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Books News Prayer

B’chol L’vavcha: Renewing a Classic

Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.

And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.

Let me give you two examples:

Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:

Sh’ma Listen.

Yisrael God-struggler.

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Eloheinu Is our God

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Echad Is One.

Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.

I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.

I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.

I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.

.בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ, אַחְדוּת הָעוֹלָם, שֹֹֹֹּּּּוֹמַעַת הָאֱמֶת

B’ruchah at Yah, achdut ha-olam, shomaat ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Oneness of the world, who hears my Truth.[1]

And the book closes with a moving reflection by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD, Provost at HUC-JIR:

Lech L’cha

Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself.

Standing at a crossroad

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.

Go to yourself:

Spiral inward and unwrap your past

And your potential.

Remember that the soul which you have made

Is unique and holy.

Go for yourself:

Smell the fragrance

Which spread across the land

As you roam and wander.

Refresh yourself

Under the tree which grows by a spring

At the side of the road.

Make your name great and

Make your life a blessing.[2]

Go and have a look at this book, so that it can accompany you and your people on your journeys!


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, is the Editor at CCAR Press.


[1] Previously published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells , edited by Rabbi Denise Eger (New York: CCAR Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Emily Langowitz.

[2] Previously published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Weiss.

Categories
Books Holiday Passover

The Poetry of Passover

Photograph: Leslie Jean-Bart

Mishkan HaSeder, the new Haggadah from CCAR Press coedited by Rabbi Hara Person and poet Jessica Greenbaum, contains a wealth of poetry in conversation with the seder text. In this preface to the book, Greenbaum explains how poems were selected for inclusion. 

Metaphor’s regenerative powers of imagery, expansiveness, and personal connection have singularly sustained the imagination of the Jewish people and enabled us to arrive at this moment. Chaos—our first metaphor, and one we seem in relation to on a daily basis—became separated into harmonious parts to compose our first home, the Garden. We call Shabbat a bride, and during the Yamim Noraim, both the Great Book of Life and the Gates of Heaven are open. Metaphor has carried the Psalms through the ages so that goodness and mercy pursue us the rest of our days—they are always just now on our heels. The image of God, especially, is wholly reliant on metaphor, in the metamorphosing images of clouds, smoke, wind. Our close reading of the parshah continues, over centuries, to mine metaphor and uncover flashes of new truths like mica beneath rocks. Tradition teaches that Talmud is not finished being written until everyone has read it—because our individual sensibilities share in the creation of revelation.

By joining with our imaginations, metaphors write us each into the text; and of all the holidays, Passover’s dynamism wins the metaphor count. We are instructed to relive our ancestors’ enslavement, escape, and deliverance as though it were our own journey—while sitting around a table. How will each of us envision the mitzrayim, the “narrow space” from which we will make our way? And how will each envision a promised land? What signs show us the need to change, and what wonders nurture our faith that we can? The seder plate announces itself as a constellation of symbols and metaphors, and we connect the dots as we do the individual stars, for how it makes up a firmament of directions.

I first felt the organic relationship between poetry and Jewish text when I studied The Torah: A Women’s Commentary with Rabbi Hara Person, one of its editors, long ago. Seeing the text through its interaction with the poems was like being able to see the wind because of the fluttering of leaves. This revelation has led me in my own study and teaching since, and I can’t overstate my good fortune and pleasure from working with Hara here. In choosing poems that might encourage an authentic inhabitance of the seder’s progressions, Hara and I looked for ones that reflected, or countered, the text so that each participant might, then and there, relate candle-lighting, drinking, washing, breaking, telling—and questioning—to their own journey. We hope the poems hold a “bit of Torah,” an opening out of that moment of Passover. For their discerning suggestions toward that Jewish value, I thank Central Synagogue’s adult engagement class, who studied with me from an earlier draft of the Haggadah, test drove the poems at their own seders, and returned with (as usual!) salient and revelatory comments. But positive or negative, our personal responses to poems are ours to have, and huzzah for all responses, because passion reflects our profound sense of aliveness—and defines the authentic to each of us. The seder table allows us to be authentic together.

With the opportunity of co-editing this Haggadah, I thank all the poets, regard-less of their background or ways of identifying, for how they offer Jewish values to me, always: values of Havdalah, as a way to make time and experience distinct; tikkun olam as a response to brokenness and injustice; and turning it and turning it to see new coherence in the very world being considered. If you think of a poem you would prefer to the text, tuck it inside for next year! We invite your imagination, your history, your aspirations to the seder table through these stanzas—which live, as does the Haggadah, by being read and going through our own breath.


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker who has published three collections of poetry. With Rabbi Hara Person, she is the coeditor of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, now available from CCAR Press.



Categories
Books CCAR Press

Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer

This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer completes Alden Solovy’s trilogy of books with CCAR Press. In the introduction, the author discusses the meaning of his work in a time of pandemic.

Jerusalem, Nisan, 5780/April 2020: I’m sitting at my desk, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. In fifty years, when the coronavirus is a distant memory, please God—or perhaps by then all disease will have been wiped off the globe—some readers won’t know what I’m talking about. You do. Many of you, perhaps most, are doing the same thing in this precarious and surreal moment: protecting the preciousness of all human life—yours, your family’s, your neighbor’s—by drawing back from the world outside into the world within the walls of your own home.

The walls of my writing studio are covered with Jerusalem stone. My desk is a rickety home-office model, a put-it-together-yourself wood-simulation item purchased before IKEA was a thing. One wall of the study is lined with Jewish books, mostly siddurim, Torah commentaries, and other books of Jewish wisdom. Half of the bottom shelf is Hebrew-language books, a testament to my continued and only partially successful efforts to learn the holy tongue. The window faces east, my view through a tree-lined alley to a busy street that follows the 1949 armistice agreement line. The Old City is to the north. To pray, I swivel my chair ninety degrees to the left. The art on the wall behind me is Jewish, including a framed, hand-crocheted “Shalom” made by my Grandma Ida z”l, and a blessing for the home purchased with my wife, Ami z”l, too long ago to remember. My window ledge is full of family photos. As of this moment, everyone is healthy. Let it stay that way.

Some of you may have been sick or seriously ill with coronavirus. Some of you might be ill even now as I write or will, God forbid, become ill soon. Others may be grieving the death of a friend, a family member, or dear one. Some of you are walking into harm’s way to serve us: doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, police, fire, public safety, sanitation, food-chain workers, and more, all of the people in vital services. Each one of us is being asked—perhaps required—to consider what gives our lives meaning. What we value. Our connections. Our contributions. Our legacy. The past. The future. This very moment. This precious life. The place in which we encounter the Divine.

This is a book of prayers, poetry, and meditations inspired by divine encounters. The first half of the book draws from divine moments in our sacred texts, mostly Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings. Written using a modern voice and a contemporary imagination, the text invites you to enter into these holy moments as experienced by our ancestors and to reclaim them as our own. The second half of the book focuses on holy moments in our daily lives, divine encounters that occur simply because we are human beings imbued with divinity. Divine encounters that occur because we’ve been given souls.

This book is a testimony to the preciousness of life. In the first half of the volume, you’ll walk with God in the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve. You’ll stand as witness to the moment of Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s ladder, and the Golden Calf. You’ll hear the voices of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother. You’ll leave Egypt, dance with Miriam by the sea, build the Tabernacle, and experience prophecy. You’ll encounter the Divine through experiences of our forebearers.

In the second half of the book, you’ll also be asked—perhaps challenged—to experience the Divine in your daily life. You’ll be asked to imagine flying between two horizons, step inside the light, and ride the river of life. You’ll encounter spiritual vandals. You’ll be asked to find the ethics in your eyes, the ethics in your hands, the ethics in your arms, and the ethics in your heart. You’ll experience the Divine in the poetry of living.

This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer is the third book in a trilogy with This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. This Grateful Heart focuses on time and seasons, providing prayers and meditations for our days, both the holy and the mundane. This Joyous Soul turns to the siddur, the prayer book, offering alternative readings for our classic liturgy. This Precious Life examines divine encounters in sacred texts and in our daily lives. This Precious Life is intended for personal meditation and communal prayer, as well as religious and spiritual counseling. As a book of meditations, it offers depth and breadth of emotion. As a spiritual guide, it brings intimacy and tenderness, humility and gratitude, supported by a foundation of strength, faith, and hope.

My goal in writing This Precious Life is to open you, the reader, to deeply experiencing moments of divine encounter using the liturgist’s hand and the poet’s eye to illuminate holy connection, to help you uplift your prayers and sing in praise. Along with those lofty ideas, there are practical uses for this volume. Use these offerings in your daily prayers, in writing divrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, my hope is that you are inspired to write new prayers in your own voice, based on your experiences of the Divine.

From here, sitting at my desk in Jerusalem, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to know what the state of the world—or the state of our worldview—will be when we return to the world or when you hold this book in your hands. What will happen to our trust, social interactions, the economy, our lives? How will we move through the world, day by day? How will the generation of children who sheltered at home be shaped by these precarious times?

This much is clear: This is a precious life. Your life. My life. Our lives. All precious. May we all live with a grateful heart and a joyous soul, sanctifying this precious life.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Categories
Books Healing Poetry Prayer spirituality

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

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

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

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

“The Archaeologist of the Soul”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Categories
Books Torah

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

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

נח Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, 2010

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper, 2012

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Ruth Adar, 2015

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

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

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

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2017

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

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

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


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

Categories
Books Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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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.

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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.