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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.

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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.


Categories
Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Mussar Torah

Book Excerpt: “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life”

In honor of our new publication, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, a new anthology edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, the CCAR Press proudly presents an excerpt from a chapter written by Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal. This new book, which unites more than 50 authors who offer commentary on each of the 54 weekly parashot juxtaposed with the mussar middot, is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

“Yirah—Awe: From Fear to Awe”

Jacob goes through a major life transformation in Parashat Vayishlach, including a wrestling match with God and a change in his name from Jacob to Israel. These changes are reflective of changes in Jacob’s character as well, as he goes from a person filled with fear to one who is full of awe and gratitude. His transformation involves resolving old issues and grappling with feelings of guilt over his stealing the blessing and birthright from his brother—and, in the process, lying to their father, Isaac. As Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau in the morning, he lies restless. The Torah tells us of his state of mind: vayira Yaakov, “Jacob was terrified” (Genesis 32:8).

Later in the parashah, we learn why Jacob is fearful, as he says, “I am afraid of him, lest he advance on me and strike me” (Genesis 32:12), referring to his brother Esau. That night, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River, and then he is left alone to wrestle in the night with an unknown man or angel or messenger of God; the Hebrew word used is ish, “man” (Genesis 32:25). Jacob does not let the man go without demanding a blessing. The other says to him, “What is your name?” and he says, “Jacob.” “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” says the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28–29). A verse later in the Torah tells us: “Jacob set up a monument in the sacred site where [God] had spoken to him. . . . Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him Beth El [House of God]” (Genesis 35:14–15).

In Jewish thought, “fear” (yirah) of God is understood to be complementary to “love” or “awe” of God. In fact, the term yirat HaShem, or “fear of God,” is equal to following the Torah and mitzvot, according to Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380–1444, Spain), author of Sefer HaIkarim. In the teachings of Mussar, however, we find a very interesting concept when it comes to the middah of “fear/awe.” Alan Morinis writes, “Though yirah can describe the unified fear/awe experience, the term can also be used for the singular experiences of fear and of awe. . . . The Duties of the Heart makes this very point: ‘The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of His Glory, majesty, and awesome power.’” 1

In other words, fear and awe can be two separate traits completely, or they can be merged together. Many Mussar teachers encourage us to “orient ourselves toward the side of fear,” 2 especially of divine retribution for our transgressions. The middah is clearly about fear in the writings of the Mussar masters, as the words that often accompany this concept involve physical manifestations of fear: people shaking, sweating, quaking, and experiencing some kind of terror. Many people resonate to this idea that we should be fearful of God’s retribution for our own wrongdoing and that that fear will keep us on the right path.

However, Jacob is a model of another kind of yirah. Jacob is fearful, and rightly so. Not only has he done wrong in the eyes of God, but he has wronged his brother, who may understandably be hurt and angry with him. Jacob moves beyond his fear, symbolized by the wrestling he does with a man (perhaps his conscience?) throughout the night. When we have wronged someone, we, too, must take that fear of what may become of us, either through divine punishment or the anger of the person we have harmed, and turn it into something more productive.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, in his book, The Gates of Light, writes that the experience associated with awe is the higher form of yirah, saying, “It is clear that the awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.” He teaches that awe must stand on a foundation of fear. So, perhaps, to get to awe, we must first go through the fear of punishment, work through it in some way, to get to the other side of it, much like Jacob crossing the River Jabbok, wrestling with a man, and then and only then being able to feel the awe for God that leads him to build a monument. 


Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal has served as a rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, since her ordination in 2006, becoming the senior rabbi in 2015. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, Austin. She enjoys teaching students of all ages, and Holocaust and Israel are two of her areas of expertise. Siegal is a contributor to the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.


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Books

Written in “Just Five Minutes”

A reflection by Rabbi Barry H. Block on working through Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, by Rabbi Debra Robbins, CCAR Press, 2019.

Debbie Robbins says:
“Just five minutes.”
Set aside five minutes,
No more,
To write my Elul reflections each day.
Much to my surprise,
I’ve disciplined myself to do it,
Just five minutes,
Every day.
Some days, I really need it,
Like the day that a traumatic pastoral need
Led me to extreme anxiety,
And I needed to figure out why.
Every day, I really need it.
As a rabbi,
My Elul preparation
Is all about writing sermons,
Musical cues,
Selecting reading,
Doling out honors,
All “work.”
I’m liable to ignore the inner, spiritual work of Elul;
There’s so much “rabbi work” to do.
And so I’ve resolved:
Take those five minutes a day,
And actually prepare my soul
For 5780.
Psalm 27 has opened my heart.
Funny thing:
For the first time,
Ever in my 29th year,
And that’s only since ordination,
All of my sermons are drafted—
Not “finished,” but fully drafted—
More than two weeks before Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Can that be a coincidence?


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is now available from CCAR Press.

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Books

When Donors Behave Badly: Guiding Principles for Jewish Institutions

In light of CCAR Press’s publishing of The Sacred Exchange: A Jewish Money Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, earlier this year, we invited Rabbi A. Brian Stoller to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

What should a synagogue or Jewish institution do when a donor is known to be involved in illegal or immoral activity? Imagine that after a synagogue dedicates a newly renovated sanctuary, the beloved community elder who gave more than a million dollars toward the project is indicted for embezzlement. Suppose that a prominent nursing-home proprietor, whose facilities have a reputation for unclean conditions and abusive treatment of residents, offers to provide scholarships for needy kids to go to summer camp. We seek to be guided in our response to these situations by the moral voice of our tradition. While there are few clear-cut answers, our texts provide certain principles that can inform our decision-making.

What happens when two moral obligations conflict with each other?

A CCAR responsum on the case of a synagogue contribution by a criminal points out that it is a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to support the synagogue financially.(1) The Reform Movement has said that communal organizations should not refuse a donation from a person of questionable character because we do not have the right to prevent someone from fulfilling his religious obligations.(2) Moreover, denying the would-be giver the opportunity to do a mitzvah would further alienate him from the righteous path. As Maimonides says, “We do not tell a wicked person: ‘Increase your wickedness by failing to perform mitzvot.’”(3)

At the same time, accepting the donation may violate a different mitzvah, namely the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind. As Jewish business-ethicist Meir Tamari suggests, a person may be “blind, so to speak, to the moral consequences of his actions.”

(4) By accepting the gift, therefore, we might inadvertently encourage the donor to continue in these errant ways and cause the donor to stumble further.

These conflicting moral obligations cannot both be operative at the same time, but the sources suggest that there are circumstances in which one or the other should take precedence.

What causes money to become “dirty?”

According to Deuteronomy 23:19,(5) payment for prostitution (which is forbidden by the Torah) and the monetary value of dogs used by hunters and watchmen to intimidate the public (which are lawful but unseemly activities(6)) are unacceptable as donations to the Holy Temple.(7) Maimonides rules that “when one steals or obtains an object through robbery and offers it as a sacrifice, it is invalid and the Holy One hates it.”(8) That principle suggests that the Torah regards money and anything else acquired through illegal and immoral means as “dirty” and unfit as an offering. Therefore, should someone seek to make such a donation, the synagogue or communal entity should refuse to accept it, even though doing so would prevent the person from fulfilling his obligation.

But if money gained through illegal or immoral activity is “dirty,” what about money that is earned on the up-and-up by someone who behaves immorally in other areas of her life? Is there a difference between a donation from Bernie Madoff, who acquired his wealth through theft and fraud, and a donation from Harvey Weinstein, who earned his money legitimately but sexually harassed and manipulated countless women? In a relevant discussion, Maimonides holds that a kohein (priest) is not disqualified from performing his religious duty on account of immoral behavior in his non-priestly life unless he commits one of the three cardinal sins of Rabbinic Judaism: idolatry, illicit sex, or murder.(9) Following this reasoning, could modern institutions say that immoral behavior unrelated to how one’s money is gotten should not disqualify a donor from carrying out her religious duty unless she commits an act that the community regards as a cardinal sin? If so, what actions would rise to that level?

Should the Donor be Acknowledged Publicly?

The sources raise two key concerns about publicly honoring a donor of dubious character. One is that acknowledgment will draw constant, unwanted attention to this sinful behavior. The other is that people of ill-repute will “utilize a gift to the synagogue [or other Jewish institution] as a means of purchasing a good name”(10) and atoning for their sins.(11) In order to avoid these outcomes, the Reform Movement recommends that organizations accept the donation but not publicly acknowledge the donor unless and until he does t’shuvah and abandons the immoral behavior.

Organizations should not accept donations of items that are known to have been gotten illegally. Beyond this, the guiding principles outlined here leave room for leaders to exercise judgment based on communal values and the nuances of each situation. While decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, institutions benefit from intentional conversations about core values and principles that guide their approach when donors behave badly.


Rabbi A. Brian Stoller serves Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska.

NOTES

  1. CCAR Responsa Committee, “Synagogue Contribution from a Crimi- nal,” Central Conference of American Rabbis, accessed September 17, 2018, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/curr-52-55/. Readers should con- sult this responsum for a thorough analysis of the relevant halachic issues.
  2. See the CCAR responsum cited above, as well as Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2001), 45.
  3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:6. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefilah II and Birkat Koha- nim (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 218.
  4. Meir Tamari, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995), 32.
  5. Deut. 23:19 states: “You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Eternal your God in fulfillment of any vow,  for both are abhorrent to the Eternal your God.”
  6. In his comment to Deut. 23:19, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that “the pay of a dog” refers to activity that, although not forbidden, is “disgraceful” (derech bizayon).
  7. These explanations of the phrases “the fee of a whore” and “the pay of a dog” are given by Rashi and Nachmanides in their commentaries to the verse.
  8. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Mizbei-ach 5:7. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ha’Avodah (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 334.
  9. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:1–6, esp. halachot 3 and 6.
  10. Washofsky, Jewish Living, 45.
  11. See Nachmanides’s comment to Deut. 23:19.
Categories
Books High Holy Days

“And who shall I say is calling?”: Leonard Cohen in a Conversation with the Divine

Leonard Cohen z”l, was a quintessentially Jewish artist. His themes and motifs tugged on the heartstrings of Jewish Thought, both contemporary and millennia-old. To those who would argue that his obvious references to other faith systems, both within his work and his personal life, discount his work’s designation as Jewish, I would point out Marc Chagall’s heavy utilization of the crucifix motif — should Chagall’s work be discounted for this as well? But there is a difference. Chagall’s corpus mainly focused on contemporary Jewish life, particularly in the shtetl; Cohen drew his influences from biblical, exegetical, and liturgical tradition. “The Binding of Isaac” is a pseudo-midrashic retelling of the Akeidah narrative; “Who By Fire” is a modern tongue-in-cheek take on Unetaneh Tokef; most famously, “Hallelujah” not only utilizes that familiar refrain found across Psalms, but calls upon several poignant moments throughout our Prophetic narratives.

In this way, I posit that Cohen was something of a modern-day (non-liturgical) Paytan. The classical Paytan was not only a poet, but a scholar. The piyutim were filled with both overt and obscure textual and exegetical references in an effort to elevate the fixed liturgical practice both through their aural and cerebral qualities. In Cohen’s contemporary take, he shifted this framework, often subverting the very liturgy or scripture he referenced. It should be noted that for the classical Paytan, it did not necessarily matter if the kahal understood the subtle textual references; the poetry, with all its hints to moments across Jewish text, was for God’s benefit. It is interesting to wonder, for whom did Cohen write his music?

Needless to say, I am a big fan. His music occupies a permanent place in my Spotify “Heavy Rotation” playlist. I find his melodies beautiful and his words profound. His lyrics and poetry are evocative and provocative, calling to mind the lowest depths of the human condition as well as the highest ethereal forms of divinity.

All of that said, my stomach turns to knots when his music is used in a liturgical context. I cringe whenever a shaliach tzibur sets Psalm 150 to Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I have ranted to friends and classmates: “There is a time and a place for a cold and broken hallelujah; P’sukei D’zimra is never that time.” The whole point of Cohen’s song is to subvert the idea of the Psalm. The Psalm calls to mind the celebratory joy of worship — “Praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre. Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe…” Meanwhile, Cohen’s text recalls King David’s voyeuristic lust for Bathsheba and Delilah’s betrayal of Samson the Nazirite. The Psalmist’s alacrity and jubilance are replaced by Cohen’s resigned, resentful, “broken” hallelujah. He does this not to belittle Jewish worship, but to complicate our understanding — blind, wholehearted, unquestioning praise simply does not represent our relationship with the Divine.

So, too, does Cohen’s “Who By Fire” function as a countertext of the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy; whereas the somber traditional text places us as submissive and subject to God’s judgement, Cohen introduces a sarcastic response to God’s call: “And who shall I say is calling?” Cohen challenges us to think beyond what God’s judgement is to focus on who is handing down the decrees. While I would argue that, like “Hallelujah,” the song is inappropriate in a liturgical context, it can serve as an excellent study question and prompt for personal thought (in fact, the text can be found as a “Study Text” before Unetaneh Tokef on page 207 of the Yom Kippur volume of Mishkan HaNefesh).

Throughout his work, Cohen does not place himself beneath God, in a submissive, prayerful manner, but instead, sitting across the table, in conversation with the Divine. At no place is this relationship more evident than in Cohen’s titular song of his final album, “You Want It Darker.” He speaks directly to God, “If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game. If You are the healer, that means I’m broken and lame. If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker, we kill the flame.” In case there was any doubt as to the identity of Cohen’s conversation partner, Cohen utilizes the opening line of Kaddish, “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name.” He goes on to challenge God’s apparent inaction in the face of our prayers: “A million candles burning for the help that never came.” Cohen is simultaneously exalting and challenging God, all while repeating the familiar biblical response to God’s call: Hineini — “Here I am.”

Clearly, Cohen struggled with God — as our people, Am Yisrael, tend to do. But despite his struggle, his irreverence, his sardonic rhetoric, and his subversion of the liturgy, he still says hineini. To put it in his own words, “Even though it all went wrong, I will stand before the Lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.” This is, in my opinion, his most Jewish line. In the face of adversity and doubt, Jews across time and space have found a way to reaffirm our faith. Whether by the waters of Babylon in the face of exile, in the establishment of the Mourner’s Kaddish following the Crusades, or, recently, in the uptick in synagogue attendance in the wake of mass-shootings in American synagogues, we reaffirm our faith. This is what it means to be called Yisrael, to not only struggle with God, but to follow that struggle with affirmation. In this way, Leonard Cohen’s work essentially represents the embodiment of the Jewish experience.


Gabriel Snyder is a rising second-year cantorial student at the DFSSM, HUC-JIR. Growing up at Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, he earned his BA in Religious Studies from Skidmore College in 2018. He has spent this summer as a Press Intern at the CCAR, where he has worked on a variety of projects for several upcoming publications. He will spend the next year as the student cantor at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, MA.

Categories
Books Prayer

Sacred Practices with Psalm 27

These 50 days from the first of Elul to the end of Sukkot and the celebration of Simchat Torah can be overwhelming for clergy, with so many details and demands.  It’s easy to lose focus or be too focused; to help others and forget to open our own hearts.  The spiritual tradition of reading Psalm 27 every day is an antidote to these tendencies with its imagery of the season (temple, sukkah, shofar) and its words that evoke a range of emotions (loneliness and fear, joy and courage, the need for patience).  It coaches us in the sacred practices we need to do our work (professional and personal) throughout the season: sit still, stand tall, sing, cry, listen, walk in God’s paths, see Goodness, hope.  And it reminds us that little by little we make our way into the New Year, with Light.

This Reflection for Focus is one of fifty-two pieces (one for each day of Elul, plus a bonus for Simchat Torah and the day after) included in my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (pages 82–83).  It invites focus on the phrase, ori b’yishi, in Psalm 27:1

Of David.
Adonai is my light and my victory—
From whom should I feel fright?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life—
From whom should I feel terror?

Really?! I ask myself,
read the same poem, Psalm 27, every day
for the entire month of Elul,
for the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur,
for the four days until Sukkot begins and on every day of it as well
until the season concludes with joy at Simchat Torah?
Start each day with a relentless recitation of the same words?
My Light
My Salvation (a more common translation than “victory”)
My God . . . ?

Yes.

“You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah,
and my Salvation, on Yom Kippur,
forgiving my sins, redeeming me from the narrow place of my life.”

Little by little, day by day, starting in Elul,
the Light starts to glow,
and I begin the work.
Little by little, day by day, on Rosh HaShanah
the rays peek above the horizon.

“Redemption doesn’t happen all at once.”
Like the sun that rises,
little by little,
until the dawn breaks
and Light floods the world with warmth and hope,
so, too, t’shuvah.
Little by little, day by day.
A tiny shift
a spark of awareness,
a single apology,
and then another.
No excuses,
no caveats,
no ifs.
And one response when asked for forgiveness: “Yes.”
With God as my Light I begin to see on Rosh HaShanah.
With God as my Salvation, and little by little, day by day,
I might experience at-One-ment on Yom Kippur.

Footnotes:

You are my Light, on Rosh HaShanah: William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 370 (Psalm 27:4).

Redemption doesn’t happen all at once: From Mishkan Hanefesh, vol. 1, Rosh HaShanah (New York: CCAR Press, 2015), p. 165, based on imagery from Jerusalem Talmud, B’rachot 1:1.


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 Healing Prayer

Psalm 27:4 In God’s (Not Yet Perfect) House

I wrote the draft of what would come to be a Reflection for Focus in my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27, “In God’s [Not Yet Perfect] House” on October 4, 2017, a few mornings after country music fans were murdered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.  The reality of what seemed unbelievable was becoming incomprehensibly comprehensible and I reflected on the Psalmist’s affirmation, and deepest desire, to live in God’s house.  It was hard that morning to feel like we were living in God’s house—where such hatred was possible. 

It was chol hamo’ed sukkot and the fragility of the world felt all too real.  In the weeks that followed, as I edited this piece, my goal was to capture that moment in time, and allow it to reflect the timelessness of the psalm, to help us see hope and find courage, to make God’s house a holy place.  What I never imagined is that what I wrote would be relevant, over and over again, in just two years, not because it brought illumination to Psalm 27:4 in a new way, but because we would bear witness, again and again, to mass shootings, in public places—in synagogues and mosques, in school and shopping malls, and now in the mid-western city of Dayton and the Texas border city of El Paso.  The scenes of bloodshed are horrifically similar, the calls for political action and the lack of it are also despairingly alike, and our urgent questions of faith remain too.   

Psalm 27:4 In God’s [Not Yet Perfect] House

One thing have I sought from Adonai—how I long for it:
That I may live in the House of Adonai all the days of my life;
That I may look upon the sweetness of Adonai,
And spend time in the Palace;

The boots scoot, the hats ride high, the beer flows,
guitars twang, harmony rings loud.
Here in God’s country house
the story is always bittersweet:
love then loss, pain then healing,
doubt then faith, then doubt again.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
Some say, no.
Thousands plan to party while one has other plans.
Ten minutes of sheer terror.
Shots. Bullets. Blood. Final breath.
Fear. Horror. The dread of death.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
Some say, maybe.
He uses his body as a human shield.
She grasps a stranger’s hand
while the life force ceases.
They hold each other and move silently toward the exit.

This is God’s house, but is God home?
I say, yes.
This house of God, where we live,
where we gamble
with our money, with our values,
with our own lives and the lives of others,
is not yet perfect.

But God is always home.
Rescuers. First responders.
Kind people with holy instincts
doing God’s work,
singing melodies of courage,
in God’s not yet perfect house


In honor of those who survived and in memory of those who were murdered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, Las Vegas, October 1, 2017, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot 5778.

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.