Why did you feel a new translation of The Way of Humanity was needed?
The first English translator of Der Weg des Menschen is unknown. That translation is overly literal and made little attempt to reshape the long, nested German sentences of the original for the English reader. We felt this literary gem deserved a translation which considered the sensibilities of English readers.
What was the research and translation process like for this book?
The research for the book centered mainly on the Martin Buber Archive of the Hebrew National Library, located at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We were able to read correspondence relating to Buber’s work. Most importantly, we discovered a series of radio talks that Buber gave in the autumn of 1945, in Hebrew, for Kol Yerushalim, the British Mandate radio service. These enhanced our work greatly.
The epilogue presents a unique discovery that you and Dr. Padawer made while working on this translation. How does this discovery change how we think about this work’s origins?
When we found the Hebrew radio talks he delivered, and a handwritten outline by Buber of the content in both Hebrew and English, we learned that Buber was already thinking about The Way of Humanity as early as 1945 and perhaps earlier. His invitation to speak at a gathering of a Dutch Protestant religious and socialist workers organization, the Woodbrookers in Bentveld, the Netherlands in 1947, became the setting in which Buber presented his “lectures.”
What can contemporary readers learn from The Way of Humanity?
This book is filled with wisdom told with a rhythm and melody created by Martin Buber. It has an urgency cloaked in the world of Chasidic storytelling that begs the reader to probe the meaning of life on multiple levels. It urges the human reader to affirm the world and the self. It is at once a specific and a universal call to be present and affirm life.
Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, senior scholar at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts, teaches midrash and homiletics at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Formerly, he was Distinguished Lecturer in Judaics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Along with Dr. Gabriel E. Padawer,z”l, Rabbi Mehlman translated the new English edition of Martin Buber’s The Way of Humanity, now available from CCAR Press.
The CCAR and the Reform Movement have recently celebrated the fiftiethanniversary of women’s inclusion in the American rabbinate, which began with the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972.As a part of this celebration, CCAR Press has publishedThe First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, a heartfelt tribute to women rabbis and their indelible impact on all of us. The book features voices from across the Jewish spectrum—many of them pioneers themselves—reflecting on the meaning of this anniversary.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, is one of the contributors to The First Fifty Years. In her piece, she addresses the term “woman rabbi,” discussing the beauty that differences bring to the Jewish communityandwhy we should eradicate the notion of an “ideal” rabbi.
Simply declaring that I am “a rabbi, not a ‘woman rabbi’” does nothing to change the underlying structures and assumptions that continue to hold back our progress as a Reform Movement.
I want to be accepted and celebrated as a woman and a rabbi because I want to eradicate the notion that there is an ideal rabbi, a standard model—white, heterosexual, male, Ashkenazic, etc.— against whom all others are labeled lesser than, deficient, exceptional, strange. Erasing the specificity of my gender or any other aspect of my identity that does not fit a narrow stereotype of “rabbi” might open doors professionally. But at what cost? How much of myself must I leave at the threshold?
As Jews, we should know deeply that difference and distinction and variety are not the problem.
When we bless “separation” at Havdalah, we don’t say, “Thank God there’s Shabbat, so we only have to tolerate those horrible six days temporarily.” No! We say instead, “Thank God there are different kinds of time.”
I want to say: Thank God there are different expressions of sex and gender. Thank God for women rabbis, and nonbinary bet mitzvah students, and transgender cantors, and interfaith families, and folks who have chosen Judaism in myriad ways. None “lesser than.” None the “default.” None the “exception.” None the “distraction.” All feeling truly as though we belong.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, is a freelance rabbi dedicated to connecting folks to the breadth and depth of Jewish tradition through inclusive, innovative, and insightful Jewish teaching, speaking, and ritual. You can learn more about her work at www.rabbinikki.com. Rabbi DeBlosi currently serves as Vice President of Varied Rabbinates for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is a contributor to The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis.
Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, and Gabriel E. Padawer, ScD, z”l, are the two translators responsible for the new English edition of Martin Buber’s Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching). In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, they discuss the origins of Buber’s classic work and why they decided to undertake this translation project.
In April 1947, Martin Buber (1878–1965) delivered a six-part lecture with the title “Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre” (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching) to the Woodbrookers at their convention center in Bentveld, Holland. The Woodbrookers (Vereeniging Arbeidersgemeenschap der Woodbrookers, Association of Workers Community of Woodbrookers), a Dutch religious-socialist workers’ organization with connections to English Quakers, and Martin Buber were no strangers; Willem Banning (1881–1971), Protestant pastor, cofounder, and some-time leader of the Woodbrookers Workers Community, had known Buber for many years and had been influenced by Buber’s socioreligious and philosophical outlook. When it became known in 1947 that Martin Buber would visit Holland as part of a seven-country lecture tour organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Woodbrookers invited him to be their featured speaker at a specially organized educational conference…
From his earliest years, Buber had been fascinated by the legends, traditions, and mystical teachings of the eighteenth-century Eastern European Chasidic rabbis. He chose a legendary tale from the Chasidic masters as a theme for each one of his six lectures and then expanded on these six tales to show their relevance to mid-twentieth-century thinking and sensibilities… A “Notice to Members,” found in the archives of the Woodbrookers Workers Community (now housed at the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam), notes that Martin Buber delivered his address on Sunday, April 20, 1947, in two sessions (at 10:30 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon) to an appreciative audience of about 150 listeners.
One of these auditors was Henri Friedlaender, who was a skilled calligrapher, graphic designer, and some-time poet who previously had published his writings on his own small press, Pulvis Viarum. Friedlaender was so much taken by Buber’s lectures that he approached Buber and was able to persuade him to let Pulvis Viarum publish the lectures as a German-language monograph with the title Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching). Friedlaender augmented Buber’s German lecture notes with a glossary explaining lesser-known terminology and place names and published it at the Pulvis Viarum Press in 1948. To this day it is the only one of the sixty-odd lectures delivered during Buber’s seven-nation tour to have been published (and later translated into many languages) as a stand-alone monograph…
We decided to undertake a new English translation, based on the Pulvis Viarum 1948 German-language publication, for several reasons. The first was that the original (1950) English translation had been all too faithful to its German urtext, frequently resulting in complex and overlong sentences, with many nested clauses and parenthetical modifiers that were difficult to comprehend. One of us has had firsthand experience teaching the 1950 English text to young adults; they frequently had difficulties with the material and soon lost interest.
The second reason for a new translation was that we believed Buber’s work deserved a more scholarly presentation, including numerous notes about historical figures (included in the notes and glossary), references to biblical quotations, and explanations for some of Buber’s literary allusions based on themes from early twentieth-century Western European culture that would be unfamiliar to contemporary readers.
Third, we gave due regard to the importance of making our text gender-neutral, while preserving the literary and stylistic character of the work. To do this, we adopted the simple device of eliminating every occurrence of the pronouns he, his, or him, by transposing the sentence structure from the third person singular to the first or second person singular or else from the singular to the plural. Only direct quotations from external text sources were allowed to retain their gender-specific pronouns.
This translation developed over time. Our understanding and appreciation of Buber’s ideas deepened in the process. Our aim was to make the text and its ideas accessible to readers with an English sensibility by employing colloquial American English speech and usage. At the same time, we made every attempt to find English words or phrases that mirrored as closely as possible the meaning, both explicit and implicit, of Buber’s original German, so that Buber’s poetic melody and rhythm would not be “lost in translation.”
 Martin Buber, Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassi- dischen Lehre (The Netherlands: Pulvis Viarum, 1948).
Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, senior scholar at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts, teaches midrash and homiletics at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Formerly, he was Distinguished Lecturer in Judaics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Gabriel E. Padawer, ScD, z”l, who emigrated to the United States as a refugee from Nazi persecution in 1938, was a registered professional engineer, a Fellow of the National Science Foundation, and a lifelong student of Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy.
Rabbi Mehlman and Dr. Padawer are the translators of the new English edition of Martin Buber’s The Way of Humanity, now available from CCAR Press.
In New York City’s Union Square, if you look up right above Nordstrom Rack and Best Buy, you’ll see a series of red numbers counting down. Right now, it reads something like six years, some amount of days, and some amount of hours, minutes, and seconds. This is a climate clock, and others just like it exist in Seoul, Rome, Berlin, and Glasgow. These clocks are counting down to the presumed date at which our planet’s temperature will have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius due to humanity’s carbon emissions. Climate scientists suggest that this temperature shift “could trigger a cascade of tipping points, which would irreversibly alter the global climate system and further exacerbate warming.”
This viewpoint is steeped in the modern mindset. Modernity, the outcome of the European Enlightenment, focuses on a view of history as a continually straight line of progress charted on human timelines, centering ourselves, our lifetimes, and our goals. This is often viewed in the positive sense—that we, as a special species and a planet, are always progressing inevitably forward. But it is not quite how the biblical, or rabbinic, world understood the nature of history.
Our Torah teaches a practice of connecting to the land called the sh’mitah system, which in many ways runs precisely contrary to our modern sense of straight-line progress. It creates seven-year cycles of stopping work, stopping growth, and, after many cycles, returning all back to an original state, undoing anything that could be viewed as financial or wealth accumulation.
God tells Moses:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:… Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:2–4)
This cycle continues seven times itself, every forty-nine years. The seventh cycle of the sh’mitah year is the yoveil year, in which all things are returned to their original status. If land has changed hands between families, it goes back to the original families. If someone has become enslaved or indebted, that slavery and that debt are canceled. Every forty-nine years, the society returns to its starting point. The year 5782, or 2021–22 in the Gregorian calendar, was the last sh’mitah year. This major cycle of the Jewish calendar is aligning directly with the environmental countdown clock. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the countdown clock at Union Square is also counting down to the next sh’mitah year, 5789.
One of the most brilliant Torah scholars of history, Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), sees within the sh’mitah practice of the Torah a symbolic system of cycles in time that point us towards not just human social structures, or human-centric histories and futures, but the underlying pattern of the cosmos.
The six days of creation represent the duration of the world, and “the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God” (Exodus 20:10). Just as the seven days of the week allude to what God created in the beginning, so the seven years of the sabbatical cycle allude to what will happen during all the rest of creation. That is why the text is so strict about it, invoking a penalty of exile for violating it. (Ramban on Leviticus 25:2)
Ramban is suggesting that our entire universe works in these cycles of seven, starting with six “days” of work, and then a seventh “day” of rest. This continues out fractally in time, forever. We have six “years” of work, and then a seventh “year” of rest, which then multiplies out to a seventh degree as well, with a complete societal reset every seven cycles.
This system of seven continues ad-infinitum, and the end of time will come at the end of one-thousand cycles of seven, in which the “World to Come”—the Jewish phraseology for the messianic era—will be established. There will then be one-thousand years of peace and prosperity, a Shabbat to end all Shabbats, which will then end with a total return to nothing, perhaps to start all over again.
In her recent book Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira writes about looking at stories so radically different from our normative modern viewpoint of straight-line progress through history, not for their literal truth, but as a process to think with.
She refers to this as worlding, using stories as a guide to how to be in the world. She writes:
Worlding stories invite us to experiment with a different relationship between language and reality. These stories do not require anyone to believe in anything; rather they invite you to believe with them. However, these stories cannot work on you without your consent. Taking worlding stories seriously makes possible a significant change in your ways of seeing, sensing, and relating to the world.
So I invite you, now, to try worlding with this very different cosmology that the Torah and Ramban are putting forward. We have a little over six years until the climate countdown clock hits zero, and our next sh’mitah year begins. What this cycle of sevens brought to us by our tradition teaches us is that time moves in predictable patterns that we cannot change—but we, ourselves, can change our own behavior within the patterns. By reflecting on our own behavior within them, we are able to change the outcomes of the cycle.
The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on our Planet provides a multitude of ways to world with this idea—to find our Jewish footing in this system of cycles in order to change our behavior, and perhaps change the outcome of this cycle towards the tipping point of global warming. Each chapter of this book reflects on Jewish modes of understanding our relationship to God, the planet, and each other through different aspects of our tradition’s wisdom systems—from theology, to halachah (Jewish law), to prayer, to personal practice in nature. This volume seeks to be a key to a vision for a future perfect with nature and with the Divine rather than the straight lines of human-centered history.
As we look forward to our next sh’mitah year, and perhaps this tipping point of climate change, may each of us find within our tradition ways of worlding with our ancestors, our tradition, and our Torah, to build a future for all of us.
Rabbi Grant: During the months following my mother’s death I formed a “Kaddish club” at my synagogue where I invited other mourners to join with me in sharing memories of their loved ones, in studying Jewish sources related to mourning, in singing and praying together, and in being a supportive community to one another as we journeyed through our process of grief. The Year of Mourning grew out of these experiences and includes many of the same components that were part of those in-person gatherings.
The book and app are composed of seven units. Can you describe these sections and how they correspond to various parts of the mourning experience?
The material is organized around seven themes that are common experiences of mourning (pain, brokenness, sadness, comfort resilience, acceptance, gratitude). Each theme includes seven units, which begin with a song, which can be listened to on the app version. This is followed by a question that sets an intention for exploring the materials to follow. Then there is a brief text to study with guiding questions, followed by a contemporary poem. Each unit concludes with the Mourner’s Kaddish, which also can be heard on the app. Just as mourning does not follow a predictable path, we invite mourners to use the materials in ways they find most meaningful.
What makes the app different from the book? How can the two be used in tandem?
The book and the app are identical in terms of their content, but the app allows the user to carry it with you in your phone, and to access the materials in a variety of different modalities: reading, journaling, and listening to the music.
One of the major advantages of the app is the beautiful recordings that can be listened to as part of each given unit: one can explore a theme, or a kavanah or sacred source, and listen to the music connected to them. Alternatively, any of the musical selections can be listened to by pressing the Music icon, at any time or in any order. In addition, for those unfamiliar with reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, we also provide a recording to follow and to gain literacy and grounding in that experience.
To help you move through weeks of mourning, you can set daily reminders in the Settings menu and a notification will appear with a quote. As with the music, you can always just scroll through those quotes. There is also a handy option in the app to write reflections in a journal that can be saved or edited as you go along.
Music is a key part of The Year of Mourning. What role can music play for someone experiencing bereavement?
While our traditions offer so many deep and comforting texts and rituals created to hold us in our losses, for many mourners, music holds a special place. Music can touch our hearts and souls in ways that transcend words. Often, in the journey of mourning, we find ourselves unable to articulate or express a feeling or emotion, and music has the potential to touch those recesses to comfort us or help us express the inexpressible. There is an intentional repetition of a number of the songs as expressions of different emotions and themes, recognizing the fluidity of the way music can speak to us within varied emotional states. We hope that the musical choices we made for the app—in both text and style—connect to and enhance the units’ themes, kavanot, poetry, and sacred sources.
What are your hopes for this project’s impact?
We hope that rabbis and cantors will recommend these resources to mourners in their communities who are looking for sources of support, wisdom, and comfort during this time of grief. These resources are intended to help individuals regain their grounding after the death of a loved one, by making deeper connections to memories and to the richness of Jewish wisdom and tradition.
The Year of Mourning: A Jewish Journey is available in print and as an Apple and Android app. Rabbi Grant and Cantor Segal can visit communities to teach on the topic; please email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Rabbi Lisa D. Grant, PhD, is Director of the New York Rabbinical School program, Eleanor Sinsheimer Distinguished Service Professor in Jewish Education, and Coordinator of Special Seminary projects at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
Cantor Lisa B. Segal serves as cantor and is a founding member of congregation Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
What inspired the creation of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories? Each of the stories in the book has a unique origin and source of inspiration, but the collection as a whole was inspired by all the short story anthologies I’ve loved. The first such collection I was given was when I turned eight, Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sanburg. From there, I remember the terrifying Yellow Fairy Book keeping me up at night with its spells and blood puddings, and as I got older, such collections as Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and Occult by Joachim Neugroschel, A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz, Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories by Sandra Bark, Rachel the Clever by Josepha Sherman, Collected Stories by Cynthia Ozick, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander all captivated me. And each week, preparing to teach Torah by reading countless commentaries and divrei Torah is itself a lifelong study of powerful short stories!
Can you share a bit about your writing process? For me, the smallest part of the writing process is the act of typing out the words. A large part of the process is research, and an even larger part is staring into space while the thoughts churn. Behind every story is a thick file of notes, musings, articles, essays and ideas. I spend a lot of time in the research stage, studying and collecting details. To write “The Magic Word” I listened to dozens of linguistics podcast episodes. I study and research until the characters start to create themselves. I have trouble doing what many writers do, which is finding an hour or two a day to write. I need six to eight hours to fully immerse into each new world. So I write on my day off, or when there is a quiet weekend, when I can nest up and delve.
This book is structured in three parts. What can readers expect from each section? The eight stories in the first part, Candle, are anchored in Jewish text and tradition. Some take place during Biblical times and others are reminiscent of fanciful Chasidic stories. The eight stories in the second part, Feather, take place in the modern world. The characters may remind you of people you know or of yourself. These stories wrestle with relevant issues, many through adventure and quest. The six stories in the last part, Wooden Spoon, each take us on a deeper more mystical journey, presenting inklings of new theologies. But I do encourage readers to skip around and bounce from section to section in whatever order you like!
You are also the artist behind the book’s illustrations. What role do they play in the reading experience? Each illustration brings to life a detail of a story, but none of them are of the protagonists. For example, the half-melted snowman illustration for the title story is just a tiny detail in that story. But when the details of a story feel dimensional and alive, hopefully, the rest follows. The characters become fleshed out in readers’ imaginations. The playful drawings give that imagination a little tickle.
How does Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon differ from your previous books? Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon, as a collection of short stories, is vastly different from Drawing in the Dust, a novel. Short stories are an economy of words, and so there isn’t the luxury that a novel has of long descriptive passages and thoroughly explored internal monologues. Rather, a lighter brushstroke is necessary to convey a sense of place. Plot twists and character arcs need to have a smaller turning radius while still feeling natural.
Which of the stories are especially meaningful to you? This is such a hard question! I feel like my answer would be different depending on the time of day, the weather, and the zeitgeist of the moment. But if I had to answer at this particular moment, I would say “Shalom Bayit” is especially meaningful. I don’t feel as if I wrote that story. Isaac and Mateo, the main characters, don’t feel fictional. In fact, when I read it I feel grateful to them for coming to me. Their story seems so real that I can picture them stepping off the page and changing the world. “JEW” is also deeply meaningful to me, as I’ve always been fascinated by the word “Jew,” how it’s been maligned throughout history, and how it is redeemed. I love “Lace Theory” for how it presents a new metaphor for our interconnectedness. “The Flying Insect Café” is so dang fun. “Shades and the Rock on the Grave” is a favorite of mine. And I have this little love affair with “The Goat Keeper” story, which I have been writing and returning to for decades.
Rabbi Klein is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Rabbi Zoë Klein has served Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California, since 2000. She pursued the rabbinate out of a passion for ancient texts, mythology, liturgy, and poetry. Rabbi Klein is the author of the novel Drawing in the Dust; the children’s story The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah; The Scroll of Anatiya; and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon(CCAR Press, 2023).
The language of Torah, its richness and nuance, begs not only for exploration, but for celebration in poetry. Throughout Jewish history, Torah has been our single greatest writing prompt for scholars, mystics, poets, musicians—all of us.
The previous volumes provide poetic liturgy. This book combines expository writing with poetic interpretation of Torah. I explore seventy words of Torah with deep dive essays into each word, followed by a poetic midrash inspired by that research.
What was the most challenging part of writing this volume?
Switching back and forth between left-brain Torah study and right-brain poetic interpretation was a constant challenge. What challenged me most, however, was the research. Each word is a universe, spectacular in depth and meaning. I felt compelled to keep learning and learning about each word.
How did you select the words in the book?
My selection process was more art than science. I began with a set of 120 words that interested me, supplemented by words suggested by friends. From there, the words themselves guided me to add, remove, or replace them, prompted by my explorations.
How did writing this book impact you?
Writing These Words was a profound and transcendent experience. I experienced what I can only describe as a “Torah trance” mind state. Intense. Beautiful. Challenging. Frightening. After the book was completed, I then faced my first post-writing melancholy. Later, rereading the book in print, I found an unprecedented joy and elation having written a volume of modern Torah midrash—I didn’t know that was in me.
How do you hope These Words will impact readers?
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if reading this book inspired others into their own journeys of exploring words of Torah? I hope the book will be used in Torah study, for writing sermons, as part of interfaith dialogue, and as a source of readings used in worship. Most of all, I hope the book inspires more poetry rooted directly in learning Torah.
Alden is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Zoë Klein is the author of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses what inspired the collection and how readers can make the book their own.
On the night before Passover, it is traditional for families to hide pieces of bread in a ritual called b’dikat chameitz (searching for leaven). Children search for crumbs with a candle and use a feather to sweep them onto a wooden spoon, all of which are then put in a paper bag. The paper bag with the items inside is burned the following morning, signifying that the home is ready for the holiday to begin.
I have always loved the candle, feather, and wooden spoon. While not on par with the royal flush of seder plate sacred symbols (shank bone, bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, and egg), in their own gentle way, they indicate that we are ready to begin this story of freedom. For me, they represent the process of storytelling. First comes the light of an idea, then the quill with which to write it down, and at last it is ready to be spooned out and shared.
I also love that all three objects are fairly mundane. Candles are common. You can find feathers amid fallen leaves and weeds. And there is probably a wooden spoon floating around everyone’s cookware. Judaism is about elevating the mundane to the sacred, helping us transform mindless action into mindful intention. Stories have the same power of transformation. The famous Jewish story of a person scattering feathers from a pillow and then fruitlessly trying to gather them all back together becomes the simple but effective tool to transmit the important value about speaking kindly and not spreading rumors.
This collection’s first part, “Candle: Stories That Shine New Light on Tradition,” explores Jewish texts and teachings from new vantage points. The second part, “Feather: Modern Stories That Take Flight,” explores identity and relationship through a modern Jewish lens. The characters in these stories may remind you of people you know or yourself. The final part, “Wooden Spoon: Stories That Stir Food for Thought,” mixes story with philosophy in an attempt to taste the transcendent.
The stories in this collection are intended to be shared, interpreted, and discussed. In the same way that musicians use their artistry and unique style to make a known melody their own, you are encouraged to adopt and adapt these stories, add your voice, and make them yours. Judaism has an extraordinary oral tradition evolving from generation to generation, with each new storyteller adding flavor, color, and texture.
You are a storyteller, with your own voice and experience to add.
At the end of each story in this collection, there are a number of questions designed to encourage self-reflection, conversation, and engagement. So take a candle (or a reading light!), a feather, and a wooden spoon and search these pages for morsels, parables, and words of Torah. And keep telling your stories.
Rabbi Zoë Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California. Rabbi Klein is the author of Drawing in the Dust: A Novel (Gallery Books, 2009), The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah (Apples & Honey, 2017), The Scroll of Anatiya (Wipf and Stock, 2009), and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon (CCAR Press, 2023). Her poems and prayers are used in houses of worship around the world.
In synagogues, as a faculty member at URJ camps, and at the URJ Biennial, I came to the realization that we were not hearing from the prophets. My own rabbinic education also lacked such focus, even though we in the Reform Movement spoke of “Prophetic Judaism.” It was an issue beyond Jewish literacy; it was an issue of not being called to action. At a conference run by the Religious Action Center in 2018, the final (brilliant!) session was an offer to take the microphone, share an idea about social justice, and invite others to join you for an hour to work on it. Over the following year and a half, on and off, our small group continued to work on it, and that eventually led to my proposal to CCAR Press.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book?
Many things! I learned about the history of the haftarah cycle and how the term “Prophetic Judaism” came to be. I was reminded how the haftarah has the flexibility to connect to any part of the Torah portion, which is an invitation for creativity. I learned how much insight contributors can share in a mere 250 words, and I was exposed to many of the alternative texts for the first time.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume?
With 179 contributors, there were a lot of emails! Because of the skills of the CCAR Press team, who were the professionals, the most challenging part for me ended up being helping potential contributors understand what this book was seeking to accomplish.
How did you determine which additional Jewish American holidays would receive haftarah readings?
We had an open call and gave the examples of Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pride Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Juneteenth, and Mother’s/Father’s Day. Forty-two holidays ultimately appeared in my inbox, characterized by authenticity, passion, insight, and vulnerability.
How do you hope readers will use Prophetic Voices?
I hope that it will bring the prophets and prophet-like voices beyond the bimah and the sanctuary into our daily lives. Each interpretation ends with a call to action. Some are direct, some are indirect, and some are questions, but overall the idea is to reclaim Prophetic Judaism as a verb.
The subtitle for this book mentions “renewing and reimagining” the haftarah cycle. What do you mean by that?
“Renewing” refers to better understanding and finding relevance and inspiration from the prophets of the traditional haftarah cycle (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos). “Reimagining” refers to allowing haftarah, which means “conclusion,” to go beyond the N’vi-im (Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible to texts that deserve to be “between the blessings.” Those texts include verses from the K’tuvim (Writings)—such as Job and Psalms—and expand into Jewish texts from the Talmud, poetry across the ages, music lyrics, fiction pieces, official government declarations, speeches, and more. These not only conclude the Torah reading but punctuate it. Furthermore, the book offers three new haftarah cycles: the Omer cycle, the Elul cycle, and the Winter cycle (from Thanksgiving to Chanukah).
These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!
So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.
Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.
When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.
In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”