Books Prayer spirituality

Delve Deeper into the Siddur

Upon three things, our tradition says, the world stands:  upon Torah, upon worship, and upon acts of loving-kindness. Of the three, worship is often the most challenging, least accessible component of Judaism today.

Worship is all about our yearning for transcendence:  it attempts to both express and address the inexpressible—to commune with the Ultimate—through poetic speech, music and gesture.  It is about giving voice to our human-all-too-human needs, fears, and hopes; about reaching in, reaching out, and reaching up from the depths of our beings; about enacting community and, through collective ritual performance, energizing our commitments to our ideals and to bettering our world.

Prayer as a form of address can be difficult if we have doubts about the addressee of our prayers (God? To whom it may concern?), but prayer as a deep and even spontaneous response to our human situation—to its needs and vulnerabilities—may be easier to access since, when we are honest with ourselves, we are all needy and vulnerable.  Those same concerns and human realities are expressed in our historical Jewish liturgy, although it may sometimes be difficult to connect the private stirrings of our hearts with the public words on the page.  This book attempts to make that connection easier, at least cognitively, by showing how the words on the page did not come down to us full-blown in every minute detail from Sinai, but were composed by human beings and elaborated in response to the changing needs and situations of Jewish communities over time. This observation pertains both to the traditional prayers and to their modern, Reform adaptations and paraphrases, for in this sense, all liturgy is creative liturgy.

In every generation, in every place, we struggle with both universal human questions and particular issues rooted in our specific cultural and physical space. Our prayers have always been adapted to unique human moments and hold the tension between the authenticity of tradition rooted in our history and the our changing situations.

Ten years ago, Mishkan T’filah was published as the most recent contribution of the North American Reform movement to this ongoing dialectical process.  A survey of Reform congregants indicated, among other things, that, when it came to role of a prayer book in communal worship, they wanted to understand what they were saying in Hebrew – particularly now that so much of the traditional Hebrew text has been restored in Reform worship. They also wanted to understand the logic of the liturgy itself: the structure, historical-contextual background, and meanings of the various services and the individual prayers. How can the prayers on the page become the prayers of the heart? How can the historical prayers of the community become also my personal prayers?

A first step in that process is iyun t’filah – contemplation, study, and learning about those prayers of the community – and how they might be personally internalized, even when that requires some interpretation. To supplement and provide some context to these Jewish prayers, the Reform Movement’s Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living, on which I sit, generated a series of essays about the prayers that were distributed once a week between May, 2008 and January 2013 in the URJ’s daily “Ten Minutes of Torah” e-mail blasts.  I wrote the pieces that dealt with the development, structure, and historical meanings of the prayers, including their various Reform adaptations.  Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is an updated, revised, and enlarged compilation of those pieces.

Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is not a spiritual-religious meditation and commentary on the prayers.  Some of that kind of reflection can be found at the bottom of each page of Mishkan T’filah and in a number of other contemporary books on Jewish prayer and worship.  Instead, this book is an accessible account of the historical development of the prayers and the ideas behind them, in both their traditional and Reform contexts (including the variety of ways they have been adapted and paraphrased in major Reform prayer books over the past two centuries). Understanding how our prayers originated and have been adapted over time in different contexts gives us a deeper appreciation of where we have been as a people. My hope is that this understanding will also contribute to readers’ greater personal connection and eventually to a sense of ownership, as we bring our own experiences to the mix.

My own connection to Jewish liturgy, ritual and music was sparked early, though my experiences at Temple Emanu-El in suburban Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s, singing in children’s and adolescent choirs at Shabbat and festival services and learning Hebrew liturgy through the variety of its musical expressions. This continued throughout my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, during which I also studied in Israel for the first time, and then in rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, where I studied Jewish liturgy with Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski, who had a deep appreciation for liturgical aesthetics. The expressiveness and emotional quality of Jewish prayer—both Hebrew text and music—were impressed upon me through all of those experiences, and remain essential to both my teaching and worship leadership today.  Compiling Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, and writing the individual pieces that it brings together, was a labor of love for me.  I hope that love and enthusiasm are conveyed in the book itself and will inspire readers to connect—to delve yet deeper into the Siddur and to explore what the many facets of Jewish worship might mean to them.

Rabbi Richard S. Sarason is Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought, and The Deutsch Family Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, OH, where he has been a faculty member since 1979. He is also the author of Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, a commentary on Mishkan T’filah from CCAR Press.


CCAR Convention Rabbis spirituality

50 Years a Rabbi: A Path Less Traveled

Martin Buber’s philosophy and Hasidic spiritual revival, along with my attraction to intensive small group experiences, brought me to rabbinical school. Five years later, as a senior at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, I had my life mapped out: I accepted a Fellowship to the Social Psychology Department at the University of Michigan, along with an appointment to the part-time congregation there. But Richard Levy, an upper-class mentor at HUC, urged me to meet with his senior rabbi, Leonard Beerman, z”l, even though I insisted I was not available to be his next assistant.

Nevertheless, Leonard offered me the job, and then brought me to Los Angeles to meet some members of Leo Baeck Temple, a congregation famous for its social activism and non-theological teachings. Just before I was to return to Cincinnati, having once again declined his offer, Leonard said something like, “When I was beginning my career, I wish I had been able to be with someone who could help me with things like weddings and funerals.” Suddenly feeling how very unprepared I was, I said, “Okay. I’m coming.”

Not everyone was happy with my sudden change of direction, but, months later, when I met with a father and three children who brought with them the suicide note of their 41-year-old wife and mother, I gratefully marched into my senior rabbi’s office and laid out the situation. “What do I do?” I asked. He thought for a moment, then said, “I have no idea. Let me know what you do.”

It took me a long time to get past my sense of betrayal and realize what a gift Leonard had given me. In many ways, that moment pushed me onto my own path, needing to trust my own instincts and access a deeper Wisdom.

Pursuing my interest in small-group process, I became a Sensitivity Group leader. In the context of that intense training, some of the shells around my heart broke open, and things began to change both personally and professionally. Returning from a week at Esalen Institute in December 1969, a rockslide on Highway One shattered my basic sense of reality with what I later learned was called an OOBE, an out-of-body experience. Although it was some time before I would share that with others, I awakened to an identity beyond the limits of my physical self. Because of the profound clarity of that realization, I began learning and practicing meditation, hoping to revisit that sacred space less dramatically. I was no longer the same person who had been hired by Leo Baeck Temple a year and a half earlier, and I declined an offer of a third year.

This time, I followed Richard Levy into the Hillel environment, and at Cal State University, Northridge, I worked with Rabbi Michael Roth, a yeshiva classmate of Shlomo Carlebach, who would become my primary teacher, mentor, and friend, until his death in early 2017.

Because spirituality and meditation had become primary for me, but were not core agendas of synagogue life, I entered a graduate program at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles, where I could more openly pursue my spiritual and psychological interests. Away from the professional rabbinate, I found a surprisingly natural way of being rabbi, counseling and officiating at life-cycle moments for faculty and fellow students. Since that time, I have focused on sharing the spiritual authenticity at the heart of Jewish tradition, developing a psycho-spiritual approach to Torah. My work has included the founding of two meditative synagogues (Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles in 1978, and Bet Alef in Seattle in 1993); practicing as a therapist and spiritual counselor; becoming, along with Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman, an Interfaith Amigo; and authoring or co-authoring a number of books.

While I retired from congregational life at the end of 2009, I continue to write, do counseling, travel with my Amigos, and work as an independent teacher of a universal spirituality based in Jewish text and tradition, seeking universal teachings from other great spiritual paths in order to support the healing of person and planet that needs to be. I am deeply grateful for the road less traveled on which I have found myself.

Rabbi Ted Falcon is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2018 CCAR Convention. 

Books Prayer spirituality Torah

A New Amen

The Talmud asks, what is the meaning of the word ‘amen’? Rabbi Ḥanina responds: “It is an acronym of the words: “God, faithful King.”[i] In fact, the first letters of the Hebrew phrase El Melekh ne’eman spell out ‘amen.’[ii]

Perhaps it is time for a new ‘amen,’ an amen of action.

The Talmud asks: Which is preferable, saying a blessing or answering amen? According to Rabbi Yosei, “the reward of the one who answers amen is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing.” But a few lines later, the Gemara notes that Rabbi Yosei’s view is disputed by another teaching. Here, the Talmud leaves the question unresolved. Clearly, however, saying ‘amen’ is a critical part of prayer.[iii]

Another section of the Talmud also discusses the importance of saying amen. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that answering a prayer with a deep and heartfelt ‘amen’ has the power to annul punishment, even traces of idolatry. Reish Lakish says: “One who answers amen with all his strength, opens the gates of the Garden of Eden.”[iv]

Hearing a prayer, it seems, requires a response. Yet we must ask: After major natural disasters, after gun massacres, vehicular slayings and the general rise of hatred, is saying ‘amen’ to a prayer for peace enough to open the gates of Eden?

We are a people of deeds, a people who value the nitty-gritty work of tikkun olam. Our forbearers said ‘Heineini’ – ‘here I am’ – when God called their names. In these times, we need a new ‘amen, an amen of action.

We can start with a new acronym for amen. In Hebrew, amen is spelled ‘aleph,’ ‘mem,’ ‘nun.’ Taking the ‘aleph’ from the first letter of the first word – and the ‘mem’ and ‘nun’ from the first and last letters of the second word – I propose that Ani Muchan, ‘I am ready,’ as the amen that will open the gates of Eden.[v]

We are expected to be God’s partner in perfecting creation. We are expected to use our individual actions and financial blessings to improve the world.

Perhaps our prayers are, in part, a set of questions. Will you work for peace? Will you feed the hungry and cloth the naked? Will you fight injustice and pursue peace?

Ani muchan. I am ready. Thus, ‘amen’ becomes a commitment to take our prayers out of our synagogues and out of our hearts and move them onto the streets and into the world with dedication and love. To answer a prayer with ‘ani muchan’ is to make a pledge that can only be fulfilled when we’re done praying.

Click here to read “To the Streets” by Alden Solovy.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.

CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful Heart Event? Click for details. Contact us with questions at or (212) 972-3636 x243.


[i] Shabbat 119b; Sanhedrin 111a

[ii] The Nehalel Siddurim translates El Melekh ne’eman as ‘God, Loyal Sovereign.”

[iii] Brachot 53b

[iv] Shabbat 119b

[v] Thanks to Asher Arbit for his help with the acronym.

Books spirituality

Approaching the Days of Awe: Turnings and Returnings

A blessing—in Hebrew, b’rakhah—is a special kind of utterance that can turn a moment into an event. Blessings intensify life by increasing our awareness of the present even while awakening our connections to the past. In the increasingly chaotic social and political climates in which we live, blessings can root us in the teachings of our tradition, and these teachings can help us recognize and remember the sacred in our everyday lives.

As a poet, I have long been drawn to the power—the lyric intensity—of the Hebrew b’rakhah. I began writing blessings of my own, however, because I was extremely uncomfortable with the heavily patriarchal image of God in the traditional prayers. When, almost four decades ago, I found myself standing silently in synagogue every week, unable to pray to the Lord-God-King of the traditional liturgy, I knew it was time for a change. And so it began. I sought to write new blessings that would speak not only to my own vision, needs, and concerns, but to those of individuals seeking greater meaning through our tradition. I wanted to provide a resource for the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, the first edition of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival was published. I had written the book especially (though not exclusively) for Jews who felt shut out of the tradition, alienated by liturgy that had failed to adapt to changing times. But although I had known there was a need for more inclusive language when I began writing my liturgy, I was surprised by the initial breadth and the enthusiastic tone of the reception to the book’s publication. It wasn’t just progressive Jews who wrote to thank me for the blessings, telling me they were using the book in their homes and chavurot; I received letters from Jews of every denomination. I was humbled to learn that The Book of Blessings had begun to open doors that had been closed to so many for so long.

Today the CCAR Press is issuing a 20th-anniversary edition of the book. My hope is that this new edition will return us to the conversation that began two decades ago with the publication of the first edition, and that it will carry the conversation forward, opening it to a new generation. Like the first edition, the new edition of The Book of Blessings is for Jews of all denominations, as well as unaffiliated Jews, progressive Jews, humanists, and self-identified secular Jews. It is for all who are dissatisfied or frustrated with the prayers of our ancestors as well as for those who want to build upon the traditional prayers.

At this time of year, it is the particular aim of The Book of Blessings to help us turn inward and outward at once—inward to the truths of the self and outward toward the whole of humanity. This to-and-fro movement—turnings and returnings, from self-examination to making amends with others—is at the heart of the High Holidays. I have written a companion book to The Book of Blessings, which focuses specifically on these themes: The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the High Holiday Season. It is my hope that, taken together, these volumes will enrich our experience of the upcoming Days of Awe, guiding us to a fuller and more vibrant awareness of our participation in the Greater Whole of Creation.

Marcia Falk received her PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Stanford and did postdoctoral work in Bible and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of several highly acclaimed books, including The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival; The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season; The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible; The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda; With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman; and three books of her own poetry, This Year in Jerusalem, It Is July in Virginia, and My Son Likes Weather. Marcia is also a painter and life member of the Art Students League of New York.


Worship Workout: A New Year’s Resolution

There is a seemingly endless number of ways technology has encouraged good health, physical fitness, and well-being – each attempting to be our New Year’s Resolution. Gyms with apps that show how often we attend, track our workouts, set goals, and guide us to meet them. Food apps from simple calorie counters, to specific diet apps, to overall healthy eating and nutrition apps. And then, of course, there is Fitbit. The most famous device of its type, Fitbit makes a collection of wearable health devices that can track a multitude of information about one’s physical activities. In its most basic form, it is a step counter. You put on the fitbit bracelet in the morning when you wake up, and before you go to bed you check it and see how many steps you have taken. You can set a goal of reaching a certain number of steps per day (or not). You can meet the goal (or not). You can share your daily steps with others to encourage you and your friends to make and meet goals (or not).

No matter how Pavlovian a fitness app or gadget is in encouraging us to engage in behavior that will keep us healthy, at the end of the day it is on us whether we make and actually follow through on any health related New Year’s Resolution (or not).

Now maybe you had no need of a New Year’s Resolution and have already fallen down the rabbit hole of one of the many paths to physical health between SoulCycle, fancy gyms, apps and Fitbits, Class Pass, and so forth. Maybe you are deep down one of those rabbit holes, and love it. Maybe you aren’t and don’t want anything to do with any of it. Regardless of which applies to us personally, it is true that physical health is important – not just on January 1, but all year. But there is another fitness resolution that we usually aren’t bombarded with, much less our congregants. That is, our spiritual fitness. One of the reasons keeping healthy is so important is so that if something does go wrong physically, we are in the best shape to be able to handle it. So too with spiritual health – when life presents us with a crisis, having a grounded sense of Jewish identity, community, and worldview, aka “good spiritual fitness,” gives us a foundation on which to handle the chaos even tragedy that life can present us with. As rabbis we understand this intuitively, but many of our congregants don’t understand how important this bedrock is until after going through a crisis without it. Just like keeping a healthy body takes attentiveness and action, so too does keeping a healthy soul. Both require the steps of getting started and staying committed, followed by constant reward.

An easy path to a spiritual fitness through any of our synagogues is worship. Just like a Fitbit, gym, or diet, the first step is to simply start, which if our guests or members are starting from nothing can be daunting. Like getting a Fitbit for the first time and having no idea how to link it to a phone, or – and this is a personal experience – going into the gym for the first time and literally not knowing how to use any of the equipment except the pool.

I was so new to gym culture that if I hadn’t had a welcoming, pleasant experience I doubt I would still be going (even if it does have the only close lap pool with rabbi-friendly opening hours). Beginning or renewing Jewish worship engagement has the same barriers to many. We have families and individuals  whose first synagogue entrance in many years or potentially entrance ever will be through our doors, at any time, which is why a warm, inclusive, inviting experience is so important the first time and every time, else there would never be the second step: staying committed.

Any worship experience should be meaningful and effective, be it Yom Kippur, Torah Study, or an intimate Friday night chapel service. Each experience should be able to stand alone, just like any one workout will have a measured impact. But we know with physical wellness the real benefit comes from frequency, consistency, and familiarity – long term. Work outs are smoother, easier. To get there, maybe you have a workout buddy or a trainer. It is the same with pursuing a healthy Jewish spirituality. Seriously, we can ask any of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah students about how they feel at any Shabbat service after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, versus the daunting experience of going to someone else’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service a year earlier when they were still in the process of learning the Hebrew prayers (with, hopefully, both personal trainers and practice buddies).

Of course, there is something that spiritual fitness offers that goes beyond what physical fitness can offer, because it is beyond the tangible. Hopefully we have felt it – that special moment where everything is just right. Maybe it’s from the music, or the Hebrew, or the community being together, or simply being relaxed…then it happens. The Zen moment. The I-Thou moment. A moment where we connect – with ourselves, with other human beings, with our understanding and/or experience of God.

A quick story. There was once a man who went to services every single Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning. Noticing this, his friend at the congregation mentioned that he must really like connecting with prayer every week. “Oh no,” the man responded, “I don’t actually connect with prayer every week. I always enjoy services, but I don’t always connect with the prayers. I can never tell if this service or that one will be one where I really feel the connection. That’s why I go every week – so when there is a moment to connect, I will be there…ready.”

For our congregants (or, gasp, for ourselves) it doesn’t have to be January 1, or even Rosh Hashanah, to be a good time for a Worship Workout Resolution to engage in and reap the benefits of a meaningful and dynamic experience of Jewish worship at a Reform temple.

Rabbi Jim Stoloff serves Temple Israel of the City of New York.  

This article has also been shared with the members of Temple Israel of the City of New York. 

Reform Judaism spirituality

Rabbi, I Don’t Need Religion to Be a Good Person

I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.

Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.

Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.

I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi. 


Sitting With the Unknown: Continual Revelation of the Not-Yet Revealed

I have a quote on my bathroom vanity that reads, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it!”  In the middle there is a stick person with his hands triumphantly in the air.  Care to guess how many times I have exclaimed back to this piece of paper, “I do not love it!  I do not love it??!”

I framed this quote and its invitation to sit with the unknown precisely because, it is so, so difficult! We want the comfort of believing that we determine our destiny, or if we do X, Y, and Z this way, we will get what we want.  And while many of our actions shape our fate in profound ways, more often than not, we cannot control what happens to us or our loved ones.

There are some whose faith holds that God has a plan for them, and this is the reassurance that they need in times of uncertainty.  And yet, there are also many of us who do not believe the Eternal directly intervenes in human affairs, or that the Divine is even capable of intervening.  In fact, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even cele­brated in Jewish life.[1]  Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks, “Why does Ju­daism validate doubt? Judaism takes doubt seriously because it takes people seriously.  It recognizes that if Jewish life is to touch us, then it has to meet us where we are. That “place,” Jewish tradition understands, is often a place of bewilderment, of hurt, of skepticism.[2]

And yet, this place of bewilderment or skepticism also invites us to unite with the Eternal.  Reaching out to the Transcendent in moments of uncertainty is deeply Jewish. Our relationship with the Divine Mystery is not supposed to be easy blind faith.

Judaism doesn’t ask us to deny our doubts or fears.  Instead, it invites us to feel God’s presence precisely in these challenging moments.  Bringing mindfulness to these moments offers a helpful path through the struggle.  When we feel powerless, the practice of gratitude can open our hearts connecting us to the simple and profound—our ability to see the light glinting off a tree’s verdant leaves or feel the cool sweetness of a breeze across our face, or to taste the sweetness of a summer peach.

Acceptance of the present moment is another mindfulness practice. It requires patience and strength to sit with discomfort because we do not always know when our thoughts or circumstances will change. Practicing acceptance while sitting with discomfort or the unknown invites us to move into the Divine Mystery even as the unknown scares us. We are afraid things will never change even though we know things always change!  To master our fear, we tell stories and make explanations. However, it can be more skillful to let go of knowing.  Freedom comes with surrender to the unknown.

Martin Buber teaches, “the world is not comprehensible but it is embraceable.”  We do not always need to know how things will turn out, instead we can focus on how we respond in the moment. We can only feel the Divine when we are truly present.  God does not appear when we are worrying about the future, God is manifest in moments when we inhabit the here and now.

Sometimes we cannot summon tools to sit with the unknown, move into the mystery, or connect with gratitude. Sometimes, we are lost in a downward spiral.  If we are able to reach out to our friends, teachers, colleagues, and fellow seekers in these moments, they remind us that this is only temporary.  We have had other challenging moments and will again. They remind us that while the darkness may feel stifling or terrifying, it will shift.  They reassure us that they have been there too; moments of unknown darkness are part of the experience of being human.

We may draw solace in the thought that the Divine weeps with us too sometimes.  God is present in our tears and fear.  With this consolation, we are no longer alone. Here we find peace in the unknown.

The Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, claimed that the destiny of the Jewish people lies precisely in our openness to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed.  The constant quest is openness to the Mystery.  Openness to the unknown.  And we can choose for it to be terrifying and miserable.  Or we can use it as an invitation to feel God’s presence—from gratitude, remaining present, and communal support.

There will probably be many more times when I will holler at the stick figure on my bathroom vanity.  In these times, my thoughts will be projecting all sorts of terrible possibilities in the future, or that a particular situation feels intolerable.  Instead, may these moments open us to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed– with patience, with acceptance, and with wonder.

Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall joyously serves Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington.



[2] Ibid.

Rabbis spirituality

A Reminder of Some of the Most Important Work We Must Do

As I move more deeply into my third year of working with the CCAR to provide companionship and guidance in the area of self-care, the Yamim provided an opportunity to reflect upon my tremendous gratitude for this privilege and the gifts it brings me every day. Among those – the opportunity eight years after leaving pulpit work to offer something to those of you who continue to shoulder that rich, rewarding and challenging responsibility. I also find myself reflecting upon the toll the work and all that goes with it can take upon us, and how that has played out in the lives of some with whom I have worked since entering into this role with the Conference. One thing that rises clearly for me is the awareness that a primary source of the pain I encounter in some of our colleagues is the result, in no small part, of inner personal work set aside in the face of professional demands, which feel more immediate and – often – overwhelming.

And yet, dear friends, we all know somewhere in our gut that the external work will eventually suffer for inner work not done. Last year I posed to you the question, “What am I doing or should I be doing to set my own spiritual and psychological house in order and to make sure that it is a Sukkot shalom?”.  The last couple of years, sitting with ever more of you, confirm me in the clarity that the cheshbon nefesh in which many of us feel there is no opportunity to engage during the Yamim must, nonetheless, happen – v’im lo achshav, eimatai? If we fail to do it, the apparent security of the structures we have erected in our lives – families, marriages, careers – are at risk of rot and ruin. Those external sukkot are, ultimately, only as strong as the inner sukkah of our souls.

So, once again, I invite you into conversation. This can come about through the possibility of one-on-one work in short-term spiritual direction or counseling or through participation in offerings I coming forth over the course of the next year, such as the online Mindfulness Class beginning October 26th. As we head into this Shabbat Sukkot, we remember the oft-told tale of Zusya, lamenting the fact that he wasn’t Moses. Neither are we, and if even Moses couldn’t do it alone, as we read in the parashah this Shabbat, how can we hope to do so. We need those quiet moments, to be sheltered in the sukkah of the cleft of that rock, to hear and feel the message of companionship and support which is a manifestation of Holiness in our lives. It will be my honor to share such moments with you. Hoping to hear this year from many of you, I wish all of you a joyous, healthy and fulfilling 5777 in which you are able to set free sparks of holiness and healing for all, Mo’adim l’simchah and Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, LSW is the CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness, providing short-term counseling or spiritual direction to rabbis in need. He can be reached at or 410-207-1700.  Rex will be leading “Building a Jewish Mindfulness Practice” webinar series with CCAR, starting Wednesday, October 26 — sign up now!

Holiday Reform Judaism spirituality Torah

When Torah Becomes “Mine”

That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.

In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.

Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.

After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.

After we read the end of Deuteronomy.

After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.

After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.

Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.

Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.

For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.

First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?

Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.

Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.

Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.

Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.

Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Books spirituality

Do the Jewish People Have a Unique Vocation among the Nations? Do You Affirm Hope in a “Messanic Age”?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

Another world is possible. I affirm Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s insight that “faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be” (To Heal a Fractured World, 27). To the extent that the mythology of a messianic age inspires work to alleviate poverty and oppression, violence and violation, I believe. I affirm religious ideas that give hope in a broken world and catalyze efforts for its repair—even if we never get “there.” As Danny Siegel adapted from a Yiddish proverb, “If you always assume the person sitting next to you is the Messiah, waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands. And if he chooses not to be revealed in your time, it will not matter” (Siegel, And God Braided Eve’s Hair).

Do the Jewish people have some special role in this endeavor? Mordecai Kaplan suggested the concept of vocation as a substitute for the dangerous arrogance of chosenness and the religious imperialism of mission. As an obviously human construct, vocation guards against the insidious notion that God plays favorites or that sacred purpose might be the monopoly of any one people. We have heard the divine call in a unique and essential way, as have other religious traditions.LITFXXX_Page_1

Each path has the capacity to inspire its adherents with faith in the importance of their work, and God has an enduring stake in our embodiment of the teaching, making the covenant(s) real and reciprocal.

There is no scarcity in chosenness, because God does not cease to “choose,” calling us to respond. In fact, God never shuts up.

Yes, Jews have a unique vocation, profoundly bound up with living and learning Torah. Even the idea of vocation is fraught, however, open to perilous transformation of a sacred task into destiny, obligation into prerogative. Tanach (l”b,), “the Hebrew Bible,” cautions us against such contortions. Although Genesis is replete with insight about the conundrum of divinely sanctioned destiny—Cain’s murderous rage at being unchosen, Jacob’s duplicity in capturing the birthright and blessing, and so on—it is the Joseph novella that is perhaps most instructive for our current purposes.

Joseph is certain of his unique role in the story of redemption, and it breeds resentment among the brothers. It is only in their mutual recognition of “vocation” that the divine plan for blessing can unfold. The covenantal promise is, for the first time, transmitted to all the siblings, and they become embedded in relationships of reciprocal dependence with each other and with the Egyptians. Blessing flows between and among the households of Creation. The vision of Isaiah is similar: “In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for YHVH of Hosts will bless them saying: Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My legacy Israel.” (19:24–25). We only get there together.

Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva serves as the director of the Center for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.