Categories
Books Inclusion LGBT

‘Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells’: A Project of Hope

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, was published by CCAR Press in the spring of 2020. In this post, Rabbi Eger shares how the book came to be.

Some rabbis collect their sermons and publish them. They are pearls of wisdom for the ages.

I may yet do that at some point.

But more urgently, I saw the need to center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout my years of service as a rabbi, I had to create ceremonies and prayers for my community when there were no resources. I was ordained in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when our beloved HUC-JIR still wouldn’t ordain openly LGBTQ+ people as rabbis or cantors. We lived in fear and in the closet. Maybe that is hard to believe now for our many openly LGBTQ+ rabbis and seminarians, but it wasn’t that long ago when we gathered secretly at CCAR Conventions late at night in someone’s room to connect with other queer colleagues.

Over the years, I wrote prayers for Pride Month and National Coming Out Day. I would write invocations and blessings for interfaith gatherings affirming the worth and dignity

of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and people with HIV. I had to invent, create, and imagine an authentic queer Jewish life when there was little liturgy available.

Religion is so often used to shame and hurt LGBTQ+ people. Too much violence and hatred are directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religion. I purposefully write from a different perspective.

I tried to create prayers in a genuine Jewish voice that uplifted, instilling hope and healing. I tried to combat homophobia through prayers and reflections that reinforced the theology that all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. I tried to convey what today we call audacious hospitality, writing naming ceremonies for those transitioning gender, wedding ceremonies before we had any templates, and rituals for coming out. I wrote my first ceremony to celebrate someone coming out as gay in 1986! It was centered around an aliyah to the Torah, as a riff on benching Gomel and a Mi Shebeirach for well-being.

But luckily, over these same three-plus decades, LGBTQ+ Jewish life has grown and blossomed. We have seen tectonic shifts in not just welcoming LGBTQ+ and non-binary Jews home, but embracing queer life and queer Jewish voices.

Often when Gay Pride Month would roll around, many of you, my colleagues, would call or email me to ask for materials for Pride Shabbat. I shared whatever I had created that year. Clearly there was a need for a collection of resources to help communities live out our commitment to be welcoming and embracing places of LGBTQ+ folx. Not one for sitting around, after my time in leadership of the Conference, I knew it was the right moment to collect not only some of own writings, but to invite others to share their poetry, prayer, and passion—centering the voices and experiences of our queer Jewish community.

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells was born out of this effort.

Mishkan Ga’avah represents some of the collected wisdom, voices, and experiences of Jewish LGBTQ+ people. It is a spiritual resource for both the individual and the community. I hope it inspires others to write creative liturgy and prayers using their own voices. And I hope it will offer comfort, solace, inspiration, and hope to LGBTQ+ people everywhere—a beautiful strand of pearls for all of our Jewish community to wear.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days

Reading ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ during a Pandemic

Read the same psalm every day for fifty days?
The same one we read last year? 
Using the same book and the same practice?
Yes. Yes. Yes and yes.
Get a new notebook or open a new computer file.
Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen.
But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice
(this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).

Why? 
Because the world has changed.
Because the ways we see or hear,
experience and reflect on the same words have changed.
We know it to be true from our experience,
reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle.
We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way
because of something or someone we encountered or considered.
We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently
because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer,
we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective.
And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19,
we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.

Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2)
Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3)
How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4)
Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5)
How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6)
Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8)
Who have we abandoned? (27:10)
On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12)
And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11)
When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer?
Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7)
Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)

The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org



Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Social Justice

What Can Jonah Teach Us About #BlackLivesMatter?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020). In this post, he reflects on what Jonah can teach us about the current moment. 


As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding? 

I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation. 

As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles. 

And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul. 

But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants. 

As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.

At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.

Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change. 

The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary Official Book Trailer from CCAR on Vimeo.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press

Categories
Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

Categories
Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books

Gratitude and Tears: Finding Hope During COVID-19

These days, witnessing and receiving acts of kindness makes me cry. In this strange time of coronavirus, most of those tears come from witnessing something online. They are gentle tears. Only a few tears at a time. Almost imperceptible to others.

I know these tears. They are the tears that weave joy and suffering with the holiness of witnessing. The kind of tears that, until now, I’ve experienced only during Kabbalat Shabbat when the shaliach tzibbur – the prayer leader – captures the essence of the Sabbath in the song. To me, the tears themselves are a prayer.

A few days ago, in one of those moments of holy tears, I understood that getting through the COVID-19 isolation will be easier for me if I seek out moments of gratitude. (Here’s my CCAR One Minute of Wonder on gratitude.) But how? I already write a gratitude list every day. Perhaps by sharing my gratitude with others, and reading about the gratitude of others. The idea jumped out as a way to strengthen my own practice of gratitude while simultaneously helping others.

As a result, I launched a new Facebook group, Grateful Heart, Joyous Soul, Precious Life, which offers the opportunity for members to post about gratitude in our daily lives. Within a day, more than four hundred people were on the page posting and reading about each other’s moments of gratitude. To help her congregants cope, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Congregation in London invited her members to join and to share their gratitude in the Facebook group.

I’m posting a daily “gratitude prompt” to help us all see different ways to be grateful. Gratitude prompts will be wide-ranging—words, music, and images. For example, there will be a song gratitude day in which people are encouraged to post links to their favorite songs. We’ve already had a flower gratitude day, in which people can post photos of beautiful flowers to create an online bouquet. There will be prompts for gratitude for safety, security, family, friends, favorite appliances, favorite memories, and many more.

The name of the page was a blinding flash of the obvious for me. It’s the combination of the titles of my two current CCAR Press books—This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings—as well as the working title of my next CCAR Press book, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer. Gratitude leads to joy. Joy and gratitude lead to a deeper understanding of the preciousness of each moment of our lives. Grateful Heart. Joyous Soul. Precious Life.

You are invited to join. And you are invited to share the link with your congregation, as Rabbi Mulstein did.

In the spirit of joy, gratitude, and the preciousness of life, here’s “Prayer of Gratitude” from This Joyous Soul:

Prayer of Gratitude

Today is a gift,
O my God,
To know Your world,
To receive Your blessings.

Rock of Ages,
Your works surround us,
Daily signs of awe and wonder,
Daily guides to joy and service.
Bless me with hands of strength,
A heart of courage,
A mind of understanding.
Bless me with a voice of praises,
A life of gratitude,
Days filled with hope and love.

“Prayer of Gratitude” by Alden Solovy, © 2019 CCAR Press. All rights reserved.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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Books News

New CCAR Press Book ‘Inscribed’ Provides A New Look at the Ten Commandments

It is not an exaggeration to characterize the Revelation at Sinai as the prime foundational experience in the life of the Jewish people. At Sinai, Jewish law, peoplehood, theology, and ethics were all conceived simultaneously amid thunder, smoke, and the blare of the shofar. With the first syllable reverberating from the mountaintop, Israel assumed a new relationship with their God, who would—for all time—be their unique, transcendent Teacher.

But for the Jewish people, the mechanics of revelation do not unfold merely in a vertical dimension between the Commander and the commanded; Torah is also revealed in the horizontal dimension, through the democratic, communal bonds between study partners. From Sinai until now, in every Jewish community, each successive insight that Jews bring to their study of Torah makes it possible for God’s self to unfurl in new ways. In this way, the beliefs and practices of Jewish life take on sharper clarity in every generation of Israel’s peoplehood.

Initially, of course, our Israelite ancestors were not eager to embrace their relationship with God’s word; they cowered from God’s voice and retreated from Sinai, leaving Moses alone to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:15–18). Despite Moses’s high hopes about the inspiring power of divine speech, its sheer force terrified the first generation of God’s students huddled at Sinai’s foot and might have ironically led to their spiritual impoverishment if the people hadn’t quickly developed the skills of interpretive and imaginative Jewish learning.

Creativity and innovation are critical skills for Jewish learners, and these skills were inculcated in us by Moses himself at the very beginning of our relationship with Torah. Looking down at the frightened Israelite masses at the base of the mountain, Moses must have realized quickly that, in order to worship an invisible God who demands faith in the not-yet possible, he would have to nurture Israel’s capacity for interpretive imagination. Moses needed to demonstrate that the exercise of Jewish learning can bring the impossible and the intangible into being—and so, immediately after the commandments are revealed, he goes on to teach his homeless, landless people about cisterns, vineyards, and olive groves (Deuteronomy 6:10–11).

The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Makot 23b–24a) suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments directly; the rest were heard only by Moses and translated faithfully to the people. But Moses refers to the entire Decalogue as having been heard by “every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3), not only those who stood at the mountain. Thus, each subsequent repetition of the words of Torah comprises a miraculous, eternal act of religious witness, and every opportunity for learning Torah is an endeavor of radical imagination. For the generation of Sinai, this meant molding their minds and hearts to accommodate things that did not yet exist; for us, the imaginative work of Torah study may mean imagining versions of ourselves that do not yet exist, and then working to bring those selves into being.

Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, a new publication from CCAR Press, was conceived to simultaneously recognize the primacy of the Sinai moment and embrace the multivocality of contemporary Jewish learning—both within and beyond the Reform Movement. The book presents two or three chapters focusing on each of the Ten Commandments. The essays are written by a diverse group of authors, who explore the ways in which those timeless utterances led to the formation of law and ethics, and continue to inform the lives of modern Jews. The contributors represent a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specialization: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live all across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents; the diversity of these contributors helps give voice to the richness and variety encoded in the Revelation moment, and their voices highlight the ongoing impact and eternal relevance of Torah that flourishes in today’s world.

Although we can fairly assume that God’s words no longer sound the way they did at Sinai, their echoes still continue today. And, in a beautifully ironic turn, millennia after our ancestors hid from the sound of God’s voice at Sinai, today we hold a unique ability to keep that ancient sound alive each time we learn or teach the words of Torah. Our willingness to remain attuned to the hum of a holy presence in the world is what preserves our heritage as a timeless nation of learners. As we continue the process of sacred study that began at a smoke-wreathed mountain in the desert, the work of radical spiritual imagination inscribes itself continuously into our hearts and minds.


Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, now available from CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Healing Poetry Prayer spirituality

Book Excerpt: “Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice,” By Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

CCAR Press is honored to release Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar’s latest book, Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice. This collection includes prayers for personal use, prayers for use at communal gatherings, prayers and readings for moments of grief and moments of joy, a collection of daily Psalms, and focus phrases and questions for meditation. Rabbi Kedar’s new book is available for purchase now.

Below, we are share one of the many inspiring passages found in Amen.

Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, and other publications by Rabbi Kedar, are available for purchase here.

“The Archaeologist of the Soul”

I suppose that the archaeologist
delights in brokenness.
Shards are proof of life.
Though a vessel, whole, but dusty
and rare, is also good.

I suppose that the archaeologist
does not agonize over the charred
lines of destruction signifying
a war, a conquest, a loss, a fire,
or a complete collapse.
The blackened layer
seared upon the balk
is discovery.

So why do I mourn,
and shiver,
and resist?
Why do I weep
as I dig deeper
and deeper still?
Dust, dirt,
buckets of rubble,
brokenness,
a fire or two,
shattered layers
of a life that
rebuilds upon
the discarded,
the destroyed,
and then
the reconstructed,
only to break again,
and deeper still,
shards upon shards,
layers upon layers.

If you look carefully,
the earth reveals its secrets.
So does the soul,
and the cell,
and the sinew,
and the thought,
and the wisp of memory,
and the laugh,
and the cry,
and the heart,
that seeks its deepest truth,
digging down,
down to bedrock.

Rock bottom they call it,
and in Hebrew,
the Mother Rock.

God of grace,
teach me
that the layers
of brokenness
create a whole.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area. Her previously published books include God Whispers, The Dance of the Dolphin (Our Dance with God), The Bridge to Forgiveness, and Omer: A Counting. She is published in numerous anthologies and is renowned for her creative liturgy. Rabbi Kedar teaches courses and leads retreats that explore the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work has culminated in the newly released Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Torah

Book Excerpt: “Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot”

In recognition of the new CCAR Press book, Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, edited by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, we are honored to share this excerpt from a chapter on the Torah parashot Noach. This new collection follows the classic Voices of Torah, giving insight and inspiration on each Torah parashah, including holiday portions, and is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

נח Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, 2010

Noach ish tzaddik . . . b’dorotav, “Noah was a righteous person . . . in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

We are all familiar with the Rashi on this verse. The word b’dorotav can be viewed either positively or negatively. First, positively: despite his generation, Noah was righteous—as if there was a righteousness meter and Noah reached the level that any generation would call a tzaddik. Alternatively, Noah could only be considered righteous in his own generation, the generation of the Flood.

Too often we take this dichotomy into our own spiritual lives. How do we know how much we need to do in order to be good? Is there a level of study, tzedakah, or hospital visits we should be doing? Where do these levels come from? Yet, we are also told that we need to spend time with our families, go on vacations, network with colleagues, and even have a social life. The most limited resource for any rabbi is time. Are we doomed to a guilt-ridden life of “If only I had done more?” (I already hear—“Nu, what do you expect, we’re Jews!”) Whether we use subjective or objective measures, will that voice in our heads (mother? superego? conscience?) ever let us be content?

We, as much as our congregants, need to remember Reb Zusya’s lesson: “In the world-to-come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Whether Noah was righteous only in his generation or in any generation is less important than whether Noah was the best Noah he could be. So too for us. As we reflect on each day and each year, let us not forget the wonderful contributions we have made to the lives of so many. Let us remember our own limits and the importance of practicing self-care. To truly do our best is difficult enough. We are so used to saying, Hineini!—Here I am!; let us not forget our tradition also includes, Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, “You are not required to complete the task” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper, 2012

Parashat Noach offers one of the first and most powerful illustrations of the role played by water in our tradition. Though a source of life, it is also—as natural disasters have demonstrated—a cause of destruction.

With water, God destroys nearly all of Creation, while simultaneously cleansing the earth in order that Creation—humanity in particular—may begin anew. With water, Abraham generously bathes the feet of God’s messengers. It is near a well that Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah and that Jacob first sees Rachel. Both are pivotal meetings that ensure the perpetuation of our people. At the Sea of Reeds and at the Jordan River, our ancestors cross through water and undergo their transformation toward nationhood. In our own day, water remains associated with transformation and cleansing. Water is essential for tahorah, tashlich, and mikveh—traditionally understood as purification of body, spirit, and relationship.

The magnificent rivers, lakes, and oceans that define so much of our natural landscape and are sources of indescribable beauty can also bring about suffering, either through human misstep or act of nature. Niagara Falls is breathtaking to observe, but images of Hurricane Katrina conjure up horror and despair.

Only a slender thread separates delight and pain. May we today not retreat to our own arks as we continue to both cherish and fear the water that is fundamental to our lives.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, 2015

Midrash Tanchuma offers details on the Noach narrative that lift it out of the mold of the familiar children’s tale.

The word usually translated as “ark” in the biblical text is teivah, an Egyptian loanword meaning “box.” This particular box kept danger (the Flood) out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. Some of the animals were dangerous; a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Ps. 142:8, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks,” the Rabbis tell us that these words refer to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but misery. The Rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him harshly because he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. In comparison with Abraham, who advocated for his fellow human beings, the Rabbis found Noach wanting.

The Rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own, to Avraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare? Might he have convinced God to rethink the Flood? What “boxes” do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2017

Finding the world awash in the chaos of evil and corruption, God reverses the order of Creation, releasing the waters held back by the firmament and land. The world is engulfed with water, returning it to watery tohu vavohu. The people, who at first seemed pristine and perfect, showed their true colors while still in the Garden of Eden: imperfect human beings. So God wipes away humanity and begins anew with a new “first family”— Noah’s family.

Jonathan Sacks points out in Essays on Ethics that in the ideal garden, the so-far perfect people needed to know they were created b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27), but after the Flood, when the extent of the capacity for human evil is evident, people need to know that others are created in God’s image as well (Gen. 9:6). There is a world of difference between focusing on the divine image in one’s self and recognizing it in others. As Sacks points out, the former affirms that all in Creation is good, but the latter emphasizes the necessity of covenant, which introduces moral law into the world: prescriptions to restore “good.” He writes, “So, according to the Torah, a new era began, centered not on the idea of natural goodness, but on the concept of covenant—that is, moral law” (p. 12)—from “I am tzelem Elohim” to “you are tzelem Elohim.”

That lesson, that the other is also tzelem Elohim, remains the lynchpin for morality and the hardest lesson to teach. It must become the litmus test for policies in our local communities, for our national political endeavors, and throughout the world.


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, earned her doctorate from the Department of Rabbinic Literature at Potsdam University, Germany and is the senior editor at CCAR Press. Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, has been chief Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Canarsie since 2003. Rabbi Bill S. Tepper is the part-time rabbi at Temple  Shalom in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Rabbi Ruth Adar, known as the Coffee Shop Rabbi, teaches through HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, California and discusses film on her blog A Rabbi At the Movies. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the hospice rabbi in Howard County, Maryland, and is the editor of the Torah Commentary column of the CCAR newsletter from which Voices of Torah is collected. These accomplished rabbis have all contributed to the newly released Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Israel

Book Excerpt: “Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State”

CCAR Press is honored to have published Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, edited by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John L. Rosove.

Using the vision embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a template, this new anthology presents a unique and comprehensive dialogue between North American Jews and Israelis about the present and future of the State of Israel. Deepening the Dialogue is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

Below, read an excerpt by Rabbi Noa Sattath and Rabbi Judith Schindler, the book’s consulting editors.

“Overcoming the Loneliness We Feel: A Way Forward Together”

Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel

Progressive activists in Israel are facing tremendous challenges—hostile governments, complex bureaucracies, and ongoing conflict.

Over the past decade we have been feeling increasingly isolated. The right wing in Israel receives massive, growing support from Jewish (and Evangelical) constituencies in North America. While this conservative support is growing exponentially, support from American liberals is declining. The majority of the North American Jewish community has liberal political and religious views and  self-identifies as “pro-Israel.”1 Yet American Jewish support for progressive activities in Israel is diminishing. With current extreme anti-democratic trends in Israel,2 many Jews are struggling to balance their liberal political and religious positions with their support for Israel. Too often, this struggle leads to liberals disengaging from Israel and Israeli progressive activists and organizations losing support—moral, political, and financial support.

In order to break the isolation, I believe we need to redefine the meaning of “pro-Israel.” If “pro-Israel” only means embracing every Israeli government policy, too many liberal Jews will not be able to identify themselves as such. We need to define “pro-Israel” as supporting Israel’s Declaration of Independence, supporting the Israel that lives up to the dreams of its founders, and supporting those Israeli organizations and activists that share our progressive values and work to protect them.

Anti-democratic trends around the world use fear to enable national leaders to gain more power, incite people against minorities, and attack gender equality—all in an attempt to sustain or restore a power structure that will preserve the supremacy of old elites. These trends appear not only in Israel, but in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the world.

Recent years have put extensive demands on us progressives on both sides of the ocean as we have strived to advance our Jewish vision of just societies. Facing tremendous backlash, we have had to work in more focused, strategic, and innovative ways.

In Israel, we have experienced this anti-democratic trend for almost a decade. Our opponents on the Israeli right are working to build an illiberal, racist Israel that continues to occupy land on which millions of Palestinians live. They do so with the support of elements within the North American Jewish community, support of which the progressive camp can only dream. The settlements are backed by North American Jewish donors, and almost no settlement could survive without North American support. With billions of dollars, Sheldon Adelson finances the most widely read newspaper in Israel, which is distributed for free and supports the current government positions. Our political opponents are working in Israel and around the world with North American Jewish support—while portraying and imposing Jewish orthodoxy as the only authentic Jewish religious expression.

The majority of the North American Jewish community, which is liberal both politically and religiously, is increasingly pulling back from Israel. It is quite overwhelming to compare the large impact of right-wing North American groups to the decreasing impact of their liberal counterparts. It is one of the core reasons for the continued decrease of power of the progressive camp. It is a vicious cycle: because significant elements within the North American community increase their support of the anti-democratic camp, the Israeli government takes more positions and actions against the egalitarian, democratic camp. In response, North American liberal Jews withdraw even further, thus strengthening the anti-democratic camp, which then leads to more hawkish Israeli policies, and so on. As progressive activists in Israel, we sometimes feel abandoned by our North American brothers and sisters. We must break this cycle. 

There are two narratives of the situation in Israel and Palestine that dominate the discourse in North America. One is the narrative of Israel’s public diplomacy: Israel can do no wrong; the IDF is the most moral army in the world; there is no solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict; the stagnation of the process toward a two-state solution is the fault of the Palestinians; and the conflict within Israel is either nonexistent or not important. Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative less and less.

The second narrative claims that there is a huge moral problem with Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and that the only appropriate response is boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative more and more.

Our movement works for social justice in North America and Israel. It is up to us to build a third narrative—one that acknowledges the moral challenges, and one that is determined to arrive at a solution building on a more intentional and strategic partnership between North American and Israeli progressive activists.

As liberal Zionists, our goal is for our society to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). We aspire to achieve the prophetic Jewish vision of a repaired world and a just society. We want more than to be measured in comparison to our neighboring countries or to other countries violating human rights.

Discussing social justice questions means to scrutinize and analyze complex power structures, traditions, and belief systems. As demonstrated in the chapters of this book, there are multiple and multilayered social justice questions to be discussed both in and in regard to Israel. Many North American Jews pull away from Israel because they are disappointed by its government policies—and because they shy away from an overwhelmingly complicated issue. Speaking about addressing the social justice questions in Israel, one cannot hope for simple, instant solutions. But this must not discourage us.

Many progressives in North America have a nuanced understanding of gender equality and racial justice and feel a deep commitment to work toward the establishment of these values in Israel. They understand that this will require sustained, long-term efforts. We, together with our North American Reform Movement, are looking at systems of injustice that will take immense labor and time to transform. It will take decades. However, every time we cannot provide any answer to the question “What do we do about Israel?” we feed into a growing sense of frustration and disconnect. We need to find a balance between implementing the necessary short-term fixes and our work toward longer-term structural and institutional change.

Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States

The challenge of Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist and artist, in doing the work of justice, often echoes in my mind. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” she said. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”3 Our redemption as American Jews and as Israelis is tied to one another.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence marked a monumental step toward redemption. After millennia of exile, Jews finally have an internationally recognized home. The Declaration of Independence calls upon the Diaspora to “rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel” in their immigration and upbuilding, and to support them in their struggle to realize that “redemption.”

As American Jews and Israelis, we celebrate that redemption and the greatest political freedom that we have known since our last time of sovereignty almost two thousand years ago. The achievements of our communities inspire awe. Yet we labor tirelessly and continuously to ensure justice, equality, and safety for ourselves and for our neighbors. We do so because the memories of being the oppressed “other”—victims of discrimination and violence—have remained an integral part of the Jewish collective consciousness.

Those of us working for social justice in American cities are confronting a harsh reality of increasing anti-Zionism. As I teach about Judaism and address social issues—from refugees to racism, from countering antisemitism to expanding affordable housing—I have learned to expect questions or comments about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes the inquiry is motivated by a desire to increase understanding and engage in dialogue. Sometimes the remark is accusatory: “How can you stand for justice and stand for Israel?” Sometimes the statement is said on a stage at a rally, vigil, or event and before hundreds or thousands. The phrase “Israel’s oppression of Palestinians” is woven into a litany of other social wrongs, leaving me feeling both defensive and wounded.

As Americans, we regularly face a decontextualized condemnation of Israel in our newspapers, on our social media feeds, and in the streets where we strive to support others. Admired American social justice authors and leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis publicly decry the Palestinian plight, often based on an unbalanced or one-sided assessment. We struggle to respond effectively.

What can we say to underscore Israel’s complex history and capture our disagreement with some of Israel’s policies, while still supporting the Jewish state we love? What can we do to affirm our commitment to global social justice without fueling the fires of anti-Zionism or antisemitism that threaten us all? Former member of Knesset and famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offered clarity for our dialogue in noting the three d’s of the new antisemitism of which we need to be continually cognizant: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization.4 While criticizing Israel is not in itself antisemitic, antisemitism often uses criticism of the Israeli government as concealment for its true intentions. As liberal Zionists, we see the moral crisis in the ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and we seek to bring peace and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. We can hold both these complex truths in our activism.

The attack on equality in Israel is not only aimed at the non-Jew; it is also aimed at non-orthodox Jews. In November 2017, when images of our Reform Jewish American and Israeli leaders being assaulted for carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza appeared in our media, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter called me for an interview and tried to badger me into saying that Israel’s leaders had gone too far and that there are limits to our relationship and support. My response was the opposite. In those times when Israel’s government devalues us as liberal Jews or promotes policies that contradict the pluralism and equality we demand, we need to double down on our work—amplify our voices, exert our influence, and deepen our Israel-American partnership. Just as we North American Jews support Israel, we appeal to our Israeli sisters and brothers to support us. We need a deep and mutual relationship.

As Rabbi Noa Sattath so beautifully articulated, we need a new narrative—not the right-wing or orthodox narrative of ethnocentrism, and not the BDS narrative of isolation and alienation, but a narrative that acknowledges the moral crisis in Israel and advocates for engagement to create change. Just as social justice activists understand systemic racism and the fact that these structures were created over centuries, the Israeli systems of inequality were created over time. It will take time to dismantle them—policy by policy. We as social activists understand that change starts with story and with relationships.

North American progressive Zionists feel alone in their defense of Israel on our city streets and in our daily encounters. Israeli progressive Zionists feel abandoned by their North American counterparts. We need not feel alone; we can work together in partnership.


Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Rabbi Judith Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. They served as consulting editors as well as contributors to the newly released anthology Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.