but tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY. This was originally published on her blog, Godtalk: Judaism as a Theological Adventure.

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Home Again: After the Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

I am home again, missing Israel.

In the time since I returned from the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission, I have been asked a number of times – ‘did it go well?’ and ‘was the trip effective?’ Yes, and yes.

Why did I go? As I have noted in earlier posts, the Women of the Wall have been meeting for 25 years to engage in prayer in honor of the new moon. Yet, month after month, they have been met with catcalls and violence. The reason? Many of the women are wearing a tallit and/or tefillin and are praying out loud. These practices – though normative among female Jews in many parts of the world – offend the ultra-orthodox, who seem to believe that they have the last word when it comes to Jewish practice.

Recently, the Women of the Wall won an important court victory that allows them to pray at the Wall. This victory is why our prayer service was so peaceful this month. We were surrounded by a ring of female soldiers and given protection on our way out of the plaza.

Even more important than the court decision, however, is the fact that the Women of the Wall have been invited to the table to negotiate an arrangement with the Israeli government to bring peace to this holy site.

RabbiTulingOn the table: a proposal to move them an area adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, an area that is larger. Also on the table: a demand that this plaza be visible from the security entrance, a demand that it be given equal treatment in everything from signage to budgeting, and a demand that it be fully accessible 24/7, even to those in need of a wheelchair.

Some of the original members of the organization have objected, on the grounds that they have been fighting for the right to pray at the Western Wall in the manner that they are accustomed.  From their point of view, this arrangement is a capitulation rather than a compromise.

But I think that the board of the Women of the Wall are taking the right steps toward realizing their dream. I back them 100%, for the following reasons:

  1. They are not moving until satisfied, so nothing changes right away.
  2. The end result would let visitors see both prayer options (ultra-orthodox and egalitarian) in one view after clearing security. So for the first time, Israelis would have the opportunity to see both options and make a choice.
  3. Mixed-gender bar/bat mitzvahs will be possible there.
  4. The WoW could continue to pray as a women-only group in the egalitarian section using a moveable mechitzah.

Our pressure from abroad has been highly effective, for it has helped enormously in bringing us to this watershed moment. Therefore, we should continue to let the government of Israel know that the eyes of the world’s Jews are watching. Our message: help bring us closer to Israel by creating a place where our modes of prayer are welcome.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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My Tallit Is from Israel: CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

My tallit is from Israel. It is the tallit that I wore daily during my year in Israel, wore when I was ordained, stood under when I was married, and used to swaddle my son during his bris. It is the one I use it regularly now when I lead services at my congregation. It is a gorgeous handwoven black and white Gabrielli.

But I had not ever worn it at the Western Wall – until now.

I did not wear it out of fear. I was afraid of being heckled, of being spat upon, of being arrested, of having a chair thrown at me. I was afraid that if I practiced Judaism according to the norms of my community – the community that I lead – while standing in this holy place in Israel, I would be harassed or hurt.

I had, in fact, quietly stayed away from Israel for this reason: it hurts too much to go to the very center of the Jewish world and find yourself marginalized and invisible. I did not advertise my sorrow: I just turned away.

But (as I explained in my earlier post), I came to realize, as I was writing my Yom Kippur eve sermon, that I really needed to be there when the Women of the Wall celebrated its 25th anniversary. Merely preaching my agreement with their cause would not make the same powerful statement as standing with them in solidarity.

So, on Monday, I proudly joined my sisters in prayer, engaged in this moving, wonderful service, wearing our tallit and singing in full voices. We were praying together in the women’s section, surrounded by female soldiers who were protecting us. Scattered through the crowd were cantors with earpieces connected to our central sound system who could help lead the hundreds upon hundreds of women who came to pray, enabling us to sing with one voice.

For the third aliyah, in fact, all of the women there were invited to recite the blessings. And to include us all we raised our tallitot above our heads, creating a safe space for all of us to encounter this palpable sense of God’s protection.

So here is my own dream, my own vision of the future:

We know, from numerous studies, that visiting Israel cements Jewish identity in a way few other things are able to do.

But the marginalization of liberal Jews has been an enormous obstacle for us: the holiest sites are alienating to us, due to the insistence that we conform to the orthodox interpretation of the tradition.

So this is my plea and my prayer: we need the state of Israel to help us, to work to fix the situation, negotiate with the Women of the Wall, and change the facts on the ground, so that it might be possible for us to bring our congregants, our families, our friends, and let them fall in love with all that Israel might possibly become.

Members of the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission
Members of the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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Why I’m Going to Israel for Women of the Wall

I am packing for Israel, after a long time away. Like nearly all Reform Rabbis, I spent my first year of the rabbinical program in Jerusalem, learning first-hand what life is like in the Jewish state: beautiful, complicated, ordinary, and above all else, profoundly Jewish.

There were good reasons why I have not been there recently: the completion of a degree, family responsibilities. After a while, it seems, this very act of not-going can become its own habit: you think of other priorities, other needs.

So, let me tell you what happened: when I started writing my Yom Kippur eve sermon about Israel, I did not think that I was going to be there any time soon. Yom Kippur marked the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War: certainly a few words were in order, even if the subject can become fraught in a North American synagogue where the congregants are not of one mind on this matter and emotions run deep. How to proceed?

So I wrote a sermon about my first time in Israel, as a convert and a rabbinical student, uncertain about what the year might mean for me. How I fell in love with a country. And why it is still a place where I struggle with my outsider status. And why I support Women of the Wall.

Israel was founded on a Zionist narrative forged in Europe: we will not be accepted, not now and not ever. Jews should have a state like all other states, a people like all other peoples. That narrative speaks the truth of that context: ‘Imagine,’ an Israeli diplomat once told me, ‘if Israel had been founded ten years earlier. Imagine all of the lives we could have saved.’ Imagine.

But the North American experience has been profoundly different. Though my own narrative is not something that makes sense in the heat of the consuming fire of the Holocaust, it is rather unremarkable here: a bookish and brainy girl, nominally Protestant, falls in love with a Jewish boy in college, studies with a thoughtful rabbi, converts, and finds a new life-purpose in serving the Jewish people. In my case, I have not only become a rabbi but I also have an earned PhD in Jewish Studies as well. These days I lead a congregation in northern New York and teach undergraduates at SUNY.

To be sure, there will be people who read my post and dismiss me as a pretender: real Judaism is not what is practiced by converted female reform rabbis in North America. So let me explain, then, what is really at stake here.

In the US, where the congregants vote with their pocketbooks, the Reform movement is the largest. The two largest liberal denominations (Reform and Conservative) account for more than 50% of the US Jewish population, according to the most recent Pew Report.

In Israel, however, the dominant form of religious observance has been orthodox, and an increasingly rigid orthodoxy at that. Israel follows the European model, in which religious institutions receive funding from the state. And only the orthodox can count on that funding.

Though the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled in favor of funding Reform rabbis, that ruling has yet to be implemented because orthodoxy in Israel is opposed to recognizing liberal forms of Judaism for both theological and financial reasons. We are (rightly) viewed as a threat to their livelihood.

The place where this struggle for resources is most visible is in the area of  women’s rights.

Women have been increasingly silenced in Jerusalem and in areas where the ultra-orthodox are dominant. Women have been removed from advertisements, from radio, from panels about women’s health.

Why would women be targeted like that? After all, it is possible to be a fully traditionally-observant Jew without oppressing the rights of women. It is not the weight of our tradition that is necessarily forcing these increasingly-narrow interpretations of the role of women. These rabbis are, in fact, introducing innovations whenever they make Judaism less hospitable to women.

Rather, the role of women is one of the most visible boundary-issues dividing the most traditional forms of Judaism from the more liberal forms. That is to say, suppressing women is not the purest expression of Judaism; it is, rather, the most effective way to reinforce the power of the ultra-orthodox.

And that is why I am packing my bags. The Women of the Wall is an organization that challenges this silencing of women. They are seeking to give voice and presence to female prayer. And they have braved insults and violence to do so.

So, as I wrote my Erev Yom Kippur sermon, advocating the goals of the Women of the Wall, it became increasingly clear to me: I needed to be there too. I needed to demonstrate in voice and in presence, that the ultra-orthodox vision of Judaism is just one small slice of a much larger, more colorful, and more inclusive whole.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.